Chocolate and Caring, Brussels Sprouts and Murder

Much of the discussion about ethics revolves around an analogy to matters of personal preference. doctor(logic) recently said,

Morality bears all the hallmarks of something subjective, like taste in food or taste in art.

And also,

My argument is that, unlike the objective sciences, morality has no more basis for objectivity than the things we regard as subjective (food, music, etc). In particular, there is no formal evidence that moral opinions are objective facts because the only thing predicted by morality is how members of our species feel about certain acts.

It seems to me that this analogy fails right where it counts most. I like chocolate and I dislike Brussels sprouts. I do not therefore conclude that chocolate is right and Brussels sprouts are wrong, or that eating one is right and the other wrong. It’s a completely different internal apprehension for these things than it is for murder or torturing children, or for loving and giving.

Morality predicts more than “how members of our species feel.” It predicts persons’ convictions and beliefs; and yes, we can tell the difference between feelings and convictions. The moral sense is not just one of personal liking or appreciation. It carries with it an incorrigible sense of rightness vs. wrongness. We do say that murder is wrong and that being a loving person is right, and most of us, when we say these things, believe they are actually true statements, not mere expressions of preference.

Granted there is some analogy between gastronomic or aesthetic taste and moral beliefs. The moral subjectivist can rightly say that the moral sense is another instance of personal preference or aversion, just as matters of taste are. We all say things like “I like chocolate,” and “I like it when people get along well.”

But when he says it is just another instance of personal preference or aversion he goes beyond what this analogy can support. We say things like “Murder is wrong,” but we do not say things like “Brussels sprouts are wrong.” But this is precisely the question of moral realism: whether statements like “murder is wrong” are really true. Any thoughtful person would say that “Brussels sprouts are wrong” is not a true statement. Only someone whose metaphysical views have successfully overridden his native knowledge would deny that “murder is wrong” is a true statement.

The analogy between morality and matters of taste fails at the point where we speak of something’s being actually true. And that’s exactly the point that matters.

Comments

  1. woodchuck64

    Tom:

    We say things like “Murder is wrong,” but we do not say things like “Brussels sprouts are wrong.” But this is precisely the question of moral realism: whether statements like “murder is wrong” are really true.

    Empathy (God-given or evolved) gives us a sense of good or bad human treatment (usually by other humans).

    Taste (God-given or evolved) gives us a sense of good or bad flavors.

    How do you solve the problem of bad flavor? Don’t eat the food you don’t like.

    How do you solve the problem of bad human treatment? Stop humans from being treated badly by other humans.

    So it is consistent to expect empathy to drive us to change behavior in our fellow man, since that is how we stop the empathic pain we experience when others are mistreated. It is consistent to expect taste to drive us to stop eating food we don’t like, since that is the best way to remove the unpleasantness we experience when eating bad food. This is said so far without assuming naturalism or Christianity is true.

    Since humans experience empathy with much more consistency across the human race than humans experience flavors, I would expect that moral rules based on empathy would be far less subjective than flavor preference. I would expect many of these rules to be so commonly shared and understood that the simplest way to think of them would be as “true”. (Still not making assumptions about naturalism or Christianity)

  2. doctor(logic)

    I’ve been quite specific in my objections.

    (1) Every moral argument gets settled at its foundations on the basis of an aversion or an intuition, e.g., “Theory X cannot be correct because of counterexample Y, and we all feel/believe Y is wrong.”

    (2) Morality only predicts the feelings (or beliefs) of the person who holds the moral belief, or about a group of people’s moral beliefs. (BTW, I have a belief and conviction that apple pie is delicious, so feel free to add beliefs and convictions to what is predicted.)

    (3) The same sorts of influences that give us gastronomic and musical tastes also impact our moral tastes – genetics, personal history, evolutionary history, psychological state, etc.

    (4) Moral claims are in contrast to objective science and mathematics. Science and mathematics make verifiable predictions, and they function just as well when we control for our emotional desires, aversions, biases, history, etc.

    I think these arguments are quite specific, and do not specifically assume theism or materialism as a starting point. The only assume that our intuitions are not infallible.

    In response to this argument, the only evidence you offer is that most people think their moral opinions are statements about objective facts. Yet, it would be a fallacy to believe that majority opinion makes your case. The majority of people are biased.

    As I’ve pointed out previously, if moral opinions were not statements about objective facts, the world would look exactly the same. You suggested that history would only look the same if people retained moral realist convictions as well as their feelings. I disagree, but, for argument’s sake, let’s stipulate that people possess not only feelings, but corresponding moral realist convictions. This stipulation does nothing to bolster your case. If the beliefs in moral realism existed, but were false, what would be different?

    For example, you claimed slavery was ended because abolitionists had moral realist beliefs, not merely because they had a moral aversion to slavery. Suppose this were true. Does this prove their belief in moral realism was true? It doesn’t.

    If I thought that marriage was necessary to reach the unverifiable afterlife, so I got married, the fact I was wed would not provide evidence that marriage is necessary to reach the afterlife.

    Once again, you’re left in the position of believing in something that disappears when we control for personal bias.

  3. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    I don’t think you’re as assumption-free as you think, woodchuck64, because your story here implies that morality has its original foundations in human empathy.

    Obviously it has an extremely strong relationship with empathy. That’s not to be disputed. But you said that moral statements that accord with empathy could most simply be thought of as “true.” The quotation marks are telling. Yes, we do think of them as true, but we do not think of ourselves as “thinking of them as ‘true’.” We think of the statements as actually being true.

    Further, there is a statement behind the statement you made, which is that we should act in accordance with empathy. I was going to ask you about this very thing earlier today in response to your statement to that effect. In fact, I thought I had asked it, but I just realized it’s still in the text file I was working on. I’m going to post it on the other thread and come back to this…. Okay, it’s there now. The question is, if empathy is our guide to what things we should or should not do, why should we consider it our guide?

    On a naturalistic viewpoint, as the story goes, empathy enables social organisms to function in groups more effectively, so as to be able to produce more offspring and get ahead in the natural selection race. What does that imply about the truth of the statement, “empathy should be our guide to what is right and wrong”? It makes that statement a proxy for, “empathy works as a guide for what allows groups to reproduce themselves more successfully.” And there is a world of difference between the first version being true and the second being true.

  4. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    doctor(logic),

    Your very specific objections amount to this:

    1) There is an alternate explanation or accounting for the existence of moral beliefs.
    2) This explanation does not require that moral statements be true in the sense of corresponding to something outside of human aversions or preferences.
    3) You believe this is sufficiently predictive of moral behavior that we need not resort to any other explanation.

    Your own point (2) says,

    Morality only predicts the feelings (or beliefs) of the person who holds the moral belief, or about a group of people’s moral beliefs.

    You snuck in “(or beliefs)” as if feelings and beliefs were pretty much the same thing. They are not, which was the point of my post here. To respond to the thrust of my post by throwing in a parentheses like that, unsupportably and without even caring to try to support it, seems rather weak to me.

    Beliefs are not the same as feelings. Beliefs can be true or false. Feelings cannot. And as I said, we can tell the difference.

    Your “conviction” that apple pie is delicious moves beyond feelings to reflection upon feelings, and it is a true statement about you and about apple pie. But does reflection upon “I do not like murder” move upon reflection to “murder is wrong”? No. The first is about your relationship to murder, and the second is about murder’s relationship to something other than yourself. What that other thing is, is in dispute here, but clearly it is not yourself. It is something larger than or at least outside yourself.

    Your point (3) is true enough.

    I think what you’re trying to get to in your point (4) is that we cannot draw true/false conclusions about moral statements the same way we can about objective science and mathematics. That’s your worldview in action. It limits the kinds of things you think are knowable. We’ve been over this so many times I can only register my strong disagreement once again, and remind you that “nothing can be known except by science or mathematics” is neither scientific nor mathematical.

    In response to this argument, the only evidence you offer is that most people think their moral opinions are statements about objective facts. Yet, it would be a fallacy to believe that majority opinion makes your case. The majority of people are biased.

    What argument is this, now? I look at my own (1), (2), and (3) above, and I fail to see much force in it. You have an alternate explanation. Fine. I’ll take that for what it is. The fact that there is an alternate explanation hardly compels one to accept it for true. I have an alternate to yours, after all.

    And in the passage I just quoted, you understate and distort my position. “Most people” is virtually everyone in the history of the world. And we do have moral opinions that we do recognize as being statements about reality, not about our feelings. Your reduction of moral opinions to feelings belies the fact that we can tell the difference between beliefs/convictions and feelings. We may be biased and make wrong moral judgments, but we cannot be wrong about our moral judgments being beliefs/convictions as opposed to their being feelings. Now that is something that does not disappear when we control for personal bias.

  5. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    For example, you claimed slavery was ended because abolitionists had moral realist beliefs, not merely because they had a moral aversion to slavery. Suppose this were true. Does this prove their belief in moral realism was true? It doesn’t.

    Obviously. That misses the point. You had said in that thread that the world would be no different if morality was just subjective rather than objective. I said that it was awareness (conviction, actually) of moral reality that led to Wilberforce and other abolitionists (not to mention Mandela, Tutu, MLK Jr., and many others), not that abolition led to awareness of moral reality.

  6. William Bradford

    DL:

    Morality only predicts the feelings (or beliefs) of the person who holds the moral belief, or about a group of people’s moral beliefs. (BTW, I have a belief and conviction that apple pie is delicious, so feel free to add beliefs and convictions to what is predicted.)

    Morality of course is correlated to beliefs. It does not have to correlate to feelings. There is an indicator that morality does not necessarily align with feelings or preferences. You may feel like doing what is immoral and yet refrain from doing so. The contention that morality is like a penchant for apple pie trivializes morality and I suspect the trivialization is by design.

  7. woodchuck64

    Tom:

    I don’t think you’re as assumption-free as you think, woodchuck64, because your story here implies that morality has its original foundations in human empathy.

    Obviously it has an extremely strong relationship with empathy. That’s not to be disputed. But you said that moral statements that accord with empathy could most simply be thought of as “true.” The quotation marks are telling. Yes, we do think of them as true, but we do not think of ourselves as “thinking of them as ‘true’.” We think of the statements as actually being true.

    The statements “roses are red” and “murder is wrong” we think of as intrinsically true (we don’t have to be taught their truth, it’s part of individual experience). However, it also turns out that most everyone agrees. Therefore, we consider these objective truths. So I think we mean the same thing when we refer to the “truth” of either statement above. That’s the sense I’m using. And I mean that this would likely be the case whether God gave us empathy or if it evolved naturally.

    Further, there is a statement behind the statement you made, which is that we should act in accordance with empathy. … The question is, if empathy is our guide to what things we should or should not do, why should we consider it our guide?

    Here, I don’t mean that we should act in accordance with empathy. Rather, that empathizing with a mistreated human being can give us pain and we will act to reduce or eliminate the pain, and in so doing create primitive moral rules that dictate how humans should be treated. It’s a statement of fact: organisms will act to fulfill their desires. If God created empathy it would have this effect, just like bright sunlight inevitably resulted in the invention of sunglasses.

  8. Post
    Author
  9. doctor(logic)

    Tom,

    You have a theory that “Theft is absolutely wrong.” What does this mean? It means that theft is wrong no matter what anyone feels or believes.

    You claim your moral theory predicts
    (1) people will have an aversion to theft, and
    (2) people will intuit that theft is absolutely wrong, i.e., they will believe that the wrongness of theft goes beyond aversion.

    However, (1) and (2) do not actually follow from your theory. While many theologians would argue for such a prediction, they’re really working backward from (1) and (2) while not specifying any mechanism (god of the gaps). Like you, they “inferred” their theory from their gut intuition in (2) that morality is absolute. You’re sticking with your intuition that theft is wrong, no matter what anybody thinks.

    But suppose that (1) and (2) are evolutionary and cultural biases. If they are, then it is possible that, on some other world, an alien race with alternative biases is using the same methodology to infer that theft is absolutely right. Just as humans in the past intuited that slavery and genocide were absolutely right.

    You suggest that my demand for an unbiased test of moral realism is an unreasonable request, and that I am blinding myself from truths by asking for tests of the belief. You’re saying that some of the intuitive beliefs that spring from our biases could be true beliefs, and that, if I demand unbiased evidence, I’ll miss those true beliefs. The problem is that if I choose your methodology, I get a license to believe whatever I want to believe. Yours is the same methodology that’s used by advocates of kooky beliefs like psychic powers, UFO abduction, 9/11 conspiracy theories and homeopathy.

    If my demand for evidence beyond my own bias is blinding me to truth, then your demand for evidence from these other paranormal advocates is blinding you to their truths, too.

    I’m just not cool with that because I don’t like deceiving myself.

    Finally, no one’s behavior relies on the absolute wrongness of moral acts. If theft is only subjectively bad, and the seeming absolute wrongness of theft is just a bias, you’re still going to act in exactly the same way. Indeed, when I asked what you would do if morality was proven to be relative, you said that your beliefs about moral philosophy would change, and your interpretations of moral differences would change, but I don’t recall you saying that any of your policies would be different.

  10. doctor(logic)

    William,

    You may feel like doing what is immoral and yet refrain from doing so.

    No, I don’t think you have any unbiased evidence for this claim.

    What sources of bias are there?

    Suppose I say “I want to punch his lights out, but I refrain from doing so because it is wrong.”

    One source of bias is cultural.
    (i) I can mean that I was conditioned by my culture not to punch his lights out (as opposed to, say, in cowboy culture).

    (ii) I can mean that punching his lights out is against the law.

    (iii) I can mean that while I would enjoy punching his lights out at this moment, tomorrow I will wish that I had not, because

    (a) I generally don’t like to harm people, and
    (b) the consequences of my actions will be worse than if I don’t hit him. It will encourage retaliation, vigilantism in the community, feuding, etc.).

    IMO, (i)-(iii) constitute adequate reasons for me to refrain from acting on a strong immediate desire to act, and to give me the same phenomenology.

    Now, you believe there is a (iv):

    (iv) I intuit that it is absolutely wrong to punch his lights out, and I generally try to act in accord with absolute moral laws.

    I think that (iv) is not only lacking in any unbiased evidence, but is also implausible. This was the point of the thought experiment that Tom was so keen to ignore. If we were averse to moral reality, the mere fact that an act was morally wrong would be no deterrent to the act at all. The only way around this is to assume that our moral aversions are reliable guides to moral reality, which is like assuming that your bias is a guide to reality.

    The contention that morality is like a penchant for apple pie trivializes morality and I suspect the trivialization is by design.

    It’s by design, but not by malice. I’m not trying to tease you, I’m trying to explain that there’s no more unbiased evidence for objectivity of gastronomic taste than there is for moral taste. The claim that “Apple pie is delicious” is no more predictive than the statement that “Murder is wrong.”

  11. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    doctor(logic), you say,

    While many theologians would argue for such a prediction, they’re really working backward from (1) and (2) while not specifying any mechanism (god of the gaps). Like you, they “inferred” their theory from their gut intuition in (2) that morality is absolute.

    I have repeatedly said that you infer your theory from your own a-theology, and I stand by that. I do not believe you would take the noxious position of denying that it is true that murder is wrong if your atheism did not take you by the nose and force you to go there.

    In response to this claim of mine you now say that my theology has led me to my position. Or rather, that’s what you should have said, for it would largely be true. My theistic beliefs certainly do lead me to the position of moral realism. I don’t think that’s nearly as smelly as your denial of moral truths, so I’m not at all adverse to admitting it, as you seem to be for yourself.

    But that’s not what you have said here. You have said that I got to moral realism through my gut intuition that morality is absolute. Well, I’m fine with that, too, though a more philosophically refined way to put it would be to say that I see it through a faculty of moral perception. That’s the very faculty for which you seem to have lost your metaphorical sense of smell, through subjecting it too much to swampwater. I do not say that you have lost the ability to discern moral truths, only the awareness that they are indeed truths.

    But suppose that (1) and (2) are evolutionary and cultural biases. If they are, then it is possible that, on some other world, an alien race with alternative biases is using the same methodology to infer that theft is absolutely right.

    Well in that case, then I am wrong. That’s easy. But is it an inference we make that theft is wrong? Or do we just know it? These things are hard to be sure of. But what evidence do you bring forth other than “suppose that”? Is that all you have to offer to overturn the moral knowledge of all the ages?

    Of course humans can be biased, but the level of bias you propose here is so sweeping, so magnificent in its scope, that you must resort to imaginary aliens as your example of a contrary bias. I asked for an argument, and now I ask for evidence, and I certainly hope you can muster up better evidence for your position than, “we might be biased; after all, some aliens somewhere might have another view of things.”

    Or maybe I’m remembering things wrong. You seem to be saying—well, no, obviously it’s a direct quote,

    You suggest that my demand for an unbiased test of moral realism is an unreasonable request, and that I am blinding myself from truths by asking for tests of the belief.

    What I remember, on the other hand, is asking you for some positive argument for your position, after showing that yours is sadly lacking.

    So now you say,

    The problem is that if I choose your methodology, I get a license to believe whatever I want to believe. Yours is the same methodology that’s used by advocates of kooky beliefs like psychic powers, UFO abduction, 9/11 conspiracy theories and homeopathy.

    Really? Let me ask you whether you think that is how it has actually worked in practice. How many people in history who have believed that moral truths are true have also believed in these kooky things? (Be fair now: you have to understand “kooky” in terms of the extant knowledge of the time. It was not “kooky” late in the first millennium to believe that the earth was the center of the universe, or that it might be possible to turn lead into gold. It was wrong, but not kooky. There are things non-kooky people believe today that some day will be proved wrong.)

    My point is this, as it has been several times in this series of discussions: people can tell the difference.

    Indeed, when I asked what you would do if morality was proven to be relative, you said that your beliefs about moral philosophy would change, and your interpretations of moral differences would change, but I don’t recall you saying that any of your policies would be different.

    You missed it then. My response was here, here, and especially here, starting with “The answer I gave, which was (quite explicitly!) in terms of what I believe did not count as an answer. Strange….”

    My policies would change in a manner I hope I do not need to repeat here. Now, there are two questions on the table here: what would it matter if morals were not absolute, and what difference would it make if people believed morals were not absolute? When you make the following point, you are making it with reference to what people believe:

    If theft is only subjectively bad, and the seeming absolute wrongness of theft is just a bias, you’re still going to act in exactly the same way.

    In other words, if my belief about the reality of morals is wrong, I’ll act just the same as if it were right: I’ll act in accordance with my belief that it is correct. Whether my belief about moral realism is right or wrong matters not at all. All that matters is that I believe in it.

    From this you conclude that there is no telling whether my belief actually is right or not, because the behavioral outcome is the same either way. But I am not (as you so astutely pointed out) deriving my belief in moral realism from my actions. I am deriving it from my moral perceptions and from my theism. I am deriving it from moral knowledge shared by billions of people.

    For your part, you have still offered no positive argument in favor of your position. All you have done is try to undercut mine with a lame (aliens! indeed!) suggestion that virtually everyone in the history of the earth has been laboring under a misleading bias. Your position would collapse in a nanosecond if it weren’t propped up by your insistence on atheism. For the instant you allow that there might really be moral laws independent of human “bias,” your atheism is in a heap of trouble. It’s being swiftly and mightily pursued, and morality is one of the first ways in which it could be tripped up.

    An atheist cannot be too careful of his relativism.

  12. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    William, before you answer this, note his comment to me just before the one he wrote to you. Billions upon billions of people might be biased, he says; and his support for this is that it’s conceivable that an alien might have a different view of morals. I found that to be rather weak empirical evidence for his position. He might also say, “we know from experience that people can be biased.” But we know this because we have discovered either (a) contrary views, or (b) contrary physical evidence to disconfirm bias. I don’t know what physical evidence dl will conjure up to disconfirm billions and billions of people’s belief that morality taps into something true. But I do know where he will find the contrary views. There are two sources. One is people like himself who are unbiased, other than that their atheism poses a strong metaphysical necessity upon them to disagree with moral realism. That’s not very biased at all, is it? The other source of a contrary view is imaginary aliens.

    So when he writes,

    I think that (iv) is not only lacking in any unbiased evidence, but is also implausible. This was the point of the thought experiment that Tom was so keen to ignore. If we were averse to moral reality, the mere fact that an act was morally wrong would be no deterrent to the act at all. The only way around this is to assume that our moral aversions are reliable guides to moral reality, which is like assuming that your bias is a guide to reality.

    I am not very troubled by it. He hasn’t really demonstrated the existence of a bias there. He hasn’t even come close.

    And when he speaks of “moral taste,” he’s begging the question in his very choice of words. I am more inclined to speak of the smell of that way of viewing morality. See my references to “noxious” and “swampwater” above.

  13. SteveK

    Tom,
    You of all people should know that aliens aren’t nearly as biased as we are. I think Capt. Kirk demonstrated this to be true in Episode 24. So if they think theft is absolutely right then, well, game over.

  14. William Bradford

    You may feel like doing what is immoral and yet refrain from doing so.

    DL: No, I don’t think you have any unbiased evidence for this claim.

    DL, feelings are intrinsically difficult is not impossible to quantify in any empirically meaningful way. I can truthfully tell you I feel like eating ice cream. I can truthfully tell you I refrain from doing so because I do not want to gain weight. You in turn can argue that my feeling of wanting to lose weight is stronger than my affinity for ice cream. But all this does is illustrate the pretense of unbiased claims about feelings. Don’t confuse unbiased with objective. They are not the same.

  15. SteveK

    Billions of real people throughout history in agreement can’t help us know anything about moral truths, but an untold number of fictitious ones can? Pfft!

  16. woodchuck64

    Tom:

    You have just removed the word “should” from your vocabulary, in its normal meaning. Was that your intention?

    Without more context I’m not certain of your meaning. In a prior thread I was using “should” as a naturalistic view of morality. In this thread, I didn’t use it because it’s misleading.

    If you put your hand on a hot stove, you “should” take it away quickly and swear furiously. Well, maybe, but it doesn’t seem to be the best word here.

  17. doctor(logic)

    Tom,

    Here you said:

    My actions actually would, like yours, be informed by my feelings alone, and I would do what felt most desirable, weighing my desires for pleasure against my desire to avoid negative consequences.

    This is what I was referring to. It doesn’t refer to any specifics. If you’re like me, you have a desire to have fewer violent crimes, and so you would work to reduce such crimes. I really don’t want to commit violent crimes. When my blood is boiling, I might be held back only by the threat of retaliation,but that would be true even of the moral realist.

    In that comment, you describe the philosophical (and maybe linguistic) changes you would feel you would have to make, but nothing about specific acts. When you produce a clear action counterexample to my claim, maybe I can stop harping.

    How many people in history who have believed that moral truths are true have also believed in these kooky things?

    How many people who believe in moral truths also see optical illusions? Um, 99.9%? Not all biases are the same. I’m surprised you wouldn’t know this, given your background.

    Let’s stay on target. You propose that the gut belief that many have in moral realism is true must be unbiased, despite the fact that there’s no experiment that can discern its truth. I expect you would go as far as to say that there’s no possible experiment that could discern its truth. Where’s your evidence?

    The reason I doubt moral realism is that there’s no sound philosophical basis for it, and because I know that a key to finding the truth is overcoming bias. Belief in moral realism is easily explained by bias, as all my thought experiments have shown. You think the thought experiments are silly games, but they illustrate something vital. Thought experiments are useful for reversing the polarity of bias, and of our conclusions change under polarity reversal, that’s a good indicator of bias. There’s your positive evidence, if only you could face up to it.

    You know that every attempt to remove bias in the search for moral realism fails with a null result. Now, you’re reduced to psychoanalyzing me. It’s not about atheism, Tom. It’s about critical thinking, and not succumbing to bias. It’s about admitting to oneself that a belief in moral realism looks exactly like a bias.

  18. William Bradford

    DL to Tom:

    If you’re like me, you have a desire to have fewer violent crimes, and so you would work to reduce such crimes. I really don’t want to commit violent crimes. When my blood is boiling, I might be held back only by the threat of retaliation,but that would be true even of the moral realist.

    I’ve never met Tom but suspect that like most of the rest of us an attractive woman sometimes catches his eye. Acting on those feelings and proceeding to an adulterous relationship is consistent with feeling based morality. You can always spin these things and justify adultery in your own mind and find others who will agree. If an attractive woman gives suggestive hints you do not act on because you believe adultery is immoral then you have evidence that the sexual version of chocolate is declined based on determination grounded in moral principles.

  19. doctor(logic)

    William,

    Don’t confuse unbiased with objective. They are not the same.

    Actually, they are the same.

    Sure, a person could be biased to believe that the sky is blue, and the sky could actually be objectively blue. But if the sky is objectively blue, we also ought to be able to see it without bias.

    If you can only see it when you’re biased, it’s not objective. I mean, let’s put this in proper terms. A biased belief in X means that you will subjectively believe X whether or not X is objectively true.

    But all this does is illustrate the pretense of unbiased claims about feelings.

    This is what thought experiments are for. Thought experiments enable us to reverse polarity on our feelings and see whether our conclusions change.

    I think you and Tom have been saying that a belief in moral realism is separate from a feeling that murder is wrong. That is, you not only believe that murder makes you feel bad, but also that murder is absolutely wrong whether you feel it’s bad or not. I don’t see how your comment about the pretense of unbiased claims about feelings has any bearing on this unverifiable metaphysical claim.

  20. woodchuck64

    I wrote

    Without more context I’m not certain of your meaning.

    Okay, the following might be your objection. If empathy drives us to change behavior in other humans, don’t we feel that they “should” change their behavior?

    This “should” is still ultimately desire abatement and it is awkward: “You should stop hurting that man so I won’t feel bad”. The problem with this phrasing is that an empathic desire is by definition unselfish, so we can’t phrase it that way without twisting/inverting the meaning entirely. So a better phrasing is “You should stop hurting that man so he won’t feel bad”. This use of “should” is consistent and a natural result of empathic desire, I believe.

  21. doctor(logic)

    William,

    If an attractive woman gives suggestive hints you do not act on because you believe adultery is immoral then you have evidence that the sexual version of chocolate is declined based on determination grounded in moral principles.

    Puzzled. You just talked about the pretense of unbiased claims about feelings. You saw how it was possible to say that we will feel good about eating chocolate now, but feel bad about eating chocolate later, and that there was a tension between our present feelings and our future feelings. Surely, you can see the same logic applies to adultery. In the short term, there’s sex. In the long term, there’s guilt and heartbreak.

    I have no doubt that people spin things to justify adultery in the same way they spin things to justify the second slice of chocolate cake. I don’t see how this is a test of moral realism.

  22. doctor(logic)

    woodchuck64,

    I’ve been thinking about this. We know that the left brain rationalizes the conclusions of the right brain (of course, sometimes those rationalizations are correct). It’s well-known that compulsions get rationalized as rule-following. It is certainly an evolutionary compulsion that we act on our drives and desires (for food, sex, relationships, status, etc.). Consequently, we might all rationalize that there is an abstract, external rule that we must act in accordance with our idealized drives and desires. I can’t help but X, but the left brain rationalizes an abstract explanation for why I X.

  23. William Bradford

    DL: Puzzled. You just talked about the pretense of unbiased claims about feelings. You saw how it was possible to say that we will feel good about eating chocolate now, but feel bad about eating chocolate later, and that there was a tension between our present feelings and our future feelings. Surely, you can see the same logic applies to adultery. In the short term, there’s sex. In the long term, there’s guilt and heartbreak.

    Guilt and heartbreak are not words many associate with adultery. To some its a natural urge and exciting stuff they can get away with. Guilt comes with doing something perceived to be wrong. But the main point is that one can fore go short term pleasure (chocolate) simply because he thinks it wrong. He may never get caught. The wife’s heart may not get broken. It’s still immoral and not acted on out of moral conviction. One can view this as akin to a feeling free intellectual decision rather than a decision motivated by feelings.

  24. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    dl,

    This is what I was referring to. It doesn’t refer to any specifics.

    What-if games are like that, doctor(logic). Do I know exactly what I would do under the circumstances you describe? I don’t even know exactly what I’m going to be doing at 3:00 this afternoon! You won’t “stop harping” until I give specifics, you say. Why not process what I actually did say, and think about what it might lead to?

    Now, I can think of it leading to something very much like what I see in much of the Western world: cheating on my wife if I thought I could get away with it, cheating on my taxes, spending hours looking at pornography, etc. But what would my exact “policies” be? I don’t know. I don’t think I need to know for purposes of this discussion.

    How many people who believe in moral truths also see optical illusions?

    Well, I certainly see optical illusions. There’s a website called “Mighty Optical Illusions” that I love to look at. But what analogy are you trying to make?

    Perhaps you’re saying that just as the eyes can be deceived, the moral sense can be deceived. But if so they would be each be deceived on completely different levels. You are arguing that there are no true moral realities apprehended by the moral sense. But you analogy doesn’t go anywhere near there: the fact that optical illusions can deceive us does not show that there are no true images.

    despite the fact that there’s no possible experiment that could discern its truth

    I’d like to run an experiment. Can I prove experimentally that anything that people think is true? What possible experiment could prove that?

    Maybe running experiments is not the only way to acquire reliable knowledge.

    The reason I doubt moral realism is that there’s no sound philosophical basis for it, and I know that a key to finding the truth is overcoming bias. Belief in moral realism is easily explained by bias, as all my thought experiments have shown.

    You call that positive evidence for your position, but it’s just a challenge to my position. (I’d like to have a dollar, by the by, for every evolutionist who has said, “You can’t argue for ID just by arguing against evolution!” Sound familiar?)

    I don’t think your thought experiments are silly, as you went on to say I did. I think they are next to impossible, except to the extent that I actually have responded to them here. I also think your believe in moral relativism is extremely easy to answer by bias, as I showed in comments to you last night.

    The “sound philosophical basis” for moral realism is universal human experience, first of all, including what I’ll guarantee is your own basic intuition that some things are actually, really better to do than others.

    I think that every attempt to remove bias in the search for moral anti-realism fails, for reasons mentioned. I think that bias in the search for moral realism is strongly disconfirmed by the fact that virtually every person in the history of the world has believed morals are real, except for people like you who must chase that intuition away in order to protect your atheism.

  25. SteveK

    I expect you would go as far as to say that there’s no possible experiment that could discern its truth. Where’s your evidence?

    Here we go again with the epistemology double standard. We have the everyday standard and the scientific standard and the two shall never meet. What you get from the former isn’t real knowledge, it’s biased pseudo-knowledge that must be confirmed and verified by a group of people shuffling beakers and wearing lab coats. The truth is each of us run moral experiments every day of our lives. Most of us accept the results we get time and time again. Some spend their lives running away from those results because they don’t like where that leads.

  26. SteveK

    Hey! Science confirms attractiveness is measureable and therefore objective…..right DL?

    I’m kidding, actually — sort of. I say sort of because, on the one hand I know that attractiveness isn’t a measurement, but on the other hand I’m wondering why you wouldn’t accept this as evidence for attractiveness being objective, at least to some degree? If attractiveness is 100% subjective, what are they measuring and why do they think it has something to do with attractiveness?

  27. doctor(logic)

    Tom,

    Now, I can think of it leading to something very much like what I see in much of the Western world: cheating on my wife if I thought I could get away with it, cheating on my taxes, spending hours looking at pornography, etc. But what would my exact “policies” be? I don’t know. I don’t think I need to know for purposes of this discussion.

    um… are you saying that folks in the Western world are being naughty because they’re not moral realism isn’t universal? Or are you saying their moral realism is irrelevant to their behavior?

    (BTW, I don’t think that the West is much different than anywhere else.)

    You are arguing that there are no true moral realities apprehended by the moral sense. But you analogy doesn’t go anywhere near there: the fact that optical illusions can deceive us does not show that there are no true images.

    The analogy is between our faculty for recognizing the objectiveness of attributes, and our faculty for recognizing visual/geometric attributes (like parallel lines). The latter can be reliably faulty under certain circumstances, and we can detect these faults by using techniques that overcome our bias. Similarly, the objectivity of physics is both intuitive and correct, whereas the objectivity of morality may be intuitive and not correct.

    Can I prove experimentally that anything that people think is true? What possible experiment could prove that?

    I assume you mean that there are certain assumptions about rational thinking and cognition that are necessary for thinking, and which are prior to science. For example, non-contradiction is a necessary assumption for any theory of the world, and a necessary assumption for any scientific inquiry. I totally agree! (I have maintained that science doesn’t prove itself. Rather, science is an automatic consequence of rational thinking. Rationality itself is necessary for thinking.)

    However, moral realism isn’t like the rules of rational thinking. The rules of rational thinking are necessary for ordered thought. Moral realism is not necessary for anything.

    I’d like to have a dollar, by the by, for every evolutionist who has said, “You can’t argue for ID just by arguing against evolution!” Sound familiar?

    Um, evolution has a ton of positive evidence. ID is just a collection of arguments from ignorance. There’s no analogy with evolution vs. ID because moral realism (as you concieve of it) is thoroughly unverifiable, and is supported by nothing but your intuition.

    The “sound philosophical basis” for moral realism is universal human experience, first of all, including what I’ll guarantee is your own basic intuition that some things are actually, really better to do than others.

    Sorry, but I don’t have that intuition. My intuition is merely that some things are better to do than others. No doubt, you’ll say I’ve brainwashed myself.

    But you’re left right where I said you were. Not with knowledge. Not with justified, true belief. Not even with justified belief. All you have is a belief. Since when does a belief justify itself? Perhaps, if the belief were necessary for rational thinking, you would have a compelling case for all rational agents to believe in it. But moral realism isn’t necessary in the slightest. It’s not even necessary for theism.

    Humans are prone to false and unjustified beliefs. Facing up to biases with controls is the way we get to truth. If one builds a belief system out of stuff that’s inseparable from bias, one can’t be particularly interested in the truth.

  28. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    doctor(logic), I don’t have time to respond to all of this, but I do have to let you know I am utterly weary of this outright lie of yours:

    moral realism (as you concieve of it) is … supported by nothing but your intuition.

    Do I need to explain—do I need to repeat over again—that I have offered considerably more support for this than my intuition?

    Look, dl, you’re a regular commenter here, and I don’t often do this, but I’m telling you now: if you want to continue this conversation you need to stop this. You need to stop thinking that you can get me to repeat myself over and over again so that you can (over and over again) say that I didn’t say something, or pretend that (in this case) I have offered my personal intuition as equivalent to the other evidence I have offered, including (among other things) the virtually unanimous and universal experience of billions upon billions of people.

    It’s time for you to stop playing games like this.

  29. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    There is another game you need to quit playing, doctor(logic), related to the one I have just pointed out to you. The most recent instance is this:

    If one builds a belief system out of stuff that’s inseparable from bias, one can’t be particularly interested in the truth.

    Here’s the game: although I have addressed your charges of undetectable bias, you have completely ignored my answers. Maybe you think they’re bad answers. I don’t know. A counter-argument might be one way to indicate that. Instead you’ve just continued to repeat what you said at first, with no apparent awareness of my own responses to you.

    Let me recap the game: it is to completely ignore and pass over any answers that are offered in response to your arguments, and to continue to charge that no response has been offered.

    I could, in this case, go back and remind you of the answers I (and Thomas Reid and WIC and SteveK) have written to you on this particular topic. But that would be doing your work for you, work you should have bothered to do the first time around. I don’t know if you care to hear it. If you did, you might have listened sooner.

    So in a word (actually two) if you’re going to stay in conversation here: Stop it. Stop these games. Stop this arguing in such obvious bad faith.

    Your most recent arguments with respect to the optical illusion analogy and to rational thinking are interesting, by the way, and I might respond to them eventually. But first you would have to do something to restore my interest in dialogue with you. For now, I’m just (as I said at the top of my previous comment) utterly weary of your games, and I doubt it’s worth the effort. I invite you to show me otherwise if you care to do so.

  30. Holopupenko

    Tom:

    Seriously,

    Stop these games. Stop this arguing in such obvious bad faith.

    Now I don’t get you, Tom.

    You have DL’s unequivocal assertions (over and over and over again) that he is a moral relativist–that there is no objective basis for any moral categories, imperatives, etc., that these are reducible to “taste.” Of course he’s arguing in bad faith–here and in many other instances. Of course he’s playing games–among others, the hypocrisy of leveling absolutist moral charges against others while decrying them. He permits himself this because of his moral relativism: he will impose moral absolutes upon you, but permit himself the “taste” of arguing in bad faith and to play games.

    On top of this, he’s dehumanized himself, you and others with his “humans are material mechanisms”… and you’re surprised he treats you this way?

    I don’t get that you don’t get that…

  31. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    I’ve had the night to sleep on this, and I regret using the harsh language I used in my last two comments, and I apologize for that, dl. I’m thinking of things like the imperious “Stop it” language I used.

    Otherwise I still stand by the content of what I wrote, and in answer to Holopupenko’s question, it’s not just for my own happiness and contentment that I write what I write here. I’ll admit my happiness and contentment got thrown off last night, when for that time I was feeling significantly frustrated and got pretty impatient with you, but that’s not the main thing. That happens only rarely, and I think anyone who reads here regularly knows that.

    Apart from that, here’s why I keep trying, keep wanting to challenge doctor(logic) not to play this like a game. It’s because I hope, doctor(logic), that if you would actually engage and respond more fully, it might get you somewhere, somewhere good and life-giving. These are not just logic exercises for me, they are about truth and life.

    I thought of a further answer to your thought experiment, by the way. How would my policies change if I were convinced there were no moral absolutes? Like every other believer I know of, I have a certain pattern of persistent temptations in my life. In one part of my mind they seem completely innocent, enjoyable, harmless. In another part of my mind I know, by God’s word, that they are wrong. I cannot be more specific than that, because I think to reveal more in a public forum is unwise. There are those in my life who know how to offer truth and grace to me with the intent of helping my spiritual growth, and those are the people with whom I share more specifics. But if I were not convinced that these temptations were actually wrong, I would indulge them quite freely and without guilt, to the extent that I thought I would not “get in trouble” for it.

    But this is not the first response I have given to your thought experiment question. When you raised it I gave a certain answer, with which you disagreed, and I responded to your disagreement, and so on back and forth. That’s how discussion works, if it’s in service of seeking truth.

    I have responded to your charge that my position is based on undetectable bias. I have responded to your call for evidence for my position. Others have too in this forum. That’s how truth-seeking discussion works.

    Our response has included things like an appeal to billions. You responded by saying maybe an alien would have a different view. We responded to that and you were silent. That’s not how truth-seeking discussion works.

    I have said several times that the charge of bias cuts both ways: that moral anti-realism seems to exist in defense of an atheistic a-theology. You have been nearly silent on that, and the primary form of your response has been to tell me (again) that my position is based on bias. You have completely ignored my salient point, which is that your own position is also highly subject to bias, arguably more so than mine. You have been silent on that. That’s not how truth-seeking discussion works.

    I think your position, which is clearly connected to your a-theology and clearly disconnected from the vast majority of human experience, is far more subject to the charge of bias than mine is. This is not the first time I have said things along these lines. Your response was a (still weak, in my opinion) analogy to optical illusions and an appeal to an imaginary alien. I’ll give you credit for at least responding to part of what I’ve said.

    But then you wrote last night that moral realism is supported by nothing but my intuition. That’s just disengagement from the discussion on your part, taking a charitable view of it. Last night I viewed it less charitably and called it a lie. One or both of those is the case, and neither is very honorable. It’s certainly not how truth-seeking discussion works.

    In case it’s not clear: I am interested in truth-seeking discussion here. Are you?

  32. Post
    Author
  33. woodchuck64

    DL:

    I’ve been thinking about this. We know that the left brain rationalizes the conclusions of the right brain (of course, sometimes those rationalizations are correct). It’s well-known that compulsions get rationalized as rule-following. It is certainly an evolutionary compulsion that we act on our drives and desires (for food, sex, relationships, status, etc.). Consequently, we might all rationalize that there is an abstract, external rule that we must act in accordance with our idealized drives and desires. I can’t help but X, but the left brain rationalizes an abstract explanation for why I X.

    I think there’s something to that. It’s like four monkeys and four apples. If one monkey takes more than it share, it will receive the full fury of the other three, even though the group has no understanding of abstractions like rules, justice, punishment, or fairness. All each monkey needs to do is compare its share to its neighbours and the rest happens naturally. With only selfish desires, the participants are suddenly acting out the enforcement of an “objective moral rule” that all monkeys receive the same share of food. Give organisms empathy (the ability to recognize those like self) and a sense of what is unfair, and certain social rules seem to spontaneously emerge.

    But I’m actually going further and suspecting that empathy itself might be creating in us a feeling of “externality” (for lack of a better word) because empathy temporarily “expands” our own identity. When we empathize, we temporarily become the other person, the attacker, the victim, the jealous husband, the beaten wife, at least in our own mind. We apply our own values to the actions and reactions of each participant as if they were self, and that forms the basis for our moral judgement, which we apply as simultaneously a subjective judgement –since these participants are self in the above sense (but temporarily)– but also as an objective judgement since we also recognize that they are clearly not really self. We’re a little confused perhaps but the net result could be a sincere feeling that our moral values must be applied to others.

    For moral realists, I don’t think that I’m adopting any anti-realist assumptions above, just trying to understand our hardwired desires (whether God-given or evolved) and the consequences of those a little better.

  34. doctor(logic)

    Tom,

    I might need a good “Stop It!” now and again. I was falling into a bad pattern. I was getting frustrated, too.

    In writing this, it’s hard to know where to start. It’s a big topic, and blog comments are sometimes a little too small to cover even parts of the topic. However, I think it’s best to start with the big picture, and then get into details. It may take multiple comments, but I will address your responses so far, even if it doesn’t look like I’m starting out that way.

    I think there’s a dynamic in the debate that’s counterproductive because it leads to a consistent misinterpretation. I like to compare the epistemology of gastronomic and aesthetic realism to the epistemology of moral realism. I must be clumsy at doing this, because I think it comes off as me saying that I feel the same way about anchovies as I do about murder (which isn’t the case). In response, I see the suggestion from you and others that either (1) the moral experience of the relativist is lacking in some phenomenological quality, or else (2) moral relativists are being dishonest in denying that quality (and probably (2)).

    So, first, let me clarify that moral anti-realism/relativism/subjectivism is not disputing the phenomenological data about morality. I think we can stipulate that we all feel the same about specific moral experiences. Whether we’re watching a documentary about the Holocaust, watching news from the Middle East, reading the local paper, or interacting with our coworkers, we all have the same feelings, and make the same sorts of moral appeals. In common language, we’ll say “Fred was wrong to do that,” or “It’s wrong to cheat on your taxes.” We think that if we say “That’s wrong!”, we will elicit a certain reaction from other people. We think that such moral statements will cause others to think carefully about what they’re doing, just as if we had said something objective, like “that rope bridge won’t support your weight!”

    When someone suggests that what I am doing is wrong, I analyze my actions to see if the effects of those actions lead to adverse outcomes, to see whether others will be offended by my actions, to see if I would be offended if someone else performed a similar action, and to see if society would become unpleasant if everyone acted as I did.

    And, phenomenologically, we all feel compelled to act as we think we should.

    I assume that what I describe in the paragraphs above holds for both of us. You have stated that you have additional moral realist beliefs, and those beliefs affect your actions, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

    Moral realism and moral anti-realism are both consistent with the experiences above. The difference is that moral realism says that our experience is indicative of a corresponding moral reality that would exist even if we did not exist, and which would exist, even if our moral phenomenology was different. For example, if we engineered a race of beings with different moral instincts, that would not change moral reality.

    The moral anti-realist argues that mechanisms within us are responsible for our moral phenomenology, and while those mechanisms have adaptive advantages, they are not measuring anything that would be here without us.

  35. doctor(logic)

    Having defined moral realism and moral anti-realism, we can move on to discuss the sorts of evidence that we would expect to find for each.

    I expect you will agree that other primates have some primitive form of morality. They seem to be compelled to act in certain ways, and according to certain social rules, most of the time. It’s also possible to alter our moral behavior with drugs and alcohol. This is strong evidence that our moral sense is at least partially biological.

    If moral realism is the case, then there are two possibilities. Either evolutionary mechanisms are sensitive to moral reality, or we were designed to reflect some invisible moral reality. If evolutionary mechanisms are sensitive to moral reality, then morality is equivalent to evolutionary success of a social species. Moral reality would be visible to science. I doubt that either of us would be convinced by this picture of morality. I think we both agree on the is-ought problem, for starters. That leaves the design option, which is what you have been suggesting.

    So, let’s recap on the comparison. Under moral realism, our moral sense was designed not for human biological flourishing, but as a reflection of an otherwise invisible moral reality. I expect your position is that revelation is an independent way to know about moral reality, and maybe I’ll address that later.

    It’s possible that the absolute morality coincides with biological flourishing of a social species, although, it’s certainly possible that absolute morality might not have been compatible with biological flourishing.

    Under moral anti-realism, our moral sense evolved in a group selection environment, and it historically favored the biological flourishing of our species. Under anti-realism, our moral sense isn’t a reflection of anything absolute, but merely a reflection of social conditions on our world over the last few million years. Our moral phenomenology is the result of our history. It’s a bias. (There’s also the special case in which we were designed with a moral compass without there being an objective morality. I don’t think either of us want to go there.)

    Both realism and anti-realism are models based on our experiences. Both say that we have moral biases because we’re part of the same species. This means that you can’t appeal to the universality of moral experience to argue for your position.

    You claimed that your evidence went beyond your personal opinion because billions of other people also share your opinion. As my discussion above describes, this is irrelevant to the debate. Both sides argue for some species-level hard-wiring. If the number of members of our species with this sort of hard-wiring is not relevant, then the sheer number of believers in realism has no place in a philosophical argument. It’s argumentum ad populum.

    In many ways the debate between realism and anti-realism is similar to the evolution versus ID debate. Neither side disputes the “is” facts about moral experience, but one side says we were designed for the purpose of implementing a moral code, whereas the other side says it was an accident of our evolution.

  36. doctor(logic)

    Philosophically speaking, even showing that we were designed isn’t enough to show that morality is absolute. There’s still the is-ought problem, and just because we “is” designed for a purpose, doesn’t mean we absolutely “ought” to fulfill that purpose.

    The last question is about the relevance of moral realism to our actual behavior.

    Like every other believer I know of, I have a certain pattern of persistent temptations in my life. In one part of my mind they seem completely innocent, enjoyable, harmless. In another part of my mind I know, by God’s word, that they are wrong.

    I appreciate the candor, and understand why you might not want to be more specific. In comment #24, you alluded to various forms of vice in the Western world. I assume that, like everyone else on the planet, there are at least some areas in life where you would indulge if you could get away with it.

    However, I put it to you that the reasons you endeavor not to cheat are that (1) you value something more than cheating (say, your relationship with God), and (2) you believe you are under continuous surveillance. Yet, neither (1) nor (2) require moral realism.

    Going back again to the vice you mentioned in #24, I think the question I asked in response was relevant. Either the West’s problems aren’t related to their metaethics, or else people in the West aren’t realists, and you’re saying their relativism explains why they behave badly.

    For my part, when I make a decision, realism and anti-realism aren’t factors at all. Theism would be a factor, since it would be impossible to cheat, but theism and realism are independent factors (Euthyphro).

    As for aliens in arguments, they do indeed have a pedigree… 🙂

    I’ll leave it there for now. If you want me to address any other of your responses, I’ll be happy to do so.

  37. Holopupenko

    moral anti-realism/relativism/subjectivism is not disputing the phenomenological data about morality… phenomenologically, we all feel compelled to act as we think we should.

    Except for the fact that external (sensory) phenomena are not the essential (reasoned to) noumena… to adopt Kant’s futile categories. Do you really think you’re making sense by employing big words like “phenomenological” that you don’t appear to understand?

    I assume that what I describe in the paragraphs above holds for both of us

    Not on your life…

    I expect you will agree that other primates have some primitive form of morality

    Really? Because you want it that way? Because you can’t deal with analogical language? Why not first define morality and then try to draw such a nonsensical comparison. Reducing it to the external “phenomenological” is your first mistake… hand in hand with the dehumanizing reductionism of “material mechanisms.”

    Philosophically speaking, even showing that we were designed isn’t enough to show that morality is absolute. There’s still the is-ought problem, and just because we “is” designed for a purpose, doesn’t mean we absolutely “ought” to fulfill that purpose.

    Ahh, yes… the artificial “is-ought” conundrum Lucifer faced… and, no, that’s not “philosophically speaking”… it’s pseudo-philosophically gibberish.

    The naturalist house of cards falls again…

  38. Joseph A.

    “When someone suggests that what I am doing is wrong, I analyze my actions to see if the effects of those actions lead to adverse outcomes, to see whether others will be offended by my actions, to see if I would be offended if someone else performed a similar action, and to see if society would become unpleasant if everyone acted as I did.

    Moral realism and moral anti-realism are both consistent with the experiences above.”

    What you’re doing here really, honestly comes across as a shell game. The words you use would take on different meanings if applied either to a moral realist or a moral anti-realist.

    For the moral realist, when someone suggests that what you are doing is wrong, it is or can be processed as a moral offense. The analysis would be to see whether the action was indeed morally wrong, whether the effects would even need to be considered, and if they warranted further consideration it would further make sense to consider their compatibility with morality. “Offense”, unless it was considered to be connected to that morality, would not matter – if it offended a great many people yet was determined to be consistent with that external morality, that’s that (of course, someone could knowingly do something immoral too, in a moment of weakness). “Society becoming unpleasant” would hardly matter either as far as that moral law goes (Unpleasant? People would be upset?).

    For the moral anti-realist, there is no possibility of the action having been a moral offense – not unless moral anti-realism is itself questioned. No questions about the action “really being wrong” would ever come up lacking that questioning. The only questions are “Do I personally care?” – and the only reasons that person could or would care would be based on personal bias. “Does this bring me pleasure?” Others being offended would not matter at all, unless that was a source of personal pleasure. Nor would you have any reason to care if “society would become unpleasant if everyone acted as” you did. Even if you wouldn’t like society if everyone stole, that doesn’t mean you have a reason not to steal. It does mean you have a reason not to get caught, and said reason would, again, come right back to your personal likes and nothing more.

    “If evolutionary mechanisms are sensitive to moral reality, then morality is equivalent to evolutionary success of a social species.”

    That does not follow. For one thing, ‘evolutionary success’ would have to be defined – and it’s a wide open question whether ‘evolution’ is at all appropriate (except in the most trivial sense) for use when talking about human intellectual and social endeavors. Nor is it clear if the “science” that would be able to “study morality” would be anything at all like what we consider science to be nowadays. Perhaps if you’re willing to expand the realm of science to include philosophy and even theology. In which case, sure, morality can be studied by science.

    What’s more, you keep on saying what Tom ‘can’t do’. He can’t refer to the universality of morality on the grounds that, apparently, the moral anti-realists think the overwhelming attestation to moral realism is a possibility. In which case, I think you’re making a common mistake – Tom, by citing the near total universality of people believing in morality and a real moral dimension to life, is not committing argumentum ad populum. He’s not saying ‘Everyone believes it, so it must be true’. He’s using that universality as a data point. Put another way, ‘If it’s just accidental that some people have a moral sense, it must be one hell of an accident, because it’s downright universal’. And yes, that data is real, and serves as evidence in Tom’s favor – and it’s relevant to the debate.

    To put it in optical illusion terms: If 5 billion people claimed to see Michael Jackson appear on Johnny Carson, and if a handful insisted that everyone could have hallucinated seeing Michael Jackson on Johnny Carson, said handful isn’t going to gain much ground by saying “Look, you can’t cite the five billion people who saw this as evidence that it took place, because our explanation presupposes that they think it took place too! What they claim to have seen cannot count as evidence that Michael Jackson appeared on Johnny Carson!” It simply doesn’t work.

  39. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    woodchuck64,

    With all due respect to primate morality studies (whatever they show), I don’t think your monkeys and apples story has anything to do with human morality whatever, because it’s quite obviously not the same thing. If the same fight over apples happened among humans, we would not call anyone’s decision in that group a moral decision. We would call it immoral. So if one monkey decides to head off that fight for reasons of self-interest, that’s hardly a moral decision, either; and honestly we would say the same for humans, too.

    Your “going further” is a good description of how moral realism functions through empathy in humans, but not necessarily of what it is.

    doctor(logic)

    Thank you for coming back with some genuine points of discussion. I appreciate it.

    And, phenomenologically, we all feel compelled to act as we think we should.

    I assume that what I describe in the paragraphs above holds for both of us.

    I would agree with that, though as you go on to say, I think it’s only a small part of the story. I’m not sure you recognize how crucial the other part is. I accept that there are feelings connected to moral questions and decisions, but I don’t think they run the show, or that they comprise the nub of the moral decision process. That gets to what Joseph A. referred to as the “shell game,” and I think it’s why Holo says, “Not on your life.” Feelings are attached to everything; that doesn’t mean everything is feelings.

    It’s also possible to alter our moral behavior with drugs and alcohol. This is strong evidence that our moral sense is at least partially biological.

    Our behavior is at least partly biological, but I don’t know how it follows that our moral sense is. Cognition and control are partly biological, for sure, so I would suggest it’s at least possible that what chemicals do to us is not to alter our moral sense but to reduce our cognitive awareness of what we know to be true, or to hinder our self-control. And if the moral sense actually is partly biological, I would suggest it is so in the same sense that (on dualism) mind and brain are interdependent.

    If evolutionary mechanisms are sensitive to moral reality, then morality is equivalent to evolutionary success of a social species. Moral reality would be visible to science.

    I don’t know. Let’s take “evolutionary success” to be equivalent to organisms’ adaptedness. I think there is a sociological claim to be made that people and groups with higher morality are more well adapted, by a variety of measures. That’s not saying morality was part of an evolutionary story, because I doubt that über-story is true. It’s saying that science can in many cases see the value of living morally. I’m also not saying that science can prove morals are actually oughts; I’m saying that sociology can identify benefits from following known oughts.

    Under moral realism, our moral sense was designed not for human biological flourishing, but as a reflection of an otherwise invisible moral reality

    It’s not either-or; it’s both. I would take “biological” out of that sentence, though: it’s designed for human flourishing: biological, social, economic, spiritual, etc.

    It’s possible that the absolute morality coincides with biological flourishing of a social species, although, it’s certainly possible that absolute morality might not have been compatible with biological flourishing.

    That’s not possible on a theistic account, considering God’s loving care for humans and his design for us to live well in accord with his moral character.

    You claimed that your evidence went beyond your personal opinion because billions of other people also share your opinion. As my discussion above describes, this is irrelevant to the debate. Both sides argue for some species-level hard-wiring.

    But it is (as Joseph A. says very clearly below) a data point. It’s strong evidence. I think it argues strongly for moral realism being the clear answer unless proven clearly otherwise. If so many people are convinced it’s true, it will require extraordinary evidence (as Sagan might have said) to overrule it.

    There’s still the is-ought problem, and just because we “is” designed for a purpose, doesn’t mean we absolutely “ought” to fulfill that purpose.

    I think you need to fill out that argument a whole lot more than you have done here, especially taking into account that theism entails that morality is part of the very foundation of all reality from all eternity, and that there will be an accounting for our actions at the end of our lives.

    However, I put it to you that the reasons you endeavor not to cheat are that (1) you value something more than cheating (say, your relationship with God), and (2) you believe you are under continuous surveillance. Yet, neither (1) nor (2) require moral realism.

    If I am deceived about (1) or (2) then they do not require moral realism, but if my beliefs about them are true, then they do. Euthyphro does not make Christian theism and realism independent, because God and morality are not independent of each other. That “dilemma” never really was a dilemma on the Christian view of God.

    So other than your response to the above, I have two questions:

    First, would you clarify and expand on this:

    Going back again to the vice you mentioned in #24, I think the question I asked in response was relevant. Either the West’s problems aren’t related to their metaethics, or else people in the West aren’t realists, and you’re saying their relativism explains why they behave badly.

    I’m not sure what your point is. Please bear in mind that moral realism <understatement!> does not entail consistent moral success </understatement!>.

    Second, have you considered how your own moral anti-realism might be serving more as a defense for your a-theology than as an explanation of what you observe in the world? I’ve raised this point multiple times and I still haven’t seen you respond to it.

  40. doctor(logic)

    Joseph,

    I was not a moral anti-realist until a few years ago. This is simply because I had never thought about meta-ethics in any detail. I can assure you that the whether something was good or bad independent of humanity’s existence has never been a factor in my thinking. Not even as a child.

    When most moral thinking occurs, meta-ethics is simply irrelevant.

    I think this is the case, even for theists. There are plenty of non-meta-ethical reasons for theists to do what God commands. If God’s morality is God’s subjective whim, it won’t change anything for the theist. The theist respects God’s authority, believes the Bible is a guide to morality, and believes he is under constant surveillance. Most theists don’t even know what moral realism is.

    For the moral anti-realist, there is no possibility of the action having been a moral offense…

    This is just 100% wrong unless you insert the word “absolute” before the word “moral”. If I say “Yo Moma!” you will take moral offense at what I say before you have a chance to even think meta-ethics. In my comment, I meant offense as it is felt and experienced, not as meta-ethicists philosophically rationalize the process to be.

    Others being offended would not matter at all, unless that was a source of personal pleasure. Nor would you have any reason to care if “society would become unpleasant if everyone acted as” you did. Even if you wouldn’t like society if everyone stole, that doesn’t mean you have a reason not to steal. It does mean you have a reason not to get caught, and said reason would, again, come right back to your personal likes and nothing more.

    That’s a bizarre thing to say. Taking moral offense is a painful experience. Anyone with empathy wants to avoid causing other people pain, and so causing others to take moral offense is something an empathic person wants to avoid.

    Nor would you have any reason to care if “society would become unpleasant if everyone acted as” you did.

    Why would I not care if my society became unpleasant?!! Even kindergartners learn that much. They know that if they push people, the pushing comes back to them. It’s got nothing to do with meta-ethics (unless kindergartners are waaay smarter than I’ve been taking them for).

    And, um, are you saying I shouldn’t vote?

    Even if you wouldn’t like society if everyone stole, that doesn’t mean you have a reason not to steal. It does mean you have a reason not to get caught, and said reason would, again, come right back to your personal likes and nothing more.

    I just find this statement baffling. Obviously, there are stronger emotional reasons not to steal than what would happen to society in the long run. There’s the painful taking of moral offense of the victim (which I would empathize with) for starters.

    Meta-ethics just doesn’t come into play. Consider offenses subject to this sort of reasoning (stealing isn’t a good example). Say, double-parking, playing music loud into the night, littering, etc. Folks refrain from doing these things (1) because they empathize when others to take moral offense, (2) they don’t want to lower their social standing, and (3) because they don’t want to establish a precedent that will make their society worse in the long run. I don’t believe anybody refrains from doing these things because of their meta-ethical position.

    Put another way, ‘If it’s just accidental that some people have a moral sense, it must be one hell of an accident, because it’s downright universal’. And yes, that data is real, and serves as evidence in Tom’s favor – and it’s relevant to the debate.

    No, it’s not evidence. No one says that our moral sense is a per-person accident. Just as no one says that monkey moral sense is a per-monkey accident. Your competitor theory says that our moral sense is a universal, species-wide adaptation. If Tom’s realism was competing against a theory which said our morality is a per-individual accident, then the universality would be evidence in his favor. But that’s not the theory Tom is competing against, so universality is irrelevant.

  41. doctor(logic)

    Tom,

    Just a partial answer for now. I’ll repeat what I said to Joseph:

    I was not a moral anti-realist until a few years ago. This is simply because I had never thought about meta-ethics in any detail. I can assure you that the whether something was good or bad independent of humanity’s existence has never been a factor in my thinking. Not even as a child.

    Is my atheism biasing me? I don’t think so. Atheism and realism appear to be separate questions to me.

    There are several atheist moral realists, including Richard Chappell over at Philosophy, etc., and I annoy him as much as I annoy you. 😉

    I can imagine living in a (counterfactual) world featuring a god who I love. But that doesn’t cause me to think that this imaginary god’s morality would be absolute.

    Absolute goodness seems to me to be impossible to know, even if one were omniscient. Even God could not know what absolute goodness was, and just making God all powerful doesn’t magically allow him to know.

    We accept that consequences don’t by themselves determine what is good, and what “is” does not determine what “ought” to be. This means it’s impossible to know what is absolutely good, even for an omniscient agent. (And you can’t appeal to the necessity of a perfectly good being because, frankly, a perfectly good being isn’t necessary for anything at all.)

    Euthyphro does not make Christian theism and realism independent, because God and morality are not independent of each other.

    I disagree.

    I literally have no idea what this means, and I doubt that anybody else does either. I think God gets used to make square circles sometimes, and this is an example of that. God is taken to be so powerful that what theists say about him gets exempted from making sense, with any excess slack taken up by mystery. If God is not analogous to a person, and good is not defined based on our subjective good, then we don’t even know what all these terms are supposed to mean. Wittgenstein would have a field day with this.

    So, no, it’s not an atheism versus theism thing for me. God could exist without moral realism being true. Moral anti-realism wouldn’t help me much in that regard.

  42. SteveK

    DL,

    You claimed that your evidence went beyond your personal opinion because billions of other people also share your opinion. As my discussion above describes, this is irrelevant to the debate. Both sides argue for some species-level hard-wiring.

    This is wrong. The opinions of billions don’t prove anything in the scientific sense, nor do opinions make something true, but it is highly relevant. It is relevant because there are facts/data/perceptions supporting those opinions. Don’t pretend that people are spouting opinions in a vacuum here.

    There are reasons for having these opinions just as there are reasons for having the opinion that certain objects are X and not Y. Sure, the reasons may vary as to why it’s X and not Y, but that doesn’t change the fact that people perceive something meaningful in that X.

    The perception has meaning even though nobody can quite put their finger on it. It’s an X, and for some reason we can’t ignore it. We can’t make it a Y if we wanted to, and we can’t make it fade into the background of reality as meaningless static. We must pay attention to it.

    All those opinions say this: “apparently moral oughts are real.” You’ve got a lot of convincing to do to get people to accept your statement, which goes something like this: “apparently morality is nothing more than an expression of personal preference.” As it stands now, you’ve got billions of people who say apparently you’re incorrect. Doesn’t make it true, but it’s relevant.

  43. SteveK

    Absolute goodness seems to me to be impossible to know, even if one were omniscient. Even God could not know what absolute goodness was, and just making God all powerful doesn’t magically allow him to know.

    Huh? You mean to tell me that a person can’t know something about himself? Do you know that you are DL and that you have certain absolute characteristics as a part of your nature – humanness, rationality, etc? I hope the answer is yes. In the same way, there’s no reason to think that God can’t know he has certain absolute characteristics as part of his nature.

  44. doctor(logic)

    Tom,

    It’s possible that the absolute morality coincides with biological flourishing of a social species, although, it’s certainly possible that absolute morality might not have been compatible with biological flourishing.

    That’s not possible on a theistic account, considering God’s loving care for humans and his design for us to live well in accord with his moral character.

    Just saying it’s not possible doesn’t make it impossible. It seems possible to me that absolute morality might not be compatible with biological flourishing of our species, and God intervenes to help us survive despite the evolutionary impediment of our moral senses. I don’t see an inherent contradiction.

    Or, consider the possibility that God lies. There’s nothing impossible about this, and you can’t argue that he doesn’t lie because he says he wouldn’t in the Bible. Nor is it necessary that God’s morality matches our own.

    I understand that you advocate for a God whose morality we would recognize as good, who wouldn’t lie to us, etc., but I don’t see any basis for your claim that the alternatives are impossible.

    There’s still the is-ought problem, and just because we “is” designed for a purpose, doesn’t mean we absolutely “ought” to fulfill that purpose.

    I think you need to fill out that argument a whole lot more than you have done here, especially taking into account that theism entails that morality is part of the very foundation of all reality from all eternity, and that there will be an accounting for our actions at the end of our lives.

    I’ll try to expand on the argument, but first a couple of notes about your response:

    As I said above, theism does not entail that “morality is part of the foundation of all reality”. I’m not even convinced that such a property has any semantic meaning. Theism is a belief in a being who is able to shape physical reality to his/her/its will. If a man believes in Zeus, he is a theist. Most gods happen to be omniscient, too. In the case of your God, he is omniscient and good in a subjective sense, too. But saying that God is necessarily subjectively good? Necessary for what?

    Second, theism does not automatically imply there will be an accounting. Your kind of theism says there will be an accounting, but not all theism must do so. Neither universalism nor deism imply such accounting, and they are certainly forms of theism.

    If Hume is correct about the is-ought problem, then every “ought” proposition relies on another more fundamental ought. Every claim that “X ought to Y” is really means “X ought to Y, if X ought to Z and an ought to Z implies an ought to Y” and so on. You can theorize that this chain of oughts descending from more fundamental oughts comes to rest on some absolute moral axiom, “X ought to K”. However, it is impossible to distinguish the between the non-trivial moral consequences of “X ought to K” versus “X ought NOT K”, because neither statement is required to make anything more than a trivial prediction. If one’s initial moral axiom is that one absolutely ought to cause more suffering, then it is trivial to conclude that one ought to commit rape. However, the non-trivial part of morality is trying to determine what the axioms are. And it is precisely because of the is-ought problem that the axioms cannot be determined. We would have to look at what “is” in order to settle what “ought” to be.

    Here’s another way of saying this. Consider the algebra equation x + y = 9.

    Suppose we postulate that x = 5. That trivially implies that y = 4.

    Now, suppose we postulate that x = 400. This trivially implies that y = -391.

    There’s no way to decide between either value for x unless there’s a correspondence between an “is” fact and the math. In morality, the is-ought problem prevents you from connecting moral axioms to experiences.

    You can assume that your “is” experiences of what you feel are guides to the absolute axioms, but you would have to reject the is-ought problem.

    Revelation won’t help either. You would need to assume some moral axioms in order to count revelation as a guide to moral axioms.

    Indeed, having all the “is” facts in the universe won’t solve this problem. As far as I can see, even God wouldn’t know what he absolutely ought to do.

  45. woodchuck64

    Tom:

    With all due respect to primate morality studies (whatever they show), I don’t think your monkeys and apples story has anything to do with human morality whatever, because it’s quite obviously not the same thing. If the same fight over apples happened among humans, we would not call anyone’s decision in that group a moral decision. We would call it immoral. So if one monkey decides to head off that fight for reasons of self-interest, that’s hardly a moral decision, either; and honestly we would say the same for humans, too.

    What I thought was interesting was that the participants are acting consistently with there being an objective moral rule “don’t be greedy” (or “don’t take more than your share”). However, monkeys clearly don’t have the abstract thinking ability to do that. Therefore, either monkeys are in some sense innately in touch with the same absolute moral reality that humans are, or social rules emerge from rather simple abilities of social organisms: empathy and sense of fairness.

    Your “going further” is a good description of how moral realism functions through empathy in humans, but not necessarily of what it is.

    The key point of that description, though, is to explain why empathy makes us apply our moral rules to others; why we feel that others “should” follow our rules. If correct, that means there is no requirement that absolute morality exist to explain our sense that morals apply to everyone, not just ourself. Only that empathy, and its blurring of the line between self and other, exist.

  46. Joseph A.

    DL,

    “I can assure you that the whether something was good or bad independent of humanity’s existence has never been a factor in my thinking. Not even as a child.

    When most moral thinking occurs, meta-ethics is simply irrelevant.”

    And your personal psychology is evidence, as far as it goes. But it simply doesn’t go very far at all. What you’re saying here is that A) You personally say that something actually being “good” or “bad” has never been a factor in your thinking, even as a child, and B) Therefore, when most moral thinking occurs, meta-ethics is irrelevant. Not only does it not follow, but the latter is being actively contested here.

    You say “most theists don’t even know what moral realism is”. But they don’t have to in order to be moral realists, just as someone doesn’t need to know what “compatiblist free will” means to hold what amounts to the same position. They simply have to be aware of a moral standard that exists externally to them and is not subjective. They have to believe that some things are moral or immoral irrespective of people’s views. And the number of people who believe as much is shockingly large.

    What’s more, one doesn’t need to be a Christian to be a moral realist. Not even a theist, necessarily, though most non-theist moral realists will, I think, inevitably end up in a position that’s either theism or shockingly close to it if they’re consistent. Have you seen the recent Philpapers survey? If not, I really suggest you take a look at the number of theists represented there percentage-wise, and the number of moral realists versus anti-realists. You may be surprised.

    “This is just 100% wrong unless you insert the word “absolute” before the word “moral”.”

    And I can say it’s 100% right unless you melt the word “moral” down to something trivial, like “what I personally like or dislike”. Regardless, no: The moral realist and the moral anti-realist do not have the same experiences with judgment. In fact, they’re different in dramatic and important ways, and must be.

    “That’s a bizarre thing to say. Taking moral offense is a painful experience. Anyone with empathy wants to avoid causing other people pain, and so causing others to take moral offense is something an empathic person wants to avoid.”

    But that’s practically a tautology. You may as well say “Anyone who is concerned about and doesn’t want to cause other people moral offense will be concerned about and not cause other people moral offense”. As I said, it comes back to personal likes and nothing more. You can’t be appealing to morality as a moral realist when you talk about the importance of empathy here. The only work empathy can do here is “Well, I draw pleasure from that view/tact.” That’s just a fact.

    “Why would I not care if my society became unpleasant?!! Even kindergartners learn that much. They know that if they push people, the pushing comes back to them.”

    First, that’s not what I said. I said that they would have no reason to care that “society would become unpleasant if everyone acted as they did”. So what if they would? Unless the action is going to lead to that happening and they’d personally suffer from it, it means nothing. I can assure you that thieves don’t like to be stolen from, most thugs don’t like to be beaten up, etc.

    Again, it all comes back to personal likes and what can affect those likes. What’s more, even your kindergarten line on its own doesn’t hold up. Kindergarteners are *taught* these lessons. They don’t end up accepting the conclusions. Clearly. There are plenty of bullies and misfits who get out of kindergarten. In fact, some learn to become teacher’s pets, in which case they learn an interesting fact about pushing people: Sometimes you can push people, and it won’t come back to you.

    “And, um, are you saying I shouldn’t vote?”

    What are you even talking about here?

    “Obviously, there are stronger emotional reasons not to steal than what would happen to society in the long run. There’s the painful taking of moral offense of the victim (which I would empathize with) for starters.”

    You can get over that, DL. Many do. And you have no reason not to get over it either. Are you honestly making the mistake of thinking that people, either as individuals or as a society, are not capable of being entirely at home with some “emotionally horrible” things? By the way you write, you have faith in the world and humanity that would naturally lead to some kind of theism if it were consistent.

    “I don’t believe anybody refrains from doing these things because of their meta-ethical position.”

    And I believe your belief is mistaken. Particularly with regards to Christianity, which frankly has such simple but universal rules that it will, if you are serious, affect you in every moment of your life – even when it comes to littering or playing loud music at night. You seem to be arguing that, if the person isn’t aware of words like “moral realism” or “meta-ethical position”, they can’t possibly be aware of or pursuing accordance with an external moral reality, or think they are. You’d be wrong.

    “No, it’s not evidence. No one says that our moral sense is a per-person accident.”

    Yes, it is evidence. It’s data about humanity, it’s a widespread attestation that there is a real moral dimension to reality. Again, back to the TV example: 5 billion people seeing Michael Jackson on Johnny Carson counts as evidence that Michael Jackson was on Johnny Carson. The near universality of attestation to some things being “really right” and “really wrong” counts as evidence that some things are “really right” and “really wrong”. The former does not suddenly become irrelevant just by virtue of someone saying that the experience of seeing Michael Jackson on Johnny Carson “could have been a species-wide hallucinatory adaptation”. It doesn’t mean it’s proven true by that level of attestation, but it does serve as evidence. The mere existence of a counter-explanation does not remove this evidence.

    Now, I suppose you can argue something like “Okay, sure, the vast majority of people believe that some things are “really right” and “really wrong”. But that was just evolution playing a trick on them!” First, you’d need to establish that evolution wasn’t guided. Second, even if you did establish that, you’d be getting dangerously close to one hell of a skeptical argument. ‘There’s something in nature that is fooling people left and right, reliably corrupting their judgment, and has no relation to an actual truth’ is one hell of a road to walk down.

    Either way, the data is relevant. The mere existence of a counter-explanation doesn’t make the data irrelevant as evidence for the reality of something, any more than “Well, it’s logically possible that aliens mind-warped everyone into thinking MJ was on MC, but he really wasn’t” does not somehow mean that now 5 billion people attesting to seeing what they did “doesn’t count as evidence” that what they saw happening, happened.

  47. Joseph A.

    woodchuck64,

    “What I thought was interesting was that the participants are acting consistently with there being an objective moral rule “don’t be greedy” (or “don’t take more than your share”)”

    Actually, given your description, it seems more like the monkeys are acting consistently with there being a rule “do this and other monkeys are going to beat your ass.” There seems to be a whole lot of anthropomorphism in play in these descriptions, as if often the case.

    “The key point of that description, though, is to explain why empathy makes us apply our moral rules to others; why we feel that others “should” follow our rules.”

    But empathy does not do that. I can imagine how someone may feel when I do something cruel to them, and find it downright funny. I can imagine it being done to me, and reason that it’s all the more reason to do it to someone else, etc.

    Put another way: All empathy is in this context is a modeling technique. If I couldn’t care less about “fairness”, or if I thought “fairness” was a joke or something actively to be discouraged, then merely being able to imagine someone else’s perspective would mean nothing. If my putting myself in someone else’s perspective led me to reason that they’d beat the crap out of me if I did something mean, and I therefore refrained, it would hardly be a case of ‘objective morality’. If I knew or felt I knew that fairness was an imperative, ie, that being fair was “really right” and being unfair was “really wrong”, then empathy would be useful for helping me accord with that external morality.

  48. woodchuck64

    Joseph A:

    Actually, given your description, it seems more like the monkeys are acting consistently with there being a rule “do this and other monkeys are going to beat your ass.” There seems to be a whole lot of anthropomorphism in play in these descriptions, as if often the case.

    Yes. But likewise, it can be argued that humans follow moral rules at least partly out of fear of punishment.

    But empathy does not do that. I can imagine how someone may feel when I do something cruel to them, and find it downright funny. I can imagine it being done to me, and reason that it’s all the more reason to do it to someone else, etc.

    That’s not empathy. Empathy is when you include another as self. If it would be cruel when done to you, you would judge it cruel. If it would be funny when done to you, you would judge it funny. Anything else is not properly called empathy.

    If I couldn’t care less about “fairness”, or if I thought “fairness” was a joke or something actively to be discouraged, then merely being able to imagine someone else’s perspective would mean nothing.

    True. Empathy only works with the values you happen to have, which explains the tendency of people to apply even clearly subjective moral values — say, “short skirts are evil” — to everyone. But I’m not following how this refutes rather than supports my point roughly stated here.

    BTW, your posts will be more readable if you enclose quoted sections in <blockquote> </blockquote>

  49. doctor(logic)

    Joseph,

    I found this quote from your comment to woodchuck64 interesting:

    If I couldn’t care less about “fairness”, or if I thought “fairness” was a joke or something actively to be discouraged, then merely being able to imagine someone else’s perspective would mean nothing.

    I doubt that’s true, but let’s suppose that it is.

    Under both moral realism and moral anti-realism, people care about fairness, and care about it as a basic emotional drive. That is, most people care about fairness even if it means they might not benefit (at least, not directly). If I see something unfair, that can get my back up, even if (1) I’m not a party to the unfair transaction, and (2) if the persons cheated in the transaction don’t feel cheated. Wouldn’t you agree that our moral sense of fairness is pretty basic?

    Maybe it’s a conditioned response, and maybe I can condition myself to ignore my sense of fairness, but that’s a separate issue. My point is that I don’t just have a moral feeling about the results of a specific transaction in which I am engaged, but I also can have comparable moral feelings about transactions that are distant from me (or even fictional).

    Agree?

    Obviously, there are stronger emotional reasons not to steal than what would happen to society in the long run. There’s the painful taking of moral offense of the victim (which I would empathize with) for starters.

    You can get over that, DL. Many do. And you have no reason not to get over it either. Are you honestly making the mistake of thinking that people, either as individuals or as a society, are not capable of being entirely at home with some “emotionally horrible” things?

    Please parse this for me. Yes, people can get over their revulsion for, say, assault. Indeed, if a conditioning program were instituted by a society, the majority of the population of that society could get over it. But this is true whether the population are realists or anti-realists. So, what is your point?

    By the way you write, you have faith in the world and humanity that would naturally lead to some kind of theism if it were consistent.

    Well, not 100% sure I know what you’re saying here. You seem to be saying that if we fail to influence people towards certain behaviors (e.g., not raping), some subjectively bad stuff (as judged by our current selves) could emerge. That seems quite sensible. But why would you think that the anti-realist would not nudge people in the directions of his subjective goods?

    We all agree that simply being a realist is not enough to guarantee nice behavior. The realist also has to care about the specific behavior in question. That means that caring is the only significant variable on either side of the meta-ethical debate.

    As I’ve been trying to explain (with my thought experiments), there’s no reason to care about absolute morality for the sake of absolute morality.

  50. doctor(logic)

    It’s data about humanity, it’s a widespread attestation that there is a real moral dimension to reality. Again, back to the TV example: 5 billion people seeing Michael Jackson on Johnny Carson counts as evidence that Michael Jackson was on Johnny Carson. The near universality of attestation to some things being “really right” and “really wrong” counts as evidence that some things are “really right” and “really wrong”.

    The questions is, Joseph, would people see MJ on JC even if MJ weren’t on JC? That is, is there a bias?

    Obviously, in the case of MJ on JC, the theory that he was on the show makes predictions. We ought to be able to find evidence that MJ was at the studio that day, correspondence and memos to that effect, videotape, and news stories referring to the upcoming appearance, etc. As we know, our basic faculty for seeing is excellent when it comes to constructing predictive models.

    However, moral realism is completely different. Moral realism doesn’t predict anything except attestation. In that regard, it looks exactly like a subjective belief.

    You’ll get very wide-scale attestation to the deliciousness of chicken soup. That doesn’t mean chicken soup would be delicious if no humans were around to eat it. And alien species might find chicken soup both disgusting and toxic.

    Why is moral realism so special?

  51. Joseph A.

    woodchuck64,

    Thanks for the tip.

    Yes. But likewise, it can be argued that humans follow moral rules at least partly out of fear of punishment.

    Following a rule because of a fear of punishment is not the same as acting in accordance with a perceived moral law. Clearly, since a declared moral anti-realist can follow a rule (even entirely) due to fear of punishment. But by definition, he can’t follow a rule because he believes it’s “really right”, etc.

    That’s not empathy. Empathy is when you include another as self. If it would be cruel when done to you, you would judge it cruel. If it would be funny when done to you, you would judge it funny. Anything else is not properly called empathy.

    […]

    True. Empathy only works with the values you happen to have

    In which case, empathy itself can’t suffice to replace moral realism, or even serve to explain the widespread belief in moral realism. Moral realism would be in play before empathy, and would be distinct from empathy. If anything, empathy works in tandem with moral views.

    which explains the tendency of people to apply even clearly subjective moral values — say, “short skirts are evil” — to everyone.

    But those aren’t “clearly subjective moral values”. No one I’m aware of argues “short skirts are evil” in and of themselves; if anything they’re applying a moral law to a particular situation. Now, they could be wrongly or unreasonably applying a real moral law, but it’s not at all clear that their judgment is subject/not related to an actual moral law.

    But I’m not following how this refutes rather than supports my point roughly stated here.

    But what was your point? I already pointed out the problems with saying the monkeys were acting in accordance with an “objective moral rule”. That’s an anthropomorphism, and I gave another (and given your own description, I think far more credible) description of what they’re doing. Namely, acting in accordance with the “I don’t want to have three other guys beat the crap out of me” rule.

    You also suggested that empathy may create a feeling of externality by “expanding” our identity. But you also realize that empathy only works with values we already have. At most, empathy can be a useful tool for the moral realist. It may be something that comes hand in hand with those aware of moral law (indeed, maybe the awareness of moral law inevitably leads to empathy, or is somehow connected elsewise) But they clearly aren’t ‘the same thing’, nor does empathy serve as an explanation for the belief of moral realism.

  52. Joseph A.

    DL,

    Under both moral realism and moral anti-realism, people care about fairness, and care about it as a basic emotional drive.

    […]

    Wouldn’t you agree that our moral sense of fairness is pretty basic?

    Not the way you put it, no. I would agree that awareness of a real morality is pretty basic, and that justice is part of said morality. What is “unfair” means something very different when a moral realist says it (Something unfair would be a violation of a real moral law) versus what an anti-realist would mean (something unfair is something they personally disapprove of, but isn’t “actually” wrong.) If a moral anti-realist had a feeling that something was truly “unfair”, as in it was actually wrong regardless of their feelings, they would either have to regard that feeling as a delusion or question/give up their moral anti-realism.

    My point is that I don’t just have a moral feeling about the results of a specific transaction in which I am engaged, but I also can have comparable moral feelings about transactions that are distant from me (or even fictional).

    Agree?

    No agreement. Your “moral feelings” as a moral anti-realist would be very different from the “moral feelings” of a moral realist, as I keep pointing out. At the very least, they would be reflected upon in a vastly different way.

    Please parse this for me. Yes, people can get over their revulsion for, say, assault. Indeed, if a conditioning program were instituted by a society, the majority of the population of that society could get over it. But this is true whether the population are realists or anti-realists. So, what is your point?

    Leaving aside whether such a conditioning program were really possible in the deepest senses, I’m saying this. Your personal feelings of revulsion at “unfairness” or anything else are, as a moral anti-realist, not an actual truth or reality for you to better accord yourself to. Really, you have no reason to encourage yourself to desire or promote “fairness” or “truth” or anything else aside from your personal whim. You can never pursue actual “goodness”, you can never avoid actual “evil”. Such things simply don’t exist given your worldview.

    The moral realist, even the moral agnostic, is in a different situation. The moral realist has every reason to regard his whims and feelings as held to an external standard, and to therefore condition himself in a particular direction – namely, in accord with that actual “good”, despite urges and such in another direction, despite failings. Indeed, he CAN really “fail” in a moral capacity, and recognizes it.

    But why would you think that the anti-realist would not nudge people in the directions of his subjective goods?

    Sure, the anti-realist can nudge people. But there is no actual “good” for the anti-realist to “nudge people towards” in his view. Just his own personal likes, his subjective goods. Sure, it’s possible for his likes to coincide with the sort of things the moral realists near universally regard as “good”. But there’s no reason for him to do so. In fact, given that he will consciously think that the only thing which is “good” is what he personally likes or dislikes – and that there’s not even the possibility that he’s wrong about this – then by default he’s only out to please himself. Really, that’s the only “good” he can ever pursue.

    We all agree that simply being a realist is not enough to guarantee nice behavior. The realist also has to care about the specific behavior in question. That means that caring is the only significant variable on either side of the meta-ethical debate.

    As I’ve been trying to explain (with my thought experiments), there’s no reason to care about absolute morality for the sake of absolute morality.

    Being a moral realist means believing that there are actual, real moral goods to pursue, ones that will not change based on personal whim, etc. For the moral anti-realist, there are no morals to care about, or seek. Even the moral agnostic is in a better position, because he at least has a reason to seek the good – he just may have not found it yet.

    So yes, absolute morality is a good of its own. It has dramatic repercussions for discussions of actions, for human behavior, for justice, etc. What’s more, if a person knows even a shred of true “real” moral law, or has reason to believe they do, then the repercussions are immediate.

    Obviously, in the case of MJ on JC, the theory that he was on the show makes predictions. We ought to be able to find evidence that MJ was at the studio that day, correspondence and memos to that effect, videotape, and news stories referring to the upcoming appearance, etc. As we know, our basic faculty for seeing is excellent when it comes to constructing predictive models.

    DL, you have to realize you’re changing the subject here. Again, it was made clear that 5 billion people claiming to have seen MJ on JC does count as evidence that MJ was on JC. Note that this stays as the case *even if no other evidence of MJ being on JC can be found*. In fact, it stays as the case *even if contradictory evidence can be found*. What you’re doing at this point is not questioning that it’s evidence, you’re questioning the strength of the evidence.

    Moral realism doesn’t predict anything except attestation. In that regard, it looks exactly like a subjective belief.

    For one, that really depends on the particular articulations of moral realism, its interplay with other stances (teleology, God, etc). Further, attestation is a prediction, and one that’s met in spades. Conceivably moral anti-realism could have taken place and be every bit as universal as moral realism actually is. It’s not. That’s a strike against moral anti-realism.

    Just as well, re: chicken soup, aliens could conceivably show up – and be moral realists, with moral beliefs in considerable accord with human moral beliefs. Would you say, in that case, that this was further evidence for moral realism? Or would nature’s habit of deluding agents suddenly be that much stronger?

    If the former, then until aliens show up with a different point of view, it sure seems like the evidence on that front lines up best with the moral realists.

  53. doctor(logic)

    Joseph,

    What is “unfair” means something very different when a moral realist says it (Something unfair would be a violation of a real moral law) versus what an anti-realist would mean (something unfair is something they personally disapprove of, but isn’t “actually” wrong.) If a moral anti-realist had a feeling that something was truly “unfair”, as in it was actually wrong regardless of their feelings, they would either have to regard that feeling as a delusion or question/give up their moral anti-realism.

    These words “truly” and “real” amount to nothing more than a tautology with your meta-ethical views. As I said, I don’t believe people have these meta-ethical views in moral situations. I certainly don’t.

    Your personal feelings of revulsion at “unfairness” or anything else are, as a moral anti-realist, not an actual truth or reality for you to better accord yourself to. Really, you have no reason to encourage yourself to desire or promote “fairness” or “truth” or anything else aside from your personal whim. You can never pursue actual “goodness”, you can never avoid actual “evil”. Such things simply don’t exist given your worldview.

    More of the same. “Actual truth”, “reality”, “actual evil”, etc. The only differences you are are speaking to are abstract, philosophical, meta-ethical differences that the vast majority of people have never even heard of.

    Zooming in…

    Really, you have no reason to encourage yourself to desire or promote “fairness” or “truth” or anything else aside from your personal whim.

    Personal desire and compulsion are not whimsy. What a person likes or feels compelled to do is not whimsy. Whimsy is when the person has no special desire for A rather than B, and chooses between them at random.

    I think that what you’re trying to say is the following. Our moral behavior will be the same only as long as my moral preferences and compulsions align with what you believe to be objective morality. And you believe that human moral preferences are fragile, and so you think that, relativists like myself are more likely to deviate from what you regard as moral reality than realists.

    Another way of looking at it is to look not only at my present moral thinking, but in terms of my moral progress. I think what you are saying is that while I might presently act kinda moral, I might fall away from “correct” moral alignment in the future because I don’t believe there is an absolutely correct alignment in the first place.

    There are all sorts of problems with this:

    (1) Your view of objective morality is informed by your subjective morality. It’s just an idealization of your subjective morality. Even your interpretation of revelation is shaped by your subjective morality.

    (2) Moral realists change their morality, just like the anti-realists do.

    (3) Given that the realist’s compliance with absolute moral laws is a function of his subjective cares, it sure looks like subjective cares determine the whole ball game.

    (4) If your subjective morality doesn’t match absolute morality, why be good? Seriously? No one wants to be absolutely good for its own sake. There’s no point, no advantage, no sense. It would be irrational. Why not be absolutely evil, but subjectively good?

    (5) If I can have a subjective preference for a morality, I can have a subjective preference for a direct of progress.

    DL, you have to realize you’re changing the subject here. Again, it was made clear that 5 billion people claiming to have seen MJ on JC does count as evidence that MJ was on JC.

    Apples and oranges. Sight is a reliable predictor of external stuff, from apples on tables, to people in places. If vision had never predicted anything external, and if neither MJ nor JC ever showed any evidence of being external, then 5 billion people seeing MJ on JC would count for nothing.

    The claim of moral realism is like a claim of dream realism, i.e., that the worlds we occupy in dreams are real. “Dream realists” could claim that everyone has dreams that feel real to them. Lots of weird stuff happens in dreams, of course, but that doesn’t necessarily prove dreamscapes aren’t real. Does the fact that 5 billion people have dreams that feel real provide strong evidence that dreams worlds are real?

  54. Joseph A.

    DL,

    These words “truly” and “real” amount to nothing more than a tautology with your meta-ethical views. As I said, I don’t believe people have these meta-ethical views in moral situations. I certainly don’t.

    I certainly do have these views in moral situations, and I believe others do as well. And it certainly seems that there’s plenty of people (even atheists) who would agree with me. I said before that your personal experience – whatever that may be – is some evidence for you. It’s just meager. Certainly not persuasive to me.

    And no, they are not tautological – in this context they are highlighting a very real, very deep difference between how morality is viewed for the moral realist, and “morality” for the moral anti-realist. I really get the feeling you’re doing your best to blur some very important distinctions between how both realists and anti-realists approach morality, so I’m doing my best to keep those distinctions in proper relief.

    More of the same. “Actual truth”, “reality”, “actual evil”, etc. The only differences you are are speaking to are abstract, philosophical, meta-ethical differences that the vast majority of people have never even heard of.

    And as I’ve said before, the fact that they have not heard these specific, academic terms does not mean that they don’t believe in what amounts to the same thing. Further, I’d reject that the vast majority of people have never dealt and do not deal with terms like “truth” and “reality” and “evil”. People don’t need to go to Stanford or Tufts to grasp some, even many truths. Hell, it may be actually make such more difficult for them.

    Personal desire and compulsion are not whimsy. What a person likes or feels compelled to do is not whimsy. Whimsy is when the person has no special desire for A rather than B, and chooses between them at random.

    What “special desire” could a moral anti-realist have for action A rather than B? Again, it can’t be owing to pursuing an actual moral good in their view. If your argument here is, “A moral anti-realist may have more considered reasons for choosing morals, such as what pleases them!”, it’s not going to be much of an improvement over what I’ve said. I think you get my jist here.

    (1) Your view of objective morality is informed by your subjective morality. It’s just an idealization of your subjective morality. Even your interpretation of revelation is shaped by your subjective morality.

    That’s your claim, for you to argue for and prove. Not simply assume. So far, it seems all you really do is assert it. Now, if I go ahead and claim a certain moral truth is both real and self-evident, I may not be able to get you to admit it is so. But so what? There are some people who refuse to admit they have beliefs, or that they have a self, or that they experience pain, etc. Those people may pose problems, but my having to take their views very seriously in an intellectual sense is not one of them.

    (2) Moral realists change their morality, just like the anti-realists do.

    Due to learning, etc. But moral realists recognize there is a morality for them to find. Moral anti-realists reject this. Moral realists have a strange knack for finding broadly similar morality. Moral anti-realists, even if they did, would be doing so for reasons (of course) unrelated to any real morality, at least in their explanation.

    (3) Given that the realist’s compliance with absolute moral laws is a function of his subjective cares, it sure looks like subjective cares determine the whole ball game.

    Assertion on your part, not argued for. Maybe you’ll insist that it’s self-evidently nothing but subjectivity. At which point we’d be at a stand-still.

    (4) If your subjective morality doesn’t match absolute morality, why be good? Seriously? No one wants to be absolutely good for its own sake. There’s no point, no advantage, no sense. It would be irrational. Why not be absolutely evil, but subjectively good?

    You never heard the term “virtue is its own reward”? You never read what Aristotle had to say about the final cause of man? Has it occurred to you that certain desires may themselves be actual real goods, and culminating such desires also real goods?

    (5) If I can have a subjective preference for a morality, I can have a subjective preference for a direct of progress.

    Sure. That “progress” just can be absolutely anything at all, and if there’s a real morality, purpose, and good in the universe, it can entirely be at odds with it. In fact, if you really do have access to real moral knowledge, yet you’re prone to writing off such knowledge as a delusion, it’s all the worse for you.

    Apples and oranges. Sight is a reliable predictor of external stuff, from apples on tables, to people in places. If vision had never predicted anything external, and if neither MJ nor JC ever showed any evidence of being external, then 5 billion people seeing MJ on JC would count for nothing.

    You yourself said that moral realism predicted widespread attestation of moral realism, and said prediction was fulfilled. That puts it head and shoulders above anti-realism already. I already showed how the alien example could conceivably turn out to be even more evidence for moral realism – which you’d have to accept, given that you’ve spent so much time insisting the opposite event (aliens show up, have radically different views from us) would be suggestive of moral anti-realism. If you’re backing off from that claim such that aliens showing up and attesting to moral realism, and having similar morality, would not be evidence for moral realism… well, you have some explaining to do.

    So again, 5 billion people attesting to having seen MJ on JC would, indeed, be evidence. That much is clear, and I’m surprised you’re keeping on this point. I think even people who are anti-realists about pain would certainly admit that there’s at least evidence for pain (then again, these tend to be some crazy people.) Are you going to tell me you’re skeptical about, say.. other minds? Or flip in the other direction and endorse panpsychism?

    The claim of moral realism is like a claim of dream realism, i.e., that the worlds we occupy in dreams are real. “Dream realists” could claim that everyone has dreams that feel real to them. Lots of weird stuff happens in dreams, of course, but that doesn’t necessarily prove dreamscapes aren’t real. Does the fact that 5 billion people have dreams that feel real provide strong evidence that dreams worlds are real?

    You put in that qualifier strong. If you’re taking the position that widespread attestation of moral realism is evidence, but not very strong evidence, that’s utterly different from saying it’s no evidence whatsoever.

    Either way, your example isn’t clear enough for me to follow. What does it mean to claim a world is real?

    Clearly you can’t be suggesting that people are lying, or that no one has dreams, or that dreams don’t “really” take place. Then again, maybe you are. I’m pretty curious about the other minds / panpsychism question.

  55. SteveK

    DL

    As I’ve been trying to explain (with my thought experiments), there’s no reason to care about absolute morality for the sake of absolute morality.

    I don’t know what is supposed to follow from this (from your perspective). Have you explained that somewhere? My take is it doesn’t matter. Everything in reality is ignorable to some extent. Not caring about something doesn’t make that something go away and doesn’t make it change into something else.

    From the Christian perspective, when you choose to not care about absolute morality, you choose not to care about God. Christianity has many things to say about that – and gives you many reasons to care about it. It’s still your choice, thought.

  56. SteveK

    DL,

    Moral realism doesn’t predict anything except attestation. In that regard, it looks exactly like a subjective belief.

    No. No. No. Around and around in circles we go.

    We’ve already agreed that (quoting Tom) “moral realism does not entail consistent moral success .”

    Second, moral reality is not a deterministic mechanism. Its ‘mechanism’ involves FREE agents (God being one of them), and since you don’t believe in FREE agents I can see why this whole prediction things sticks in your craw. To you, all outcomes are either determined (forced) by past history or they are random.

    Stop trying to shoehorn Christian moral reality into your unrealistic view of reality.

    Third, Christian moral reality says grace, faith, hope and suffering can be morally good (absolutely so!). How will you factor these into your prediction model? What does grace look like in YOUR reality where outcomes are either determined or random? I’d like to see you attempt to cobble a simple prediction model together using grace.

  57. doctor(logic)

    Joseph,

    What “special desire” could a moral anti-realist have for action A rather than B?

    I simply like A more than B. B disturbs me in a non-cognitive way. You said you were fine with non-cognitive judgments about moral conditions, such as fairness or cruelty.

    I have a non-cognitive preference for fairness. This preference is usually stronger than my non-cognitive preference to get a larger share for myself.

    Under most circumstances, people don’t analyze these judgments at a deeper cognitive level.

    And no, they are not tautological – in this context they are highlighting a very real, very deep difference between how morality is viewed for the moral realist, and “morality” for the moral anti-realist.

    If it’s so real and deep, why are you unable to explain what it is?

    Look, there are cognitive and a non-cognitive moral judgments. If you eliminated all of the cognitive moral judgments, but kept the non-cognitive moral judgments and kept the cognitive “is” judgments (i.e., awareness of consequences), you would account for most moral behavior.

    I want you to explain in detail what the cognitive moral judgments do for you in some specific situations.

    I’m not saying cognitive moral judgments don’t happen, nor am I saying that they have no effect. Cognitive analysis usually comes in when setting laws or social policies. The kinds of considerations that go into these judgments are:

    (1) Which social rules would I prefer to live under? This involves imagining certain moral scenarios, and seeing which is non-cognitively more preferable.

    (2) Self-discipline. If, in hindsight, I can identify some of my moral decisions as bad (in the non-cognitive sense), then I can try to create abstract rules for myself so that I will feel better about my actions in the future. For example, if I observe that I have greedy tendencies, I can institute a personal moral policy of being more generous. That will cancel out my greediness bias, and result in fairer transactions. Consequently, I will non-cognitively prefer my overall dealings with others.

    All of the above make sense under both meta-ethical views. It’s just higher-order satisfaction of desires, some of which are moral desires (e.g., for more fairness).

    What I want to know is what you think is missing from the anti-realist’s picture.

    And please, don’t tell me it’s missing the belief that fairness is “really” or “truly” right. That’s an inert belief, and a tautology. Give me something that impacts your moral behavior and which cannot be motivated by non-cognitive moral judgments (like “I like fair transactions, even where I may not materially benefit as much as unfair transactions.”).

    You never heard the term “virtue is its own reward”?

    Sure, I have. But I’ve never heard of the phrase “absolute objective virtue is its own reward.” Don’t see the relevance of this statement to being absolutely good versus subjectively good.

    The reward has to be subjective, or the deal is off. And if objective virtue is its own subjective reward, then that maxim says follow your subjective good.

    A man’s desires have inertia. Giving up his desires means giving up his identity.

    You never read what Aristotle had to say about the final cause of man? Has it occurred to you that certain desires may themselves be actual real goods, and culminating such desires also real goods?

    It’s easy to spout fortune cookie wisdom when you don’t actually have to define any of the terms you’re using. Who cares if something is a “real good” if it’s not also a subjective good?

    You and Tom try to evade this question by ignoring the possibility that the absolute good is your subjective evil.

    Suppose that torturing cats is a real good, and the majority of people think it is. It’s a subjective evil for the two of us (I hope). Why should we be “really” good? Merely saying that having and fulfilling certain desires could be a real good doesn’t explain why we should condition ourselves to desire to torture cats. If the secret police condition us to enjoy torturing cats, then ask us “Are you happy?” we may well answer “yes”. Because, now, not only do we enjoy torturing cats, we also feel that society is more just.

    Yet, you expect the man in the reverse situation, the man who desires to torture cats (who sees that torture as a subjective good) to change his desires to conform to your alleged objective good and our societal norm. What possible reason could the cat torturer possibly have to willingly go along with your suggestion? You ask him to be subjectively evil in order to reap some sort of reward? What’s the reward? It cannot be a material reward or a freedom from punishment. We both know that the law of the land is not necessarily good. We also know that the majority opinion is not necessarily good. If we capture the man and condition his desires, so that he enjoys being nice to cats, and then ask him, “Are you happy?” he will probably say “yes”. He may even report being happier because he now sees society as more just.

    Break the symmetry for me without referring to non-cognitive judgments about feelings.

  58. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    dl,

    When most moral thinking occurs, meta-ethics is simply irrelevant.

    It’s always in the background, though, isn’t it, guiding what believe actually act on? I simply cannot believe that you would believe that what one believes (whew!) about ethical realities makes no difference to behavior. We act according to beliefs. Sometimes we bring those beliefs to the surface through active reflection. Sometimes we act according to more immediately accessible habit and principle, but that is informed and guided by our deeper understandings.

    The theist respects God’s authority, believes the Bible is a guide to morality, and believes he is under constant surveillance. Most theists don’t even know what moral realism is.

    Theists may not know what “moral realism” is, but if they respect God’s authority, believe the Bible is a guide to morality, and believe God’s loving eye is upon them (“surveillance”? that’s for those who dislike God’s being there!), then they believe in moral realism, whether they know the terminology or not.

    Now, I agree Joseph went too far with saying moral anti-realists have “no reason” for their actions (phrasing it loosely). But what kind of reasons are they? They are not because a certain act is right and another one is wrong.

    But I disagree with you, as stated above, that meta-ethics “just doesn’t come into play.” I find it baffling (as you said in another context to Joseph) that you don’t think a person’s deep belief’s would affect his or her behavior. Strange indeed.

    Is my atheism biasing me? I don’t think so. Atheism and realism appear to be separate questions to me.

    There are several atheist moral realists, including Richard Chappell over at Philosophy, etc., and I annoy him as much as I annoy you.

    Just out of curiosity, since the link you tried to make didn’t work: over at Philosophy, etc., do you espouse the position that moral realism is incompatible with atheism?

    I can imagine living in a (counterfactual) world featuring a god who I love. But that doesn’t cause me to think that this imaginary god’s morality would be absolute.

    That certainly would be a counterfactual world, if this god’s morality was not absolute!

    Absolute goodness seems to me to be impossible to know, even if one were omniscient. Even God could not know what absolute goodness was, and just making God all powerful doesn’t magically allow him to know.

    Right. It doesn’t “magically” allow him to know. He knows, because he is, goodness. Nothing magic about it. By the way, if (very counterfactually!) God were wrong about morality, you’d still have to deal with him for what he regards as morality. He is God, and there is still accountability before him. But if you think that perfect justice and love are God’s “whim,” and that he isn’t really sure whether they’re good or not, then you really are living in an imaginary world.

    As to accountability:

    We accept that consequences don’t by themselves determine what is good, and what “is” does not determine what “ought” to be.

    No, but consequences in a moral universe (a theistic universe) do follow what is good or what is bad.

    This means it’s impossible to know what is absolutely good, even for an omniscient agent.

    That’s just rubbish. Omniscient means omniscient (which you are not, by the way).

    (And you can’t appeal to the necessity of a perfectly good being because, frankly, a perfectly good being isn’t necessary for anything at all.)

    More rubbish. God is not necessary by virtue of his being perfectly good: he wouldn’t be necessary if his necessity was contingent on anything, including that. God is necessary by virtue of his being necessary. And he is good.

    Your disagreement with my Euthyphro response contains no argument, so I don’t know how to state a proper response to it.

    Just saying it’s not possible doesn’t make it impossible.

    You wrote that in response to my,

    That’s not possible on a theistic account, considering God’s loving care for humans and his design for us to live well in accord with his moral character.

    Apparently you don’t know what “on a theistic account” means. What it means is that if theism is true (Christian theism, that is), then your conjecture preceding my answer is impossible. To deny that is to say that Christian theism does not including as part of its definition the existence of a perfectly loving creator.

    Or, consider the possibility that God lies. There’s nothing impossible about this,

    There is on Christian theism. I’m not arguing on behalf of any other kind of God than that. You can’t say you’re disputing the existence of the Christian God if you’re disputing a god who could possibly lie. That god is not the God of Christian theism. If you want to dispute that kind of god, I suggest you find someone who is interested in that argument.

    I don’t see any basis for your claim that the alternatives are impossible.

    They’re not just impossible, they’re uninteresting. They’re not the God I’m advocating for.

    As I said above, theism does not entail that “morality is part of the foundation of all reality”. I’m not even convinced that such a property has any semantic meaning. Theism is a belief in a being who is able to shape physical reality to his/her/its will. If a man believes in Zeus, he is a theist. Most gods happen to be omniscient, too. In the case of your God, he is omniscient and good in a subjective sense, too. But saying that God is necessarily subjectively good? Necessary for what?

    Theism as properly defined actually does entail that God is the foundation of all reality, and that God is intrinsically good and moral, and that therefore morality is part of the foundation of all reality. Pantheism is not theism. Most gods in pantheism are not omniscience. In other words, your whole conception of theism as displayed here is distressingly off-track and wrong. Do you have any idea what it is you are disputing here? Do you recall the “Wrong God” Fallacy??

    Second, theism does not automatically imply there will be an accounting. Your kind of theism says there will be an accounting, but not all theism must do so.

    I’m advocating for the theism I believe in. When I use the word theism on this blog, I almost always mean “Biblical Christian theism as explicated in the historic confessions of faith.” That’s too long to write every time; “theism” is a shortcut for all that.

    You can assume that your “is” experiences of what you feel are guides to the absolute axioms, but you would have to reject the is-ought problem.

    Revelation won’t help either. You would need to assume some moral axioms in order to count revelation as a guide to moral axioms.

    You keep forgetting that the moral sense is not “what you feel.” It is a knowing by way of a moral perception, not (just) a feeling.

    (All the above is a response to what most of the discussion between you and Joseph in the last day or so. If I have a chance I’ll try to catch up with that a little later.)

  59. doctor(logic)

    Joseph,

    Either way, your example isn’t clear enough for me to follow. What does it mean to claim a world is real?

    Clearly you can’t be suggesting that people are lying, or that no one has dreams, or that dreams don’t “really” take place.

    No, I’m not suggesting that people don’t have dreams that feel real. I have dreams that feel real when I’m in the dream state, and I have no reason to believe that others don’t dream and feel that their dreams feel real, too.

    However, I don’t infer from this feeling that dream activities are really taking place in a real dream world or parallel dimension. I don’t infer that the dream world is out there, whether or not I go to sleep at night.

    If I’m being chased by thugs in my dream, I may sweat profusely. I may feel terror while in the dream. If I were aware that the dream were only a fiction concocted by my own mind, these feelings would not be the case.

    I could theorize that things that happen in dreams actually happened in a parallel dimension. Let’s say that, in our sleep, we are transported to a parallel dimension that bears resemblance to our own. When I wake, my hazy recollection of running from those thugs in my dream is actually a hazy imprint left by having actually been in the parallel dimension, running from actual thugs. Those thugs are real and await me in the other dimension, should I choose to go to sleep and visit them.

    (There are some folks who really believe that people can meet in lucid dream scapes, but that’s another story.)

    Now, the standard theory of dreams is that they are pseudo-random neural firings which we interpret as real experiences. Dreams serve a cognitive function, too, by reinforcing certain memories and causing others to fade. There’s also some evidence that dream analysis could reveal something about our subconscious thought processes.

    Now, compare the dream reality theory to the standard theory. Everyone feels that their dreams are real when they are in their dreams. Is that attestation evidence that makes you more likely to believe the dream reality theory over the standard theory?

    It should be simple Bayesian analysis. Since both theories predict the same observations, there’s no net evidence for the dream reality theory.

    If you want to say that widespread attestation for moral realism is weak evidence for realism, then I will say that evidence of morality in other primates is far stronger evidence for moral relativism. The point is that the widespread attestation to moral realism gives no net evidence of realism over anti-realism.

    You yourself said that moral realism predicted widespread attestation of moral realism, and said prediction was fulfilled. That puts it head and shoulders above anti-realism already.

    I don’t think I said that. I think I said that your model of moral realism does predict that attestation (but not moral realism in general). Moral realism was invented to explain the attestation. Similarly, my model of moral anti-realism is fine-tuned to predict the attestation, but not anti-realism in general.

    Look, the widespread attestation to moral realism would be worth a lot more if moral realism it was predictive of something part from bias. It’s just like the dream reality case. If dreams were predictive of non-dream reality, there would be an excellent case for dream reality. But, as stated, the dream reality says that dreams won’t predict anything other than the subjective experience of dream reality (which is what it was invented to explain).

    If I take attestation of “real” moral rules to indicate moral realism, I should take attestation of dream realness to indicate dream reality.

  60. woodchuck64

    Joseph A.

    But what was your point? I already pointed out the problems with saying the monkeys were acting in accordance with an “objective moral rule”. That’s an anthropomorphism, and I gave another (and given your own description, I think far more credible) description of what they’re doing. Namely, acting in accordance with the “I don’t want to have three other guys beat the crap out of me” rule.

    I’m not attempting to refute moral realism, but rather addressing some criticisms of moral relativism or anti-realism.

    My point was that the monkeys are acting consistently with there being an objective moral rule “don’t be greedy” (or “don’t take more than your share”). “Acting consistently with” does not mean that they believe there is an objective rule or even that one exists. It also doesn’t mean that they’re acting morally (in the same sense as humans) or even acting out of fear of punishment necessarily. What I do take away from it is that social rules emerge given rather simple abilities of social organisms: empathy and sense of fairness. Therefore, it may well be that empathy and a sense of fairness are necessary predecessors to moral rules and abstractions. It seems fairly uncontroversial that monkeys are not moral realists, yet their societies do not devolve into chaos or “every ape for himself”.

    You also suggested that empathy may create a feeling of externality by “expanding” our identity. But you also realize that empathy only works with values we already have. At most, empathy can be a useful tool for the moral realist. It may be something that comes hand in hand with those aware of moral law (indeed, maybe the awareness of moral law inevitably leads to empathy, or is somehow connected elsewise) But they clearly aren’t ‘the same thing’, nor does empathy serve as an explanation for the belief of moral realism.

    A common criticism of moral relativism is that it can’t explain the feeling we have that our morals are objective, that they “should” be followed by others. But that’s exactly what empathy does. It blurs the line between self and other, making it completely natural to apply our own moral values to others. This seems true whether absolute morals exist or not.

    If you are making a more specific objection that I’m not catching, please clarify.

  61. doctor(logic)

    Tom,

    Just out of curiosity, since the link you tried to make didn’t work: over at Philosophy, etc., do you espouse the position that moral realism is incompatible with atheism?

    No, it wasn’t about atheism at all. Richard is an atheist, like me, but he thinks (if I understand his position correctly) that there are moral conclusions that all rational beings will converge upon. If I were convinced he was right, then I think I would agree that morality was objective, in a narrow sense. In that case, a perfectly rational God would have to be good in this same, narrow sense.

    However, rationality only tells you how to satisfy your desires, not what your desires ought to be. Consequently, I think moral realism makes no sense from almost any way you look at it.

    Right. It doesn’t “magically” allow him to know. He knows, because he is, goodness.

    What does this mean? I assume you’re not just saying he is good. I can’t think of any context in which it makes sense to use the word “goodness” that way. It looks fishy to me. It looks like it’s a linguistic jumble that’s intended to escape from classic moral arguments like Euthyphro.

    It’s like you’re saying God doesn’t magically know beauty, he is beauty, but not in the sense that God is beautiful.

    By the way, if (very counterfactually!) God were wrong about morality, you’d still have to deal with him for what he regards as morality. He is God, and there is still accountability before him.

    Sure, just as with all dictators.

    Omniscient means omniscient (which you are not, by the way).

    Every question has an answer? Every question makes sense? Even an omniscient being can’t answer a nonsensical question. Even an omniscient being won’t know how to construct a square circle.

    God is necessary by virtue of his being necessary. And he is good.

    Necessary for what? X can’t be necessary in a vacuum. It has to be necessary for some Y.

  62. Joseph A.

    Tom,

    Just to note – all I meant when I said that the moral anti-realist has “no reason” to care about certain things is that ultimately, those reasons are not what they can attribute to morality, or “right”, or “wrong”. Not if they want to be consistent. They could always be deluded, I suppose.

    But the idea that the moral anti-realist has to be concerned if “society will suffer”, for example, is ludicrous. Or that they have to take an idea like “if everyone did what I’m doing, I wouldn’t like it” seriously. They don’t. They can’t even say “Well, I don’t know if this is really and truly moral or immoral to do, so I’ll act accordingly” because they’d be giving up moral anti-realism.

    DL,

    I simply like A more than B. B disturbs me in a non-cognitive way. You said you were fine with non-cognitive judgments about moral conditions, such as fairness or cruelty.

    Actually, I’ve been repeatedly saying that what a moral realist and a moral anti-realist means when they talk about their motivations are drastically different, and must be. What can “fairness” mean to a moral anti-realist? What can “cruelty” mean? Again, they must be something drastically different from what the moral realist means. Indeed, I question whether “fairness” can reasonably exist for the moral anti-realist. It collapses to “I don’t like that” or “I do like that”. The similar terminology is illusory.

    If it’s so real and deep, why are you unable to explain what it is?

    I’ve explained it repeatedly. Why are you unable to grasp it? Beats me. Maybe you’re deluded. Maybe you’re just denying the obvious for the sake of a debate. I’m not too concerned with the gap.

    The moral anti-realist believes there is no actual, existent moral order. The moral realist believes there is. You’re insisting that all moral judgments are totally subjective. I’m saying that, no, moral judgments can be and are knowledge that humanity can access to whatever degree. You deny this, but that doesn’t concern me too much. Again, there are people who deny that things like belief exist, that other minds exist, etc. The ways that may be worrying are ways not appropriate to this discussion.

    If you eliminated all of the cognitive moral judgments, but kept the non-cognitive moral judgments and kept the cognitive “is” judgments (i.e., awareness of consequences), you would account for most moral behavior.

    Ridiculous. But if you want to argue for it, go right ahead. But don’t just assert it and expect me to agree. You may as well be telling me that if I program a robot to give nickels to anyone who says “I need a nickel” that, wham. The robot is practicing generosity, because being generous is nothing but an action, and has nothing to do with thoughts. That strikes me as absurd as what you’re saying here.

    (1) Which social rules would I prefer to live under? This involves imagining certain moral scenarios, and seeing which is non-cognitively more preferable.

    Only if the social rules always apply to you, or if you value them always applying to you. And you automatically exclude “the one most in accord with moral law” out of the gates of course.

    (2) Self-discipline. If, in hindsight, I can identify some of my moral decisions as bad (in the non-cognitive sense), then I can try to create abstract rules for myself so that I will feel better about my actions in the future. For example, if I observe that I have greedy tendencies, I can institute a personal moral policy of being more generous. That will cancel out my greediness bias, and result in fairer transactions. Consequently, I will non-cognitively prefer my overall dealings with others.

    Or you can get over your feeling bad about greediness, and institute a policy of getting over it and self-desensitization. Indeed, feeling bad about it wouldn’t be indicative of a moral law, not even an ultimate purpose in your case. A guy may feel horrified at working in a slaughterhouse despite having moral knowledge that (barring actual immoral acts in the slaughterhouse) what’s going on there is not immoral. Do you think all such workers become vegetarians? Or do many of them just get used to the slaughter? Yet what happens if said guy convinces himself that there is no actual morality?

    All of the above make sense under both meta-ethical views. It’s just higher-order satisfaction of desires, some of which are moral desires (e.g., for more fairness).

    What I want to know is what you think is missing from the anti-realist’s picture.

    Awareness or public acceptance of real moral knowledge, for one. Now, I don’t deny that a moral anti-realist can have access to real moral knowledge and, befuddled or confused or even hobbled as they are, tend towards such. But still there’s a problem to be addressed. Seeing the light and all that.

    And please, don’t tell me it’s missing the belief that fairness is “really” or “truly” right. That’s an inert belief, and a tautology. Give me something that impacts your moral behavior and which cannot be motivated by non-cognitive moral judgments (like “I like fair transactions, even where I may not materially benefit as much as unfair transactions.”).

    You say it’s an inert belief, but what proof do you have for such other than just stating it? Are you saying that even if moral knowledge does exist, and even if agents have access in whatever degree to such knowledge, that mere information will have no impact? Again, hard to believe.

    And also, please recall that there’s a number of views on moral realism. I even said that morality can, in fact, be studied to whatever degree as a “science” – depending on how you’re going to change “science” in response to such.

    Sure, I have. But I’ve never heard of the phrase “absolute objective virtue is its own reward.” Don’t see the relevance of this statement to being absolutely good versus subjectively good.

    “Subjectively good” is, if we’re talking about morally good, hard to take seriously at all. “Doing whatever pleases you most is its own reward.”? Really?

    The reward has to be subjective, or the deal is off. And if objective virtue is its own subjective reward, then that maxim says follow your subjective good.

    Are you denying that there can both be moral realism, and that people can still desire things that are not morally optimal? Are you denying that virtue can be its own reward – that the “reward” for behaving according to the good is that one is behaving according to the good?

    Again, this is going to inevitably lead to more specific accounts of moral realism. But so far you’re taking a number of really odd stances – and one of which seems to be that morality is unreal, but the moral realist shouldn’t be concerned anyway, because people – even moral anti-realists – are going to act just like moral realists (and the morality the realists see will remain largely the same) anyway. Which at once seems very naive, yet also like an evidential argument for a variety of moral realism.

    It’s easy to spout fortune cookie wisdom when you don’t actually have to define any of the terms you’re using. Who cares if something is a “real good” if it’s not also a subjective good?

    You think Aristotle is “fortune cookie wisdom”? If you say so. Regardless, I’ve been explaining myself here in detail. You, though, seem to make a lot of assertions but fail to back them up. Like insisting “morality is nothing but subjectivity!” and then, when being asked to prove or defend that, suggesting that it’s my job to convince -you-. Make a claim, defend the claim. Or just admit you’re just going off subjective instincts which apparently don’t apply to others.

    You and Tom try to evade this question by ignoring the possibility that the absolute good is your subjective evil.

    I have ignored and evaded no such thing. It’s possible for me to be mistaken about some absolute good, just as it’s possible for me to both know a lot of mathematics yet solve a problem incorrectly. I suppose it’s technically possible that I think 2+2=4, but it really doesn’t. It’s not a possibility that worries me.

    Meanwhile, you seem to utterly ignore the possibility that people have access to real moral knowledge. The fact that you can imagine possible skeptical scenarios doesn’t bother me, and certainly doesn’t persuade me. In a way, it’s kind of funny to have you try to persuade me like this. It’s almost like you’re appealing to a real moral good here.

    Suppose that torturing cats is a real good, and the majority of people think it is. It’s a subjective evil for the two of us (I hope). Why should we be “really” good? Merely saying that having and fulfilling certain desires could be a real good doesn’t explain why we should condition ourselves to desire to torture cats.

    And I’m saying that simply desiring the good, full stop, is enough. Are you saying it’s immoral to desire the good? Wait, no, you can’t be. Maybe you’d say it’s irrational to desire the good because it’s good – I deny that. But even if I didn’t – what’s so great about being rational? Is it to be valued purely because it has an objective value? Oops. Again, no.. it can’t be that, can it?

    Now, we can get into deeper discussions of moral realism where subjectivity and objectivity sync up, or ideally sync up, in greater ways. But oddly enough, it seems like you’re making a moral argument for moral skepticism (not moral anti-realism, here. Though -that- would be downright amusing!)

    Yet, you expect the man in the reverse situation, the man who desires to torture cats (who sees that torture as a subjective good) to change his desires to conform to your alleged objective good and our societal norm. What possible reason could the cat torturer possibly have to willingly go along with your suggestion? You ask him to be subjectively evil in order to reap some sort of reward?

    “Subjectively evil” and nothing more seems pretty flimsy. As for what possible reasons – well, I could always hope he either acquires that knowledge of morality, or pays proper attention to it. Maybe he gets some pleasure from torturing cats despite knowing it’s wrong. You seem to be asking me “what if he doesn’t care about objective morality”? Well, he can value what he wishes, I suppose. I’ll still have a duty to those cats.

  63. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    dl:

    The reward has to be subjective, or the deal is off. And if objective virtue is its own subjective reward, then that maxim says follow your subjective good.

    If that were the whole story you would be right, but you have truncated it badly. Objective virtue is not merely “its own subjective reward.” It is aligning oneself with what is actually true and real in the foundation of all reality. It is aligning oneself with the character and aims of a loving God. It is aligning oneself with what is approved by the God whom we love, we who know him.

    And even if it were none of those, things, absolute virtue would still be the truth about God and of the real basis of all existence.

    You pound continually on the practical effects of beliefs on moral behavior. You are quite wrong, historically speaking, when you suppose that moral realism would make no difference in persons’ behavior. We’ve discussed that often enough. But you are also wrong to assume that the question is settled by reference to morality’s effect on behavior, because in so assuming, you assume your conclusion, which is that all that matters is how it affects behavior. That’s as circular as it could be, and your whole empirical basis by which you approach this question is therefore logically invalid and illegitimate.

  64. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    I’m going to try to summarize your position, doctor(logic), and I’m going to try to be fair and accurate, even though my disagreements with it will be apparent. I’m not trying to put this in a totally logical sequence; I’m writing it as it comes to me. (I’m not trying to put it in an illogical sequence either 🙂 ). You’ll see there are also some blanks in what I understand to be your position as well.

    1. Morals are at bottom entirely a non-cognitive matter, ultimately resolving down to preferences and/or pressures: personal preferences of the man or woman making the moral judgment, and/or familial/societal/legal pressures to act in a certain way.

    2. Lifelong application of (1) may result also in morals being a matter of habit or some other non-reflective reaction.

    3. Insofar as morals are cognitive in nature, they are so by virtue of one’s reflecting on how one’s prior actions have produced or failed to produced desired results as defined in (1) and (2).

    4. There being no cognitive content to morals, there is no such thing as moral knowledge. There is only practical knowledge (what works or doesn’t work, as in (3)).

    5. You use the term “moral behavior.” By that I take it you mean behavior that falls into traditional moral categories of justice, altruism, etc.

    6. But the categories into which these behaviors seem to fit are not categories of knowledge, because of (4); or if they are categories of knowledge, what is known is their practical effect upon persons and groups.

    7. Morality is what works for the increase of some desired good (utility, happiness … ? … I’m not sure how you would fill the blank) for persons and groups.

    8. Because I don’t know how you would fill that blank, I don’t know how you would deal with the question of moral progress or degradation. If the word that fills that blank changes, then what is moral must change. If it is solving the problem of “counter-revolutionary intellectuals” in China, then what works is the Cultural Revolution. If it is the problem of political dissidents in the Soviet Union, then it is the Gulag. If it is racial inequality then it is the civil rights movement or the drive to end apartheid.

    9. Most of us would agree that the latter pair in (8) is morally much better than the former pair, but I do not know on what basis you would support that opinion, other than that the former pair disgusts or bothers you. So in my summary of your position, I have an unknown for you to fill in.

    10. You say that your moral realism is independent of your atheism, because atheists can be moral realists. (Actually on the definition of moral realism I take to be the correct one, the example you gave falls short. I understand moral realism to be the position that there are real moral values and duties that are true and would be true regardless of any human’s view on them.)

    11. You say that theism has a problem in grounding objective moral values, because of (roughly) the Euthyphro issue.

    12. The possibility of accountability before an eternal God seems to you to be irrelevant to the question of Christian theism providing a ground for moral realities.

    13. The possibility that there could be a not-good god in some other world seems to you to be relevant to the question of theism providing a ground for moral realities.

    14. The possibility that Christian theism understands God to be the ultimate reality, and that his good character is an aspect of ultimate reality, seems either incoherent or irrelevant to the issue (I’m not sure which).

    15. There is nothing good or evil in itself.

    16. The truth or falsity of the above has no impact on actual “moral behavior,” because we would all behave the same regardless of moral realism or anti-realism.

    17. But the above implies that if one “desensitizes” himself, as Joseph just suggested, and does what is not normally considered at all moral (think Hannibal Lecter or Pol Pot), that person is not doing something evil. That person is violating preferences instead.

    18. You speak of “moral desires (e.g., for more fairness).” It’s unclear to me what makes “more fairness” a “moral desire” rather than just a “desire,” other than our culture’s habitually making it so. Is not the category “moral” a redundancy there?

    19. You believe that the question of moral reality is best adjudicated on the basis of how it might or might not affect behavior. As I just noted in the prior comment, that’s a circular approach and therefore totally invalid.

  65. woodchuck64

    Tom, some brief comments on your post to DL:

    1. Morals are at bottom entirely a non-cognitive matter, ultimately resolving down to preferences and/or pressures: personal preferences of the man or woman making the moral judgment, and/or familial/societal/legal pressures to act in a certain way.

    Some problems with this.

    First, “personal preference” is a phrase never used for a strong, unmalleable desire. That is, it would be nonsense to say I have a “personal preference” to avoid burning my hand on hot stoves. Moral convictions can be strong, unmalleable desires (under moral relativism/anti-realism).

    Second, “personal preference” is used for a desire that a person realizes is personal and non-binding on anyone else. Moral convictions aren’t all like that either (under moral relativism/anti-realism).

    So using the phrase “personal preference” introduces some major misconceptions about morality under moral relativism/anti-realism right from the start. A better phrase might be that morals are deeply-held desires or convictions for proper behavior.

    7. Morality is what works for the increase of some desired good (utility, happiness … ? … I’m not sure how you would fill the blank) for persons and groups.

    Morality is only deeply-held desires for proper social behavior. Proper social behavior invariably results in less social conflict, so some form of social cohesion seems to be the unconcious “goal” of morality, but it just happens that way due to the desires of human beings to be moral (competing with desires to be immoral), there is no higher guiding force under naturalism/evolution.

    Morality doesn’t define what it should be. That’s up to us, working from the values we already have. We are all, Christian or atheist, following our desires/goals/hopes/dreams. We only part company on the best way to achieve them. You believe your desires/goals/hopes/dreams are met by God, and his moral law is there to be progressively discovered; on the other hand, I believe my desires/goals/hopes/dreams are best met by moral teachings which value fulfilling the desires of the most and thwarting the desires of the least in an ever-growing and encompassing world society. One of the most important desires driving me is that people everywhere are happy, healthy, productive and empowered.

  66. doctor(logic)

    Tom,

    Thank you so much for the summary! I know it took time, care and effort, and I appreciate that.

    You got most of the positions correct. I’ll try to fill in the blanks and correct a couple of minor issues.

    I thought that (4) was slightly off when you said there was no moral knowledge, but you recover in (6) when you say:

    6. But the categories into which these behaviors seem to fit are not categories of knowledge, because of (4); or if they are categories of knowledge, what is known is their practical effect upon persons and groups.

    There is moral knowledge, just as there is gastronomic knowledge. But it is a matter of self-knowledge (in the individual’s case) or statistical group knowledge (in a culture or species’ case). That is, it’s not knowledge about acts in themselves.

    Maybe I can use this to fill in a gap for you:

    7. Morality is what works for the increase of some desired good (utility, happiness … ? … I’m not sure how you would fill the blank) for persons and groups.

    We can try to devise models about what is most delicious, and there will be a lot of common ground, but there’s no “objective delicious”. The guy who prefers burgers to sushi isn’t failing to align himself with what is actually delicious in some human-independent sense. Although the healthfulness of a meal contributes to how much we like it, it’s not the only goal in cuisine. We could not say that a balanced diet is the ultimate in deliciousness. Nor would we say that it was sweetness or saltiness or presentation. There is no well-defined “gastronomic good” by which we could say that so-and-so restaurant chain was the best.

    In my view, morality is similar to deliciousness. To me, it doesn’t make sense to define “the good” any more than it makes sense to define “the delicious” or “the beautiful.” I might make considerable headway defining my own good, my own beauty, my own taste in food. I might also be successful in devising some statistical metrics for “cultural good” in the same way I could define statistical metrics for “culturally delicious”.

    The major difference between morality and taste in food is that while only I can taste my own food, I can directly taste morality in the actions of others. If Bob eats sushi, I can’t taste it. If Bob assaults someone, I can taste it, quite strongly and directly.

    Just because everyone’s moral tastes are different doesn’t mean we can’t lay down laws and create mutually beneficial social contracts. Laws serve a useful purpose for me, even when I don’t agree with every law on the books. (That’s where politics comes in.)

    I’m skeptical of overarching moral theories. It can be convenient to generalize and simplify, but we shouldn’t mistake the map for the territory.

    Anyway, if you’re asking me personally what “the desired good” is, I’ll probably answer that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to ask the question in those terms. I can tell you about my own morality, but it will be rather boring. For example, in political decision-making, I’m not very ideological. I’ll look at the likely effect of a policy, and try to judge whether the policy will reduce suffering and make us safer in the long run without causing too much pain in the short run, and I’ll often look to see whether the effect of the legislation will make it easier for people to make more rational decisions.

    9. Most of us would agree that the latter pair in (8) is morally much better than the former pair, but I do not know on what basis you would support that opinion, other than that the former pair disgusts or bothers you. So in my summary of your position, I have an unknown for you to fill in.

    Yes, it’s basically that it bothers me, but it bothers me on several levels. There’s the direct pain of seeing others come to immediate harm, but there’s also an indirect suffering I experience when I consider the opportunity cost, and the future suffering that will plague us for generations afterward.

    As woodchuck64 says, saying something “bothers me” shouldn’t diminish the impact of bother. Burning my hand bothers me, too.

  67. doctor(logic)

    Tom,

    There’s one more thing I want to answer before I take your summary to the next step.

    19. You believe that the question of moral reality is best adjudicated on the basis of how it might or might not affect behavior. As I just noted in the prior comment, that’s a circular approach and therefore totally invalid.

    Hmm. I’m not sure that’s my position. I thought it was yours.

    I think there’s a paradox (or, at least, an irony) in the realist’s picture.

    The typical anti-realist says “I don’t like genocide, and neither do you, and neither do average folk.”

    The realist says “If you don’t believe in moral realism, you have no objective reason not to condition your desires to like genocide, then that will lead to genocide, and we all know that’s bad because our current selves don’t like genocide, therefore, you should be a moral realist to prevent genocide.”

    But, of course, that argument doesn’t work. It hinges on the fact that I don’t currently like genocide, and that my tastes differ from those who have committed genocide in the past (even if those other people liked it). Also, it implicitly and falsely assumes that accepting moral realism is an adequate measure to discourage said conditioning.

    This isn’t the sum of your argument, but it seems to be the dominant thrust of realist arguments in every debate so far. The relevance of this to the debate is that it makes moral realism look like a rationalization for subjective feelings and opinions.

    What I’ve been trying to say for along time is that, if morality is objective, you should be able to show me this fact without reference to how I feel about any moral issue.

    You say:

    I understand moral realism to be the position that there are real moral values and duties that are true and would be true regardless of any human’s view on them.

    I agree with this, and I think that Chappell’s view fits this. His definition or morality is what every rational agent (not necessarily human) would want if they had sufficient information and intelligence. Since God has unlimited knowledge and intelligence, he would be the most moral guy in the universe.

    The problem is that, as I illustrated above, you never actually propose a test of morality that goes beyond our subjective feelings or desires.

    I’m open-minded. What if my dislike of genocide is a bias? That’s open-minded, right? 🙂 If morality is independent of my personal bias and desires, then maybe genocide is actually good. But you don’t offer any reason for me to believe that my cultural biases could be wrong in any absolute sense that’s independent of how I feel.

    The only thing you have to offer is that most of the members of my own species have the same feeling. But most of the members of my species like to eat rice, too. Why is genocide objectively wrong and rice not objectively delicious?

  68. doctor(logic)

    Tom,

    17. But the above implies that if one “desensitizes” himself, as Joseph just suggested, and does what is not normally considered at all moral (think Hannibal Lecter or Pol Pot), that person is not doing something evil. That person is violating preferences instead.

    I think that this is going to be the most productive line of inquiry.

    If taste in food is subjective, then eating locusts is not objectively disgusting. I currently think that locusts are a pretty disgusting food. I also believe that, if I desensitize myself, I could learn to eat locusts, and maybe even enjoy them. In which case, presumably, I would no longer think they were disgusting.

    If I translate your concern in (17), it is that gastronomic anti-realists could start eating locusts.

    But, I ask you, do you think it is likely that you or I are will start eating locusts?

    In the case of morality, there are even greater hurdles. First, most people would rather eat locusts than participate in genocide. So whatever is holding you back from eating locusts, something stronger is holding you back from committing genocide.

    Second, as I said earlier, the difference between morality and taste in food is that while only I can taste my own food, I can directly taste morality in the actions of others. You might worry that if every supermarket sold hot, honey-laced locusts, the practice of eating locusts might become acceptable. However, if the rule was that one had to eat every item sold by the supermarket, there would be a lot fewer items on the shelves, not more items. If having locusts at the supermarket meant you would have to eat them, then you would not permit the supermarket to carry them. Likewise, I don’t think it’s easy for us to slip into genocide.

    The other problem with your concern is that most of the bad guys throughout history were probably realists. If realism is an abstract rationalization of subjective taste, then one can still become desensitized and conditioned, but as one does so, one rationalizes and interprets the new attitude as a better understanding of moral reality. Indeed, realism might even make it easier to pull people towards genocide, racism, etc because the moral “teacher” can argue that moral reality is what it is no matter what your moral intuitions say.

  69. doctor(logic)

    Tom,

    I missed one:

    14. The possibility that Christian theism understands God to be the ultimate reality, and that his good character is an aspect of ultimate reality, seems either incoherent or irrelevant to the issue (I’m not sure which).

    It’s both.

    Okay, let’s suppose God as ultimate reality could make sense. Perhaps it would mean that the will of God’s mind is analogous to the ultimate laws of physics, those laws being distinguishable from the results of those laws. Then we could throw in the claim that “God is good”. This goodness must constrain what God’s mind would will (constrain in the physics sense, not the freedom sense). Sounds okay, so far. However, we still haven’t defined what is good at this point. That’s like not constraining God at all. Subjecting other beings to suffering is obviously not ruled out by whatever this God considers to be good (e.g., Tsunami, drowning everyone on Earth, etc).

    But let’s suppose this story about God is true. Why does it mean that I ought to do what God thinks is good?

    Obviously, if God will impose sufficiently high penalties on my disobedience, he can make my utility function such that I will want to obey. He can always tell me he will deceive me in hell into thinking that something subjectively worse is happening (e.g., he could make me lose everything I love every day in the most painful way possible).

    However, I don’t think that’s what you mean by goodness. You don’t mean that God can bully us into doing what he wants. You mean that, even if there were no reward or punishment, we ought to rationally want to do what God wants us to do. I think that’s a cool concept, but I see no possible way you can get there. It seems as if you are proposing a moral axiom:

    “One ought to do what God wants.”

    How are you going to support the choice of this axiom? For that matter, how are you going to prove or convince me rationally that any moral axiom is valid?

    Axioms are assumptions. I don’t think there are true moral axioms. There are axioms we might choose to live by, but choosing to live by them doesn’t make them actually true any more than x=4 is true.

    But we can step back one level from here. How OUGHT I choose (or choose to pick out) the ultimate moral axiom? It seems to me that I can only choose a moral axiom if I like the consequences of that choice. But if that were the case, then my meta-axiom would be

    “I ought to choose what I want.”

    It just seems a whole lot simpler to cut out the middle step and admit that this is the de facto moral axiom, if not a truth.

  70. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    doctor(logic), I need to clarify my number 19. I wrote and you answered:

    19. You believe that the question of moral reality is best adjudicated on the basis of how it might or might not affect behavior. As I just noted in the prior comment, that’s a circular approach and therefore totally invalid.

    Hmm. I’m not sure that’s my position. I thought it was yours….
    The realist says “If you don’t believe in moral realism, you have no objective reason not to condition your desires to like genocide, then that will lead to genocide, and we all know that’s bad because our current selves don’t like genocide, therefore, you should be a moral realist to prevent genocide.”

    Genocide is an extreme case. It’s very difficult for us to assess how often an awareness of moral realism might have prevented some powerful political leader from moving in that direction. More relevant is behaviors like sexual immorality, cheating on one’s taxes, committing fraud or embezzlement, and other offenses that are accessible to the more ordinary person.

    But the question of circularity needs to be handled by reference to what I wrote in that prior comment:

    You pound continually on the practical effects of beliefs on moral behavior. You are quite wrong, historically speaking, when you suppose that moral realism would make no difference in persons’ behavior. We’ve discussed that often enough. But you are also wrong to assume that the question is settled by reference to morality’s effect on behavior, because in so assuming, you assume your conclusion, which is that all that matters is how it affects behavior.

    You keep making that point: that know difference between realism and anti-realism can be inferred or known, because there is no difference in the behavior that each predicts. If the test of realism/anti-realism is just in behavior, that test assumes that the truth of realism/anti-realism is only a matter of behavior. Behavior is all that matters, all that counts: and that is an anti-realist assumption. If we start with an anti-realist assumption in deciding between realisma and anti-realism, that’s a circular approach.

    Moral realism does not predict that if moral realism is true, there would be a difference in behavior as a result of moral realism. To use that kind of language of prediction is to suppose that the experimental conditions can be manipulated: that we could have morality be real in one part of the world and not in another part of the world. There is a prediction along that line: that people who believe in moral realism will act differently than those who do not. But that’s a different question than whether moral realism is in fact true. We do not look to everyday behavior as a test of whether moral realism is true or false. You, on the other hand, have been doing that, in your repeated assertions that “if moral realism were true, nothing would be any different.” That’s where your circularity appears. You do essentially that same thing in your comment 68 again.

    What I’ve been trying to say for along time is that, if morality is objective, you should be able to show me this fact without reference to how I feel about any moral issue.

    I’ve been consistently speaking about near-universal moral knowledge, and for some reason you’ve been consistently reading that as me speaking about moral feelings. I don’t know why you do that.

    Virtually everybody knows that morals are real. That’s a moral perception, not a “feeling.”

    Now, the other side of the argument I could make and have often done in the past is the argument for Christian theism. Moral reality and Christian theism go hand-in-hand. In this context, if Christian theism is true, then moral realities exist.

  71. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    On your latest comment:

    However, I don’t think that’s what you mean by goodness. You don’t mean that God can bully us into doing what he wants. You mean that, even if there were no reward or punishment, we ought to rationally want to do what God wants us to do.

    I don’t know why that distinction must be made. One can rationally want to do what is good and right, and be fully cognizant of the rewards and punishments that go with that rational decision. This idea that it is more ethical to choose the good regardless of its contingencies (consequences) is not a moral realist or Christian theism position.

    “One ought to do what God wants.”

    How are you going to support the choice of this axiom? For that matter, how are you going to prove or convince me rationally that any moral axiom is valid?

    The usual biblical answer to that is given in terms of rewards and punishments, to put it coarsely. Rewards are multi-varied: growth in character, growth in patience, better relationships, a better eternity, answered prayer, love, intimacy with God, and an increased ability to act in accordance with moral realities.

  72. Dave

    Hi Guys

    I think you are labouring under a false analogy, preference in morals is not the same as preference between hamburger or locusts, both of which are nourishing and healthy. Both agree that we should eat nourishing healthy food but differ over the nature of what constitutes food. In the same sense both agree that helping your neighbor is a ‘good’ but differ over how best to provide that help. Should we help by giving him money, or teaching him to how to earn his own money? Both, no doubt, would consider the man who said “Let him help himself!” as deficient in some way.

    The difference between subjective and objective morality is more like the difference between the man who say “Let’s help!” and the man who says, “Let him help himself!” Or, to continue the “taste” analogy, whether a better seasoning for your hamburgers and locusts is salt or arsenic. Salt is nourishing and healthy whereas arsenic is a slow poison. Should we nourish our neighbor or poison him?

    Moral decay is like arsenic poisoning. It’s effects are not immediately discernable. Little things start to go wrong, then bigger things, then everything collapses… like the proverbial frog in boiling water. We begin taking the keys out of the car, locking our doors, gating our communities, carrying firearms, shooting anyone who walks onto our property… Incremental degeneration from civil society to anarchy. Because who can really say what is right and what is wrong, it’s all a matter of taste.

  73. woodchuck64

    Tom:

    Virtually everybody knows that morals are real. That’s a moral perception, not a “feeling.”

    Virtually everybody knows that “spicy” is real, as well. We know this because we experience it and we can verify that others experience it. However, while we can verify that certain chemicals (capsaicinoids) have an effect on heat receptor nerves in the mouth, “spicy” doesn’t exist apart from the experience of eating spicy food. Likewise, morals are real, but I don’t see how they necessarily exist beyond the human experience of the rightness or wrongness of how humans treat each other.

    Which is not to say that morals don’t exist apart from human experience; just that if “spicy” doesn’t need to exist independently of human experience, why does morality?

  74. Dave

    “Taste, if it mean anything but a paltry connoisseurship, must mean a general susceptability to truth and nobleness; a sense to discern, and a heart to love and reverence, all beauty.” – Carlyle

    Which is not to say that morals don’t exist apart from human experience; just that if “spicy” doesn’t need to exist independently of human experience, why does morality?

    That which we discern and name “spicy” does exist independent of human experience, the sensation (sense experience) of “spicy” is dependent upon human experience. That sensation is subjective, I cannot experience the effect of “spicy” on your taste receptors, nor can you experience its effect on mine, but that does not mean it isn’t objectively real.

    You may caution me, “Be careful, that’s pretty spicy.” and we may discuss our relative sensitivity to various spices as (objectively real) causes of the effects we (subjectively) experience. I may be more or less sensitive to the effect of a particular spice than you or may find the effect of setting my mouth on fire more or less pleasant than you, but the fact that the effect and/or our reaction to the effect differs from person to person doesn’t make the cause subjective.

  75. woodchuck64

    Dave:

    That which we discern and name “spicy” does exist independent of human experience, the sensation (sense experience) of “spicy” is dependent upon human experience.

    Keeping in mind that I’m trying to understand why our knowing that morals are real makes them real (which was what I understand Tom to be saying), do we understand morals to exist independently of human experience in the same way we understand “spicy” to exist independently of human experience, by discerning the experience and naming it?

  76. Dave

    Hi woodchuck64

    …do we understand morals to exist independently of human experience in the same way we understand “spicy” to exist independently of human experience, by discerning the experience and naming it?

    There are a great many things which exist independently of human experience, and there are many things which we experience but the causes of which we cannot explain. I find some concepts easier to visualize when I think of them in terms of ‘laws’ of nature rather than as pure abstractions (although the ‘laws’ of nature are themselves abstract).

    Consider the ‘law’ of gravity; no one really ‘knows’ how discrete bodies are attracted to each other. Gravity cannot be directly observed, appears to be non-material, and apparently is not constrained by distance. It would qualify as “spooky action at a distance” had Eintein not incorporated a mathematical aether into his Theory of Relativity to mathematically connect otherwise discrete material bodies. I find this example helps me to visualize, in a concrete way, that there are forces which act in the universe, forces whose effects we can observe, but whose causes are obscure.

    Similar analogies may be drawn with “dark matter” and “dark energy” as effects whose causes remain, for the present, hypothetical. They are, in fact, ‘fudge factors’ designed to reconcile the discrepencies between the predictions of current cosmological theories and the phenomena we observe. We experience (observe) it and “name” it and, mistakenly, think we have explained it. In the case of “dark energy” I – personally – first learned of it from a television documentary which covered its discovery. One of the lead astronomers was explaining how they had discovered ‘it’ and referred to ‘it’ as “some kind of pushy stuff between the stars.” I remember thinking, “Next time I hear about this they’ll have a name for it and think they know what it is.” 8^>

    So what’s all this got to do with ‘morals’ and ‘spicy’? Well, we have effects which are observable and the causes of which are visible and are reasonably well understood – “spicy”; and effects which are observable and the causes of which are obscure and possibly indetectable – gravity, dark matter, dark energy; and an effect we observe the cause of which we deny existence – moral sensibility in humans. This moral sensibility is not simply a ‘western’ phenomenon, nor simply a ‘Christian’, nor a simply ‘modern’ phenomenon – it is found wherever we find people. Granted, there are different eefcts and/or reactions to this perception and different practices associated with this perception, but as C. S. Lewis pointed out long ago, the similarities outweigh the differences by an order of magnitude.

    St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.’ In early Hinduism that conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, or almost participation in, the Rta—that great ritual or pattern of nature and supernature which is revealed alike in the cosmic order, the moral virtues, and the ceremonial of the temple. Righteousness, correctness, order, the Rta, is constantly identified with satya or truth, correspondence to reality. As Plato said that the Good was ‘beyond existence’ and Wordsworth that through virtue the stars were strong, so the Indian masters say that the gods themselves are born of the Rta and obey it.

    The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao. It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself. It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar. ‘In ritual’, say the Analects, ‘it is harmony with Nature that is prized.’ The ancient Jews likewise praise the Law as being ‘true’.

    This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao‘. Some of the accounts of it which I have quoted will seem, perhaps, to many of you merely quaint or even magical. But what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not. I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself—just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind. And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). No emotion is, in itself, a judgement; in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.

    http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/lewis/abolition1.htm#1

    The truth finally becomes apparent that neither in any operation with factual propositions nor in any appeal to instinct can the Innovator find the basis for a system of values. None of the principles he requires are to be found there: but they are all to be found somewhere else. ‘All within the four seas are his brothers’ (xii. 5) says Confucius of the Chün-tzu, the cuor gentil or gentleman. Humani nihil a me alienum puto says the Stoic. ‘Do as you would be done by,’ says Jesus. ‘Humanity is to be preserved,’ says Locke. All the practical principles behind the Innovator’s case for posterity, or society, or the species, are there from time immemorial in the Tao. But they are nowhere else. Unless you accept these without question as being to the world of action what axioms are to the world of theory, you can have no practical principles whatever. You cannot reach them as conclusions: they are premisses. You may, since they can give no ‘reason’ for themselves of a kind to silence Gaius and Titius, regard them as sentiments: but then you must give up contrasting ‘real’ or ‘rational’ value with sentimental value. All value will be sentimental; and you must confess (on pain of abandoning every value) that all sentiment is not ‘merely’ subjective. You may, on the other hand, regard them as rational—nay as rationality itself—as things so obviously reasonable that they neither demand nor admit proof.

    http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/lewis/abolition2.htm

  77. woodchuck64

    Dave:

    This moral sensibility is not simply a ‘western’ phenomenon, nor simply a ‘Christian’, nor a simply ‘modern’ phenomenon – it is found wherever we find people. Granted, there are different effects and/or reactions to this perception and different practices associated with this perception, but as C. S. Lewis pointed out long ago, the similarities outweigh the differences by an order of magnitude.

    I’m fairly in agreement with that; moral sensibility or perception or whatever you want to call it is more similar than dissimilar across the spectrum of humanity. I don’t have too much of a problem with C.S Lewis’ objective values, since humans have a great deal in common with each other and should be able to point to a whole range of shared values.

    But my question remains: why does that objectivity or common understanding of human nature and the desire for fair treatment in the case of morality necessarily mean that morals exist beyond human experience?

    To use another analogy, no one enjoys the taste of rotten food — food that has been excessively tainted with poisonous byproducts of bacteria. This is courtesy of our biology that has evolved (or been designed) to recognize bacteria toxins as an exceedingly unpleasant taste. This is a shared objective truth of human gustation. However, does that objectivity then necessarily mean that taste exists independently of human experience?

  78. Dave

    Hi woodchuck64

    However, does that objectivity then necessarily mean that taste exists independently of human experience?

    I think I get where you are coming from… correct me if I am wrong…

    If there is no sensing human there is no one there to taste the food – similarly, if there is no sensing human there is no one there to sense moral percepts. At the risk of sounding frivolous – If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make any sound? It sounds all very Zen and, while it may be a valid question, I hope we might agree that the tree would make a sound. Just as rotten food would remain rotten even if no one was there to taste it. Our perception of the taste is our perception of the external reality which exists independent of our selves.

    A porcelain teacup, if used to hammer nails, would soon shatter. It is in the ‘nature’ of porcelain teacup to shatter when sharply struck. That potential exists even if no porcelain teacup exists. Would such a thing as a porcelain teacup come into existence it would necessarily be fragile.

    A human being is also a creature constructed within certain physical constraints. In our own way we are as fragile as the porcelain teacup. There are some things we ought not do if we wish to lead an relatively trouble free life. Moral precepts are the guide to what we ought or ought not do to conform ourselves to the exigencies of the world in which we live. As such, these moral precepts exist potentially even if there are no human beings.

    Human beings are volitional beings, perhaps the only such being in the universe, we simply do not know. The animals and plants and other living creatures with whom we share this planet appear not to share our capacity for volitional action. Alone among the creatures we discuss such abstract concepts as philosophy and moral agency. Alone among the creatures we have language and communicate abstract knowledge. Alone among the creatures we categorize action as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. We make moral judgements, assert moral claims, invent moral precepts, and establish governments, laws, and courts to enforce our moral code.

    That is the a-theist defense of objective morality.

    The theistic (Christian) defense says that moral standards conform to the nature of God. God has certain attributes which are evident in the natural law (or Tao). Through the exercise of our volition in a self-centered fashion we lost the capacity to recognize the natural law directly, we are now a law unto ourselves, each doing what is right in his own eyes. Our self-absorbed, self-esteeming, action has disrupted what was a good and wholesome world, propagating dissonance and decay throughout all creation. Even so, we perceive the natural law indirectly, through effects, but obliquely enough that, should we desire, we may close our eyes and deny its reality and excuse our continued self-centeredness.

  79. doctor(logic)

    Dave,

    The objective/subjective distinction works like this. Imagine drawing a line circle the object and asking whether a property is in the object’s circle, or only in the interaction of the object with you, the subject.

    It may seem simple, but it’s complicated by two issues. First, everything we sense about an object, even the objective properties, comes to us filtered through our subjectivity. Every objective property we see appears to us as a pattern of subjective appearances, and we’re asking “what is it about such patterns of appearances that leads us to infer that the property isn’t just in our interaction with the object, but in the object itself?”

    The other complication is that if you draw a circle around both the object and you (the subject), then it must be true that your subjective reaction to the object is within the circle. That is, your subjective reaction to the object is objectively within the object-subject system.

    Okay, that was complicated, but here are some examples.

    Suppose that when I was a child, my mother baked bread and made coffee every Sunday. Now, when I drink coffee, it reminds me of fresh bread, and makes me feel relaxed as if it were a lazy Sunday afternoon. Does coffee have any “fresh breadness” or “Sundayness” or “Relaxationess” in it?

    Obviously, it doesn’t objectively have those things within it, If a coffee plant spewed out coffee in a deserted forest, that coffee would remind me of lazy Sundays, if I were there, but that doesn’t mean that coffee objectively contains a reminder of lazy Sundays. It’s not in the coffee itself. It may have the objective property of causing me to think of lazy Sundays, but that’s not the same as saying that “lazy Sundayness” is in the coffee itself.

    That is, the “fresh breadness” and “relaxationness” are accidents in the history of the observer.

    Accidents of history go back beyond our own personal lives. Mammals have a natural fear of snakes. This is because snakes are predators, and they have been interacting with us mammals for millions of years, and affecting the evolution of mammals. That doesn’t make snakes objectively “scary”. They may be objectively scary to us humans, but that’s not a property of snakes themselves. Fear is our subjective reaction to what is objective about snakes. What is objective about snakes? They are organic, have no legs, have a skeleton, fangs, are cold-blooded, etc. The fact that a mammal would be scared if in the presence of a snake is irrelevant to the question.

    We can say similar things about music. I didn’t grow up listening to country music. It sounds simplistic and backward to me. However, that doesn’t mean the music is bad in itself. It is an accident of history that I don’t like it, but it will be an accident of history that other will like it. What’s objective about the music is the pitch and timbre of the notes, and their sequence and timing.

    So, the question is, is morality an accident of history? What is objective about a murder? What’s objective about a murder are the facts of the case. Who was where, who did what, what their intentions were, etc. However, how I react to the murder is shaped by my personal history, my culture’s history, and the history of my species. Evolution has conditioned us to prefer fairness and cooperation between members of the same tribe or group. That doesn’t make fairness or cooperation objective values.

    Again, it may be an objective fact that we have such values, but the values themselves are not objective.

    There are two ways that morality could be objective. One approach is to say that morality is emergent from the other objective facts of a moral act. In the case of a murder, the evil of the murder is an emergent property of the physical facts and mental attitudes of those involved (emergent meaning actual evil is there, but the evil does not supervene on the physical facts). The other approach is to say that morality is objective in that every rational agent, no matter what their history, will consider murder to be wrong. In that case, murderers are irrational.

    I don’t see convincing evidence for either kind of moral realism.

  80. doctor(logic)

    Dave,

    I forgot to mention this:

    There are some things we ought not do if we wish to lead an relatively trouble free life.

    Why ought we lead a relatively trouble-free life?

    We certainly might desire to lead a trouble-free life. I think desires lie at the heart of moral thinking, even if those desires are for less suffering, more happiness, and even base desires for altruism and fairness. However, this is not what most moral realists are arguing for.

  81. woodchuck64

    Dave:

    As such, these moral precepts exist potentially even if there are no human beings.

    That is the a-theist defense of objective morality.

    I’m reading the first part of your message as a defense of atheist objective morality (which I assume is not your personal view). Yes, I agree with much of what you write, however I’m a little uncertain how it relates to my question, since I’m attempting to start from common ground of atheist/Christian rather than arguing from a position that isn’t shared. I understood Tom to be saying that if we know nothing else of reality, the experience of morality is itself an argument for the reality (not just potential reality) of morality (and a point against moral relativism). Thus my question, if we agree on a certain degree of objectivity for moral behavior, why does that objectivity necessarily mean that morals exist beyond human experience? Or is this an argument to merely shut down the suggestion that moral sensibility is all subjective?

    The theistic (Christian) defense says that moral standards conform to the nature of God. God has certain attributes which are evident in the natural law (or Tao). Through the exercise of our volition in a self-centered fashion we lost the capacity to recognize the natural law directly, we are now a law unto ourselves, each doing what is right in his own eyes. Our self-absorbed, self-esteeming, action has disrupted what was a good and wholesome world, propagating dissonance and decay throughout all creation. Even so, we perceive the natural law indirectly, through effects, but obliquely enough that, should we desire, we may close our eyes and deny its reality and excuse our continued self-centeredness.

    As a parenthetical remark, I would say that this doesn’t capture the nature of increasing secularism in (US) society today. If it was “each doing what is right in his own eyes”, we should see a steady increase in violent crime, rather than the opposite. I think, rather, that people are as nice to each other as before, but what has changed is that “good of society” is replacing “God” as the primary goal of moral behavior. I don’t see, as yet, any evidence of social problems with that.

  82. Holopupenko

    Why ought we not cook the data in our lab books to make scientific research turn out the way we want it? Per DL’s personal subjective opinion (“desire” echoing “will to power”)–which is anything but scientific–scientific inquiry would be the first thing to fall: there is no objective reason whatsoever to be honest in scientific work. Even if caught (what could that mean to a relativist?), the short-term gains could easily outweigh future sanction (dang! there I go again using a non-subjective moral term). But, then again, if we are nothing more than dehumanized “mechanical systems,” why does DL continue the question-begging in the first place?

    (By the way, woodchuck’s reliance on “society” as the grounding for morality is laughable: what if a society believed it’s okay to cheat? Consider Islam: it’s not truth that’s the summit of our striving but submission. I’ve spent enough time in the Middle East to understand quite well that Islam parses “truth” according to whether one is a Muslim or whether one is an “infidel”.)

    Here’s why DL is pulling a fast one with his dehumanizing “mechanical systems” nonsense (the same intellectually repugnant thing Ray Kurzweil and the transhumanists are trying to pull). It has to do with a fallacy worse that that of the fallacy of composition–the false belief that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true of some part of the whole. DL has stated on previous occassions that because a computer (a certain ontological substance that is an accidental unity and human artifact) can calculate, then a human being (a quite different ontological substance that is a substantive unity) is not only reducible to complex calculating “mechanical system” but whose material software can eventually (huge raincheck!) be transferred to a complex robot.

    I’ll go further than just pointing out it’s a fallacy–it’s also foolishly anti-intellectual. It will NOT do to assert that since computers can do arithemtic, and by their very nature have no conscious experience, it must be the case that what humans do (say, have a free will–the sine qua non aspect of human morality… hence partly why DL’s holds the nonsensical and often hypocritical opinion of moral relativism) is at best an illusion. Why? Because DL assumes that what we do and what computers do when they calculate (for example) that two plus two equal four is the same! DL never challenges his own assumption–that’s part of the foolishness of holding such a position. Worse, for him, no one–neither eliminativists like the Churchlands nor “real” neuroscientists have the slightest clue what goes on in the brain when even the simplest of calculations is carried out. (Asserting that patterns on a screen generated by PET scanners ARE representative of calculuations in the mind is the height of wishful-thinking absurdity.) So, the other foolish aspect of DL’s reductionism is to assume–quite illicity and quite unscientifically–that what humans and computers do is fundamentally the same. Rather, this is a proposition that has to be demonstrated… and DL has not taken a single step in the direction of a rigorous demonstration. DL demands “proofs” from people of faith, but does not expect demonstrations of his own assertions–nay, in fact he rejects “just is” or “how dare you question me”–demonstrations of the silliness of moral relativism, atheism, dehumanizing persons as “mechanical systems,” etc., etc., etc.

  83. Dave

    Hello woodchuck64

    It’s been a busy day and I haven’t had time to respond to your comment. I don’t have much time now either (it’s 1:00 am and I have to work tomorrow, but here’s a quick clarification on my comment #78

    When I reached the point where I wrote “This is the a-theist…” I had realized that my argument to that point had not referenced anything theistic to prove its point. That is the reason for the hyphen in atheist… not some assertion that an atheist would make the same argument, just that it is secular up to that point. The last paragraph simply adds a theistic gloss to the whole.

    As for “common ground” – there is really little common ground between atheism/theism (Christian?) views of moral reasoning. Either we are created by a God and constrained by design or we are a product of chance and constrained by chance. If we are constrained by design then that constraint delimits objective morality, violating that constraint will result in shattered teacups. If we are constrained by chance then there is no objective morality.

    That is the point of Lewis, if we begin with the wrong first principles we will reason properly to wrong conclusions. When doctor(logic) makes his argument for subjectivism he is arguing from a first principle which lead David Hume to hypothesize exactly what DL asserts, except that DL thinks there is objective knowledge which can be discovered and here DL steps off the logic train and abandons Hume.

    Hume thought there was nothing which was not subjective and nothing which we could know for certain, not even the existence of the people with whom we interact. But even Hume tempered that a little, after all, it may be perfectly logical when we start with Hume’s first priniciples but it is impossible in practice.

  84. Dave

    Hi doctor(logic)

    It may seem simple, but it’s complicated by two issues.

    Really?

    First, everything we sense about an object, even the objective properties, comes to us filtered through our subjectivity.

    Does it now?

    Every objective property we see appears to us as a pattern of subjective appearances, and we’re asking “what is it about such patterns of appearances that leads us to infer that the property isn’t just in our interaction with the object, but in the object itself?”

    How do you even know there is an object there with which you are interacting? Perhaps you are living in the Matrix and all this subjective interaction with external objects is generated within your mind. Since all experience is subjective how would you know?

  85. Holopupenko

    Dave:

    You should know that DL earlier quite explicitly asserted that we can’t know anything except the ideas in our minds… err, for him “brains.” He has never disavowed this classic Idealist and science-destroying position. It’s another example in a long line of DL’s disordered thinking. I also note (although you did pick up on it) DL’s assertions which you criticize are merely personal subjective opinions which he wants us to swallow without question.

  86. doctor(logic)

    Dave,

    How do you even know there is an object there with which you are interacting?

    If I’m interacting with something, then there is plainly an object which is the subject of my attention. That’s a different question from whether the object is external to myself and my subconscious. If I dream about a talking rabbit, I’m interacting with an object, the talking rabbit. It’s just that this object is not external to me and my subconscious.

    Perhaps you are living in the Matrix and all this subjective interaction with external objects is generated within your mind. Since all experience is subjective how would you know?

    External objects are as external objects do. External objects aren’t labeled as external by magic. They’re labeled as external because of apparent properties and behaviors. Even if I’ve spent all my life in the Matrix, the phrase “external objects” would still refer to apparently external stuff that’s in the matrix. (If you’re in the Matrix, the machines are supplying you with inputs that appear like objects in a normal sensory world. They’re still external, because they’re not part of your self or your subconscious. They’re just not physical in the way you are led to think they are.)

    There are several criteria for determining whether an object is external. Typical properties of external objects are:

    (1) The object impacts surrounding objects, even when we don’t have our attention on it.
    (2) We cannot alter the properties of the object at will.
    (3) We lack positive objective evidence that the object is a projection of the subconscious.

    Since all experience is subjective how would you know?

    Wait! You have purely objective experiences sans qualia? That must be really cool.

  87. Holopupenko

    DL:

    Indeed! Realistically and ordered to truth…

    not idealistically, atheistically, philosophical-naturalistically, anti-intellectually and certainly not through scientism and positivism and the hypocrisy of moral relativism that breeds morally-repugnant nonsense… like dehumanizing persons to “mechanical systems.”

    Perhaps you’re seeing the multitudinous errors of your ways? Come on in, DL… the water is fine!

  88. woodchuck64

    Holopupenko:

    (By the way, woodchuck’s reliance on “society” as the grounding for morality is laughable: what if a society believed it’s okay to cheat? Consider Islam: it’s not truth that’s the summit of our striving but submission. I’ve spent enough time in the Middle East to understand quite well that Islam parses “truth” according to whether one is a Muslim or whether one is an “infidel”.)

    There are several problems with this characterization. I haven’t flatly said that society should be the grounding for morality, as that would be too vague. I have in other threads talked about desirism, the moral philosophy of striving to fulfill the desires of the most and thwart the desires of the least as a form of rational morality. “Cheating” would not be a rational goal under desirism. So please get your facts straight before claiming I said something “laughable”.

    Another problem with the quoted statement is that “society” can only exist if it prevents cheating. If cheating is “okay”, society quickly breaks down into smaller groups angry and feuding with each other for cheating offenses. So the success and size of a society is directly proportional to how effective it is at eliminating cheating. Any grounding for morality would be looking first to successful societies for moral approaches, not unsuccessful societies.

    I’m not sure it would be correct to call Islam a homogeneous, single society. But in any case, the major problem with Islam society in my opinion is reliance on superstition, which tends to thwart desires.

  89. Holopupenko

    Woodchuck:

    It remains laughable despite your qualifications: there was no need to deal with the equally-laughable qualifications (like “desirism,” which is a kind utilitarian spin on the strong over the weak). Consider your “cheating” example: what if the “desire” of the “most” changes? The answer, of course, is your position is incoherent… or at the very least chaotic, and in an atmosphere of chaos the strong usually prevail to impose their “desires.” Abortion is a real-life example: at the beginning of the last century, the overwhelming “most” opposed it, then that changed, now it appears to moving back to opposition. Do we go with “electoral morality” (which is at the base of what you’re proposing)? Give me a break. How about when homosexual activists violently stormed the APA’s 1970 annual meeting in San Francisco to FORCE characterization from pathological to non… talk about “objective” science… talk about moral anti-realistic superstition!

  90. woodchuck64

    Dave:

    When I reached the point where I wrote “This is the a-theist…” I had realized that my argument to that point had not referenced anything theistic to prove its point. That is the reason for the hyphen in atheist… not some assertion that an atheist would make the same argument, just that it is secular up to that point. The last paragraph simply adds a theistic gloss to the whole.

    Okay, well I’m mostly in agreement on that section. I think “potential existence” is the best we can get for objective morals, although I got the impression Tom sees it a little more strongly than that.

    As for “common ground” – there is really little common ground between atheism/theism (Christian?) views of moral reasoning. Either we are created by a God and constrained by design or we are a product of chance and constrained by chance. If we are constrained by design then that constraint delimits objective morality, violating that constraint will result in shattered teacups. If we are constrained by chance then there is no objective morality.

    Naturalism is not correctly characterized as “chance”, but rather the workings and consequences of the natural laws of the universe. Therefore, our moral behavior is not random but directly correlated with the way the universe is. Perhaps those laws were set up by something like a god, perhaps by something nothing like a god, perhaps by nothing at all, I don’t know. But at least past the question of ultimate origins, there is considerable common ground on the universe itself and how we perceive it. In practice, I’ve yet to find “uncommon” ground with Christians.

    That is the point of Lewis, if we begin with the wrong first principles we will reason properly to wrong conclusions. When doctor(logic) makes his argument for subjectivism he is arguing from a first principle which lead David Hume to hypothesize exactly what DL asserts, except that DL thinks there is objective knowledge which can be discovered and here DL steps off the logic train and abandons Hume.

    I’ve always assumed Christians and atheists were in the same boat on this. That is, the only thing we know for sure is that we have desires and desires want to be satisfied. Without desires, we’re potted plants, needing nothing, wanting nothing, doing nothing. If we live and breath, then we’re acting on desires, whether Christian or atheist.

    Why ought I to be a Christian? Because it is true. Why ought I to believe things that are true? Because the truth will meet my desires better than things that are false. Why ought I to meet my desires? Because desires want to be satisfied. That last, lowest step seems to be where we all meet regardless of where we start out.

    I’m sympathetic to Hume, I don’t see how anyone can guarantee certainty of anything we think we know, but nevertheless we should be quite justified in believing varying degrees of truth exist and can be known until something better comes along. Is there really a principle here I’m adopting or failing to adopt that puts us on different paths to the interpretation of reality?

  91. woodchuck64

    Holopupenko:

    It remains laughable despite your qualifications.

    I didn’t offer qualifications, I pointed out that you were incorrect to claim I was relying on society to ground morality. You were ridiculing a straw man. You seem to ridiculing a second straw man, here. And why the need to ridicule at all, especially before you understand what I’m saying?

    Consider your “cheating” example: what if the “desire” of the “most” changes? The answer, of course, is your position is incoherent… or at the very least chaotic, and in an atmosphere of chaos the strong usually prevail to impose their “desires.”

    “Desires” can change all they want, what doesn’t change is desirism’s central tenet that desires that are to be called “good” tend on balance to fulfill other desires and desires that are to be called “bad” tend on balance to thwart other desires. Nothing chaotic about that.

    Abortion is a real-life example: at the beginning of the last century, the overwhelming “most” opposed it, then that changed, now it appears to moving back to opposition. Do we go with “electoral morality” (which is at the base of what you’re proposing)? Give me a break. How about when homosexual activists violently stormed the APA’s 1970 annual meeting in San Francisco to FORCE characterization from pathological to non… talk about “objective” science… talk about moral anti-realistic superstition!

    Changing views of abortion and homosexual rights are of course consistent with desirism, which makes no assumptions about how society will evolve. As a point of application, the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality would be determined by how it fulfills and thwarts other desires of individuals in society and based on that we would find nothing wrong with it. For abortion, the moral contention would probably not result from desirism itself, but over the personhood of a fetus, which is a separate argument (that is, only a person can have desires).

    If you have a valid criticism of desirism (and I’m sure they exist), please give it. But I don’t really have time to be a tutor on the subject (see here for more details), especially in this thread where I am not defending desirism but trying to find common ground on basic moral sense/perception.

  92. Holopupenko

    “Desires” can change all they want, what doesn’t change is desirism’s central tenet that desires that are to be called “good” tend on balance to fulfill other desires and desires that are to be called “bad” tend on balance to thwart other desires. Nothing chaotic about that.

    I give up…

  93. Dave

    Hello doctor(logic)

    We should try to remember the metaphysic from which you are arguing, the Humean metaphysic, that we perceive the world subjectively, through our ideas, not objectively, through perception of externals.

    (1) The object impacts surrounding objects, even when we don’t have our attention on it.

    The ‘object’ which you perceive is really only your ‘idea’ of the ‘object’. If the ‘object’, that is, your ‘idea’ of the ‘object’, appears to affect ‘surrounding objects’ – that is, your ‘idea’ of surrounding objects – you haven’t solved the problem. It may well be your ‘idea’ which has altered perspective and nothing external to yourself.

    This is the basis, and the flaw, in Hume’s skepticism. Hume argued that all we can really know is the ‘ideas’ through which we perceive the world, we can never actually know the ‘thing in itself’ because we cannot directly perceive the ‘thing in itself’. His mistake was in confusing ‘ideas’ – that through which we understand the world – and percepts – our real perceptions of external ‘objects’. We classify those objects with our mind – ideation – but we perceive them with our senses.

    (2) We cannot alter the properties of the object at will.

    If all we possess is the ‘idea’ through which we perceive externals, if we cannot perceive external ‘objects’ directly, we cannot have objective knowledge of the properties of external ‘objects’, nor even if externals ‘objects’ really exist. If we cannot perceive external ‘objects’ directly then we cannot know if the properties of the ‘object’ have changed or if our ‘idea’ of the properties of the ‘object’ have changed.

    (3) We lack positive objective evidence that the object is a projection of the subconscious.

    Do we? How so? Besides, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

  94. Dave

    Hello woodchuck64

    Naturalism is not correctly characterized as “chance”, but rather the workings and consequences of the natural laws of the universe.

    Generally speaking, although I see that you recognize the possibility of intelligent agency, ‘naturalism’ professes that all phenomena may be explained as the effects of purely ‘natural’ (unguided, stochastic, a-teleological) causes. Under these circumstances it is only “chance” which remains. It is purely “chance” that the universe aquired those properties which make galaxies, stars, and planets possible; it is only “chance” that the planet Earth aquired those properties which make “life” possible; it is only “chance” that life as we know it evolved here; it is only “chance” that we, alone among the creatures, aquired brains capable of abstract reasoning. Even “natural selection”, the supposed silver bullet for those who seek to deny the caprice of naturalism, is dependent upon ‘random’ (chance) mutations and unguided (chance) environmental conditions for its operations.

    Therefore, our moral behavior is not random but directly correlated with the way the universe is.

    Is it? Richard Dawkins is famously quoted as saying, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” How does this correlate to our moral behavior? or better yet, to our moral perception?

    Perhaps those laws were set up by something like a god, perhaps by something nothing like a god, perhaps by nothing at all, I don’t know.

    I finally became a (skeptical) Christian over a question of justice, justice in the abstract sense, not in some concrete injustice, but justice as an abstract concept. I was writing a political argument against a proposed law and was couching that argument in terms of “just” and “unjust” and as I formulated the argument I finally realized that, if there is not God, there can be no justice. Not objectively. There is no “higher court” – not “higher standard” to which we may appeal than the court of the legislator, the court of political power; and it was in opposition to the capricious exercise of political power that I was formulating my appeal.

    I decided, then and there, that if there was no God, then there ought to be one. Hardly a ‘conversion of the road to Damascus’ Acts 9:3-6 but it was enough to open my eyes Acts 9:17-19. Be skeptical of your skepticism.

    But at least past the question of ultimate origins, there is considerable common ground on the universe itself and how we perceive it. In practice, I’ve yet to find “uncommon” ground with Christians.

    We all share a capacity to perceive ‘objective’ reality – the thing as it is – and because of that capacity we do share common ground. What we perceive is ‘really’ there, it is not our ‘idea’ of what is really there. Our ‘uncommon’ ground is not the ground of perception but the ground of ideas, how we order and interpret that which we perceive – that is, our understanding of what it is we perceive.

    Our beliefs about the universe are predicated upon so-called “first” principles – principles which are not demonstrable, if they could be demonstrated they would not be “first” principles. I think, though, that they can be tested… in a sense. If a particular “first” principle, coupled with valid reasoning, leads you to an absurd conclusion, then that “first” principle is probably false. This is not “proof” in a formal sense but it is a pretty good rule of thumb. Unfortunately, we seldom question our “first” principles because they seem so obvious that we take them for granted.

    “Understanding is the intuitive grasp of first principles.” “The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric” Sister Miriam Joseph, C.S.C., Ph.D. p. 11

  95. Dave

    Hi woodchuck64

    Okay, well I’m mostly in agreement on that section.

    Thank you, I often wonder at my capacity to adequately communicate the concepts in my mind. I think I sometimes use words in a manner which is obscure to others, due to either my inadequate vocabulary or poor grammar. I’m working on that but it takes time.

    I think “potential existence” is the best we can get for objective morals, although I got the impression Tom sees it a little more strongly than that.

    I suspect “potential” is one of my misused words. I use it in the above context as a ‘power’ that is not yet instantiated.

    “It may be present; but, without the action of receptive organs, it will remain unrecognized. Just as lilac blossoms possess the power of producing the sensation of purple, but can never do it without an eye to look at them;…”

    “Practical Rhetoric” John D. Quackenbos p. 36

    In addition to the receptive organs, a sensitive and discerning mind is pre-requisite to the perception. How often do we perceive some insight from nature or man only to discover our fellows are apparently blind to the insight and its implications. Yet, through demonstration and persuasion, they too can perceive. The problem is not a lack of the organs of perception, but their inadequate exercise.

  96. woodchuck64

    Dave:

    … ‘naturalism’ professes that all phenomena may be explained as the effects of purely ‘natural’ (unguided, stochastic, a-teleological) causes. Under these circumstances it is only “chance” which remains…

    That’s correct, but I’m trying to distinguish between chance as “improbably lucky accident” and chance as “inevitable result given natural constraints”. The former is rolling 10 sixes in a row, the latter is rowing 10 sixes in a roll after 50 million tries. As we learn more about the laws of the universe and how they affect matter and energy over time, life begins to look inevitable rather than improbably lucky accident. I believe that is more consistent with the tenets of naturalism.

    (However, as said, I think naturalism by definition can saying nothing about the parameters of the universe, whether they’re lucky accident, inevitable given enough universes, or designed.)

    I wrote: [according to naturalism] moral behavior is not random but directly correlated with the way the universe is.

    Is it? Richard Dawkins is famously quoted as saying, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” How does this correlate to our moral behavior? or better yet, to our moral perception?

    Under naturalism, morality is entirely about how human beings treat human beings, the rest of the universe doesn’t need to enter into it. To oversimplify, morality is an evolutionary solution to allow complex societies to evolve into existence.

    Even if we believe in absolute morality, we don’t think of hurricanes or volcanoes as intrinsically evil and we usually don’t think of marauding wolves or aggressive grizzly bears as intrinsically evil. Only persons can be good or evil, and Christianity recognize both good and bad in the universe as the results of the actions of persons — the good from the actions of God, the bad from the actions of Adam and Eve. Under naturalism, there are no other persons directing or guiding the universe so it can be neither good nor evil.

    As a rough outline of moral perception, I suggested that empathy allows us to include others as “self”, but has the side-affect that our beliefs about how we should be treated are then superimposed on others. I already know how I should be treated, that comes naturally and easily. But empathy allows me to see others treating others as “self” treating “self”. For an act of violence, I can now identify with the perpetrator (“I would never do such a thing if I were him”) and the victim (“I would feel awful if that were done to me”) and feel that my values can be naturally applied to both (since they are “self”). To the extent that my values are shared by others who are also empathizing in the same manner, we could then reach agreement on a moral rule dictating how people should treat people in that instance.

    I finally became a (skeptical) Christian over a question of justice, justice in the abstract sense, not in some concrete injustice, but justice as an abstract concept. I was writing a political argument against a proposed law and was couching that argument in terms of “just” and “unjust” and as I formulated the argument I finally realized that, if there is not God, there can be no justice. Not objectively. There is no “higher court” – not “higher standard” to which we may appeal than the court of the legislator, the court of political power; and it was in opposition to the capricious exercise of political power that I was formulating my appeal.

    I decided, then and there, that if there was no God, then there ought to be one. Hardly a ‘conversion of the road to Damascus’ Acts 9:3-6 but it was enough to open my eyes Acts 9:17-19. Be skeptical of your skepticism.

    Under naturalism, systems of morality and law can be thought of as similar to systems of education, public health, even transportation in that they serve society. Education, public health, transportation has changed over time and gotten objectively better over the decades, thanks mainly to the fact that humans love to solve problems. These systems have been regularly subjected to scrutiny, problems identified, solutions found, and incremental improvements made. But that being said, it’s not hard to see that we’re a long ways away from the perfect education system: low tuition, high-paid skilled teachers; the perfect transportation system: low congestion, low emissions, accident-free; the perfect health care system: don’t need to say much about that.

    I think the same is true for morality and law. By any measure, we are still a long ways away from the perfect system. We can always recognize the inferiority of the current system and long for a better one. I don’t feel that this longing points me to God, though, rather than to the hope of a future system of law, one less susceptible to political corruption, for example.

    It’s not hard to find small ways to make our legal system better. But add decades of small improvements and our future legal system could be as much of an improvement on the current as the current improves on the frontier justice of the wild west.

    Failures in any system drive us to find a better way, I think this is our evolutionary heritage as problem solvers. Morality and law would seem to be no different.

    We all share a capacity to perceive ‘objective’ reality – the thing as it is – and because of that capacity we do share common ground. What we perceive is ‘really’ there, it is not our ‘idea’ of what is really there. Our ‘uncommon’ ground is not the ground of perception but the ground of ideas, how we order and interpret that which we perceive – that is, our understanding of what it is we perceive.

    I don’t see that we can prove that reality is ‘really’ there, but since there is no coherent alternative, I think it’s a reasonable assumption.

    Certainly we may have different interpretations but the only reason for that can be due to having different information. Thus, perfect communication of information should lead to perfect agreement, in my view. Rather than being on different ground, I usually see Christian/atheist with different information and not able to communicate easily. I don’t see disagreement on first principles as a practical difference. However, this is a view that I’m continually testing so we’ll see if I stick with it…

  97. Dave

    Hi woodchuck64

    I don’t see disagreement on first principles as a practical difference. However, this is a view that I’m continually testing so we’ll see if I stick with it…

    First principles are the only ‘practical’ difference because first principles cannot be demonstrated by reason. If they could be logically demonstrated we might, in a spirit of open-minded inquiry, examine the premises and arguments by which we arrive at first principles and reach agreement on first principles through the ‘practice’ of sound reasoning. As the matter stands all we can do is examine the conclusions to which our particular first principles lead us and see if they are consistent with our observations of the world as it is. As I wrote above, (#95) “If a particular “first” principle, coupled with valid reasoning, leads you to an absurd conclusion, then that “first” principle is probably false.”

    I submit that naturalism necessarily leads to absurd conclusions. Apparently you have no objection to my definition of naturalism; specifically “… ‘naturalism’ professes that all phenomena may be explained as the effects of purely ‘natural’ (unguided, stochastic, a-teleological) causes.”: but have you considered the implications of naturalism as it pertains to human beings?

    Your assertion above (#97) that “Under naturalism, morality is entirely about how human beings treat human beings, the rest of the universe doesn’t need to enter into it. misstates the essence of the problem. If everything can be explained by purely ‘natural’ causes then ‘nature’ is essential to understanding human behavior. Human behavior, human existence, the existence of our planet, solar system, galaxy, and universe are all effects of prior ‘natural’ causes, up to and including the ’cause’ of the universe itself. In fact, under naturalism every event, past, present, or future, can be explained as the outcome of a prior cause. This includes what you will have for breakfast tomorrow.

    You see, the ‘laws’ of cause and effect, and even the arch-skeptic David Hume recanted his rejection of cause and effect, lock us into an inflexible determinism. Every event which has occurred since the beginning of time is part of a great chain of prior causes and subsequent events from beginning to end. In principle, if we could compute the precise conditions throughout the universe at a given instant of time we could predict every past and future event. If we could reproduce the precise conditions at the instant the universe began the entire process would unwind in precisely the same manner as the original.

    If this is the case, then the apparent perception that we aquire knowledge and make decisions is nothing more than, as it’s critics refer to it, “Folk Psychology”. We are, in fact, deterministically programmed biological machines whose every act is the result of a prior cause – anything else would viloate the ‘laws” of nature and would, by definition, be a classified as a miracle.

    Of course, this hasn’t prevented the invention of a multitude of hypotheses to reconcile the inconsistency of theory and experience. These are generally some variation of “Compatabilism” which posits some ’emergent’ property of life (insert miracle here) which permit living organisms to ‘violate’ the laws of nature. It’s either that or accept the absurd propostion that every thought we think and every act we perform is nothing more or less than the effect of a prior cause, in the same sense that billiard balls roll around a billiard table. Of course, that hasn’t stopped otherwise intelligent and educated people from advocating the absurd.

  98. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Responding to some older comments:

    DL

    There are two ways that morality could be objective. One approach is to say that morality is emergent from the other objective facts of a moral act. In the case of a murder, the evil of the murder is an emergent property of the physical facts and mental attitudes of those involved (emergent meaning actual evil is there, but the evil does not supervene on the physical facts). The other approach is to say that morality is objective in that every rational agent, no matter what their history, will consider murder to be wrong. In that case, murderers are irrational.

    I wouldn’t defend either of those. Morality’s objectivity only requires that one rational agent who knows reliably and unmistakably what is real takes it to be real. That one rational agent is of course God.

    It’s silly to suppose that every rational agent must agree to something’s being real, or else it isn’t real. Does every rational agent (today and throughout all history) agree that i (or j, actually) is useful in solving reactive circuits? Does every rational agent agree that Jupiter has moons? Is global warming not real just because not every rational agent agrees to it?

    woodchuck64:

    Thus my question, if we agree on a certain degree of objectivity for moral behavior, why does that objectivity necessarily mean that morals exist beyond human experience?

    If it was “each doing what is right in his own eyes”, we should see a steady increase in violent crime, rather than the opposite. I think, rather, that people are as nice to each other as before, but what has changed is that “good of society” is replacing “God” as the primary goal of moral behavior. I don’t see, as yet, any evidence of social problems with that.

    But we do see a huge increase in violent crime: abortion, for one thing. Are we being “nice” to unborn babies??

    Do you not see it as a crime? Is it possible that’s because even though objectively it is wrong, moral relativism has made it seem not wrong? Is it possible that “the good of society” is not the goal, but rather “the convenience of the mother or father”? Are there no social problems with that? China has a glut of young males and not enough females, because of selective abortion/infanticide. They are now trying to turn around its one-child policy (and attendant forced abortions). Elsewhere it is also producing ominous social results.

  99. doctor(logic)

    Tom,

    Sorry! I stated the second form of objective morality very poorly. What I meant was that morality would be objective if all rational agents, independent of biology or circumstances, would converge on the same morality.

    Okay, you, me, and Spork from Alpha Centauri walk into a bar. 🙂 When we enter the bar, none of us agree on a particular moral claim. If it were inevitable that we would all eventually reach the same moral conclusions after we gather more information about the workings of the universe, after we eliminate flaws in our reasoning, and after we improve our ability to see consequences of our actions, then I would probably consider morality to be objective.

    However, I just don’t think this is going to be the case. There’s no necessity for Spork’s biology to compel him/her/it to agree to the same moral axioms that you or I hold.

    Morality’s objectivity only requires that one rational agent who knows reliably and unmistakably what is real takes it to be real. That one rational agent is of course God.

    Even God cannot answer nonsensical questions. In order for God to know what is right and wrong, there has to be an objective right and wrong for him to know. You are assuming that God’s omniscience can tell him what’s absolutely right and wrong, but in doing so, you’re assuming that the objective right and wrong already exists in some metaphysical sense. That’s an extra assumption. It’s not an automatic theorem of the assumption of a deity’s existence.

    I realize that you are not here to defend any forms of theism except your own. However, you’re just begging the question when you narrow down theism in that way.

    Here’s what I mean. The dispute is about whether or not morality is objective. Your solution is to propose that (1) objective morality is a sensible concept, (2) morality actually is objective, (3) there is an omniscient God who knows the answer to any sensible question, (4) therefore, God knows what is absolutely right and wrong, (5) that God designed us with moral biases which inform us about this moral reality (and which coincidentally happen to be adaptive in the evolutionary sense).

    You can make all these assumptions, but that doesn’t mean your theory is likely correct, and it certainly isn’t an inference from experience. It’s not an argument for moral realism, it’s just reiterating your assumption of moral realism. It’s begging the question. If I were generous, I would say that it was a just-so story.

    In contrast, I’m not starting out by assuming morality is subjective. Instead, I’m considering the number of possible worlds in which morality is objective versus the number of possible worlds in which morality is subjective. Some of the objective worlds will look the same to us as the subjective ones, and so the rational way to decide between them is to consider which kind of morality is most likely to look like our world. (And, of course, you know what my conclusion is.)

  100. Dave

    Hi doctor(logic)

    Instead, I’m considering the number of possible worlds in which morality is objective versus the number of possible worlds in which morality is subjective.

    I might ask how you determined which worlds are “possible” and which are not? Certainly it couldn’t be by observation, nor could it be by some other objective standard, so it must be something you pulled out of a hat… poof!

    Consider the following from 2003 speech by Michael Crichton, “Aliens Caused Global Warming” in which he bemoans the lack of rigour in much of what passes for ‘science’ today. MC was most certainly not a theist, nor was he anti-science, as his speech elucidates, he was very disturbed by the anti-intellectual (read superstitious) trends of modern scientific practice.

    Cast your minds back to 1960. John F. Kennedy is president, commercial jet airplanes are just appearing, the biggest university mainframes have 12K of memory. And in Green Bank, West Virginia at the new National Radio Astronomy Observatory, a young astrophysicist named Frank Drake runs a two week project called Ozma, to search for extraterrestrial signals. A signal is received, to great excitement. It turns out to be false, but the excitement remains. In 1960, Drake organizes the first SETI conference, and came up with the now-famous Drake equation:

    N=N*fp ne fl fi fc fL

    Where N is the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy; fp is the fraction with planets; ne is the number of planets per star capable of supporting life; fl is the fraction of planets where life evolves; fi is the fraction where intelligent life evolves; and fc is the fraction that communicates; and fL is the fraction of the planet’s life during which the communicating civilizations live.

    This serious-looking equation gave SETI an serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. And guesses-just so we’re clear-are merely expressions of prejudice. Nor can there be “informed guesses.” If you need to state how many planets with life choose to communicate, there is simply no way to make an informed guess. It’s simply prejudice.

    As a result, the Drake equation can have any value from “billions and billions” to zero. An expression that can mean anything means nothing. Speaking precisely, the Drake equation is literally meaningless, and has nothing to do with science. I take the hard view that science involves the creation of testable hypotheses. The Drake equation cannot be tested and therefore SETI is not science. SETI is unquestionably a religion. Faith is defined as the firm belief in something for which there is no proof. The belief that the Koran is the word of God is a matter of faith. The belief that God created the universe in seven days is a matter of faith. The belief that there are other life forms in the universe is a matter of faith. There is not a single shred of evidence for any other life forms, and in forty years of searching, none has been discovered. There is absolutely no evidentiary reason to maintain this belief. SETI is a religion.

    and then there is http://www.tbiomed.com/content/6/1/27some recent research on the matter of “possible” vs. “plausible” hypotheses. Almost anything is “possible” but is it worthy of investigation (“plausible”)?

    But at some point our reluctance to exclude any possibility becomes stultifying to operational science [10]. Falsification is critical to narrowing down the list of serious possibilities [11]. Almost all hypotheses are possible. Few of them wind up being helpful and scientifically productive. Just because a hypothesis is possible should not grant that hypothesis scientific respectability. More attention to the concept of “infeasibility” has been suggested [12]. Millions of dollars in astrobiology grant money have been wasted on scenarios that are possible, but plausibly bankrupt. The question for scientific methodology should not be, “Is this scenario possible?” The question should be, “Is this possibility a plausible scientific hypothesis?” One chance in 10/200 is theoretically possible, but given maximum cosmic probabilistic resources, such a possibility is hardly plausible. With funding resources rapidly drying up, science needs a foundational principle by which to falsify a myriad of theoretical possibilities that are not worthy of serious scientific consideration and modeling.

    http://www.tbiomed.com/content/6/1/27

    While your determination to demonstrate that subjective morality more “probable” than objective is touching and even somewhat quaint, it certainly isn’t anything approaching rational. Ultimately, it is a superstition based upon prejudice.

  101. Holopupenko

    “quaint”… “superstition”… “prejudice[d]”

    Yep, that’s atheism: animated by equally bankrupt reductionist presuppositions.

  102. Holopupenko

    Dave:

    To add some more…

    The kind of idealistic-inspired nonsense DL propound most recently (which you nicely dispatched from the perspective of science properly practiced) goes on all the time. In many of his arguments, DL permits his imagination to get the better of him: “We can imagine this being the case, so it must at least be possible…right?”

    Wrong! Here’s the broader philosophical unmasking of such shamanism: Our imagination—taken narrowly or broadly can never be the measure nor the cause of any real possibility. There is no relation between imagination and real possibility: some imagined things are possible, others impossible, others necessary; and the same is true for those things that cannot be imagined (i.e., those things that we try to conceive).

    If one foolish permits their imagination to indicate and alleged real possibility, that persons then permits a parallel universe of possibilities that are evident to imagination alone, and whose real existence does not follow from actual external sensation. I can imagine a purple people eater or a flying spaghetti monster or a unicorn, but they’re not real unless they are demonstrated to exit either through the senses or through correct reasoning. Moreover, I cannot conceive of them because they have no natures: a nature is essential to the SUB-STANCE which is what we UNDER-STAND.

    DL is doing nothing more that imagining purple people eaters.

    DL’s “arguments” are neither science nor philosophy—they are, in fact, the very thing critical thinkers eschew: Shamanism. The false power DL thinks he feels in his various disordered takes on reality is quite similar to the “power” witch-doctors try (vainly) to cast hexes: because DL believes some imagined thing is a real possibility to be entertained seriously simply because he imagines it to be so. This is truly the mark of an unsophisticated “thinker”: “How can we rule out moral relativism or anti-realism? Maybe you faithers aren’t wholly convinced by my spell-casting, but isn’t it better to assume it is true just to be safe? After all, the most reputable and relevant atheists think so.”

    Moral realists realize the game being played—we realize it because we know we’re not the one’s setting up imaginary scenarios indicating “real” possibilities.

  103. woodchuck64

    Tom:

    But we do see a huge increase in violent crime: abortion, for one thing. Are we being “nice” to unborn babies??

    My point is that a society that is composed entirely of individuals who believe in “doing what is right in his own eyes” will quickly deteriorate into chaos. Secular society doesn’t believe that doing what is right for self is all there is to morality. Rather, the desires of other people in society are also included in determining what is right. I don’t have to discuss abortion at all to defend that statement. I want to make sure it is understand that a secular society can not be all about self or it will self-destruct virtually immediately. Secular societies are not all about self, especially not here in the US. I don’t expect this to be controversial.

    Abortion is a serious ethical conflict under any moral philosophy: a woman’s right over her own body -vs- the degree of rights of the unborn. I believe both are important, yet both can not be completely honored. It’s like deciding who you throw out of the overloaded lifeboat.

    Further, I don’t believe that potential-human rights are exactly equivalent to human rights, and it is difficult to decide where on the time-line from embryo to baby the right to life should be given. We simply can’t lump together all abortions, from 1 week to 36 weeks, as violent crime.

    Do you not see it as a crime?

    I see late-term abortions as reaching the level of crime when there is no risk to the mother’s health and ample time to abort earlier. I would like to see them restricted except in cases of serious health considerations.

    Is it possible that’s because even though objectively it is wrong, moral relativism has made it seem not wrong?

    Not in my experience. Those who defend late-term abortions consider a woman’s right to choose more important on the ethical scale than the rights of potential human beings. I understand their point of view, but I think they still go too far. But this is the overloaded lifeboat conundrum. There is no right solution but a solution must be employed nevertheless. Therefore we’re striving for the least wrong solution.

    Is it possible that “the good of society” is not the goal, but rather “the convenience of the mother or father”?

    No, I don’t see late-term abortion laws influenced much by convenience. The focus I see is all on a woman’s right over her body. I’m certain there are many more convenient and much less expensive and traumatic ways of preventing child birth than abortion.

    Are there no social problems with that? China has a glut of young males and not enough females, because of selective abortion/infanticide. They are now trying to turn around its one-child policy (and attendant forced abortions). Elsewhere it is also producing ominous social results.

    I’m not sure a glut of young males qualifies as ominous social results, but I agree that forced abortion/sterilization is a mistake.

    Jim Lippard has a series of posts where he discusses abortion with Vocab Malone, in particular the problems with calling a human embryo a full person at the moment of conception. This is the argument I would make.

    BTW, in your quote, the question I felt most important was not addressed.

    [ I wrote ] Thus my question, if we agree on a certain degree of objectivity for moral behavior, why does that objectivity necessarily mean that morals exist beyond human experience?

  104. woodchuck64

    Dave:

    I submit that naturalism necessarily leads to absurd conclusions.

    If this is the case, then the apparent perception that we aquire knowledge and make decisions is nothing more than, as it’s critics refer to it, “Folk Psychology”. We are, in fact, deterministically programmed biological machines whose every act is the result of a prior cause – anything else would viloate the ‘laws” of nature and would, by definition, be a classified as a miracle.

    Yes, I’m a determinist and agree with what you write here.

    It’s either that or accept the absurd propostion that every thought we think and every act we perform is nothing more or less than the effect of a prior cause, in the same sense that billiard balls roll around a billiard table.

    But what’s wrong with that? What more does determinism entail except that I’m a part of the universe and the universe is part of me? I don’t know what thoughts I’m determined to think or what cause I will become to my environment, so I see no other practical way to live my life. Besides, I want to live and act based on causes I see and feel around me, I don’t want to behave randomly. So a deterministic view of reality looks like common sense to me.

  105. Dave

    Hi woodchuck64

    Yes, I’m a determinist and agree with what you write here.

    I think you miss the point… If you are a determinist then the statement “…[I] agree with what you write here.” is incoherent. The confusion arises, I think, from the ambiguity of the term “determine”. A “deterministic” universe is not a universe in which you weight options and then ‘determine’ a course of action as in the following definitions;

    1. to settle or decide (a dispute, question, etc.) by an authoritative or conclusive decision.
    2. to conclude or ascertain, as after reasoning, observation, etc.

    Determinism, as a consequence of naturalism, necessarily entails that all your actions are “determined” by prior natural events, i.e. events like the striking of a cue ball with a cue and imparting motion to the billiard balls through the laws of inertia, friction, and momentum etc. A billiard ball does not agree with the cue ball – its motion is “determined” by forces outside of itself;

    determinism
    n. The philosophical doctrine that every state of affairs, including every human event, act, and decision is the inevitable consequence of antecedent states of affairs.

    That is the point of the reference to billiard balls, each event is the ‘inevitable consequence of antecendent states of affairs’ means that your agreement has nothing to do with a ‘conclusion ascertained after reasoning, observation etc.’ but is the consequent of some prior state of affairs, i.e. a cosmic ray impinged upon a synapse in your brain causing you to have a feeling of agreement. Your agreement with my statement is a brain state which has nothing whatsoever to do with reason or observation.

    John Cleese does a masterful job of pointing out the absurdity of naturalistic reductionism in this short video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-M-vnmejwXo

    […] Besides, I want to live and act based on causes I see and feel around me, I don’t want to behave randomly.

    This statement includes some category mistakes which I hope the above commentary illuminate. When you say you “want to live and…” you assume that you are capable of making choices independent of the forces acting upon you within your environment, that you may weigh options and make choices, ‘determinism’ explicitly denies that possiblity.

    Again, when you say “…I don’t want to behave randomly.” you assume that you have free will and that your ‘wants’ are something which you may ‘choose’ to fulfill; that, somehow, your ‘wants’ are something other than a brain state which is itself the effect of a prior cause.

    Furthermore, the choice is not between determinism and randomness, that is a false dichotomy. There is no true randomness in the physical universe (even Quantum Mechanics is, in principle, predictable, hence the quest for a T of E). Every event in the physical (time space continuum) universe is determined by prior causes… except, apparently, that part of the universe which is intellectual… rational… knowing… and that is not ‘random’ in any sense of the word. It is rational, (i.e. the product of observation, intellection, and reason) action (behavior). Options weighed and choices made.

    Our intellect, reason, and knowledge are not compatable with ‘determinism’ as C. S. Lewis explains;

    Lewis then goes on to argue why it is that human reasoning cannot be explained in terms of the “whole show”. He illustrates this through the two different senses of the word “because”. In the first sense because can be used to mean a cause and effect relationship (“Grandfather is ill today because he ate lobster yesterday”). In the second sense because is used in a Ground and Consequent relation, for example, “Grandfather must be ill today because he hasn’t got up yet (and we know he is an invariably early riser when he is well”). The first sense indicates a connection between a state of affairs while the second is a logical relation between beliefs that involves an act of knowing or seeing or rational insight. Another example of the second sense of because is the mathematical reasoning if A=B and B=C then A=C.

    Lewis then explains that every event in nature, including our very thoughts, must be of the first type if naturalism is true. If this is the case, then when we ask “Why do you think this?”, the actual answer must always begin with a Cause-Effect style because. As a result, all of the thoughts that go into answering the question lie in a cause-effect relationship to one another including the final answer. But we know that to be caused is not to proved and so the physicalist, if he is consistent, must admit he has no way to know whether what he thinks is true. He has no way to bridge the gap between the two distinct senses of because. In fact, as Lewis notes, in argumentation people often act as if the two were unrelated so that if a person can find some bit of background about you that might indicate why you believe something (Cause-Effect) they can more easily discount your position. However, in our experience we know that not all of our thoughts are based on wholly on Cause-Effects relationships (we don’t draw all of the inferences possible from each thought). Some of our thoughts can cause other thoughts by being seen to be a ground for them (Ground-Consequent). Therefore, since some of our thoughts can be shown to be true acts of knowing or seeing that cannot be accounted for by naturalism, then naturalism is false. This then explains why all human reasoning and therefore science and knowledge must be thrown out for the physicalist since it depends on Ground-Consequent style thinking including the physicalist’s own conclusion that nature is the whole show. This is why that position is self-refuting. As Lewis conludes:

    “But this, as it seems to me, is what Natualism is bound to do. It offers what professes to be a full account of our mental behaviour; but this account, on inspection, leaves no room for the acts of knowing or insight on which the whole value of our thinking, as a means to truth, depends.”

    So a deterministic view of reality looks like common sense to me.

    There you go… making judgements again. 8^>

    Determinism and Human Action
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/#DetHumAct

    Is it absurd? You be the judge. 8^>

  106. woodchuck64

    Dave:

    That is the point of the reference to billiard balls, each event is the ‘inevitable consequence of antecendent states of affairs’ means that your agreement has nothing to do with a ‘conclusion ascertained after reasoning, observation etc.’ but is the consequent of some prior state of affairs, i.e. a cosmic ray impinged upon a synapse in your brain causing you to have a feeling of agreement. Your agreement with my statement is a brain state which has nothing whatsoever to do with reason or observation.

    A conclusion ascertained after observation and reasoning seems quite consistent with determinism, to me. Observation is a recording of events in some form to memory, reasoning is (in its simplest form at least) applying prior memorized patterns and rules to newly recorded memory. As an example, rule-based computer software is used with reasonable success for automatic medical diagnosis. Observations are typed in, the computer consults its memory for matching patterns and returns a list of diseases that may fit the symptoms. At any given moment in this simple process, the state of all transistors in the CPU are a direct consequence of a prior state of transistors and so the overall process is consistent with determinism without requiring cosmic rays to force a premature output. In saying “I agree with what you write”, I would be doing much the same thing as a computer: consulting memory, matching learned rules of logic and arriving at an output based on the input. If transistors are analogous to neurons and the computer program analogous to learned patterns and rules of reason (and this seems uncontroversial for naturalism), there is no problem with a reasoned conclusion under deterministic assumptions.

    Let me also address your reference to C.S Lewis’ argument from reason which I believe can be summarized as “how can one trust reason at all if it is the product of blind chance?”. If naturalism is true, organisms that are successful have become so by adaption to their environment. We human beings, as one of the most successful organisms, have so adapted to our environment that we have evolved the ability to recognize the patterns and rules that intrinsically characterize it. For example, the ability to use induction could only have evolved in a universe in which the past provides some continuity with the present and the future. “Reason” is the key to surviving and thriving in our world probably because our world is already capable of being understood, utilized and manipulated to our advantage by such abstractions.

    Therefore, why should we trust reason, under naturalism? Because it is a useful way of understanding our reality, first. If reason ever failed to be useful, that would be a good reason to abandon it; it hasn’t. Secondly, evolution is already known to endow organisms with strategies for utilizing and manipulating the environment to their advantage. With human beings and the evolution of language giving rise to a mastery of abstract concepts, it is possible that the best strategy of all, “reason”, has evolved. That’s another reason to trust it.

    When you say you “want to live and…” you assume that you are capable of making choices independent of the forces acting upon you within your environment

    Again, when you say “…I don’t want to behave randomly.” you assume that you have free will and that your ‘wants’ are something which you may ‘choose’ to fulfill; that, somehow, your ‘wants’ are something other than a brain state which is itself the effect of a prior cause.

    When I say “I want” or “I don’t want”, I’m referring to desires that are themselves “forces” acting on me. Some of these I can change but only if I have a prior existing desire to change, which means that, ultimately, I can not act freely of the sum total of my desires.

    The sum total of my desires — good/bad/wants/needs/hopes/dreams — are the real forces acting upon me over which I have no control. It is consistent for me to refer to those desires as what I want and what I don’t want, but also consistent to realize that changing those desires (outside the bounds of a desire to change a desire) are ultimately beyond my reach.

    So I don’t mean that my choices are independent of my desires. Rather, my choices follow my desires, which is exactly what I mean when I say “I want”. I can make choices independently of many forces in my environment but not independently of my desires, which, under determinism, are the eventual result of my environment and my genetics. So I don’t see any category mistakes here.

    It is also said that choice is an illusion if determinism is true. A choice to me is a process of analyzing a course of action based on one or more possibly conflicting desires. I fully expect that my choice will always reflect what happens to be the strongest desire at the moment of my choice and that feels like a free choice to me. If someone were to peer inside my mind prior to my decision and more quickly discern my desires (and their predictable ebb and flow with respect to my environment and genetics), they could flawless predict my decision. I only want to be free to make choices without coercion from others, I really can’t make sense of making choices that are “free” from what I want or don’t want to do.

    Note that my description above is introspective, I don’t think I’m adopting naturalistic or deterministic assumptions (except where noted). I’m just reporting what it feels like, and what it feels like looks consistent with determinism.

    Every event in the physical (time space continuum) universe is determined by prior causes… except, apparently, that part of the universe which is intellectual… rational… knowing… and that is not ‘random’ in any sense of the word. It is rational, (i.e. the product of observation, intellection, and reason) action (behavior).

    I explained above that reason seems quite deterministic. But further, what would it mean to say that repeated observation with the same prior experiences and same rules for interpretation would not give the same result every time? If reason is not deterministic, it seems to me that science would break down very quickly.

  107. Dave

    Hi woodchuck64

    Is a computer analogous to a human mind? I would suggest that it is not. A computer is a sophisticated calculating machine, and it may be programmed to perform some elaborate calculations, but can a computer really be said to ‘know’ something? Can a computer ‘imagine’ a steam engine, design a prototype, and build a working product? You are right, a computer is a deterministic aparatus. We program it to carry out particular functions and it performs those funtions with ‘mindless’ competence, but it is rank anthropomorphism to suppose that makes it analogous to a mind.

    Let me also address your reference to C.S Lewis’ argument from reason which I believe can be summarized as “how can one trust reason at all if it is the product of blind chance?”.

    I think you misapprehend his argument. It is not ‘blind chance’ that is the problem, but the deterministic quality of naturalism. You, your thoughts, beliefs, and actions are the necessary consequent of a prior state of ‘natural’ phenomena. Your wants/needs/hopes/dreams/belief/desire/ are only states of matter, and states of matter which are detsrmined, not by your will or reason, but by prior states of matter. Your brain state may change because you read a word, or eat a mushroom, or get struck by a cosmic ray. Evaluating and weighing states of mind, making decisions, and acting on those decisions presupposes a freedom from the blind forces of deterministic physics.

    If naturalism is true, organisms that are successful have become so by adaption to their environment.

    Actually, that doesn’t follow logically from the premise. Nor does it really make an coherent propostion. What do you mean by “successful” and what is “adaption to their environment”; what should happen if the environment were to change dramatically and suddenly? What if the organism(s) suffered catastrophic (random) mutation. What if an existing characteristic of that organism was sufficient to confuse its perception/cognition but not sufficient to kill it?

    We human beings, as one of the most successful organisms, have so adapted to our environment that we have evolved the ability to recognize the patterns and rules that intrinsically characterize it.

    Back to Hume and the skeptics… what about our allegedly reptillian brain stem which causes us to act incoherently and self destructively. What of our “primate brain evolved for survival on the savannahs of Africa” which is allegedly ill suited to the rigours of modern life?

    For example, the ability to use induction could only have evolved in a universe in which the past provides some continuity with the present and the future. “Reason” is the key to surviving and thriving in our world probably because our world is already capable of being understood, utilized and manipulated to our advantage by such abstractions.

    A fortunate coincidence, don’t you think? Which, of course, takes us full circle to the beginning of this post, “reason” cannot be a property of matter because matter is governed by the determinsitic laws of physics. A billiard ball, for all its motion and direction, has no concept (an abstraction) of the cue ball, the table, nor the pocket towards which it inerringly proceeds. An abstraction is not a physical event, nor is it governed by the laws of physics. It has no length, breadth, or weight, is not bounded by time or space.

    We are so accustomed to thinking that we think it is ‘natural’; that it is a product of natural processes, like gravity and chemistry and physics, but it is qualitatively different. You cannot measure a concept with anything physical, but, with concepts, you can measure the entire physical universe.

  108. woodchuck64

    Dave:

    Is a computer analogous to a human mind? I would suggest that it is not.

    Perhaps not, but if human thought is essentially brain states resulting from antecedent brain states eventually resulting from observation and memory, than it seems easy to say that the process looks pretty deterministic, the same way a computer’s operation looks deterministic. Whatever is truly non-deterministic is not easy to pin down (or at least I’m not getting it yet). If determinism is truly absurd, I would think it more obvious. For example, imagination seems deterministic in that we are essentially building virtual simulations of reality in our mind based on memorized experiences and letting them run with arbitrary parameters to see the result. Virtual modeling is familiar ground in computer science.

    Evaluating and weighing states of mind, making decisions, and acting on those decisions presupposes a freedom from the blind forces of deterministic physics.

    If I decide to go to the store to get food, where is the freedom from deterministic physics in that decision? Specifically, I observe that the pantry is bare, I feel hungry, I remember that eating food removes the pain of hunger, I remember that the store has food, I remember where the store is, and I then run a virtual model of myself going to the store to buy food, overlaying it with the actual physical steps of going to the store to buy food. I would feel like I’m making a decision to go the store even though my going to the store is inevitable given my hunger and my memories of how to assuage it. A choice of which store? I’m going to be driven by preferences such as distance and cost which will determine my choice. I’m determined in my actions by my desires and the memories I have, yet it is a choice to me.

    This also seems to be something that a computer model could do if it was programmed to recognize an input as the need for a certain action and could rely on various learned or taught virtual models of reality as a way of interacting with reality.

    If naturalism is true, organisms that are successful have become so by adaption to their environment.

    Actually, that doesn’t follow logically from the premise. Nor does it really make an coherent propostion. What do you mean by “successful” and what is “adaption to their environment”; what should happen if the environment were to change dramatically and suddenly? What if the organism(s) suffered catastrophic (random) mutation. What if an existing characteristic of that organism was sufficient to confuse its perception/cognition but not sufficient to kill it?

    I don’t really follow your objections here. “Successful” would generally mean that a population of organisms is growing rather than shrinking, which would only be possible if it was well-adapted to the challenges its environment offers (food availability, predators, parasites), under evolutionary theory. A changing environment could certainly render a successful population unsuccessful by decimating it. I suppose a spontaneous genetic disease could wipe out a population, but that doesn’t seem to be common driver of evolution. Confusing perception/cognition, if that perception/cognition was critical for an environment, would prevent success of the population in the first place, I would think, more so than allowing it to thrive.

    We human beings, as one of the most successful organisms, have so adapted to our environment that we have evolved the ability to recognize the patterns and rules that intrinsically characterize it.

    Back to Hume and the skeptics… what about our allegedly reptillian brain stem which causes us to act incoherently and self destructively. What of our “primate brain evolved for survival on the savannahs of Africa” which is allegedly ill suited to the rigours of modern life?

    These failings just don’t hurt our success as a species that much. But I don’t think I’m getting your point. I don’t mean to say that humans are successful in an absolute sense but relative to other species. Likewise, reason would not be guaranteed to be the absolute best strategy for species success under naturalism.

    For example, the ability to use induction could only have evolved in a universe in which the past provides some continuity with the present and the future. “Reason” is the key to surviving and thriving in our world probably because our world is already capable of being understood, utilized and manipulated to our advantage by such abstractions.

    A fortunate coincidence, don’t you think?

    That’s my point. It is not a coincidence under naturalism because we observe that evolution acts like a search engine that finds strategies for successful populations (via mutation and natural selection). A very successful strategy would be to find a way for an organism to exploit a critical property of the universe. Induction is a way of exploiting one such property, a degree of continuity to past, present, future.

    Actually, many organisms “act” like they value induction, using experience to guide behavior. With humans, though, I think language was the big evolutionary win that made it possible to build, share and enhance mental constructs, using those to conceptualize and generalize patterns in our environment.

    Which, of course, takes us full circle to the beginning of this post, “reason” cannot be a property of matter because matter is governed by the determinsitic laws of physics. A billiard ball, for all its motion and direction, has no concept (an abstraction) of the cue ball, the table, nor the pocket towards which it inerringly proceeds. An abstraction is not a physical event, nor is it governed by the laws of physics. It has no length, breadth, or weight, is not bounded by time or space.

    We are so accustomed to thinking that we think it is ‘natural’; that it is a product of natural processes, like gravity and chemistry and physics, but it is qualitatively different. You cannot measure a concept with anything physical, but, with concepts, you can measure the entire physical universe.

    Abstractions occur naturally with language. As soon as you and I agree on a particular sound for an object, we’ve created an abstraction (a word) that simply doesn’t fit in the physical universe as you note above. Yet I don’t see anything complicated about agreeing on an auditory symbol to represent some physical object. I think a computer could do the same. Further, as soon as you and I agree on a word for “cat”, we’ve “discovered” the logical law of identity. A cat can only be a cat. When we agree on the word for “dog”, we’ve just created the logical law of non-contradiction that a “cat” can not be a “dog”. So I’m not seeing why abstractions per say are necessarily “unnatural” or incompatible with a deterministic view of naturalism.

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