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Bloggingheads
04-27-2008, 12:33 PM

themightypuck
04-27-2008, 01:03 PM
Ahhh Philosophy. I love it, but by the classic AA trope it qualifies as insanity.

a Duoist
04-27-2008, 01:57 PM
"Permissable pluralism." Nietzsche and James offer Geoff's 'permissable pluralism.'

Good conversation. Nice work.

JoeK
04-27-2008, 02:31 PM
It was a good show and I am looking forward to a discussion on evolutionary ethics.
Kudos to Geoffrey for hinting at the idea of a pursuit of happiness not being this wholly grail of human psychology, ethics and political theory.
It would be interesting if Will invites someone who would probe at the role concept of happiness plays in Wilkinson's own thinking.

threep
04-27-2008, 03:20 PM
Go Heels. That is all.

Eastwest
04-27-2008, 03:25 PM
Hmmm.

The verbal fall-out from imputing reality on emptiness is endless.

But probably not much choice where we muddle along in the theatre of conventions.

Stimulating discussion.

Thanks to both.

More of this same tenor would be good as a goad to take more inclusive and hence more meaningful macro views of the micro-trivia so often psychically enslaving BHTV "Comments" discussions.

EW

ogieogie
04-27-2008, 03:48 PM
Too short! Too short!

Who sanctified the hour? Why? Why not two? Why not split it into parts? Why not five?

graz
04-27-2008, 03:50 PM
Hmmm.
More of this same tenor would be good as a goad to take more inclusive and hence more meaningful macro views of the micro-trivia so often psychically enslaving BHTV "Comments" discussions.
EW

So are you suggesting that you might be open to expanding the parameters of your usual narrow and self-referential interpretation by fiat? As in positing instead of proclaiming, addressing questions instead of deflecting by insisting that only you are the keeper of the flame, whereas we are mere dupes of failed intellect and under the spell of snake oil and false charms?

Eastwest
04-27-2008, 04:33 PM
So are you suggesting that you might be open to ....

Seems like an unnecessarily contentious response to my comment.

Frankly, most of what is frothed over with such fervor in electoral-politics discussions here is a matter of opinion about which ultimate-truth claims are frivolous and absurd. (And, I dare say, a bit boring to boot.)

I'm merely suggesting more of a "big-picture" view could conduce to less ego-invested reaction when someone dares to chide you for a cherished view clung to like some religious tenet of huge moral significance.

In short: I guess I find gratuitous gutter-language over mere opinions tedious in the extreme. Too much civility is probably not necessary, either, but pretending a disagreeable idea is something to die for is just ridiculous.

For a moderately humorous illustration of the analysis-versus-reality dissonance of which I speak skip ahead in this five minute real-audio clip (writer's almanac) to the two minutes from 2:20 to 4:25 (just double-clicking the link should bring up your Real Player):

http://www.publicradio.org/tools/media/player/almanac/2008/04/24_wa

Cheers,
EW

graz
04-27-2008, 04:44 PM
You are right about the tone in regard to this particular comment... that would be my point. Anybody who monitors this board probably views responses on a continuum. We all have our preferences, but fail to vest much concern in others approach.
I also agree with your psych profile of the advantage of a big picture approach.
It's all about balance... and there is plenty of falling down around these electoral-politics hot tub sessions.

Cheers to you too.
Thanks for the link.

Bloggin' Noggin
04-27-2008, 06:13 PM
Wow! Geoffrey Sayre-McCord -- what a treat! I recommend his collection of essays on Moral Realism -- I think I've recommended it (or articles in it) before here in the Comments Sewer.
I was a little worried people would find the discussion too abstruse. I'm really relieved to find that reactions have so far been very positive.

In the final section of the discussion (about whether moral judgments might be just preferences disguised and the worry about what you do when you face someone who just doesn't care about moral goods), I wish Sayre-McCord had pointed out how difficult it really is for people consistently not to care about rights and fairness etc. It's certainly very easy not to care about other people when we have the upper hand, to just pursue our own interests, treating other people as mere means to our ends. But let someone treat US in that way, and we will quickly discover that we ourselves believe that others treatment of us must be justified in some way TO us. We believe WE are not mere means to others' ends. And when we try to spell out why we are not, we find that our reasons apply equally to those we had wanted to disregard when the shoe was on the other foot. When it comes to how we ourselves are treated by others, we find ourselves committed to a belief in reasons for action that go beyond our own preferences, and which limit the pursuit by others of their own preferences.

Can't wait for the sequel on evolution and morality!

graz
04-27-2008, 06:21 PM
[QUOTE=Bloggin' Noggin;
I was a little worried people would find the discussion too abstruse. [/QUOTE]

Well it was abstruse, and I had to look-up that word in the dictionary also.
The first time through, I was distracted by a competing conversation. I'm really glad I gave it my full attention afterwards. Good stuff indeed.

Bobby G
04-27-2008, 06:21 PM
If they're getting philosophers of the caliber of Sayre-McCord or Knobe, they really ought to get Mike Rea, Dean Zimmerman, Hans Halvorsen, Bas van Fraassen, Al Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Peter van Inwagen, Fritz Warfield, Robert Audi, Eleonore Stump, Marilyn Adams, or Robert Adams to argue the theistic side against Horgan or Johnson.

Trevor
04-27-2008, 07:08 PM
How large does a community have to be before it qualifies as having its own morality? Is there any firm place we can point to in between one universal morality for everyone and everyone having their own private morality? How cohesive does a group have to be about its moral sentiments?

bjkeefe
04-27-2008, 07:40 PM
I liked Geoffrey's neologism unobtainium. Definitely stealing that.

I liked this conversation more as it progressed. The first part was well-characterized by themightypuck. Listening to a half hour of attempts to define terms when you know the conclusion is going to be "we can't really define these terms" gets a little tedious. I know I'm being a bit of a philistine here, but I think it's always important to keep the audience in mind. The second half of the conversation was better, and I wished they could have gotten into some of the evolutionary aspects, too.

Wonderment
04-27-2008, 07:48 PM
Another in an awesome string of fascinating programs by Will!!

I'm enjoying the Science Saturday and Free Will weekend on climate change and moral philosophy. A wonderful break from the electoral food fight.

Bloggin' Noggin
04-27-2008, 10:52 PM
So, did anyone become a moral realist in the course of this?

Are there any moral facts?

Do we need to invoke moral properties in explaining non-moral facts? Can we explain the holocaust without mentioning Hitler's evil? Could the justice of a society explain its stability (or could injustice explain instability)?

bjkeefe
04-27-2008, 11:03 PM
So, did anyone become a moral realist in the course of this?

Are there any moral facts?

Do we need to invoke moral properties in explaining non-moral facts? Can we explain the holocaust without mentioning Hitler's evil? Could the justice of a society explain its stability (or could injustice explain instability)?

I will only go so far as to say that I can believe in the existence of moral truths. I'd find it hard to name any specific ones, though.

I don't think we need to have a complete and consistent philosophy that is time- and culture-independent to hold a justifiable view of Hitler. He was contrary to what we consider "good," by the standards of our civilization. I am content to use the word "evil" as convenient shorthand for him, and to label his actions and commands in this way for lack of a better term. "Psychopathic" might work equally well, especially in its colloquial sense.

Eastwest
04-27-2008, 11:20 PM
Can we explain the holocaust without mentioning Hitler's evil?

In evil as with virtue, there are no inherently-existing qualities, just as there are no inherently-existing entities in which they might reside.

Assuming it's Spring somewhere by now (not here, yet), here's a poem:

Song of the Spring Breeze

The breeze of Spring—What feelings does it have
When, at dawn and at dusk, it visits groves and gardens?
Not asking who owns the peach trees or plums,
It just wafts down pink blossoms and utters no words.

By the T’ang Dynasty Monk, Ch’i-chi (864-937 ce)


EW

TwinSwords
04-27-2008, 11:49 PM
For a moderately humorous illustration of the analysis-versus-reality dissonance of which I speak skip ahead in this five minute real-audio clip (writer's almanac) to the two minutes from 2:20 to 4:25 (just double-clicking the link should bring up your Real Player):

http://www.publicradio.org/tools/media/player/almanac/2008/04/24_wa

Writer's Almanac: Best show on radio. And that's a great, entertaining poem. Thanks.

TwinSwords
04-27-2008, 11:51 PM
Well it was abstruse, and I had to look-up that word in the dictionary also.
The first time through, I was distracted by a competing conversation. I'm really glad I gave it my full attention afterwards. Good stuff indeed.

Will really does an amazing job with this series.

Wonderment
04-28-2008, 12:17 AM
Can we explain the holocaust without mentioning Hitler's evil?

Certainly Hitler explained his conduct in moral terms. He subscribed basically (with a little pop Nietzsche thrown in) to the core moral tenets of Western civilization. Our political systems are based on nationalism; Hitler was "merely" an ultra-nationalist. Even his eugenics and anti-Semitism were allegedly for "the greater good" of the German people (Aryans).

All the leaders of WWII engaged in acts of evil by the standard of "depraved indifference" and deliberate infliction of death by firebombing and starvation. That goes for Churchill, Roosevelt, the Japanese, the Italians, the Russians and so on. Churchill was an incorrigible racist and imperialist; Roosevelt was an anti-Semite. Truman thought it was okay to drop atom bombs on civilians.

Most of the action, as in all wars, was around everyone claiming to be the aggrieved party who was acting in self-defense, to rectify or avenge a wrong.

Much as I despise Nazism, I don't think it makes a good test case for grappling with "evil." Hitler really believed Jews were "poisoning" humanity and causing all the world's ills. Anti-Semitism is a set of mistaken ideas. There's no "evil" there. Just bullshit, flag pins and military parade music.

It might be better to examine "evil" in the context of a criminal who, as Johnny Cash put it, "shot a man in Reno just to watch him die." In other words, he harms people just for the fun of it with no moral claims of a greater good or extenuating circumstances. But the minute we call him a psychopath or sociopath we have explained away the evil.

"The bad guy" in the spaghetti Western or Freddy Krueger in a horror movie turns out to have been an abused child with a learning disability. Or his judgment was impaired by alcohol. "Evil" can't withstand the scrutiny of modern social science.

But feel free, BN, to take a philosophical shot at it.

Joel_Cairo
04-28-2008, 11:13 AM
...William Ayers....Krauthammer ... broken moral compass of Barack Obama....Ayers-Obama, Wright-Obama and Rezko-Obama...Flag-pins...Indiana Voters... Wright , Rezko and Ayers...flag-pins as a 'distraction'...


Is this post in the wrong thread?
Which diavlog are you watching?

Bloggin' Noggin
04-28-2008, 11:20 AM
Certainly Hitler explained his conduct in moral terms. He subscribed basically (with a little pop Nietzsche thrown in) to the core moral tenets of Western civilization. Our political systems are based on nationalism; Hitler was "merely" an ultra-nationalist. Even his eugenics and anti-Semitism were allegedly for "the greater good" of the German people (Aryans).

Is this limitation to concern only for Germans or Aryans morally justifiable? I would say that it isn't, and that if Hitler's justification stops there, then it isn't really a moral justification.

All the leaders of WWII engaged in acts of evil by the standard of "depraved indifference" and deliberate infliction of death by firebombing and starvation. That goes for Churchill, Roosevelt, the Japanese, the Italians, the Russians and so on. Churchill was an incorrigible racist and imperialist; Roosevelt was an anti-Semite. Truman thought it was okay to drop atom bombs on civilians.

Whether the allies were any better than Hitler is beside the point -- they could be evil too, without threatening the explanation offered (Hitler's evil was a contributing cause to the events of the Holocaust).
However, I will mention two points: 1) A case can certainly be made that Churchill and Roosevelt were morally better than Hitler, though not blameless. 2) During WWII, it was possible to make a moral argument for indiscriminate bombing of civilians. This was based upon factual assumptions, some of which we have good reason to doubt at this point, but which could have seemed more plausible back then. We have a very clear case of this (Utilitarian) moral argument in the case of Truman and the Atom Bombs. Suppose that Hiroshima and Nagasaki really did cause the Japanese to surrender and that they would not have surrendered without an invasion. Suppose that the fight was as ferocious as other invasions of Japanese territory and that the Japanese had in large numbers preferred death to surrender (whether they were civilians or military people). Such an invasion could well have cost more lives on both sides than the two atom bombs did, and the suffering experienced on both sides could have been greater. From a Utilitarian perspective, the dropping of the bombs would in those circumstances have been morally justified -- at least there is a strong prima facie case that ON THOSE ASSUMPTIONS, they would be morally justified from a Utilitarian perspective.


Much as I despise Nazism, I don't think it makes a good test case for grappling with "evil." Hitler really believed Jews were "poisoning" humanity and causing all the world's ills. Anti-Semitism is a set of mistaken ideas. There's no "evil" there. Just bullshit, flag pins and military parade music.

Here you make the assumption that people are not responsible for the content of their factual views -- or else you assume that it was perfectly rational to believe that the Jews were poisoning humanity and all the conspiracy theories about Jewish bankers controlling the world (which of course is distinct from the fact that the Rothschilds were clearly influential). I think people do have a moral responsibility not to just believe whatever is convenient for them or whatever seems superficially plausible -- especially if they are going to murder millions of people on the basis of those beliefs.

It might be better to examine "evil" in the context of a criminal who, as Johnny Cash put it, "shot a man in Reno just to watch him die." In other words, he harms people just for the fun of it with no moral claims of a greater good or extenuating circumstances. But the minute we call him a psychopath or sociopath we have explained away the evil.

This is certainly the most extreme sort of evil, but I certainly wouldn't count Hitler and Stalin out, even if they were not sadistic.
I don't think all sadistic behavior is automatically psychopathic, nor do I think it's obvious that psychopaths are beyond moral reproach if they actually act sadistically or with total unconcern for the interests of others. My question would be, "would they regard such treatment of themselves as undesirable but unobjectionable -- or would they regard themselves as wronged -- and if they would are they capable of reasoning? If both conditions are met, then they can reasonably be regarded as moral agents subject to blame.

"The bad guy" in the spaghetti Western or Freddy Krueger in a horror movie turns out to have been an abused child with a learning disability. Or his judgment was impaired by alcohol. "Evil" can't withstand the scrutiny of modern social science.

If I know that alcohol makes me uncontrollably violent, then I can be blamed for drinking enough to put me in that state.
I don't think the evidence supports the claim "evil" people in your sense -- cruel or sadistic people -- were all better treated as children than people who are not cruel or sadistic.
I gather that many have had fairly normal childhoods. If you look back at anyone's childhood, it's always possible for someone determined to get him off the hook for later actions to find SOMETHING. But I think it's the assumption of hard determinism of such an excuse-maker that determines this outcome, not the results of science.
I think part of the mistake here is the confusion of considerations that may warrant mercy and considerations that actually EXCUSE a crime. Someone abused as a child may come to have a very dark view of other people, and act on the assumption that nobody recognizes moral constraints. Such a person may not be irrational or incapable of controlling his actions -- something that would function as an excuse (though not a reason to set him free). He may act rationally from this very dark view of human beings. He isn't insane, but we do understand in his case why he holds such a view of other people. If he can be brought to see what was wrong with his action, and if he regrets it, mercy may be the best way to show him that his view of other people is mistaken.
And again, I think your conception of evil (positive sadism) is too narrow.

AemJeff
04-28-2008, 11:41 AM
It seems to me that the first steps in building a system of ethics are where all the important questions lie. Deciding what to value is a much harder, and more interesting, set of questions than how to measure the relative value of something. Without having had a discussion the relationship between evolution and the list of things that we might care about, fundamentally, it seem as if questions about an absolute basis for morality are meaningless.

I don’t want to die. I don’t want to feel discomfort. I want these things for those I care about. Are there any questions of ethics that can’t ultimately, by some algebra, be reduced to one or more of these fundamental questions? Maybe social dominance? Even that reduces to the first three questions(*), I think.

Does believing the above make me a moral relativist? I probably self-identify that way.

Added: I'm taking note that I apparently don't know the difference between a question and an assertion.

Bloggin' Noggin
04-28-2008, 12:15 PM
I will only go so far as to say that I can believe in the existence of moral truths. I'd find it hard to name any specific ones, though.

I find that hard to believe. What about the following?
1. It's morally wrong to torture babies just for the pleasure of it.
2. The mere fact that I'd prefer it if Fred died isn't adequate moral reason for killing him.
3. You and I possess moral standing (i.e., our interests cannot morally be discounted in determining how to treat us).

I don't think we need to have a complete and consistent philosophy that is time- and culture-independent to hold a justifiable view of Hitler. He was contrary to what we consider "good," by the standards of our civilization. I am content to use the word "evil" as convenient shorthand for him, and to label his actions and commands in this way for lack of a better term. "Psychopathic" might work equally well, especially in its colloquial sense.

What are "our standards" in this case? Are they part of the very meaning of the word "evil" and "good"? Or are they completely separable from what we mean by "evil" and "good"?
Suppose you come across another culture with a word your phrase book translates as "evil." You start talking to them and you find that "by their standards" Hitler is not "evil" nor are murderers or sadists, but they offer as paradigm instances of evil daffodils, flutes and the back of the neck, isn't it perverse to insist that this word means "evil" but we just have different standards for evil? It seems possible that the concept is the same, but that they have a very different view of flutes and daffodils, but it also seems quite likely that the word has simply been mistranslated.

So that raises the question what do we mean by "evil" -- if we were to show that our concepts really are the same, but we just have very different views or standards and different beliefs about flutes and daffodils, what would we need to show? Our diavloggers suggest that the concept might be something like "monumental unconcern for the interests of other people." If that's what we mean by evil, and if these other people believe flutes are evil, then apparently they think flutes are moral agents, while thinking that Hitler acted with due concern for the interests of the Jews and the Slavs.
Perhaps you disagree with GS-M's suggestion. But the question of whether other cultures are really have different standards of good or evil can't be carried out in total abstraction from the meaning we attribute to those terms. Even if this other culture uses a term that sounds just like "evil", that could just be an accidental similarity of sound.

I think our conception of moral wrongness is closely connected to what we would regard as (not merely unpleasant but) OBJECTIONABLE or UNJUSTIFIABLE if it were done to us. If this is right, I suggest that the wrongness of slavery played a role in explaining why people came to see it as wrong, for example.

Bloggin' Noggin
04-28-2008, 12:48 PM
Hi Jeff,
Thanks for the answer. A few comments below:

It seems to me that the first steps in building a system of ethics are where all the important questions lie. Deciding what to value is a much harder, and more interesting, set of questions than how to measure the relative value of something. Without having had a discussion the relationship between evolution and the list of things that we might care about, fundamentally, it seem as if questions about an absolute basis for morality are meaningless.

I don't think we are in any position to "build a system of ethics" from scratch. Just as we start off with a commonsense view of the world (or more accurately a set of commonsense views about different aspects of the world), we start off with certain values. Reflection and further inquiry can modify that initial commonsense view of the world in ultimately quite radical ways, as we see from the history of science. The same goes for our commonsense evaluative thought. We don't start out outside the evaluative realm and try to construct a set of values. We start out within the evaluative realm, and just as even the most determined skeptic can't really give up a belief in the external world, the most determined evaluative skeptic cannot really dispense with evaluative thought. Consider how much value the extreme nihilist attributes to an unflinching recognition of the awful truth that nothing is really of any value.
What we learn about evolution might influence our evaluative thought in various ways, but I don't see why you regard evolution as foundational.

I don’t want to die. I don’t want to feel discomfort. I want these things for those I care about. Are there any questions of ethics that can’t ultimately, by some algebra, be reduced to one or more of these fundamental questions? Maybe social dominance? Even that reduces to the first three questions, I think.

I don't think there is an ethical algebra. You seem to have started a list of things that you value in your own case -- I doubt you have completed the list. You probably at least want positive pleasure, as opposed to just not feeling discomfort. In addition, I suspect you prefer to achieve something and to know the truth about the world. You would for example prefer a world in which others really care about you to a world in which you have simply been duped into believing that.
I'm not quite clear what you take yourself to be doing here.
Morality is generally taken to be something that tells us how to treat even those we DON'T care about. There are about a billion people in India that I don't know from Adam, yet I think morality still requires me to limit my pursuit of my own interests out of consideration for theirs. To take Adam Smith's example, I don't think it would be all right to let millions of Chinese die to keep from losing my little finger (or my mother's little finger either), even though I might actually suffer more from the loss of my finger than I would from the death of so many million Chinese. I notice you stop with "those I care about" -- are you suggesting that the impartiality of morality is an illusion -- that we are really ultimately self-centered? (I would count even an altruistic person as self-centered, though not selfish, if he regarded his caring about people as the only reason not to treat them as mere means to his ends.)
Does believing the above make me a moral relativist? I probably self-identify that way.
It's impossible to tell from what you say. I don't actually very clearly see the connection between your too-limited conception of the good and moral relativism.

AemJeff
04-28-2008, 02:16 PM
As always, thanks for the thoughtful response.

Am I missing something important? I think of formal systems of ethics as codifications of something that already exists - worked out to fix the inconsistencies, to the extent that that can be done - much like the relationship between formal grammar and natural language. If that’s a valid point of view, then I don’t think that we do “build” our systems of ethics from scratch any more than we build our languages from scratch. Of course, we can tinker with them, but my hypothesis is that that they’re effects of how we’re built rather than artifacts.

I can easily imagine, at one extreme, a society in which eating your neighbors children, for example, is considered highly moral behavior. Conversely, I can imagine one in which ritual suicide is a preferable alternative to offending a peer. I think the differences in detail owe more to happenstance than to the intrinsic value of “goodness” you might assign to a certain class of acts.

To the list of “fundamental” motives I think the thing I’d consider adding is genetic survival, in Dawkins’ sense of “selfish genes,” but that seems one step removed. Even if there’s no “ethical algebra,” as such, I think it’s fair to say that motivation is reducible. You say to me: “You probably at least want positive pleasure, as opposed to just not feeling discomfort.” I’d say that you could easily see both of these as descriptions of an identical bias.

Also, just to be sure – I’m not saying that I don’t share a general feeling about what is and isn’t ethical with anybody else. I agree with your examples, I just don’t believe that the fundamental value system is intrinsic.

Bloggin' Noggin
04-28-2008, 05:16 PM
As always, thanks for the thoughtful response.

Am I missing something important? I think of formal systems of ethics as codifications of something that already exists - worked out to fix the inconsistencies, to the extent that that can be done - much like the relationship between formal grammar and natural language. If that’s a valid point of view, then I don’t think that we do “build” our systems of ethics from scratch any more than we build our languages from scratch. Of course, we can tinker with them, but my hypothesis is that that they’re effects of how we’re built rather than artifacts.

I see. It sounded to me as though you wanted the moral realist to undertake a kind of Cartesian project with respect to morality -- throw it all out and then see whether it can be re-assembled on skeptic-resistant foundations.
Apparently, you were actually talking about normative ethical theory (or perhaps merely sociology), rather than about meta-ethics in your first paragraph.
There will certainly be a big difference --a difference relevant to the meta-ethical debate -- between formulating general rules of grammar and formulating a normative ethical theory. The grammarian simply notes the inconistencies in language -- irregular verbs and plurals for instance -- and sets them down in the grammar book. An anthropologist can do something similar. But if we are thinking morally rather than anthropologically, we can't take that attitude. If we blame our slaves for running away, we regard them as moral agents who owe us respect as persons. But if in enslaving them we regard them as mere instruments of our will, mere tools, we appear to be caught in a contradiction that can't just be noted down, memorized and followed in the future. Moral claims DO pretend to be more than merely the rules we happen to follow. If they are nothing more, then there's a pretty good case to be made that they are all false.

I can easily imagine, at one extreme, a society in which eating your neighbors children, for example, is considered highly moral behavior. Conversely, I can imagine one in which ritual suicide is a preferable alternative to offending a peer. I think the differences in detail owe more to happenstance than to the intrinsic value of “goodness” you might assign to a certain class of acts.

Here the kind of translation problem I raised with Brendan arises again. What is your ground for thinking that what this society regards as "tabu" for instance, is what we mean by "immoral"?
I won't repeat what I said to Brendan, but I'll expand a bit on it. What I think you and Brendan are doing is identifying the moral with "what is to be done" and the immoral with "what is not to be done." But this won't actually do if we look at ourselves. It is not "the done thing" to show up shirtless at the office or chew with your mouth open, but neither is immoral. When you say that one society regards X as moral and another regards X as immoral, we need a more definite conception of what these different societies are saying about X than just that it is "to be done" or "not to be done". I would suggest that a genuinely moral requirement is a requirement based in an impartial perspective -- it must not, at the deepest level, make reference to "I" or "we" or "my" or "our". If it is wrong for you to hurt my friends, then this must be a consequence of a more general rule that doesn't make any reference to "me" or "my" --e.g., "it is wrong to hurt people's friends" or "it is wrong to hurt people (without a sufficient equally impartial reason)." But I think if you take this impartiality seriously, it won't be so easy to take regard just any system of behavioral rules as "moral".

What makes this a bit more difficult is that, before Socrates and other philosophers came along, we ourselves might not have even begun to make, except perhaps implicitly. It seems quite likely that when Westerners first met certain "traditional" cultures, these cultures did not make such a distinction explicitly either. Another thing that complicates things is that different cultures may have very different factual beliefs (often based in religion), which, if we believed them, might make the prescribed behavior appear moral to us too.

To the list of “fundamental” motives I think the thing I’d consider adding is genetic survival, in Dawkins’ sense of “selfish genes,” but that seems one step removed.

I would not -- apart from the degree to which I observed that people actually cared about it. One can say metaphorically that our genes "want" to reproduce themselves, but it doesn't follow that we want to reproduce our genes. Very few people actually want this (described in this way), though many people do seem to care about having children. But it is certainly conceivable that our genes could best reproduce themselves if we actively didn't want to pass on our genes. If this were so, we might end up with an active desire not to reproduce our genes. What we want to do and what our genes "want" us to do need not be the same thing.

Even if there’s no “ethical algebra,” as such, I think it’s fair to say that motivation is reducible. You say to me: “You probably at least want positive pleasure, as opposed to just not feeling discomfort.” I’d say that you could easily see both of these as descriptions of an identical bias.
I offered some other examples of things we regard as valuable that don't seem "reducible" to the rather primitive basics you mention. One thing is that we tend to value caring about other people (you allude to the caring, but don't mention that we value such caring). So, I think your conception of individual good is too reductive, but still not sure how you see this as related to moral realism.

Also, just to be sure – I’m not saying that I don’t share a general feeling about what is and isn’t ethical with anybody else. I agree with your examples, I just don’t believe that the fundamental value system is intrinsic.

I take this to mean that you regard morality as conventional. If this is what you mean, you might be able to make SOME of the same ethical judgments that others make, but you won't be able to say with the rest of us that our moral views improved when we decided slavery was wrong --at least you won't be able to say it as a literal truth. Or consider the practice in Brave New World of brain damaging those who must do the menial labor so that they will be content with their lot and have no desire to rock the boat. Your disapproval of such a practice will apparently be no more justified than the disapproval that segregationists felt for integration: you both are just judging a different system from your own parochial view.

bjkeefe
04-28-2008, 05:29 PM
BN:

I find that hard to believe. What about the following?
1. It's morally wrong to torture babies just for the pleasure of it.
2. The mere fact that I'd prefer it if Fred died isn't adequate moral reason for killing him.
3. You and I possess moral standing (i.e., our interests cannot morally be discounted in determining how to treat us).

Probably I'd accept those. I certainly can't envision a scenario whereby #1 would ever be viewed as acceptable.

The latter two, it seems to me, are conceivably arguable as specific to our kind of society. That is, I could imagine a much more harsh or rigid culture where they might not apply, at least not uniformly. Certainly, there are plenty of historical examples of societies where doing away with, or discounting, people who thought, looked, or behaved differently was apparently not a troubling notion for those societies.

To your next section discussing "standards:" I don't have much to say in response here. Couple of quick points:

I'm not sure I accept the idea that "evil" exists as a universal concept if "evil" means different things to different people/cultures. I suppose the suggestion that no matter the culture, one always observes some tendency to categorize behaviors says something, but to me, it just goes back to what I said earlier, that it's not much beyond a convenient verbal shorthand for labeling behaviors disliked by that society.

As to the definition of moral wrongness in terms of how we would view something if done to ourselves, I can accept this as fairly useful in a practical sense. Again, however, given that different people are bothered by different things, and are not bothered by other different things, I don't know that it works in support of a quest for some sort of universal principle.

Wonderment
04-28-2008, 06:11 PM
Is this limitation to concern only for Germans or Aryans morally justifiable? I would say that it isn't, and that if Hitler's justification stops there, then it isn't really a moral justification.

No, certainly not. But, as I said, Hitler's "justification" is an extension of tribal identity and nationalism. We live in a world in which nation state self-interest and competition is generally viewed as morally good, or at least acceptable. The boundary between Norwegian or Costa Rican nationalism (relatively benign) and Nazi nationalism (resulting in the murder of millions) is not clear in moral terms. All nation states appear to do things which they know are good for themselves but detrimental to other nation states. (Indeed, this is the basis for the Marxist critique of bourgeois capitalism, which I do not, incidentally support).

International law, the UN and similar institutions are attempts to reduce the more pernicious expressions of national self-interest and to find frameworks for cooperation rather than competition. But as it stands now, we can only point to allegations of violations of the norms, eg. Sadam invades Kuwait. But Sadam is not going to be caught without a moral argument for the UN in his invasion of Kuwait. He grounds his argument in our shared values. We may find his argument unpersuasive, even ludicrous, but "evil?"

Whether the allies were any better than Hitler is beside the point

Then doesn't it just make things murkier to focus on Hitler to their exclusion?

Here you make the assumption that people are not responsible for the content of their factual views

No, I'm just pointing out the difficulties. Was Hitler evil because he held mistaken beliefs about Jews? Or was he simply incorrect? Does it make him more evil the moment he acts on his belief? He certainly felt it made him a better person to act on his convictions rather than to shrug and walk away from his Duty. Was HItler more evil than the thousands of human beings who shared his views but were not empowered to act upon them? (the "morally lucky").

I don't think all sadistic behavior is automatically psychopathic, nor do I think it's obvious that psychopaths are beyond moral reproach if they actually act sadistically or with total unconcern for the interests of others. My question would be, "would they regard such treatment of themselves as undesirable but unobjectionable -- or would they regard themselves as wronged -- and if they would are they capable of reasoning? If both conditions are met, then they can reasonably be regarded as moral agents subject to blame.

That's a pretty elegant standard. I like it as a reciprocal principle of justice (golden rule variation), but I don't think I really find it persuasive as a coming to terms with evil.

If I know that alcohol makes me uncontrollably violent, then I can be blamed for drinking enough to put me in that state.

Even if you are an addict? I think in all these cases you get into mitigating and extenuating circumstances that ultimately overturn any working definition of evil.

If you look back at anyone's childhood, it's always possible for someone determined to get him off the hook for later actions to find SOMETHING.

Let's not phrase it in pejorative terms of "getting off the hook." Why not simply say it helps explain the behavior?


I think part of the mistake here is the confusion of considerations that may warrant mercy and considerations that actually EXCUSE a crime.

Maybe. But what is philosophically wrong with a system that excuses all crimes? That doesn't mean we would open the prisons and let everyone out. It just means that we wouldn't need the concept of evil in our justice system. Nor would we need to talk about punishment. Certainly we'd want to remove Hanibal Lechter from society to protect his potential victims, but we don't need to add the extra ingredient of "evil" to the system. It works fine without it. We can still express disapproval; we can still emote; we can still make a safe world.

AemJeff
04-28-2008, 06:22 PM
Apparently, you were actually talking about normative ethical theory (or perhaps merely sociology), rather than about meta-ethics in your first paragraph.

Ouch! What I was about was trying to understand the nature of the types of systems we're discussing. If "ethics" is ultimately descriptive rather than assertive then an exploration of meta-ethics might be (never let it be said that I drop an analogy easily) fairly characterized as something similar to Chomsky's project.

There's a lot in your response that I need to internalize, but this (from one of your responses to Brendan):

I think our conception of moral wrongness is closely connected to what we would regard as (not merely unpleasant but) OBJECTIONABLE or UNJUSTIFIABLE if it were done to us.

doesn't square with my understanding. I could quibble with the adjectives “objectionable” and “unjustifiable” which seem open to interpretation and almost make the argument seem circular; but also I don't understand exactly how this definition relates to ideas of sexual morality. (I'm open to the idea that a discussion of sexual morality is on another topic.)

Baltimoron
04-29-2008, 03:13 AM
While listening at 40:00, a confluence of Schellenberger's "Break Through" and a critique of retentive materialism struck me. If one retains the retentive materialist view of chairs, one also keeps a door open to retaining evil as a socially regulative tool. But, to change humanity's relationship to nature, away from a subject distinct from nature, one has to abandon retentive materialism. There is Diamond's claim, that humans are a genocidal species, like lions and chimps, that kill members of their own group for territorial expansion. Diamond holds open the possibility, that accepting this disposition allows for establishing social taboos, drawing upon Darwin's distinction between natural and social selection. But, a retentive moral belief might put a hurdle to abandoning the belief in human exceptionalism, thereby opening a back door to evil as we try to retain the good.

Alright, break over!

Bloggin' Noggin
04-29-2008, 10:24 AM
BN:
Probably I'd accept those. I certainly can't envision a scenario whereby #1 would ever be viewed as acceptable.

The latter two, it seems to me, are conceivably arguable as specific to our kind of society. That is, I could imagine a much more harsh or rigid culture where they might not apply, at least not uniformly. Certainly, there are plenty of historical examples of societies where doing away with, or discounting, people who thought, looked, or behaved differently was apparently not a troubling notion for those societies.

Apparently you are saying that a moral judgment is true for a particular society if and only if it is accepted as customary by that society. And you are saying that a moral judgment is true without qualification if and only if every society regards it as customary.
I've already pointed out one problem with this to Jeff -- that there are a lot of customs we don't regard as moral (e.g., you should wear a shirt to work at a bank).
Another problem is that you are here using a sociological sense of "moral" which is clearly not the one people employ when they actually make moral judgments. When you yourself object to someone's racism on the comments board, I am sure you would not feel you had been refuted if someone pointed out that 9 out of ten people in our society accepted racism as customary (supposing this were true). People who make moral judgments normatively (not as an exercise in understanding another culture or our own, but as part of a discussion about what we ought to do or ought not to do) do regard moral judgments as standards from which customs themselves can be judged. They think that even a universally accepted custom might be morally wrong.
If this is impossible on your view, I think you should actually regard moral judgments as either all false, or as not making truth claims to begin with.
I suspect you are tired of the moral realism discussion. So, I won't develop this point any more here -- but I do intend to respond to Jeff along similar lines in a bit more detail if you're interested.

To your next section discussing "standards:" I don't have much to say in response here. Couple of quick points:

I'm not sure I accept the idea that "evil" exists as a universal concept if "evil" means different things to different people/cultures.

I don't quite get what you are saying there. My point was not that there is some universal concept of "evil", but that if you are going to say that another culture has "different standards for evil", you are presupposing that our culture and their culture share a single concept of 'evil'. If you can spell out what the shared concept is, then there seems to be room for argument between our two cultures about whether certain actions or people really fall under that concept or not. If the concept is left totally unspecified and if the standards are radically different, you call into question your own assumption that we are actually talking about the same concept. Your suggestion that 'evil' just means 'not to be done' or 'not customary' are handled in the first part of my reply.

As to the definition of moral wrongness in terms of how we would view something if done to ourselves,
I'd stop short of calling this a "definition". But it does provide some of the intuitive content of the notion. While not a definition, it is closer to our intuitive idea of "the moral" than your suggestion that we interpret it as "what our society likes". As such, it can make it clearer what concept we may have in common with this other culture with "different standards of morality". But once we have a definite idea of what we concept we share but disagree about, it may not be so obvious that rational argument cannot begin to resolve the disagreements.

I can accept this as fairly useful in a practical sense. Again, however, given that different people are bothered by different things, and are not bothered by other different things, I don't know that it works in support of a quest for some sort of universal principle.

I believe my standard was "treatment we would object to." This may be a bit ambiguous. I meant treatment we would regard as unjustifiable to us. This is quite different from "what we would be bothered by." It may bother me that you eat your peas with a knife, but I don't regard such behavior as your mistreating me or harming me unjustifiably. If I am imprisoned for a crime I know I committed, the imprisonment will bother me, but I may well recognize that the sentence is justified -- I am not being wronged.
Notice that the problem you raise is a problem for a too-simple understanding of the Golden Rule. If I would love nothing better than to hear Wagner blasting very loudly from the next apartment, am I "doing as I would be done by" if I blast opera loudly from my apartment? People with common sense recognize that I should consider, not how I would feel about loud Wagner from the next apartment, but how I would feel about some music I hated as much as my neighbor hates Wagner.
What this suggests is that treatment I can object to is treatment that does not take my interests (which may differ from yours) into account -- or not sufficiently into account. There's obviously room for a lot of further discussion about what kind of consideration is sufficient. But a clear case of objectionable treatment would be to harm me for reasons that have nothing whatever to do with my interests -- if for example, you need a new heart and you take mine just for your own benefit, without being able to give me some reason why I should surrender my heart (and my life) to continue your life.

Bloggin' Noggin
04-29-2008, 01:06 PM
Ouch! What I was about was trying to understand the nature of the types of systems we're discussing. If "ethics" is ultimately descriptive rather than assertive then an exploration of meta-ethics might be (never let it be said that I drop an analogy easily) fairly characterized as something similar to Chomsky's project.

Why "ouch"? I was simply attempting to understand what your intended meaning. Sorry if it sounded as though I was being dismissive. I really didn't have such an intention.
I take it that by "assertive" above, you mean "normative"? Anthropologists probably do approach ethics descriptively: i.e., they attempt to describe the various customs of a culture. As I pointed out above, not all customs are regarded as embodying moral requirements -- it's not customary to wear speedos to work at a bank, and few people would do it because it would shame them and would hardly further their careers. But we would not regard someone who did this as immoral, and we would certainly not regard a society in which speedos were appropriate bank attire as immoral. On the other hand, we would regard torturing people for the fun of it as immoral, and would not be persuaded that it was perfectly moral even if our society had no custom prohibiting such treatment. (Instead, we'd think that the society morally ought to have such a prohibition.)
The anthropologist's business is only to record our beliefs and customs. He will note which customs we regard as mere customs and which we regard as having some further basis in "moral" requirements without getting into the question of whether we are right about this -- that's not really his business.

But I assume you'd admit we can't live as anthropologists all the time. We really can't avoid using moral terms normatively: arguing with each other about what ought to be done, what solutions would be "more just" or condeming certain actions as cowardly or cruel. To discussions about these matters, the anthropologist's codification of our actual customs and attitudes is clearly irrelevant -- since one of the things we may argue about is whether current customs are right or just.

At the same time, when we get into these normative arguments, we recognize that we often appeal to competing principles which may conflict (or appear to conflict) in specific cases For example, we think we shouldn't lie, but we also think we should try to prevent people from being (unjustly) killed. What do I do if a lie is the best way to prevent a murder? Common sense tells us what to do in that case, but more clarity about why lying in this case is OK would be nice, and there are many cases where we don't know how to resolve conflicts ahead of time. The hope of normative theory is that we can find deeper moral principles which JUSTIFY (not merely explain) the partial principles we ordinarily appeal to. For example, a Utilitarian argues that there is one deep principle (right action is that which promotes the most good -- where "good" will be further defined by specific utilitarian theories). This deep principle will justify such heuristics as "don't lie" and "prevent unjust killings where possible" as rules of thumb, but it will also explain and justify some of the trade-offs we actually make. The hope is that once we recognize that this principle is actually governing such trade-offs, the principle will tell us how to choose even in the tough cases.

Chomsky's project, as I understand it, is entirely explanatory. He seeks to explain how babies can learn different languages with an evidence base that would be radically inadequate if they came to it as tabulae rasae. He recognizes that language is arbitrary and conventional: English grammar is no more "correct" than German grammar, no more reflective of some deeper extra-conventional linguistic reality; 'schnee' is no more or less truthful a representation of that white cold stuff than is 'snow'. The only trouble is that there is no way babies could learn these conventions based only on the evidence they actually receive. Therefore, there must be, as Pinker puts it, a "language instinct" which rules out of consideration a vast set of possible conventions. Intermediate between this all-purpose language instinct, which allows babies to acquire any human language (but which might keep them from learning Martian languages, if they were sufficiently different) and what old-fashioned grammarians talk about is the deep grammar of English, which explains why a lot of formally grammatical statements turn out to be nonsenical or at least "odd". These rules are themselves conventional and arbitrary. Even the language instinct itself is at least partly arbitrary (though natural, not conventional) -- as I said, Martian babies might evolve with a very different language instinct.

Normative moral theory can't be understood on this model. For Chomsky, a competent native speaker is the final authority. If competent native English speakers disagree, then you split English into various dialects. And if all of them agree, there is simply no sense to the question, "I know all competent native English speakers regard this as grammatical, but is it REALLY grammatical? But it clearly does make sense to say, "I know everybody in my culture agrees that slavery is perfectly moral, but is it really?"

You might respond that some people are confused enough about the nature of grammatical facts that they THINK it makes sense to insist that every other English speaker is simply wrong to end sentences with prepositions. Perhaps morality is an arbitrary custom, but some people simply hold to a false theory about its nature.

But, given the function of morality, this won't work. If I am speaking with a German who knows no English and I want him to understand me, I'll use his conventions. Or if we are both poor speakers of the other's language, we may combine English and German and hand gestures willy-nilly. The point is just to communicate, and it doesn't matter how the point is gotten across.
But morality's function is to limit our pursuit of our own interests and preferences. It is not at all a matter of indifference to me whether I accept your convention that people like me should be slaves and should accept this lot with good grace or my own standards according to which I should not be a slave and have every right to run away if it is in my interest to do so. (Nor will it work to use whichever parts of our systems happen to be convenient at the moment -- to do that is to be unprincipled.) If morality is to perform its function -- coordinating actions by giving them a reason to limit their pursuit of self-interest -- people who make moral arguments CANNOT accept this purely conventional conception of morality while they are making such appeals and responding to them (unless they do so cynically).
Sorry to meander on so long. I hope I made sense, even if I wasn't very economical in my explanations.


There's a lot in your response that I need to internalize, but this (from one of your responses to Brendan):



doesn't square with my understanding. I could quibble with the adjectives “objectionable” and “unjustifiable” which seem open to interpretation and almost make the argument seem circular; but also I don't understand exactly how this definition relates to ideas of sexual morality. (I'm open to the idea that a discussion of sexual morality is on another topic.)


Here's what I have in mind. Suppose that you tell me you are going take some money from me against my will. I ask why. You say, "because I could really use some new DVD's." That explanation clearly gives me no reason to accept your treatment of me -- no reason why I should limit my own pursuit of my self-interest and refrain from resisting, no reason not to be angry at you for taking my money.
Suppose that you say instead, "because you stole the money from me to use on DVD's in the first place." In this case, how can I regard this as insufficient justification? If it was OK for me to take your money to spend on DVD's, then I may not like it that you are taking (what I've come to regard as) my money to spend on DVD's, but (without more of a story), it's hard to see how I can object to your treating me as I treated you. (Objecting is nor merely not liking, it is believing yourself to have an impartial justification for demanding that someone else limit his pursuit of his own self-interest.)

I'm not sure what you have in mind in your sexual morality question. If I make a promise to be faithful to someone else, then, assuming there are good impartial reasons for keeping promises, I seem to have that kind of reason to be faithful, and the other person would have reason to object to my breaking the promise.
On the other hand, I make no claim that all of what we regard as "sexual morality" really is part of morality at all. For example, I don't see how it is impartially objecionable (immoral) for a woman to have sex on a first date -- especially if it's ok for a man to do so.
Maybe you can give me a specific case to work with?

Bloggin' Noggin
04-29-2008, 02:16 PM
Hi Wonderment,

GSR raises this case as an example of a correct moral explanation. The term "evil" tends to raise a lot of red flags, so I kind of wish he hadn't used it. He could have chosen another explanation. I wonder what you would think if he had said, "the holocaust happened in part because Hitler was a bad man." Of course, "bad man" seems like quite an understatement when it comes to Hitler. Gilbert Harman claims that moral properties don't explain anything -- that we can explain the holocaust without supposing that Hitler was a bad man. But can we? We can imagine that Hitler was really a very decent, kindly person who never would have ordered mass murder -- maybe he was just a figurehead and his underlings ordered the holocaust on his authority. But that explanation is clearly not the true one.
Ultimately, the argument is that Harman begs the question against the moral realist by assuming that it's possible to assume that Hitler was monumentally indifferent to millions of human beings, even cruel, without assuming that he was a bad guy. The moral realist should not admit that this is possible.

No, certainly not. But, as I said, Hitler's "justification" is an extension of tribal identity and nationalism. We live in a world in which nation state self-interest and competition is generally viewed as morally good, or at least acceptable. The boundary between Norwegian or Costa Rican nationalism (relatively benign) and Nazi nationalism (resulting in the murder of millions) is not clear in moral terms.

Well, one line to draw might be whether the nationalism in question results in the murder of millions....

International law, the UN and similar institutions are attempts to reduce the more pernicious expressions of national self-interest and to find frameworks for cooperation rather than competition. But as it stands now, we can only point to allegations of violations of the norms, eg. Sadam invades Kuwait. But Sadam is not going to be caught without a moral argument for the UN in his invasion of Kuwait. He grounds his argument in our shared values. We may find his argument unpersuasive, even ludicrous, but "evil?"

I wouldn't base a claim to his being evil on his invasion of Kuwait. His gassing of Kurdish villages does seem to bear out the charge that he was bad enough that "evil" wouldn't be an exaggeration. But anyway, I don't recall making the claim that he was evil in the first place.

Then doesn't it just make things murkier to focus on Hitler to their exclusion?

If your focus is on the explanation, "the holocaust occurred (in part) because Hitler was an evil man," then I don't see the relevance of mentioning other putatively evil men. Perhaps Roosevelt and Churchill were evil, but they certainly didn't order the holocaust (though of course they may not have done enough to prevent it or rescue the victims).

No, I'm just pointing out the difficulties. Was Hitler evil because he held mistaken beliefs about Jews?
No. Because he killed people on the basis of beliefs which he could have discovered to be false, if he didn't know better already.

Or was he simply incorrect?
You mean he was simply misinformed? It was all an honest mistake? I find that hard to believe.

Does it make him more evil the moment he acts on his belief?
Depends on how he acts on it. If it leads him to investigate whether his belief is really justified before he does anything rash, there's nothing wrong with that. I don't think anyone who can easily murder millions on the basis of a theory (even one better supported than Hitler's) can be a very good person -- do you?

He certainly felt it made him a better person to act on his convictions rather than to shrug and walk away from his Duty. Was HItler more evil than the thousands of human beings who shared his views but were not empowered to act upon them? (the "morally lucky").
Not sure. He's certainly more demonstrably evil than those who didn't do it.

Even if you are an addict? I think in all these cases you get into mitigating and extenuating circumstances that ultimately overturn any working definition of evil.
How did I get to be an addict?
Anyway, sure, there are SOME cases where there are mitigating or extenuating circumstances. But note first that "mitigation" and "extenuation" are not "exculpation". Second, I fail to see how you go from showing that some people may have been so poorly treated by life that they would have to be heroic not to wind up being abusive parents or petty criminals to showing that such mitigating circumstances are present in every case. If political success made Hitler arrogant and arrogance contributed to his crimes, is THAT an extenuating circumstance?
Perhaps it's just a problem with the word "evil", which suggests to some the kind of radical evil of Satan himself, who with a heavenly nature able to see and understand the good and with the perfect self-control of angels, nevertheless chooses evil. I notice that you are happy to speak of Cheney and Bush as war criminals in other contexts. I don't get the impression that you think their actions must be excusable on the basis of a bad childhood or whatever.

Maybe. But what is philosophically wrong with a system that excuses all crimes? That doesn't mean we would open the prisons and let everyone out. It just means that we wouldn't need the concept of evil in our justice system. Nor would we need to talk about punishment. Certainly we'd want to remove Hanibal Lechter from society to protect his potential victims, but we don't need to add the extra ingredient of "evil" to the system. It works fine without it. We can still express disapproval; we can still emote; we can still make a safe world.
Kant would say that this purely instrumental view of human beings diminishes human dignity. P.F Strawson (in "Freedom and Resentment") would say that this is not a point of view we can take while still viewing other people as really human. Have a look at _Brave New World_, which attempts to show us what this view of human beings looks like in practice. (I also do recommend Strawson's "Freedom and Resentment", though it's not as fun.)

Wonderment
04-29-2008, 03:34 PM
The term "evil" tends to raise a lot of red flags, so I kind of wish he hadn't used it. He could have chosen another explanation.

Yes, I found that a distraction as well.

I wonder what you would think if he had said, "the holocaust happened in part because Hitler was a bad man."

Well, I even have some difficulty with that, although I respond emotionally to Hitler by being disgusted, shocked, appalled, horrified, etc.

But I'm not sure you need "badness" (just a substitute word for "evil"). I think a scientific explanation of HItler suffices. Once biochemistry, neurology and psychology are done with him, there is nothing left. The testosterone-sertonin-whatever levels plus his particular wiring of the brain plus the conditioning of experience (abuse or neglect, low-IQ reading of Nietzsche, love for Wagner, etc.) suffice to explain him. There is no need to bring in the "ghost in the moral machine": badness.


Ultimately, the argument is that Harman begs the question against the moral realist by assuming that it's possible to assume that Hitler was monumentally indifferent to millions of human beings, even cruel, without assuming that he was a bad guy. The moral realist should not admit that this is possible.

Yes. There is no extra "badness" once you've described his behavior fully.

You mean he [Hitler] was simply misinformed? It was all an honest mistake? I find that hard to believe.

He was a victim of his wiring that made him susceptible to paranoia, conspiracy theories, megalomania, etc. It's hard to describe the consequences of what he did as an "honest mistake," but not so hard to judge the original commitment to Nazism that way.

I notice that you are happy to speak of Cheney and Bush as war criminals in other contexts. I don't get the impression that you think their actions must be excusable on the basis of a bad childhood or whatever.

Good question. I think Cheney and Bush are factually war criminals. But it doesn't follow that I think (or can defend a theory) that they are "bad" men. It's quite enough to say that they murdered innocent people and should be held accountable (as a deterrence to future abusers of executive power). What Cheney and Bush did can ALSO be explained perfectly well by my team of social scientists, neurologists and biochemists. I admit that I often use the language of moral judgment to criticize them, but it's rhetorical, a way of persuading and expressing my degree of outrage, displeasure, frustration, etc. I cannot in full intellectual honesty defend a theory that brands Bush (or Charlie Manson) a 'bad" person compared to Mother Teresa or Gandhi (good people). I do it in my gut and heart, but not in my brain.

AemJeff
04-29-2008, 03:52 PM
Whoops, I wasn't taking offense. “Mere sociology” sounds like something the engineering and hard science types I work with use reflexively as a mostly joking put-down. I was reacting in character, trying to be funny.

If I make a promise to be faithful to someone else, then, assuming there are good impartial reasons for keeping promises, I seem to have that kind of reason to be faithful, and the other person would have reason to object to my breaking the promise.

I would argue that this sort of exchange is better characterized as a contractual transaction rather than specifically about sexual morality. It could just as well be about anything. The reason I brought it sexual morality is that, putting aside the discussion of terms, the loose definition you proposed doesn’t seem to cover, for instance, the “immorality” of having multiple partners. If an examination of ethics is normative, then you and I can’t pick and choose which ethical subcategories we believe are valid.

I’m still reading your posts but these few questions seemed worth getting out there.

Bloggin' Noggin
04-29-2008, 05:18 PM
[QUOTE=AemJeff;75559] The reason I brought it sexual morality is that, putting aside the discussion of terms, the loose definition you proposed doesn’t seem to cover, for instance, the “immorality” of having multiple partners. If an examination of ethics is normative, then you and I can’t pick and choose which ethical subcategories we believe are valid.
[QUOTE]

I don't understand -- why should normative ethics have to validate every single claim of commonsense morality?
If a scientist studies perception, there will be problems if he winds up showing that sight, hearing and touch are all completely non-veridical. (In that case, science itself would seem to have no basis in evidence.) But nobody expects a study of perception to validate absolutely every sensory experience, from optical illusions to Uncle Fred's lunch meeting with the Archangel Gabriel at Maxim's.
Why shouldn't we be happy if our normative moral theory validates a core set of our most confident moral views and rejects those that seem a lot more iffy?

bjkeefe
04-29-2008, 05:47 PM
BN:

Apparently you are saying that a moral judgment is true for a particular society if and only if it is accepted as customary by that society. And you are saying that a moral judgment is true without qualification if and only if every society regards it as customary.

To a first approximation, yes. But it's not really as precise as "if and only if" denotes. There's also a language limitation problem here, in that I am unsatisfied with the phrase "a moral judgment is true." In a lot of ways, I'm not sure a moral judgment can be said to be true. I don't want to try to (can't!) define what I mean by "true," but it seems to me that a moral judgment is always subjective to some degree. I suppose, at base, some moral judgments stem from our biological makeup, and so in this sense, they are "true" for us; e.g., don't abuse children. Or, some moral judgments are so nearly unanimously held that we could agree to call them "true."

There's also the problem of different societies. I am not so much enamored of cultural diversity that I feel guilt thinking that, say, the extreme Muslim societies are just flat out wrong in the way they treat women. That is, I am completely convinced that what they are doing is wrong, or at least unenlightened. So, here, I'm making a moral judgment that disagrees with another society's view on something, and I think my view is "true."

... there are a lot of customs we don't regard as moral ...

Agreed. Although the more I think about it, the more I think many, if not most, customs have some moral underpinning. To take your example of wearing a shirt to go to the bank, there may be other motivations for the custom -- the rule that one must wear clothes where food is being served has an obvious health motivation, for example -- but at least part of this comes from our society's discomfort with nudity, which seems to me to be morals-based.

But yes, there are certainly customs that seem to have no morality associated with them. For example, how one sets a dinner table, with the fork on the left and the knife and spoon on the right. Or saying "excuse me" after burping. Or any of a bunch of others.

Another problem is that you are here using a sociological sense of "moral" which is clearly not the one people employ when they actually make moral judgments.

Another example of language limitations. It seems to me that if there truly are two different principles at issue here, there ought to be two different terms. Since there aren't, it adds weight to my fuzzy notion of morals being not much beyond the set of conventions that a particular society has evolved to agree upon. Or, again, in some cases, that humanity overall has evolved to agree upon.

I also don't find it clear that when people make moral judgments, they're doing anything different from reasoning from the training that have received by virtue of growing up in a society.

People who make moral judgments normatively (not as an exercise in understanding another culture or our own, but as part of a discussion about what we ought to do or ought not to do) do regard moral judgments as standards from which customs themselves can be judged. They think that even a universally accepted custom might be morally wrong.

I pretty much agree with this, which lends weight to the idea that a larger moral truth might exist. I'm not sure I'd go as far as accepting that a "universally accepted custom" could be wrong. If absolutely everybody agrees on something, then I don't see how anyone could think it's wrong. If you mean by "universally" just the overwhelming majority, then I could buy it. I'm thinking here of the many outmoded concepts that became outmoded because at some point, a few people started making a stink about some accepted practice, and we now call those starting few "enlightened."

If this is impossible on your view, I think you should actually regard moral judgments as either all false, or as not making truth claims to begin with.

That's too binary for me. I think most moral judgments are not "truths," in the sense of being as immutable as physical laws, but there are some moral judgments that seem so unquestionable, like not abusing children, that these might as well be called "truths." Until we can come up with a better term, anyway.

I suspect you are tired of the moral realism discussion.

Not so much tired as frustrated. It just seems to me that trying to be too precise or rigorous about something like moral "truths" is an exercise doomed to failure. It becomes circular, or it gets hampered by limitations of language, or it gets excessively abstract -- in the end, it never really seems to get anywhere. One never seems to get much past the agreement that many moral judgments are particular to a given society, others seem agreed upon by virtually all societies, and it's probably okay, in the case of a select few moral judgments, to view another society as morally inferior if they don't agree with these judgments.

It's possible that in addition to not having the patience for the attempt, I also don't have the intellectual chops. But I have listened to and read a fair number of efforts, and I never get much out of them. As a card-carrying dilettante, this is unusual. I can almost always find something to grab onto when an expert talks about his or her field, and I just can't seem to do that in this case.

Quoting out of sequence here, because it seems relevant to the last excerpt and my response:

... it may not be so obvious that rational argument cannot begin to resolve the disagreements.

This much I can agree with, certainly. Rational discussion almost always helps.

My point was not that there is some universal concept of "evil", but that if you are going to say that another culture has "different standards for evil", you are presupposing that our culture and their culture share a single concept of 'evil'.

I guess I misunderstood your point. I did think you had said there was such a universal concept, even if its specifics might be different for different groups. My apologies.

I believe my standard was "treatment we would object to." This may be a bit ambiguous. I meant treatment we would regard as unjustifiable to us. This is quite different from "what we would be bothered by."

Sorry again. I was using the two phrases as synonymous. As you go on to elaborate the differences, I agree, there is a distinction of in the concepts.

Bloggin' Noggin
04-29-2008, 06:03 PM
[QUOTE=Wonderment;75557]Yes, I found that a distraction as well.


But I'm not sure you need "badness" (just a substitute word for "evil"). I think a scientific explanation of HItler suffices. Once biochemistry, neurology and psychology are done with him, there is nothing left. The testosterone-sertonin-whatever levels plus his particular wiring of the brain plus the conditioning of experience (abuse or neglect, low-IQ reading of Nietzsche, love for Wagner, etc.) suffice to explain him. There is no need to bring in the "ghost in the moral machine": badness.

First, I can't believe Hitler had low IQ. He played the other powers brilliantly for a long time, and he seems to have had real oratorical gifts. Years ago, when I read _Rise and Fall of the Third Reich_, I was convinced that he was probably a genius or near-genius -- though an evil one.

Anyway, on the main subject, I think you are forgetting the question -- it was not "what explains Hitler," but rather is Hitler's moral badness part of the explanation of the holocaust. I'm not sure what you mean by a "ghost in the moral machine."

How about we switch the question a bit. Suppose that Fred says something that hurts Ginger's feelings. There are a number of possible explanations. Perhaps Ginger misheard what he said, which was something entirely innocuous. Perhaps Fred meant to be witty and didn't expect Ginger to take what he said seriously. Another possibility is that Fred is just an insensitive person, who doesn't pick up on how he affects people, precisely because he doesn't care how he affects them.
Again, if Fred forgets to have a party for his 9 year-old son's birthday, it's possible that he's been under great stress and has been terribly busy at work. It's also possible that he's just a selfish person whose thoughts are all about himself.
Both insensitivity and selfishness are generally regarded as moral failings (vices) which seem to be among the possible explanations. Are these not moral properties after all? Or do these explanations never true? Are there no insensitive or selfish people?

Also, what makes you assume that low IQ abuse or neglect has to explain all bad people? Why couldn't privilege and brilliance cause some people to look down on their fellow mortals and not care what happens to them? Would you be less forgiving if this was the cause?

You say Hitler was a victim of faulty wiring etc. -- seems like OTHERS were the victims.

Wonderment
04-29-2008, 08:39 PM
I'm not sure what you mean by a "ghost in the moral machine."

I remember the last time we discussed the self, I suggested reading the views of Thomas Metzinger. I would also suggest you look at his statement here. (http://www.edge.org/q2008/q08_3.html#metzinger)

The key paragraph is this:

There are no moral facts. Moral sentences have no truth-values. The world itself is silent, it just doesn’t speak to us in normative affairs — nothing in the physical universe tells us what makes an action a good action or a specific brain-state a desirable one....it looks like, in a more rigorous and serious sense, there is just no ethical knowledge to be had. We are alone. And if that is true, all we have to go by are the contingent moral intuitions evolution has hard-wired into our emotional self-model...

So I tend to view morality in the same way I view self -- a useful construct with no there there ultimately.

In the real world, I'm a typical mix of utilitarian, consequentialist, idealism, relativism and voodoo. I love to discuss ethical issues, I like to read moral philosophers, and I have deep and abiding moral convictions about a variety of issues. But at the end of the day, I think ethics is more like sacred drama than science.

Both insensitivity and selfishness are generally regarded as moral failings (vices) which seem to be among the possible explanations. Are these not moral properties after all? Or do these explanations never true? Are there no insensitive or selfish people?

I don't know. I think we have preferences. We have values. Evolution has endowed us with certain propensities for payoffs -- cooperation sometimes, competition sometimes, kinship interests, altruism. If you want to explain Fred's actions as "selfish," fine. Moral language helps us organize society. It's indispensable. But it's often refreshing to shift perspective and question the underpinnings of the whole moral enterprise.

Also, what makes you assume that low IQ abuse or neglect has to explain all bad people?

I don't think that. I just think SOMETHING explains all "bad" people. Maybe sometimes it's high IQ, which may correlate with low empathy. I'm just saying that when you've presented the biochemical, neurological, sociological and psychological data, you're done. That's all there is.

Why couldn't privilege and brilliance cause some people to look down on their fellow mortals and not care what happens to them? Would you be less forgiving if this was the cause?

Probably. I have higher expectations of people of privilege. For example, if a man who had a liberal arts education at Harvard wanted to perform a clitorectomy on his daughter, I would view him much more harshly than if an illiterate Egyptian peasant girl of 16 had the same view about parenting.

You say Hitler was a victim of faulty wiring etc. -- seems like OTHERS were the victims.

Since some of my relatives were victims of the Holocaust, I hardly think I need reminding of the harm the Nazis did. And I don't mean to suggest we should feel sorry for Hitler. It's future Hitlers I'm concerned about.

Bloggin' Noggin
04-30-2008, 12:44 PM
Hi Brendan,
In response to your remarks about frustration, I'd say two things: a) philosophical positions can be quite slippery, and a really helpful discussion is one that focuses on a particular argument -- poking holes in its logic or shoring it up -- or on trying to distinguish different meanings of very fuzzy words like "subjective"; b) many people find this kind of genuinely enlightening discussion exceedingly tedious and not worth the candle. A third point, come to think of it: discussion boards don't really lend themselves to that kind of careful discussion.
Still, let me see if I can proceed more carefully and still keep anybody's interest.

Where you accuse me of "binary thinking" below, I have the sense that you present too much of a moving target. How about we try to lay out the alternatives to begin with (there aren't just two).

According to Sayre-McCord's definition (which I've been rather forgetting myself), Moral Realism is the claim that there are some moral claims, which taken literally, are literally true.
There are basically two ways for a sentence not to be literally true:
A. It might not be the sort of remark that can be literally true -- it might not be an assertion. Instead it might be:
1. A lone noun, a lone verb or an ill-formed sentence (e.g., 'the is up')
2. A question. (Quick now: Is "what time is it?" true or false?
3. A command (You unwittingly provide an example in your first paragraph: "don't abuse children!")
4. An expression of emotion ('damn!', 'Eww!', 'ugh!')
5. Some people would like to include sentences with false presuppositions (e.g., "The present king of France is bald" or "I haven't stopped beating my wife."). I prefer an approach which takes the presupposition to be part of the statement, that reads the first sentence as follows: "there is a present kinf of France and he is bald", but nothing hangs on this, if we just don't switch back and forth).

B. It might be a meaningful assertion, which simply doesn't correspond to the facts. (e.g., "There are women with supernatural powers who cavort with the devil," "I love okra.")

So, Moral realism (by GSM's definition) amounts to the claim that 1) moral claims are well-formed, intelligible ASSERTIONS and 2) SOME of these assertions are true.
Those moral atni-realists who deny (1) can be called "moral non-cognitivists" and those who deny (2) can be called "moral error theorists."
(GSM's emphasis on "literal truth" is meant to deal with something you raise rather obliquely in your first paragraph. Suppose I say "Ewww! spinach for dinner?" This is not something that can be literally true or false. However, it is possible to agree with the sentiment expressed -- to feel the same. And someone who feels the same might indicate his agreement by saying "that's true", even though it isn't the kind of remark that can be literally either true or false.)

Whether you are a moral realist on this scheme will depend upon what you take the meaning of moral claims to be. In your first paragraph, you assume that someone who believes that moral claims are "subjective" cannot believe that some of them are true (i.e., cannot be a moral realist in GSM's classification). But this depends on what you mean by "subjective." Two possibilities:
(1) A remark is subjective if it is non-cognitive -- not the kind of thing that can be literally true or literally false (like, "close the door!" or "Eeew! spinach!") This doesn't seem like a very natural definition of "subjective", but if that's what you mean, then it certainly follows that moral claims aren't true.
(2) A remark is subjective if it depends for it's truth or falsehood on mental states. (For example, "I am in pain" would be a subjective statement on this criterion.)
Subjective remarks in this second sense can absolutely be literally true or false. If I am feeling terrific and I say "I am in pain", then my statement is false. If I say it when I really have a severe headache, then my statement is true.

One view of moral statements (not a very plausible one) is that "X is wrong" means "I disapprove of X." Clearly, statements like this can be true or false, and some of them really will be true. So, perhaps surprisingly, on GSM's definition, this view of moral claims (plus the belief that people actually disapprove of things) counts as a form of moral realism.
I believe you may actually be more taken with a conventionalist view of moral claims. You, like Jeff, seem attracted to the view that "X is wrong (in this society)" is like "X is ungrammatical (in current English)." You might interpret "X is wrong" as "X is condemned by our social conventions." Now there are social conventions, and some of them condemn some actions, therefore, this conventionalist analysis of moral claims also turns out to be a form of moral realism.
On the other hand, if you think that moral claims MEAN to make objective claims, but the only facts involved are facts about what we disapprove of or about our conventions, then you are an error theorist (and therefore an anti-realist).
I suspect your reaction to this will be that this is a sort of "victory by definition" for moral realism. That's not GSM's intention, however. His aim is not to elide the differences between a more "objectivist" view of morality, like mine and the more "subjectivist" views I just mentioned. The aim is only to clarify the debate -- keep us from mixing up subjectivist views and non-cognitivist views. Also, I think his definition shows that the realist debate involves decisions about two separate matters: A) What would the world have to be like if some moral claims were literally true (i.e., what's the meaning of moral claims) and B) Is the world actually that way?

So, here's my question for you, and for others:

1. Do moral remarks assert anything? (Or are they like "ew!" or "shut the door!"
2. If they do assert something, what do they assert? (For example, does "X is wrong" assert that God condemns X? Or does it assert that our society's conventions condemn X? Or....?)
3. Depending on what you think moral claims assert, do these assertions ever correspond to the facts? (For example, if you are an atheist, and "X is wrong" means "God condemns X", then you will answer "no" -- and you will be an error theorist. If you think it means "My society's conventions condemn X" and you believe that some of our conventions actually condemn certain things, then your answer will be "yes" -- and you will be a (subjectivist or conventionalist) moral realist.

From there, should anyone still awake want to continue, we can consider the evidence and arguments for the specific position in question.

Below is the 1st paragraph of your response that I allude to a few times above.
BN:
To a first approximation, yes. But it's not really as precise as "if and only if" denotes. There's also a language limitation problem here, in that I am unsatisfied with the phrase "a moral judgment is true." In a lot of ways, I'm not sure a moral judgment can be said to be true. I don't want to try to (can't!) define what I mean by "true," but it seems to me that a moral judgment is always subjective to some degree. I suppose, at base, some moral judgments stem from our biological makeup, and so in this sense, they are "true" for us; e.g., don't abuse children. Or, some moral judgments are so nearly unanimously held that we could agree to call them "true."

Bloggin' Noggin
04-30-2008, 01:30 PM
I remember the last time we discussed the self, I suggested reading the views of Thomas Metzinger. I would also suggest you look at his statement here. (http://www.edge.org/q2008/q08_3.html#metzinger)

So I tend to view morality in the same way I view self -- a useful construct with no there there ultimately.

That is Metzinger's view, and I'm sure he's a good scientist. But good scientists are, unfortunately, often terrible philosophers, so I at least don't take his unsupported statement as in any way authoritative on this philosophical question.

In the real world, I'm a typical mix of utilitarian, consequentialist, idealism, relativism and voodoo. I love to discuss ethical issues, I like to read moral philosophers, and I have deep and abiding moral convictions about a variety of issues. But at the end of the day, I think ethics is more like sacred drama than science.

I don't think I would regard ethics as a science either. But I don't think the only other alternative is "sacred drama." (Nor do I think there is some one-dimensional continuum between science and sacred drama, where ethics falls closer to the latter than the former.) The thing Ethics is most like is probably prudence. Is it self-interestedly rational for me to (a) get an education, make friends, find a career that suits me etc. or (b) get hooked on heroin, become a petty thief and alienate everyone who ever cared about me? If I am anything like a normal human and if I really have the choice between those options, then it seems to me there's a very clear answer between those alternatives. There are prudential truths (truths about what it is self-interestedly rational for me to do). Yet there is no "science of prudence." In my view, moral truths are truths about what is impartially rational. There won't be a "science" of impartial rationality either, but if there can be truths of prudential reason, I don't see why there can't be truths of impartial reason as well.

I don't know. I think we have preferences. We have values.
Are these supposed to be the same thing? Economists tend to confuse them, but they are different.

I don't think that. I just think SOMETHING explains all "bad" people. Maybe sometimes it's high IQ, which may correlate with low empathy. I'm just saying that when you've presented the biochemical, neurological, sociological and psychological data, you're done. That's all there is.
And here we come to GSM's point again. I notice you list both neurological and psychological data. Yet, the same could be said about these two:
Once you have fixed the neurological facts, you have fixed the psychological facts -- but it doesn't follow that there are no psychological facts. Once you give a description of my chair at the molecular level "you're done" -- the chair is not some additional thing over and above those molecules. But that doesn't show that there's no chair.

Consider this example. Do you believe there are bad steak knives? I do. For example some steak knives are dull, and since their function is to cut steak, dull steak knives aren't very good steak knives. The badness of the steak knife has a function in explanations very similar to the the function of moral badness in the explanations of human behavior. For example, if I'm having trouble cutting my steak, you might consider two explanations: perhaps it's a bad knife, or perhaps I can't cut my steak because I'm inept at cutting steak.

If my knife really is too dull to cut the kind of thing it's meant to cut, isn't it a fact that I have a bad knife? Or must we give an emotive account of "bad knife" like the one you want to give for 'bad person"?

If this is a bad knife because it's dull, why can't we have a similar view of bad people: they are bad because they don't take the interests of others into account (whether they are possessed of radical freedom of the will or not)?

Probably. I have higher expectations of people of privilege. For example, if a man who had a liberal arts education at Harvard wanted to perform a clitorectomy on his daughter, I would view him much more harshly than if an illiterate Egyptian peasant girl of 16 had the same view about parenting.
And isn't that because you can explain the peasant girl's behavior on the assumption that she is not indifferent to her daughter's welfare or too rigid to rethink her positions even in the face of evidence, and even when his daughter's welfare depends upon it? Isn't it, in short, because you have an explanation of her behavior that doesn't depend upon her being a bad person, while you lack that alternate explanation in the case of the professor?

bjkeefe
04-30-2008, 02:20 PM
BN:

Thanks for making the effort to alleviate my frustration.

So, Moral realism (by GSM's definition) amounts to the claim that 1) moral claims are well-formed, intelligible ASSERTIONS and 2) SOME of these assertions are true.

I can accept this definition, although I'd argue that it would be more precise to say "1) moral claims CAN BE well-formed," since it seems to me that pretty much all of us make moral claims from time to time that aren't particularly well-formed. They could be ambiguous, parochial, disagreed with by most others, and so on.

... depends on what you mean by "subjective." Two possibilities:

By "subjective" I meant, mostly, a sense of personal preference or opinion; i.e., more like your first possibility (the truth, btw, is that spinach is good! ;^)). Many moral judgments strike me as having about the same property as your feelings about spinach -- neither true nor false, but just a matter of personal taste. So, yes, it can be a true statement for me to say "I disapprove of action X," but that doesn't make my disapproval itself a truth. At least, not necessarily, and certainly not just because I say so, and not always because a lot of other people say so, either.

I believe you may actually be more taken with a conventionalist view ...

You really know how to hurt a guy.

But seriously, your comparison of me to Jeff is about right. I'd also say that what Wonderment's thinking about this matter is pretty much in line with my own; e.g.,

In the real world, I'm a typical mix of utilitarian, consequentialist, idealism, relativism and voodoo. I love to discuss ethical issues, I like to read moral philosophers, and I have deep and abiding moral convictions about a variety of issues. But at the end of the day, I think ethics is more like sacred drama than science.

Not sure I love the term "sacred drama," but I think I agree with the implication.

So, here's my question for you, and for others:

1. Do moral remarks assert anything? (Or are they like "ew!" or "shut the door!"

Sure, they assert something.

2. If they do assert something, what do they assert? (For example, does "X is wrong" assert that God condemns X? Or does it assert that our society's conventions condemn X? Or....?)

Could be just a personal preference or distaste. Could be an expression of values shared by one's in-group (e.g., us America-hating, godless, Brie-eating liberal elites) or a larger group (e.g., Americans, western civilization, or all the way up to all of humanity).

Obviously, God's view on the matter is irrelevant for me, since I don't believe in God. When someone says, "God's view is ...," I hear "My view is ..."

Usually, I think moral remarks reflect societal conventions; occasionally, they seem somehow beyond one time or one culture -- intrinsic to being a human being, if you like.

3. Depending on what you think moral claims assert, do these assertions ever correspond to the facts? (For example, if you are an atheist, and "X is wrong" means "God condemns X", then you will answer "no" -- and you will be an error theorist. If you think it means "My society's conventions condemn X" and you believe that some of our conventions actually condemn certain things, then your answer will be "yes" -- and you will be a (subjectivist or conventionalist) moral realist.

It appears that I am an error theorist and a moral realist, since I don't believe in God but do believe that some moral judgments are so nearly unanimously held that they might as well be called "truths," for convenience if nothing else.

AemJeff
04-30-2008, 03:00 PM
I didn’t say that very well, but I think you managed to get at the issue I was thinking of, which is, in a nutshell: if we can define the scope of the topic such that we define into it those things which our biases favor, but not anything else - that might seem like a pretty flimsy basis for an additional claim that what we’re defining constitutes a norm. I mean, that might be the case, but a sufficiently narrowly defined norm can approach meaninglessness.

Wonderment
04-30-2008, 03:57 PM
BN,

That is Metzinger's view, and I'm sure he's a good scientist. But good scientists are, unfortunately, often terrible philosophers...

Just for the record:

"Thomas Metzinger (born March 12, 1958) is a German philosopher. He currently holds the position of director of the theoretical philosophy group at the department of philosophy at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz and is an Adjunct Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies. (Wikipedia)"

I think your "prudence" idea leaves a lot of elasticity to the moral truth you derive from it. That's fine with me. Prudence seems like a helpful enough device to get one through the moral day. But even your example leaves lots of room for debate and disagreement. Heroin addiction (resulting is a shorter but more intensely pleasurable life) can, and often has been, defended as a good choice. Its advocates would be extreme hedonists (and sometimes creative geniuses in music, literature, etc.), but such people exist with moral freedom. Their moral choice is defensible.

I don't think the steak knife example is a good one. First of all, "bad" gets semantically slippery. "I have a bad headache; Hitler's a bad man; that was a bad game for the Dodgers; the steak knife is bad" all suggest a range of connotations for bad.

Also, with steak knives we can EASILY establish universally acceptable criteria. What's the debate? Moral issues offer no such clarity.

It seems you are saying that ultimately "bad" for morality is as easy as "bad" for steak knifes: people who "don't take the interests of others into account" are bad (to the extent that they don't).

But the moral universe seems far too complicated to lend itself to that approach. For one thing, every moral actor makes a case that she DOES take the interests of others into account. Rev. Wright is not ranting to promote his upcoming book and in the process hurting Obama out of selfishness and greed. He is doing it (in his eyes) as an expression of universal Christian love. How could you ever even begin to disentangle this stuff?

The best you can hope for is a good legal system, filled with vast libraries of precedent, opinion, dissents, reversals, tweakings according to evolving social norms, etc. The judges dress up in robes and wigs and everyone plays a highly choreographed role: sacred theater.

Bloggin' Noggin
04-30-2008, 04:31 PM
BN:

I can accept this definition, although I'd argue that it would be more precise to say "1) moral claims CAN BE well-formed," since it seems to me that pretty much all of us make moral claims from time to time that aren't particularly well-formed. They could be ambiguous, parochial, disagreed with by most others, and so on.
And thanks for coming back.
I should explain that by "well-formed" I meant linguistically well-formed, so that they made a genuine statement (as opposed to "statements like "The is up") -- I didn't mean "justified" or "well thought-out."

You really know how to hurt a guy.

Sure, they assert something.

Could be just a personal preference or distaste. Could be an expression of values shared by one's in-group (e.g., us America-hating, godless, Brie-eating liberal elites) or a larger group (e.g., Americans, western civilization, or all the way up to all of humanity).

What I was hoping to get was a kind of "translation" of an actual statement, like "killing people for the pure joy of it is wrong." What do people MEAN when they say that.
Let me elaborate a bit. What you do above tells us not what people MEAN, but what they are (loosely) TALKING ABOUT. For example, someone who tells you, "the witch put a curse on me" is talking about old Mary next door who raised her hand in a menacing way toward him. What he MEANS is that the woman next door has magical powers and has influenced his luck by gesturing and muttering an incantation.
You are telling me that people, when they make moral claims are actually talking about their preferences or their customs. Would you go further and say that all they mean by "killing is wrong" is "killing is condemned by our society's customs"?

Obviously, God's view on the matter is irrelevant for me, since I don't believe in God. When someone says, "God's view is ...," I hear "My view is ..."
But, to drive my point home again, you wouldn't think that that was all they MEANT by "God's view is...."

I'm worried by this and by what you say below that you understood the part about God to be constitutive of the definition of moral realism or something. It was only an example of one theory of what terms like "wrong" mean.


It appears that I am an error theorist and a moral realist, since I don't believe in God but do believe that some moral judgments are so nearly unanimously held that they might as well be called "truths," for convenience if nothing else.

God has no part in the definition of moral realism. Are you saying that people who say "Killing is wrong" actually mean "God commands us not to kill"? (Is that the "translation" you would offer in answer to my question above?)
As for "truths by convenience", remember that the definition of moral realism mentioned literal truth, not scare-quote-truth.
Apparently, you are not a non-cognitivist, since you say that moral claims are assertions, but I suspect you of being an error theorist (and therefore not a moral realist). The question will be whether or not you believe that what people are saying when they speak morally is close enough to what they are talking about (in the terms I used earlier in this post).

PS Regarding the Wonderment quote, I hope you saw my response -- which is that even I don't take Ethics to be a science, nor is the moral realist (even an objectivist moral realist) committed to regarding it as a science.

bjkeefe
04-30-2008, 05:15 PM
BN:

I should explain that by "well-formed" I meant linguistically well-formed, so that they made a genuine statement (as opposed to "statements like "The is up") -- I didn't mean "justified" or "well thought-out."

Distinction acknowledged.

What I was hoping to get was a kind of "translation" of an actual statement, like "killing people for the pure joy of it is wrong." What do people MEAN when they say that.
Let me elaborate a bit. What you do above tells us not what people MEAN, but what they are (loosely) TALKING ABOUT. For example, someone who tells you, "the witch put a curse on me" is talking about old Mary next door who raised her hand in a menacing way toward him. What he MEANS is that the woman next door has magical powers and has influenced his luck by gesturing and muttering an incantation.
You are telling me that people, when they make moral claims are actually talking about their preferences or their customs. Would you go further and say that all they mean by "killing is wrong" is "killing is condemned by our society's customs"?

When people say "killing people is wrong," I think they are expressing a belief that they hold. I don't think they are just "talking about" it. They could be, in the context of an abstract discussion, and particularly, about a less extreme case than murder. But usually, it's more than that. It's often something that reflects, in fact, something that people have learned so well, or decided about so firmly, that they don't really have to think about it any longer, any more than one has to think about the answer to the question, "What is 2 + 2?"

I don't, in particular, think people mean "killing is condemned by our society's customs" when they say "killing is wrong." If pressed, that might be part of an answer given to justify the belief, but most people would not say that was their complete basis for holding the belief. Most, I suspect, would eventually come around to trying to end the discussion by saying, "It's just wrong, that's all."

But, to drive my point home again, you wouldn't think that that was all they MEANT by "God's view is...."

No. I think it's the same as I outlined above. People have generally made up their minds about these things. They might invoke the God explanation if pressed to justify their belief, or to explain how they learned (to hold) the belief, or to attempt to win another person over to their way of thinking; e.g., "God wants you to help the poor."

When I say " 'God's view is ...' means I hear 'My view is ...,' " I am just trying to point out that such arguments don't carry any weight with me, if someone is, say, trying to get me to change my moral judgment on some issue.

I'm worried by this and by what you say below that you understood the part about God to be constitutive of the definition of moral realism or something. It was only an example of one theory of what terms like "wrong" mean.

Nope. I understand that it was just an example, and agree that moral principles, or truths, can be based on other foundations.

Apparently, you are not a non-cognitivist, since you say that moral claims are assertions, but I suspect you of being an error theorist ...

Labels. Bleh.

PS Regarding the Wonderment quote, I hope you saw my response -- which is that even I don't take Ethics to be a science, nor is the moral realist (even an objectivist moral realist) committed to regarding it as a science.

I did. And I'm happy to hear that you don't. I guess most of us have some dream of being able to be as precise about these matters as science can be, and I salute the effort of philosophers to try to move in that direction by being as rational and precise as possible. It seems to me, however, that in order to make much more progress, we're going to need more tools than just the English language. (Or any other tongue.) Or maybe, we should just accept that it never will be science, at least beyond being able to talk in evolutionary terms about where such thinking comes from. That is, we'll probably be able to talk sensibly about why people share, or do not share, a moral judgment across cultures, but we may never be able to, say, start with some assumptions and then be able to derive further universally true results from them.

Bloggin' Noggin
04-30-2008, 05:36 PM
I take it that you regard the answer I gave to that question adequate, then? My view of certain aspects of sexual morality is more a consequence of thinking about what can be rationally justified than a result of my original biases.
That's not to say that I think total promiscuity is an entirely good idea. Human beings tend to be jealous -- even those who think they are beyond all that. And sex really does (in my experience) sometimes give rise to unintended and unexpected affection. There may be moral justification for at least some of our sexual customs.

AemJeff
04-30-2008, 06:27 PM
When you said the following:

I don't understand -- why should normative ethics have to validate every single claim of commonsense morality?

I think you made an important point. The identity sexual morality = proper subset of morality, is open to question. In fact I've made arguments that explicitly contradict that assumption in another "Free Will" thread, in regard to prostitution.

AemJeff
04-30-2008, 06:28 PM
So, I think your conception of individual good is too reductive, but still not sure how you see this as related to moral realism.

I think I’m airing out a theory that “ethics” might be an alias for a set of attitudes that evolved essentially in response to a tropism – the stimuli in this case being related to a short, atomic set of biases. We have a “golden rule,” because the existence of such a rule mitigates the forces, in aggregate, which result from our responses to those stimuli. (I’ll stipulate that you’ve made a good point that the list I submitted could easily be excessively short.) So “moral realism” to the extent that it assumes there’s a larger truth, i.e. an absolute basis for qualitative comparisons between systems of ethics, might really not signify that much. You alluded directly to this here:

If this is what you mean, you might be able to make SOME of the same ethical judgments that others make, but you won't be able to say with the rest of us that our moral views improved when we decided slavery was wrong --at least you won't be able to say it as a literal truth.

Bloggin' Noggin
05-01-2008, 11:52 AM
BN,

Just for the record:

"Thomas Metzinger (born March 12, 1958) is a German philosopher. He currently holds the position of director of the theoretical philosophy group at the department of philosophy at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz and is an Adjunct Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies. (Wikipedia)"

OK, but philosophers are famous for disagreeing. The post you link to doesn't seem to give an argument. If he did offer one, I imagine it would assume an eliminativist assumption (e.g., that there are no tables and chairs or people, just atoms and the void). No doubt Metzinger is more entitled to this assumption than others, in that he apparently accepts eliminativism in a broader range of cases than most people do, but would he deny the existence of the brain? Or he might offer an argument along the lines of Joyce's _Evolution of Morality_. Neither argument seems in the least unanswerable. If he's got some brilliant new argument behind his bald assertion, I'll be interested to hear it.

I think your "prudence" idea leaves a lot of elasticity to the moral truth you derive from it. That's fine with me. Prudence seems like a helpful enough device to get one through the moral day. But even your example leaves lots of room for debate and disagreement. Heroin addiction (resulting is a shorter but more intensely pleasurable life) can, and often has been, defended as a good choice. Its advocates would be extreme hedonists (and sometimes creative geniuses in music, literature, etc.), but such people exist with moral freedom. Their moral choice is defensible.

I hope it's clear that I distinguish between morality and prudence (one is self-centered practical reason and the other is impartial practical reason). I'm using it as a fairly unmysterious model for something people regard as very mysterious. My point is not at all to eliminate controversy from ethics. It's just to try to show what kind of fact moral facts might be. I'm not offering a decision procedure or an ethical algorithm. I'm quite willing to admit that there are debates about prudence too. Notice that both morality and prudence involve rational debate, however -- neither seems very well captured by an emotivist/non-cognitivist model for this reason.

I don't think the steak knife example is a good one. First of all, "bad" gets semantically slippery. "I have a bad headache; Hitler's a bad man; that was a bad game for the Dodgers; the steak knife is bad" all suggest a range of connotations for bad.

I don't find this to be an objection. I picked the steak knife example as ONE meaning of "bad" that I suggest we model "bad man" on. The fact that there are other uses seems beside the point. If I explain that by "bank" I meant "financial institution" it would be a non sequitur to reply that the same word can mean "side of a river."

Also, with steak knives we can EASILY establish universally acceptable criteria. What's the debate? Moral issues offer no such clarity.
That's precisely why I used it: Illuminate the difficult cases on the model of easy ones. If you can understand the connection between temperature volume and pressure on the model of simplified ideal gases, the real gases will be more complicated, but that's not an objection to the model.

It seems you are saying that ultimately "bad" for morality is as easy as "bad" for steak knifes: people who "don't take the interests of others into account" are bad (to the extent that they don't).
Absolutely not what I'm saying. I'm trying to explicate what this seemingly mysterious notion of a "bad man" amounts to -- just trying to reduce the mystery, not sweep disagreements about what constitutes a bad man under the rug.

But the moral universe seems far too complicated to lend itself to that approach. For one thing, every moral actor makes a case that she DOES take the interests of others into account. Rev. Wright is not ranting to promote his upcoming book and in the process hurting Obama out of selfishness and greed. He is doing it (in his eyes) as an expression of universal Christian love. How could you ever even begin to disentangle this stuff?
The very fact that he makes such a case (as opposed to just stopping with "I like it this way") seems like evidence against the emotivist view you find appealing. The nature of his argument (appeals to impartial principles) also suggests that he takes himself to be arguing on the basis of impartial reasons. Sure there's room for disagreement about impartial reasons, but it's clear that some arguments about them are more plausible than others. I won't comment on Wright, but surely you'd admit that there are some appeals to impartial moral reasons that are pretty obviously rationalizing covers for self-interested actions.

The best you can hope for is a good legal system,
And what is a "good" legal system? If it had all the qualities you mention, but was severely unjust (exploiting some small minority for instance), would that be a "good" system in your eyes --- however many precedents it contained?
Besides that, law does not handle most of human interaction -- only the connection to state coercive force. Surely you don't want to replace all morality with law -- it seems highly undesirable and dangerous to have the state punish the breaking of all promises, for instance. On the other hand, it seems undesirable to regard the breaking of private promises as morally irrelevant if we aren't willing to bring the state in to punish such breaches.

Bloggin' Noggin
05-01-2008, 01:18 PM
When people say "killing people is wrong," I think they are expressing a belief that they hold. I don't think they are just "talking about" it.
That makes me wonder whether I've gotten my distinction across. I'm distinguishing between what people are saying about the world versus what guides these judgments. For example, when I see a trail in a cloud chamber and say "there's an alpha particle," what is guiding my judgment is the particular kind of visible trail in the chamber plus a lot of theory I was taught in science class. But what I am saying (my meaning) is not about the trail at all -- what I mean is that a helium nucleus just passed through the chamber.

I know you think that people's upbringing guides their moral judgments (as, for that matter, does my science-training in the above example), but I'm trying to get an idea of what you think people mean when they say that something is 'wrong'.

You don't offer such an explication. Let me offer you one and see what you think of it. First of all, I think it's pretty clear from the function of moral judgments (and specifically judgments that something is "wrong") that people intend to be offering a reason not to do the thing they call wrong (or if after the fact, a reason for shunning/punishing/disapproving of the action). This is the central point, and it's probably enough to be getting on with.
But I'll just mention that our actual practice suggests that they take themselves to be offering a specific kind of reason: namely impartial reasons. The evidence is pretty clear: if someone claims that X is wrong, they can be challenged to offer a reason for this. And their reason is regarded as defective if it is not impartial. For example, suppose I say killing me is wrong because killing people is wrong in general. You point out that I killed Fred yesterday. "But that was me!" or "But that was only Fred" does not count as an answer to that challenge. I must give a "principled" explanation of why I could kill Fred and you can't kill me -- i.e., one that makes reference to different objective circumstances. For example, I can point out that killing Fred was OK because that was in self-defense, while you are killing me for my money.

Please note that this is only a claim about what people take themselves to be doing (what they mean) when they offer moral claims. It could turn out that there are no impartial reasons, or that people's judgments about moral reasons are always in fact guided by something wholly unconnected to impartial reasons (e.g., self-interest or blind adherence to custom). On that understanding, would you agree that this is what people take themselves to be doing when they make moral judgments (e.g., "killing people is wrong")?

So, that's what I'd like to ask you for next time (if there is one): Do people who make moral claims take themselves to be offering a kind of reason? And if you agree, do you think they take themselves to be offering impartial reasons?

And now a few comments on some of your other remarks:

Labels. Bleh.
When streets aren't labeled, you might have a different reaction to labels. The point isn't labels for labels' sake, but rather for clarity's sake. Choosing a philosophical position (as with other decisions) involves trade-offs. The point is to lay out the different options clearly, try to discover what the theoretical costs are of taking each position and then make one's choice from there. If we mix up different inconsistent positions, then we may either not see our best choice or fail to see a huge problem with the choice we think we want to make.


I guess most of us have some dream of being able to be as precise about these matters as science can be, and I salute the effort of philosophers to try to move in that direction by being as rational and precise as possible. It seems to me, however, that in order to make much more progress, we're going to need more tools than just the English language.

I don't really see why you think this. Even science uses language (augmented by mathematics and specialized vocabulary, which itself is formulated and explicated with the use of the more commonsense language). So I don't really get what possibility you are imagining would solve our problems. And second, I don't really see what insurmountable problem the use of language is supposed to get us into.

Or maybe, we should just accept that it never will be science,
You seem to assume that ethics OUGHT to be a science -- that it is some kind of failing of ethics that it is not a science. You seem to want an algorithm for ethical decisions. I think Ethics neither is nor ought to be a science. The demand that it shoud be strikes me as similar to the demand that Art should become a science -- that all painting should really be painting by numbers. Ethics, broadly speaking, concerns how we should live -- I'm glad there's a little more room for creativity than some ethical algorithm would offer me. I'd like to think more clearly about my choices and choose better, but I"m kind of glad there aren't ethical experts (like Plato's philosopher kings) who know better what I should do than I do.

Thus Spoke Elvis
05-01-2008, 01:53 PM
I find that hard to believe. What about the following?
1. It's morally wrong to torture babies just for the pleasure of it.
2. The mere fact that I'd prefer it if Fred died isn't adequate moral reason for killing him.
3. You and I possess moral standing (i.e., our interests cannot morally be discounted in determining how to treat us).

I don't think any of these things can be labelled "truths," if by that you mean that they are statements which are undeniable. All of these statements carry with them assumptions and biases. Let me begin with the caveat that I agree with all three statements, but I cannot say that they are unquestionable.

Examples #1 and #2 are based on the assumption that person "X" has an inherent value that cannot be injured by person "Y" to achieve purpose "Z." To make either statement, we must first reach a series of judgments regarding the worth of things (living and unliving) and actions. These judgments will very likely be based upon on our own personal and cultural experience. For example,though it seems unconscionable to us, history is filled with examples of people killing those of another tribe, race, ethnicity, etc. for the sheer pleasure of it. How can examples #1 and #2 be moral "truths" if people have such a hard time following them?

In example #3, there is an assumption that at least certain things can have "moral standing." Why does anything have "moral standing"? Do some things have it (e.g., humans) and not other things (e.g., plants, inanimate objects)? Can an idea or concept have moral standing that must be weighed against the interests of living things? What does it mean to take into account or discount another's interests? Example #3 isn't an example of a clear moral truth; rather, it is an ambiguous statement that can be interpreted to mean any number of things.

Wonderment
05-01-2008, 04:23 PM
If I explain that by "bank" I meant "financial institution" it would be a non sequitur to reply that the same word can mean "side of a river."

Not really. If you said, "I'll meet you at the River Bank," I might ask you if you meant the financial institution on Main Street or the side of the River down Mississippi Lane.

Absolutely not what I'm saying. I'm trying to explicate what this seemingly mysterious notion of a "bad man" amounts to -- just trying to reduce the mystery, not sweep disagreements about what constitutes a bad man under the rug.

I agree that we can reduce the mystery by appealing to several theoretical frameworks. As rational creatures, we will always try to argue out our notions of fairness. Kindergarten children do this, and I think there have been studies of 5-year-olds as "natural" ethicists. And the good news is that we can reach consensus on tiny interpersonal issues, larger civli or criminal dispute issues, and even global issues: slavery is bad, racism is bad, etc.

I'd be interested in what you think happens when an ethical issue is, after all the arguments are in, still subject to disagreement.

For example, let's take Obama's views on gay marriage compared to mine. Or "choice" vs. "life" on abortion. Or the death penalty. Do you think there is a right answer to these questions? Do you think that if we sort the issues through carefully enough, we can come to the Right Answer?

I certainly feel (emotionally) that I can. I feel very strongly that I am right and Obama is wrong on gay marriage; that I'm right and the Supreme Court is wrong on the death penalty, and that I'm right and McCain is wrong on abortion. I also think that my "right" views are hard-earned through carefully reading, thinking and debating those issues. I have brought all my reasoning powers, and what I view to be the reasoning powers of the best experts, to bear on these matters. But other rational persons believe the opposite. How to you resolve that within the philosophical framework you're defending?

Bloggin' Noggin
05-01-2008, 06:01 PM
I agree that we can reduce the mystery by appealing to several theoretical frameworks. As rational creatures, we will always try to argue out our notions of fairness. Kindergarten children do this, and I think there have been studies of 5-year-olds as "natural" ethicists. And the good news is that we can reach consensus on tiny interpersonal issues, larger civli or criminal dispute issues, and even global issues: slavery is bad, racism is bad, etc.

I'd be interested in what you think happens when an ethical issue is, after all the arguments are in, still subject to disagreement.

For example, let's take Obama's views on gay marriage compared to mine. Or "choice" vs. "life" on abortion. Or the death penalty. Do you think there is a right answer to these questions? Do you think that if we sort the issues through carefully enough, we can come to the Right Answer?

I certainly feel (emotionally) that I can. I feel very strongly that I am right and Obama is wrong on gay marriage; that I'm right and the Supreme Court is wrong on the death penalty, and that I'm right and McCain is wrong on abortion. I also think that my "right" views are hard-earned through carefully reading, thinking and debating those issues. I have brought all my reasoning powers, and what I view to be the reasoning powers of the best experts, to bear on these matters. But other rational persons believe the opposite. How to you resolve that within the philosophical framework you're defending?

You have now invoked the "argument from disagreement." Let me lay it out explicitly, then comment on it -- then more specifically on your example of Obama and you:

1. People disagree about ethical matters.
2. Therefore, there is no truth of the matter about ethical disagreement.

Obviously this argument requires an additional premise to make it valid. What is that additional premise?
Perhaps this:
1 1/2 Where people disagree, there is no truth of the matter.

But obviously this is a false assumption. At least until recently, the tobacco industry (and their scientists) disagreed with most other experts about whether smoking caused cancer. There is still debate about whether Global warming is caused by humans. I think the Flat Earth society still disputes the sphericality of the Earth.

Well, perhaps we should try modifying the the argument thus:

1. Ethical disagreements cannot be rationally resolved (none of them).
2. Claims whose truth value cannot be rationally determined (no matter how hard people try and no matter how rational the disputants are) have no truth value.
3. Therefore, ethical claims have no truth value.

(2) is a lot closer to being adequate, but even it doesn't seem right. It's possible that String Theory can't be tested without actually producing the kind of energies involved in the Big Bang, yet there surely is a truth of the matter about whether everything consists of tiny vibrating "strings."

But more importantly, at this point, premise (1) itself turns out to be implausible (or at the least, in need of a good deal of defense). It's obvious that Ethics contains a good deal of disagreement; it is not true that ethical disagreements are never resolved. Perhaps those resolutions are never rational, but this would take some arguing. Many ethical disputes that have been resolved do SEEM to have been resolved on rational grounds.
Two quick examples: many people rested their disapproval of homosexuality on the assumption that it was a choice. But (a) commonsensical reflection on the obvious facts make this seem dubious and (b) scientific evidence backs this up. If you can't be blamed for what you can't choose, then blaming gays simply for being attracted to the same sex doesn't make sense. And in fact, as the public has learned about the evidence, they have changed their views according to opinion polls. That's a case where learning more facts of an uncontroversially "factual" kind makes certain moral positions less rationally acceptable. Another case is where people hold inconsistent moral views. An example I've used many times is the case of the slave owner who wants to treat his slave as a mere tool, and yet also wants to blame his slave for trying to run away. (Or look at Lincoln's moral arguments against slavery. He points out that if you say "I can enslave these people because they are less intelligent," then you have committed yourself to a principle you wouldn't accept if someone more intelligent than you comes along, for instance.) There ARE rational constraints on holding certain moral positions and people can be brought to see that they are violating them -- though this may often be difficult, not so much because the arguments are difficult, but because people don't like to see that they are in the wrong and change their lives.

Time to go -- I'll come back tonight or tomorrow to finish up -- I'll put it in a follow-up post.

Thus Spoke Elvis
05-01-2008, 07:06 PM
(Or look at Lincoln's moral arguments against slavery. He points out that if you say "I can enslave these people because they are less intelligent," then you have committed yourself to a principle you wouldn't accept if someone more intelligent than you comes along, for instance.)

I'm sorry if I'm hijacking this thread, but I've never found this argument to be compelling. If an earthworm were smarter than me, I'd treat it much differently. But it's not smarter than me, nor will it ever be, so why would I base my moral code on a situation that does not, and would be extremely likely to ever, exist? Further, how the heck do I know what I would think was "right" if I was an earthworm? And why should I voluntarily relinquish the advantages I currently owe over the earthworm so that we share the same status?

In sum, I'm not sure there's a compelling reason to treat someone in a weaker position as your equal unless there is a reasonable possiblity that your situations will be reversed one day (or because doing so serves so other benefit to your own interest).

bjkeefe
05-01-2008, 07:50 PM
So, that's what I'd like to ask you for next time (if there is one): Do people who make moral claims take themselves to be offering a kind of reason? And if you agree, do you think they take themselves to be offering impartial reasons?

I don't think there's a yes or no answer to either. I think people don't think -- in the sense of a conscious reasoning process -- about many of the moral claims they make. Many are hard-wired, whether by parental and societal upbringing or human biological nature, or very nearly hard-wired. If you engage them in a discussion about a moral claim, they may be able to talk about it rationally, but I don't think the explanation always gives the full picture, or even that it's even possible to describe the complete impetus in this way, in some cases.

To your second question: I do think that many or most people view themselves as being impartial in many of their moral judgments, in the sense of reasoning from some set of principles that are effectively axiomatic. In some cases, we can have the awareness that our moral claims are colored by our own biases, our societal biases, time and place, a preference for established conventions, or some combination of these. In other words, we know that it goes too far to say that all of our moral claims are impartial. At the same time, some other moral claims seem so self-evident and are so widely agreed upon that it's hard to accuse someone of being not impartial in making a moral claim.

When streets aren't labeled, you might have a different reaction to labels.

I knew I should have put a smiley after "Labels. Bleh." I agree that there's usefulness to be had in categorizing things. At the same time, I think this can be overdone, in that there's a tendency to require an excess of either/or decisions when it's not possible to choose precisely, just to fit someone's thinking into one category or another. I also think once someone is assigned a label, there's a tendency to get sidetracked by noticing deviations of thought from the purity of what a [____]-ist would think. I have complained, in other threads, about something I said being summarily dismissed for not being what a good liberal would think. So labels are useful, but they can risk oversimplification or dogmatism intruding.

I don't really see why you think this [that we need more tools to make progress in philosophical reasoning]. Even science uses language (augmented by mathematics and specialized vocabulary, which itself is formulated and explicated with the use of the more commonsense language). So I don't really get what possibility you are imagining would solve our problems. And second, I don't really see what insurmountable problem the use of language is supposed to get us into.

That's exactly my point. Science made progress once it added the tools of mathematics and specialized language to common language in seeking to describe phenomena. I am imagining something that adds precision and removes ambiguity from discussions involving, say, morals and ethics. It seems to me that the overwhelming majority of such conversations are spent in attempting to define what one means, just to try to have a starting point, having the other try to understand it, having the first say, "No, you aren't getting my meaning," etc.

You seem to assume that ethics OUGHT to be a science ...

No, I don't think this. I just wish that if we are going to believe that there are such things as moral truths and universal ethical principles, and that we think it's worthwhile talking about these things to the end of applying them to better our lives and our society, that we could be more ... (something) ... in our approach. I can't come up with the right word for "(something)" but it's some combination of precise, rigorous, clear, systematic, and like that.

The demand that it shoud be strikes me as similar to the demand that Art should become a science -- that all painting should really be painting by numbers. Ethics, broadly speaking, concerns how we should live -- I'm glad there's a little more room for creativity than some ethical algorithm would offer me. I'd like to think more clearly about my choices and choose better, but I"m kind of glad there aren't ethical experts (like Plato's philosopher kings) who know better what I should do than I do.

Of course I don't think Art should become a science. I also don't think human behavior is reducible to algorithmic prescriptions. But I do think there is something to the notion of "philosopher kings" when it comes to thinking about ethics. Some people are better at it than others, and there is also a real sense of ethical progress from one society to the next, or so it appears. This implies to me some sense of quantifiability, which leads me to hope that we can get better at the study of ethics. While I'm not looking for a final set of absolutes, I am also not happy with the notion that any one person's sense of ethics is just as good as any other's.

Bloggin' Noggin
05-02-2008, 01:28 PM
I'm sorry if I'm hijacking this thread, but I've never found this argument to be compelling. If an earthworm were smarter than me, I'd treat it much differently. But it's not smarter than me, nor will it ever be, so why would I base my moral code on a situation that does not, and would be extremely likely to ever, exist? Further, how the heck do I know what I would think was "right" if I was an earthworm? And why should I voluntarily relinquish the advantages I currently owe over the earthworm so that we share the same status?

The earthworm bit is rather a red herring. That was not part of my argument. My argument appealed only to the fact that there are people who are smarter than me -- no need to imagines super-intelligent annelids.

In sum, I'm not sure there's a compelling reason to treat someone in a weaker position as your equal unless there is a reasonable possiblity that your situations will be reversed one day (or because doing so serves so other benefit to your own interest).

You seem to be reading interpreting my argument (or rather Lincoln's) as an argument from self-interest. A lot of ordinary people like to believe that moral arguments can be turned into arguments from self-interest -- the "what goes around comes around" school of thought. Such arguments are, I'd agree with you, deeply implausible in many cases (though most of us probably underestimate how easily we can escape our reputations). But I was not making an argument of that sort.
Moral justification (as opposed to self-interested justification) involves providing an impartial principle -- one that makes no essentially indexical references (e.g., to "me" or "my"). If I object on moral grounds to what you are doing, then I commit myself to acting in accordance with the principle I invoke in your case. If I object to your stealing from me, then I am inconsistent or unprincipled or hypocritical, if I turn around and steal from you (unless I can explain how your situation differs in some morally relevant way from mine). In moral justification, it isn't an excuse to say "but that was ME stealing from YOU."

It's possible that you reject this practice of moral reasoning and care only about reasons of the self-interested or self-centered sort. But if you accept moral reasons, then the Lincoln argument works: he challenges you to come up with a principle that MORALLY justifies your being a master and others being slaves, then he follows up by pointing out that you would not regard that as morally justifying someone enslaving you. Given the rules of moral argument, you can't have it both ways -- either it justifies both or it justifies neither.

Your other post and your odd focus on earthworms in this post suggest that your real question is about how we can argue about whether a being has moral standing. I imagine that you do accept impartial reasons, but, as everyone would admit, one doesn't have to be impartial between oneself and the staph bacteria that would kill you if you didn't take antibiotics. How do we decide whether a creature is part of the "moral community" or not? Couldn't the slave owner just say, "I recognize the need to give impartial reasons within the 'moral community, but I don't recognize black people as part of the moral community -- or anyway, my moral community?"

Well, one constraint on the slave owner is, again, consistency. If the slave owner would blame a slave for running away or for killing his (the owner's) family, then he already implicitly admits that he and the slave are part of the same moral community. If the slave is just a tool of the master, then when the "tool" "malfunctions", there can be no question of blame. If he's a moral agent who owes his master something, then he's part of the moral community, and some impartial reason must be given why he turns out to owe his master something when his master owes him nothing.

Bloggin' Noggin
05-02-2008, 02:02 PM
I don't think any of these things can be labelled "truths," if by that you mean that they are statements which are undeniable.

That's not in fact what I meant. There are lots of truths which can be denied. The earth orbits the sun, but that was denied for a very long time -- there may still be people who deny it. But whether people deny it or not, it remains true.

Examples #1 and #2 are based on the assumption that person "X" has an inherent value that cannot be injured by person "Y" to achieve purpose "Z." To make either statement, we must first reach a series of judgments regarding the worth of things (living and unliving) and actions.


I think you are reading a lot of rather "metaphysical" presuppositions into these claims. I certainly think one can believe that torturing babies for fun is wrong without believing in "inherent value" -- if that means anything very mysterious or metaphysically loaded. What it presupposes is that moral justifications are impartial and that (human) babies fall within the scope of moral principles (they have moral standing).

These judgments will very likely be based upon on our own personal and cultural experience. For example,though it seems unconscionable to us, history is filled with examples of people killing those of another tribe, race, ethnicity, etc. for the sheer pleasure of it. How can examples #1 and #2 be moral "truths" if people have such a hard time following them?

Your final line doesn't strike me as a very good argument. We all know that it isn't always easy to be moral. I take it the actual challenge is the "argument from disagreement" -- or perhaps your question about moral standing below.

In example #3, there is an assumption that at least certain things can have "moral standing." Why does anything have "moral standing"? Do some things have it (e.g., humans) and not other things (e.g., plants, inanimate objects)? Can an idea or concept have moral standing that must be weighed against the interests of living things? What does it mean to take into account or discount another's interests? Example #3 isn't an example of a clear moral truth; rather, it is an ambiguous statement that can be interpreted to mean any number of things.

"Moral standing' is certainly a technical term, and I may not have explained it enough, so it may have been a poor example. Still, I'll return to the point that claims with presuppositions may still be true. "The present Queen of Britain has gray hair" presupposes the existence of a present Queen of Britain. As it happens there is one and she does have gray hair, so the claim is true, though it has presuppositions.

Bloggin' Noggin
05-02-2008, 02:29 PM
Hello again, Wonderment,
I'm trying to remember exactly what more I needed to fill in.
I can only think of one thing at the moment.

I ended my last post by pointing out that some moral disputes do seem to get resolved rationally. If so, it turns out that the argument from disagreement (in my second formulation) does not rule out there being SOME moral truths.
Your example of Obama shows that there are some disagreements that may persist, even when people are genuinely doing their best to be rational. Even in these cases, of course, it's quite possible that people are being led astray by custom or their emotions. But it's implausible to say this about every case of rational moral disagreement.
But it's hard to see how the fact that SOME ethical disputes are not (currently) rationally resolvable could show that there is no truth in ethics in general. There are plenty of disputes in the sciences that have yet to be resolved rationally, but it doesn't follow that they can't eventually be resolved. And even if we can never resolve the String Theory dispute, it doesn't follow that there's no truth (or knowledge) to the rest of physics.

Let's remember too that much moral disagreement doesn't actually hinge on a disagreement over moral principle -- in many cases, the disputants agree on the principles involved, but have different views of the non-moral facts. Sometimes these non-moral facts are controversial because it's genuinely hard to know them. Sometimes religion and other beliefs held for other reasons than evidence keep them controversial.

Wonderment
05-02-2008, 03:52 PM
Are ethical disputes resolved rationally?

I think they may be, to our satisfaction, within a closed system with certain arbitrary suppositions.

I don't think your homosexuality argument is a compelling one. The new scientific information that homosexuality is not a social choice may or may not be persuasive to people. Yes, people can change their minds on ethical questions, and sometimes the change is determined by new factual information, but it doesn't follow that there's a moral truth emerging from the process.

If so, it turns out that the argument from disagreement (in my second formulation) does not rule out there being SOME moral truths.

I'm quite happy to say that moral truth is not ruled out.

But it's hard to see how the fact that SOME ethical disputes are not (currently) rationally resolvable could show that there is no truth in ethics in general.

My claim is not that strong. It just seems to me, however, that the burden of proof on Truth is on those who argue that there is some to be had, not on those who are skeptical.

There are plenty of disputes in the sciences that have yet to be resolved rationally, but it doesn't follow that they can't eventually be resolved. And even if we can never resolve the String Theory dispute, it doesn't follow that there's no truth (or knowledge) to the rest of physics.

Not a good analogy in my view. Everyone agrees that physics is science. The moon is made of green cheese or something else. These are not the same kind of propositions we deal with in the death penalty is permissible or it isn't.

Bloggin' Noggin
05-02-2008, 05:45 PM
Are ethical disputes resolved rationally?

[QUOTE]I think they may be, to our satisfaction, within a closed system with certain arbitrary suppositions.

You think that "'ought' implies 'can'" is an "arbitrary supposition"? I think it would be very hard to deny that sensibly.

I don't think your homosexuality argument is a compelling one. The new scientific information that homosexuality is not a social choice may or may not be persuasive to people. Yes, people can change their minds on ethical questions, and sometimes the change is determined by new factual information, but it doesn't follow that there's a moral truth emerging from the process.

Please note the context. I was NOT proving that there was moral truth, I was REBUTTING an argument you offered that purported to show there was no moral truth. Also, "new factual information" -- i.e., new non-moral information -- was only one of my cases. I also pointed to cases where people find that the principles they accept (or think they accept) commit them to consequences that surprise them.

I'm quite happy to say that moral truth is not ruled out.

Will you be happy to admit that you have no particular argument against the possibility of moral truth? The argument from disagreement hasn't panned out.

My claim is not that strong. It just seems to me, however, that the burden of proof on Truth is on those who argue that there is some to be had, not on those who are skeptical.
Please prove to me that there is an external world -- I'm skeptical.
But how do you prove that there is an external world, using evidence that is any MORE evident and obvious than that there is an external world? That's the problem with giving the skeptic no burden of proof.
I think the claim that torturing children for fun is morally right is about as implausible as that I am the only conscious being in the entire world.
If you feel that moral truths are ESPECIALLY dubious (more dubious than many of the things that seem obvious and that form the basis of our other beliefs), then a special argument IS required. You tried to offer one, but (without further support), it fails.


Not a good analogy in my view. Everyone agrees that physics is science. The moon is made of green cheese or something else. These are not the same kind of propositions we deal with in the death penalty is permissible or it isn't.

The analogy was relevant to a version of the principle you would have to invoke to prove your point. The principle is "If a subject matter contains some rationally unresolved disputes, then none of it is true."
If you are invoking the principle "if MORALITY contains some rationally unresolved disputes, then none of it is true", it is question-begging -- i.e., it assumes its conclusion. (That's why other subject matters are relevant.)

Wonderment
05-02-2008, 08:44 PM
Will you be happy to admit that you have no particular argument against the possibility of moral truth?

In the same way that I am happy to admit that I have no particular argument against the possibility of God's existence.

Please prove to me that there is an external world -- I'm skeptical.

There's some room for skepticism about the non-existence of an external world, but a) there's no evidence in support of the theory and b) there's no ardent philosophical interest in investigating such speculations. The speculation doesn't really go anywhere from ancient Indian and Chinese speculation to Descartes to modern theories that we're a computer simulation.

WIth ethics, however, there is quite a bit of evidence to lead someone to serious skepticism about the validity of so-called moral truths, and there is a lot at stake.

I think the claim that torturing children for fun is morally right is about as implausible as that I am the only conscious being in the entire world.

Objections to torturing children for fun can be made on non-moral grounds. For example, we have an instinct to nurture the young, to protect them from harm. Why do we need more than our biological wiring? Or, have discovered that we can organize a society around the rule of law and democratic rights. (It may take a long time historically to realize the ultilitarian benefits of such a society, but it becomes a robust meme once discovered). Under such a rights-based social structure, the infliction of gratuitous harm on any member is an infraction of the rules. You don't need a moral truth to create such a society, just an understanding of the benefits of cooperation.

Bloggin' Noggin
05-03-2008, 11:43 AM
Hi Brendan,
I'm back.
I don't think there's a yes or no answer to either. I think people don't think -- in the sense of a conscious reasoning process -- about many of the moral claims they make. Many are hard-wired, whether by parental and societal upbringing or human biological nature, or very nearly hard-wired. If you engage them in a discussion about a moral claim, they may be able to talk about it rationally, but I don't think the explanation always gives the full picture, or even that it's even possible to describe the complete impetus in this way, in some cases.

I should have been more careful to distinguish between explicit and implicit understanding. I'm sure a lot of people don't think a lot about the nature of morality, and therefore if you ask them what they mean, they may have no answer. People have and employ a lot of concepts successfully without having any kind of explicit definition, and though they employ these concepts perfectly well, a request for a definition would not elicit an instant answer, and it might even elicit a wrong answer or at least a very incomplete one. If asked for a definition of "chair", someone might say "something you sit on", thus including the floor and one's own gluteus maximus. Or one might make it too narrow by putting in shape requirements that would eliminate beanbag chairs etc. Yet, when these counterexamples are pointed out, the definer will start revising his definition because he recognizes that his definition doesn't really correspond to his implicit concept of "chair" -- the one that he actually uses in deciding whether something is a chair or not.
I'm not asking for people's explicit conception of morality. I'm asking this: what is our implicit understanding of what we are doing when we say something is wrong. Can we make sense of what people are doing if we suppose that they are not offering reasons not to do something? Would people accept "I just want to" or "but it's ME!" as a justification or an excuse for doing something morally wrong? Or would they reject such an answer as simply irrelevant to morality.
Actually, the best thing isn't to ask about people in general. Let me ask YOU what you yourself are doing when you say "X is wrong". I want you to think of a time when you would say this expressing personal opprobrium, not when you are making some kind of sociological observation about what other people take to be 'wrong.' Suppose the credit card company charges you a late fee because they were too slow to process your payment. You say "that's unfair!" Don't you regard yourself as having advanced a reason why the company should reverse the late charge and stop this kind of slimey behavior? If the representative of the company said in response, "no, it's not unfair, because charging late fees in this way is extremely profitable for us," would you accept that as responsive in any way? Wouldn't you regard it as essentially a non sequitur (or at best, just the beginning of an argument that at some point considers your interests as well)?

To your second question: I do think that many or most people view themselves as being impartial in many of their moral judgments, in the sense of reasoning from some set of principles that are effectively axiomatic.
"Impartial" doesn't mean "axiomatic", and I don't think I asked about whether people took themselves to be impartial. I think I asked whether we took ourselves to be offering impartial reasons. What I mean by that is partly captured by my question about whether you'd regard "because it's profitable for us" as a non sequitur in a debate over whether something was "unfair" or unjustified? An impartial justification is one that takes the interests of all those affected by the action into account. "It's profitable for us" is only a partial response to the demand for an impartial reason. Do we regard moral justification as essentially impartial -- would you regard the credit card company's response to your charge of unfairness as a reasonable move in the game of moral justification, or would you regard it as a non sequitur or a misunderstanding of the rules of the game?

That's exactly my point. Science made progress once it added the tools of mathematics and specialized language to common language in seeking to describe phenomena. I am imagining something that adds precision and removes ambiguity from discussions involving, say, morals and ethics. It seems to me that the overwhelming majority of such conversations are spent in attempting to define what one means, just to try to have a starting point, having the other try to understand it, having the first say, "No, you aren't getting my meaning," etc.

Actually, I think this is not the usual problem with moral discussion. The problem is that ordinary discussions of this sort rarely consider one argument at a time: the proponent of X offers his argument in favor of X and the opponent responds, not by trying to get clearer on that argument and take it apart, but by instantly switching to his own argument against X. The proponent responds by repeating his first argument or by offering yet another argument, and so on. The two never really engage with each other rationally at all -- that's the problem with most ordinary moral argument.
Of course, if one does engage with the opponent's argument, one will find it useful to start introducing certain distinctions, often employing a somewhat technical jargon -- which is what philosophers tend to do. And at THAT point you turn around and object to their "labels." I'm not sure how your positions are really consistent there.
As for mathematics, well decision theory and game theory are mathematical treatments of something quite closely related to ethics. Philosophers do employ decision theory and game theory in their theories of ethics. Utilitarians do give a mathematical conception of "right action" as that which maximizes utility.

But I do think there is something to the notion of "philosopher kings" when it comes to thinking about ethics. Some people are better at it than others, and there is also a real sense of ethical progress from one society to the next, or so it appears.

And yet you don't believe moral truth is anything more than the conventions of a particular society?????

Thus Spoke Elvis
05-03-2008, 06:09 PM
Noggin,

Thanks for your thoughtful replies to both of my posts in this thread. Nonetheless, I fear that we are arguing past each other. Maybe it would be best if I laid my cards out on the table, so my position and the basis for my criticisms is apparent.

In the great scheme of things, a human being is a woefully insignificant thing. In an infinitely vast universe, we occupy an almost-infintesimally small portion. The known universe has lasted for billions of years, and appears likely to last for billions longer than humanity ever will. One can make a persuasive argument that bacteria is a more important lifeform than humanity, as nothing could exist for very long without it (and it will also be around far longer than us). Additionally, the idea that something so insignificant as humanity matters to a higher power seems to me to be based on wishful thinking rather than reason or evidence.

Similarly, moral absolutism and deontology, each based on the idea that there is some "true" moral code that human beings must follow, regardless of the direct consequences, strikes me as incredibly solipsistic, suggesting that (1) our actions and beliefs have some significance beyond our existence and (2) this significance is capable of being understood. The solipsism exists both at the macro-level (the values of humanity have significance in the universe) but often times at a comparatively micro-level as well (almost every society believes that it has discovered moral truths it considers to be self-evident that prior societies did not recognize). Instead, I believe that morality is based on a combination of three things: (1) instinct; (2) self-interest; and (3) experience.

With respect to the third, one's attitudes are shaped in large part by the society/culture in which he lives. For example, my attitude as to what constitutes a "fundamental" right is very likely considerably broader than the conception of the majority of the world's population living in far less opulent conditions than I do. Why is my view of what is morally correct any more "true" than their own? Yes, I may be able to construct some "logical" justification of my position, whereas theirs might be based on pure superstition, but does that mean my position is any more likely to be correct? As I argued in my prior post (http://bloggingheads.tv/forum/showpost.php?p=75791&postcount=3), things we consider basic moral "truths" are correct only if we first make several assumptions about what is important. Unless we share those same assumptions, we aren't going to conclude that the moral code in question is "true." In that case, one can only convince the other to follow that code if he demonstrate's that it's in the other's interest to do so.

Thus Spoke Elvis
05-03-2008, 06:37 PM
Noggin,

A general reply to both your responses is below (http://bloggingheads.tv/forum/showpost.php?p=76048&postcount=20), but I just wanted to make two quick points:

1.) I think there's a big difference between the "truth" observable facts (i.e., the Queen has grey hair, the earth is round) and moral-based "truths" (i.e., one should never steal). I believe in the existence of the first, but not the second (or I believe at the very least that one can't demonstrate the second's existence).

2.) On my point about people historically having no compunction about inflicting suffering on others -- all that I meant to suggest was that while it may seem obvious to us that such conduct is bad, it didn't seem so obvious to many people throughout history. If a test of a moral "truth" is its obviousness, then it cannot be said that the examples you give moral truths. I wasn't sure if you were suggesting that was the case, so I raised this point just in case.

bjkeefe
05-03-2008, 09:32 PM
BN:

I see what you're saying about the difference "between explicit and implicit understanding." I have to say right off that the concept of "implicit understanding" as you use it -- to mean something that one knows in some sense, but finds it hard to explain or define or otherwise articulate -- doesn't sound much like "understanding" to me. I don't want to drift off onto this tangent too much, but I point it out because this speaks to what I was saying before, about these discussions getting bogged down in endless circling back to try to clarify what was earlier said, leading to more ambiguous terms, further needs for clarification, and so on.

Loosely, I have a sense of what you mean here, by "implicit understanding," in that I appreciate your example of trying to define what is meant by a chair. It's a bit of an oversimplification, I expect, but essentially, we're talking about the notion of "I know it when I see it."

So, if I'm using "implicit understanding" mostly as you mean it, I have no way to answer your question:

I'm asking this: what is our implicit understanding of what we are doing when we say something is wrong. Can we make sense of what people are doing if we suppose that they are not offering reasons not to do something?

almost by definition. Could also be that I have missed what you mean by "implicit understanding."

I don't want to argue the credit card example too much, but it seems to me that if the company charged a late fee because they were slow in processing my payment, I'd have no trouble articulating why they were being unfair -- the cutoff is when they receive payment; e.g., when the envelope with my check in it arrives at their facility. Either it got there in time or it didn't, and if it did, and they're still claiming the right to charge a late fee, they're misrepresenting the facts/not behaving in accordance with the terms of our contract. So, simply put, we agreed to a set of rules, they're not playing by them, and that is, in one sense of the word, unfair by definition.

So, obviously, I would view the company as behaving capriciously, and no, I wouldn't accept as meaningful their claim to be able to ignore our agreement just because it suits their interest. By now, though, I'm having trouble seeing what this has to do with anything, except that you have illustrated that it can be very hard to be precise and/or rational when trying to describe what underlies the making of a moral judgment.

"Impartial" doesn't mean "axiomatic" ...

I know that, and didn't mean to say it did. I meant that I thought people could think of themselves as being impartial when making moral judgments, if we ignore that the basis for their reasoning is ultimately based on some foundation that is taken as a given. So, the basis (the axiomatic part) might well be arbitrary, in the sense of a learned societal or cultural norm that is not subject to debate or the demand that it be justified, or it may be one of those things that humans just "instinctively know;" i.e., an attitude that seems shared across cultures that comes from the way we have evolved as a social species.

So, when you asked if we take ourselves "to be offering impartial reasons" when we make moral judgments, I'd say, yes, we do think we're acting that way, usually -- we've got some basis for our reasoning, that basis is not questioned but is just accepted, and we think we're reasoning -- impartially judging -- from that basis. Most of us would like to think we'd come to the same conclusions independent of the particular people involved, to add to the belief in our being impartial. Of course, it never really works out this cleanly.

Actually, I think this is not the usual problem with moral discussion. ...

I'm not going to address this section. Seems to me that we'd be arguing about arguing, or even arguing about arguing about arguing.

And yet you don't believe moral truth is anything more than the conventions of a particular society?????

That's not accurate. I believe a lot of so-called moral truths are not much more than societal conventions, but not all. It does seem to me that there are some moral truths that are shared across societies. However, I suppose if you think of all of humanity as one society, then, yes.

Jay J
05-03-2008, 11:33 PM
Hey Bloggin,

I love it when we get these philosophy Diavlogs!

I was a moral realist before the diavlog, but the more I'm exposed to discussions/essays about the topic, I wonder if philosophy can say much at all about these things, other than showing us what the intellectual consequences of our beliefs are.

So when I say that I'm a moral realist, I mean that this view is more or less what I believe about the world.

My philosophy 101 textbook talked about the difference between beliefs based on evidence and "mere belief" which are beliefs justified only by themselves. I try to make sure my beliefs are tested by reason, evidence, experience, trying to make sure I'm honest with myself, etc. What I think is very important to add is that I allow myself to use my own subjective (or primary) experience as evidential. Of course in a very technical sense we all do this, but I mean that I deem admissible my intuitions and experiences which probably couldn't be tested by science, and use I these as intellectual guides.

However it seems that our standards of assertability must be *public* standards. And if some part of my beliefs are based on personal experience such that no other person could find the experience evidential if they themselves didn't have the experience, then it may be unwelcome to assert these kinds of personal beliefs as warranted in the public realm. This isn't to say that one must be shy about what they believe, but that they shouldn't assert that others should believe what they believe if in fact there's no neutral way for others to test the idea.

It seems to me that the opposite of the state "mere belief" I learned of in Phil. 101 is the Cartesian belief that a system of knowledge can be known with absolute certainty. In the middle of these extreme poles we have what Putnam called "Warranted Assertability" and what I would call "Personally Warranted Belief." It would look like this:

Cartesian Certainty
Publicly Warranted Assertability
Personally Warranted Belief
Mere Belief

I'm not all that sure that philosophy deals very much in producing beliefs that are publicly warranted, although it seems to aid me very much in finding beliefs that are warranted to me personally. It seems like evolution (the fact that it happened) is an example of a publicly warranted assertion. Scientific "laws" and long accepted theories are good candidates for publicly warranted propositions.

Of course the only standard I've sketched out above that can't change without losing it's credibility is Cartesian Certainty, although often Mere Belief is held with fervent passion such that there's no wiggle room. The two I've mentioned in the middle are open to revision.

It seems like philosophers with a morally realist bent are starting to simply demarcate where science ends in what it is qualified to debunk, and adjust philosophical theories so that they don't come with obvious blind-spots, rather than trying to provide arguments which any rational reader would be bound to accept.

BTW, I finally posted a response in our discussion about Compatibilism over on the topic "Brains and Gavels."

Bloggin' Noggin
05-05-2008, 11:58 AM
Noggin,

A general reply to both your responses is below (http://bloggingheads.tv/forum/showpost.php?p=76048&postcount=20), but I just wanted to make two quick points:

1.) I think there's a big difference between the "truth" observable facts (i.e., the Queen has grey hair, the earth is round) and moral-based "truths" (i.e., one should never steal). I believe in the existence of the first, but not the second (or I believe at the very least that one can't demonstrate the second's existence).

That will depend upon what one means by "demonstrate". We cannot "demonstrate" that the Queen has grey hair or that there is an external world at all, if you mean by that, "convicting a determined skeptic of self-contradiction." When people object to moral truths, the standards they employ (at least implicitly, since often they aren't very clear what standards they have in mind) are usually much higher than for other types of facts.

2.) On my point about people historically having no compunction about inflicting suffering on others -- all that I meant to suggest was that while it may seem obvious to us that such conduct is bad, it didn't seem so obvious to many people throughout history. If a test of a moral "truth" is its obviousness, then it cannot be said that the examples you give moral truths. I wasn't sure if you were suggesting that was the case, so I raised this point just in case.

To this day, it's very easy for us to discount the suffering of others. The test I would use is rather, how a person would react to being treated according to the rule he himself uses on others. The wrongness becomes a lot clearer when it's directed against ourselves.
Second, I have no problem admitting that experience and a history of moral reasoning going back thousands of years (along with a history of developing institutions that make humane standards possible) has improved our moral understanding over that of our ancestors (and, yes, over those who were not part of that tradition) -- just as the history of scientific thought has improved our scientific reasoning.
Third, we shouldn't forget that many systems we regard as unjust now rested on uncontroversially factual assumptions that we came to see were completely unwarranted by evidence (the "superiority" of the aristocracy, the divine right of kings, the existence of "natural slaves").

Bloggin' Noggin
05-05-2008, 02:21 PM
BN:

I see what you're saying about the difference "between explicit and implicit understanding." I have to say right off that the concept of "implicit understanding" as you use it -- to mean something that one knows in some sense, but finds it hard to explain or define or otherwise articulate -- doesn't sound much like "understanding" to me. I don't want to drift off onto this tangent too much, but I point it out because this speaks to what I was saying before, about these discussions getting bogged down in endless circling back to try to clarify what was earlier said, leading to more ambiguous terms, further needs for clarification, and so on.

It boils down to this: It is quite possible to have a concept without being able immediately and without a good deal of reflection on one's actual practice to give an adequate definition of that concept. The way you get from the concept that you have to the definition is by trying out definitions and then confronting them with cases that still seem to be chairs, yet don't fit the definition or fit the definition but that you wouldn't call chairs.
If you don't like to use the word "understanding" for anything but very explicit understanding, that's fine. What's important is to recognize the difference between the following kinds of case:
1. Someone who lacks any concept of a chair. Perhaps he was brought up in a cave and doesn't know that people ever sit on anything but the bare ground. If you ask him to identify chairs and non-chairs, he won't have the least idea how to do it -- or perhaps he'll have a far too restrictive idea (something that looks like the one "chair' he's ever seen.
2. Someone who lacks a definition but is pretty reliable about picking between chairs and non-chairs and who bases this on a set of criteria which are relevant to the concept (he doesn't do it on the basis of a memorized list of chair-images, for instance, but rather on the basis of whether it is an artifact made for sitting on). This person "has the concept" of a chair, but not a definition.
3. Someone who has an explicit definition without (yet) having the concept in the way described in (2). This may not seem very likely in the case of chairs, but it isn't at all hard to imagine if we consider the definition of 'neutron' or 'H20'.
4. Someone who has both an explicit definition and the know-how involved in having the concept (as described in 2).

So, if I'm using "implicit understanding" mostly as you mean it, I have no way to answer your question:
almost by definition. Could also be that I have missed what you mean by "implicit understanding."
Not by my definition, I would think. I don't think I ever said that this implicit understanding (call it conceptual know-how, if you prefer) could not be made explicit. I'm asking you to take your implicit understanding (or conceptual know and make it more explicit by reflecting on what considerations you regard as relevant and which ones you regard as irrelevant to making the case that something is "wrong."


So, obviously, I would view the company as behaving capriciously, and no, I wouldn't accept as meaningful their claim to be able to ignore our agreement just because it suits their interest. By now, though, I'm having trouble seeing what this has to do with anything, except that you have illustrated that it can be very hard to be precise and/or rational when trying to describe what underlies the making of a moral judgment.

So you would regard their appeal solely to their own interest in the matter to be irrelevant to the question of whether it was wrong or them to behave in this way. Even to begin to be a relevant part of the debate they would need (wouldn't they) to try to show that their behavior was fair to both you and them (i.e., it would have to take into account your interest as well as theirs). What this is supposed to show is that moral reasons must be impartial to count as moral reasons. It's only a single example and can't demonstrate the point conclusively of course. I invite you to think about whether you can explain your rejection of their reasoning in alternate terms or if you can find a case where we do regard a reason offered to us as moral which is not based on an impartial principle (i.e., where we would accept as an excuse for apparent hypocrisy, "but that's when I do it -- it's wrong when you do it."

I know that, and didn't mean to say it did. I meant that I thought people could think of themselves as being impartial when making moral judgments, if we ignore that the basis for their reasoning is ultimately based on some foundation that is taken as a given. So, the basis (the axiomatic part) might well be arbitrary, in the sense of a learned societal or cultural norm that is not subject to debate or the demand that it be justified, or it may be one of those things that humans just "instinctively know;" i.e., an attitude that seems shared across cultures that comes from the way we have evolved as a social species.

I may believe that a certain practice is moral -- slavery, say. On my account, this means we believe that some people owning others can be justified on the basis of impartial principles -- principles that apply equally to me and my slave. The mere fact that this is my belief does not mean it is automatically correct. If this is the content of my belief, I can be asked to provide the principle involved. I might do this as follows:
1. My slave is Persian; I am Greek.
2. Persians are "natural slaves" -- they are a group of people, who, while physically mature, never mature mentally to the point of being able to make rational decisions.
3. Greeks are never "natural slaves" -- adult Greeks all know how to make rational decisions.
4. Just as children are happier if subordinated to an adult, natural slaves are happier when subordinated to a rational adult.
5. Therefore, my slave is himself happier if he is compelled to do what I require.
6. Freedom is of no value to those who cannot make rational decisions.
7. Therefore, the loss of liberty benefits Persians (in terms of their happiness) while not costing them anything of value to them (their liberty).
8. There is nothing wrong with improving a person's happiness at no cost to anything they are in a position to value.
Therefore, I may keep my slave in bondage, while it would be wrong for him to keep me in bondage.

This argument (inspired by Aristotle's defense of slavery) does pass the test of employing impartial principles. But notice how the demand for impartiality has forced us to commit ourselves to a whole slew of (dubious) factual claims, which are now open to disproof in fairly obvious ways! What's the evidence that all Persians are natural slaves? Won't the evidence for natural slavehood among Persians also be evidence for the existence of natural slavehood among Greeks?
The point I think Aristotle probably should have noticed is that children may not do all that well when subordinated to adults who don't care about the child, but only care about whether the child fulfills the adults own needs, yet this is precisely the attitude of the slave master to the slave.
Once the impartiality constraint on moral argument is imposed, the rightness of slavery ceases to be at all "axiomatic".


So, when you asked if we take ourselves "to be offering impartial reasons" when we make moral judgments, I'd say, yes, we do think we're acting that way, usually -- we've got some basis for our reasoning, that basis is not questioned but is just accepted, and we think we're reasoning -- impartially judging -- from that basis. Most of us would like to think we'd come to the same conclusions independent of the particular people involved, to add to the belief in our being impartial. Of course, it never really works out this cleanly.

Rats! If I had seen that you eventually agreed to this, I'd have started from here, but I missed it on my first read-through. I'll leave the above comments for now, but now that I see you have agreed to this, I'm going to see if I can't come back with what I'd originally planned to do as my next step in the argument.

That's not accurate. I believe a lot of so-called moral truths are not much more than societal conventions, but not all. It does seem to me that there are some moral truths that are shared across societies. However, I suppose if you think of all of humanity as one society, then, yes.

Your standard (what all societies agree to) does not seem to support a claim that some people are better than others at thinking about morality (the original claim). The fact that all cultures agree on a certain custom might either be an indication of deeper moral truth that all societies are perceiving, or it could be a totally arbitrary brute fact.

bjkeefe
05-05-2008, 04:54 PM
BN:

I agree that it is possible to have a concept in mind, and even to reason from that concept, without being able to define or explain the concept itself. I don't really have anything more to add to the first part of your response, except to agree that it's a useful challenge to examine and to try to refine the things we "just know" if they are to be used as the basis for moral reasoning.

Your standard (what all societies agree to) does not seem to support a claim that some people are better than others at thinking about morality (the original claim). The fact that all cultures agree on a certain custom might either be an indication of deeper moral truth that all societies are perceiving, or it could be a totally arbitrary brute fact.

I'm not sure that I made the claim as you portrayed, in this sense of one immediately following from the other. I suppose it's reasonable to say that "morally superior" could be equated to saying "has realized more universal truths." It's also possible that this perception is just another set of (our) societal conventions, or is merely based on the less lofty notion that society just seems to work better if you adopt these principles.

In some cases, a universally-agreed upon "moral truth" seems inherent to our wiring. In others, arriving at a truth seems to be a process of growth of societies, or of individuals, overcoming what worked or was accepted in the past. As an example of the latter, think of any of the relatively recent ideas, like the idea that slavery is wrong, or that women should not be subjugated, that might doesn't always make right, or that children should not be treated as mere possessions for parents to do with what they will. Accepting these ideas, and living in accordance with them, seems to me to be more advanced; i.e., morally superior.

Maybe it is, or maybe it isn't, the case that the more advanced moral thinking is equivalent to getting closer to universal truths. In considering whether a person or group is more morally advanced than another, I don't really think of it in these terms, but I guess there are some buried assumptions that I hold.

Thus Spoke Elvis
05-05-2008, 04:56 PM
That will depend upon what one means by "demonstrate". We cannot "demonstrate" that the Queen has grey hair or that there is an external world at all, if you mean by that, "convicting a determined skeptic of self-contradiction." When people object to moral truths, the standards they employ (at least implicitly, since often they aren't very clear what standards they have in mind) are usually much higher than for other types of facts.

I think you're making a mountain out of a semantic molehill, as I was using the word "demonstrate" is a looser sense than you seem to be. I definitely agree that we can't absolutely prove that our perceptions of the external world reflect reality. The only thing I can be reasonably sure about is my own existence (and even that might be open to question). Nevertheless, both habit and necessity require us to behave as if our perceptions semi-accurately reflect reality, and that reality is not simply an illusion foisted upon us. So yes, when I try to demonstrate something based on empirical evidence (i.e., the earth is not flat), I operate on the assumption that that there is in fact a material world, and that I can demonstrate the existence of something via empirical observation.

Morality goes much further, by placing a significance upon empirical events that cannot be scientifically verified. It is one thing to claim that person X has more apples than person Y. It is another thing to assign metaphysical significance to this observation (e.g., "person X is less deserving of the apples than person Y"). This requires a person to not only conclude that persons X and Y exist, but to then ascribe to them additional characteristics (e.g. moral standing vis a vis the other) that cannot be verified via empirical observation.

To this day, it's very easy for us to discount the suffering of others. The test I would use is rather, how a person would react to being treated according to the rule he himself uses on others. The wrongness becomes a lot clearer when it's directed against ourselves.

That depends what the rule is. For instance, if I am a Spartan, and the rule is that "Spartans are free to injure non-Spartans," I suffer no injury if the rule is applied to me. I am harmed only if we change the rule or change my identity to make the rule applicable. But this begs the question of how much we can change the relevant facts and still describe a situation that has a logical relationship to the existing one. As I gather from our prior threads, you do not think it is appropriate to consider the moral standing of an earthworm in relation to a human being. Surely you can understand then, why people might think that the "put the shoe on the other foot" test is inappropriate in other circumstances? If I wish to severely punish a child rapist or an Al Qaeda terrorist, should I try to imagine how I would feel if I was a child rapist or terrorist being punished for an act I did not believe was wrong? How or why should this temper my inclinitation to punish them?

In other words, the attractiveness of the test you present is entirely dependant upon what a person deems to be a valid moral distinction between beings.

Bloggin' Noggin
05-05-2008, 06:28 PM
Thanks for putting the cards on the table, Elvis. Responses below:
Noggin,


[QUOTE]In the great scheme of things, a human being is a woefully insignificant thing. In an infinitely vast universe, we occupy an almost-infintesimally small portion. The known universe has lasted for billions of years, and appears likely to last for billions longer than humanity ever will. One can make a persuasive argument that bacteria is a more important lifeform than humanity, as nothing could exist for very long without it (and it will also be around far longer than us). Additionally, the idea that something so insignificant as humanity matters to a higher power seems to me to be based on wishful thinking rather than reason or evidence.

I agree with you that you are talking past me here. When I say that certain moral claims are true (or perhaps, when I add that they are true independently of whether we believe them), you seem to assume that I'm saying this wrongness matters to a "higher power". Or, given that you very likely know I'm an atheist (from my past comments elsewhere here), I guess you may not quite think I'm committed to that. Perhaps what you assume is that if moral claims are really true independently of what we believe, they must be built into the structure of the physical universe at the deepest level -- that morality is part of physics. At a minimum, I guess you are assuming that I think the truths of morality would exist even if no human beings existed (or any creatures relevantly like them). But this does not follow. There are plenty of true statements that are true independently of our beliefs about them that are nevertheless not independent of humanity. (For example, is there an Oedipus complex? It could be true, though no one before Freud realized it. It could be false, even though we had all become Freudians. Yet it certainly wouldn't be true if the universe consisted only of rocks and stones and trees.)
You mention self-interested reasons. These are the closest relative, in my view, to moral reasons. Do you think that certain statements about what it's in my interest to do may be definitely true or false? Or do you see such claims as non-cognitive? I see no particular reason to treat such statements as non-cognitive. If I love Mozart operas and I win a ticket to Cosi Fan Tutte as a door prize, it seems I have a reason to attend -- and that the claim that I have a reason (not necessarily an overriding one) to attend IS TRUE. If that can be true, why can't claims about moral reasons also be true?


Similarly, moral absolutism and deontology,

Here I think you are confusing two senses of "moral absolutism" -- not a term I'm happy with in general. Sometimes "moral absolutism" means something like the belief that no matter what the circumstances, it is always wrong to lie (or whatever). It is essentially the belief that moral principles can be reduced to very general BEHAVIORAL rules which don't take the motives or circumstances into account. This is in no way the issue we were discussing (nor is it identical with deontology).
If we have been discussing "moral absolutism" it is rather in the second sense, that there are some moral truths (of whatever sort) that are true independently of whether people believe them. In this sense, a Utilitarian may be a moral absolutist, though a Utilitarian is certainly not a deontologist -- even less so is he a "moral absolutist" in the first sense.

each based on the idea that there is some "true" moral code that human beings must follow, regardless of the direct consequences,
A utilitarian can believe that utilitarianism is true independently of our moral beliefs while saying that all taht matters morally is consequences (both direct and indirect).

strikes me as incredibly solipsistic, suggesting that (1) our actions and beliefs have some significance beyond our existence
I don't think this follows from moral realism -- see above.



Yes, I may be able to construct some "logical" justification of my position, whereas theirs might be based on pure superstition, but does that mean my position is any more likely to be correct?
This skeptical question could be raised about any subject matter, including science. Why should we take it so much more seriously here?


As I argued in my prior post (http://bloggingheads.tv/forum/showpost.php?p=75791&postcount=3), things we consider basic moral "truths" are correct only if we first make several assumptions about what is important.
I don't think you exactly argued for it -- and as I said I think the assumptions you listed were rather unnecessarily metaphysical, or at least they read that way. I don't think moral realism (or objectivist moral realism) must assume what you take it to, at least on the stronger, more tendentious readings.

Unless we share those same assumptions, we aren't going to conclude that the moral code in question is "true." In that case, one can only convince the other to follow that code if he demonstrate's that it's in the other's interest to do so.

Unless you share SOME of the same assumptions, it's going to be hard to persuade him on the basis of self-interest either (if he thinks the best thing that could happen to him is to die painfully, for instance). If another person refuses to grant that the external world exists, you won't be able to persuade him of scientific claims either. On the other hand, you don't have to agree about everything to get somewhere in an argument, nor can you know that you can't get anywhere before you actually try.

Bloggin' Noggin
05-06-2008, 11:09 AM
Hi Jay,
I don't believe there's very much we can have Cartesian certainty about. I also think a strong version of evidentialism drives one to demand Cartesian certainty. The demand that every belief be based on prior evidence obviously leads to an infinite regress. Descartes stops the regress by ending evidential chains in self-evident propositions. Unfortunately, the Cartesian project is unworkable. There may be self-evident propositions, but if there are, there aren't enough of them and they aren't robust enough to justify what we rationally and justifiably believe (including the truths of modern science). Your standard of testing beliefs on the basis of experience and reason is workable. Instead of building foundations, our model should be separating wheat from chaff. We start with a lot of confident beliefs and observations, some of which can't be true (because they conflict). We can't sweep them all out and start over as Descartes wanted to. We have to bring them together and use the contradictions and puzzles that arise to winnow out the mistaken beliefs.
We can try to undertake this process at an individual level, but given the amount of knowledge out there, and given the level expertise needed in each field, knowledge is clearly dependent upon the division of labor. In addition, in at least most areas, if we are trying to test beliefs against one another, there seems to be no reason to restrict these tests to one person's beliefs -- the more beliefs, the more adequate and illuminating our final theory.
Of course, I agree that if I see Nessie myself I have more reason to believe that Nessie exists (assuming I wasn't taking hallucinogens, and saw him in the Loch, not in my bathtub, etc.) than someone who merely hears my report.

Similar things could certainly arise with particular moral cases. If I had been there, I might have seen how distressed Fred was by Mark's teasing, and I would have agreed with you that Mark's persisting in the teasing was cruel, while just on the basis of a report, I might think Mark was not cruel at all. But when it comes to moral principles, I don't see why you wouldn't regard these as publicly justifiable. (I'd rather not speak of "warranted assertability", since I take that to be a way to include cases where one may be warranted in saying something that has no truth value (e.g., one is warranted in saying "yuck!" if one finds something disgusting).

We all have moral intuitions, and many of them agree. You think torturing babies for fun is wrong and I think so too. Even where we seem to disagree, it turns out we often agree on the underlying principle. Two people can disagree about abortion while not debating that innocent persons shouldn't be killed (except in self-defense), if they are arguing about whether a blastocyst is a person. But even where moral principle is at issue, those with deontological intuitions also have consequentialist intuitions and vice versa. There are few deontologists who think we shouldn't lie even if the world depends on it; and consequentialists certainly try to accomodate the intuition that we shouldn't just lie whenever a particular lie would produce a marginally better outcome.
Most of us, when confronted with a difficult moral dilemma will discuss it with other people, and if we know someone who seems particularly admirable or particularly clear-sighted in moral matters, we may even defer to his or her opinion. If someone does something wrong, he is publicly criticized, and if he does something positively good at some cost to himself, he is publicly praised. I don't see how moral justification can be an entirely private matter.

It seems like philosophers with a morally realist bent are starting to simply demarcate where science ends in what it is qualified to debunk, and adjust philosophical theories so that they don't come with obvious blind-spots, rather than trying to provide arguments which any rational reader would be bound to accept.

I would put it differently. The moral anti-realists believe they have presented special problems for moral truth that do not apply to scientific truth. In answer, moral realists show that these arguments beg the question -- to accept them, you must ALREADY BELIEVE that moral claims differ from the kinds of claims we take to be literally true.
Absent a reason for rejecting all moral judgments out of hand, our most confident moral beliefs will join the rest of our confident beliefs in the rational winnowing process I described at the beginning. It isn't that moral realists don't attempt to persuade reasonable people. Rather, they attempt to show that the anti-realist arguments do not meet that standard.

BTW, I finally posted a response in our discussion about Compatibilism over on the topic "Brains and Gavels."

Thanks for pointing it out. I'll look for it and try to respond soon.

Bloggin' Noggin
05-06-2008, 12:11 PM
WIth ethics, however, there is quite a bit of evidence to lead someone to serious skepticism about the validity of so-called moral truths, and there is a lot at stake.

I was responding to your claim that the non-skeptic always has the burden of proof. Now you are back to accepting a burden of proof that ethical claims are particularly dubious. What is your evidence, then? We talked about one piece of evidence (the fact that people disagree over moral claims), but I showed that this argument (as so far formulated) does not establish its conclusion. Do you have a different argument, or a better formulation of the disagreement argument that isn't open to the problems I've so far pointed out?

Objections to torturing children for fun can be made on non-moral grounds. For example, we have an instinct to nurture the young, to protect them from harm.

Pointing out that most people don't want to torture children does not constitute an "objection" to torturing children, though it may be an explanation of why many people don't do so.
Why do we need more than our biological wiring?
Need it for what? And in what sense am I committed to needing "more than our biological wiring"? Our "biological wiring" seems to include a lot of quasi-instinctive heuristics that work fairly well in certain circumstances, but which we need to get past when we try to think more rationally. (See the recent Monkey-Science Saturday and the one a few weeks ago on Brain kluges.) The ability to think more rationally is itself also something we are capable of doing given our biological wiring -- and that's all the equipment I would require myself.
If you want to make morality entirely instinctive, I think you are going to run into a lot of problems. First of all, our "instinctive" heuristics seem to include stereotyping and perhaps some degree of xenophobia -- our instincts are often precisely what morality is supposed to control. Second, how are you going to resolve a moral argument between liberals and conservatives over the estate tax by appeal to instinct? It seems we need some way of thinking rationally about what is morally justifiable and what is not.

Or, have discovered that we can organize a society around the rule of law and democratic rights. (It may take a long time historically to realize the ultilitarian benefits of such a society, but it becomes a robust meme once discovered)Under such a rights-based social structure, the infliction of gratuitous harm on any member is an infraction of the rules. You don't need a moral truth to create such a society, just an understanding of the benefits of cooperation.


What do you mean by "utilitarian benefit". Utilitarianism is itself a moral theory -- a theory about what is morally good and what actions are morally right. I suppose you probably just mean the "usefulness" of such a society, but that begs the question of what the society is "useful" for. What constitutes a "benefit"? Are we talking about what benefits all members of society impartially? That sounds like a moral goal -- in fact it is roughly the utilitarian goal (i.e., the goal of that moral theory known as 'utilitiarianism'). A particular society might regard its aim as benefitting only the aristocracy, without regard to what happens to the plebs. What standards are we employing? Those the society itself accepts? But the society is liable to have its goals set by the socially dominant group.
I suspect you think you can eliminate morality here because you are already assuming moral aims, but without recognizing that they are moral.

The attempt to create a democracy or to maintain it against those who argue that some other system would be more stable or "efficient" usually does appeal to the superior justice of democracy. This sounds like an appeal to moral truth.

Bloggin' Noggin
05-06-2008, 02:11 PM
I think you're making a mountain out of a semantic molehill, as I was using the word "demonstrate" is a looser sense than you seem to be.
Not really -- sorry if it sounded like that. My position is this: when people argue that moral claims can't be substantiated, they either simply assume that this is so, or they offer arguments which would equally show that other claims they have no problem with can't be substantiated. They don't realize this because they actually assume what they need to prove -- in trying to establish that there is some special reason to doubt moral claims, they assume that there is some special reason to doubt moral claims. They are "preaching to the choir" or "begging the question."

Morality goes much further, by placing a significance upon empirical events that cannot be scientifically verified.
Here you make two assumptions which are both questionable:
1. Only claims that can be "scientifically verified" are true (or justified?).
2. Moral claims cannot be "scientifically verified."

I'm not sure what you mean by "scientifically verified", but I think it's implausible to regard history as a science -- yet well-formed historical claims are clearly either true or false, and it seems that many of them are well justified. So, (1) is too high a standard for truth or justification.
(2) is also dubious -- especially if it is liberalized in accordance with my objection to (1). Suppose (for the sake of example) it turns out that a crude utilitarian analysis of "right" is the best analysis of the concept we actually employ when we judge something "right" or "wrong." That analysis is as follows:
An action or policy, A, is right if and only if, among the available alternatives, A produces the greatest net happiness.

Suppose that's just what we mean by "right". Now, suppose that we are contemplating a radically egalitarian redistribution of wealth. If someone claims that this policy is right, that means that it will produce the most net happiness of all the alternative policies available to us. It seems that we could do an experiment to see whether this claim was true or not. Take a representative sample of people in one city and institute the equalizing redistribution. Let's suppose that over time, because people have no incentive to work hard, people work less and less diligently, and after a time, nearly everyone winds up with less money than they would have had under a much more modest redistributive policy. Not only that, they suffer a lot of frustration with government and private services, because everyone who supplies services has ended up with a very lackadaisical attitude toward work. There are no evident compensating benefits -- no greater sense of community or whatever -- and surveys show that vast majorities feel they are less happy and generally worse off than before the new policy. Given our definition of "right", hasn't our experiment established -- "scientifically, even -- that this policy was not right?

Of course, I'm not expecting you to believe in crude utilitarianism -- I don't myself -- but the example shows that if we can get fairly clear about what we mean by "morally right", the question of whether a certain action or policy can become a reasonably straightforward empirical matter.

It is one thing to claim that person X has more apples than person Y. It is another thing to assign metaphysical significance to this observation (e.g., "person X is less deserving of the apples than person Y").

You are assuming that talk of desert is "metaphysical" -- this is both unclear and quite controversial. According to a rule utilitarian, the claim X is more deserving of these apples than Y amounts to something like "The system of rules that would best promote happiness would assign these apples to X rather than Y." What's mysteriously "metaphysical" about that?



That depends what the rule is. For instance, if I am a Spartan, and the rule is that "Spartans are free to injure non-Spartans," I suffer no injury if the rule is applied to me.

Are you assuming that non-Spartans are to be regarded as being outside the moral community -- like earthworms? That could work if Spartans really didn't morally expect anything out of non-Spartans. But if the Spartans agree to a treaty with the Athenians and the Athenians break it when it's convenient, would the Spartans regard themselves as wronged? If they do, then they must regard the Athenians as part of the moral community after all.
If they do regard Athenians as part of the moral community, then the rule "It's OK to harm non-Spartans for whatever reason" cannot be a basic moral principle -- because it is not impartial. But an impartial justification of this rule would be very difficult. Such a justification would have to justify the rule to Athenians as well as Spartans. To turn my original test around a little bit, the Athenians could propose a similar principle about non-Athenians. If the Spartans wouldn't accept that principle, what is their ground for thinking this principle is any more impartially justifiable?

I am harmed only if we change the rule or change my identity to make the rule applicable. But this begs the question of how much we can change the relevant facts and still describe a situation that has a logical relationship to the existing one.
It can be helpful to put yourself in someone else's shoes, and we can certainly understand how to do that, but if you prefer, we can look at it as people trying to propose principles of justification which they hope to get others to accept (in the way I did above). If you wouldn't accept the Athenian version of the principle, how can you expect the Athenians to accept the Spartan version of the principle? That doesn't involve changing shoes even in imagination.

As I gather from our prior threads, you do not think it is appropriate to consider the moral standing of an earthworm in relation to a human being. Surely you can understand then, why people might think that the "put the shoe on the other foot" test is inappropriate in other circumstances? If I wish to severely punish a child rapist or an Al Qaeda terrorist, should I try to imagine how I would feel if I was a child rapist or terrorist being punished for an act I did not believe was wrong? How or why should this temper my inclinitation to punish them?

I think I've tried to emphasize this before, but let me emphasize it again, that the test is not "how would you feel if I did that to you?", but rather "would you (and could you) regard yourself as wronged if I did this to you?" Suppose the rapist is given life imprisonment as punishment. Sure, he doesn't LIKE it, but what grounds for an impartial objection can he consistently propose? For example, if he says that no one should ever deprive anyone else of their freedom, he seems to have to regard his own crime as wrong, because it took away the victim's freedom. If he refuses to engage in impartial reasoning at all, again, he has no basis on which to object, though of course, he may have a self-interested reason to escape if he can.

In other words, the attractiveness of the test you present is entirely dependant upon what a person deems to be a valid moral distinction between beings.

Notice that my point about the punishment of criminals does not amount to putting the criminal outside the moral community -- as you appear to assume. If someone shoplifts an iPod, we don't think that means you can do just anything to him you want. Furthermore, as I see it, we actually expect him to recognize that he merits this punishment for what he did. If so, we take him to be part of the moral community. If we thought he were an earthworm (or, rather, a tiger), we would not punish him -- we would simply keep him caged up.
Anyway, once again, merely "deeming" something to be a "valid moral distinction" is not sufficient -- the distinction must be based upon a consistent and impartial principle.

Wonderment
05-06-2008, 03:49 PM
If you want to make morality entirely instinctive, I think you are going to run into a lot of problems. First

I haven't claimed that morality is "entirely instinctive." I am just claiming that there is a biological basis: bonding, nurturing, competition vs. cooperation, kinship groups vs. non-kinship groups. Once the biological features of our non-human primate cousins meet language in all its glorious kluginess (xenophobia, for example) and our ability to conceal our thoughts (lie, tell the truth, keep deals/break deals, deny/confess, etc., etc moral systems are inevitable emerging characteristics of big-braininess. Throw in writing systems and you've got codifiable precepts and a legal system.

...our "instinctive" heuristics seem to include stereotyping and perhaps some degree of xenophobia -

We are only recently learning how klugy xenophobia and racism are. Moral systems can evolve (improve) from utilitarian feedback. You don't need any more explanatory mechanism than "it works." For example, the whole world sees how stupid and counterproductive the Holocaust was; democracy is gradually accepted as a sustainable and preferable form of global goverance.

Second, how are you going to resolve a moral argument between liberals and conservatives over the estate tax by appeal to instinct? It seems we need some way of thinking rationally about what is morally justifiable and what is not.

You do it exactly the way it's being done: open debate and discussion on a level playing field, limiting vested interests as much as possible and leaving the settlement of disputes to a system of objective jurists. Now, one can easily see how the system has flaws: legislators beholden to corporations, media advertising manipulating popular opinion, ideologues advancing their extremist opinions through popularity ratings among undereducated members of the population, corruption in high places, the indifference of a population that went to the circus instead of watching CSPAN, and so on. But once you have democracy, you do your best to tweak the dysfunctional aspects.


What do you mean by "utilitarian benefit". Utilitarianism is itself a moral theory -- a theory about what is morally good and what actions are morally right. I suppose you probably just mean the "usefulness" of such a society, but that begs the question of what the society is "useful" for. What constitutes a "benefit"?

Yes, I mean the kind of apparent "usefulness" that influenced philosophers to develop greatest-good-for-greatest-number sort of theories. What constitutes a "benefit" is indeed debatable. For example, male circumcision among Jews may be seen to be a benefit to the culture; i.e., useful to its members (no pun intended). Outside observers might argue that it's a form of child abuse, mutiliation of an infant who can not give consent. Fine, let them argue it out.

I suspect you think you can eliminate morality here because you are already assuming moral aims, but without recognizing that they are moral.


No, I'm simply saying, we are where we are. I'm located somewhere in historico-moral space, just as I'm located in geopolitical space. In other words, I am confronted with a contemporary ethical problem and I must deal with it. I have a fairness model in my head that I'll bring to bear on that problem. I have expert and not-so-expert opinion all over the Internet. It has already been framed. Let's take legalization of marijuana. When I grew up, it was simple. Marijuana is taboo. If you violate the taboo, you will be incarcerated. So we have debated it. Several decades later, the system has been reformed somewhat. No moral truths required; just a bunch of amateur lawyers making their cases.

Thus Spoke Elvis
05-07-2008, 10:52 AM
Noggin:

Our discussion illustrates why I don't post much in threads concerning philosophy -- it ends up being really time-consuming. I'm not going to engage in a point/counterpoint discussion, but I will address a few points/questions you raise.

First, as a preliminary matter, my prior post was intended to give a brief overview of my concerns with metaethics generally, and was not meant to be a critique of your position specifically. So while I assumed from your previous posts that you shared my hard agnosticism/atheism, I still thought it important to point out that part of the reason for my moral skepticism is because I don't believe that an ominipotent deity requires us to act in a particular way. It would be hard to be a moral skeptic and religious. And even though I'm aware that there are differences between moral absolutism, daentology, and moral realism, my criticisms of each are based on the same premises. I chose to frame my criticisms in relation to these broad categories, rather than with respect to your particular outlook.


I don't think the examples you give indicate that there can be such a thing as "moral truth." I think it's possible for a moral system to be internally consistent, but that's a distinct issue from whether the system itself is factually correct. Likewise, while certain experiences may give me a pleasurable emotional response, this is not evidence that the experience is therefore an objectively "good" thing that humanity (or even I) should value over other experiences. So to use your example, while it may be that attending a Mozart concert will enable you to experience the same pleasurable sensation you've always experienced when listening to Mozart, the "truth" of that statement does not demonstrate that listening to Mozart is objectively "good."

In sum, morality can only be considered "true" among people who share the same assumptions. While the same can be said about empiricism (i.e., the world is at it appears), morality not only accepts this assumption (e.g., my actions have consequences), but makes further assumptions about the significance of the act that cannot be proven via empiricism but only via subjective preference (e.g., this action is "bad").

Bloggin' Noggin
05-07-2008, 11:06 AM
You do it exactly the way it's being done: open debate and discussion on a level playing field, limiting vested interests as much as possible and leaving the settlement of disputes to a system of objective jurists. Now, one can easily see how the system has flaws: legislators beholden to corporations, media advertising manipulating popular opinion, ideologues advancing their extremist opinions through popularity ratings among undereducated members of the population, corruption in high places, the indifference of a population that went to the circus instead of watching CSPAN, and so on. But once you have democracy, you do your best to tweak the dysfunctional aspects.
--And they make their cases by making moral arguments about justice and injustice.


Yes, I mean the kind of apparent "usefulness" that influenced philosophers to develop greatest-good-for-greatest-number sort of theories. What constitutes a "benefit" is indeed debatable. For example, male circumcision among Jews may be seen to be a benefit to the culture; i.e., useful to its members (no pun intended). Outside observers might argue that it's a form of child abuse, mutiliation of an infant who can not give consent. Fine, let them argue it out.
If moral values are like personal tastes ("spinach is yucky", "homosexuality is yucky"), as you have at some points seemed to suggest, then it's unclear what they could even be arguing ABOUT. There is really no disagreement between the person who likes spinach and the person who does not, and once one recognizes that there is no objective truth about "yuckiness", one stops arguing about whether spinach is yucky -- nothing to argue (beyond whether we are all going to have to eat it for dinner). How do you reconcile a view that moral argument is worth continuing with the claim that there is no such thing as a moral truth to be argued about?


No, I'm simply saying, we are where we are. I'm located somewhere in historico-moral space, just as I'm located in geopolitical space. In other words, I am confronted with a contemporary ethical problem and I must deal with it. I have a fairness model in my head that I'll bring to bear on that problem. I have expert and not-so-expert opinion all over the Internet. It has already been framed. Let's take legalization of marijuana. When I grew up, it was simple. Marijuana is taboo. If you violate the taboo, you will be incarcerated. So we have debated it. Several decades later, the system has been reformed somewhat. No moral truths required; just a bunch of amateur lawyers making their cases.

Exactly similar remarks could be made about science. In fact, there are sociologists of science who try to entirely bracket the issue of truth and of justification. We are where we are in the history of science, and our views have changed markedly since the '60s. Why? No scientific truth required -- just a bunch of scientists and institutions making their cases....
The question in science is whether or not the arguments and evidence advanced since the sixties JUSTIFY the change our theories have undergone. The same question goes for moral arguments.
Do you think that every moral position is equally justified? If so, what about inconsistent moral positions vs. consistent ones? If not, how do you understand "inconsistency" and "contradiction" apart from the notion of 'truth'?

The argument you are pushing here is that moral facts are not part of our best explanation of the world, and that therefore, we have no reason to posit them.
Two challenges for you to meet:
1) How can you avoid an exactly similar argument that would eliminate everything but fundamental particles? (This is the point GSM makes in the diavlog.)
and
2) If your objection to morality is an objection to evaluative facts in general, how do you understand the evaluative term "best" when appealing to the "best" explanation in your anti-evaluative argument. If we accept your conclusion, then apparently there ought to be no such thing as a better or best explanation (or a good justification). If your argument works, it turns out we have no particular justification for rejecting (or accepting) evaluative truths. The argument is self-undermining, in other words -- unless the objection can be more narrowly tailored only to the moral subset of evaluative claims.
Both arguments are put forward in GSM's article toward the end of his collection _Moral Realism_. I recommend that article.

Jay J
05-07-2008, 11:23 AM
Hi Bloggin,

I don't think moral justification is an entirely private matter either.

I just think the most "meta" discussions about the ontological status of morality don't go anywhere.

The reason I see a difference is that moral justification seems to be partly a public process. But that doesn't mean that our moral claims are similar in kind to empirical claims.

And when it comes to "moral truth," it seems that we don't have the same access to testing this truth that we do with scientific claims.

I know you've probably covered allot of this ground already in the above posts, so sorry if I'm whipping a dead horse. If you don't reply I'll know I should read up top...Or if you want to refer me to a post or two you've already made, that would work.

But before I stop, I just want to say that I certainly don't think that something isn't true simply because it isn't amenable to scientific discovery. I just think that it seems plain to me that we don't have the same epistemic access that we do with claims like "metals expand when heated."

I'm not a full-blooded positivist, and I think moral claims can be cognitive, but it does seem like the positivists were onto something when they talked about the differences between empirical and tautological claims on the one hand and moral sentiments on the other.

I'm not motivated to call morality non-sensical because of that, but I suppose I think that the public truth value of morality is different than the public truth value of empirically testable or tautological claims.

But I'm not meaning to say that morality has no truth value at all, and I'm also not meaning to say that we could disagree on a fundamental moral issue and both be right, simply because morality is a private matter. I'm saying that maybe you're right, maybe I'm right, but that there appears to be no way to publicly test the issue to see who's right.

So in a way even if morality has truth value, it seems that we have some sort of epistemological barrier preventing us from seeing what that value is.

Like I said though, if you're already covered this ground, I don't expect you to start up another thread.

Thus Spoke Elvis
05-07-2008, 12:22 PM
As I said earlier, empiricism is premised on the unavoidable assumption that the external world is as it appears. Morality makes this same assumption, and then makes several more that cannot be verified through scientific observation.

But the acceptance of one assumption cannot be a basis for accepting all assumptions. It does not follow from my assumption that the external world exists that it was created by an eight-headed dragon, when there is no scientific evidence to support this belief. Similarly, the fact that both the empiricist and moral realist assume that the world is as it appears does not mean that the moral realist's assumptions regarding the significance of actions and things of the external world can be proven in the same way properties of the external world are proven to exist through scientific study.


I'm not sure what you mean by "scientifically verified", but I think it's implausible to regard history as a science -- yet well-formed historical claims are clearly either true or false, and it seems that many of them are well justified.

There's a reason why history is labelled a "soft science." There is a different degree of certainty in judgments made about (1) the existence of a living person or ongoing event; (2) the existence of a person or event in an earlier period; (3) the degree to which persons/events directly or indirectly caused other things to happen; and (4) the significance of all of these things to present and future generations.

Simarily, there's a difference in the study of literature between saying that Shakespeare is a playwright and Shakespeare wrote the best plays in the history of Western civilization.


You are assuming that talk of desert is "metaphysical" -- this is both unclear and quite controversial. According to a rule utilitarian, the claim X is more deserving of these apples than Y amounts to something like "The system of rules that would best promote happiness would assign these apples to X rather than Y." What's mysteriously "metaphysical" about that?

Well to begin with, why is the promotion of happiness commendable? All ethical judgments, including those made via utilitarianism, have a metaphysical component that cannot be proven empirically.



Are you assuming that non-Spartans are to be regarded as being outside the moral community -- like earthworms? That could work if Spartans really didn't morally expect anything out of non-Spartans. But if the Spartans agree to a treaty with the Athenians and the Athenians break it when it's convenient, would the Spartans regard themselves as wronged? If they do, then they must regard the Athenians as part of the moral community after all.

I'm not sure whether "wronged" is the right word. I don't give red ants any moral standing, but if one were to bite me I would be angry at it. Likewise, if my computer keeps breaking down I may decide to smash it out of frustration. But does that mean that I regard these things as part of the moral community?




If they do regard Athenians as part of the moral community, then the rule "It's OK to harm non-Spartans for whatever reason" cannot be a basic moral principle -- because it is not impartial. But an impartial justification of this rule would be very difficult. Such a justification would have to justify the rule to Athenians as well as Spartans. To turn my original test around a little bit, the Athenians could propose a similar principle about non-Athenians. If the Spartans wouldn't accept that principle, what is their ground for thinking this principle is any more impartially justifiable?

I don't think it's possible for a moral rule to be impartial. Internally consistent? Perhaps, but there will always be assumptions as to what categories to exclude for coverage, and the significance that different actions have.

If you wouldn't accept the Athenian version of the principle, how can you expect the Athenians to accept the Spartan version of the principle? That doesn't involve changing shoes even in imagination.

Why does my morality depend upon what I expect from others whom I deem to be immoral?


I think I've tried to emphasize this before, but let me emphasize it again, that the test is not "how would you feel if I did that to you?", but rather "would you (and could you) regard yourself as wronged if I did this to you?" Suppose the rapist is given life imprisonment as punishment. Sure, he doesn't LIKE it, but what grounds for an impartial objection can he consistently propose? For example, if he says that no one should ever deprive anyone else of their freedom, he seems to have to regard his own crime as wrong, because it took away the victim's freedom. If he refuses to engage in impartial reasoning at all, again, he has no basis on which to object, though of course, he may have a self-interested reason to escape if he can.

But many a child rapist says that he didn't harm, or at the very least didn't intend to harm, the victim. If one thinks he did nothing wrong, he may feel outraged to be condemened by socieity and imprisoned for the rest of his life. That's not even getting into the subject of whether the criminal believes the punishment is proportionate to the harm they caused, or whether they believe they should be morally culpable for their actions.

Furthermore, as I see it, we actually expect him to recognize that he merits this punishment for what he did. If so, we take him to be part of the moral community. If we thought he were an earthworm (or, rather, a tiger), we would not punish him -- we would simply keep him caged up.

I'm not sure that this is consequential. Whether we cage or kill an entity that injures or poses harm to something we value -- whether it's a tiger or a human -- does it really matter that much whether they recognize that they're being punished? I'll grant that it can be a factor, but is it the primary purpose of imprisonment or execution? For example, the fact that I wish Osama Bin Laden to be incarcerated and executed has very little to do with me wanting to make clear to him that I think he did a bad thing on 9/11.

Bloggin' Noggin
05-07-2008, 01:15 PM
So, when you asked if we take ourselves "to be offering impartial reasons" when we make moral judgments, I'd say, yes, we do think we're acting that way, usually -- we've got some basis for our reasoning, that basis is not questioned but is just accepted, and we think we're reasoning -- impartially judging -- from that basis. Most of us would like to think we'd come to the same conclusions independent of the particular people involved, to add to the belief in our being impartial. Of course, it never really works out this cleanly.

Suppose, as I think you come close to admitting here, the concept of a morality essentially includes the notion of 'impartial reason' -- that is, suppose that something counts as a moral claim only if it offers an impartial reason for action. If you accept this, then I think you can see how moral claims can be true or false (independently of what any person or group (even all of humanity) believes, and how some moral claims can be better justified than others.
To claim that "X is right in circumstance C" is to claim (at least) that there is an impartial reason to do X -- or to put it another way, that, from an impartial point of view, there is reason to do X in circumstance C. And to claim that "X is wrong in circumstance C" is to claim that from an impartial point of view there is reason not to do X in circumstance C.
How should we understand this "impartial point of view"? There is certainly some debate about its exact nature -- essentially, it is what utilitarians (consequentialists) and Kantians are arguing over in normative ethics. But although there is some disagreement about the exact model of impartiality we should employ, it doesn't follow that just anything could count as an impartial point of view -- it isn't purely arbitrary. For example, it's pretty much impossible to see how a truly impartial point of view could admit that there was an impartial reason for a sadist to torture innocent people for fun in the actual world. A utilitarian might admit that if the pleasure of torturing were much greater than the pain of torture (plus the insecurity of those who worry that they might be the sadist's next victim, etc.), then an impartial justification could be offered for such torture. (For most of us, this seems like too low a standard -- one argument that the crude utilitarian standard is a mistaken view of impartiality.) But it sure seems unlikely that the pleasure of the torturer will be so great as to outweigh the severe pain of torture in the actual world. There appear to be clear limits to what can be justified from an impartial point of view. If there are, then there will be moral truths -- for example, "it is wrong to torture this baby just because you slightly prefer the pleasure of torturing the baby to the pleasure of not torturing the baby and eating a Milky Way candy bar."

In light of this let's return to the argument from disagreement for a second:

1. Different cultures disagree about morality.
2. There is no rational standard that can be used to adjudicate their disagreement.
3. Therefore, there is no truth of the matter about morality (or at least about those moral issues where disagreement exists).

(The above is not a formally valid argument, but I'm going to go ahead and be sloppy -- especially since the argument may not be intended as a deductive argument.)

What is the evidence for (1)? Usually, it amounts to pointing out different social practices -- e.g., the Eskimos used to leave their elderly in the snow to die, while we would regard that as wrong, or some cultures routinely rape female captives, but we would regard this as wrong.
But this evidence does not immediately establish that the two groups disagree about morality.
Eskimos left their elderly out in the snow and they approved of doing this.
Does it follow that they regarded leaving their elderly in the snow was moral?
That depends on the kind of reason they would offer -- whether they would offer impartial reasons (or at least reasons they took to be impartial). For example, suppose they pointed out that in their circumstances of scarcity, supporting the elderly would come at the price of letting their children die. Recognizing this fact, the elderly themselves would prefer to die at the point when they cannot support themselves. This argument does appeal to an impartial standard, so it does appear to be a moral argument. But if they are right about the facts of this argument, it is less obvious that we disagree with them. In those circumstances, we too would regard it as (unfortunately) right to let the elderly die rather than let children die (to take a smaller time from some people's lives in order to give a much longer period to the lives of the next generation who have had much less of their lives so far).
If the other culture offers a reason which is clearly not impartial, then that is evidence that when they call something "tabu", they may not be claiming that it is "morally wrong" -- that the translation "morally wrong" is actually a mistake. If it is a mistake, then again we don't have evidence of moral disagreement.
A third possibility is that they mean their claims as appeals to an impartial point of view, but, like ourselves in many circumstances, they are actually being partial and/or inconsistent. Where this is the case, of course, premise (2) will be wrong -- there will be a rational standard for resolving the dispute.
A final possibility is that they are being genuinely impartial, but our disagreement concerns the non-moral facts. They may believe that their gods won't let the sun rise unless they are given human sacrifices now and then. Perhaps if there were such gods, we would need to concede that from an impartial point of view, the death of a few captives would be better than the death of the human race. But whether there are such gods or not doesn't seem to be a moral issue -- an issue of what moral principles are true -- rather it seems like an uncontroversially factual matter.

Bloggin' Noggin
05-07-2008, 02:38 PM
As I said earlier, empiricism is premised on the unavoidable assumption that the external world is as it appears. Morality makes this same assumption, and then makes several more that cannot be verified through scientific observation.

But the acceptance of one assumption cannot be a basis for accepting all assumptions.
That is certainly not my argument. But if we are taking the world as it appears to us as a first step, then we have to accept that some actions appear right and others appear wrong to us.
You claim that morality makes a lot of extra assumptions of a specially dubious character. If the assumptions actually required by our moral practice were inconsistent with the world view established by science, then there would indeed be a good case for dismissing moral claims as untrue. However, I continue to disagree with you that the assumptions of morality are inconsistent with the scientific world view or that they are especially dubious. You keep acting as though you have established that morality must involve dubious or non-naturalistic assumptions, but you have never established this, and I continue to disagree.

It does not follow from my assumption that the external world exists that it was created by an eight-headed dragon, when there is no scientific evidence to support this belief. Similarly, the fact that both the empiricist and moral realist assume that the world is as it appears does not mean that the moral realist's assumptions regarding the significance of actions and things of the external world can be proven in the same way properties of the external world are proven to exist through scientific study.



There's a reason why history is labelled a "soft science." There is a different degree of certainty in judgments made about (1) the existence of a living person or ongoing event; (2) the existence of a person or event in an earlier period; (3) the degree to which persons/events directly or indirectly caused other things to happen; and (4) the significance of all of these things to present and future generations.

Biology is usually called a "soft science" -- I wasn't aware some people called history a soft science. In any case, there are certainly historians who would deny that it was a science at all (there may be no "historical laws" for example). Anyway, this is neither here nor there. Are you including in "science" all rational forms of inquiry? If so, I'll accept your very expansive definition of "science" and treat ethics as a "science" in this very broad sense.

Well to begin with, why is the promotion of happiness commendable? All ethical judgments, including those made via utilitarianism, have a metaphysical component that cannot be proven empirically.

You accept prudential reasons, right? You would admit that I have reason to promote my own happiness -- and I suppose you would say that this claim (that I have reason to promote my own happiness or satisfy my own preferences) is TRUE? If so, are there lots of weird metaphysical assumptions behind this claim?
The difference between us appears not to be primarily metaphysical. Rather, you think practical reason is entirely self-interested, whereas I think there is an impartial component to practical reason. Why should this commit me to any particularly bizarre extra metaphysical assumptions?


I'm not sure whether "wronged" is the right word. I don't give red ants any moral standing, but if one were to bite me I would be angry at it. Likewise, if my computer keeps breaking down I may decide to smash it out of frustration. But does that mean that I regard these things as part of the moral community?
Are you saying that you in fact make no distinction between rage against a table you bang your foot on and a person steps on your toe? Do you expect the table to apologize to you or offer you an explanation? Would you not expect the man who hits you or treads on your toe to explain his action or apologize?

I don't think it's possible for a moral rule to be impartial. Internally consistent? Perhaps, but there will always be assumptions as to what categories to exclude for coverage, and the significance that different actions have.

I don't see the argument here that the principles couldn't be impartial. Consider the utilitarian principle, "one ought always to maximize net happiness." Can you show me how that fails to be impartial?
If I understand your second problem it concerns the possibility that lifting the middle finger at someone may be insulting in one society and not insulting in another. If our ultimate moral rules were purely behavioral, then this would be some kind of problem for stating general moral rules.
But first, this is no problem for something like utilitarianism. The utilitarian standard tells you to raise your finger when it maximizes net happiness. When raising your middle finger is insulting, there will have to be some greater happiness produced by doing so, which outweighs the pain of the insult, if doing this is to be right. Where it is a necessary greeting, it will be right to raise ones middle finger in greeting unless there are other reasons not to.
Second (and probably more importantly), I don't see how this threatens the impartiality of moral rules. (Perhaps you are going on the assumption that impartiality is the same as generality?)
The first part of your objection seems to be your worry about whom to include in the moral community. I do see how this could seem worrisome from the point of view of impartiality. But notice that (as I noted in the Athenian/Spartan case) there is no threat to impartiality if I consistently exclude tape worms from the moral community. If I expect tape worms to treat me fairly, then of course, it would be a violation of impartiality not to extend them the same consideration. If I don't expect tape worms to take my interests into account, then it is not a violation of impartiality to not to take theirs into account.

OK enough for now -- I'll try to respond further in another post.

Thus Spoke Elvis
05-07-2008, 06:09 PM
Noggin:

This is the last one from me, but feel free to give the last word:

That is certainly not my argument. But if we are taking the world as it appears, but if we are taking the world as it appears to us as a first step, then we have to accept that some actions appear right and others appear wrong to us. .

If I'm interpreting you correctly, I strongly disagree. It is true our perception of events external from ourselves may provoke an emotional response. But this emotional response is not evidence of an action's genuine rightness or wrongness. I feel a more intense feeling of pleasure and self-satisfaction from riding a roller-coaster than I do helpling a little old lady cross the street. Does that mean that the act of riding a roller-coaster is therefore "better" than helping the old lady?


The fact that we respond positively or negatively to certain acts or events does not mean that others can or should share the same response, or that we would have the same response if our experiences were different. Different cultures and people have different preferences in food and art, for example. Why is morality any different? While you may be correct when you write that "some actions appear right and others appear wrong to us," it is also true that other people may evaluate those same actions much differently. Depending on their prior experiences, others may place far different significance upon acts than we do.


In short, our emotional response to an act is not evidence of its genuine rightness or wrongness.


You claim that morality makes a lot of extra assumptions of a specially dubious character. If the assumptions actually required by our moral practice were inconsistent with the world view established by science, then there would indeed be a good case for dismissing moral claims as untrue. However, I continue to disagree with you that the assumptions of morality are inconsistent with the scientific world view or that they are especially dubious.

One can assess whether a claim about a material property is correct or incorrect via empirical study and observation. I can prove in a myriad of ways that the earth is not flat, for example. The same cannot be said about moral claims. While there are various ways to assess the accuracy of competing scientific claims, the same cannot be said about competing moral codes. How do I scientifically demonstrate that freedom is a more important value than safety? How do I go about proving that acts causing people to experience a lifetime of pleasure are preferable to those causing them to face a life of struggle?

You keep acting as though you have established that morality must involve dubious or non-naturalistic assumptions, but you have never established this, and I continue to disagree.

I think you have the burden of proof here, just as the Christian has the burden of proving to the non-believer that he should accept the truth of the Bible. It is not me who is advancing the position that there is such a thing as moral certainty.



You accept prudential reasons, right? You would admit that I have reason to promote my own happiness -- and I suppose you would say that this claim (that I have reason to promote my own happiness or satisfy my own preferences) is TRUE? If so, are there lots of weird metaphysical assumptions behind this claim?

I do not think it is any more "true" to say that you have reason to promote your own happiness than I think it is "true" to say you have reason to contribute to the development of mankind even if it makes you miserable.

I have my own preferences as to the life I wish to live, and the experiences that I wish to have, but I cannot say that my preferences are any more "true" than those of a person with an entirely different conception of what is valuable.

The meaning and moral significance of our lives are whatever we choose to make of it. No more, no less.


Are you saying that you in fact make no distinction between rage against a table you bang your foot on and a person steps on your toe? Do you expect the table to apologize to you or offer you an explanation? Would you not expect the man who hits you or treads on your toe to explain his action or apologize?

I do, but my reasons may be different from yours, and each of our reasons may be different from someone else's. I may be suprised and frustrated that a thing/person does not behave the way I expected it to, and this may lead me to take corrective action so that it will behave in a way I deem appropriate, but this doesn't require me to believe that the thing has moral significance. I used to get angry at my car when it broke down, but that doesn't mean I thought it had moral standing.

On a somewhat related point, the moral significance I give to another thing/being is not necessarily premised upon the degree to which we are similar. For example, it's entirely possible that one would believe that it is more important to preserve the life of an endangered species of whale than it is to save the life of a mentally-ill, drug-addicted homeless person.

I don't see the argument here that the principles couldn't be impartial. Consider the utilitarian principle, "one ought always to maximize net happiness." Can you show me how that fails to be impartial?

What constitutes happiness? Are there different types with different value (e.g., the happiness one gets from shooting morophine versus the happiness one gets from reading a good book), or are all forms of happiness equal? What is happiness measured with? How do we measure the happiness of categorically different beings (e.g., humans and animals)? Do we only measure the happiness of one category of beings or all beings?


The first part of your objection seems to be your worry about whom to include in the moral community. I do see how this could seem worrisome from the point of view of impartiality. But notice that (as I noted in the Athenian/Spartan case) there is no threat to impartiality if I consistently exclude tape worms from the moral community. If I expect tape worms to treat me fairly, then of course, it would be a violation of impartiality not to extend them the same consideration. If I don't expect tape worms to take my interests into account, then it is not a violation of impartiality to not to take theirs into account.

So what of infants, fetuses, or the mentally retarded? Since if, like earthworms, they aren't capable of extending me moral consideration, wouldn't a rule that didn't accord them moral consideration also be an impartial rule? Would an impartial rule that permitted us to torture babies without compunction be preferable to a partial rule that permitted us to torture terrorists (even though we don't believe should be able to torture us)?
I'm not sure why impartiality is important in assessing the "rightness" of a moral code.

Additionally, the example you give above is of a moral code being applied in an impartial way (i.e., giving moral consideration to any person capable of giving moral consideration). My argument, however, is that we cannot create an impartial moral code. The creation of any moral system is dependent upon us prioritizing certain values and interests over others. This cannot be done in an impartial way.

bjkeefe
05-07-2008, 06:45 PM
BN:

I don't really have much more to say on this. I'll just make a couple of short points.

First, while I do tend to think that there are some moral truths, and it is possible to be impartial in reasoning from them, it's more often the case that we're kidding ourselves (more politely: unable to escape the bounds of our own society's thinking) when we claim something as a moral truth or claim to be reasoning impartially. It seems to me, in most of these cases, that the concepts of moral truths and impartiality are goals to which we aspire, and our approach to these goals is about asymptotic.

I can't articulate something that completely avoids conflict with that and also assert that I believe that it's possible for an individual or a society to be morally superior ("more advanced" might be a better way to put it), but nonetheless, that's what I believe.

Wonderment
05-07-2008, 07:42 PM
BN,

think the four or five chess games you've got going on this thread will probably wind down soon (although I haven't been following the others except for an occasional glance), but I'll have another crack at my board here.

How do you reconcile a view that moral argument is worth continuing with the claim that there is no such thing as a moral truth to be argued about?

We inhabit an ethical universe. As rational social beings, disputes about fairness, duties, rights and so on are bound to arise. All this has been pretty clearly established by biology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, etc.

So when an issue arises we bring to bear arguments. This is also very elementary, so no need to review with examples. We assess the arguments and decide. Sometimes arguments are proffered that are easily refuted. Sometimes good points are made on both sides of an issue, and one simply leans one way or another. Sometimes more weight is given to one argument over another.

You don't need "moral truths" in order to navigate all this. You just need some sense (rationality) and good fluid institutions to facilitate the arguments (like -- in principle, at least -- the UN or the Supreme Court or the board of ethicists of a given profession).

Do you think that every moral position is equally justified? If so, what about inconsistent moral positions vs. consistent ones? If not, how do you understand "inconsistency" and "contradiction" apart from the notion of 'truth'?

I don't really get this, but let's say Debater A argues that the death penalty is morally wrong. She presents as part of her case a lack of deterrence for other criminals contemplating future murders. Debater B counters either 1) there really is a deterrence; or 2) deterrence should be minimally weighted in deciding; or 3) deterrence shouldn't matter at all because there are other arguments.

We need no moral truth to proceed. All we need is to decide how much of a deterrence factor exists and how much it should matter if it does. Then we proceed to other aspects of the argument. Examples: How grave is the risk of executing an innocent person? How painful is execution? Would society be better off prohibiting the state from ever taking a life as punishment? All these points can be debated and litigated and have been.

Where does "moral truth" come in? We simply decide at the end of the process based on our assessments of the arguments. (Courts are burdened more than the general public by a culture of precedent and other more complex constraints, but that's a separate subject.)

I admit that at the end of the day -- after processing all the arguments -- I am often left with strong emotional convictions and principles. For example, I think war, capital punishment and torture are ALWAYS wrong. But so what? In the sacred moral theater, I'm stuck with those convictions and the character (in both senses of the word) that I play.

Bloggin' Noggin
05-08-2008, 09:41 AM
Hi Brendan,
I'm going to respond briefly, but if you have nothing further to say, please feel free to just leave me with the last word. :-)
BN:

I don't really have much more to say on this. I'll just make a couple of short points.

First, while I do tend to think that there are some moral truths, and it is possible to be impartial in reasoning from them, it's more often the case that we're kidding ourselves (more politely: unable to escape the bounds of our own society's thinking) when we claim something as a moral truth or claim to be reasoning impartially. It seems to me, in most of these cases, that the concepts of moral truths and impartiality are goals to which we aspire, and our approach to these goals is about asymptotic.

I can't articulate something that completely avoids conflict with that and also assert that I believe that it's possible for an individual or a society to be morally superior ("more advanced" might be a better way to put it), but nonetheless, that's what I believe.

I have no problem with your first paragraph. I might quibble with you that we are "most of the time" kidding ourselves about the impartial solution, but I would certainly agree that we often are misled in moral matters -- I would say by self-interest rather than by our society, though when social norms are unjust, they do offer an excuse for us to assume that they really are impartial and that we need not think further. Let's not think only of the grand stuff like "slavery". We argue about and make judgments about what's fair to friends, family, acquaintances, co-workers etc. all the time. And I suspect that where we are not blinded by some strong emotion or long-held (and unfair) social custom, I suspect we come pretty close -- especially if we actually talk about it with the other parties.
I suspect you also are imagining that the realist is somehow committed to drawing some impossibly sharp line between right and wrong, partiality and impartiality. But this isn't so -- any more than the person who believes that there are bald men and men with full heads of hair (and that these claims are literally true) has to claim that you can draw a rigid line down to the last hair between bald and non-bald.
But you would get no argument from me or really just about any moral realist that we shouldn't be complacent in our moral views. In fact the realist is far more capable than the relativist of making this case: "Look, we've been wrong in the past -- perhaps we're wrong now." The relativist thinks we were always right -- or at least never mistaken.
So I actually don't even why you feel any conflict between your first and your second paragraph. A reasonable realist will be very ready to admit that we are often wrong and that there is always room for improvement and yet also say that there has been some improvement over the centuries. (Consider that the Greek city states had to go through rebellions just to get the law written down. Of course, when you think of it, this might not be all that unjust with a very small, homogeneous community. But when the society gets larger and some people become much richer than others, unwritten laws are obviously ripe for abuse -- and it's clear that they were being abused.)

Thus Spoke Elvis
05-08-2008, 10:00 AM
BN,

think the four or five chess games you've got going on this thread will probably wind down soon (although I haven't been following the others except for an occasional glance), but I'll have another crack at my board here.

I didn't even think about this until you mentioned it. Bravo, Noggin, for debating so many different people in a thoughtful and intelligent manner. I tip my hat to you.

Bloggin' Noggin
05-08-2008, 11:44 AM
BN,

think the four or five chess games you've got going on this thread will probably wind down soon (although I haven't been following the others except for an occasional glance), but I'll have another crack at my board here.


We inhabit an ethical universe. As rational social beings, disputes about fairness, duties, rights and so on are bound to arise. All this has been pretty clearly established by biology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, etc.

So when an issue arises we bring to bear arguments. This is also very elementary, so no need to review with examples. We assess the arguments and decide. Sometimes arguments are proffered that are easily refuted. Sometimes good points are made on both sides of an issue, and one simply leans one way or another. Sometimes more weight is given to one argument over another.

You don't need "moral truths" in order to navigate all this.

What I'm asking is, how can you make sense of people arguing rationally about fairness if there all positions on fairness are equally false or equally non-cognitive? Or even more importantly, how can THEY make sense of it if they accept your view? If the participants really all accepted the view that there was no truth of the matter at all, why would they ever consider moral arguments at all? On an emotivist view, moral arguments just turn out to be a form of manipulation: my disapproval might make you uncomfortable enough to accomodate me. If I have power, the best solution seems to be not to listen -- or better, not to pay any attention to the "merits" of the argument (there can't BE any merits), but try to project absolute confidence in the rightness of your own position.

I don't really get this,

Emotivism says that moral claims have no truth value -- they are something like expressions of taste or distaste: "homosexuality, yuck!"
If that really is all people are doing, how can you have a rational argument over "homosexuality, yuck!" and "homosexuality, hot dog!"? An argument (altercation) is possible between these two, but there is no way we can make sense of its being a rational argument -- at best it will be a kind of dominance cotest.
My original point was this: How can an emotivist claim that someone's moral position is inconsistent or contradictory? The definition of self-contradiction is asserting or believing two things that can't be TRUE at once. If moral claims are neither true nor false, how do you even define inconsistency?
Suppose that someone says "homosexuality is wrong". You ask them why and they say "It's unnatural because it uses organs whose function is procreation for another purpose." Then you ask, "do you use birth control?" Suppose he says "yes". Now you point out that in that case he too is using sexual organs for something other than reproduction. Clearly if we interpret what he's doing as making truth claims, we've convicted him of inconsistency. But there simply is no contradiction between "homosexuality, boo" and het sex w/birth control, yippee!" We convicted this guy of inconsistency because we demanded a justifying principle from him. But nobody needs to give a justificatory principle for disliking something.



2) deterrence should be minimally weighted in deciding
You act as if this were not itself a moral claim! How can this person persuade another person of this on rational grounds, if they don't both assume that the claim might be true?

We need no moral truth to proceed.

My point is that we certainly seem to need to presuppose moral truth to proceed with the moral argument (except in a cynically manipulative way).


Where does "moral truth" come in? We simply decide at the end of the process based on our assessments of the arguments.
A valid argument is one where, if the premises are TRUE, the conclusion must also be TRUE. If the moral conclusion isn't true (or false), what are we doing when we "assess" these arguments? What are we assessing them FOR? --Apparently NOT validity.

As you can see, Wonderment, I feel you are in something like the position of Wile E. Coyote, confidently standing above the abyss. I don't feel you have solved the problem with your position -- you just haven't noticed that they exist. However, I may well have reached the limit of my own poor ability to persuade you that you are not on solid ground. We can certainly leave it here, if you like.

Bloggin' Noggin
05-08-2008, 01:54 PM
Hi Elvis,
Thanks for the last word -- I'll take it. You can treat the questions I ask you in return as rhetorical or as questions for further reflection.

If I'm interpreting you correctly, I strongly disagree. It is true our perception of events external from ourselves may provoke an emotional response. But this emotional response is not evidence of an action's genuine rightness or wrongness. I feel a more intense feeling of pleasure and self-satisfaction from riding a roller-coaster than I do helpling a little old lady cross the street. Does that mean that the act of riding a roller-coaster is therefore "better" than helping the old lady?
Nothing I said has this consequence. I'm saying, as you appear to concede, that when we see how other people treat us (or others), we sometimes perceive the treatment as wrong -- just as we may perceive a table as square. (That is, we do not have a non-square perception of the table and infer that it is square, we perceive it as square; we often also perceive certain actions AS wrong.)
In my response to Jay J, I explain a bit more why we cannot reject appearances until they have been justified. We have to start from appearances. The appearances may prove false, but we can't reject them until they have proved themselves. So, if we are to reject moral appearances, we must have a reason to reject them, not just wait for someone to come along and prove that the appearances are correct.

Different cultures and people have different preferences in food and art, for example. Why is morality any different? While you may be correct when you write that "some actions appear right and others appear wrong to us," .....

I won't tell you why it is different, but it clearly IS different. If I don't like fish and you do, there is no problem for me if you eat fish. If the English drive on the left, I should drive on the left when I'm in England. But if I think raping powerless women is wrong, and I go to a society where it is looked on as perfectly OK, I do not think it's OK for me to join in. In fact, unless I can see some kind of good moral reason for this difference (as when the Eskimos let their elderly die, presumably because their other options might have been morally worse), I can't regard these as just two different ways of doing things.

One can assess whether a claim about a material property is correct or incorrect via empirical study and observation. I can prove in a myriad of ways that the earth is not flat, for example. The same cannot be said about moral claims. While there are various ways to assess the accuracy of competing scientific claims, the same cannot be said about competing moral codes. How do I scientifically demonstrate that freedom is a more important value than safety? How do I go about proving that acts causing people to experience a lifetime of pleasure are preferable to those causing them to face a life of struggle?

People do argue about these moral issues. I suggest you check out some of these arguments in normative ethics and political philosophy. You act as though no one has any idea how to make such arguments -- not even where to start. The way you make such arguments is to get your opponent to propose an argument, then evaluate the argument for validity, get him to make it valid, then assess his assumptions against his other beliefs. And when it comes to making positive arguments, you present a valid argument based on assumptions that your opponent will grant. This is essentially what we do in any argument -- including scientific arguments.

I think you have the burden of proof here, just as the Christian has the burden of proving to the non-believer that he should accept the truth of the Bible. It is not me who is advancing the position that there is such a thing as moral certainty.
Again you are reading me quite tendentiously. I never claimed we had moral certainty. I claimed that there was moral truth.

I have my own preferences as to the life I wish to live, and the experiences that I wish to have,

Do those preferences give you reason to live that kind of life? And if you say "yes", would you further admit that "my preferences give me reason to live this kind of life" is true? That's all I'm asking.

but I cannot say that my preferences are any more "true" than those of a person with an entirely different conception of what is valuable.
I wasn't asking you to say this at all. My point is that if you are able to make true claims about your reasons, and if this is not mysterious, then it is open to me to regard moral statements as statements of reasons, which may be no more metaphysically mysterious than the kind of reasons you admit. For example, Aristotle argues that the virtuous person is happier than the vicious person. I don't expect you to believe this, but suppose it could be shown that people have self-interested reasons of this sort for taking moral considerations as good reasons for action. And suppose that we regard moral statements as statements of what people have reason to do. Couldn't moral claims be true in that case? Would there HAVE to be something metaphysically mysterious about moral claims in that case?

I used to get angry at my car when it broke down, but that doesn't mean I thought it had moral standing.

But as I pointed out, you didn't really require your car to apologize for letting you down or explain why it can't move after all. You don't hold it accountable, and I presume you recognize that the anger at your car is more frustration at events than resentment or righteous indignation.

On a somewhat related point, the moral significance I give to another thing/being is not necessarily premised upon the degree to which we are similar.
I don't think I made that claim.


What constitutes happiness? Are there different types with different value (e.g., the happiness one gets from shooting morophine versus the happiness one gets from reading a good book), or are all forms of happiness equal? What is happiness measured with? How do we measure the happiness of categorically different beings (e.g., humans and animals)? Do we only measure the happiness of one category of beings or all beings?

Well, those are good questions, and they can be examined by the same Socratic method I described above. Bentham would say net happiness is pleasure minus pain, and he actually did hope one could develop a "felicific callculus" and (I think) even some kind of device that could really give an absolute measure of pleasure and pain. I think those hopes have pretty much been dashed. But it doesn't follow that we have no idea how to compare roughly how well off two people are. If I am being waterboarded and you are in bed with someone you fancy and who fancies you, it would be just as crazy to suppose (other things being more or less equal) that I am happier or better off than you at that moment as to suppose that I won't fall if I walk out a 20th story window (with no ledge).


So what of infants, fetuses, or the mentally retarded?

I would assert the following:
If I expect X to give me moral standing (i.e., take my interests into account when his actions affect me), then I must give X moral standing.
For the kind of reasons you mention, I would not assert this the other way around. I would NOT say,
If I must give X moral standing, then X must give me moral standing.
I'd add that many of the mentally retarded can be expected to consider the interests of others -- are you considering retarded people who are so low-functioning that they cannot consider the interests of others at all?
Babies and fetuses are a different matter from animals and the permanently severely retarded. They do usually grow up into full-fledged adult persons, whom we do expect to take our interests into account.

Since if, like earthworms, they aren't capable of extending me moral consideration, wouldn't a rule that didn't accord them moral consideration also be an impartial rule? Would an impartial rule that permitted us to torture babies without compunction be preferable to a partial rule that permitted us to torture terrorists (even though we don't believe should be able to torture us)?
The criterion (and it is a criterion or test rather than a definition) would be whether I would agree that it was OK to have tortured me as a baby -- you and I were both babies once.

I'm not sure why impartiality is important in assessing the "rightness" of a moral code.
If I'm right that we take ourselves to be offering impartial reasons when we make moral claims, then moral claims that do not in fact offer impartial reasons are false by their own standards.

Additionally, the example you give above is of a moral code being applied in an impartial way (i.e., giving moral consideration to any person capable of giving moral consideration). My argument, however, is that we cannot create an impartial moral code. The creation of any moral system is dependent upon us prioritizing certain values and interests over others. This cannot be done in an impartial way.

You have asserted that it cannot be, but I don't see why it can't be done in an impartial way.

bjkeefe
05-08-2008, 02:08 PM
BN:

Yes, I think it's about time to close out this thread, at least for me. I did want to note this:

I suspect you also are imagining that the realist is somehow committed to drawing some impossibly sharp line between right and wrong, partiality and impartiality.

and what you went on to say after, alleviated my concern about this:

So I actually don't even why you feel any conflict between your first and your second paragraph.

Thanks.

Wonderment
05-08-2008, 03:49 PM
What I'm asking is, how can you make sense of people arguing rationally about fairness if there all positions on fairness are equally false or equally non-cognitive?

I'm not saying that. I'm saying people argue rationally about facts and they layer these arguments with emotions, preferences, exhortations, soul-searching, self-righteousness, etc.

"Fairness" can begin simply by two monkeys instinctually fighting over 4 bananas. Give them memory and math and the next time they'll avoid the painful dispute by divvying up the bananas two apiece.

If the participants really all accepted the view that there was no truth of the matter at all, why would they ever consider moral arguments at all?

Disputes over bananas arise. They have no choice. We have evolved as social animals with constant interactions and conflicts between social and individual interests. We have the soup of thoughts, language and emotions all aswirl with angst and activity. We evolved from other social animals who share food and have social instincts for sharing. We observe monkeys and apes that manifest "inequity aversion (http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/05/07/frans-de-waal-answers-your-primate-questions/)."

Do you think the monkeys, orangutans and hyenas are moralists? They have a notion of fairness.

Humans, with a gift of language, can mold and articulate that into a kind of golden rule, and then it's off to the ethical races. If you want to call a biological and primitive notion of "fair/unfair" a Moral Principle, fine. I find it more useful to think of as an instinct observable among many species of social animals, including most of our closest ancestors.

On an emotivist view, moral arguments just turn out to be a form of manipulation: my disapproval might make you uncomfortable enough to accomodate me. If I have power, the best solution seems to be not to listen -- or better, not to pay any attention to the "merits" of the argument (there can't BE any merits), but try to project absolute confidence in the rightness of your own position.

I don't see why you think it is "just" a form of manipulation. I have underscored the role of the intellect in resolving ethical problems. Reasoning, as we know from the development of our codes of justice, trumps emotion (at least ideally.)

... how can you have a rational argument over "homosexuality, yuck!" and "homosexuality, hot dog!"? An argument (altercation) is possible between these two, but there is no way we can make sense of its being a rational argument -- at best it will be a kind of dominance contest.

Whether A thinks homosexuality is yuck and B thinks homosexuality is delightful is hardly an issue. The issue arises when A says "Since homosexuals are disgusting, they must live in the concentration camp over there." Then a dispute arises which must be resolved. In the process of resolution we can examine the wisdom of social policy that makes judgments based on a disgust factor. Such disputes tend to eventually get resolved under the principle that although you find me disgusting, we all have certains rights, which often include freedom from confinement in concentration camps.

Bloggin' Noggin
05-09-2008, 11:45 AM
Hi Wonderment,
Rather than respond point by point, let me use this as an opportunity to kind of step back a bit from all the ins and outs of the various debates I've been engaged in and make a few basic points, then I'll proceed to your chimp-argument.
First, I want to step back to GSM's definition of "moral realism":
Moral realism is the claim that moral judgments taken literally are literally true.
This rules out two views:
A) Non-cognitivism: Moral "judgments", though they take the linguistic FORM of judgments, are not really judgments at all -- not the sort of claim that can be called "true" except as a facon de parler. (They really amount to commands ("If you are a male, do not lie with a male!") or expressions of emotion intended to influence other people's own emotional reactions ("Homosexuality, yuck!).
B) Error theory: Moral judgments are judgments, capable of being true or false. Unfortunately, they all presuppose something false, and therefore must be treated as false. Moral judgments are like judgments about witches or phlogiston.

The important point to recognize is that in determining whether one is a moral realist or not, one must determine what claims MEAN, what they are in fact claiming (if anything) -- AS WELL AS determining whether facts out in the world correspond to these claims. So, if you are a moral relativist who believes that "slavery is wrong" means something like "slavery is not accepted by our society," you turn out to be a moral realist. Why? Because "slavery is not accepted by our society" is a judgment which can be literally true or false, and in fact, it is true of the society you and I both live in. Moral judgments turn out on this kind of view to be similar to judgments about the grammar of current North American English (many of which are straightforwardly true or false) or about etiquette or law.
Insofar as this strikes us as not really moral realism, we must believe that the relativist analysis of what moral claims mean is mistaken.
I have tried to provide an account of what moral claims mean (in terms of impartial reasons), and then I have tried to show that such claims could be true without conflicting with anything we know scientifically.
Elvis seems to disagree with me on both parts of this. He believes that my analysis of the meaning of moral claims leaves out certain false metaphysical assumptions that are essential to the very concept of morality. I am a little unclear exactly what these metaphysical assumptions are (the things he offers could be interpreted without much metaphysical baggage) and I do not believe moral claims are obviously committed to metaphysical claims beyond those most of us would accept (e.g., the existence of other conscious subjects). Elvis also thinks the notion of impartiality is impossible to spell out adequately, and I believe he denies that if it could be spelled out adequately, that it would actually provide people with reasons for action. This last objection is not, I think, a very big deal. It seems plausible that most people actually do care about justifying their actions according to an impartial view (most of us are not perfectly happy to be hypocritical or selfish). The people who have this desire would have a reason on Elvis's own view to take moral considerations seriously. The objections he presents to the possibility of working out an impartial view strike me at best as evidence that there may be some outstanding kinks or details to be worked out in the concept of impartiality, rather than evidence that the whole idea is a non-starter. At worst, they are either already answered objections or demands for a kind of specificity that may be impossible, but which is also unnecessary (they are like someone who refuses to admit that some men are bald until we can draw a sharp line down to the hair between bald and non-bald men).
I have much less of a sense of what you think moral claims mean -- or what they would have to mean if we took them as either true or false. I think it's fairly clear that moral claims LOOK like judgments, not like commands or expressions of emotion. Not only that, but our actual practice of arguing about them is hard to interpret without reference to truth -- without assuming that people TAKE them to be true (whether they are or not). The non-cognitivist, then does bear the burden of proof here. What is the reason for rejecting a cognitivist account of the meaning of moral claims? (Remember that, a cognitive view of meaning is still compatible with an error theory or with a subjectivist and moral realist view of moral judgments (e.g., the relativist account I gave above).)
If I had our discussion to do over again, I think I would try to pin you down on a theory of the meaning of moral claims first and try to get you to explain why you feel this view (which appears to be a non-cognitive view) is better than, say, a subjectivist moral realist view. I think a fair amount of confusion has been generated by our not focusing on one issue at a time (the meaning of moral claims vs. the question of whether any such claims are ever actually true).

Another thing I wish I had focused on more in all the discussions is the question of what property of moral claims makes them so especially dubious (when read as literally true).
I think the thing that strikes many people as especially dubious is a feature that they share with many other claims -- they are "normative" or "evaluative." That is, they are judgments about what ought to be rather than what is.
As Hilary Putnam and GSM point out, if THIS is the problem with moral claims, then the scientific-style arguments against the truth of moral claims will actually undercut themselves, since these arguments make appeal to things like "the best explanation" of our moral views or about what we "ought" to infer about moral claims etc. The arguments necessarily employ evaluative claims (though not moral claims). If evaluation is all suspect, then so are these arguments and so is science in general.

Well, I was going to add more things I wish I'd said, but I think I'll stop there. Time to turn to your point about chimps and bananas, but this post is already long, so I'll turn to that in a separate post.

themightypuck
05-11-2008, 08:14 PM
You can't abandon materialism. You just think you can. That's Dennett and probably a billion other folk who have spent some time gazing at their navels over the last ten thousand years or so.

Bloggin' Noggin
05-14-2008, 05:31 PM
I'm not saying that. I'm saying people argue rationally about facts and they layer these arguments with emotions, preferences, exhortations, soul-searching, self-righteousness, etc.

Well, who would deny that moral arguments sometimes get emotional? I take it you are saying more though. By "facts" above, you mean non-evaluative or non-moral facts. Principles of fairness (e.g., that other things being equal, an equal distribution is more fair than an unequal one) are, on your view, neitehr true nor false, justified or unjustified -- they are just part of the emotions, preferences and exhortations.

"Fairness" can begin simply by two monkeys instinctually fighting over 4 bananas. Give them memory and math and the next time they'll avoid the painful dispute by divvying up the bananas two apiece.

And yet here in this example, you imply an account that makes moral principles themselves seem rational, and that would fit quite comfortably with a view of them as cognitive and sometimes true. Essentially, you treat principles of fairness as rational solutions to a kind of game theory problem. You leave out a very important complication of this problem, which I'll get to, but problems in game theory often do have solutions, and to say that the correct solution is the correct (or best) solution is the correct solution would be TRUE. There is nothing in the story you tell that would make a non-cognitive view seem particularly unlikely -- in fact, it offers an account of how we could speak of true principles of fairness.
What you leave out is the fact that the simple even split of bananas, though it may well be the best outcome, even in some impartial sense, the most RATIONAL outcome, it is not necessarily a rational solution for either party. This is the point of the famous Prisoner's Dilemma. I'm sure you know about it, but I'll quickly spell it out anyway, so that I can make my point clearly.
The DA has two prisoners who were involved in a robbery, but he has insufficient evidence to convict either of the robbery -- but he can make a lesser charge stick. He needs a confession, so he offers them a plea bargain. Here's a table of the options. Prisoner A's choices are across the top and Prisoner B's choices are listed along the side

Prisoner A
Keep Mum Rat
Prisoner B
Keep Mum 1 year each B: 10 years, A: 6 months

Rat A 10 years, B 6 mos. 7 years each

The only rational strategy for either prisoner is to rat out the other. No matter what the other player does, I am better off either way if I rat than if I keep mum. Unfortunately for the prisoners (though not for the DA), this means that if both do the rational thing, they both end up much worse off than they would be if they could both have kept mum. But the problem is that no single player can choose what BOTH players do. A similar problem could arise with your bananas. Math and memory don't automatically produce cooperation, since if one chimp tries to cooperate, he may find himself cheated out of one or more of his bananas if the other exploits his better nature.
What cases like this seem to show is that it might well be rational (from a self-interested point of view) for self-interested agents to give up thinking entirely self-interestedly, if all agents (or most) could be brought to give up such self-interested thinking as well. This is the idea behind the social contract theory of morality which goes back to Hobbes (and before that it was summarized, though not endorsed by Plato in the Republic) -- and developed more recently by David Gauthier (in _Morals by Agreement_ as well as in various papers). But though it is a more complicated kind of question of rational choice and though the solution is not so automatically self-interested as you portrayed it, fairness does emerge as a solution to a problem of rational choice. I don't see why this doesn't suggest a cognitive account of moral claims -- even one according to which some moral claims are true.

Do you think the monkeys, orangutans and hyenas are moralists? They have a notion of fairness.

I don't see why I would be committed to calling them moralists. I don't mind calling them "protomoralists," if you like. Hobbes imagines totally self-interested humanswho come together to create the social contract in order to get beyond the nasty, brutish and short life in the massive Prisoner's Dilemma he calls the "state of nature". As I see it, natural selection ran into the Prisoner's Dilemma long before human beings could have, and it created instincts of the sort you mention as an approach to the social contract.



Humans, with a gift of language, can mold and articulate that into a kind of golden rule, and then it's off to the ethical races. If you want to call a biological and primitive notion of "fair/unfair" a Moral Principle, fine. I find it more useful to think of as an instinct observable among many species of social animals, including most of our closest ancestors.

The trouble with stopping at instinct is that, as rational creatures, we often restrain our instinctive reactions on the grounds of being more rational. Moral considerations sometimes require us to sacrifice our own interest (e.g., not to get rich by robbing the old lady). In most instances, acting against our own interests is irrational. If an instinct causes us to act against our own interests, we normally ought to overcome it. Doesn't this mean that we ought rationally not to behave morally when it requires sacrifice? If we stop with moral (or rather proto-moral) instincts, we leave this question unanswered -- or worse yet, we answer it by default.

(Damn! my table didn't come out right -- I'll have to find a way to fix it later. Sorry!)

Wonderment
05-14-2008, 08:53 PM
BN,

I think we probably agree about most things, but at some point you make a little leap of faith that I don't find justified.

In any case, let me try to list the things we agree on to try to elucidate what we don't agree on. I think it may be in the last 5 words of point 9.

1) Self-interest, kinship bonds, cooperative adaptations and at least a primitive notion of fairness evolve among social animals to the extent that at least some non-human primates can be said to exhibit "proto-moral" behavior.

2) Human beings, thanks to their big abstraction-facilitating brains, use of language and emotional makeup develop proto-morality into sophisticated systems of rule-governed ethical behavior.

3) Ethical disputes can be resolved rationally based on shared principles.

4) The result of an adequately resolved ethical dispute can be called morally right.

5) Violations of ethical conduct can be called morally wrong.

6) Human ethical behavior in general can be described in terms of approximations to what's morally right and morally wrong, taking into account (or not) all sorts of sophisticated issues of diminished capacity, extenuating circumstances, etc. , etc.

7) Given 6, rational people can disagree about what's right or wrong, depending on how much weight they give to some fuzzy factors in the mix.

8) Prisoner's Dilemma type problems of self-interest may be worked out by coming to a social contract arrangement about the appropriateness (utillity) of altruistic behavior.

9) There is nothing mysterious about ethics, thus no requirement for gods, souls, or absolute goods and evils.