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A True-False Test for Moral Relativists

Posted on Jun 30, 2008 by Tom Gilson

There are two groups of people in the world: those who divide the world into two groups of people, and those who do not.

No, really, there are two groups of people in the world with respect to moral opinions: moral realists and moral relativists. Broadly speaking, moral realists believe that there are at least some moral values that are objective. Objective means (as William Lane Craig says) that these values would hold as valid or true even if nobody on earth agreed with them. Moral relativists, in contrast, generally hold that all moral values are generated or constructed out of persons’ or cultures’ beliefs. They may believe there is a certain kind of reality to moral values, that values are not arbitrary; but this reality is the product of individual or social beliefs, not some ultimate source beyond human culture.

The following is a True/False Quiz that anyone can take. Do you consider the following statements to be true or false?

1. (T/F) All moral values are entirely constructed or produced out of persons’ or cultures’ beliefs.

If you answered False, that’s it for you on this quiz. If you answered True, please continue:

2. (T/F) Let us assume that everybody in some cultural grouping G believes that some behavior B expresses a good and valid moral value. (It doesn’t really matter what B is.) For that culture, at that time and in those conditions, B is good.

3. (T/F) Another cultural group H may disagree with G on this, but nevertheless for G, B is still good; for cultures may validly hold different opinions on moral values. H‘s disagreement with G does not make B bad or wrong in itself, it only makes it bad or wrong for H.

4. (T/F) Suppose there is no group H that disagrees that B is good. Then everyone would be in group G (with respect to B), and would agree that B is good. For that time and in those conditions at least, B is therefore good for everybody. It is a universal good in the sense that it is universally shared by all persons then living, though not in the sense that its value comes from somewhere beyond the persons who have made it a value.

5. (T/F) In most cultures of the world, the Holocaust of WW II is regarded as having been a severe moral evil.

6. (T/F) If, however, Hitler had won the war, and if he (and his followers) had been able to exterminate or brainwash everyone who thought the Holocaust was evil, then the situation would be like that of (4), where every person in the world agreed that the Holocaust was morally good. (This example also follows one given by W.L. Craig.)

7. (T/F) In that case, the Holocaust would be correctly regarded by the remaining population as having been morally good.

Self-check: compare your answers to (4) and (7).

We’re not done yet, though…

8. (T/F) Some remaining persons (call them Group H again) may think it was morally evil to massacre and/or brainwash the dissenters. Those persons themselves (the members of Group H) could conceivably be brainwashed and/or killed by the others (Group G), so that every remaining person would then be a member of group G and would believe the following:

(a) To exterminate the Jews was a morally good goal.
(b) To kill and/or brainwash those who disagreed with (a) was morally good.
(c) To kill and/or brainwash those who dissented from (b) was also morally good.

9. (T/F) With no Group H, and with every person alive believing that 8(a), 8(b), and 8(c) were morally good, then those moral beliefs would indeed be universally good, taking “universal” as described in (4).

10 (T/F) In other words, relativism could coherently lead to a possible world, as philosophers term it, in which the Holocaust was morally good, and where brainwashing or killing off all possible dissent was also morally good–universally so, in fact. This moral good, as suggested in (9), would rest on a much stronger social foundation than, say, the current common Western belief that slavery is wrong. It would in fact be more clearly good than current beliefs that slavery is wrong.

Self-check: compare your answers to (9) and (10) with your answer to (4).

And that suggests the following final item in our short quiz:

11. (T/F) It would violate a solidly established universal moral norm, and would rightly be regarded as reprehensible, to suggest that is wrong to kill dissenters just for believing that persons ought to have the freedom of their beliefs.

From this you see one reason I am not a moral relativist.

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223 Responses to “ A True-False Test for Moral Relativists ”

  1. Holopupenko says:

    Hi Tom:

          I think the progression as you present is formally correct, but it nonetheless seems (partially) to reduce morality to a kind of robotic flow-chart… and that’s not what humans are about: simple-minded flow-chart morality based on utility may be left to transhumanism, atheism, and other disordered views of reality. My point is not to criticize your presentation but to suggest the following considerations be kept in mind as providing a bit more “meat on the bones” (the material aspect of a good argument) support for what you wrote, because surely someone out there will quite rightly ask how one is to determine whether a human act or principle is deemed objectively good or bad.

          It’s not fully correct to employ the terms “value” or even “norm” because these are not objectively grounded in something beyond the moral actor. It is better to employ the term “principle” or “action” depending on what is being discussed.
          Opinions are fine as far as they go. But in discussions such as the one you’re presenting, opinion has no relevance in the search for truth. As such, sound (not merely valid) arguments are required.
          It is a fallacy for someone to conclude that all human acts or principles are by their natures subjective merely by virtue of the fact that there are varying opinions about the moral character of certain acts or principles.
          The nature of an act, intention, or circumstance is deemed good or evil based on what we are as humans. Even way back in Aristotle’s day without the “answers at the back of the book” provided by Judeo-Christian faith there are some things that could be reasoned to as being good or evil. What we are is fully expressed in the Gospel message with our ultimate end in Him, but we as believers cannot beg the question this way. What is “good” for a rock depends on knowing the nature of a rock, and from this we see that “good” for a rock is not a “moral” good. What is “good” for a human depends on knowing the nature of a human being (rational animal), and “good” for a human being IS a moral good. It is always and everywhere and under all circumstances evil to murder an innocent human being. Casting a rock into a pool of lava is morally neutral for us, and utterly devoid of moral content for the rock.
          An important distinction: (1) A human act is one which is based on a free will choice, where free will is understood as being freely chosen within the bounds of human nature (humans are not free to fly unassisted because of the nature of what it means to be human). (2) An act of a human being is not necessarily one that demands free will: our act of breathing is involuntary.
          In order for the nature or character of a human act to be considered morally good (or at least neutral) then all three components of that act (distinguishing the order of intention from the order of execution) must themselves not be evil: (1) the act itself or means by which an end is achieved, (2) the intention behind the act or the desired end, and (3) the circumstances under which an act is undertaken. If any one or more of these is evil, then the act itself is evil: all must be rightly ordered for the act to be morally good. For example, if the good consequences (relief of suffering for others) could be attained only by the destruction of an innocent human life (say in embryonic stem cell research or the forcible removal of a vital organ), then such an act cannot be morally justified. If a researcher is forced to carry out such research (circumstances), then the act is evil but he is not morally culpable.
          Human reason presents to the human will the object upon which a choice is made. If the object is deemed by the reason to be “good,” then the will has an “appetite” to choose it; if the object is deemed by the reason to be “evil,” then the will can reject it. There are, as always, nuances: (1) goods are “proximate,” “distant,” and “ultimate.” The reason may rightly present to the will that an extra hour’s sleep in the morning is “good” and it is no doubt correct. But if early-morning training is required to achieve another good, such as winning a race, then the greater “distant” good of winning a race overrides the lesser “proximate” good of sleeping an extra hour. (2) The reason may correctly present something as evil (such as pre-marital sex) to the will, but if the will has not been trained through the virtues of temperance and prudence to avoid evil, it will overrule the reason and “go for it.” (3) If the capacity of reason has been weakened through sin (say stealing) or worldview (say, atheism) or lifestyle habits (technically referred to as “vices,” e.g., such as homosexuality), or if the person is simply ignorant / lacking information, then the reason will not be able to fully correctly present the object as either properly good or evil to the will.
          How conscience plays into your presentation and in what I’ve presented (a conscience always binds but doesn’t always excuse) is very important and would require a separate post.
          Just as there is an undeniable, not provable First Principle of speculative knowledge regarding real beings (the Principle of Non-Contradiction), there is a First Principle of practical knowledge (morality) that is undeniable and inescapable: Do good, avoid evil. No matter what one holds to be good or evil, one will pursue the one and avoid the other, and to deny this principle is to affirm it.
          Consciously-accepted moral relativism is an evil—a repugnant one to boot.

  2. Tom Gilson says:

    Welcome back, my friend!

    I think the progression as you present is formally correct, but it nonetheless seems (partially) to reduce morality to a kind of robotic flow-chart… and that’s not what humans are about: simple-minded flow-chart morality based on utility may be left to transhumanism, atheism, and other disordered views of reality.

    I was of course not presenting any of this flow as representing what I believe, as I hope was clear from the end of the presentation. I was presenting it as what I think moral relativists might believe, to display the outcome of their assumptions.

    Surely someone out there will quite rightly ask how one is to determine whether a human act or principle is deemed objectively good or bad.

    That question is both welcome and expected, but I hope it does not short-circuit any reader from thinking through this “T/F Quiz.”

    After all: though one could ask, “How could morals be objective?” which is a very good question, and what you write here is certainly relevant to that, the question I’m raising here is a different one: “how could morals be relative, and still make sense?” Though related, the two are not the same question. So I hope to hear some relativists’ answers to the “quiz” questions (which are, in effect, a dialogue, in which one voice is merely implicit).

  3. Paul says:

    Tom, can you clarify a few things:

    In #8 you mention some remaining people, group H. Does group H think the Holocaust was good? If not, then not everyone in the world thought the Holocaust was good as you laid out in #6. Or perhaps your logic doesn’t depend on *everyone* in the world thinking the Holocaust was good?

    In #8, who are the dissenters? If they think the Holocaust is bad, then, again, not everyone in the world thought the Holocaust was good, as in #6, or perhaps this doesn’t matter?

    In #8, “those persons themselves” refers to group H or the dissenters?

  4. Paul says:

    Tom, maybe I can cut to the chase. Is it a fair summary of relativism, as you’re trying to lay it out here, to say that relativism can lead to a situation in which mores that one might find repellent (either an moral objectivist or some/all relativists) are the norm? Or is your point something different?

  5. Tom Gilson says:

    Group H is defined as a subset of those who thought the Holocaust was good, for, by this time, that larger set – see (7) – comprises everybody. Thus Group H is made up of those who thought the Holocaust was good, but who deny that it was good to kill/brainwash those who disagreed that the Holocaust was good.

    “Those persons themselves” refers to members of Group H. I will edit the post to clarify that.

    Regarding your 1:58 comment, I prefer to put the question back to you. What do you think the conclusion of this “quiz” ought to be?

  6. Holopupenko says:

    Hi Tom:

         Sorry if my original post came across too negative: I did understand the points you just raised, but I wanted to flush them (and others) out into the open with what I added. As well, some of the points I raise are done so not even so much to support or flush out what you wrote but to preempt some illicit criticisms potentially lurking out there, e.g., my second and third bullet points.

         I don’t know if Craig reads your blog and its comments, but my message was also “read between the lines” to him as well. William of Ockham, a Franciscan monk, around 1325 (near the end of a slowly decaying—from its glory—Scholasticism) promulgated among the most pernicious errors in philosophy (there are no universals) and theology (God could have redeemed us by becoming a donkey): that of nominalism. It was an error that, unfortunately, crept into the thinking of Luther (God justifies man, but man remains as sinful inwardly as before)—jettisoning (albeit inadvertently) the Scriptural “new creatures in Christ.” The upshot is that God works as he wishes and man cannot use his reason to determine what is just or unjust. Just as I argued on Saturday at the conference: if we are not permitted to act per our natures (which are distinguished from the brute with reason and free will), then we are reduced to robots. We are not, in fact, “totally depraved” because we are made in the image and likeness of God, we are made “new creatures in Christ,” and hence can participate in the Divine Nature.

         Anyway, I don’t want to argue the theology but rather the impact Ockham had on the understanding of freedom—the sine qua non of moral acts. Ockham basically reduced freedom to a kind of neutral or “disconnected” choice—elevating (perhaps “denigrating” is a better word) choice to self-assertion, i.e., power, i.e., portending Descartes and Bacon with power over Nature, Nietzsche with power as the answer to nihilism (“There are no facts, only interpretations”), and later still post-modernism’s sick view of the world (“There is no truth, only opinions”) or deconstructionism’s silliness (Derrida’s “there is nothing outside the text”).

         Freedom, instead of being “for excellence” or “for good” as Aquinas puts it, is severed from human nature (whose ultimate object is the Good)… with the further result that humans become “atomized choice-makers” effectively separated from each other. (What possible good could there be to make a choice for evil? What possible good is there in euthanasia… apart from its similarity to Orwell’s depiction in 1984 of EastAsia’s “death worship”? And what possible objective good could a moral relativist claim either way?) There can be, in this context, no common good… and there can be no common good if there is no objective good in the first place. Reason is thus placed in conflict with freedom: we’re left with either a deterministic (biological or ideological) vision or a relativistic vision… and freedom slowly kills itself. If one needs confirmation of this, look around: freedom is “imposed” over the weak and inconvenient (abortion, ESCR, euthanasia), people are fined in Canada for expressing positions on abortion counter to those in power, people get arrested in Germany for home-schooling their children, etc., etc. Where is the “freedom”… apart from the strong who are the only ones that benefit from such creeping fascism?

         I think Craig and I would agree on the terrible outcome, but I might question the flavor of his approach (note: also based on the flavor of his other writings)… which is why my first set of comments was of a partially pre-emptive and partially reactive nature. Hence, I’m not suggesting you agree with a flow-chart approach to morality. Rather, I wanted to high-light and bring out that sense so that others might realize moral choices are not flow-chart-like “neutral” approaches: there is always important content involved.

         I’ll end with a joke: How do you protest a moral relativist (or unitarian, for that matter) moving in as your next door neighbor? Burn a large question mark in their front lawn… (Remember, it’s only a joke!)

  7. Paul says:

    Tom, I having a hard time following your logic through the whole thing. It seems to me a too long version (at least for me) of my 1:58 summary.

    Is there anything else to it besides that? I don’t mean to denigrate that, because perhaps for others your train of thought clarifies the issue or makes it stand out particularly clearly, and that’s fine.

    For me, I fully understand under relativism that (1) reprehensible practices may be morally acceptable at a later time, as well as (2) morally acceptable practices may become unacceptable at a later time.

  8. Tom Gilson says:

    This is quite important so I’ll try to clarify.

    It seems to me that if a person accepts (1), then it follows that (10) and (11) are conceivable to that person. That is, a situation can be conceived in which it is morally good that:

    * All Jews have been killed (or at least a systematic attempt has ben made to kill them all), and Jewish body parts have been warehoused and used for manufacturing purposes;
    * Every person who thought that was not good has been systematically killed or brainwashed; and
    * Every person who thought that second step of killing or brainwashing was not good, has also been killed or brainwashed:
    * Resulting in a world where everybody agrees that these genocidal and brainwashing acts were right and good.

    Stating it another way, the person who accepts (1) can conceive of a world in which dehumanizing genocide is an honorable, valid, and genuine moral good, according to the definition given in (1), and not only that, but killing or brainwashing people who dissent is also an honorable genuine moral good (by that same definition).

    And further (11), the person who holds (1) can conceive of a world where it would actually be morally reprehensible to suggest that any of this was not good.

    True or false, Paul?

  9. Paul says:

    True. I don’t see what part of your statement of your final point isn’t clearly inferred from my summary.

    I’d like to offer one slight revision to #1. You’ve defined a sort of pure relativism, but I’ve said here in the past that evolution apparently instills some moral tendencies, but they can be over-ridden by culture. Prohibitions against incest might have a basis in the genetic risk for offspring of incest, but some societies have allowed some form of incest (see Wikipedia on “incest”).

    I don’t know what this revision might to do your chain of reasoning and your final point.

  10. Esko Heimonen says:

    Tom,

    You seem to almost define a moral relativist as a person who “can conceive of a world in which dehumanizing genocide is an honorable, valid, and genuine moral good”. If we now opened the Old Testament and started listing all of the genocides commanded/accepted by God, would you be able to judge all of these genocides categorically unethical? If not, would that make you a moral relativist?

    Also, if you find that you must defend one or more of these genocides, can you find any better defense than the Nazis? (I.e. that the atrocities were, in your belief, necessary to improve the human condition?)

    Thirdly, if you insist that we must be Absolutely Right about at least some moral issues, can you name a century whose moral absolutists’ Absolute Rightness you can best embrace? If it so happens that we are talking about our very own century, what are you so afraid of? It is precisely moral relativism that allowed us to outgrow the Popes of the Crusades, who in their Absolute Rightness knew that enslaving or killing a follower of Mohammed is more likely our duty than a crime. Isn’t it at least equally frightening idea at all that we might have remained right there, forever believing that we are Absolutely Right?

  11. Tom Gilson says:

    No, Esko, I define a moral relativist as stated in (1). The rest of it follows from that opening definition.

    Your question about OT wars rests on a logical fallacy. I argued that

    (1) —> (10) and (11)

    That is, the belief stated in (1) leads to the conceivable condition of (10) and (11), summarized again, by the way, in my next comment after this one.

    Your suggestion is this: if a person considers it possible that there be a condition in which one nation’s extermination is a moral good, then that person is a moral relativist. Note that this condition is not equivalent to (10) and (11). There is nothing in Biblical ethics that could conceivably support (10) and (11) under any circumstances.

    However, even if (contra reality) there were such a condition, your suggestion would rest on a fallacy that may be diagrammed thus:

    (1) —> (10) and (11),
    therefore
    (10) and (11) —> (1)

    In more formalized structure:

    p —> q
    therefore
    q —> p

    Example: All cats are mammals, therefore all mammals are cats.

    Thirdly, if you insist that we must be Absolutely Right about at least some moral issues, can you name a century whose moral absolutists’ Absolute Rightness you can best embrace?

    The Absolute Right I embrace is that which is affirmed by Scripture. We may (and sometimes do) make mistakes interpreting it, but the good exists regardless. Recall how I defined moral realism in the opening of this post: it says that some things are morally right or wrong, even if nobody believes them to be so.

  12. Tom Gilson says:

    Paul, I do not accept for a moment that evolution can instill moral tendencies. It could conceivably instill behavioral tendencies, but to call them moral would be a gross mischaracterization. Moral implies “ought,” and as even Dawkins has clearly stated, evolution cannot supply oughts.

    Otherwise I think we’re in agreement regarding the result of believing (1). There is a conceivable condition in which the following may accurately be described, according to (1), as a genuine moral good:

    * All Jews have been killed (or at least a systematic attempt has ben made to kill them all), and Jewish body parts have been warehoused and used for manufacturing purposes;
    * Every person who thought that was not good has been systematically killed or brainwashed; and
    * Every person who thought that second step of killing or brainwashing was not good, has also been killed or brainwashed:
    * Resulting in a world where everybody agrees that these genocidal and brainwashing acts were right and good.

    And it also follows that it would be morally reprehensible in that condition to suggest that any of the above was wrong.

  13. Paul says:

    The Absolute Right I embrace is that which is affirmed by Scripture. We may (and sometimes do) make mistakes interpreting it, but the good exists regardless. Recall how I defined moral realism in the opening of this post: it says that some things are morally right or wrong, even if nobody believes them to be so.

    But because we can make mistakes interpreting what this absolute right is, we can never be absolutely (!) sure that what we have currently interpreted things correctly. Of course, we must always try as best we can. But how do we know ABSOLUTELY that we haven’t made a mistake?

    The answer to that question cannot be some form of “We’ve figured things out and it sure looks right to us,” or “How could X not be moral?”

    Therefore we can never be absolutely sure that we are correct, this returns us to my Strong Skepticism position.

  14. Tom Gilson says:

    You’ve shifted from the current discussion of ontology (whether there exists an absolute right or wrong) to a different question, epistemology (whether we can know it with absolute certainty).

    I think you accept the outcome stated in my 10:51 comment. Is that correct?

  15. Holopupenko says:

    Tom:

         Furthermore, Paul’s “strong skepticism” is an absolutist position (which he believes to be absolutely true) even as he denies we can know anything with absolute certainty. (We saw that in his strange attempt to deny non-contradiction a few weeks ago when it doesn’t appear to bother him that his own argument is contradictory.) And, notwithstanding Paul’s acceding to such an untenable position, he nonetheless uses it (as you point out) to shift from ontological considerations to hide behind epistemological ones he doesn’t appear to understand.

         Then, when we move to the moral sphere, Paul continues to rely on a similar tactic: to think he somehow knows absolutely that we “know nothing absolutely” and shift (fallaciously) to thinking therefore there are no moral absolutes (my third bullet point in my original comment). We do know that “pursue good, avoid evil” is undeniable: if one affirms it, then no problem; if one denies it, one believes it is good and true to deny it—thereby undermining the denial by affirming the principle.

         So, at issue is Paul’s tactic, and at this point one must honestly appraise Paul’s position as either intentionally manipulative, honestly ignorant or inexperienced, or so weighted down with emotional prior commitments that clear thinking is hindered… or perhaps some combination of these. It’s not simply a matter of disagreeing over the substance of your claim; it’s rather disagreeing while contradicting himself. If Paul were to provide a cogent argument that at least provides reasonable disagreement, the discussion could press ahead to examine more closely the premises. But that’s not what’s going on: in fact, many of the propositions and arguments he makes contain inherent contradictions—either intentional or burdened with prior commitments—and hence the discussion can never proceed. Reasonable people can disagree on tastes and tactics, but not (in the end) on truth. If Paul believe so strongly there are no morally, ontologically, epistemologically, and logically objective truths, what possible motivation could there be (apart from manipulation) to “prove” you wrong?

         I’m willing to have my analysis of Paul’s position and arguments openly corrected in public. My sense, though, is we won’t hear that, but rather the oft-repeated (by him or others) “sorry, got to run…,” or “your argument is too complex,” or “you tone (?!? isn’t that an attempt at a morally-objective chastisement?) is unbecoming a Christian.”

  16. Esko Heimonen says:

    Tom,

    If (10)&(11)->(1) does not necessarily apply, then you are basically saying that

    (1)->(10)&(11)

    and that you haven’t got the foggiest whether also

    ~(1)->(10)&(11).

    (Or that at least under some further conditions ~(1), (10) and (11) may all be true.)

    Hence, “logically”, you choose ~(1) or something your argument apparently knows nothing about.

    But how about some practical ethics for a change? I think it is rather interesting curiosity in this thread that it is likely you, and very unlikely the moral relativist, who is defending certain supposedly historic genocides. (Although you insist on calling them “wars”. I think it is rather odd to call e.g. the systematic and intentional destruction of a whole nation, including infants and livestock, “a war”, especially after starting a topic about genocides). Shouldn’t we be startled by the fact that the most likely Western version of a moral absolutist, i.e. a Biblical literalist, tends to actively defend Biblical genocides?

    In contrast, why should we be startled by the purely theoretical idea that moral relativists would be all for genocides if all other kinds of moral relativists had been already genocided from the population. Obviously, you assume that also moral absolutists would have been eliminated at that point. Your scenario kind of makes me think that you can’t see the forest behind the trees. I mean, would it really comfort you, in that situation, to be able to say before being exterminated: yeah, but I was still Absolutely Right! Let’s face it: your scenario is precisely as horrible for both you the moral absolutist (who opposes most genocides) as it is for me the moral relativist (who opposes all historic and most conceivable genocides).

    And one more practical point. Even if the ethics of no century accurately reflects your view of the Scripture, would you agree that we are better off living in the golden age of moral relativism, as opposed to the golden age of moral absolutism (undoubtedly the Medieval Age in Europe)?

  17. Tom Gilson says:

    Esko, I’m just applying formal logic to what you’ve brought up symbolically here. Further, I’m trying to draw out the logical implications of (1). You’re trying to take us off topic, and I’m trying to focus on something else. Remind me later and I’ll write a post on OT

    In contrast, why should we be startled by the purely theoretical idea that moral relativists would be all for genocides if all other kinds of moral relativists had been already genocided from the population. Obviously, you assume that also moral absolutists would have been eliminated at that point.

    About being startled: are you saying that (10) and (11) do not startle you, as potential (and entirely logical) implications of (1)? You said genocide horrifies you. Are you contradicting yourself, or am I misunderstanding you?

    Would you agree that we are better off living in the golden age of moral relativism, as opposed to the golden age of moral absolutism (undoubtedly the Medieval Age in Europe)?

    I’ll follow you off topic here just long enough to answer that I don’t think there’s ever actually been an age (golden or otherwise) of actual moral relativism. Practically speaking, the current relativism has been limited to culturally acceptable areas like sexuality. Compare, for example, the moral outcry against people like Ken Lay of Enron, or corporate polluters of the environment. I strongly suspect your view of Medieval Europe is seriously skewed, too, but that’s too far afield to pursue it any further.

    Note also, by the by: you made an extended complaint about my “insisting” on using the word “war.” I used it once; and I also used the terminology of a “nation’s extermination” in reference to the same thing. Just settle down, please, and note what I have written.

  18. Tom Gilson says:

    Further on my second-to-last paragraph there: I was speaking about practical ethics, which has never been as relative as Esko seems to suggest. In terms of the grounding for ethics, relativism certainly reigns, much to our detriment. But the question was about practical ethics.

    And that’s all the further I intend to continue with this side topic.

  19. SteveK says:

    We do know that “pursue good, avoid evil” is undeniable: if one affirms it, then no problem; if one denies it, one believes it is good and true to deny it—thereby undermining the denial by affirming the principle.

    The latter part of this had me confused so I hope you don’t mind if I rephrase it to make it more clear (to me!)…

    if one denies this principle then one believes in pursuing the good of denying it and avoiding the evil of accepting it – thereby affirming the principle of ‘pursue good, avoid evil’.

  20. Paul says:

    You’ve shifted from the current discussion of ontology (whether there exists an absolute right or wrong) to a different question, epistemology (whether we can know it with absolute certainty).

    Righto. I’m just bringing up another aspect of the situation.

    I think you accept the outcome stated in my 10:51 comment. Is that correct?

    Yes.

  21. Paul says:

    Furthermore, Paul’s “strong skepticism” is an absolutist position (which he believes to be absolutely true)

    I’ve previously admitted some uncertainty as to whether we should be uncertain about everything.

  22. Tom Gilson says:

    Then that raises this question, Paul, which Holopupenko already mentioned in a different form. What is it that seems so attractive to you, in a philosophy that can lead to those conclusions? Don’t you feel the force of what you’ve admitted to—how horrific those things are?

    I chose those words carefully. I did not say, “how horrific they feel.” I am quite sure that they are in fact utterly horrific. I am quite sure you also consider them wrong. You might be prone to put that wrongness in feeling language (“it feels wrong to me, given that I’m not a part of that culture”), but I submit to you that there is more than feeling there. There is actual wrongness to killing off the Jews and everyone who thinks that was wrong, and everyone who thinks that was wrong. Don’t you recognize that?

    And I urge you to let this question do more than float on your consciousness as a mere logical plaything. Let this condensed statement help you with that: Your view says that anything bad can be good, and I mean absolutely anything: no matter how vile or destructive it may be, no matter how it denies freedom and humanity, no matter how perverse or twisted it might be, it could still become a universal good.

    Is there some First Principle that requires this?

  23. SteveK says:

    Is there some First Principle that requires you to accept this?

    I think this ties back into our discussons about ‘perceptions of the heart’ that can lead to knowledge about reality – remembering that you can’t know what you can’t perceive. Nobody perceives a First Principle with their 5 senses. So, in addition to Tom’s question above I would ask Paul if the concept of ‘perception of the heart’ makes more sense?

  24. Paul says:

    Then that raises this question, Paul, which Holopupenko already mentioned in a different form. What is it that seems so attractive to you, in a philosophy that can lead to those conclusions?

    It’s the philosophy that evidence and reason has led me to. If it’s not attractive, that doesn’t make it false.

    Don’t you feel the force of what you’ve admitted to—how horrific those things are? I chose those words carefully.

    Do I feel how [they. . .] are? What does that mean? Do I feel that they are true? Huh?

    I am quite sure you also consider them wrong. You might be prone to put that wrongness in feeling language (”it feels wrong to me, given that I’m not a part of that culture”), but I submit to you that there is more than feeling there. There is actual wrongness to killing off the Jews and everyone who thinks that was wrong, and everyone who thinks that was wrong. Don’t you recognize that?

    No. Period. I feel a visceral, gut reaction when I see horrific things, but that doesn’t mean that they are actually or truely or objectively wrong. This is the fundamental issue.

    Furthermore, nearly every one I’ve met considers me a nice guy. I donate time and money to charity, I help little old ladies across the street, etc. So holding a relativistic outlook doesn’t make one immoral (at least more than normal). I’m not saying, Tom, that you’re implying that.

    Your view says that anything bad can be good, and I mean absolutely anything: no matter how vile or destructive it may be, no matter how it denies freedom and humanity, no matter how perverse or twisted it might be, it could still become a universal good.

    Except that evolution probably limits some types of behavior that we would call immoral.

    Is there some First Principle that requires this?

    Evidence and logic.

  25. Tom Gilson says:

    Which evidence and logic???

  26. Paul says:

    The only ones I know. If you’ve got better ones, I’d love to see them.

  27. Paul says:

    The only ones I know. If you’ve got better ones, I’d love to see them.

    I don’t mean to be flip, but if I take your question seriously and literally, we’re in for a *realy* long conversation, I think.

  28. Tom Gilson says:

    In other words, Paul, you don’t seem to have any first principles you can or will supply that explain why you would hold to your position.

    Extraordinary claims, it has been said, call for extraordinary evidence. There are certain epistemological problems with that statement, but I’m going to put it before you anyway. The claim you are endorsing is this:

    Absolutely anything bad can be good: no matter how vile or destructive it may be, no matter how it denies freedom and humanity, no matter how perverse or twisted it might be, it could still become a universal good.

    That is an extraordinary claim.

  29. Paul says:

    Tom, I just told you what my first principles were, in my 3:30 post.

    Absolutely anything bad can be good:

    You are putting relativism in a certain rhetorical light that glosses over the crucial distinctions. The contradiction your wrote (bad = good) glosses over the way that relativism makes sense. Bad in one culture can equal good in another culture, that is a fact, do I need to cite examples? There’s nothing contradictory about it, unless you assume that morals are absolute, and then that would make sense of your apparent outrage and disbelief over relativism. I grant you that, if you assume moral absolutism, then moral relativism is insensible. But when you ask me to defend relativism, it must be on a basis *prior* to assuming that absolutism is true, because otherwise would be absurd.

  30. Paul says:

    Furthermore, I keep on qualifying the range of variability that you are concerned with in relativism, and you keep on ignoring that qualification when you characterize relativism (“Absolutely anything bad can be good”) in, dare I say it, absolute terms.

  31. Tom Gilson says:

    I take it you meant the 3:50 post; the font makes the 3 and the 5 look similar.

    “Evidence and logic” are not first principles, Paul. “Evidence” is, well, just a word, and “logic” is a tool. You’re not close, in other words. I don’t think you’re even stepping up to this one. Even if there’s some room to quibble about extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence, one hopes that the support for your claim would be stronger than “I have evidence and logic.”

    Bad in one culture can equal good in another culture, that is a fact, do I need to cite examples?

    Paul, please! My whole post was an example. Why would I need to be shown more? The point is that this thinking logically leads to an incredible absurdity.

    There’s nothing contradictory about it, unless you assume that morals are absolute, and then that would make sense of your apparent outrage and disbelief over relativism.

    Two responses: First, to say there’s nothing contradictory in the situation I summarized at 5:37 pm is very, very strange.
    Second, I think most people would agree with that, and without assuming morals are absolute.

    Let me ask you this about your “first principle:” I think it’s this. I think you know that if there are moral absolutes, there must be a God. You’re so committed to atheism you would rather affirm the despicable, foolish nonsense summarized at 5:37 pm than open your mind to the goodness of God—and the accountability to him that that comes with it.

  32. Paul says:

    Tom, I don’t know what you mean by a “first principle.” Can you explain the concept in general?

    It doesn’t lead to an absurdity when one understands it in terms of relativism. You can phrase anything in terms that will make it seem horrible or disgusting – all you have to do is to look at the current level of political discourse to confirm that one.

    Of course relativism is not obvious because it requires stepping outside of oneself. It’s vaguely similar to hearing a foreign language for the first time and trying to imagine that people can actually communicate through those weird sounds. We can’t imagine that people could think different things are moral.

    Tom, here’s a question for you. Is there *any* moral issue that isn’t objective? If so, then you have a model of moral non-objectivity to which you can apply to other moral differences that you/we find horrible.

  33. Tom Gilson says:

    A first principle, and I know I used the term non-technically, would be something to explain why you choose to believe as you do.

    You can phrase anything in terms that will make it seem horrible or disgusting

    Two disputes with this:
    1. It doesn’t just seem horrible or disgusting. It is.
    2. It is not just a phrasing. It is a legitimate conclusion to a line of thought that you have endorsed.

    This is not a failure of imagination, as you suggest. This is pointing out that something you have endorsed is just wrong.

    Is there *any* moral issue that isn’t objective?

    Moral realism says that there at least some morals that are objective. It’s fine with me (at least in terms of the current discussion) if, say, the south Chinese approve of eating dogs. I don’t like it, I don’t agree, but that’s an area of relativism that is within the pale. As I said, this is not a failure of imagination. This is about very extreme moral outrages that you continue to let float on your mind as logical playthings, and have thus found it possible to endorse in principle. I still don’t think you’ve thought about it deeply enough.

  34. Esko Heimonen says:

    Tom,

    It seems that you are assuming that a moral relativist is not allowed to have moral axioms of any kind. But I don’t think such an assumption holds. Certainly the ethical opinions of moral relativists, too, are rooted in axioms. (And the axioms of both moral relativists just as well as moral absolutists may vary wildly from individual to individual or from group to group.)

    The point with moral relativism is that relativists don’t think that axioms can be defended logically — so they don’t bother to pretend so. Moral absolutists, on the other hand, do bother: they pretend that their axioms can be defended by saying e.g. “it is absolutely so because I believe that it just is so” or, more likely, “it is absolutely so because I interpret that the Scripture says so, and because I believe that God says whatever the Scripture says, and because I believe that whatever God says, always holds”. (No matter how vile, destructive and horrible?)

    In practice, both relativists and absolutists know that they need to defend their opinions by force. (That would be the democratic process in our case.) In the parliament, you don’t have to prove your axioms. (Perhaps to the annoyance of moral absolutists who apparently think that they could have proven their axioms in their own version of logic.) You just vote.

  35. Esko Heimonen says:

    Note also, by the by: you made an extended complaint about my “insisting” on using the word “war.” I used it once; and I also used the terminology of a “nation’s extermination” in reference to the same thing. Just settle down, please, and note what I have written.

    Quite. I apologize. I managed to see actually two versions of your post, and even after editing the inital one, you kept on using the word “war” instead of the more thematic “genocide”. Still, it was a clear overreaction on my part. This topic probably does not benefit from such sensitivity.

  36. Tom Gilson says:

    Esko,

    It seems that you are assuming that a moral relativist is not allowed to have moral axioms of any kind.

    The axiom I was working from was stated in (1), and the rest follows from that. What you are describing is a variation that was not included in this thought exercise.

    But what about these axioms? Are they grounded in anything at all? It sounds to me like you are saying they are not. Then are they simply arbitrary? And if arbitrary, why should anyone think they hold, or matter, when challenged?

    Perhaps power is the axiom. But that seems to contradict the ruling axiom of democratic cultures and countries. It was checks-and-balances, the separation (and thus limitation) of power that made the U.S. Constitution so strong a foundation for our country. The same could certainly be said for Parliamentarian democracies.

    Thanks for your second comment here.

  37. Esko Heimonen says:

    Tom,

    Before responding to you, I would ask you to addess this part in my post that you left unaddressed, and which I happen to think sums up rather well the difference between relativism and absolutism (in fact, not only concerning ethics but also epistemology):

    “The point with moral relativism is that relativists don’t think that axioms can be defended logically — so they don’t bother to pretend so. Moral absolutists, on the other hand, do bother: they pretend that their axioms can be defended by saying e.g. “it is absolutely so because I believe that it just is so” or, more likely, “it is absolutely so because I interpret that the Scripture says so, and because I believe that God says whatever the Scripture says, and because I believe that whatever God says, always holds”. (No matter how vile, destructive and horrible?)”

    I’m sorry, but I am kind of feeling that you are taking a lot of liberties in deciding, rather one-sidedly, what is relevant here and what is not. Especially considering that your initial thought experiment, although clothed in a veil of rather unnecessary “logicalism”, is purely rhetorical.

  38. Tom Gilson says:

    Hmmm… I thought I had addressed it, by discussing what axioms might mean under relativism.

    I’m going to be unavailable for most of the rest of the day, and I don’t have time right now to work on it. I’ll come back to this when I can.

  39. Paul says:

    This is about very extreme moral outrages that you continue to let float on your mind as logical playthings, and have thus found it possible to endorse in principle. I still don’t think you’ve thought about it deeply enough.

    I’m guessing what you mean, then, is that, while relativism might hold for some things, like eating dogs, when the outrage passes a certain point, it will overwhelm relativism and make it not possible.

    So now we have the outrage fallacy: if something is outrageous enough, it must be objectively wrong, morally. Why can’t one feel outraged and disgusted as much as anyone ever has but still not conclude that there is something *objective* about it, that must be wrong for everyone?

    No wonder you believe in God: you’re letting your gut control your head.

  40. Paul says:

    A first principle, and I know I used the term non-technically, would be something to explain why you choose to believe as you do.

    So what part of evidence and logic doesn’t fit this definition of a first principle? You may argue with how I’ve applied the evidence and logic, and disagree with my conclusions, but the question about first principles, *as you’ve defined it above,* as been asked and answered.

  41. Esko Heimonen says:

    Ok, take your time. Meanwhile, I will clarify this misconception:

    Perhaps power is the axiom. But that seems to contradict the ruling axiom of democratic cultures and countries.

    Clearly I didn’t promote centralized power nor the use of violence. I merely pointed out that on practical level it still is power, even if decentralized and controlled by democratic processes, that counts. You don’t turn your opinions into norms by being Absolutely Right. You do it by gaining political support. And quite a few of the current norms are, in fact, enforced by arms. A democratic country which does not have armed authorities (organized carefully to minimize the risk of a coup, and monitored carefully to avoid excessive use of force in law enforcement) would likely crumble within a week.

    Besides, I did not think of political power as a “moral axiom”. An example of a moral axiom would be that life must be protected, especially human life. Is there some reason why a moral relativist could not have such an opinion, to be used axiomatically for building up a system of ethics? Would such an opinion, for example, somehow turn the relativist into an absolutist?

  42. Tom Gilson says:

    Esko,

    And now for the rest of the story. I delayed answering you because I had a colonoscopy yesterday morning. I ran out of time to reply beforehand, and I wasn’t about to try to think straight afterward. If you’ve experienced this you’ll know what I mean. They instruct you not to drive, cook, sign checks, etc., after having the procedure, and they could just as well also advise you not to blog! Today I’ve been catching up at the office. Thank you for being patient.

    Anyway, now I’ll try to address your comments from 2 July, 3:42 am and following.

    You raise the idea that relativists and absolutists may both have moral axioms. I think that is correct. Now we need to think through what that implies.

    Let us first clear away a potential misconception. You wrote,

    And the axioms of both moral relativists just as well as moral absolutists may vary wildly from individual to individual or from group to group.

    What this means in regard to relativists is clear, I think. Its meaning with reference to absolutists may be muddled, however. Recall that the definition of moral realism is that there are at least some moral values or duties that hold as valid regardless of whether any person accepts or believes them. If moral realists have different beliefs as to what those values or duties are, moral realism could very well still be true.

    You made that point parenthetically, so I don’t know where you were headed with it. But I want to caution other readers not to assume that relativism and realism can be evaluated the same way on account of different values held by their proponents.

    Second, you suggest that the difference between realists’ and relativists’ axioms is that relativists do not pretend they can defend their axioms logically. I think some relativists have pretended that, but I’m willing to stipulate that as a definition for relativism, because I think the attempt, if it is made, is doomed to failure at any rate.

    Realists have a number of ways of defending our axioms. We believe that some moral facts are simply known, almost as immediately as we know that a polygon with three sides also has three angles. We know that murder is wrong, child rape is wrong, etc., just because it is plain to the healthy mind that it is so. That is taking these moral facts as axiomatic in the plain sense of axiomatic.

    Theists also believe that there are moral values and duties given by a good God, and that what he orders is never ultimately vile, destructive, or horrible. It may be proximately horrible or destructive, to be sure, but not ultimately so; just as my experience of a colonoscopy yesterday was unpleasant but for good purpose; not to mention the very difficult surgery I went through 30 years ago that saved my life. Many others could say the same.

    Third, I have already (2 Jul 6:20 am) pointed out that relativists’ axioms are utterly ungrounded except in the sense that I pointed out two paragraphs above. This moral sense is quite adequate to most of us but cannot stand the pressure of serious disagreement. One example of that is the thought experiment of the original post here. Another is the Islamist who believes it’s good to fly airplanes into buildings. There is no answer one can give to such a person except to say, “I don’t like that,” or “I disagree.”

    But don’t misunderstand that. I do not mean, “there is no way to persuade the person to stop other than by saying, ‘I disagree.'” What I mean is this: there is no way to tell the other person what they did is wrong. You can only say you disagree. From within their perspective, they are not wrong. They are right. In that sense, it was perfecty right for the terrorists to fly those planes into those buildings. It was right from within their culture, and that is the only place (for them) where right and wrong are decided.

    Moral axioms alone are not enough for us to be able to say to bin Laden, “That was wrong,” for according to moral relativism, it wasn’t.

    Finally, regarding your point at 10:22 am about power, you made a distinction regarding centralized power or the use of violence. I don’t think you can sustain that distinction from within relativism. If the only thing that decides right and wrong is power, then that is the only thing that can decide it. If you decided it by “gaining political support,” then you have been more effective garnering power for your side than your opponent has. What makes that moral?

  43. Tom Gilson says:

    Paul, that was just rude:

    No wonder you believe in God: you’re letting your gut control your head.

    Not that I’m unwilling to listen to my gut; God speaks to the whole person, and he is God for the whole person. You’re a musician, too, aren’t you?

    But here you have missed the point. Moral realism says that there are at least some values and duties that hold as true, regardless of how many people subscribe to them. It does not say that all values and duties apply to all persons at all times. It does not say that eating dogs is wrong at all times for all people, though I consider it wrong for me. It does not say that eating with your left hand is wrong for all times and all people, even though for certain south Asians it certainly is wrong.

    I have been crediting you with enough intelligence, and granting grace to think that you might treat this argument seriously. Please do not make a straw man out of it! You’re not making your own position look any stronger that way.

    So yes, there is considerable cultural variance regarding certain norms. I’m asking you to listen to your gut (you brought up the term, I’ll go ahead and use it) and not just your arguing logical head, and realize that cultural variance reaches far beyond its limits when it says there’s a system that could potentially say that (10) and (11) are universal goods.

    More and more I think you’re arguing in bad faith, Paul, because I just cannot believe you would say what you said on 1 July at 1:17 pm. I cannot believe that you would agree that the situation I outlined in this thought experiment could possibly be describable as good. But that’s what you said. Do you really believe this? Or are you just trying to escape the implications that would force themselves on you if you disagreed?

  44. Paul says:

    Tom, my sincere apologies. I hope it helps if you know that I had written

    “[left caret]hitting below the belt[right caret] . . . . [left caret]/hitting below the belt[right caret]”

    before that rude sentence. I knew it was right up to or across the line, and I hoped that the “hitting below the belt” thingie would communicate that I knew it was such, and therefore we should focus on the substance, not the rhetoric; I wasn’t doing it unconsciously. Perhaps I was trying to have my cake and eat it to, and I’ll ask forgiveness for that. It came off way beyond what I intended when the tags didn’t show up, and I didn’t check to see if the tags would show up as text.

    I fear with that mistake that you have become more suspicious of my intentions, and that I regret. I’m trying to be honest, within the limitations that people (including me, and you, too) can sometimes fool themselves.

    Now, to the substance:

    I think it is a fact that, given sufficient enculturation, that someone, or even an entire society, could adopt as moral *any* behaviors that you would claim to be immoral. Can you prove this wrong?

  45. SteveK says:

    Bill Vallicella put up a post today on subjectivity and the meaning of life. I think it will help us here. I could be wrong, but I don’t see any reason why it can’t be applied to morality.

    “the subjectivist appears to be astride the horns of a dilemma. Either the acts of meaning-bestowal are meaningful or they are meaningless. If the former, then a vicious infinite regress ensues. If the latter, then the life of which they are essential parts is meaningless.”

  46. SteveK says:

    Charlie
    The infinite regress that Bill Vallicella talks about reminded me of a C.S. Lewis quote (I think) you gave in the comments not long ago. Something about seeing through everything means there is nothing to see. Is that quote relevant here?

  47. Tom Gilson says:

    Paul, thank you for providing the rest of that response that didn’t survive the last publishing. I appreciate and accept your apology.

    I think it is a fact that, given sufficient enculturation, that someone, or even an entire society, could adopt as moral *any* behaviors that you would claim to be immoral. Can you prove this wrong?

    I believe this is wrong. I can’t prove it because I’m not about to run the experiment. On the other hand, Western culture actually has been trying to run the experiment, in regard to throw-away marriages, unmarried “hooking up,” same-sex “marriage,” and killing unborn children.* The response so far has been very, very mixed.

    But what would it show even if you were right and I were wrong about this? Moral realism says there are some values that obtain regardless of who adheres to them. And the conclusions of (10) and (11) above would still be very, very, very wrong, even if we reached a point where everyone living believed they were right.

    *I am not saying these are the only major sins of Western culture, but you used the word “adopt,” and these are the newest ones being proposed for adoption lately.

  48. Esko Heimonen says:

    Tom,

    No worries, this is your hobby not your job. Hope the colonoscopy pays out.

    What I meant with my parenthetical quote was simply that both moral relativists and moral absolutists can hold a myriad of differing
    opinions, even if absolutists considered their opinions absolute
    truths. No, this variety does not logically prevent moral
    absolutism. It merely hints that there might be something
    intellectually dishonest about moral absolutism.

    I am aware that you are actively trying to counterbalance this observation by largely being a moral relativist yourself and only saving your absolutism for moral axioms or scenarios which you apparently think are somehow clear-cut, trivial, and necessary to accept (this combination or hybrid is, I gather, what you call “moral realism”). I (too) am rather sceptical about your relativist-absolutist hybrid. Not only does the distinction between absolute and relative “truths” remain quite arbitrary in your thinking, but also even your most “confident” cases fail to impress me. Which is precisely why I have e.g. brought in examples of how easily you yourself accept, for example, genocide, given the right conditions.

    Some quite revealing quotes follow.

    1. “Realists have a number of ways of defending our axioms. We believe that some moral facts are simply known

    I have difficulties finding any essential difference in these sentences compared to my earlier:

    “Moral absolutists, on the other hand, do bother: they pretend that their axioms can be defended by saying e.g. ‘it is absolutely so because I believe that it just is so'”

    So, I guess I just have to conclude that, by your very demonstration, you really do bother. You bother to pretend that it is valid persuasion, either rational or rhetorical, to stomp on your hat. That’s all you’re doing here and you are puzzled by the fact that I don’t bother to do the same.

    2. “We know that murder is wrong, child rape is wrong, etc., just because it is plain to the healthy mind that it is so. That is taking these moral facts as axiomatic in the plain sense of axiomatic.

    This is another thing I feel that I predicted. You do seem to have your own version of logic. Since when has the “plain sense” of axiomatic been “just knowing it is true”? No, my friend. The “plain sense” of axiomatic is “just assuming it is true”, for the purpose of an argument (quite literally!). There are predicates that are just assumed true, called axioms, and all other predicates have to be derived from axioms. None of this has anything to do with our confidence in axioms. I.e. they can be entirely subjective. Instead, it is a very special case if we claim to have axioms known to be true. If the axioms of our formal system are ontological predicates (i.e. descriptive claims), it is quite possible that we could raise our confidence in the axioms by testing the formal system against our observations about the reality. If, however, some of our axioms are moral (i.e. normative claims), we can only explore what kind of strategies (behavioral models) our system produces, but there are no observations that could raise our confidence in the moral axioms. We can’t really say: “Ah, Thou Shalt Not Kill must be a correct moral axiom, because the maxim of not killing just somehow seems to fit the observed reality so well. For example, this maxim produces less of those awful genocides which, I always think, don’t fit the reality at all.” Agreed?

    3. “But don’t misunderstand that. I do not mean, there is no way to persuade the person to stop other than by saying, I disagree. What I mean is this: there is no way to tell the other person what they did is wrong. You can only say you disagree.

    A thousand dollar question. Can you very carefully elaborate the practical consequences. My opinion is that this has no other practical consequence except that:

    a) I look slightly more attractive in my moral opponents’ eyes due to my lack of self-righteousness
    b) I feel slightly more intellectually honest because I don’t pretend to be capable of doing something I in reality can’t (define Right or Wrong objectively)
    c) you, on the other hand, likely feel emotionally satisfied in believing that you are Absolutely Right (regardless of whether you are absolutely right or not).
    d) if we later change our opinions, it is possible that we both feel shame, but very likely that you feel special shame for your “theoretical” self-righteousness

    Most importantly, the difference does not prevent either of us defending our opinions equally passionately, as you seem to agree. It also does not give either of us any new argument over the other, against our common moral opponent. Well, when I compare “I disagree” with “I disagree, and mind you, I believe I’m absolutely right”, I’d say that the first sentence is a tactically better move, especially in the parliament, but you may disagree.

    As per contract, I will soon respond to your suspicion that a moral relativist’s opinions are grounded on nothing.

  49. Tom Gilson says:

    Thanks for that thoughtful response, Esko, and another opportunity to clarify.

    Recognizing that different norms may exist in different cultures does not make one a relativist. I’ve repeated the definition of realism twice recently so I won’t restate it this time, but I’ll add this: these different norms’ validity is contingent on their being congruent with bedrock moral realities.

    The Bible treats this in 1 Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14-15 (lengthy passages, elucidating a crucial principle). There were people in both Corinth and Rome who were squabbling over whether it was okay to eat meat that had been offered to idols. Paul wrote that it did not matter essentially, but that we ought to be sensitive to one another’s consciences nevertheless, and respect one another’s sensitivities. The bedrock principles there are freedom in one respect, and love in another respect.

    So I am not being “largely a moral relativist,” and the distinction between absolute and relative is not as indistinct as it probably appears. There are certain fundamental principles of finite number. There are virtually infinite applications of those principles, and within those principles, considerable freedom for different kinds of applications.

    In response to your points:

    1. I am not working on the question of persuasion here, which is epistemology, but on the question of ontology. That is, I am not trying in this particular post to show you which moral principles must be accepted, but rather that there must be at least some moral realities, for relativism in general leads to unacceptable absurdities. It’s really a rather limited purpose I’ve been pursuing. So I don’t think your point 1 addresses what I’ve been saying.

    If I were trying to persuade you of the reality of a particular moral principle, I would start with the reality of God and his word. That’s not where I started this time, as I’m sure you will see upon review.

    2. On the other hand, and almost conversely, I am appealing to what I see as common human knowledge in regard to a limited number of moral principles. I don’t think this is an attempt at persuasion; it’s an appeal to already-shared knowledge. Murder is wrong, child rape is wrong, and you and I both know it.

    I stand corrected on “the plain sense of axiomatic.” I agree I was wrong on that. The knowledge I was referring to here is something that is known, not something that is assumed for the sake of developing a further argument.

    3. The practical consequences of this boil down to this: the words right and wrong in their normal meanings must be discarded, to be replaced with I agree/I like that or I disagree/dislike that. And then you have to live with that reality, if reality you think it is.

  50. Paul says:

    If you assume that any behavior could be enculturated as moral, then we can put to rest the following issue:

    More and more I think you’re arguing in bad faith, Paul, because I just cannot believe you would say what you said on 1 July at 1:17 pm. I cannot believe that you would agree that the situation I outlined in this thought experiment could possibly be describable as good. But that’s what you said. Do you really believe this? Or are you just trying to escape the implications that would force themselves on you if you disagreed?

    I can’t prove this either, and wouldn’t want to run the experiment, either.

    Wait a minute, you keep on getting me to defend a type of relativism that I don’t believe in and keep trying to limit. It’s probably not any behavior that can be enculturated; not because it’s objectively wrong, but because evolution has limited what a group, for its benefit, will tolerate.

    There’s no reason to believe that relativism, limited by evolution, isn’t self-contradictory.

  51. SteveK says:

    Hope the colonoscopy pays out.

    They pay you for these? Can’t wait for mine!! ;)

  52. Esko Heimonen says:

    Tom,

    I was dumb enough to not compose my post in a separate text editor during the availability problems of your web server (your hobby must have felt like a job lately, eh?), so this is my 2nd attempt to fulfill my promise of responding to your:

    But what about these axioms? Are they grounded in anything at all? It sounds to me like you are saying they are not. Then are they simply arbitrary? And if arbitrary, why should anyone think they hold, or matter, when challenged?

    I guess these questions are very close to the more usual: “is secular ethics grounded in anything at all?” My answer is “yes it is “, especially when you helpfully clarify that answering “no” would mean that the moral axioms of moral relativists are “simply arbitrary”.

    What does “simply arbitrary” mean? To me, this means “random”. And what does that, in turn, mean? It means that a moral relativist in an unknown time and culture is equally likely to have (a) “never brush your teeth during the same hour in two consequtive days, especially not with a soft brush” as a moral ground rule as he is to have (b) “protect life, especially human life” or (c ) “destroy life, especially human life” as a ground rule. I claim that such an idea does not reflect our reality well. To be more specific, I claim that:

    An unknown moral relativist is more likely to have matters of life and death as his moral ground rules than he would be to have, say, style issues in toothcare as his moral ground rules. (Using my example: (b) and (c ) are more likely moral ground rules than (a).)

    This was my first step, but in my eyes an important step, in criticizing the idea that moral relativism is not grounded on anything at all. I start by simply weakening the idea. It is, in my opinion, too much to claim that relativists’ moral axioms were essentially just random utterances (even if syntactically correct and free of semantic inconsistencies). And this already suggests that they are grounded in at least something, even if they are no objective truths.

    Before I continue, it is important to verify whether you can agree with my criticism so far, i.e. whether you agree that “simply arbitrary” is too strong an expression.

  53. Esko Heimonen says:

    Tom,

    Regarding your last post to me, I feel rather helpless. You “appeal to already-shared knowledge” and declare that “murder is wrong, child rape is wrong, and you and I both know it”. (While denying the possibility that this might be an attempt at persuasion instead of just stating factual claims.)

    It is hard to argue against someone who is simply stomping on his hat. To me, it would seem dead obvious by now how I will respond to your claims. No, we don’t know murder is wrong, no matter how passionately we might oppose murder. We merely have an opinion. Which, I once again repeat, is pretty much the same thing for all practical purposes.

    Perhaps an analogy might be helpful. I was once startled when I learned that Mr. Empiricist, David Hume, was himself the first critic of his empiricism. More specifically, I was startled by how efficiently Hume devastated the foundation on which his own philosophical “school” rested: the inductive logic. You just can’t defend inductive logic logically, because your defense is likely inductive in nature (“inductive logic has worked just wonderfully in the past so why not continue using it in the future”) which would be circular reasoning. To be sure, Hume works hard to persuade us to still rely on inductive logic, but the important thing for our purposes here is that he openly admits that inductive logic is not a epistemological method somehow magically known to be correct. Of course, similar problems lie at the core of all rational thinking. You can’t logically defend any epistemological system: if you could prove its axioms, you would be committing circular reasoning, and when you can’t, well, what does your system rest on? The answer is that we just have to choose methods that we subjectively feel to be the most useful, fully admitting that we can’t prove them. And yet, some epistemological systems are much, much more popular than the “simply arbitrary” epistemological systems.

    A “snide” comment was made in this thread towards Paul who, like me, admits that nothing can be known with absolute certainty. But here, too, as with ethics, I wonder what are the practical consequences of our intellectual honesty (as I call it) or “absurdity” (as you call it)? We aren’t exactly crippled by admitting that the strategies we have chosen concerning e.g. moral issues or epistemology aren’t any objective truths. It is not equal to thinking that our thoughts are mere paper cups floating on a stormy sea. Not all thought patterns are equally probable to become normative.

    So was Hume, too, absurd when he admitted that he can’t defend inductive logic logically? Should Hume have started stomping on his hat instead and yell: “But we just know that the Sun will definitely, absolutely rise tomorrow!”

  54. SteveK says:

    No, we don’t know murder is wrong, no matter how passionately we might oppose murder.

    I know it’s wrong to the same degree that I know I’m alive, I know I can think rationally, I know I have free will and I know I love my family.

  55. Holopupenko says:

    Esko:
         With all due respect, you hold a less-than-properly-informed understanding of David Hume’s views—especially with regard to the implications of his ideas (how they influenced subsequent bad philosophy and how his disordered view of causality pretty much makes science impossible)… which, interestingly, stem largely from his fallacious understanding of what an idea is in the first place. And, I would caution you to actually read his works with a critical eye, and not simply swallow his (literal) book-burning condescension aimed at metaphysics, his amateurish understanding of causality (that results from his abandonment of metaphysics), and a moral relativism that suits his needs… simply because they “sound” good or are in fashion.
         A good, fairly short summary critique of Hume’s ideas may be found here:
         http://radicalacademy.com/phildavidhume1.htm.
         With no personal flag-waving intended, here are some more:
         http://reasoningrepaired.blogspot.com/2007/02/david-hume-you-want-fries-with-that.html
         http://reasoningrepaired.blogspot.com/2007/01/memento-homo-quia-pulvis-es.html
         http://reasoningrepaired.blogspot.com/2006/09/david-hume-book-burner.html
         http://reasoningrepaired.blogspot.com/2006/07/moral-relativists-and-little-girls.html

    SteveK:
         Sorry, that’s not quite correct: your knowing that you’re alive is undeniable because to deny it would be to assume that you’re alive in order to deny it. Knowing that something (like murder) is wrong is not like knowing you’re alive. Murder is wrong because of what we are per our natures (philosophically) and who we are in our relation to God (theologically). There’s nothing wrong per se to depend on gut revulsion to the murder of an innocent because this can nicely set one off on a correct path of philosophical reflection to arrive at a reasoned argument. Moral relativists discount the gut revulsion because of their prior disordered reasoning. (Consider, for example, Esko’s self-stultifying absolutist claim against absolute certainty and his objective moral complaint—all in one sentence!: “A ‘snide’ comment was made in this thread towards Paul who, like me, admits that nothing can be known with absolute certainty.” In other words, moral relativists talk the talk, but will never adhere to their own rules.) Gut revulsion has its place in understanding, but it is a means to getting to the truth—not the truth itself: rhetorical reasoning is perfectly acceptable as long as it leads or points to truth and certainty.

  56. SteveK says:

    Holo,
    I see what you are saying. There is a difference between these areas of knowledge, which brings up a question I’ve been wanting to ask.

    People say things like “the reason you know X is because you verified/confirmed X” when it seem obvious to me that confirming X means I am affirming the assumption that I had knowledge of X before I started the confirmation process – which defeats the statement above!!

    Is this correct? If so, then am I correct to say that knowledge has nothing to do with certainty.

  57. Esko Heimonen says:

    Holopupenko,

    Consider, for example, Esko’s self-stultifying absolutist claim against absolute certainty and his objective moral complaint—all in one sentence!: “A ‘snide’ comment was made in this thread towards Paul who, like me, admits that nothing can be known with absolute certainty.“”

    Ah, word games.

    It would seem to me that you have one-sidedly given the word “admit” a strict meaning that you likely can’t defend. As for requiring me to preceed all instances of “good”, “bad”, “snide” etc. with “in my opinion”, well, guess what. I will be more likely to change my company than to adopt impractical language. I’m sorry, but the above was, in my opinion just another snide shot. After all that has been said in this threat, I dare suspect that there is no real danger of sincere misunderstanding.

  58. Paul says:

    Tom, where are we?

    It seems to me that Tom, under the guise of a very logical exposition, sought to nearly shame relativists into denying that relativism allows horrific morals. But relativism accounts for such horrors quite nicely, thank you.

    Why haven’t you been able to shame us into moral objectivity? Is it because relativists are

    1. morally bankrupt;
    2. intellectually dishonest;
    3. logically consistent;
    4. some of the above?

  59. Tom Gilson says:

    Where are we?

    Good question. Between the lines of my recent post on moving to a new web server, you could accurately read hours and hours of troubleshooting on the old one. The problems were so severe and their tech response so slow, it eventually drove me to give up and leave them. I don’t even know yet if I’ll get my money back from the old web host.

    I’ve had time for working on that and of course for some family and church events this weekend. I haven’t had time for actual blogging.

    As a result, I’m going to have to re-read all of this and re-acquaint myself with the whole thing—which I hope to have time to do first thing tomorrow morning.

  60. Holopupenko says:

    Esko:
         Let’s leave aside your deafening silence regarding Hume’s flawed ideas.
         I suggest rather than whining, you actually try to substantively address the self-stultifying claim made: you asserted with absolute certainty a claim against absolute certitude—thereby granting yourself special dispensation to build a worldview based upon that contradiction. And, you also made an objective moral claim against someone (and then against me with “word games”!) all while peddling moral relativism. Stay focused, stay on mission: address those inconsistencies before trying to convince us of the soundness of your worldview.
         Oh, and if you indeed believe QUOTE: “nothing can be known with absolute certainty,” then what possible reason could you have in convincing us that moral relativism is grounded in something objective? What’s the point if nothing is known with absolute certainty? Why should we bother? Why should we be objectively concerned about your trying to impose personal “feelings” upon us simply because it “feels” good? (QUOTE: “we just have to [“have to”?!?] choose methods that we subjectively feel to be the most useful, fully admitting that we can’t prove them…”) What do you mean, objectively, by “have to,” “normative” or “snide”… and if they are merely subjective, why should we care or listen? And why make the claim QUOTE: “You can’t logically defend any epistemological system” when by virtue of this claim you yourself have just made an (allegedly) absolute and logical epistemological claim?
         Who are you to impose all sorts of claims (moral and epistemological) against others, while claims against you are out of bounds? Why ought to anyone take your ideas seriously? Who, pray tell, is the one “stomping on his hat”?

    Tom:
         With moral relativists discussions invariable reduce to the same thing: when the bankruptcy of their position is exposed, they’re the first ones to invoke “your tone isn’t becoming of a Christian” or “no fair!” or they run away with sandlot-like threats of “change my company,” or the silent treatment. If moral relativism is true, you’d expect not only a cogent argument, but that these guys would live up to their own rules. Well, don’t hold your breath for either—as we’ve witnessed over and over again on this blog. If, as these guys want so desperately to believe, all epistemological and moral categories are relative, then their own position reduces to nothing other than personal, emotionally-laden opinion. This blog, as far as I can tell, does not (for which you are to be roundly applauded)—nor should it—grant primacy of position to personal opinions. (They may be interesting and add color to the discussion, but that’s about it.)
         Truth is anything but opinion. How could one do science if it were mere opinion, for example? What is the point of these discussions if the goal is not, nor could it ever, be about objective truth? On what possible objective basis could these guys claim (let alone mandate) that scientists ought not to cook the results of their work to meet preconceived conclusions? I mean, let’s get real: based on Esko’s latest foray against objectivity (“we don’t know murder is wrong”), he really believes there might be a time and place in which it would be morally “okay” for scientists to cook their laboratory notebooks. But then, what happens to the search for truth about the natural world known as “science”? That little question is uncomfortably pushed into the background in the hopes that it will go away. I want to be embraced by truth, while these guys see it as some sign of weakness to do so, and they also believe it is a sign of strength to be committed (at the end of the day) to nothing… a position to which, by the way, they are committed to with absolute certainty and strength of purpose.
         All this reminds me about an anecdote based on an old Soviet joke, but which, all kidding aside, I personally witnessed at a Home Depot near D.C. back in 1992. As a specialist and interpreter, I accompanied a small delegation of Ukrainians to D.C. that was to make a presentation on Chornobyl. The host decided to take three of the guys to a Home Depot (it was their first trip to the U.S.). They were overwhelmed (which doesn’t capture it—“shocked” better captures the moment) by the hugeness of the selection and the choices Americans had to deal with simply in going to a store. Anyway, one of the guys, a deputy minister, unexpectedly stops us in the middle of an isle and starts sniffing at the air. He says, “Hey, you guys smell that? Can you smell that? That’s the smell of Capitalism decaying!” We were on the ground, unable to breathe because we were laughing so hard. Self-deprecating Soviet humor was an art form. Anyway, that’s the kind of feeling I get when dealing with moral relativists: like “good” Soviet ideologists (or the Minister of Information for Saddam Hussein as coalition forces were entering Baghdad), they make ridiculous claims against the existence of at least some moral absolutes while blind to their own worldview rotting beneath their feet.
         Anyway, to respond to Paul’s strange claims against you is easy: (1) they live it but don’t admit it, and in fact argue against it; (2) quite likely given that prior unscientific, pseudo-philosophical commitments must be defended to the death with no questioning permitted (see Lewontin’s quote on this); (3) not on your life. (Note the morally-loaded words like “horror” that Paul uses, well… objectively!)

    SteveK:
         Several points: whether relativists, atheists, scientismists, philosophical naturalists or other sundry proponents of disordered ideas (meaning: not ordered to truth) want to admit it, their position 9 times out of 10 stumbles, crashes and burns on some form of the positivist mantra that all knowledge must be verifiable—missing the blatantly-obvious, in-your-face contradiction that their own claim is not verifiable. That’s point one.
         Point two is that science is certain knowledge of the causes of things, or more formally “mediate intellectual knowledge obtained through demonstration.” If the knowledge is not certain, it is not scientific—it may be dialectical, rhetorical, or poetic (which have their place in pointing to truth). Of course, these folks always reduce “science” to the “modern empirical sciences” when, in fact, any knowledge that can be demonstrated (as opposed to merely proven) is scientific, i.e., certain, knowledge. The problem is their understanding of science is so neutered that it does the modern empirical sciences a disfavor! They do this by sneaking in (quite intentionally) the fallacy that observation and measurement determine validity. Pwah! Try reflecting that criterion back upon itself. Our knowledge is not limited to things, to mere objects, for while the knowledge of the objects is primary, intellectual knowledge consists in knowledge of universals which are distinctly and determinately known but not verifiable by observation or measurement… which leads me back to the principle you know well: while all knowledge is acquired through the senses, not all knowledge is sensory knowledge. I get just as peeved at someone trying to convince me I have to turn to the Bible to learn about earthquakes as I do at those who try to convince me science “proves” the validity of all ideas.
         This leads to point three. We are no more “illuminated” by God in reading the Bible to learn about earthquakes than we are “illuminated” by brights peddling idealism and positivism and philosophical naturalism. Neither fideists nor secularists give the human mind (we are rational animals, by the way) its due: the latter believe they have to “help” God to let us know things; the latter believe they have to “help” humans to reason. We are creatures that reason—by definition: we don’t need “help” to do so because it is in our nature to reason—we were created that way. (That human reason is limited in its abilities is clear, but that in no way implies we can’t know certain things with certitude.) God created world itself, the world of changeable being, i.e., natural things, and we know those things by their own intelligibilities because God “equipped” the human mind to capture (know) the world—in some cases with absolute certainty. Science has shown us with absolute certainty that humans have a closed circulatory blood system with a quadra-valve heart—we didn’t need the Bible to figure that out. Philosophy has shown us with absolute certainty that certain ontological principles form the basis of extra-mental reality—we didn’t need the Bible to figure that out. Theology reflects upon revealed knowledge—knowledge that, by our own human capacity to reason, to which we would never be able to reason, such as the Trinity, the incarnation, etc. Human beings can and do know the reality of the world, and from this we move demonstratively (i.e., reason) from this sure knowledge back to a sure knowledge of God, at least as He is the cause of this creation, i.e., the causes of “natures” that “inhabit” His creation.
         Whew! So, anyway, to respond to your question (I hope): knowledge has lots to do with certainty. Knowledge can be certain—if only we’re brave enough (intellectually) to admit it. A brief expansion: (1) truth is logical, i.e., propositions about the extra-mental world are true if the mind matches reality; (2) truth is ontological in the philosophically transcendental sense: all existents are (a) beings (b) true (c) one (d) beautiful to the extent they exist (the color of the ball—an accident—depends on the existence of the substance, i.e., the ball itself, and hence has a lesser “degree” or “modality” of existence, but it does exist extra-mentally; the rules of chess only exist in the human mind, and so have an even “lower” degree of existence). Another way of characterizing ontological truth is that inasmuch as any reality/existent is knowable, inasmuch as it can be known and accurately judged by an adequate mind, truth abides in it.
         Related to the current discussion on the depravity of moral relativism, there is a third type of truth—the truth of speech which consists in the agreement between the knowledge and the words by which it is expressed. Truth in its logical and ontological aspects is known as verity; truth as it relates to speech is veracity, which is also called moral truth. In that sense, as harsh as it may sound (the truth cuts like a two-edged sword), moral relativism is an out-and-out lie… and you can take that to the bank. If a knowing mind does not or refuses to judge the truth of propositions, it is not the fault of the things known but the inadequacy of the mind and a disordered will not to fully use one’s mind. Things/existents (as opposed to propositions) are necessarily true: there is no such a thing as a “false” thing, i.e., there is no ontological falsity… and yet, at the end of the day (by implication) things are false to relativists. As a Christian, I’m sure you’re feeling the horror of such a position—a position truly worthy of the Deceiver. The strategy is clear: if you can get humans beings to deny the objective existence of things and get them to deny that we can know anything at all with certitude, you cut off the ability to reason to the existence of God… which is precisely the point, the goal, the end to which the Deceiver wants to entice us.

  61. Holopupenko says:

    Esko:
         Let’s leave aside your deafening silence regarding Hume’s flawed ideas.
         I suggest rather than complaining, you actually try to address substantively the self-stultifying claim made: you asserted with absolute certainty a claim against absolute certitude—thereby granting yourself special dispensation to build a worldview based upon that contradiction. And, you also made an objective moral claim against someone (and then against me with “word games”!) all while peddling moral relativism. Stay focused, stay on mission: address those inconsistencies before trying to convince us of the soundness of your worldview.
         Oh, and if you indeed believe QUOTE: “nothing can be known with absolute certainty,” then what possible reason could you have in convincing us that moral relativism is grounded in something objective? What’s the point if nothing is known with absolute certainty? Why should we bother? Why should we be objectively concerned about your trying to impose personal “feelings” upon us simply because it “feels” good? (QUOTE: “we just have to [“have to”?!?] choose methods that we subjectively feel to be the most useful, fully admitting that we can’t prove them…”) What do you mean, objectively, by “have to,” “normative” or “snide”… and if they are merely subjective, why should we care or listen? And why make the claim QUOTE: “You can’t logically defend any epistemological system” when by virtue of this claim you yourself have just made an (allegedly) absolute and logical epistemological claim?
         Who are you to impose all sorts of claims (moral and epistemological) against others, while claims against you are out of bounds? Why ought to anyone take your ideas seriously? Who, pray tell, is the one “stomping on his hat”?

  62. Holopupenko says:

    SteveK:
         Several points: whether relativists, atheists, scientismists, philosophical naturalists or other sundry proponents of disordered ideas (meaning: not ordered to truth) want to admit it, their position 9 times out of 10 stumbles, crashes and burns on some form of the positivist mantra that all knowledge must be verifiable—missing the blatantly-obvious, in-your-face contradiction that their own claim is not verifiable. That’s point one.
         Point two is that science is certain knowledge of the causes of things, or more formally “mediate intellectual knowledge obtained through demonstration.” If the knowledge is not certain, it is not scientific—it may be dialectical, rhetorical, or poetic (which have their place in pointing to truth). Of course, these folks always reduce “science” to the “modern empirical sciences” when, in fact, any knowledge that can be demonstrated (as opposed to merely proven) is scientific, i.e., certain, knowledge. The problem is their understanding of science is so neutered that it does the modern empirical sciences a disfavor! They do this by sneaking in (quite intentionally) the fallacy that observation and measurement determine validity. Pwah! Try reflecting that criterion back upon itself. Our knowledge is not limited to things, to mere objects, for while the knowledge of the objects is primary, intellectual knowledge consists in knowledge of universals which are distinctly and determinately known but not verifiable by observation or measurement… which leads me back to the principle you know well: while all knowledge is acquired through the senses, not all knowledge is sensory knowledge. I get just as peeved at someone trying to convince me I have to turn to the Bible to learn about earthquakes as I do at those who try to convince me science “proves” the validity of all ideas.
         This leads to point three. We are no more “illuminated” by God in reading the Bible to learn about earthquakes than we are “illuminated” by brights peddling idealism and positivism and philosophical naturalism. Neither fideists nor secularists give the human mind (we are rational animals, by the way) its due: the latter believe they have to “help” God to let us know things; the latter believe they have to “help” humans to reason. We are creatures that reason—by definition: we don’t need “help” to do so because it is in our nature to reason—we were created that way. (That human reason is limited in its abilities is clear, but that in no way implies we can’t know certain things with certitude.) God created world itself, the world of changeable being, i.e., natural things, and we know those things by their own intelligibilities because God “equipped” the human mind to capture (know) the world—in some cases with absolute certainty. Science has shown us with absolute certainty that humans have a closed circulatory blood system with a quadra-valve heart—we didn’t need the Bible to figure that out. Philosophy has shown us with absolute certainty that certain ontological principles form the basis of extra-mental reality—we didn’t need the Bible to figure that out. Theology reflects upon revealed knowledge—knowledge that, by our own human capacity to reason, to which we would never be able to reason, such as the Trinity, the incarnation, etc. Human beings can and do know the reality of the world, and from this we move demonstratively (i.e., reason) from this sure knowledge back to a sure knowledge of God, at least as He is the cause of this creation, i.e., the causes of “natures” that “inhabit” His creation.
         Whew! So, anyway, to respond to your question (I hope): knowledge has lots to do with certainty. Knowledge can be certain—if only we’re brave enough (intellectually) to admit it. A brief expansion: (1) truth is logical, i.e., propositions about the extra-mental world are true if the mind matches reality; (2) truth is ontological in the philosophically transcendental sense: all existents are (a) beings (b) true (c) one (d) beautiful to the extent they exist (the color of the ball—an accident—depends on the existence of the substance, i.e., the ball itself, and hence has a lesser “degree” or “modality” of existence, but it does exist extra-mentally; the rules of chess only exist in the human mind, and so have an even “lower” degree of existence). Another way of characterizing ontological truth is that inasmuch as any reality/existent is knowable, inasmuch as it can be known and accurately judged by an adequate mind, truth abides in it.
         Related to the current discussion on the depravity of moral relativism, there is a third type of truth—the truth of speech which consists in the agreement between the knowledge and the words by which it is expressed. Truth in its logical and ontological aspects is known as verity; truth as it relates to speech is veracity, which is also called moral truth. In that sense, as harsh as it may sound (the truth cuts like a two-edged sword), moral relativism is an out-and-out lie… and you can take that to the bank. If a knowing mind does not or refuses to judge the truth of propositions, it is not the fault of the things known but the inadequacy of the mind and a disordered will not to fully use one’s mind. Things/existents (as opposed to propositions) are necessarily true: there is no such a thing as a “false” thing, i.e., there is no ontological falsity… and yet, at the end of the day (by implication) things are false to relativists. As a Christian, I’m sure you’re feeling the horror of such a position—a position truly worthy of the Deceiver. The strategy is clear: if you can get humans beings to deny the objective existence of things and get them to deny that we can know anything at all with certitude, you cut off the ability to reason to the existence of God… which is precisely the point, the goal, the end to which the Deceiver wants to entice us.

  63. Esko Heimonen says:

    Let’s leave aside your deafening silence regarding Hume’s flawed ideas.

    Yes, let’s do that because almost everything you wrote about Hume is rather off-topic. I apologize for mentioning a philosopher’s name without remembering that likely someone thinks that it justifiably catalyzes a full-scale evaluation of the named philosopher’s thinking. Your interest in the history of philosophy is appreciated.

    you asserted with absolute certainty a claim against absolute certitude

    Did not. You are merely asserting this, based on a prejudiced and strict interpretation of the meaning of the verb “admit”, which happens to be different than my original meaning.

    If Esko “admits” that the Moon is made of cheese, does Esko necessarily state something about the Moon with absolute certainty? No, not necessarily. If we know that Esko does not believe in absolute certainties, we can safely assume that Esko instead admits to being persuaded into thinking that the Moon is made of cheese. In tactful company, Esko is probably free to not use such inconvenient expressions explicitly, however. After all, this is one of many oversimplications that we unavoidably use in conversations, even philosophical ones. It is a mutual benefit, although clarifications may be occasionally needed.

    When Esko “admits” that nothing can be known with absolute certainty, does Esko (ha ha!) assert with absolute certainty a claim against absolute certainties? Not necessarily. Esko may, for example, merely think so and additionally express (by using the word “admit”) that he does find the thought emotionally inconvenient. We long for absolute certainties, so it is inconvenient to think that one can’t reach them. Just as it is inconvenient to think that I can’t argue objectively against genocide-mongering as a moral ground rule. (However, I would find it even more inconvient to pretend that I could reach absolute certainties when I have intellectually failed to convince myself of such a belief.)

    you also made an objective moral claim against someone

    Did not. You are asserting this based on a singular omission of the prefix “in my opinion”. I do reserve the right to not precede all of my claims with e.g. “in my opinion”, regardless of whether I think the claims are mere opinions. I believe that, in tactful company, they would be only harmful: too much trouble for myself and too tedious to read for others. A tactful reader should be able to deduce from context that a moral relativist is stating his opinions rather than objective facts even when not emphasizing it separately.

    I have not said your claims were “out of bounds” — I have responded to them twice now, after all. But I think that word games such as these are “crying wolf”. I do appreciate it if a person can dig out something genuinely relevant and thought-provoking playing word games, but too often, as in this case, they are used merely as cheap attemps to score loose debate points. (It is perfectly possible to implicitly read the preceding sentence as an opinion, given the context of a relativist, is it not?). I find this to be a self-defeating tactic, because on the long run it merely makes a person lose his own credibility. I think it is very useful to save word games for the moment when they truly have something relevant to teach us. Indeed, I believe that I had something truly relevant to say when I criticized Tom’s interpretation of the “plain sense” for “axiomatic”, because the whole idea behind that particular argument of his rested on this very interpretation. Whereas your criticism of my various short-hand notations are sheer leer (here is another opinion for you to interpret one-sidedly as an absolutist claim) that leaves my actual message intact even if you managed to convince yourself that I had made an embarrassing technical error.

  64. Holopupenko says:

    Esko:
         In everything you just wrote, what exactly is relevant to supporting your position for moral relativism? The onus lies on you—despite now trying to cover the very revealing tracks you left by denying making the assertions you made. I exposed the additional three quotes from your message for all to see. Please address all four. “Did not” doesn’t really cut it… and even if we accept that as an answer (i.e., that you’re notmaking an objective claim), then why should anyone care about a personal, subjective opinion?

    Tom:
         With moral relativists discussions invariable reduce to the same thing: when the bankruptcy of their position is exposed, they’re the first ones to invoke “your tone isn’t becoming of a Christian” or “no fair!” or they run away with sandlot-like threats of “change my company,” or the silent treatment. If moral relativism is true, you’d expect not only a cogent argument, but that these guys would live up to their own rules. Well, don’t hold your breath for either—as we’ve witnessed over and over again on this blog. If, as these guys want so desperately to believe, all epistemological and moral categories are relative, then their own position reduces to nothing other than personal, emotionally-laden opinion. This blog, as far as I can tell, does not (for which you are to be roundly applauded)—nor should it—grant primacy of position to personal opinions. (They may be interesting and add color to the discussion, but that’s about it.)
         Truth is anything but opinion. How could one do science if it were mere opinion, for example? What is the point of these discussions if the goal is not, nor could it ever, be about objective truth? On what possible objective basis could these guys claim (let alone mandate) that scientists ought not to cook the results of their work to meet preconceived conclusions? I mean, let’s get real: based on Esko’s latest foray against objectivity (“we don’t know murder is wrong”), he really believes there might be a time and place in which it would be morally “okay” for scientists to cook their laboratory notebooks. But then, what happens to the search for truth about the natural world known as “science”? That little question is uncomfortably pushed into the background in the hopes that it will go away. I want to be embraced by truth, while these guys see it as some sign of weakness to do so, and they also believe it is a sign of strength to be committed (at the end of the day) to nothing… a position to which, by the way, they are committed to with absolute certainty and strength of purpose.
         All this reminds me about an anecdote based on an old Soviet joke, but which, all kidding aside, I personally witnessed at a Home Depot near D.C. back in 1992. As a specialist and interpreter, I accompanied a small delegation of Ukrainians to D.C. that was to make a presentation on Chornobyl. The host decided to take three of the guys to a Home Depot (it was their first trip to the U.S.). They were overwhelmed (which doesn’t capture it—“shocked” better captures the moment) by the hugeness of the selection and the choices Americans had to deal with simply in going to a store. Anyway, one of the guys, a deputy minister, unexpectedly stops us in the middle of an isle and starts sniffing at the air. He says, “Hey, you guys smell that? Can you smell that? That’s the smell of Capitalism decaying!” We were on the ground, unable to breathe because we were laughing so hard. Self-deprecating Soviet humor was an art form. Anyway, that’s the kind of feeling I get when dealing with moral relativists: like “good” Soviet ideologists (or the Minister of Information for Saddam Hussein as coalition forces were entering Baghdad), they make ridiculous claims against the existence of at least some moral absolutes while blind to their own worldview rotting beneath their feet.
         Anyway, to respond to Paul’s strange claims against you is easy: (1) they live it but don’t admit it, and in fact argue against it; (2) quite likely given that prior unscientific, pseudo-philosophical commitments must be defended to the death with no questioning permitted (see Lewontin’s quote on this); (3) not on your life. (Note the morally-loaded words like “horror” that Paul uses, well… objectively!)

  65. Esko Heimonen says:

    Holopupenko,

    In my opinion, you are accusing me of lying because, in my opinion, you think I am merely giving excuses for not writing “in my opinion” at the beginning of every sentence. In my opinion, however, I have given quite sufficient explanation both about what I have originally meant and about what I perceive to be the irrelevance and counter-productiveness of your – what I would call – accusations. In my opinion, you may not have even read them, since you seem to act as if I did not give these rather detailed explanations. In my opinion, no tactful person would require these prefixes that I’m using, because, I believe, they can be implicitly seen with little effort. Which, I believe, is precisely why I have a bit of selectivity, although only a bit, in my debating company. In my opinion, some pragmatism and tactfulness is unavoidably required even in the hottest debates. In my opinion, you have merely cried wolf and do badly when you, in my opinion, fail to see that it is high time you explained your behavior here. In my opinion, claims are in practice just as powerful regardless of whether they are made under the assumption of absolute truth or relative truth. This is because, in my opinion, the success of persuasion is not dependent on the persuader’s self-righteousness. Besides, in my opinion, subjective opinions are not distributed randomly so it is, in my opinion, very likely that my subjective opinion actually matches the opinions of others. This, in my opinion, makes conversation and mutual agreement quite possible even without theoretic self-righteousness.

    For anyone incapable of decrypting the above, an English translation: my discussion with Holopupenko is thus concluded. I will be happy to let him have as many last words as he likes.

  66. Tom Gilson says:

    I, too, wondered what you were actually affirming, Esko, when you said “admit” does not mean what Holopupenko said it meant. You softened your assertions in some cases to expressing an implicit “in my opinion,” which leaves something to be desired. As Holo said, it especially leaves something to be desired with reference to moral opinions. We could easily respond, “In my opinion, Esko’s having a moral opinion is no more relevant than if he were stomping on his hat.” And that leads to a breakdown of discourse.

    In fact, moral relativism generally does lead to a certain breakdown of discourse. Every time a moral relativist says something is “right” or “wrong,” it means something other than the historical understanding of those terms. It means, “I/we don’t like this,” or “I/we don’t generally do this.” The difference is immense. Relativists should never use the words “right” and “wrong,” yet they do. They borrow terms from one ontology and apply it to a completely different one, never acknowledging the damage it does to the terms. And that is a problem far exceeding the problem of word games.

    On the topic of absolute certainty, you said you meant this: You “merely think so” (that nothing can be known with absolute certainty), and you own a certain emotional discomfort, associated with your thinking so. From my perspective, that was an essential clarification, and Holopupenko was not unjustified when he interpreted it otherwise.

    Now, just how much of a skeptic are you? Do you really think it’s likely you can know nothing at all with certainty?

  67. Tom Gilson says:

    For what it’s worth, note that I was interrupted to do something else while composing that last comment, and I did not see Esko’s 9:53 comment until after I published my 10:41 post.

  68. Tom Gilson says:

    Paul, here is where we are as I see it.

    You have acknowledged that your moral ontology permits the possibility of a world where every Jew has been systematically killed, and where every person who disagrees with that having been done has been killed or altered so as to agree, and where every person who disagrees with that has been killed or altered so as to agree; and that this is conceivably as good as it could possibly be. It is universally good, in fact, as defined above, which exceeds any scale of goodness now existing in our world if your ontology is correct.

    I have noted that this is absurd, and you have not agreed. (In fact I believe it is absurd on the face of it, no further argument required.)

    Further, I noted how extraordinary it is for you to describe this hypothetical condition as potentially good. I asked you to explain the grounds on which you conclude what you have concluded. In case you didn’t catch it, I was turning the burden of proof back on you. It is not necessarily the case that a moral realist must be the one to prove his position. Your position is so extraordinary, so far outside any past experience on earth, that it really begs for some kind of logical or evidential grounding.

    I don’t think you or Esko provided anything in response.

    You suggested that the thought experiment is impossible and should be thrown out, because humans may have evolved so as to make it impossible. That’s extremely hypothetical and calls for further explanation and support, for one thing. But it may well be irrelevant in any case. Cefore that, you had already agreed that if the conditions described in (10) and (11) obtained, then they would constitute a real and universal good. How (10) and (11) come to pass seems irrelevant to your conclusion.

    You asked,

    Why haven’t you been able to shame us into moral objectivity? Is it because relativists are

    1. morally bankrupt;
    2. intellectually dishonest;
    3. logically consistent;
    4. some of the above?

    I have not been trying to shame you into anything.

    Here’s my theory on why you have not been easily convinced on this, though.

    Very few people would dispute point (A1) of this argument; and the argument is logically valid:

    A1. If God does not exist, objective morals do not exist.
    B1. Objective morals exist.
    C1. Therefore God exists.

    If you accept (A1), as most persons do, then (B1) puts you in a corner: if you accept (B1) you have to accept that God exists, which you are strongly opposed to accepting. So I think this is what you are doing:

    A1. If God does not exist, objective morals do not exist.
    B2. God does not exist.
    C2. Therefore objective morals do not exist.

    Note how in this syllogism, there is no need to look at any evidence regarding objectivity of morals. It’s irrelevant; you can conclude (C2) without any actual information about the objectivity of morals.

    I have presented to you an argument for moral realism, but since you are (I think; “in my opinion”) relying on the second version of the syllogism, you conclude C2 even though you can offer no logical grounding for your relativism whatsoever, even though it requires you to completely redefine “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “bad,” and even though it requires you to accept the patently absurd conclusion that (10) and (11) are really, potentially good.

  69. Paul says:

    Tom’s comment brings up the “as if” corollary to the philosophy of uncertainty. We act in everyday life as if we know things with absolute certainty, and as if the run rises every day, but when we stop to examine things closely, and look to ultimate conclusions, that certainty can vanish. But that doesn’t need to stop us from acting as if it doesn’t vanish in everyday life.

    So the sense of absoluteness in “right” and “wrong” has a role to play in the everyday meaning of those words, but, when relativists examine things closely with a mind to their ultimate implications (or as close as we can get to them), that sense of absoluteness in those words can vanish.

    By the way, not knowing anything with absolute certainty does not mean that we know all things equally. We may still know some things really well, enough to even risk our lives on them, without having absolute certainty.

  70. Holopupenko says:

    Esko:
         Thank you for your final comments. They were quite predictable.

    Tom:
         With moral relativists discussions invariable reduce to the same thing: when the bankruptcy of their position is exposed, they’re the first ones to invoke “your tone isn’t becoming of a Christian” or “no fair!” or they run away with sandlot-like threats of “change my company,” or the silent treatment. If moral relativism is true, you’d expect not only a cogent argument, but that these guys would live up to their own rules. Well, don’t hold your breath for either—as we’ve witnessed over and over again on this blog. If, as these guys want so desperately to believe, all epistemological and moral categories are relative, then their own position reduces to nothing other than personal, emotionally-laden opinion. This blog, as far as I can tell, does not (for which you are to be roundly applauded)—nor should it—grant primacy of position to personal opinions. (They may be interesting and add color to the discussion, but that’s about it.)
         Truth is anything but opinion. How could one do science if it were mere opinion, for example? What is the point of these discussions if the goal is not, nor could it ever, be about objective truth? On what possible objective basis could these guys claim (let alone mandate) that scientists ought not to cook the results of their work to meet preconceived conclusions? I mean, let’s get real: based on Esko’s latest foray against objectivity (“we don’t know murder is wrong”), he really believes there might be a time and place in which it would be morally “okay” for scientists to cook their laboratory notebooks. But then, what happens to the search for truth about the natural world known as “science”? That little question is uncomfortably pushed into the background in the hopes that it will go away. I want to be embraced by truth, while these guys see it as some sign of weakness to do so, and they also believe it is a sign of strength to be committed (at the end of the day) to nothing… a position to which, by the way, they are committed to with absolute certainty and strength of purpose.
         All this reminds me about an anecdote based on an old Soviet joke, but which, all kidding aside, I personally witnessed at a Home Depot near D.C. back in 1992. As a specialist and interpreter, I accompanied a small delegation of Ukrainians to D.C. that was to make a presentation on Chornobyl. The host decided to take three of the guys to a Home Depot (it was their first trip to the U.S.). They were overwhelmed (which doesn’t capture it—“shocked” better captures the moment) by the hugeness of the selection and the choices Americans had to deal with simply in going to a store. Anyway, one of the guys, a deputy minister, unexpectedly stops us in the middle of an isle and starts sniffing at the air. He says, “Hey, you guys smell that? Can you smell that? That’s the smell of Capitalism decaying!” We were on the ground, unable to breathe because we were laughing so hard. Self-deprecating Soviet humor was an art form. Anyway, that’s the kind of feeling I get when dealing with moral relativists: like “good” Soviet ideologists (or the Minister of Information for Saddam Hussein as coalition forces were entering Baghdad), they make ridiculous claims against the existence of at least some moral absolutes while blind to their own worldview rotting beneath their feet.
         Anyway, to respond to Paul’s strange claims against you is easy: (1) they live it but don’t admit it, and in fact argue against it; (2) quite likely given that prior unscientific, pseudo-philosophical commitments must be defended to the death with no questioning permitted (see Lewontin’s quote on this); (3) not on your life. (Note the morally-loaded words like “horror” that Paul uses, well… objectively!)

  71. Tom Gilson says:

    Paul, there is a considerable amount of sense in what you say here—except for this:

    So the sense of absoluteness in “right” and “wrong” has a role to play in the everyday meaning of those words, but, when relativists examine things closely with a mind to their ultimate implications (or as close as we can get to them), that sense of absoluteness in those words can vanish.

    You shifted meanings here. In the first paragraph you were speaking about knowing; that upon inspection our certainly of knowledge may diminish. Same in your last paragraph.

    But in the middle you were not talking about knowledge, you were talking about absoluteness. Not absoluteness of our knowlege of morality, but absoluteness of morality itself.

    (We have seen the epistemology/ontology confusion often here.)

    So I doubt “right” and “wrong” can be used as you say they can, as useful approximations. “I know” can be a useful approximation, in the case of something we cannot prove apodictically but of which we are completely confident anyway. But if “right” and “wrong” are useful approximations, then what are they approximating?

  72. Esko Heimonen says:

    Tom,

    I see. So it is us relativists who have started hijacking “your” entire language, redefining everything? I’m sorry, but I believe this is no new phenomenon, and it is indeed debabtable whether absolutists should have started prefixing their opinions with “absolutely” long ago. Language does change, if it ever expressed things in terms as absolute as you seem to claim. I hope I have already demonstrated the – what I perceive to be – ultimate silliness of what you are in effect requiring here, in my 9:53 writing that you just missed.

    As for “admit”, I can understand about anything else except effectively being called a liar concerning its use. I’m glad you did not join that choir.

    We could easily respond, “In my opinion, Esko’s having a moral opinion is no more relevant than if he were stomping on his hat.” And that leads to a breakdown of discourse.

    Quite. But where have I expected anything more? So far as this “moral opinion” of mine differs from your because it is based on different axioms, there is nothing further I can do in terms of discourse. (But may be able to do somewhat more in a voting booth to steer the world a tad towards my direction and away from yours.) But while it is an inconvenient thought to not be able to convince you in a discourse, I would feel even more inconvenient if I actually started stomping on my hat. And note that what I call an emotioncally inconvenient situation, you apparently call (logical?) absurdity. My interpretation is that you see the situation not only emotionally inconvenient but emotionally intolerable and that that somehow, to you, warrants the use of the word “absurd”. I would not use the word “absurd” here, although I can accept it if you truly do find the situation emotionally intolerable. It is, then, easier for you to stomp on your hat than to “admit” that (“you think that”) there is no objective moral high ground. A breakdown of discourse still follows, of course.

    Now, just how much of a skeptic are you? Do you really think it’s likely you can know nothing at all with certainty?

    Let’s put it this way: I think that deductive reasoning, like everything else, is incapable of proving its own soundness. (And deductive logic is especially hard to prove without circular reasoning, because any attempt at logical proof automatically assumes the soundness logic. Of course, circular reasoning only exists in the context of logic.) So I do think there is an ultimate bootstrapping problem that can only be solved by, well, bootstrapping. Which is something else than a logical proof or some other kind of objective certainty (whatever that might be).

    And if logic itself is not first proven, it is a tad too early to continue to all that “I think, therefore I am” stuff, innit?

    Mind you that this issue is completely different from whether I think that I have been persuaded into trusting e.g. deductive logic and inductive logic myself. But even if I found it impossible in practice to be human (a speaking human) and not trust logic, I still don’t think that it conclusively answers the question whether logic is true in some objective sense.

    I do understand that saying all of the above does demonstrate (a) my extreme belief in logic and (b) my exreme belief in my own existence, because everything that I said tried to be logical and the very usage of the word “I” presumably demonstrates my belief in my own existence. Unfortunately, demonstrations of the strength of my beliefs are no objective proofs.

    One can protest and show this or that paradox in the above — by first just assuming without proof the soundness of logic. One can challenge me to (logically!) deny my existence or the soundess of logic. But my inability to do either still does not constitute an objective proof for either, I think. At best one might give further persuasion to support my already extreme beliefs that logic is indeed sound and that I do indeed exist. To which I would reply: thanks for caring, but my belief concerning these two issues is strong enough already.

    And as a final note: this question, too, is very academic in my opinion. It bears little consequence on my practical life.

  73. Esko Heimonen says:

    Tom,

    And before you ask: yes, the above discussion of mine does mean that I believe that nothing is, ultimately, objective. And yes, I still quite shamelessly use the word “objective” when describing certain things that you and I have extreme confidence in. (E.g. scientific hypothesis testing.) Imagine all the hijacking that I’m doing to “your” absolute language!

  74. Tom Gilson says:

    Esko,

    It’s not “my” entire language you’re hijacking; it’s standard English. I know enough German to know that the same problem obtains there. I’m quite sure it obtains in Finnish as well (and Ukrainian and Russian, and Polish and Yiddish, and ….) . “Right” and “wrong” did not originally refer to, “I/we like this,” or “I/we don’t usually do that.” It meant “right,” as in really conforming to some real standard, or “wrong,” not conforming.

    Now, if you don’t see the conclusions of (10) and (11) as absurd, perhaps you could at least allow that they are extraordinary, and offer some grounding for them. Paul hasn’t done that, maybe you would like to take a turn.

    Regarding logic and your own existence, I’m glad you don’t doubt them. A better answer, though, would be simply to accept that logic is not the only way of knowing. We can just see that the Law of Noncontradiction must obtain, for example, in a manner analogous to seeing that the sky is blue, without requiring syllogisms leading to that conclusion.

  75. Paul says:

    Tom, the shift from absolute knowing to absolute morality isn’t done in confusion, it’s just an analogy, and the only aspect of the situation I intended to analogize was how absoluteness can disappear when one adopts the position of uncertainty and acts “as if.”

    So, what we know is imperfect and uncertain; some things we know with a fair degree (not an ultimate one) of certainty, and we sometimes, in everyday life, act as if we knew it absolutely.

    Similarly, our moral sense is not absolute, either (even though it is for different reasons than the fact that our knowledge is not absolute.) Similarly, moral relativists can act in their daily life as if their moral intuitions were absolute.

  76. Tom Gilson says:

    You haven’t told me what you’re approximating with your moral language, though, Paul. This is extremely crucial.

    In the case of knowing, there is a continuum from complete ignorance to absolute certainty. You can use the phrase “I know” when you reach some acceptable position on that scale, because it is a scale of knowing.

    But in the case of relative morality, the continuum is from “I/we don’t like this at all” to “I/we really like this;” or from “I/we never do this” to “I/we always do this.” These are scales of preference or of custom. The words “right” and “wrong” are not on those scales, are they? If you put them there, then you are begging the whole question.

    Similarly, our moral sense is not absolute.

    You’re making another shift here. We’re not talking about whether our moral sense is absolute (that’s a matter of knowledge again). We’re talking about whether there exists some moral value or duty that obtains regardless of whether any human holds it to obtain.

    I just used the “find” function to look up the epistemology/ontology distinction on this discussion. There are at least five previous references on this page alone. We have discussed it previously, too. Please be careful with it; you’ve had ample opportunity to be made aware of it.

    The result: your analogy fails.

  77. Paul says:

    Tom, I’m having trouble understanding your response, and that may be because of my use of the word “absolute,” which might have been confusing. Let me try again.

    1. Objective reality exists, but we know it imperfectly, so our knowledge is not absolute.

    2. Objective morality does not exist. Morality, rather, is relative.

    In both of these situations, an “as if” approach may be taken:

    As if #1. It is possible to act in everyday life as if our knowledge were absolutely certain.

    As if #2. It is possible to act in everyday life like our moral intuitions are objective (perhaps when we feel a gut reaction in response to some moral outrage).

    That’s all I’m trying to say, I’m trying to draw any larger point, comparing #1 and #2. The difference between ontology and epistemology is irrelevant. It would be like saying it’s a contradiction that swinging a hammer can be used to pound in a nail as well as to break a vase, one being constructive and the other destructive. Very different situations, no real connection between them *other than* swinging the hammer. All I’m trying to do is to explain what the as if approach is, perhaps in two very different realms, but I’m not trying to prove something in one realm by what obtains with the as if approach in the other. It’s just an analogy, an illustration, not a proof.

    If this doesn’t help, then maybe Esko might be able to put this into other words that would help?

  78. Tom Gilson says:

    The problem, Paul, was not with the word absolute. It was that you have been using a gas gauge to measure the wind speed. That is, you’ve been trying to put “right” and “wrong” on a continuum that really expresses preference or custom.

    The difference between ontology and epistemology cannot be irrelevant. You arre speaking of degrees of right and wrong, and degrees of knowing, as if they were commensurate, but you haven’t shown how they can be. The hammer analogy is even farther from being helpful.

    I do understand the “as if” approach. You can act as if morals are objective. You can act as if “right” and “wrong” mean what people have always taken them to mean. You are being deceitful in so doing, however, because you give those words entirely different meanings. Such deceitfulness may be to some extent innocent among those who have not thought the issues through, but having been through all these discussions here, you cannot claim innocence in that regard. If you use the words “right” and “wrong” publicly with reference to any moral act, and if you do not explain you really mean preference or custom, you are misleading your listeners. You do not actually think that “right” and “wrong” exist as moral categories; you have merely borrowed misappropriated the words to describe your sense of preference or of custom.

    Of course, they may be similarly confused, since they may also be relativists. You are not helping matters any by not making this explicit, however.

    It is not similarly deceitful to use the word “know” in cases of strong confidence, because that is consistent with the usual understanding of the word.

  79. Holopupenko says:

    Tom:
         I don’t know to what extent it’s me or if it’s the troubles you’re having with the blog service provider… or a combination of both. I just noticed all the duplications of my comments: I was under the impression they were being rejected as “duplicates” (according to the auto feedback messages I received from the comments controller). Sorry for the confusion. Please feel free to eliminate duplicates and generally edit as appropriate.

  80. Tom Gilson says:

    Not your fault, Holopupenko. It’s a quirk of the spam catcher. I’ll try to find the duplicates and deal with them in a bit.

  81. Tom Gilson says:

    Paul, here’s another way to get at what I was trying to say at the end of my last note to you, by means of a question this time:

    What good are you achieving by acting as if right and wrong are real?

  82. SteveK says:

    You are being deceitful in so doing, however, because you give those words entirely different meanings. Such deceitfulness may be to some extent innocent among those who have not thought the issues through, but having been through all these discussions here, you cannot claim innocence in that regard. If you use the words “right” and “wrong” publicly with reference to any moral act, and if you do not explain you really mean preference or custom, you are misleading your listeners.

    Suppose I went around telling everyone that Paul is a gay man, when I meant ‘happy man’ and not homosexual, then I am being deceitful given today’s cultural useage of the word. When someone points out that I need to use a different word, and I refuse, I am worse off than before. I’m being double-dog deceitful.

  83. Holopupenko says:

    Paul said:

         1. Objective reality exists, but we know it imperfectly, so our knowledge is not absolute.
         2. Objective morality does not exist. Morality, rather, is relative.

         The first is a non sequitur—a fallacy, because it fails to distinguish “incomplete” from “imperfect.” Even if we grant the sloppy use of “imperfect,” this in no way implies that all knowledge is uncertain. It is, in fact, a very rigid, absolutist way of viewing all of reality—which Paul (and certainly Esko) claim they have… which leads to the second problem with the claim: Paul again (!) contradicts himself, because the claim he makes is an absolute claim about how reality is and how we know that reality.
         The second is an assertion based on prior commitments on how Paul wants morality to fit preconceived notions—nothing more, nothing less.

         Whether it’s Esko’s personal understanding of “practicality” imposed upon reality or Paul’s desire to support preconceived notions is immaterial to the truth of the matter. The alleged truth of their assertions about reality for some reason matters. All others considerations, arguments, opinions, etc., don’t.

  84. Tom Gilson says:

    Moreover, there’s an implied equivocation between 1. and 2. there; that is, if “not absolute” is taken to be synonymous with “relative.” I think Holo already said that, but not in exactly that way.

  85. SteveK says:

    You can’t know something subjectively – even in the slightest – unless it is ontologically or physically there to be known. In other words, it must BE. It must be part of the objective reality that Paul says we know imperfectly (incompletely). Therefore, moral subjectivism can only survive if moral realism is true – but moral relativism, as Paul and Esko have described it, would be false.

  86. Paul says:

    That is, you’ve been trying to put “right” and “wrong” on a continuum that really expresses preference or custom.

    I think this is merely an issue of making sure that we use words the same way between us, something I am all for. The way I would put it is that, rightly or wrongly, with or without precedence, you intend “right” to mean “objectively right.” As long as that is explicitly understood, then I have no problem with that. It doesn’t change the substance of the issue, in my opinion, for me to then use “rightR” to stand for what would otherwise be called “right” but within a relativistic framework. Agreed?

    The difference between ontology and epistemology cannot be irrelevant. You arre speaking of degrees of right and wrong, and degrees of knowing, as if they were commensurate, but you haven’t shown how they can be.

    This is not what I intend. I’m not claiming that right/wrong and knowing are commensurate. They don’t have to be commensurate in order to take an as if approach to both. And the rightR/wrongR continuum that I referred to earlier isn’t crucial to my point. The only necessary aspect is that moralities between cultures can be *different,* that is the minimum situation necessary (but not sufficient, I think) for a non-objective morality. Things can be different without being on a continuum.

    I do understand the “as if” approach. You can act as if morals are objective. You can act as if “right” and “wrong” mean what people have always taken them to mean. You are being deceitful in so doing, however, because you give those words entirely different meanings. Such deceitfulness may be to some extent innocent among those who have not thought the issues through, but having been through all these discussions here, you cannot claim innocence in that regard. If you use the words “right” and “wrong” publicly with reference to any moral act, and if you do not explain you really mean preference or custom, you are misleading your listeners. You do not actually think that “right” and “wrong” exist as moral categories; you have merely borrowed misappropriated the words to describe your sense of preference or of custom.

    I hope I’ve covered this point with “rightR.” Also, remember that it’s not just preference and custom, but there may be more or less strong evolutionary tendencies in morality.

    What good are you achieving by acting as if right and wrong are real?

    I never said that there was a good (nor a bad). The *reason* why it happens is because our gut can overwhelm our brains sometimes, so we instinctively act as if what we feel must be true.

    Within the same moral culture, it really doesn’t matter anyway. In effect, the issue within one culture – when two people agree on the moral code – is *consistency* within that morality (this assumes that consistency is also within that moral code that is agreed on). It’s only when moral codes are different that the distinction between our gut telling us what we feel morally is objectively true, and the rational (I would claim) idea that morality is relative is important.

    Now, if I’ve answered your issues, what do you now think about relativistic morality? Where are we?

  87. Tom Gilson says:

    Paul,

    It’s time to leave the office, so I’ll leave most of this for later this evening. In the meantime I would urge you to re-think whether this is really coherent.:

    I never said that there was a good (nor a bad). The *reason* why it happens is because our gut can overwhelm our brains sometimes, so we instinctively act as if what we feel must be true.

    Earlier (2:40 pm) you said,

    In both of these situations, an “as if” approach may be taken:

    What if someone decided not to act “as if” in the case of morality?

  88. Paul says:

    Tom:

    1. I see no incoherence. Please enlighten me.

    2. To clarify; the “as if” in question is acting as if our moral intuitions or gut are objective. If one doesn’t act that way, then one might act differently in another culture. I don’t see how not acting “as if” would change behavior within one’s own culture, because all those gut instincts and enculturation and evolutionary influences would still be there. I can’t decide to murder someone, for example, just because I admit to myself “ultimately, we can’t determine that murder is objectively wrong.”

  89. Tom Gilson says:

    You see no incoherence. Hmmm…

    Why should one act “as if” when there is nothing good or bad about acting “as if?”

    You’re saying there is nothing good or bad about acting “as if.” There’s nothing good or bad about behavior, then. Or do you think we ought to accept that, but modify it to say there is actually something goodR or badR?

  90. Tom Gilson says:

    Okay. The whole rest of the family is out for the evening, and I’ve had dinner, so here’s a further response.

    Paul, you have proposed a new term to enter into discussion. It looks a lot like “right” and people use it in contexts where it functions a lot like “right,” but it doesn’t mean “right” at all. It means “preferred” or “customary,” where the preference or custom are contingent on who is doing said preferring or practicing said custom.

    It seems to me that, while there is a genuine technical distinction between “right” and “rightR,” you are still borrowing misappropriating from the usual meaning of “right” here, letting its emotional value work on your behalf even though you are speaking of something entirely different. Why would we want to admit that into the discussion?

    This seems to confuse previous points:

    The only necessary aspect is that moralities between cultures can be *different,* that is the minimum situation necessary (but not sufficient, I think) for a non-objective morality. Things can be different without being on a continuum.

    The continuum was not between, say, “right in America” and “right in Saudi Arabia;” or even “rightR in America and” “rightR in Saudi Arabia.” (I’ll use your term just for now.) The continuum is between “wrong in this moral context” and “right in this moral context.”

    And here you are using a gas gauge to measure wind speed.

    If you want to say it means the continuum between “wrongR in this moral context” and “rightR in this moral context,” then it would be a whole lot more accurate and less confusing to say preferred/customary and not preferred/not customary, and quit pretending these have the slightest relation whatever to right and wrong as historically defined.

    Relativists have appropriated language of right and wrong to their philosophy, but they have utterly changed the words’ meaning. I won’t let you get by with that here without continuing to point out the fact.

    As to your continuing reference to the possibility of evolutionary input to “right” and “wrong,” I refer you to Richard Dawkins. You can’t get any morality out of evolution, certainly. You can only get behaviors, which in the case of humans amount to preferences and customs. You gain no ground there.

    Now, if I’ve answered your issues, what do you now think about relativistic morality? Where are we?

    You’ve missed the biggest issue of all, Paul, which I’ve mentioned more than once. What reason do you give for your position? Why on earth would I think it worth considering? What knowledge does it rest upon? What logic and evidence can you adduce to support an opinion that leads logically to the very extraordinary thought (10) and (11) could potentially be good?

    Where we are is this: I’ve offered a reason to think relativistic morality is absurd, and you’ve offered nothing in return except for an unsuccessful attempt at borrowing “right” and “wrong” to serve unrelated meanings.

  91. SteveK says:

    What reason do you give for your position? Why on earth would I think it worth considering? What knowledge does it rest upon? What logic and evidence can you adduce to support an opinion that leads logically to the very extraordinary thought (10) and (11) could potentially be good?

    I sure hope Paul does not say knowledge from biology or Darwinism or science. Remember all the grief Tom got for suggesting Darwinism played some role in certain historical atrocities?

  92. Esko Heimonen says:

    Now, if you don’t see the conclusions of (10) and (11) as absurd, perhaps you could at least allow that they are extraordinary, and offer some grounding for them.

    As a side note, I think you could have given the assignment in more clear terms, but I think I can understand what you mean from your other notes in this thread.

    You want me to “prove” moral relativism. Your rather fuzzy references to “extraordinary” (quite a few philosophical scenarios do their best to be as extraordinary as possible so you would have to reach “extraordinarily extraordinary” to impress someone who you have invited to wear their philosopher’s hat, would you not?) and “how can something SO bad be good” (oh, please, after all we’ve been thru here) seem rather odd. But don’t worry, I get it. What you’re aiming at here is that you want no stinking burden of proof. Fine. Let us first assume that you don’t have it.

    But why I would I feel any need to prove anything? I have explained why your scenario is not emotionally persuasive and that I don’t think it even tries to be anything more than emotionally persuasive (in spite of your persistent usage of the word “absurd, as if you truly had detected a logical inconsistence instead of mere emotional inconveniece). I have explained why I think the practical difference between your absolutism and my relativism is only cosmetic and not profound at all. So why can’t I just be content with our disagreement? After all, it is not me who has to find God something to do! Also, I’m not in the business of counter-apologism. I’m merely here to explain why (what we all know to be) your attempt at apologism fails to impress.

    Even more to the point, if you don’t find any better rational argument for your absolutism than “well, can you prove relativism”, why not just accept agnosticism concerning the issue? Of course, if it is very hard to find practical consequences for the absolutism vs. relativism distinction, it is even more hard to find practical consequences for the agnosticism vs. relativism disctinction. I’m intellectually quite happy with these beliefs:

    1. We can’t know that there is any objective moral so let us not pretend so.
    2. We can’t know that there is no objective moral so let us not pretend so.
    3. In fact, let us not bother mentioning objective moral in every day life at all because we don’t seem to know whether such a beast exists or not. Do we go about dodging cars that conceivably might exist?

    That is precisely what I feel I’m already doing. I’m not going about yelling: all opinions are certainly just opinions. But I still treat opinions as mere opinions, because I can’t know if they are anything more than that. (So I do lean towards relativism as a sensible default position, but I can be “polite” and embrace agnosticism. I don’t think it bears any interesting difference.)

    Could you do the same? Could you go about not claiming that you know there is objective moral somewhere? Could you weaken the meanings of Right and Wrong to reflect the idea that we don’t know if they are objective? If you can not, then why don’t you take the burden of proof and take it beyond stomping your hat? Apparently you’re the one who is trying to persuade both the relativist and the agnostic.

  93. Esko Heimonen says:

    Tom,

    Oh, and please note that if you are still interested in the question of whether secular ethics or the ethics of a moral relativist is grounded in anything at all, I did begin something about it July 6, 3:02.

  94. Esko Heimonen says:

    Tom,

    When I said “apologism”, I meant “apologetics”, of course. I hate such confusing slips (most probably not my first one here), but alas I’m not a native speaker.

  95. Holopupenko says:

    (1) Esko said:
         “I have explained why your scenario is not emotionally persuasive”

    Response:
         It doesn’t have to be nor should it be: per se truth is not about feelings or emotions.

    (2) Esko said:
         “as if you truly had detected a logical inconsistence”

    Response:
         In fact, the logical inconsistency is blatant and in one’s face; the moral inconsistency is living out life as if morally objective categories and norms existed, and then trying (and failing) to argue against them… which is also reflects a certain lack of intellectual rigor in pursuit of truth.

    (3) Esko said:
         “I have explained why I think the practical difference between your absolutism and my relativism is only cosmetic and not profound at all. So why can’t I just be content with our disagreement?”

    Response:
         Oh dear… that’s like saying the “practical” difference between your ‘one’ and my ‘zero’ is only cosmetic and not profound at all. Why not be content in “our disagreement”? Simple: truth is not a matter of taste or “pragmatism,” and that is Esko’s error: the underlying equivocation Esko promulgates is reducing moral categories to differences akin to those between choosing a Sony over Panasonic. The “let’s agree to disagree” may work over matters of taste but not when they concern matters of reality, truth, and ones of fundamental importance and meaning for what it means to be a human being. In that sense, being content in disagreeing over fundamental issues is a half-truth applied to all of reality… and again displays a certain lack of intellectual rigor through its inherent “pragmatic” reductionism.

    (4) Esko said:
          “1.We can’t know that there is any objective moral so let us not pretend so.
         2. We can’t know that there is no objective moral so let us not pretend so.
         3. In fact, let us not bother mentioning objective moral in every day life at all because we don’t seem to know whether such a beast exists or not.”

    Response:
         Well, there it is again: trying to impose moral norms while arguing they don’t exist—blatant contradiction. Isn’t “… so let us not pretend so” a moral imperative on how one ought to behave? Isn’t it hypocrisy, then, to impose this? Isn’t it manipulative to try to impose this so that Esko’s worldview is supposedly validated?

    (5) Esko said:
          “That is precisely what I feel I’m already doing…”

    Response:
         While he may be an interesting fellow, Esko’s feeling simply don’t matter when questions about truth are being discussed.

    Conclusion: Of course, there’s more I could extract out of Esko’s latest comments to expose their fallacious underpinnings. Perhaps, then, as based on the above quotes from him, a fair generalization would be that Esko is self-centered upon what HE “feels” is pragmatic, and how HE wants the world to be like, and why he avoids the intellectually more profound and difficult pursuit of truth. Truth doesn’t matter—we know that from his clearly admitted epistemological relativism—while personal subjective “feelings” and “pragmatism” do… even while he offers no cogent argument why “feelings” and “pragmatism” should trump truth and certainty. As soon as he tries to support his position (either for epistemological or moral relativism) he appeals to it: THAT is the blatant, in-your-face inconsistency to which Esko cannot (better: will not) admit. Truly, Esko’s emperor has no clothes.

  96. Tom Gilson says:

    Esko, come on, now.

    What you’re aiming at here is that you want no stinking burden of proof.

    If I didn’t want to try to show that what I believe is true, I could spend my time knitting instead of writing on this blog. But the burden of proof does not belong in just one place. You and Paul have been making positive statements in favor of moral relativism, without a single positive argument so far in favor of it. All you’ve been doing has been to try to counter what I wrote. So stop with the “stinking” accusations, please. (If it was intended as a joke, it didn’t come across that way to me.)

    But why I would I feel any need to prove anything?

    Because your position is very new on the historical scene, because it has huge consequences for the way one lives life, and because, after all, I didn’t even ask for proof (other than using the term “burden of proof”). I just asked for some reasons you think your position is a good one. Can’t you at least do that?

    You say the difference doesn’t matter, but that’s just wrong, and I have shown how it is wrong. I am not (as you earlier said) a practical relativist on most things. I am a moral realist who recognizes that the finite set of solid moral principles has virtually infinite applications; but that set of applications is completely bounded by the bedrock moral realities. That’s hardly the same as saying that any culture or individual can choose what’s right or wrong.

    The difference matters, too, in this: if moral realism is true, it implies a God, and it implies accountability before him. That, my friend, makes a difference now and forever.

    Even more to the point, if you don’t find any better rational argument for your absolutism than “well, can you prove relativism”, why not just accept agnosticism concerning the issue?

    But this is so utterly strange to see you say that! I have presented a better argument than that! Now I’m asking you to step up and present your own. Ironically, your tone toward me in this post is rather moralistic, as if I’ve failed to fulfill some duty and you’re calling me to account for it. Given your system of thought, I don’t have to accept that from you for a moment. But never mind that; I already have presented my argument. Did you miss it?

    Could you do the same? Could you go about not claiming that you know there is objective moral somewhere? Could you weaken the meanings of Right and Wrong to reflect the idea that we don’t know if they are objective? If you can not, then why don’t you take the burden of proof and take it beyond stomping your hat? Apparently you’re the one who is trying to persuade both the relativist and the agnostic.

    Of course I’m trying to persuade the relativist and the agnostic. That’s not just “apparently.” I’m doing it because I believe there is a moral reality, and because I believe it matters. I’m calling for your reasons for your position, on the other hand, because you and Paul are staking out ground there and you haven’t explained why you think it’s true.

    Holopupenko, thank you for pointing out that at least one of our values here is (or certainly ought to be) finding what’s actually true. The truth holds us; it is not a matter of personal option or preference. “Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders.” (“Here I stand, I can do no other”—Martin Luther.)

    Or maybe you have. Now I come to your reminder about your 7/6 3:02 post. I’ll come back to that in a moment, and we’ll consider whether that argument works.

  97. Tom Gilson says:

    Okay, then, to your 7/6 3:02 post.

    This is what you say about the grounding for moral relativism:

    1. Its moral codes are not simply arbitrary or random.
    2. Its codes are likely to reflect matters of life and death rather than of how one brushes one’s teeth.

    That’s a first step, you said, in showing that moral relativism is grounded on something rather than nothing. Two responses:

    1. It’s a very small first step. It hasn’t explained what makes moral relativism a sensible framework for moral decision-making at all. It’s really only a description of what the codes are not (1) and what they might be (2). That’s not an explanation for the overall system.

    2. Your points here are equally well explained (or better) by moral realism. Moral realism’s codes are certainly not arbitrary or random, and they are more principle-based (life and death, for example) than detailed (toothbrushing). Your examples argue for my position at least as well as they argue for yours.

    But maybe I need to rephrase the question, based on what you said here:

    t is, in my opinion, too much to claim that relativists’ moral axioms were essentially just random utterances (even if syntactically correct and free of semantic inconsistencies).

    I never suggested, in the first place, that relativists’ moral axioms are essentially random utterances. I don’t think they are. I think relativists are informed by conscience, and I think that conscience is generally, though imperfectly, informed by moral reality. So I would never say your axioms are random.

    But having said that, I rush to say that wasn’t what my question was about in the first place. I wasn’t criticizing your axioms here. I was asking you (actually Paul, primarily, but your answers are also welcome) how it is that you consider moral relativism as an entire system to be grounded in evidence and logic.

    It’s not about this moral opinion or that one. It’s about whether moral relativism in general has more to say for it than moral realism in general. I still don’t know, other than the suggestion I made here, why you adhere to moral relativism in general.

  98. Paul says:

    Why should one act “as if” when there is nothing good or bad about acting “as if?”

    I didn’t say one should, I only said that it happens.

    Let’s take as our first issue the question of whether relativism is consistent and not self-defeating, and not whether one “should” be a relativist. If we can agree on the first part, then we can go to the second.

    You’re saying there is nothing good or bad about acting “as if.”

    I never said that. You’re the one who introduced the idea of the as if approach being good or bad. I said that I wasn’t looking at it in terms of good and bad, and now I’m not even sure that we’re using the words good and bad in the same way. Do you mean correct, or moral, when you say good and bad?

    There’s nothing good or bad about behavior, then. Or do you think we ought to accept that, but modify it to say there is actually something goodR or badR?

    The latter, but that will change between cultures.

    Paul, you have proposed a new term to enter into discussion. It looks a lot like “right” and people use it in contexts where it functions a lot like “right,” but it doesn’t mean “right” at all. It means “preferred” or “customary,” where the preference or custom are contingent on who is doing said preferring or practicing said custom.

    How many times do I have to say that relativism is not just preference or custom? See below.

    It seems to me that, while there is a genuine technical distinction between “right” and “rightR,” you are still borrowing misappropriating from the usual meaning of “right” here, letting its emotional value work on your behalf even though you are speaking of something entirely different.

    How is it “entirely” different? Wouldn’t any difference be an entire one, under your standard? And why, then, can’t we just be rigorous as to our understanding of “right” and rightR”? And exactly where was I trying to have “rightR” do some emotional work?

    This seems to confuse previous points:

    The only necessary aspect is that moralities between cultures can be *different,* that is the minimum situation necessary (but not sufficient, I think) for a non-objective morality. Things can be different without being on a continuum. . . . and quit pretending these have the slightest relation whatever to right and wrong as historically defined.

    This continuum idea is pretty secondary. Why is this crucial?

    Relativists have appropriated language of right and wrong to their philosophy, but they have utterly changed the words’ meaning. I won’t let you get by with that here without continuing to point out the fact.

    Fine! I AGREE! Now what? How shall we continue talking? I suggested that relativists use a new word, “rightR,” but you found fault with that. OK, *you* come up with some idea as to how we can continue the conversation.

    As to your continuing reference to the possibility of evolutionary input to “right” and “wrong,” I refer you to Richard Dawkins. You can’t get any morality out of evolution, certainly. You can only get behaviors, which in the case of humans amount to preferences and customs. You gain no ground there.

    I agree, you can’t justify one morality compared to the other, but you can help to explain the source of behaviors that (one) people call moral. That’s all I was doing when I said that it’s more than preference and custom. The implication of reducing relativistic morality to preference and custom is to exaggerate the role of choice and free will in one’s moral code, and I’m trying to correct that. Do you really think behavior in humans reduces to preference and custom and has no biological component?

    You’ve missed the biggest issue of all, Paul, which I’ve mentioned more than once. What reason do you give for your position? Why on earth would I think it worth considering? What knowledge does it rest upon? What logic and evidence can you adduce to support an opinion that leads logically to the very extraordinary thought (10) and (11) could potentially be good?

    You’re jumping the gun. The first question is whether relativism consistent and not self-defeating.

    Where we are is this: I’ve offered a reason to think relativistic morality is absurd.

    Argument by personal incredulity. It’s also absurd, in exactly the same way that you mean it, to think that the sun doesn’t rise in the morning. Furthermore, it’s only absurd if you accept absolute morality. So you’re begging the question.

  99. Holopupenko says:

    Bully for Martin Luther! That’s the kind of virile faith one needs: Ahh, I love the sweet smell of fortitude (a moral virtue) in the morning. It smells like… like… the truth of Revelation 3:16 and the confidence of II Timothy 1:7. Maybe androgynous, self-immolating western and northern Europe could use a little of that…

  100. Tom Gilson says:

    Paul, the thrust of what you’ve written here is to focus the discussion on behaviors. For example,

    I didn’t say one should, I only said that it happens.

    I agree, you can’t justify one morality compared to the other, but you can help to explain the source of behaviors that (one) people call moral. That’s all I was doing when I said that it’s more than preference and custom. The implication of reducing relativistic morality to preference and custom is to exaggerate the role of choice and free will in one’s moral code, and I’m trying to correct that. Do you really think behavior in humans reduces to preference and custom and has no biological component?

    But ethics is not about what people do, it is about what people should or should not do. It is about ought.

    Therefore when you say that relativistic morality is not only about custom and preference, but also about what humans have evolved to do, I’m not at all sure you’re adding any useful information. Evolution could potentially explain human behaviors, but not human oughts. It contributes nothing at all to oughts, in fact. So I continue to maintain that relativistic morality is a statement of preference and custom.

    I will grant you this: if Darwinistic evolution (and all its associated behavioral theory) explained human behavior entirely, one might conclude it also provided limits on what humans generally would prefer or to make customary. It might put boundaries around custom and preference, in other words.

    The empirical evidence of the 20th and early 21st century suggests that this may not be the case, however. Limits on custom and preferences are being knocked down like houses in Hurricane Andrew. Genocide, sexual perversion, slavery (still very much a problem worldwide), religious oppression, thought control—all of these have been very much in evidence in recent history. To theorized that evolution sets limits is just that: to theorize.

    Further, if evolution completely explains human behavior, then it explains away all oughts, as Dawkins noted, perhaps inadvertently (linked above). It leaves only descriptions of what persons do, with nothing to say about whether those actions have been good, bad, or indifferent. Good and bad are meaningless in the strictest sense of the word; though one could still evaluate behaviors as to whether they are preferred and/or customary or not.

    So one would have to state whether evolution was the sole explanation or just part of it, and how that division of explanation actually works. Without such an explanation, I don’t see how you’ve escaped the conclusion that your morality is just about preference and custom. So how many times do you have to disagree with me about that? Often enough to present a persuasive argument.

    The continuum idea matters, because it is what we are talking about. It is a way of describing good/bad, right/wrong, preferred/not preferred, customary/not customary.

    I am sorry I frustrated you by objecting to rightR and wrongR. You asked what terms we should then use. I think your clearest use of vocabulary is to stick with preferred/not preferred, customary/not customary. Any reference to right and wrong (even with R attached to the end) runs the very serious risk of confusing people that what you’re talking about actually has something to do with right and wrong, as historically defined. It doesn’t.

    So then: is relativism internally consistent? If you use the terms good/bad, right/wrong (according to their historic definitions) within relativism, you depart from the system, which means it’s definitely not working for you.

    If you are willing to state that (10) and (11) are potentially “good” (meaning only that they are customary or preferred, of course), in fact “better” (more universally customary or preferred) than any situation in today’s world; and if you are willing to eschew all normal use of right/wrong, good/bad, etc. better/worse; if you will only speak of behaviors without evaluating them other than as more or less preferred or customary, then for you relativism may not be internally inconsistent. It could work on paper, I suppose. (I’m speaking purely of internal consistency when I say that.)

    Next question: can you do this? Can you live that way? I noted how Esko moralized in his last post to me. Can you live without evaluating any behavior as really right, or really wrong? In order for your system to be internally consistent, it ought to be consistent not only on paper but also in the living of life.

  101. Tom Gilson says:

    Furthermore, it’s only absurd if you accept absolute morality.

    If you don’t find it absurd that the described situation could be considered better than anything in the world today, then I guess that argument doesn’t work for you. Though I’m sure most people in the world would think it absurd that you don’t think this is absurd!

    Nevertheless it is an extraordinary claim you make, for which you and Esko have offered no positive support whatsoever, no evidential/logical chain of reasoning to support such an astonishing position.

  102. Paul says:

    Tom, I’m sorry I got frustrated and took it out on you. I don’t think I’ll have time for a full response right now, but let me talk about one important thing.

    But ethics is not about what people do, it is about what people should or should not do. It is about ought.

    This is why disagreements are so difficult, this is a really tricky point.

    What people should do is, in one sense, about what they do. In another sense, though it isn’t: I get your point that a mere description of ethics cannot be a justification for whether the behavior that the ethics demands. But that’s not where I was going with my comments about what people do. I think, Tom, your critique on this point is true as far as it goes, but it’s being misapplied given the specific purpose for which my comments about ethics and what people do was intended.

    Rats, I’ll have to finish this later, and hit your other points, too.

  103. Tom Gilson says:

    I’ll look forward to hearing from you later!

  104. Holopupenko says:

    Paul:
         I realize asking someone who disparages objective moral criteria, norms, categories, principles etc. to be honest is perhaps not a prudent approach, but I’ve got to try: Do you think you will ever be honest enough to address the concerns and questions presented here seriously, i.e., without subterfuge, word manipulation, intentional misdirection, multiple evasions (“got to run!”), and without seeking to defend the clear contradictions and self-centeredness of the worldview you attempt to defend? I’m not asking this out of anger or malice or to make points or to belittle you… or even to convince you. It’s just that I’m honestly stunned at this point at some of what you write—especially that you may actually, honestly believe that what you state is truthful and profound. Take your last message to Tom: it was empty—not responding, but simply saying (paraphrasing) “this is tricky, but not where I’m going… talk to ya later” Why do you do this? What is it that you hope to gain by an approach whose goal apppears to be to confuse?

  105. Tom Gilson says:

    I for one think that “got to run” is legitimate, and I’ll always assume that if people take time to answer it’s because they need time to answer.

    Our discussion about the differences between morality and behavior, right and “rightR,” and so on are only too common in today’s world, I’m afraid. Not common among philosophers—though Paul may not realize it. Among professional philosophers, moral relativism is a relative ;) rarity. The further you get from the philosophy department the more common it is: in the humanities, in English departments, and especially among the students. But the philosophers have largely recognized there must be some moral realities at least.

    So I don’t know if Paul is being dishonest or just confused—buying into prevailing cultural confusion, that is. It’s confusion that ought not be there, but nevertheless is. I myself am rather confused what Paul meant by his last quick comment, but then it was a quick one, after all.

    And then there’s always this possibility, to which Paul has not yet responded.

    (What’s happened to live comment preview? It’s not working for me now.)

  106. Tom Gilson says:

    And now live comment preview just came back. Weird.

  107. Holopupenko says:

    amoral gremlins a ’lurkin…

  108. Paul says:

    Tom, I still have little time right now, I just got back to my computer and can’t be here for very long at all, but I now see that post of yours to which I haven’t responded (or I guess I only had a partial response). Sorry I missed it, I’ll get to it when I can.

    Sorry for the delay, but I’ve got to pick up my wife when she calls, then we have errands to run, etc., and I actually have a life outside of blogging, and I would say that you do, too, although I can’t say that with absolute certainty! ; )

  109. Esko Heimonen says:

    Tom,

    (If it was intended as a joke, it didn’t come across that way to me.)

    Well, it was a joke with some serious undertones. I’m sorry if it got you upset. Maybe this joke comes across better: in philosophical debates, sooner or later we always make a dive to grab the “default position” flag, don’t we? (Yes, that includes myself.)

    I just asked for some reasons you think your position is a good one. Can’t you at least do that?

    You insist? Ok. How about good old Occam’s razor? We both likely agree that people have at least subjective opinions. That is an observation we share, right? But you suggest a new entity (either a separate class of morality or a new propery for existing morality) as part of our reality, called objective morality. Can it be observed? Is it logically necessary? If not, should it not be removed by Occam’s razor? If your answer is: we can observe it by just knowing, then I would argue that now you are giving humans new properties that are likely not testable (but I’m willing to learn about your suggestions) nor logically necessary: shouldn’t Occam’s razor come down here, too?

    Additionally, what exactly might “objective” moral opinions be in the first place? I can see at least one possible definition, and I think you embrace it and even see it as unavoidable. Is it ok if I limit my argumentation to this definition of yours, just assuming that you are right? Subjective moral is (individual) man’s will, objective moral is God’s will. (And it is apparently axiomatic that man’s will should always converge towards God’s will?) But in that case, are you not in fact challenging me to discuss the probability of the existence of a certain type of God, which according to you goes hand in hand with the existence of objective morality, so that the whole morality topic is working as a useless middle man? How does this constitute a rational argument for moral relativism? Well, it would seem to be the case that, according to you, if one doesn’t believe in a certain type of God (one having moral opinions), then one can’t believe in objective morality either. Well, because I don’t believe in this type of God, I suppose you would now actively oppose it if I had the nerve to claim that I believed in objective morality. So, according to your own admission, it is rational for me to not believe in objective morality, given that I don’t believe in the required God. You are free to now start defending the existence of this God with some other type of arguments, of course, but then this whole topic would seem to get “caught with its pants down”, would it not?

    You say the difference doesn’t matter, but that’s just wrong

    The difference does not matter so far as practical behavior goes. People can have and defend opinions just as passionately even if they were no objective truths.

    … That’s hardly the same as saying that any culture or individual can choose what’s right or wrong.

    We probably both agree that the Popes of the Crusades “should” not have declared that it is right to kill or enslave followers of Mohammed (and vice versa). The difference between us is that I have to add: “in my opinion” or “in our opinion”. I also state that I understand why it was near impossible for the Popes to have my opinions in their time, even if I (with hindsight) feel that they should have. I’m not sure whether you would agree, or whether you are truly puzzled why the Popes could fail to “see” moral “truths” that today’s man-of-the-street minding his own business can “see”; to me, the latter would be anachronism. Nevertheless, I think the practical difference between us is rather cosmetic, as we may still be equally passionate about our opinion.

    I already have presented my argument. Did you miss it?

    Afraid so. The initial argument ((1)-(11)) never reached any logical contradiction, in order to be able to discredit premise (1). Later, I have learned from you that we just know some ethical claims to be true. (I.e. the real problem with (1) was, all along, that we simply know ~(1) to be true. Well, why the excercise, then?) I have probed a couple of times whether you are, perhaps, simply finding some situations emotionally inconvenient enough to be downright intolerable for you; perhaps this is what makes you call (10) and (11) “absurd” although they seem to demonstrate no logical contradiction in your excercise (they are, for example, in harmony with (1)). I don’t think I have received any clear answer from you, although I could accept your emotional inconvenience and would readily grant for you (but not for myself) an “intellectual permission” to believe (1) to be false. But if you insist that you have something more rational to say, which is not simply knowing ~(1) to be true, I must have missed it.
    Ironically, your tone toward me in this post is rather moralistic, as if I’ve failed to fulfill some duty and you’re calling me to account for it.

    I’m not sure how you find such a tone in that post although I do agree that such a tone is present in at least some others. I have, for example, made the rather direct “accusation” that you started out with a “logicalism”, i.e. with something that vaguely looks like a formal logical argument but is, in my opinion, mere rhetoric. But yes, regardless of my tone, I do think that you have failed to give rational reasons both for opposing (1) and for embracing ~(1).

  110. Esko Heimonen says:

    Tom,

    Please discard my last comment. It was a blunder because clearly you want the agnostic to try out the T path.

  111. Tom Gilson says:

    Done (leaving one comment remaining that you did not ask me to remove)

  112. Tom Gilson says:

    Esko,

    Your last comment contains some good analysis. (1) through (11), taken just for what is contained in those propositions, do not create not a logical contradiction. Rather, it is simply very absurd to affirm that (10) and (11) could be greater in goodness than any situation in the world today.

    I would put to you also the same that I said to Paul last time: if you cannot live it, then there is contradiction there. I have yet to meet a relativist who could actually live as if their on-paper theory was true.

    There are other problems with relativism. It is impossible for a culture to improve morally, for example; for whatever morality it holds at any one time is exactly right at that time. Thus American culture following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the repeal of Jim Crow laws, the gradual opening up of educational and vocational opportunities for African-Americans, is no more moral than it was in the early 1950s. In fact, it’s no more moral than it was in the 1850s when half the country owned slaves. We haven’t improved one whit morally.

    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on the other hand, was deeply immoral, because he espoused values that were terribly in conflict with the norm.

    I knew a man once who had been a bank robber, was on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, was caught and served time in prison, and was pardoned for excellent behavior. He has spent the rest of his life in service to others still in prison. He improved morally by cultural standards, I suppose; but if one’s moral relativism is based on personal standards, he was always perfectly moral.

    Don’t snort at that. I studied education in college when “values clarification” was the ethical ideal. “Values clarification” was (and in other forms still is) about helping students understand their own values without providing them “imposing on them” any standards to guide them. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were true to their own standards, as far as I can tell, just as the schools probably trained them to be.

    I had not brought these up earlier because I thought (10) and (11) were absurd enough. These further odd conclusions are also entailed by relativism.

    Occam’s Razor says not to needlessly multiply entities. These absurdities clearly constitute a need. Want more? Whence came our moral sensitivities? You’re going to have to work very hard to make it fit into an evolutionary history. It’s been tried, and although I think it can be force-fit into an evolutionary story, it fits so much better into a theistic one.

    For you are of course correct in your further analysis that moral realism entails a personal, transcendent law-giver. Since you brought up Occam’s Razor, it’s worth pointing out that there are many good reasons to believe in God; that is, there are many, many phenomena or features of life and the universe for which God is a more fitting explanation than any non-theistic explanation. (The life of Jesus Christ is certainly one of those things.) He has not been needlessly thrown in, ad hoc, just to get around moral relativism. We’ve been looking at one tiny piece of a much larger puzzle.

    Speaking of puzzles, I continue to be very, very puzzled that you and Paul can affirm (10) and (11) as potentially great goods. And what about these further absurdities that I have mentioned here? Can you affirm all of them? I had hoped that you would recognize how difficult it is to support relativism when its utter bizarreness was laid bare before you.

    Apparently I was wrong about that.

  113. Esko Heimonen says:

    In the following, I use the notation (10+11) when I refer to a hypothetical world dominated by people who believe in universal genocide and murdering all dissenters, hopefully matching the horrors you conveive in (10) and (11).

    (1) through (11), taken just for what is contained in those propositions, do not create not a logical contradiction. Rather, it is simply very absurd to affirm that (10) and (11) could be greater in goodness than any situation in the world today.

    But the key question is, whether this claim about absurdity simply assumes ~(1). I strongly think that to be the case. If something is “greater in goodness” for them (who are calling it good), there is nothing absurd in it. It by no means implies it would be “greater in goodness” for me. The absurdity results only when one starts to think that goodness is not relative after all.

    This begs the question: why did you set out to assume (1) in the first place, if you in reality can’t do it consistently? Your excercise in conjunction with your “aftermath” does demonstrate a logical contradiction, which comes apparent when you explicitly add the implicit premise you use for judging (10) and (11) in your aftermath. This premise (12) is simply: ~(1). Now you do have a logical contradiction, namely (1) and ~(1), but I don’t think it demonstrates anything but the futility of the excercise. Without ever even needing (2)-(11), you are simply demonstrating that we have to select either (1) or ~(1) but can’t select both. You are, perhaps, also demonstrating, by your criticism of (10) and (11) using the implicit premise ~(1), that it is possible for yourself to assume ~(1) and not (1), but impossible for yourself to assume (1) and not ~(1), even for the sake of an argument. To me, you just seem to be wired so that you can’t shake off premise ~(1) in thought-plays, even when giving your most sincere attempt at it. So at best you can make ~(1) implicit when creating thought-plays assuming (1). But it should be explicit, in my opinion, because that’s how formal logic works. Such explicity would be especially useful in the case at hand, because it would immediately demonstrate that your very premises in these thought-plays are mutually inconsistent. I.e. you just can’t step into my shoes no matter how hard you try?

    if you cannot live it, then there is contradiction there

    Although you still did not express it quite as explicitly as I would have liked, I think that you are admitting that this argument was never a logical excercise but rather a discussion about your personal emotional inconvenience about (1).

    I don’t criticize that per se. Remember my discussion about the bootstrapping (“just assuming”) I feel doing when I justify my commitment to deductive logic? How do I justify it? There are reasons that could be called, perhaps, rational or at least pseudo-rational (it’s hard to say what it could mean in a situation where I haven’t even established any “objective rationality” yet). “Even the ‘communication’ between my mind and my body involves a myriad instances of what can be interpreted as deductive logic or inductive logic. For example, my brain seems to involuntarily learn by experience or ‘inductive logic’ to treat sensory data so as to bring about every more useful projection of the world. I can’t help it even if I tried, short of killing myself, so why pretend otherwise. To be human, to be a speaker is to believe in rationality.” But I would be the first to “admit” that the reasons are largely emotional, no matter how much I would like to think otherwise. So, there you have it. I have emotional grounding right there at the very core of my “established” rationality.

    This kind of “admission” helps me understand people who say: “If you can’t live it, you mustn’t believe it.” I changed “then there is contradiction there” to reflect how I would formulate the same thought. I think the difference is only academic and cosmetic, but you may disagree. In any case, I’m not willing to urge you to believe in something you can’t live with. I’m only willing to try and explain why I can live with the same thing.

    The emotional inconvenience lies largely in the practical implications, of course. Let’s go back to (10) and (11). Let us assume that my moral relativism logically forces me to say about people aiming for (10+11): well, if it’s right from them, then it’s right for them. But am I saying this believing that it had any profound practical consequence on how I will treat people who find (10+11) good? No. In fact, I would say: “If it’s right for them, then it’s right for them, but I will oppose it nevertheless, because it is not right for me.” We can change the word “right for X” to “X wishes it” or “X finds it good” if you insist. But I hope you still get my point.

    Some enforcing rhetorics follows. Not sure if this is helpful or not, but I invite you to consider a B-class war comic series where Tom and Esko are proud volunteers in the UN Anti-Dork Forces, fighting those, what Tom and Esko find to be, nasty buggers who think that (10+11) is good, who are trying to genocide Tom’s and Esko’s nations before genociding their own, and who are silencing all opposition in their own nation by simply murdering all dissenters.

    In this picture I’d like you to view, Tom and Esko, whom some might find the most unlikely brothers in arms, are charging side by side, sticking their bayonets into the chests of two, what they both call, Dorks. (Bayonets? Well, this was B-class, so anything that looks sexy to the militaristic young mind, goes.) While doing so, Tom cries: “God is on our side!” (You can retext the bubble if you like, as long as it reflects how assured you are of your objective righteousness. We can use really big bubbles and it won’t kill the reader’s suspension of belief because this is B-class.) Esko is exclaiming/saying to his opponent: “Listen, ‘mate’. I may be just defending my personal opinion, but you’re going down nevertheless. What’s ‘good’ for you is ‘good’ for you, but I happen to be such an ogre that I shamelessly stand for my own values instead of yours.”

    Maybe this thought-play was a bit excessive, but the picture just popped into my mind, and I wanted to share it because I found it kind of funny (must be that gross atheist humor) and wanted to ease the tension for a moment so that our shoulders can get a rest. Not sure if it helped any in describing why I insist that our practical difference is not so profound as you claim. I’m specifically urging you to understand that I am the “ogre” described in the comic. I don’t think that I need a divine right in order to make a stand. I don’t think that I need any cosmic pair of eyes, not from heaven, not from another planet, to nod in acceptance: “that’s my boy”. I still have the nerve to make a stand. Whether a religious conviction might boost my courage and determination in carrying out such “stands” is a valid question, but an entirely different topic, right?

    Further, I’m not a postmodernist. I don’t believe in raising kids using any practical maxim: what’s right for them must be right for them. I do sometimes call upbringing “brainwashing”, because I think we are generally using our limited but still formidable power to decide, on behalf of the children, how we want the next generation to be. How much freedom we give for the child to make up his own mind, varies. But there is no logical reason why the relativist would automatically give more freedom than the absolutist, I think. It depends on the exact details.

    A problem in your persuasion is that you think stretching the emotional inconvenience is helpful. I find the opposite to be true. It is very easy for me to say that I would actively raise children (brainwash children) to oppose the realization of (10+11). Had you chosen less radical examples, you might have made it harder for me. (10) and (11) are emotionally effective in assuring me that I would just hate living in (10+11). For all I know, I might just go cockoo living my short life in the middle of all that. But that only affects my will to oppose the realization of (10+11) with my full “ogreness”. It does not affect what you’re aiming to affect: that I can live with the fact that I’m not more “right” in any objective sense than your imaginary supporters of (10+11).

    Finally, am I not urging all moral relativists to be “ogres”, i.e. that they should make a stand for their values, no matter how gross these values might seem to Tom and Esko? No. I do accept differences in opinion and I usually respect people’s ability to speak out and make a stand even if I disagree with them. But there are limits in my tolerance just as there are limits in e.g. freedom of speech and in what kind of political parties are tolerated in democratic societies. So far as I’m willing to communicate at all with people supporting (10+11), it will only consist of various attempts at persuasion to change their minds about (10+11). I might use all imaginable methods of persuasion that I could find useful, including intellectually dishonest argumentation and brainwashing. I would also accept arresting these people early on, should they form a real threat. That’s how ogre I am! To be sure, people can and will be “ogres”, i.e. make a stand for their values. I don’t have much say about that. Peple could be non-ogres, too. A moral relativist might say that he won’t be able to make a stand because he does not have divine right for his cause; he thinks that there is no objective morality and yet he feels like needing objective righteousness in order to dare. I would respond that if you feel that way, then I guess you can’t, even if no physical force is stopping you. A moral absolutist, too, might say that he won’t be able to make a stand for any cause, because he can’t find out for sure which causes have divine right. My response to him would be similar.

    I’m unfair in writing ever longer responses. My only defense is that I think after this attempt I will likely have to give up in trying to create mutual understanding between us. Unfortunately, I still have to address the other topic, i.e. whether evolution can compete with God over our moral minds. I fear in advance that my ramblings may continue there, too.

  114. Holopupenko says:

    Tom:

         After you strip away a lot of yadda-yadda, Esko has a valid point—one I merely alluded to in my very first response to you: formally speaking your presentation as presented is correct. But that only makes the overall argument you present valid—not sound. Materially speaking, it’s not that the material components (the content of the premises) are invalid, rather, they simply don’t say much… which makes them susceptible to interpretation as “question begging” from Esko’s part (and he actually calls you on this), and also reduces your argument to merely being “valid” (i.e., it is only a proof) rather than a “sound argument” (i.e., reaching the level of scientific knowledge provided by a demonstration). He’s looking for the material basis for the absurdity of objectively characterizing, for example female circumcision, as being evil… and frankly, he’s correct in doing so.

         Digression 1: I still stand firm on my earlier criticism’s of Paul and Esko: the blatant contradictions of the epistemological and moral precepts they promote, the hypocrisy in living a life counter to the moral relativism they promulgate, etc. One should (like the good Martin Luther) stand firm and not relinquish any ground on these. They are flat-out wrong, and they are not serving the truth. But these do tend to overshadow, in such discussions (for which I stand guilty in perhaps pressing too hard), the valid questions they ask.

         Consider the following statement of Esko in support of this: I do sometimes call upbringing “brainwashing,” because I think we are generally using our limited but still formidable power to decide, on behalf of the children, how we want the next generation to be. Well, that’s patently absurd. Not only does Esko, yet again, impose his personal, subjective moral norms upon others as if they were objective while promoting moral relativism (contradiction, hypocrisy), but the implication is that even teaching (a species of upbringing) is reduced to irrelevance. Take an easy example: is it “brainwashing” to teach a child multiplication tables? Now, is it “brainwashing” to teach a child that it is objectively wrong to cheat on one’s math test? In terms of our relations with other humans beings, the latter is far more important [I’ll get to the “why?” below] than to know how to multiply numbers. Same thing applies to grammar: to denigrate the dignity of another human being by using perfect grammar using prose that would make Shakespeare proud is still an evil act. It’s better—in the moral sense—to speak back-woods English while being kind to people, than to speak down to people with Harvard-level English. The equivocation, of course, is the reduction of all human acts to ones on the level of grammar and multiplication tables. They assume this because the latter are measurable, observable, verifiable… but only on the level of the modern empirical sciences. Because the MESs are not equipped to “see” cheating or dignity-degrading profanity is NO argument in support of the alleged subjectivity of these (im)moral acts. The truth content of propositions in the MESs are verifiable using the instruments and methodologies of the MESs; the truth content of propositions of morality are verifiable through the methodologies (sound arguments) of moral philosophy… and for people of faith, buoyed by revealed knowledge. What Paul and Esko (and DL and others of their ilk) sneak in unsaid, to one extent or another, is an MES view and judgment of things/issues that aren’t subject to the MESs.End Digression

         The problem is to put across to Esko the objectivity of things that are not—by their very natures—observable to the five primary senses, and that’s why I spent some time introducing that in the digression above. Measurability (i.e., accessibility) does not define objectivity: to a seismologist, earthquakes can be describing through mathematical formalisms by reduction to some fairly complex form of dv/dt; to a philosopher motion writ large (which incorporates the motion of ground movement as well as stellar motions, growth, etc.) is the reduction from potency to act. I believe that at some level Esko is trying to “objectivize” what you’re saying, but (sloppily said) using inappropriate intellectual tools. Since he doesn’t have them (apparently), all things not objectively observable are deemed “subjective” and life goes on… which is another way of saying, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems begin to look like nails.” This is precisely what you’re hearing in Esko’s third paragraph (“But the key question is…”)

         So, as promised, the “why?” cheating on a math test or performing female circumcision is wrong is based on what we are as human beings (philosophically-speaking: rational animals; theologically-speaking: made in the image and likeness of God), i.e., on our very natures. (I’ve gotten into this in previous discussions, so I’m not going to repeat it here.) “Nature,” “dignity,” “good,” “evil,” “virtue,” “duty,” etc.—like the concept of “the day after tomorrow”—are not accessible to the five primary senses. We must use our capacity to reason to understand them, i.e., we rely on our senses to obtain data about the real world, but we then proceed from this sensory knowledge to intellectual knowledge of things unseen. My favorite example of stealing candy from a baby makes this clear. What does it mean to say “I saw an injustice perpetrated by the man against the baby”? It means you “see,” but not with your senses. You know something other than the pungent odor of the candy or the high-pitched screams of the child exist in that example, but you don’t know that by limiting yourself to your senses. Anyway, once one permits understanding / knowledge beyond the senses, one can “see” the objectivity of existents and acts beyond sensory data.

         And therein lies the rub, doesn’t it? If philosophy can get you that far, i.e., to understand that things exist beyond sensory knowledge, what else could be lurking in the background if we pushed our intellects a bit further? Aristotle and St. Thomas got to the existence (but not nature) of God using philosophical arguments. (You then need revealed knowledge to get further than that, i.e., to what and who God is, and what ought our relation to Him be.) Oh my, but that’s dangerous for those predisposed against faith, isn’t it? So what is their response? In chorus: only those things accessible to the modern empirical sciences and their methodologies are “objective” and “valid” if “verifiable”… which, of course, is the positivist criterion that can’t be reflected back upon itself, and which is a deeply-disordered distrust of the power of the human intellect.

         One more try on the “why?” The ontological truth of the existence and whatness of a thing (as opposed to the logical or propositional truth of a statement) forms the basis for the moral character of human acts. Since all things that exist are “good” in so far as they exist (which is looking at things from the perspective of “good” as a transcendental obtained from philosophical reflection), that goodness is presented as “true” (again, to the extent of the object’s existence) to the intellect, which “knows” the thing or act as “good” or “evil,” and then presents it as such to the will, which in turn acts upon what is presented to it: if the will receives knowledge of the object or act from our intellect as “good” (desirable), then we act to attain that good; if the will receives knowledge of the object or act from our intellect as “evil” (to be avoided), then we act to avoid that evil. Concretely, the dignity of each human being is to be defended as a good IF we permit our reason to see the nature of what it means to be human; cheating on a math test (which is a form of stealing from others) is to be avoided, again, because of the dignity of other human beings. If we permit disordered thinking (like that of Steven Pinker’s latest rant against “dignity” as being a “stupid” concept) to cloud our intellect’s ability to reason beyond sensory knowledge, then our will cannot help but operate upon that disordered thinking: it will operated on the concept of “dignity” as “stupid,” and as such we as humans will act out our wills against the dignity of other people.

  115. Esko Heimonen says:

    Tom,

    I really apologize for the context in which I use this quote:

    “if you cannot live it, then there is contradiction there”

    It is blatantly out-of-context, and I must admit that it’s not just a misplaced quote but an initially misread quote. My misreading also made me originally misunderstand your “morality hasn’t changed” idea. So, obviously you don’t mean in the quote that you feel you couldn’t emotionally live with relativism so you choose to believe otherwise (although I would still grant you that). You’re returning to the earlier “you’ve hijacked language” accusation. Also, you are demonstrating that (oh oh!) I would have to reformulate “morality has changed for the better” to, e.g. “morality has changed in the direction I like” or that “Zeitgeist has changed in the direction I like”, at least if I want to not be accused of hijacking language. Fine. But I think it would be as credible “you can’t live with your philosophy” as if I started to count thefts committed by Christians. It is just too weak to be impressive, IMO.

  116. Tom Gilson says:

    Thanks for that Esko.

    I encourage all to study Holopupenko’s last comment—it’s clear, and it helps considerably in defining terms.

    What about thefts committed by Christians? That is accounted for within our philosophy. We have an understanding of it, a category for assessing it, and even a way to deal with it existentially. We believe there are real things called good and evil. (Evil is actually a privation of good, not independently its own essence, but for our purposes we can call it real just as we can call “cold” real, when “cold” really represents a lack of something else.)

    So in that sense good and evil are real. If a Christian commits theft, he partakes in evil. He is acting out impulses related to the sin nature with which we are all born. A Christian who sins is contradicting in practice what he knows to be good, but he can at least speak of that action in coherent terms. He can also find redemption from guilt and strength to grow, through Jesus Christ.

    A relativist, on the other hand, cannot coherently speak of good and evil, right and wrong, better or worse, moral growth or decay, as those terms have been understood for century upon century. He must utterly discard those categories and replace them with preferred/not preferred, or customary/not customary.

    If his wife is raped, he must not say it was wrong. He must say he didn’t prefer it, and that our culture doesn’t support it. If a corporation reduces its greenhouse gas emissions by half, he must not say that is morally good. He cannot even say it is environmentally good, because even that form of good is a matter of cultural preference. If all the warring parties in Iraq decided suddenly to treat each other in true love and brotherhood, if they included sisterhood in the mix as well, and if Bush brought all the troops home next week, the relativist could not call that morally good. The categories by which he can use that term (as it has been historically understood) are simply gone.

    So if that impossible miracle in Iraq happened tomorrow, and a relativist were asked, “Isn’t this good?” he would have to answer something like this: “Well, I certainly like it, but if you mean ‘good’ the way most people mean ‘good,’ well, no I can’t say that it is.”

    If his wife were raped and he were asked, “wasn’t that wrong?” he would have to answer, “If you mean ‘wrong’ the way most people mean ‘wrong,’ I don’t deal in that category, so no, it wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t any more right or wrong than giving money to charity.”

    A Christian can sin, and speak of it afterward (or during or before) in terms that are entirely consistent with the overall philosophy and teachings of Christianity. I suppose a relativist could hypothetically speak the way I’ve just illustrated with those two examples. I challenge you to try it for a week or two and see how it works for you. I don’t think you can do that in practice.

  117. SteveK says:

    I like that you talked about the moral category of good, Tom. As I said before, you can’t know something subjectively if it doesn’t objectively exist in reality. Things exist or they don’t. There is no such thing as ‘subjective existence’.

    Now, if moral categories don’t objectively exist in reality then how can anyone (moral relativists) claim to subjectively know something that doesn’t exist? I’ve yet to hear an answer to this question.

  118. Holopupenko says:

    Tom:

         Just a small expansion upon the concept “privation” that people tend to miss: far from all privations indicate an evil.

         You know that a human being is different—not just in degree but in kind—from a chinchilla. What this means is that a chinchilla is an ontologically different kind of being than a human being, which means the human being has capacities in addition to those possessed by a chinchilla that are fundamentally different—free will and reason. It’s not just that a chinchilla is lacking these things in terms of a simple privation: it’s in the very nature of what a chinchilla is not to have these capacities. Therefore, it is not a physical evil for a chinchilla to be deprived (by mother nature) of reason and free will, whereas it is so for a human being. Contrast this to both a chinchilla and a human being lacking a sense of sight: this is a physical evil because it is a privation of a particular capacity inherent in both their natures.

  119. Tom Gilson says:

    Can we also conclude it is not an evil that we humans don’t have chinchilla fur, at least, not without spending a lot of money and incurring the wrath of PETA?

  120. Holopupenko says:

         Ha! Bully for you, Tom! I was hoping you (or someone else) might pick up on the further implication of my example. I was originally thinking of using the privation of bird wings in humans to explain why it’s not evil we cannot fly, but the clown in me went for the chinchilla fur.

         Levity aside, that’s part of the point I made at the conference: we humans can physically complement our natures to fly (design and construct airplanes) or stay warm (build fires or skin poor chinchillas or produce synthetic fur). Some brute animals can do this—not in the abstract design sense but in the instinctual sense: some birds build nests, but they don’t deliberate how to improve their design. But we humans can do something even more fundamental to our natures because we are the only beings on this planet that can literally alter our natures by our own actions: we can behave—quite literally—“inhumanely” or we can cooperate with God’s grace, which never destroys our human nature but only perfects it.

         PETA is a sick, extremist organization… Have you ever seen the movie The Emperor’s Club with Kevin Klein. I highly recommend it. Anyway, there’s a scene where the main character (a teacher at an elite private school) admonishes a student to walk on the path—not on the grass in the school’s yard. The students remarks, “Oh, yeah, it’s good for the grass to walk on the path.” To which the teacher responds, “No! It’s good for you! Follow the path…” (The multiple meanings in the dialog are rich.) Anyway, apart from erasing the difference in kind between the brute animals and us (hence undermining the very concept of justice in the first place!), PETA just don git it: It’s good for us not to torture or otherwise abuse brute animals—the positive outcome for the brutes is secondary.

  121. Paul says:

    Tom, here’s some follow-up.

    You have acknowledged that your moral ontology permits the possibility of a world where every Jew has been systematically killed, and where every person who disagrees with that having been done has been killed or altered so as to agree, and where every person who disagrees with that has been killed or altered so as to agree; and that this is conceivably as good as it could possibly be. It is universally good, in fact, as defined above, which exceeds any scale of goodness now existing in our world if your ontology is correct.

    Just to be sure, the “It” in your last sentence refers to a morality under relativism in which killing Jews is considered good, etc. When you say “universally good,” I think you mean that everyone in that world believes that it is proper to kills Jews, etc.

    So, I do not subscribe to that morality. I think it is horrendous. But relativism says that my judgment in this case is not objective, even though I hold that judgment.

    I have noted that this is absurd, and you have not agreed.

    Why is this aspect of relativism absurd? Merely because it horrifies us? That is not a rhetorical question. Is there any other aspect of this situation under relativism besides the horror that we feel at it that leads you to say that morality cannot be relative?

    I think your argument reduces to “(Sufficient) horror defines moral wrongs, objectively.” Is there anything else in your argument that doesn’t wind up in the same place?

    Further, I noted how extraordinary it is for you to describe this hypothetical condition as potentially good. I asked you to explain the grounds on which you conclude what you have concluded. In case you didn’t catch it, I was turning the burden of proof back on you.

    I don’t say it is potentially good, I say that others may hypothetically judge it to be good. Is our disagreement here just regarding the likelihood that any morality could be like that? If so, I’ll freely admit that it is unlikely (for perhaps some evolutionary reasons), but still hypothetically possible under relativism. I took the discussion about this possibility to be hypothetical.

    Regarding your syllogism and God’s existence: why not just critique the arguments I’m making, and not the ones that you think I’m making? Maybe the former will lead to the latter, but that progression is important for several reasons, one of which is just plain respect for your opponent. I *never* claimed that the idea that God doesn’t exist was a justification for the fact that morality is relative. My discussion is not hanging on that idea (unless you can show me how the arguments that I have made reduce to the idea that God doesn’t exist).

  122. Tom Gilson says:

    But relativism says that my judgment in this case is not objective, even though I hold that judgment.

    Something about that sentence seems wrong. I may have to work on it some. It would be more precise this way: relativism says that your judgment in this case is not a judgment made against some objective standard. But I think it says something else about personal judgments… my thoughts are only half forming here so I’ll have to let it cook a while and come back to it later.

    Meanwhile, here’s another prime example of an absurdity:

    Why is this aspect of relativism absurd? Merely because it horrifies us?

    I suppose absurdity is in the eye (or heart) of the beholder. I acknowledge it is not subject to formal proof. But I keep seeing absurdity upon absurdity, and that question is the latest.

    I don’t say it is potentially good, I say that others may hypothetically judge it to be good.

    Which means that it is good according to the only definition of goodness you have available. You can’t wiggle out of it that way.

    why not just critique the arguments I’m making, and not the ones that you think I’m making?

    I didn’t think you were making those arguments. I was speculating on whether that thinking may have been going on behind the scenes, in your mind. I was raising a question, in other words.

  123. Paul says:

    But relativism says that my judgment in this case is not objective, even though I hold that judgment.

    Something about that sentence seems wrong. I may have to work on it some. It would be more precise this way: relativism says that your judgment in this case is not a judgment made against some objective standard.

    I’m good with that.

    But I think it says something else about personal judgments… my thoughts are only half forming here so I’ll have to let it cook a while and come back to it later.

    ‘K, catch you on the flip side.

    Why is this aspect of relativism absurd? Merely because it horrifies us?

    I suppose absurdity is in the eye (or heart) of the beholder. I acknowledge it is not subject to formal proof. But I keep seeing absurdity upon absurdity, and that question is the latest.

    I don’t want a formal proof, I just want to know if it’s the horror that makes it absurd, in your opinion. I don’t want a proof, I want to be sure the active ingredient, so to speak, in the absurdity that you see has been named (that is, horror), and there’s no other ingredient in there. I don’t mean to say here that something horrible can’t be absurd, I just want to know if it’s the horribleness and/or something else that makes it absurd.

    I don’t say it is potentially good, I say that others may hypothetically judge it to be good.

    Which means that it is good according to the only definition of goodness you have available. You can’t wiggle out of it that way.

    Oops, did I mean “rightR?” Or whatever substitute we’re using now? Would it make a difference?

    I truly think that vanilla is tasty, but that doesn’t mean that others wouldn’t share my judgment, with validity. Every judgment doesn’t have to be objective, does it?

    I didn’t think you were making those arguments. I was speculating on whether that thinking may have been going on behind the scenes, in your mind. I was raising a question, in other words.

    OK, gotcha. For the record, I’m not making that argument about God here.

  124. Esko Heimonen says:

    SteveK:

    As I said before, you can’t know something subjectively if it doesn’t objectively exist in reality.

    Since subjective “knowing” is, by definition, subjective and not objective, you can hardly decide what people can justifiably claim to subjectively know (as long as they don’t claim anything stronger than that). You insist that ontological claims become objectively true when someone subjectively claims to “know” them to be true. Does this mean that someone subjectively “knowing” the latest conspiracy theory to be true automatically turns this theory into an indisputable, objective ontological claim?

  125. Paul says:

    Esko, good point.

    So, Steve, I can’t imagine what the difference is between subjectivity and objectivity in your view. Can you say what the difference is?

  126. Tom Gilson says:

    From the Apple computer dictionary:

    We call something absurd when it is utterly inconsistent with what common sense or experience tells us.

    That says it very well. The main ingredient in my sense of absurdity here is that it is completely out of step with common sense and experience. It is strange, unusual, bizarre, odd. It is emotionally repelling, but that does not make it absurd: Charles Manson’s murders do not call for the description “absurd,” even though they could be described as horrific, tragic, even unbelievable in a way.

    Oops, did I mean “rightR?” Or whatever substitute we’re using now? Would it make a difference?

    You only have one definition of goodness available to you, as I said. So for the purposes of that paragraph I was using your definition. With that one definition (your definition), the situation described is as good as it could possibly be.

    Every judgment doesn’t have to be objective, does it?

    That’s the whole point of the discussion, isn’t it?

  127. SteveK says:

    Esko

    You insist that ontological claims become objectively true when someone subjectively claims to “know” them to be true.

    ….

    Does this mean that someone subjectively “knowing” the latest conspiracy theory to be true automatically turns this theory into an indisputable, objective ontological claim?

    ‘No I don’t’ to the first part and ‘No’ to the second part. My claim is a logical one….it says that you can only know what exists in reality. You can’t know something that doesn’t exist. Sounds simple and logical enough, right? So….either moral categories exist or they don’t. There is no in-between which means a) there is objective good (moral category) or b) there is NO good (our knowledge is based on a non-existant category and nothing is good), because everything that exists, exists objectively.

    Paul…does this answer your question too?

  128. Esko Heimonen says:

    Tom,

    I guess you can still bear my ramblings. I will return your politeness by limiting myself to the subtopic that you clearly favor at this point.

    I challenge you to try it for a week or two and see how it works for you. I don’t think you can do that in practice.

    In a thought-play, let us use “God’s will” instead of “right” for “a week or two” to see whether we could do that in practice. “God’s will” is almost as easy to read or write as “right”, after all, and in this excercise we believe them to mean the same thing. We will do this replacement just so as to demonstrate that we could easily do that in practice, even if our etymological claims and the modern status of “right” turned out to be false, and even when we use the more challenging form “God’s will” instead of mere “objectively right”, so as to fully account for the belief that indeed there is no “objective right” without “God’s will”. This excercise is a crucial step in establishing that it is not external difficulties that might become a pragmatic barrier in such an experiment, so that we can then more reasonably suspect that there might be some internal problems in a philosophy if it is hard to “live with” using terminology that everyone can accept as “coherent”.

    There might be a remarkable cultural difference (no pun intended) between the US and Finland concerning such langugage. Still, you can probably relate if I claim that at least in Finland it would indeed have a remarkable impact for one’s daily communication if one started replacing all instances of (moral) “right” with “God’s will”. At my job, for example, people would likely start whispering: “What’s with him? He sounds like a freaking preacher or the leader of a lynch mob!” And people would not only find it very odd, they would find it downright inconvenient, as if I was trying to impose something on them or put words into their mouths. Likely, people would feel a need to ask me to clarify what I’m after.

    I gather one of the most inconvenient thing about this expression would be that most of the time when ordinary people (at least in Finland) use “right” in a question, they’re not really discussing God’s will, not even those who are extremely interested in God’s will in their private life. They aren’t even interested in the absoluteness of my “right”. They merely want to learn my moral opinion about something. If they want to know my assessment of God’s will, of the law of the land or, indeed, of the current Zeitgeist (although they certainly would not use that word), they will likely be explicit. My habit of responding to such questions in terms of “God’s will” would sound pompous and confusing, perhaps even a bit aggressive and tactless.

    (If you doubt the above paragraph, just check out your own examples given in your previous post to me, and ask yourself whether the question is basically just interested in my feelings and opinions as opposed to the absoluteness or divinity of my opinions. Btw. the guy asking me about “my wife’s rape” would in practice likely have to be an apologist who had rushed to catch me unrecoverd from shock, shoving a huge TV camera and a huge mike in my face, asking “was it wrong, was it wrong?” while keeping his fingers crossed. It is hard to think of anyone else needing to ask any “how do you feel about it” type questions in such a case let alone bear any notable interest in the absoluteness or divinity of my opinions.)

    So, imagine all the fuzz. Yet all we would be doing is use a harmless synonym. We are merely being explicit just in order to be accurate. Chill out, dudes.

    But let us go further than that. Let us assume that we were being accused of being inaccurate or even deceitful, in that instead of “God’s will” we should say “the will of the Christian God”. Our “right” or “God’s will” is the will of the Christian God, after all, so that people “must” be informed that considering our “right” about something likely involves Biblical interpretation. To not be explicit about it would be to deceit; it not only properly informs about the religious emphasis of our “right” but also identifies the holy book being used. Unfortunately, it still would not identify our exact denomination or school of interpretation so that much remains unclear in at least some of our “rights”. A small group of our former critics would continue to tear their tunika over this inexcusable confusion, as well.

    In our attempts to avoid being deceitful, a new kind of alertness is also called for. If we say the equivalent of our earlier “it was wrong”, we not only say that we think something to be against God’s will; we know it. If we are fortunate enough to be inerrant, so that people will have it easiest to just come ask us in all cases concerning the will of the God of our denomination and interpretation, this has no consequence. If we are not inerrant, however, day in and day out we must carefully consider our confidence concerning God’s will in each ethical problem, so that we can without exception add “in my opinion” whenever applicable.

    Some aftermath is in order. The most important and obvious observation, in my opinion, is that our most sincere attempts at accuracy can sometimes cause more confusion than clarity — at least in, but not necessarily limited to, cases where such attempts were never expected in the first place. So far as the apologist or the moral relativist is not lying on purpose in a question that he knows to specifically address the absoluteness or divinity of an opinion, the biggest clarity can probably be reached with common sense and pragmatism. Pragmatism is not only lazy and selfish, it can also be a mutual benefit, or even considerate behavior.

    Secondly. Should the apologist miserably fail to “live with” his philosophy, avoiding all deceit, I would refuse your suggestion that it was reasonable to suspect that “there is a contradiction there” merely on those grounds. We haven’t really studied anything about his philosophy per se. We have only studied his success at balancing between pragmatism and accuracy, and his failures are in my opinion artefacts of our unreasonable demands and utter unhelpfulness or even hostility on pragmatic level, and not reasonably failures of his actual philosophy. Most revealingly, we can indeed write thought-plays like this and do a pretty good job at correcting all those allegedly “deceitful” expressions, which in itself is an admission that he probably could explain his philosophy in coherent terms to his housekeeper, should either of them honestly require such accuracy before being able to discuss sensibly the basic ethics involved in their mutual relations.

  129. Esko Heimonen says:

    SteveK:

    you can only know what exists in reality

    I see. This means that you identify yourself as a person who believes in absolute certainties and who would never call anything else but an absolute certainty knowledge. It would be interesting to learn how much knowledge you have gathered, then. Since the philosophy of science admits in its very core that science does not deal in absolute certainties, I’d guess that you must know much less than myself, unless you happen to know the philosophy of science to be in err.

  130. SteveK says:

    Esko
    I’m simply saying moral categories are objective if they exist, and non-existant if they don’t exist – however you want to define existence (this turns out to be the hard part). Our knowledge of morality can be subjective – no arguing about that – but when two contradictory moral claims are made one or both must be wrong. This isn’t meant to say relativism is false only that an actual contradiction can’t stand. As they say, the devil is in the details.

  131. SteveK says:

    Esko
    I say the above because relativists seem to think two contradicting moral claims can co-exist. My argument above says they can’t unless you say moral categories exist objectively as individual opinions. I don’t know anyone who is saying that.

  132. Holopupenko says:

    Esko:

         Your last post is a good example of someone who knows a little about a given subject matter, and uses it as if it were the defining principle of knowing reality. The philosophy of science is a narrowly focused field that studies systems of reasoning about natural things, i.e., its main focus is methodologies and epistemologies. In contrast, the realist philosophy of nature must be carefully distinguished from the philosophy of science. (Crudely put: science is the “way” or “means,” nature is the “what.”) The philosophy of nature studies the foundational principles as applied to all natural things, and hence its focus is primarily upon natures, quiddity, ontology. As such, a realist philosophy of nature knows no natural bounds, for it is a kind of “coordinator” of the particular sciences that provides the bigger picture of the natural world.

         SteveK is correct (and you are incorrect) in a further respect—which you clearly missed. The fact that you can imagine or conceive the something being possible does not actualize that possibility… yet you imply it does. You give your imagination unmerited free reign, for example, when you react against someone who honestly asks you, for example: “can you ever imagine at any place and any time a society in which the virtue of bravery/fortitude (i.e., not cowardliness on the one side and foolhardy brashness on the other) is considered wrong or a vice?” The correct response would be, “No, I cannot imagine it… but my imagination does not make it or break it.” You, on the other hand, choose the wrong approach by imagining that the rape of an innocent infant might be considered good somewhere at sometime… and hence possible, and so believe you have found support for relativism… further believing you are more “progressive” (not!) or “open” to possibilities.

         You have not, you are not. You are trying to actualize reality through your imagination. Wrong answer. A reference to the Latin ob-jicere (to throw at one) from which the English to object derives, makes abundantly clear that an object is something which throws itself at one and therefore “objects.” The object activates the mind, instead of being activated by the mind in any sense. It is therefore not enough to speak of the registering of reality as a program or method (related to your first error of focusing essentially exclusively on a philosophy of science rather than considering the much broader and deeper natural philosophy), but it reminds the critical thinker to return continually to his primary contact with reality. One should think rather of the ability of objects to impose themselves on the mind, by constantly objecting to it and challenging it. Stop thinking your thoughts have any direct bearing upon reality. In light of this, someone less charitable might be justified in viewing you as full of yourself—which is what epistemological and moral relativism is at the end of the day: a self-centered view of the world that focuses upon itself (the subject) rather than the object to be known. Said another way, you appear stuck inside your mind fantasizing about possibilities rather than letting reality pull you back down to earth.

  133. Paul says:

    We call something absurd when it is utterly inconsistent with what common sense or experience tells us . . . , completely out of step with common sense and experience. It is strange, unusual, bizarre, odd.

    I would agree, Tom, that relativism says that another culture might adopt a moral code that would be utterly inconsistent with what (our) common sense (not theirs, of course) or experience tells us, and we would view it as strange, unusual, bizarre, or odd.

    I don’t see that as logically and necessarily contributing to the defeat of relativism, in and of itself. Aren’t there plenty other things that we would similarly characterize and yet we know aren’t objectively true?

    Part of the problem is that what is strange, unusual, bizarre, or odd, is pretty, dare I say, subjective. One person’s bizarre may be another person’s common. So to use *that* criterion to try to establish something objectively seems doomed to failure. Aren’t you now saying, in effect, that bizarreness can be determined objectively?

    So what’s the point of this characterization? If it isn’t being trotted out to help defeat relativism, then what purpose does it serve in a discussion?

    Every judgment doesn’t have to be objective, does it?

    That’s the whole point of the discussion, isn’t it?

    OK, so now we have a different way to frame this disagreement. Tom, apparently, says that any judgment is objective. Is that right?

  134. SteveK says:

    Paul,
    Would you say, to the best of your knowledge and understanding, the moral category ‘good’ exists in reality – in some way? If you say ‘no’, what would you say informs you that this category doesn’t exist?

  135. Paul says:

    SteveK, your 10 Jul 2008 at 11:08 am didn’t help my question about how you view the difference between subjective and objective because you did not even use the word “subjective” once.

    How can you define the difference between A and B without even mentioning B?

    Specifically, if everything exists exists objectively, as you said, then what does “subjective” mean?

    Ah, why not skip to the punchline? My dictionary says this, right off the bat, for the very first definition: “existing in the mind.” That means that it (something subjective) doesn’t exist outside of the mind. Which means it can’t be objective. Everything that exists doesn’t exist objectively, that’s why we have the word “subjective.” So, we have two modes of existence, as la Descartes: material and objective, outside the mind, and immaterial and subjective, inside the mind. Eh? [bracing for a spanking from H.]

  136. SteveK says:

    Paul:

    My dictionary says this, right off the bat, for the very first definition: “existing in the mind.” That means that it (something subjective) doesn’t exist outside of the mind. Which means it can’t be objective. Everything that exists doesn’t exist objectively, that’s why we have the word “subjective.” So, we have two modes of existence, as la Descartes: material and objective, outside the mind, and immaterial and subjective, inside the mind. Eh? [bracing for a spanking from H.]

    I’ll spank first. 1) Are you thoughts in your mind? (hint: yes) 2) All your thoughts must be subjective including your thoughts about what it means to be objective. (does it hurt yet?)

    In all honesty, I don’t like the terms objective/subjective because, well, nobody really knows where the dividing line is. I use the terms begrudgingly. I’m more comfortable talking in terms of the one factual reality that we all share so I tend to talk about objectivity (factuality) in terms of “that which exists in reality”. Truth (the category) is objective because there are things in reality that are known to be true. Knowledge (the category), logic and thoughts (not the content of the thoughts) are also objective for the same reason.

    Specifically, if everything exists exists objectively, as you said, then what does “subjective” mean?

    Subjectivity would, for example, apply to the information content or the truth value of the thoughts.

    Holo can spank us both next ;)

  137. SteveK says:

    Paul,
    I’m not satisfied with my response about subjectivity – the last part only. It’s not complete, maybe not accurate even. Holo can help us out, but I’m thinking it has something to do with conceived reality versus perceived reality. Subjectivity being conceived reality. (edit: I don’t like that answer either!)

    I’ll leave it there for now. I’ve made a bit of a mess.

    Holo: cleanup on aisle #9, please!

  138. Paul says:

    SteveK, the difference is that the *content* of my thoughts can be made public, through speaking and other means, and thereby become objective: it is objectively true that I either said some words or I didn’t. To the extent that my thoughts *themselves* cannot be made public (and neuroscience is making some thoughts available beyond one’s head), they cannot be made objective. I think it is true that I thought what I thought, but that’s not an objective truth.

    The dividing line is whether something can be publicly verified, in principle. My thoughts, excepting advances in neuroscience, can’t be verified publicly by others – you have to take my word for what my thoughts are. So it is subjectively true, for me, that I think what thoughts I have.

    I don’t get what the problem is with this formulation.

  139. Holopupenko says:

    Paul and SteveK:

         Beat me… spank me… make me feel cheap, sailor! (How’s that for clean up?)

    ;-)

         To expand upon the many nuanced errors Descartes makes and the impact they had on subsequent thinkers (like Locke, Hume, Kant, etc.) who built their systems upon Descartes errors would take a course in pre-modern (classical) philosophy (covering the time from Machiavelli and Descartes through the end of Kant.

         May I humbly suggest—especially to Paul—that you read the following historical summaries and brief criticisms. The Radical Academy is very good at providing such summaries. Bear in mind, though, that philosophical ideas are highly nuanced, and while the Academy provides the good summaries, you really have to read the original works, stew over them, read criticisms, and come to some conclusions. This is not difficult stuff—it’s accessible to essentially anyone. But these ideas definitely demand great amounts of time and effort (and prayer for you people of faith out there) to wrap your minds around them.

         A suggestion for context: Seismologists study the motion of the earth metrically; physicists study the motion of bodies metrically as influenced by the four fundamental forces of nature; biologists study the motion and growth of living things metrically; astronomers study the motions of heavenly bodies metrically; but only natural philosophers study motion qua motion. Motion for philosophers is not merely some measured phenomena that changes, it’s the “reduction from potency to act.” Keep this in mind: the particular sciences study phenomena that has limited accessibility to the common man; in contrast philosophy can only accept as input data knowledge accessible to ALL human beings under any condition, at any time, and in any place. (Few people have experienced what an earthquake is; all of us have experienced motion.) The very same thing applies to studying ideas and what human beings are: a neuroscientist studies the brain; a philosopher reflects upon the mind using commonly-accessible knowledge. This is very important context for understanding why Descartes was wrong.

         Anyway, enjoy: http://radicalacademy.com/adiphilcritextrareality.htm and http://radicalacademy.com/adiphilcritideas.htm.

  140. SteveK says:

    Thanks for those links, Holo. I’m reading them now. Good stuff. Perhaps premature at this point, but I’m a little proud of my ability to figure some of this out on my own considering I’ve taken, at most, one or two philosophy classes. Take this snippet as one example:

    Consciousness must be essentially free from error in all matters of which it has immediate intuition. To doubt or deny this is equivalent to the suicide of reason, because then all knowledge must be adjudged illusory. But the evidence of consciousness is transparently clear in testifying to the reality and existence of our body.

    We can discover no difference between the intuition which consciousness has of mental states and that which it has of the reality and existence of the body. There is indeed a difference in the object of awareness, but there is no essential difference in the nature of the act of awareness itself. Now, if this act of awareness is perceptive of the reality and existence of internal states, why should it not be equally perceptive of the reality and existence of the human body with which it is so obviously connected?

    The testimony of consciousness is equally clear and intuitive in both cases. To affirm the validity of its perception in the one case and to deny it in the other, amounts to a practical destruction of its character as a reliable witness in both. We could no longer trust its testimony; certain knowledge would be impossible, and skepticism would inevitably follow. Hence, the testimony of our consciousness concerning the reality and existence of our body as perceived by us must be accepted.

    YES!

  141. SteveK says:

    Paul and Esko,
    This next snippet helps explain why we KNOW moral categories are real rather than made up. Since they are real, no opinion can change what they are in the external world. No opinion can change the moral category of ‘good’ into ‘evil’ and no opinion can do away with them.

    I’ve asked how you KNOW they are not real and I have not heard much in response.

    The reason why our mind is naturally convinced of the reality of the external world as we perceive it to be, lies in the fact that we are intuitively aware that we do not produce our impressions and perceptions of the external objects: we are passive, in the sense that our consciousness testifies that the impressions and perceptions are produced in us from outside. We cannot produce them at will, nor can we change them at our convenience.

    But, if the objects, as we perceive them, were only internal modifications of our consciousness, without a reality of their own, why this persistence, this regularity, this permanent order, this compulsion? Many of our perceptions are painful, unpleasant, nauseous, embarrassing, nerve-racking; though we fain would rid ourselves of them, we cannot. The reason is plain: these impressions are made by objects which are real and over which we have no control. We are forced to perceive them, if our senses are within the sphere of their influence.

  142. Paul says:

    SteveK, you did not make explicit the significance of the point that we perceive our thoughts and our bodies similarly in regards to the question of objectivity and subjectivity. Also, I still don’t know, in a sentence or two, what you think subjectivity is.

    Our perception is not a tape recorder that records a true record of external reality. And our bodies mediate this perception. For instance, why is it that merely reading about itching can make us actually itch?

    I read a little of the snippet link you offered. I’m not a fan of reading links, I’d rather discuss the ideas you find pertinent there with you.

    Furthermore, it’s not a question of doubting the reality of the external world, but determining exactly what that reality is. We can know our thoughts and perception of our body directly, but we cannot with external objects. The pain I feel in my leg is unmediated, but the green in green grass is not in the grass (grass reflects certain light wavelengths, but the qualia of greenness is not in those wavelengths), nor in my head (because I don’t make it up out of whole cloth). It’s some partnership between our minds and reality.

    So just because we can perceive our thoughts and bodies directly is no argument that our judgments about the external world are as sure as our experience of qualia, nor, to say the least, as objective.

    SteveK, only material objects can be objective realities, that’s why morality isn’t objective. Only the existence and characteristics of material objects can be independently verified, which is the basis for objectivity. Before you object, make sure you’re not confusing qualia for a material object.

    That’s a mish-mosh of a post, I admit.

  143. Holopupenko says:

    SteveK:

         Paul’s latest comments are indeed an error-laden mish-mosh.

         First, not wanting to read the links betrays a lack of intellectual integrity, for Paul basically implies: “I don’t care what your sources argue.” I raise an earlier accusation again: generally Paul is not interested in listening to anyone’s position; he’s not interested in challenging his own notions; he’s not interested in reading/thinking first and only then commenting/criticizing.

         Second, but to not waste time on his others errors, I’ll focus on Paul’s most blatant one. Consider the following unsubstantiated and quite erroneous assertion Paul makes: “… only material objects can be objective realities, that’s why morality isn’t objective.” He’s wrong for several reasons. One, to repeat: it’s an unsubstantiated assertion. Two, because he has a reductionist materialist view of the world, Paul won’t admit of “being” as an analogous concept. As such, he reduced everything objective to the material. That’s not what “objective” means, and he did not read what I wrote: objective means “objects to [impose upon] the mind” not merely “material object.” Three, I dare you to count the plethora of universals he’s used just in his last comments. There are lots, and he uses them objectively. Ask Paul to point to “doginess” or “treeness.” He won’t be able to, but he uses them in his every day language: every time he sees a dog or a tree he knows he’s seeing a tree—it’s not this particular or that concrete tree that provides the concept of treeness to him, but some intelligible aspect in all trees that permit us to distinguish and know trees from dogs.

         For heavens sake, why doesn’t Paul apply his silly assertion to “quaila” or Dawkins’ “memes” or the “scientific method”? Is Paul ready to claim the scientific method is merely subjective? If not, then why doesn’t Paul demonstrate to us that the scientific method is a material object? Get real! Paul talks about “our judgments.” Okay, perhaps Paul would care to show me the material object called a “judgment.” He can’t? Then his own judgmental claims against you, SteveK, are subjective… and hence not worth our time. What about the very assertion Paul makes (above): is it a material object? Of course not (if it is, show it to us all, Paul), so it’s subjective—a mere subjective, personal opinion worthy of being ignored. Also, the whole “mediation” thing is a joke and reflects perfectly Kant’s huge error as it flowed from Descartes: if Paul had only read the Radical Academy link (like just the first diagram on the first page of the first link provided might have forced him to stop and think for moment)… but then, he might have gotten embarrassed.

         Stunningly ignorant assertions not thought through.

  144. SteveK says:

    Paul,
    I concure with what Holo said already.

    Furthermore, it’s not a question of doubting the reality of the external world, but determining exactly what that reality is.

    Given this comment I hope I’m safe to conclude that you don’t doubt the reality of what we call ‘moral categories’, considering that it’s an exercise in futility to try and figure out what something IS if you think it IS NOT (doesn’t exist).

    What you are doubting is what ‘moral good’ really IS.

    Why do you think that ‘moral good’ might be something other than what you think it is? What gives you reason to doubt your current knowledge?

  145. Paul says:

    SteveK, here’s the thing, I think, that I’m having a hard time getting past. Can you answer these questions for me?

    1. What *type* of thing is a moral good? It’s not a material object, and it’s not qualia. Is it a concept or idea, or something else?

    2. Is there any other type of objective thing that is the same type of thing as morality?

    3. If so, what category is morality and that other thing in?

    4. The larger question, then, is what are all the types of things that exist? Then we can say in which category of all the types of things that exist morality belongs.

    The best I can do is to say that morality is a concept, an idea.

    5. But why must it be that we have to assign an objective reality to an idea, beyond it’s material manifestation in our minds/brains? Is that a necessity?

    6. Would you assign an objective reality to any idea?

    Furthermore, we have to distinguish between the content of an idea and the idea itself (uh, the idea of an idea?), for surely we can have an idea as well as its mutually exclusive opposite, so the (propositional?) content of both could not be an objective reality. So it seems that the best we *might* do is to say that any idea, but not its content – is real. But then isn’t any idea solely within one mind? Then an idea would be like qualia, forever residing within one mind. When we talk to each other, the only way we know that we’re talking about the same idea is because we make it objective by publicly verifying it. But it’s not the same idea in the sense that my experience of green can not be verified to be the same as your experience of green – we can never know whether it is or not. So it’s subjective, right?

  146. SteveK says:

    Paul,
    Your questions are good ones, Paul, but I’m hardly qualified to answer them with any authority. I highly encourage you to read the 4 pages that Holo linked to – as a minimum. I read them and also read several more pages that answered some of the questions you asked about ideas, abstractions, judgement, knowledge, beings, etc. I would only be repeating what was there. It’s worth taking the time to read it yourself.

    If you’d rather, here is a one page summary of realism. I find little to disagree with there. A little snippet from that page…

    While there are many philosophies, and many of these contradict one another and others have even led to and supported terrible acts of barbarism against mankind, there is one philosophy that has stood the test of time, been accepted by virtually all ordinary men, and forms a rational foundation for truth and morality. This philosophy is called the philosophy of Common Sense, Critically Examined and Expanded. It is not ordinary common sense opinion, but common sense opinion subjected to rigorous examination and criticism. It is an authentic philosophy of Realism, based on demonstrated principles of objective truth and using objective evidence as its sole criterion of truth.

    I don’t disagree with many of the things you say because I, a priori, think they are wrong. I disagree with them because they fall apart once scrutinized just like the quote above states. They self destruct under the weight of self-inflicted contradiction or they lead to solipsism. Holo points this out time and time again, yet you insist on holding onto these views of reality anyway. Why?

  147. SteveK says:

    Paul,

    The best I can do is to say that morality is a concept, an idea.

    5. But why must it be that we have to assign an objective reality to an idea, beyond it’s material manifestation in our minds/brains? Is that a necessity?

    6. Would you assign an objective reality to any idea?

    I found the response below here. More about ideas and all sorts of good stuff here and the pages that follow.

    The definition of idea is that it is the intellectual representation of a thing. It is important to note that an idea of a thing is very different from a sense-perception of that thing. The senses perceive a thing in its concrete individuality with all the peculiar traits and characteristics which make this thing to be this thing and differentiate this thing from every other thing. An idea, however, apprehends a thing in those essential attributes which the thing has in common with all other things of the same class or species. It leaves aside all the individualizing and differentiating marks peculiar to the thing itself.

    Let’s look at a simple example to illustrate the above. I see a maple tree of a certain size, age, color, texture, shape and so on. My picture of this particular maple tree is the result of perception through the sense of sight. But the idea of tree is substantially different. I disregard all the peculiar elements of the individual tree and apprehend instead those essential attributes which it has in common with all other trees. My intellect combines them into a single intellectual image or idea, namely, a tree is a “woody perennial plant with a single main stem, usually about at least ten feet high.” Sense-perception represents the tree in the concrete; the idea represents the tree in the abstract.

    If the mind is so easily duped into accepted meaningful ideas that have nothing to do with reality (as some like to think) then why don’t we accept the notion that ‘tree with bee hive’ is a new, meaningful idea to be held? We don’t. We accept it as the idea of tree plus the idea of bee hive. The mind doesn’t arbitrarily identify, and assign without merit, meaningful ideas to the physical patterns around us – it might at first, but not after considerable examination has been given to the idea. Rather it identifies meaningful ideas because these meaningful physical patterns are there to be identified. Hence the reason we continue to identify moral categories even after careful examination. We can’t do away with the idea of moral good as part of reality any more than we can do away with the idea of a tree as part of reality.

  148. Paul says:

    SteveK, I probably won’t be able to respond until Monday, if then, but scanning the realism single page you linked to drew a red flag. I didn’t find anything to support the idea that we can be “certain” (with no qualification or limitation) about reality. I understand that you can’t say everything on a single web page, but I’m left wondering how they came up with that one, see my earlier posts on other entries about strong skepticism.

    Thanks for your ideas, we’re having a proper discussion, in my opinion.

  149. Holopupenko says:

    Paul:

         Yes, indeed, your questions are good ones… and they must be addressed. It was a breath of fresh air to actually see you pose them. Your “red flag” is a non-starter from the philosophical perspective, however, until you first think through the very questions about beingness you pose. You’ll see that “certainty” is not merely reducible to MES veriability. Finally, I urge you to be careful in making claims such as “I’d rather discuss the ideas you find pertinent there [provided links] with you…” It’s not about what SteveK finds “pertinent” except in a secondary sense. What is pertinent is truth, and if one begins a priori with the self-contradicting claim that there is no certainty or if one denies the PNC, then the discussion can end and we might as well go play tennis.

    SteveK: You’re doing a fine job working through this stuff, and it also sounds like you’re thrilled by it. Keep it up!

  150. Holopupenko says:

    Hey, recall the point I made that grammatically-correct language can be used in morally evil ways (above)? Well, in this regard, here is yet another example of the Brits’ slow slide into decadence: “Grading On A Curse” at http://www.city-journal.org/2008/eon0711td.html. The metrics they use to squeeze “positive” grammar out of the profanity is too funny.

  151. SteveK says:

    You’re doing a fine job working through this stuff, and it also sounds like you’re thrilled by it. Keep it up!

    Thanks for the encouragement. I am enjoying it, but I feel a little uncomfortable because I’m simply repeating what is written as if I know what I’m talking about. That’s not entirely correct, because I do know that it makes sense rationally and experiencially.

  152. SteveK says:

    Paul,

    I didn’t find anything to support the idea that we can be “certain” (with no qualification or limitation) about reality.

    That can’t be much of a red flag to you because you aren’t concerned with certainty (with no qualification or limitation) when it comes to 99% of your daily life.

    Anyway, here is a page that discusses this and below is a snippet about certitude.

    Certitude is a state of the mind in which it gives a firm assent to a judgment, without fear of the possibility of error, because of recognized valid reasons.

    Three elements enter into the concept of certitude:

    (1) a firm assent to the judgment,
    (2) the absence of fear of possible error, and
    (3) the understanding of the valid reasons which exclude this fear.
    Now it needs to be realized that this does not mean that the mind is really infallible in these judgments and that error is impossible. What it does mean is that the mind is subjectively certain of its grounds and does not fear the possibility of error. It is convinced that it is in possession of knowledge which is true and valid.

    ……

    A person is not equally certain of all truths even though all these truths are certain to his mind. For instance, I am sure beyond doubt that the planet Pluto exists even though I have never directly seen it. I am more sure about the existence of Earth, however, because I live here. There are three degrees of certitude.

    Skepticism is fine. In fact realism requires being skeptical. They don’t call it “Common sense, critically examined and expanded” for nothing!! The trouble starts when skepticism goes to the extreme, as you have done with your strong skepticism.

    Read about Skepticism here and compare it to the Realistic Theory of Knowledge immediately following it. Which is logically sound? Which makes more sense to you?

  153. Holopupenko says:

    SteveK:
         Don’t worry about repeating truth: it always sounds fresh, invigorating and inspiring no matter how many times you repeat truth. Some are threaten by truth—just like they’re threaten with hearing Scripture—or even threatened by the notion that we can know truth. And, don’t forget, we ALL stand on the shoulder’s of giants who came before us—we venerate those giants (Chesterton calls it the “democracy of the dead”) and honor God in repeating and expanding upon the truths revealed to them and discovered by them.

  154. Paul says:

    SteveK, you wrote:

    The mind doesn’t arbitrarily identify, and assign without merit, meaningful ideas to the physical patterns around us – it might at first, but not after considerable examination has been given to the idea. Rather it identifies meaningful ideas because these meaningful physical patterns are there to be identified.

    I don’t have too much of a quibble with this, although I would emphasize the more creative aspects of how we construct patterns. But that is not an argument against objective reality, I believe in objective reality.

    But what I don’t get is how you moved from the above to

    Hence the reason we continue to identify moral categories even after careful examination.

    Your “Hence” doesn’t follow at all for me. Can you break down into a few smaller parts how you got to that “Hence?”

    Although I guess I should make sure that you are just arguing for “identifying” moral categories, and not offering a proof for their objective reality by means of your “Hence.”

    Also, regarding your snippet about ideas. I don’t think I have a strong quibble there, either, but the payoff for me is whether the ontological status of an idea might say anything about the ontological status of morality. Are both, perhaps, instances of a type of ontological status that is neither material nor qualia? What is the word, like “material” and “qualia,” that is the general label for those things that have that ontological status?

  155. SteveK says:

    Paul,

    Although I guess I should make sure that you are just arguing for “identifying” moral categories, and not offering a proof for their objective reality by means of your “Hence.”

    If humans (including you) repeatedly identify something, and if humans have no way to prove it’s NOT part of the reality that we all share, then why do you (an individual) question its existence? I don’t understand that. Maybe I’m missing something…do you, Paul, possess knowledge that says moral categories are not part of reality?

    BTW, reality is always considered objective so I won’t bother saying ‘objective reality’ each time.

  156. Paul says:

    SteveK, I don’t think the evidence for objective morality is convincing, so I conclude that objective morality doesn’t exist. Strictly speaking, it should be an open question, I suppose, but assuming that relative morality is internally consistent (I think I got Tom to agree to that), it seems that relativism is to be chosen over objective morality, at least tentatively. I’m sure you disagree with all or part of that, but that’s the outline of where the burden of proof falls as far as I see it.

    Actually, I can formulate this a little more strongly. Talking about evidence for objective morality is premature, actually, given my previous questions about its ontology (is it a different type of real thing compared to material objects, ideas, qualia, etc.). For instance, if it turned out to be qualia, that would settle many questions about whether and how it is objective. So I don’t know how to even begin assessing the evidence for morality’s objective reality when it’s not clear what type of real thing it could even be.

  157. SteveK says:

    Paul,
    We’re talking about moral categories and their relation to the things that exist in reality. To review… an idea is the intellectual representation of a thing that exists. Examples are tree, justice, truth, color, etc. Also remember that the idea is not the same as the thing perceived. (Holo, please correct any of my errors)

    Does the intellectual idea of ‘moral good’ represent a thing that exists in reality? That’s the question. From what I can tell, the question demands a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. For example: Does the intellectual idea of ‘tree’ represent a thing that exists in reality? I think you and every other human on the planet would conclude ‘yes’, but regardless of the answer it’s either ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but never both.

    If ‘moral good’ as a category doesn’t represent a thing that exists in reality then BOTH realism and relativism are discussing things that don’t exist. The idea ‘moral good’ would be like the idea ‘unicorn’. Neither group is saying that, however moral relativists want both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ as answers to the same question. They want to allow ‘moral good’ to represent a thing that exists in reality and they want ‘moral evil’ to represent that SAME thing. See the problem?

  158. Paul says:

    SteveK, hold off for a sec on your last paragraph immediately above. I think we may have some other agreement coming up.

    You’re saying that the idea of a tree is real. I’m willing to agree only to the extent that the idea exists within a brain or mind. That is, I don’t think the idea of a tree would exist if there were nobody in the universe (disregard God for the moment, unless it is crucial to your argument for this specific point).

    So, hopefully, agreeing that ideas are real insofar as they are thought by people, we could go on and debate whether there is any reality to ideas beyond their material manifestation in the brain, but let’s not go there, OK. Let’s agree to hold off on that issue.

    So, certainly, if the idea of a tree is real in the sense I’ve outlined above, so is the idea of morality objective really, just like any idea would be. But this means that the content of an idea isn’t necessarily an objective reality, because we can have the idea of things that don’t exist, like unicorns.

    So, we can now return to the question of why would any particular moral code (that is, the specific prohibitions and proscriptions) be objectively true? We’ve agreed (I think) that the idea of morality is as objectively true as the idea of any thing would be, but that doesn’t get us all the way we need to go.

    I suspect that, in order to go the entire distance to establish that morality is objective, God is necessary (and maybe sufficient, I’m not sure). In which case the issue reduces down to one of theism vs atheism.

  159. SteveK says:

    Paul,

    You’re saying that the idea of a tree is real. I’m willing to agree only to the extent that the idea exists within a brain or mind. That is, I don’t think the idea of a tree would exist if there were nobody in the universe (disregard God for the moment, unless it is crucial to your argument for this specific point).

    I think that’s correct. If an idea is an intellectual representation of a real thing then no intellectuals means no ideas. However, no ideas doesn’t necessarily mean no real things.

    we could go on and debate whether there is any reality to ideas beyond their material manifestation in the brain, but let’s not go there, OK. Let’s agree to hold off on that issue.

    I hope we’re not going to debate about this because there *should* be nothing to debate. We can’t go any further if you haven’t resolved this. You KNOW, with certitude, that there is a reality (beyond their material manifestation) to at least *some* (most, really) of the ideas you have. Can you agree to that?

  160. SteveK says:

    Paul,

    But this means that the content of an idea isn’t necessarily an objective reality, because we can have the idea of things that don’t exist, like unicorns.

    Holo is going to be better at this than me so pardon the mistakes.

    Correct. You know the idea of ‘unicorn’ doesn’t exist outside of your mind (and fables) because you know it’s a made-up concept. What then tells you the idea of ‘moral good’ is a made-up concept with no connection to reality? Same with ‘justice’. I’m not asking if it’s possible (because it is), I’m asking where you get the knowledge that leads you to conclude it IS a made-up concept?

    BTW, if the idea of ‘unicorn’ has no connection to reality then the question “Is this a unicorn?” is always answered “no”. Same thinking with respect to ‘moral good’. There is NO moral good – none – and relativism is false. If the opposite it true then there is SOME moral good – and relativism is false with respect to those.

  161. Paul says:

    SteveK, I think we’ve hit the main issue. Allow me to outline:

    Thing that exists #1 – the thing that an idea refers to. For instance, the idea of a tree refers to trees in general, and the physical objects that are trees exist.

    Thing that exists #2 – the physical manifestation of an idea in the brain. For instance, when I think of a tree, we assume that there is some corresponding physical change in the brain. This should not be controversial, I think.

    Thing that exists #3 – the non-physical manifestation of an idea, outside of the brain. Perhaps an idea exists in the mind, as far as the mind is the non-physical correlate (for lack of a better word) of the brain.

    But I’m not sure that #3 exists. How do we know that #3, as something different from #2 and #1, although obviously related, exists? And, I have to ask again, what type of (existing) thing is an idea? Is there anything else of its type?

  162. SteveK says:

    A little help, Holo! *Please*

  163. Paul says:

    SteveK, I know the feeling! What we’re doing is sometimes difficult. We both do the best we can, there have been times when I wished for some help.

    But why did you have to ask Holo?!

    ; )

  164. Tom Gilson says:

    Paul,

    Talking about evidence for objective morality is premature, actually, given my previous questions about its ontology (is it a different type of real thing compared to material objects, ideas, qualia, etc.).

    There are other types of ontologies, like substances and properties. Redness is a real thing. Dogness is real. Numbers really exist: they are abstract entities. Propositions are not located in space or time, and have no physical existence, but they exist nonetheless.

    Objective morality does not exist floating in the middle of nowhere, though; none of these things do. (Now, I’m told there are some philosophers who deny God yet hold to objective morality, supposing that moral values have some kind of independent reality of their own. I don’t agree with that; I can’t even imagine how it could be.)

    Properties can be conceived of independent of the substances to which they are predicated, but they are never independently instantiated. Objective morals can be conceived of independently of specific situations, but they do not have their own independent reality. They exist as commands from God, as duties issuing from his good, loving, and holy nature. They exist as propositions, as non-propositional dispositions, as acts, as examples. It is as propositions that we can best communicate about them, but we ought not let that confuse us into thinking that’s all there is to them.

    Does that help?

  165. Paul says:

    Tom, please look at my last response to SteveK. I really hope you can appreciate what I’m trying to do.

    I’m not saying, for instance, “SteveK, your lack of response only demonstrates the utter vacuousness of your position. Theists always, when finally pushed to the wall, have to bail themselves out with an appeal to someone else, to some supposed authority, or, at worst, to God.” Such a response. in terms of its lack of respect for the other side, its assumptions, and its arrogance, is not uncommon on blogs. But the best of us refrains from ascribing base motivations to those with whom we disagree when honest disagreement would explain the conflict.

    I disagree with Steve, and if I gave in to the worst of myself, I could imagine SteveK to be horribly misguided and a fool. And, perhaps, somewhere, maybe I actually think that, I hope not, but I would rather restrain myself, and fight that tendency, and give the benefit of the doubt to my opposition, and respect the opposition as much as I can, and to not characterize their logic, but merely point out where it’s wrong, and whenever there is the slightest opportunity to find some common ground, to sympathize, or to rise above our differences, I try to do that.

    Here’s the crucible for Christians, “Which is the more important message from Christ: Truth, or Love?” If it’s Truth, then maybe there’s no reason not to assume the worst of someone who doesn’t see the Truth, and why not spank them mightily?

    But if it’s Love, then something else applies.

  166. Tom Gilson says:

    I’m a bit confused. Are you saying SteveK should not have appealed to Holopupenko? You’ve asked a technical question, for which Holopupenko is better qualified than Steve to answer.

    So I’m not quite sure what your current concern is…

  167. Holopupenko says:

    Hi SteveK:

         I’m sorry, but apart from the comments below I’m pulling out of the discussion: my suspicion is that Paul, at best, is cherry-picking ideas that “work” (not!) to support his a priori views, at worst he’s again being manipulative with words.

         First, a correction: when you say You know the idea of ‘unicorn’ doesn’t exist outside of your mind, that’s not quite right. Since there is no extra-mental being known as a unicorn, there is no nature (and hence intelligible aspect) to know intellectually… which is to say there is no concept or idea of a unicorn even in your mind, but there is certainly an image of a unicorn in your mind (and brain, by the way!) because your imagination is easily able to recall images attached to concepts (universals) of “horse” and “horn” and put those associated images together into a whole image known as a “unicorn.” Contrast that with an angel—a being which is conceivable (because it is knowable in terms of being reasoned to) but not imaginable. Contrast this with the concept of “infinity” (in the sense of “without bound”—not the trivial mathematical understanding): the human intellect is potentially capable of understanding the concept of infinity insofar as it can form the idea of (for example) infinite succession, but it is actually incapable of comprehending infinity.

         Second, you respond with “I think that’s correct. If an idea is an intellectual representation of a real thing then no intellectuals means no ideas,” to the following from Paul:

    You’re saying that the idea of a tree is real. I’m willing to agree only to the extent that the idea exists within a brain or mind. That is, I don’t think the idea of a tree would exist if there were nobody in the universe…

         Be careful! Paul is trying to pull you into the nominalist trap which decries the existence of universals and hence of extra-mental natures. The very first question to which Paul must honestly respond is “what is an idea”? (Well, maybe not honestly since for a moral relativist there is no objective notion of honesty or the adverb “honestly” as applied to actions.) If he reduces the concept of idea to some complex representation in a material brain, the conversation must stop—if nothing else because Paul just contradicted himself by using, in effect, abstract ideas to deny the existence of natures. If it’s an abstraction, it’s not a particular (“horsiness” applies to all horses, not just this particular horse; “idea” applies to all ideas, not just this particular idea). If it’s not a particular, it can’t be associated with particular material entities. If it can’t be associated with particular material entities, then it must exist in an immaterial mode. Paul can’t use immaterial, abstract concepts to deny their existence… well, actually he “can” since he denies the efficacy of the Principle of Non-Contradiction, he can contradict himself as much as he wants to—which he does in order to confuse and to parry challenges to his a priori beliefs.

         Also, just because an intelligent agent is not around to know a nature doesn’t mean that substance with a nature doesn’t exist. (You allude to this.) All real things are extra-mental substances with natures. Paul echoes almost verbatim Franciscan friar William of Ockham’s nominalist vision of reality in which the existence of universals except in our minds and language is denied. In fact, universal exist in the mind (not brain!), but they draw upon the intelligible aspect of natures in extra-mental real things. It is the form (the formal cause or “whatness”) that we abstract from the real thing in order to formulate an idea and know that thing. For example, just because my hand grasps a cold glass of water doesn’t mean the hand “knows” the coldness and wetness of the exterior of that glass—it’s me, myself, and I who know the glass and its coldness. The form of a thing is “liberated” from this or that concrete, individual thing, and it is in this way that we “know” that individual thing to be a “horse” as opposed to a “mule.” We attain to particular, singular, individuals things by our senses, but we also “know” them through our intellects when it beholds the sense images and “liberates” the form—the “whatness” from that sensory data. In contrast, we ascend to the knowledge of spiritual things by analogy, and to God by negation as well.

         (It is by the knowledge of extra-mental, real things that we reason to and come to know of the existence of God, but given the limitations of our human natures, we can only know what God is by analogy and negation as applied to the natural order. Of course, there is the revealed knowledge of Scripture as well, but we don’t need to draw on the “whatness” and “whoness” of God from Scripture to reason to His “is-ness,” i.e., His existence: Aristotle did it philosophically way before the Scriptures were around in their current form.)

         Here’s the same thing approached slightly differently: the reasons presented above (among others) highlight why ontological considerations are important. It is SO important to distinguish between the thing itself with the way it exists. A thing exists in the mind as a universal (concept), while in reality it exists as a concrete, particular individual with a nature (from which the intelligible aspect is drawn) shared with others of its type (all horses “have” horsiness”). So, what our ideas present to us as a universal does not exist outside the mind as a universal, but as an individual with a nature. Horse nature or human nature or rock nature are realities, but they are realities in the existence of individual things, not as a separate entities (for example in Plato who held that Ideas exist apart from the thing). Both sense knowledge (which presents things in their individuality) and intellectual (conceptual) knowledge (which presents things in their natures) are available to us.

         There’s much more that can be said: the psychology of human knowing is fascinating stuff… but you have to forgive me for not expanding at length on it here. I hope the above helps.

  168. Holopupenko says:

    Hi again, SteveK:

         To add a bit more clarification to what I just said…

         Change in the extra-mental realm is undeniable. If order for a thing to change in any way, that thing itself must remain itself (i.e., that one and the same thing) throughout the process. You were SteveK when you were born, now, and on the day you die… even in spite of the fact that all your atoms were replaced at least several times throughout your lifetime. If there were not the case, we could not meaningfully say that “My, but SteveK has grown!” Moreover, we could not do science. Period. Science deals with univocal definitions of concepts, but concepts are impossible in the nominalist vision of reality which decries the existence of natures.

         Why do I say this? Because, outside the intellect universals do not exist, but natures do (upon which our universal concepts depend). So, although universals exist only in the intellect, those natures exist in particular individuals, where they are individuated by the distinctive characteristics (accidents as they inhere in the matter) of the individual object in which they inhere. There is no contradiction to state that universals don’t exist outside a given intelligent agent, but that the intellect in cognizing universals actually cognizes things that are outside the intelligent agent in the form of natures. Why? Because natures as apprehended by an intelligent agent are the necessary, unchanging “core” of external particulars (hence why I started with a word on “change”—the reduction from potency to act). Natures are not constructed by the mind: they exist in reality, and are knowable or “accessible” by a process that “strips away” the object’s contingent, accidental characteristics. “Underneath” the accidents is found the “whatness” of the object—qualitatively the same between objects even if not numerically the same.

  169. Paul says:

    Eh, Tom, I retract that last post, never mind, it’s OK.

    Thanks for the post about abstract entities (numbers, redness, etc.). This helps a lot.

    I’m not sure which example would be good to use, so let’s try a few. You’re saying that the number two, and redness, exist outside of space and time, and exist separate from any specific manifestation of them (like two material things, and something that is red). For redness, you’re saying that redness exists apart from something that is red, and, crucially, apart from the qualia of experience redness. Is that right?

    My question is, how do we know these things exist? I’m trying with all my might to *not* mean with scientific, experimental, materialistic validity, because, of course, that would be self-defeating.

  170. SteveK says:

    Thank you Holo for your help and explanation. It’s getting to the point where every word and every term must be used correctly and consistently to avoid error or equivocation. That is why I asked for help. I can speak in layman terms about this stuff but YOUR explanation puts meat on the bones.

    Because, outside the intellect universals do not exist, but natures do (upon which our universal concepts depend). So, although universals exist only in the intellect, those natures exist in particular individuals, where they are individuated by the distinctive characteristics (accidents as they inhere in the matter) of the individual object in which they inhere.

    ……

    Natures are not constructed by the mind: they exist in reality, and are knowable or “accessible” by a process that “strips away” the object’s contingent, accidental characteristics. “Underneath” the accidents is found the “whatness” of the object—qualitatively the same between objects even if not numerically the same.

    This makes sense. You see this at work in science and in everyday life.

  171. SteveK says:

    Paul,

    My question is, how do we know these things exist?

    I linked to the section on certitude. Did you read that? What are your objections to what was said there?

  172. Paul says:

    SteveK, my question is prior to the certitude issue. That is, once we posit that something exists, then the issues in your certitude link, and realism in general, come into play and apply. But my question is before that. I’ll rephrase it: why should I even suspect that abstract entities like the number two, and redness exist (beyond a material object that is red, and my experience of redness as qualia)? That is not obvious not me at all.

    Why do even suspect that the number two exists? Because you can think it? But merely thinking about something doesn’t mean it exists, of course. You might reply that it’s not like thinking about a unicorn because we can see instances of two things, and we can’t see instances of unicorns. But note that what we have seen is not the number two, but two things.

    I don’t know why one might think that the number two exists. Help me out on this one.

  173. Holopupenko says:

    Hi SteveK:

         Dang! Just when I thought it was fine to get out of the water, Paul makes a valid and important point… and the question he poses is very fair.

         What he thinks he hears you (and Tom) saying is that Ideas or forms or “something” called “two” or “horsiness” exist as universals outside the mind. That is precisely Plato’s position—the notion of ultra-realism in which exemplary, immaterial Ideas (note the capitalization) exist outside our minds, and that the matter we sense is but a mere, distant, imperfect reflection of these Ideas.

         Plato is wrong because of the very fair question Paul raises: just how does an immaterial, exemplary entity interact with “our” world so that we can be assured of its existence, or how does our world “participate” with/in the world of Ideas? I would add: where exactly is Plato’s process of reasoning to the alleged existence of Ideas (sometimes called Forms) flawed? Note further that Plato was very suspicious of any attempt to ground the knowledge we obtain of the extra-mental world in our senses—which means his position was the antithesis of Aristotle’s and St. Thomas’s principle “while all knowledge comes through the senses, not all knowledge is sensory knowledge.” Aristotle and St. Thomas strongly rejected the Platonic notion that the natures of the things around us exist separate and apart in an Ideal world. Also, Plato thought we could pretty much rely on “thinking big thoughts” alone to obtain knowledge of reality. (This alone is a fascinating example as to why science didn’t develop in Ancient Greece: if you can think all things through, you don’t need to observe and experiment.)

         Keep in mind, however, that Paul is arguing from the position on the opposite error—Ockham’s nominalism which decries the existence of any natures external to the mind, and that the universals we use in everyday speech are mere “name” or “tags” (hence the term nominalism) employed for convenience but that really signify (point to) nothing.

         Anyway, the flaw in Plato’s thinking—apart from the obvious point that there is no way for our world to participate in the Ideal, immaterial world of Forms that are supposed to “represent” the material world—is that he identified the way in which we understand with the way in which things are. This all ties back to my previous comments: natures do not exist apart from concrete individuals, but natures are known by human intelligent agents as universals as abstracted from the individuating material of the object considered. To assert that natures exist apart is thus to confuse the status of the nature as known with the nature as it exists. Natures exist only in the individuals from which they have been abstracted by our intellects.

         So, no, the number “two” does not exit floating around somewhere out there in Platonic never-never land. It does exist as the accident (first Aristotelian category) when two entities are viewed in relation to each other as being “together.” (Mathematicians and theoretical physicists are particularly prone to the Platonic error and to Idealism.) The substance SteveK has a human nature which exists in him and in other humans, and it is the nature of human beings that we know by abstracting away all the individuating accidents like height, weight, hair and skin color, etc., etc. to form a universal in our minds that we share with other humans and by which we can then “compare notes” by discussing the human nature. The moral evil of stealing doesn’t exist somewhere out there floating around. It “exists” as the nature of the acts undertaken by agents with intellects and free wills. When we “see” the injustice of candy being taken from a baby, it’s because our minds reason to and know—truly know—that such acts deeply effect the fabric of the agents participating in the act. Stealing is wrong because God commands against it, but it can be reasoned to being wrong and hence better understood because it is against truth and hence against human nature—a nature created by God.

         Hope that helps.

  174. SteveK says:

    Edit: I’m deleting my comment until I read what Holo just wrote…

  175. SteveK says:

    Paul,
    I can’t say it any better than what Holo just said…but I’ll try to add more.

    You suspect something exists because your senses are ‘telling’ your mind to sit up and take notice. Some THING (with a unique nature) is causing your mind to perk up and say “I sense something. What is the nature of this THING that I sense?”. Your reasoning then goes to work and tries to figure it out what that THING is using various methods.

    If you haven’t done so already, I suggest reading thesetwo – pages.

  176. Paul says:

    SteveK, I have read this whole thread and the pages you sent me to, and all I have read is assertions, and some logic that surrounds those assertions, but nothing that says, “Twoness, redness, and morality must exist because otherwise, option A is illogical, option B is self-defeating, and option C is nonsensical, etc.” I have still seen nothing that compels, to a reasonable doubt even, belief that twoness exists *as separate from my #1 and #2 above.

    I sincerely ask, did I miss it somewhere? If so, please tell me specifically where (or offer it for the first time). If I missed it, please be patient with me, let me try again, but tell me *exactly* where it is without any extraneous material.

  177. Tom Gilson says:

    You might file this under, “That’s no help at all!” Or, if you want, you could follow this link and do some study on this topic in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

    (I don’t have the time available to summarize a position myself this afternoon.)

  178. Bobby says:

    Holo,

    “Bully for Martin Luther! That’s the kind of virile faith one needs: Ahh, I love the sweet smell of fortitude (a moral virtue) in the morning. It smells like… like… the truth of Revelation 3:16 and the confidence of II Timothy 1:7. Maybe androgynous, self-immolating western and northern Europe could use a little of that…”

    I am interested by this statement. What would you consider a feminine virtue or a feminine faith? What is an “androgynous” vice?

  179. SteveK says:

    Paul,

    I have still seen nothing that compels, to a reasonable doubt even, belief that twoness exists *as separate from my #1 and #2 above.

    If I’m reading this right, you think we are saying ‘twoness’ exists as in your #3.

    Thing that exists #3 – the non-physical manifestation of an idea, outside of the brain.

    which *I think* is what Plato thought. We’re not saying that. Holo clarified that in his recent comment and the pages on realism that I linked to also explained why Plato’s view leads to big problems.

  180. Paul says:

    SteveK, that’s good news. So how does twoness exist? As my #1, my #2, or what?

  181. SteveK says:

    Paul,
    Things exist in many different ways. Twoness sounds like a universal idea to me, but maybe I’m wrong – and an idea is an intellectual representation of a thing perceived with the senses.

  182. Holopupenko says:

    Bobby:
         I’m sorry, but if you didn’t understand the point of my comment, then I won’t waste time responding… apart from recommending you read George Weigel’s The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God available here.

  183. Holopupenko says:

    SteveK:

         Be careful with Paul: he is again manipulating by leading the discussion. No less that three times he’s been told that universals don’t exist outside the mind, but that natures do and that’s how we know what we observe… but he refuses to listen and keeps pushing. (To repeat, the universal is an abstraction in the mind of the observer of the nature or the essence of the observed thing.) Paul is also intentionally playing, by implication, the “brain, yes; mind, no” assertion game again (see his question-begging #2). What’s not being argued here is the existence of universals outside the mind. (They don’t exist, outside the mind, Paul: that’s the fourth time you’re being told.) What is being argued is that Paul pushes the nominalist error in holding no natures/essences of extra-mental objects exist… or at least aren’t detectable to the five primary senses. As such, Paul is reverting back to the scientistic position that demands to observe with the five primary senses things that he himself can’t but blithely employs in his own “arguments.” (At the very best, Paul is confused over what a universal is vs. what a nature is, and their modes of existence—which is evidence by his non-starter #3.)

         The biggest immediate problem Paul has (with respect to his reductionism and scientism) is that his position destroys the ability for us to do science: science is based on univocal definitions of objects studied. If those univocal definitions don’t register any object outside our minds, then there is no connection between our minds and the objects. As a result, Paul is also sliding into the error of idealism as animated by his a priori nominalism. Recall from half a year or so ago, the idealism error is one DL clings to: for idealists, it is the ideas that we know—not the things to which ideas refer. But this traps them in their own minds with no connection to the real world. (If we can’t know extra-mental objects, how can we do science?) In fact, we know—really know—extra-mental things because an idea or concept is not that which we know, but that by which we know the essence of an object through its nature. The only time we “know” ideas is to reflect back upon them while we think: I see and know a horse, but I can also reflect back upon my thinking that I know a horse.

         Furthermore, we “know” the scientific method because it is an abstract human construct (as such, a set of concepts, i.e., only existing in the mind—not brain!!—a ‘being of reason” in philosophically technical terms) reasoned to—obviously—by what we observe in the extra-mental world. (Again: while all knowledge begins through the senses, not all knowledge—like that produced by the scientific method or even the method itself—is sensory knowledge.) Paul can’t claim the scientific method doesn’t exist merely because he can’t “see” it, for if he does he’s destroying our ability to do science. Similarly, Paul can’t claim the scientific method is reducible (in his words) to a “physical manifestation in the [material] brain” because not only is he hard-pressed to explain how an abstraction can be captured by physical processes and matter, but he also violates Ockham’s principle of parsimony: if the scientific method is merely a “physical manifestation in the brain” then that’s all it is. In other words, why does Paul assume, just because electrochemical reactions are occurring in gray-matter that these reactions ARE “knowledge” or the “scientific method”? (Or, for that matter, why does he cling to the alleged validity of moral relativism when that concept is inaccessible to the five primary senses?) In other words, Paul is begging the question—skirting around and assuming, but never clearly understanding what knowledge is. And so the gerbil of disordered thinking continues to run round and round its wheel… getting nowhere and becoming quite dizzy along the way.

         Anyway, this discussion has gotten way off track the moral relativism thing, and in my humble opinion Paul needs to think long and hard over his words and his contradictions and the problems he creates for himself.

  184. Bobby says:

    Holo,

    I don’t know why you think it’s a waste of time explaining what you mean to someone who wants to understand, but thanks for the book recommendation.

  185. Paul says:

    SteveK, can you locate a “universal idea” (and I’m not sure if this is an idea that everyone holds, or if it has a special meaning) within my list of #1, #2, etc.? Is it #1, or #2, or a different category, and what is that category? What are the features of that category? Or maybe it’s a category with only one member (universal ideas)?

  186. SteveK says:

    Paul,
    I’ve defined a universal idea many times, Holo has weighed in with even more information and I linked to the page on ideas and asked you to read it. So, put it in whatever category you see fit.

    Where are you going with this?

  187. Paul says:

    SteveK, I didn’t ask for a definition, I asked a different question (see directly above), and I still haven’t seen the answer in the links you give nor anywhere else in this thread.

    I don’t see what the problem is. I’m not asking for a treatise, I’m only asking for a couple of sentences, at most, to lay out a new category of how things exist (like I did for #1 and #2 above).

    Every time you say that you’ve already done it, you aren’t specific as to where you’ve already answered my question. Even the link above you mentioned isn’t specific: there’s plenty of information on that page that isn’t what I’m looking for. Instead of making me find the specific spot, why don’t you tell me exactly where it is? Maybe I’m just missing it, or thinking that a sentence on that linked page doesn’t apply when you think it does, or who knows what the problem is? I do know that we problem would be solved if you were more exact and specific.

    I’ll make you a promise: if you can answer my question simply, plainly, and directly, and if you can show me *exactly* where you already did it, I’ll apologize profusely and sincerely.

  188. SteveK says:

    Paul,
    An idea exists as a thought in the mind. It’s existence depends on a physical brain, but the idea itself is not the same thing as the physical brain state anymore than the binary data on your DVD is the same thing as the plot of the movie.

    Does that answer your question? If not, then I’m officially lost.

  189. Holopupenko says:

    SteveK:

    You’re being manipulated. For your own sanity, I humbly suggest you drop it. (No, you are not lost.)

    By the way, what does it really mean when a moral relativist “promises” to apologize “sincerely”?

  190. SteveK says:

    Holo,
    I was reading the page about Nominalism and saw an example there (see below) that was similar to my tree and bee hive example here. I didn’t know at the time that I was loosely refuting Nominalism by example, but it’s nice to know I was able to verbalize it without first reading what an educated expert had to say about it. It makes sense even to dumb engineer-types like me who haven’t been ‘brainwashed’ by college professors into ‘believing’ this stuff is true.

    If the grouping of things into classes is determined by names — understanding by a name not a universal element but something created afresh in every single act of utterance — how is it that a name is never associated with groups of ‘heterogeneous’ things, such as tiger, coffee pot, candle, and birch tree, but always with groups of ‘homogeneous’ objects — homogeneous not merely in the sense of being connected with one and the same word?

    The only answer is that we associate with a name not anything which we choose, but only things which ‘resemble’ one another. This, however, means that the name merely assists in the final crystallization of a general idea, and that the essential condition of things being grouped into classes is the ‘resemblance’ between them.

  191. Paul says:

    SteveK, please believe that I’m trying my best to understand your ideas. All I can do is hope that you believe that.

    I think I can show you my confusion: you just said:

    An idea exists as a thought in the mind. It’s existence depends on a physical brain, but the idea itself is not the same thing as the physical brain state anymore than the binary data on your DVD is the same thing as the plot of the movie.

    So it looks like you’re saying that an idea has to be more than the physical brain state. So an idea has to be more than physical, which means it has some non-physical component. If that logic chain is wrong, please correct it.

    But you said something earlier that conflicts with that, forgive me if this conflicting blog post was later corrected, or made non-operative.

    You also said on 15 Jul 2008 at 5:40 pm that

    If I’m reading this right, you think we are saying ‘twoness’ exists as in your #3.

    Thing that exists #3 – the non-physical manifestation of an idea, outside of the brain.

    which *I think* is what Plato thought. We’re not saying that.

    I think your latest answer, that there is a non-physical component to an idea, is the operative one, and the earlier answer that said that #3 wasn’t an option was either a misunderstanding, some answer to a different question, or whatever. Assuming that’s the case, we now have

    1. material objects
    2. physical correlates of non-physical entities (brain states)
    3. non-physical entities (thoughts, etc.)

    Fair enough so far?

    So, trying to get back all the way to objective morality, I presume that would have to fall under #3? Is that true? Or is there another category of the types of things that can exist?

  192. Tom Gilson says:

    I think the difficulty is that you’re talking about two different non-physical things: the content of the idea on the one hand, and the non-physical mind where the idea is held (processed, ruminated upon, etc.). They are of course not the same. Steve can clarify which of these he’s currently talking about.

  193. SteveK says:

    Paul,

    So it looks like you’re saying that an idea has to be more than the physical brain state. So an idea has to be more than physical, which means it has some non-physical component.

    Sounds generally correct, I expect it’s not technically correct because there are many kinds of things that exist and to lump them into ‘non-physical’ is too much of a generalizaton. I believe the proper term is ‘intellectual being’ but I could be wrong about that even. Here’s the page that discusses the various things that exist – or kinds of ‘beings’. The reason we know ideas exist is because a) we use them and b) you can’t use what doesn’t exist. Can’t argue with logic.

    But you said something earlier that conflicts with that

    I don’t see the conflict. I’m not saying the idea exists ‘out there’ on its own.

  194. Paul says:

    SteveK, that helps, although the page you linked to has one flaw for our purposes. It doesn’t have any discussion that shows why the types that are laid out are superior to any other division or typology. If you take it just as definitional, it’s OK, I suppose.

    So, I asked about getting back to morality, and its supposed objectivity, but I didn’t get an answer. Can we now tie things into the original issue?

    Also, remember, if God is a sufficient reason for morality being objective, then this game is over. I’ve been arguing that morality isn’t objective based on considerations that do *not* include God. I just want to be sure we haven’t been talking past each other.

  195. Holopupenko says:

    Jeepers-Creepers!

         Talk about bait and switch! The one manipulating the discussion now openly characterizes any discussion on God a game… (“if God is a sufficient reason for morality being objective, then this game is over.” Let’s leave morality aside for a moment and consider just how unsupported, ignorant, and insulting that claim is: can you see how one person takes it upon himself to brush aside as a “game” everything and anything (as if morality were the only thing!) having to do with religious faith throughout recorded human history?

         Then, Paul says, I’ve been arguing that morality isn’t objective based on considerations that do *not* include God.

         Funny… Remember the many long discussions with DL over what “good” was when applied entities ontologically lower than humans? A rock is “good” if it just is; a telephone is “good” when it functions well to meet the end for which it was designed; an oak tree is “good” when it progresses to its end (growing and producing little oak trees from acorns); a collie sheep dog is “good” when it herds sheep well and listens to its master and produces healthy puppies. But in any of these cases is good understood in the human moral sense? Of course not. Why? Because it’s not in the natures of any of these things to have the capacities of reasoning (to truth) and free will (acting upon truth).

         From the purely philosophical (Aristotelian) perspective, humans too have a “function”: to reason, to contemplate the highest possible truths—ultimately to contemplate the First Cause. From the Christian perspective (as enunciated by St. Thomas), the end of humans is the Beatific Vision of God. Note how similar they are—yet the former is based purely on reason, while the latter is based on philosophical reflection upon revealed (Scriptural) knowledge, a.k.a., theology. In any event, the word “function” as applied in this context to humans must be understood analogously because humans aren’t robots that “function”: the human “soul” is to “form” as the “human function” is to (for example) “telephone function.” (I’m not being facetious when I say this: Tom’s blog when down because a transformer was struck by lightning; a human’s ability to order their reasoning to truth goes down when struck by sin—especially the sin against the First Commandment known as atheism.) A human doesn’t “function” well when he doesn’t reason or contemplate higher things, i.e., when he focuses upon lower, proximate goods rather than upon ultimate goods. How does a human distinguish the two? By always striving/reasoning to what is true, and for truth to be ever presented to the will in order to act in a morally good way.

         So, what do we need to understand why morality is objective (and objectively understandable) for humans? We need to understand the truth of human nature as best we can: virtue, vice, duty, compassion, dignity, personhood, acts, etc. can be reasoned to using natural and moral philosophy. In other words, philosophically one can do this, but revealed knowledge provides the ultimate grounding. Why? Because, it is in our nature that we were made in the “image and likeness of God.”

         Paul seems to imply that it is “true” (coming from a relativist?) that morality isn’t objective if God is not involved. Well, that’s balderdash. Philosophically, Aristotle did it. Thomas Aquinas and others later “christened” philosophy by making it the handmaiden of theology. The two disciplines are essentially inseparable yet have distinct subject matters. If one tries to separate the two—especially when issues regarding humans are at stake—it is a recipe for disaster.

         Of course, that was a criminally-short rendition of moral philosophy and theology in four short paragraphs. Much, much more can be said. My question is: why indeed is Paul playing his game?

  196. SteveK says:

    Paul,

    I’ve been arguing that morality isn’t objective based on considerations that do *not* include God. I just want to be sure we haven’t been talking past each other.

    I’m not bringing religion or God into this – yet. You can look at this from a strict philosophical standpoint and conclude that the universal idea of morality is as objective as the universal idea of tree. To conclude otherwise requires *knowledge* – knowledge that the idea of morality is akin to the idea of fairies, square circles and unicorns. In other words, *knowledge* that the idea represents NO THING in reality.

  197. Paul says:

    SteveK, it seems like you’re saying that as long as we have an idea about morality, it must be objectively true, but couldn’t you say that about fairies? That point doesn’t mean that morality isn’t objectively true, it might yet be, but that the idea about morality can’t be the thing that is making it objectively true, it must be something else that makes it objectively true, because if just having the idea about morality was enough, then that would be enough to make fairies be objectively real, too, and that’s absurd. Similarly, it’s not just because we have an idea about trees that makes them objectively real.

  198. SteveK says:

    Paul,

    SteveK, it seems like you’re saying that as long as we have an idea about morality, it must be objectively true, but couldn’t you say that about fairies?

    The difference is you *know* that the reality of the idea ‘fairies’ is ultimately rooted in the imagination of the mind. Knowledge of fairies – like tea pots in orbit – is literally rooted in NONsense because the comprehended idea can’t be traced back to a THING sensed.

    By contrast, the ideas of morality and trees are all rooted in sense data. Humans throughout history came to know the things that these ideas represent through their senses – relativist, theist and atheist alike.

  199. SteveK says:

    Similarly, it’s not just because we have an idea about trees that makes them objectively real.

    I agree. It’s because we sensed many objects, came to know each one through our senses and then intellectually formed a universal idea called ‘tree’ to represent them all. From here

    It is important to realize that the imagination and intellect, the sense image and the idea, are in close harmony. The intellect wouldn’t have anything in it if it were not for the senses. The intellect is dependent on the imagination to furnish it with materials for ideas. All knowledge begins in the senses and there is nothing in the intellect that at one time was not derived in some form from sense data. Ideas are totally distinct from sense images yet dependent on them.

    I guess I was a little off in my last comment. Knowledge of fairies must come from the senses, however we *know* in fact the idea itself does not represent something in reality. It’s a forced/manufactured composite taken from other universal ideas that we know represent other things in reality. That’s what I meant by ‘rooted in the imagination’.

  200. Paul says:

    SteveK, I know that we know that fairies are all in our heads. But the question was on what basis do we *first* decide whether X (fairies, trees, whatever) is in our heads or not. It can’t be that we just have an idea about them. I think we are agreeing here, so let’s move on.

    By contrast, the ideas of morality and trees are all rooted in sense data.

    Are you talking about sense data of the behavior itself, or sense data of the behavior’s rightness or wrongness? Is sense data of the rightness or wrongness of some behavior, as distinct from sense data of the behavior per se, necessary for objective morality? Or is it sense data of the behavior itself (as in materialism)?

  201. Paul says:

    SteveK, maybe I’m asking too many questions. I try and think through my questions and lay things out a little more conveniently.

  202. SteveK says:

    Paul,

    But the question was on what basis do we *first* decide whether X (fairies, trees, whatever) is in our heads or not. It can’t be that we just have an idea about them.

    I think I answered that. It’s not just any idea, it’s an idea rooted in sense data that is the basis for deciding if X is in your head or not. This should be more than obvious to you.

  203. Paul says:

    SteveK, can’t you imagine sense data that would lead one to think that fairies are real? I’ve seen pictures of fairies. People have reported seeing them. The sense data has to be evaluated.

    But I still think this is off the main point. What is the sense data for morality that would make it objective like sense data about a tree helps make it objective? Now, I’m the one who can’t imagine that.

  204. Paul says:

    Anticipating howls, let me say that I have seen pictures that *purport* to be fairies. Still sense data, though, as the issue here is prior to a determination of whether the fairies are actual or purported.

  205. SteveK says:

    Paul,

    What is the sense data for morality that would make it objective like sense data about a tree helps make it objective? Now, I’m the one who can’t imagine that.

    Sense data tells you a what a book is, that the idea of a book doesn’t originate in your mind and that the book is not the same thing as the table it sits on. What is it about the sense data that makes all of this objective? Beats me. Conscious awareness and the ability to reason, I guess. You can point to and talk about the book and table and other people know what you are talking about which is a form of verification.

    Likewise, sense data tells you what a moral situation is (a falling rock killing a man is not one), that the idea of a moral situation doesn’t originate in your mind and that the moral situation is not the same thing as the objects in the situation. You can mention the situation to other people (man killing man) and they immediately know you are talking about a moral situation which, again, is a form of verification.

  206. Paul says:

    SteveK, the issue isn’t where the behavior or action that we judge to be moral or not is objective, it’s whether the *judgment,* that some behavior is moral or not, is objective or not. Isn’t that the issue?

    How does the *judgment* that some behavior is objectively moral or not happen? Merely because a lot of people agree? Or is there some other basis?

  207. SteveK says:

    Paul,

    How does the *judgment* that some behavior is objectively moral or not happen?

    You’re recycling the judgement/certitude question again.

    How do you happen to judge the objectivity of some behavior as human behavior? I’m guessing you do it very much likethesepages describe.

  208. Paul says:

    SteveK, sorry if I recycled, but my question doesn’t have to do with certitude. It’s not a question of how we can get close enough in evaluating evidence and such to make a firm conclusion.

    That first link “like” didn’t help much, because of this:

    It has been observed that men under such circumstances act and react uniformly in the same way.

    LOL! This is phrased in such a way as to infer 100%, which is obviously not true. Even if you don’t take that inference, the significant exceptions are not addressed. This was a non-starter.

    For example, the judgment that “a nation whose citizenry lives in reasonable comfort is not prone to revolution” is a truth which is morally certain.

    Morals have nothing to do with establishing this as a truth. It is a social fact or not, based on observable evidence, but that is different from being a moral fact, whatever that is.

    Just to clarify: is a moral fact something that is a fact and whose content concerns morality (“all people recoil from unjustified murder and think it is wrong”), or is a moral fact some behavior that is morally prohibited (or demanded) and this prohibition/demand applies to everyone (whether they think it or not)? The examples above from that link seem to imply it’s the former, and I thought we were talking about the latter.

    Lastly: the question is no

    How do you happen to judge the objectivity of some behavior as human behavior

    Judging something to be human behavior is pretty easy: if a turtle is doing something, we can be sure it isn’t human behavior. The question was “how do you judge some behavior to be objectively moral?”

    1. The answer has to be different than how we judge the existence of trees to be objective, because trees are material objects.
    2. The answer has to be different than how we judge the existence of qualia, because qualia are not objective, being purely within one mind.
    3. The answer has to be different than how we judge the existence of ideas, because ideas have no necessary moral component.

    Help me out here.

  209. SteveK says:

    Paul,

    Judging something to be human behavior is pretty easy: if a turtle is doing something, we can be sure it isn’t human behavior.

    LOL! You mean an animal trained to behave as a human isn’t demonstrating human behavior?! The truth is it’s still an animal, but the behavior is no longer animal behavior. This tells me a lot about your thinking.

    According to your thinking, a human can never behave in a disordered or inhuman manner because all that’s required is – wait for it – a human be doing it! So much for sociopathic behavior being anything less than Paul’s personal behavior. Of course, nobody *judges* this to be true for a minute.

    You keep asking “how do you judge some behavior to be objectively moral?” but for some reason you can’t be bothered with questions like “how do you judge some behavior to be objectively human?”.

    Answer the last question – in particular, what it means to BE human – and you’ll be well on your way to answering the first.

    Help me out here.

    I have been. I think we’re about done.

  210. Paul says:

    OK SteveK, I wasn’t careful, but this isn’t going to be crucial. You can’t take on mistake and give up on the conversation. If you want to stop because we’ve been going on for a long time, or if it’s frustrating not to reach some sort of agreement, that’s fine. But don’t let one slip do it.

    Here’s what happened: Which definition of “human” are you using? I meant “human” to merely mean the human race, so human behavior is what humans do. Sure, you can train animals to imitate behavior that humans do. I stand corrected.

    I didn’t take “human” to mean the opposite of “inhuman,” where “inhuman” means degrading or sociopathic behavior. In one sense of the word “human,” sociopathic behavior is “human” because humans do it. In another sense, the opposite of “inhuman,” it isn’t.

    Big deal. This isn’t the main question. This is:

    The question was “how do you judge some behavior to be objectively moral?”

    1. The answer has to be different than how we judge the existence of trees to be objective, because trees are material objects.
    2. The answer has to be different than how we judge the existence of qualia, because qualia are not objective, being purely within one mind.
    3. The answer has to be different than how we judge the existence of ideas, because ideas have no necessary moral component.

  211. SteveK says:

    Paul,
    The question is more broad than the one you keep asking. That’s why I keep bringing you back to the more general question asked and answered in the Realism pages: “How do you judge some thing to be objectively that thing and not some other thing or no thing at all?”. Answer that question and you’ll have taken the first step toward answering the more specific question you are asking.

    Nominalism, Ultra-Realism, Idealism, Universal Skepticism, etc. all fail to answer the general question consistent with human experience and so they are incapable of adequately answering the more specific questions. Realism may not answer the general question perfectly, but it answers it far better than any other which is why it has stood the test of time.

  212. Paul says:

    SteveK, I don’t know how I would answer that question from the realism pages, believe it or not.

    The problem with having to dig something out of a longer reading is that half the time it doesn’t seem to answer the question anyway because I’m looking at the question differently than you are, that’s why we’re arguing in the first place, and even then I’m not sure that what I think is the answer is what you think the answer is.

    I’d have to believe it’s easier for you to say what you think than for me to find in some reading what you think.

    Can’t you just tell me in a sentence or two, or a short paragraph? I’m not asking for all the details, just the gist of your view.

  213. SteveK says:

    Paul,

    I don’t know how I would answer that question from the realism pages, believe it or not.

    That’s fine. We can end it here.

  214. SteveK says:

    Paul,
    One last thing…

    Can’t you just tell me in a sentence or two, or a short paragraph? I’m not asking for all the details, just the gist of your view.

    My view can be summed up in the following quotes by an unknown author. It is theorized that this author made them while discussing this exact same topic on a blog yet to be identified.

    “While all knowledge begins through the senses, not all knowledge—like that produced by the scientific method or even the method itself—is sensory knowledge.”
    …..
    “Both sense knowledge (which presents things in their individuality) and intellectual (conceptual) knowledge (which presents things in their natures) are available to us.”

  215. Paul says:

    SteveK, as a summary, that was great. Unfortunately, it didn’t address the question we were talking about. The question was

    “How do you judge some thing to be objectively that thing and not some other thing or no thing at all?”.”

    Your answer distinguished between sensory and intellectual knowledge, which is a fine distinction to make in general, but I don’t see how that gets us any closer to the question that you said the answer for it was on those web links.

    Just distinguishing between sensory and intellectual knowledge (making sure not do confuse them, etc.) is not sufficient to judge some thing to be objectively that thing, etc.

  216. SteveK says:

    *sigh*

    Just distinguishing between sensory and intellectual knowledge (making sure not do confuse them, etc.) is not sufficient to judge some thing to be objectively that thing, etc.

    It’s not that simple and I never said it was, but OK, Paul, I’ll bite. Tell me how it’s done.

  217. Paul says:

    SteveK, the issue was that you were telling me how it’s done by sending me to those web links, and then I mentioned how I couldn’t find anything on those web sites that showed how it was done, and then you offered a summary post as to how it was done, but it didn’t actually show how it was done, so the issue still remains as to what summary out of those web links show how it is done.

    I can’t answer the question, as it was you who offered those web links as an answer as to how it was done.

    I’m wondering what summary from about those web links might offer an answer to the question. You seemed to think that those web links did offer an answer, and I’m wondering still what you thought that answer was, in summary form.

  218. Holopupenko says:

    Manipulation by superficial sound-bytes…

  219. SteveK says:

    Yeah, I point to where more detailed info can be found and I’m asked for a summary because it’s difficult to dig through all the detail. Then comes the request for more detailed info because my summary doesn’t answer the questions completely. It’s like an Abbott and Costello routine.

  220. Charlie says:

    Call Yoko, I think I see copyright infringement ..
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bfq5kju627c

    Should that be adapted into a cartoon call to arms?
    Oh no, Yoko Ono!

  221. Paul says:

    Yeah, I point to where more detailed info can be found and I’m asked for a summary because it’s difficult to dig through all the detail. Then comes the request for more detailed info because my summary doesn’t answer the questions completely

    Incorrect. Your summary didn’t address the issue in question.

    I didn’t ask for more detailed info. Can you show me where I did that after I had asked for a summary?

  222. SteveK says:

    Charlie,
    I think I like the Ma & Pa version better but both are funny. Wonder which one came first.

  223. Charlie says:

    I think I do as well.
    But from my less than extensive research it appears that it was in their 1951 movie Back On The Farm and in the Abbott and Costello movie In The Navy a decade earlier.

    I’d make a completely uninformed guess that neither devised the routine and that its origin is probably lost in vaudeville somewhere.

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