Monday, June 15, 2009

Dialogue with an imaginary student on moral objectivity

A redated post.

Question: What is the difference between a theory of moral values according to which morals are objective and a theory of values according to which morals are subjective?

Student Answer: Belief in objective moral values means that something can be right or wrong independent of what individuals or societies feel about it. If morals are objective, then regardless of how people feel about, say, human sacrifice, it is still really wrong. If morals are subjective, then the “last word” lies with a social group or the individual himself.

Question: Sounds good. Let me ask you this. If something is subjective, could everyone be wrong about it? What if something is objective?

Student answer: If it’s objective, then conceivably everyone has it wrong. If it’s subjective, that makes no sense. If it’s just a matter of how people feel about something, and everyone feels the same way, then how could everyone be wrong?

Question: So, could you give me an example of something that everyone would agree is objective and something everyone would agree is subjective.

Answer: The claim that the earth is round is objective. We can prove that it’s round, so even if everyone thought it was flat it would still be round. The claim that McDonald’s Quarter Pounder is better than BK’s Whopper would be an example of a subjective claim. It’s just a matter of taste buds and personal preference. You can’t even get an argument going.

Question: What about something like intelligent life on other planets, or whether or not God exists. We may not be able to prove those one way or the other. Does that make them subjective?

Answer: In those cases we could have overwhelming evidence one way or the other. For example, we could visit those other planets, even though we can’t now. And if everything started happening like is supposed to happen in the Book of Revelation, I suppose it would be just insane to be an atheist.

Question: So what about abortion let's say. Is it objectively right or objectively wrong.

Answer: That has to be subjective, because it might be right or wrong depending on the circumstance.

Question: Wait a minute. Does that mean that whether abortion is right or wrong is subjective, or that we need to know more about the case before we decide whether it's right or wrong.

Answer: But we're never going to agree on whether abortion is right or not.

Question: Of course, lack of agreement doesn't prove that something is subjective. Remember, you said that if something was objective everyone could have it wrong. Is the abortion issue subjective, or complicated?

Answer: Well, it looks complicated to me. But does that mean it isn't subjective.

Question: Well, I'm not arguing that it's objective either at this point. I'm just trying to get you to realize that something could be objective even if it's hard to decide. Let's change the example. Take the practice of forcing young girls to enter polygamous relationships with older men in Colorado City. They think it's OK, we don't. Is somebody wrong?

Answer: In that case I would be inclined to think that the practice is just wrong, no matter who thinks it right.

Question: So that means you think at least some moral judgments are objectively true or false.

Answer: Well, I suppose so.

52 comments:

Jeff G said...

"It’s just a matter of taste buds and personal preference. You can’t even get an argument going. "

This seems like a pretty weak version of subjectivity for the purposes at hand. Of course, maybe you and I are actually agreeing that moral subjectivity of this kind really isn't tenable.

The moral non-realism which I endorse, however, would better be compared to whether a green piece of paper counts as money or not. This question is surely not objective as you define the term, but we can clearly argue about whether some things are money or not.

Anonymous said...

"This question is surely not objective as you define the term, but we can clearly argue about whether some things are money or not."

I think you have some things confused. First, what counts as money may be *objective* while not being *realistic.* Likewise, in ethics, one can be a non-realist while being an objectivist.

Your account sounds as if it is some form of culteral relativism. We can agree on what is moral or not because we have set the standards, as a society, of what is moral or not.

Once we set those standards, say, that *those* things are money while *these* things are not, you cannot be wrong about *those* things. But morality seems a bit different, doesn't it? Can't we be wrong in our moral judgments. As long as we agree with our society about the green paper in our wallets, we can't be wrong about what money is. We're infallible in this way. To say that morality is akin to this strikes me as inplausible. Not only that, it makes moral disagreements, which we cannot doubt exist, somewhat irrational. Oh, not to mention no one has successfuly defined "culture" or "society."

Mark Frank said...

These paradoxes about moral objectivity get their force because they treat moral statements as descriptions of an object or of a personal preference when they are more subtle. Moral statements are neither an objective fact "the earth is round" or a matter of pure preference "oranges are delicious". The statement "child prostitution is wrong" expresses my opinion of the act, but it also expresses

* my desire that others should stop doing it - in this respect it is more like an order or a plea than a description
* my belief that most people if they saw it my way would share my opinion i.e. a sort of propensity

This means that if someone says "child prostitution is OK" I cannot let it rest as just a difference of opinion. On the other hand there is no additional property of wrongness which exists over and above the facts about child prostitution.

If we recognise that moral statements are a blend of calls to action and descriptions of how people would react if they knew the full circumstances then the question "could everyone be wrong (incorrect) about it" becomes irrelevant.

Jason Pratt said...

Incidentally, I think you've got a typo in the dialogue, Victor:

{{Remember, you said that if something was •subjective• everyone could have it wrong.}}

Actually, the student had agreed that if something was objective then (in principle) everyone could have it wrong.

JRP

Jason Pratt said...

Mark: {{The statement "child prostitution is wrong" expresses my opinion of the act, but... On the other hand there is no additional property of wrongness which exists over and above the facts about child prostitution.}}

So then, you're saying your opinion of the act is mistaken. (Your opinion is that the act is wrong, but in fact the act is neither right nor wrong.)

JRP

Jason Pratt said...

What complicates matters, is that the subject cannot be removed from the evaluation because the subject is doing the evaluation. It is an objective fact that (in some real sense) a dark brown table with an iMac is sitting in front of me at this moment. But I am subjectively perceiving, and drawing inferences about, this objective fact--even that it is 'an objective fact'. Its objective reality doesn't depend on my judgments or perceptions about it of course, some quantum behaviors notwithstanding, but my notion 'x is an objective reality' is, by being my notion, subjective about some kind of objective reality.

Consequently, we, as subjects, will still be subjects when considering (discussing, perceiving, drawing inferences about) an objectively ethical reality.

The pertinent question is whether there is an objective reality (or reality-set) which is in itself objectively 'ethical' in quality, whether or not some subject is in relation to it. If ethicality is only subjective, then this is another way of stating the proposition that all perceptions, evaluations, judgments etc. in favor of the existence of an objectively ethical reality(-set) are mistaken.


I posted up a 28 entry discussion of ethical theories (including criticisms of theistic ethics) last summer on the Cadre Journal starting here. In the fourth entry, I summarized the relationships involved this way:

.......[excerpt here]
Such ethics [given either one of two broad classes of ethical theory] are purely subjective in reality, although in practice the mass weight of the floating average of opinion about what constitutes 'murder' gives a sort of quasi-objective standard for purposes of comparison. However, the floating average is not itself objectively ethical. Its shape is, in essence, a coincidence of history; it could have been something else. In such theories, 'some types of killing can be or always are wrong' is not in principle a statement like 'The sum of the squares of the two shortest sides of a right triangle, is equal to the square of the side opposite the right angle'. It is a statement more like 'Currently the English word for such a shape is "triangle".'

Now, it is an objective fact that the current word in English is "triangle"; and it is an objective fact that at this moment there is such-and-such an average of opinion in the United States as to what constitutes murder. But it is also an objective fact that our English word for "triangle" is merely a subjective convenience, purely dependent upon superinducing circumstances of more-or-less trivial character; and under this ethical theory, so is our average opinion (or average opinions, in regard to disparate social groups) about murder.

The objectively ethical standard therefore must be something personal, and it must be something at the ground of reality so that it depends upon nothing else but itself.

And those two requirements combined, are simply another description of God.

JRP

Victor Reppert said...

But even if I am gving a call to action, it seems to me that there is something missing if someone who doesn't share my feelings isn't equally motivated to act in the same way. I could, for example, have a preference which I wanted to universalize that says that whites and blacks should be treated separately and unequally. Two competing convictions face one another, one supporting integration and the other supporting segregation. Does someone have it right, here?

Mark Frank said...


But even if I am gving a call to action, it seems to me that there is something missing if someone who doesn't share my feelings isn't equally motivated to act in the same way. I could, for example, have a preference which I wanted to universalize that says that whites and blacks should be treated separately and unequally. Two competing convictions face one another, one supporting integration and the other supporting segregation. Does someone have it right, here?


That is where the second part of my account of morality comes in. We make moral statements with the underlying assumption that if others could see it our way they would agree. And mostly we are right (there is plenty of research to support this). There are some moral disagreements where this may not be true (abortion is likely example) and neither party will ever be brought round to the other's viewpoint. But both parties still act and debate the issue on that reasonable assumption. That doesn't mean there is something else - the wrongness or rightness of abortion to be discovered or observed or perceived.

Nacisse said...

From the mere fact that someone (or nearly everyone) is of a certain opinion and issues a certain order it doesn’t follow that anyone ought to follow it... what you need is the further fact that what is called for is actually good. Just because people agree it doesn’t mean it is true; and if it isn’t true there is no Good reason for anyone to believe or do it...

Jason Pratt said...

Mark: {{We make moral statements with the underlying assumption that if others could see it our way they would agree. [...B] oth parties still act and debate the issue on that reasonable assumption. That doesn't mean there is something else - the wrongness or rightness of abortion to be discovered or observed or perceived.}}

Surely there has to be something else to debate about, though. We assume that if others could "see it our way" they would agree--fine, that's uncontroversial. (One hardly even needs studies to confirm it. {s}) But see what? Obviously, this rightness or wrongness to be discovered or observed or perceived either is what we're debating about (trying to get others to see/discover what we think we're seeing/have discovered).

If there is no rightness or wrongness, in principle (with due respect to complexities of a situation which may be incompletely understood or even known about), then the whole enterprise of the debate is a farce.

This is why I noted earlier that you had talked about your opinion of X-act being wrong, but then denied there was any real rightness or wrongness to the act. In doing so, the moment you admit this, you leave us absolutely no reason at all to take you seriously for even a moment concerning your opinion about X-act. You aren't even mistaken about it having real ethical content (pro or con)--you know (or believe) it has no real ethical content, but are willing to pretend that it does in order to manipulate various social groups comprised of people who are operating under what you take to be an illusion that there's some ethical quality to X-act (pro or con) worth making decisions about.

JRP

Mark Frank said...

From the mere fact that someone (or nearly everyone) is of a certain opinion and issues a certain order it doesn’t follow that anyone ought to follow it... what you need is the further fact that what is called for is actually good.

nacisse

You are assuming the thing under debate. To say "X is evil" is not just to say "most people dislike X". The meaning comes from the total context of how moral language is used. So it includes an exhortation to stop doing X, prevent others doing X, ostracise people who do X etc. These are all components of its meaning. You are right that "X is good" doesn't follow from the descriptive fact that most people approve of X. But the extra bit that doesn't follow is not a description. It is closer to an exhortation.

I can maybe explain by an analogy. I guess you would normally accept that the judgement as to whether a film was boring or interesting was subjective - a matter of opinion. But imagine a context where a group has to choose the next film which they all watch and pay for. One member feels passionately that film X is fascinating and that the others just don't understand it. Others disagree. In this context the description "interesting" is no longer just a subjective statement. It is loaded with implications for action which affects the whole group. Especially if those who disagree are certain that the others would agree with them if they only understood. You can imagine participants getting quite heated: "how can you be so stupid - the whole point of the film is ....". A participant who adores the film is not going to accept that the film is boring just because the majority of the group thinks it is. The context gives the statement "the film X is interesting" a different meaning but it doesn't mean there is an additional property "interest" to be perceived.

Mark Frank said...

Jason

Surely there has to be something else to debate about, though. We assume that if others could "see it our way" they would agree--fine, that's uncontroversial. (One hardly even needs studies to confirm it. {s}) But see what? Obviously, this rightness or wrongness to be discovered or observed or perceived either is what we're debating about (trying to get others to see/discover what we think we're seeing/have discovered).

The debate is about the reaction to the facts. Not about additional facts. You could (with some awkwardness) cut out the moral language altogether with the same meaning and implications. Something on the lines of “If you could see what is really involved with abortion you would call for it to be banned as well”. The consequence is an action – not an additional property of wrongness.

If there is no rightness or wrongness, in principle (with due respect to complexities of a situation which may be incompletely understood or even known about), then the whole enterprise of the debate is a farce.

It is not a farce to discuss a call to action which affects the whole community.

This is why I noted earlier that you had talked about your opinion of X-act being wrong, but then denied there was any real rightness or wrongness to the act. In doing so, the moment you admit this, you leave us absolutely no reason at all to take you seriously for even a moment concerning your opinion about X-act. You aren't even mistaken about it having real ethical content (pro or con)--you know (or believe) it has no real ethical content, but are willing to pretend that it does in order to manipulate various social groups comprised of people who are operating under what you take to be an illusion that there's some ethical quality to X-act (pro or con) worth making decisions about.

There is no pretence. I think there is massive ethical content in statements such as “torture is wrong”. I just don’t think the content is a statement about some property of torture (which would still leave the question – why prevent it just because it has the property of wrongness?). If I say that I find abortion abhorrent and desperately want to stop the practice and that if you could see things my way then you would also want to stop it – then I think you have good reason to take me seriously. (Incidentally I am not against abortion. It is just a good example).

nacisse said...

I would agree that moral language includes exhortations of the kind you mention but exhortations are only interesting (or have moral force) if they are about something more than human psychology. If you are exhorting me to ‘stop doing X’ or ‘ostracise people who do X’ I need a good (or evil) reason to listen – like ‘X is evil so I should stop X-ing..’ the truth or moral facts are what gives your exhortations force in these cases.
A film would be interesting to me if it attracts me for some reason – if it grabs my attention by appealing to my interests. Now maybe a film would interest me if I was not so shallow or if profound things attracted me or whatever, but that is just a problem (if it is a problem?) with me – it is about human psychology. If we were in a film group you might want to point out how shallow I am and this might lead to heated arguments about what we should do, but unless you’re saying morality is reducible to human psychology (and thereby losing its exhorting force) I don’t think the analogy is apt...

Mark Frank said...

Narcisse

Moral statements are not "about" human psychology. They are about things such as limiting suffering, honouring committments, sharing things equally. They get their force from our largely common reactions to these things. They express our attitudes to these things, but they don't describe our attitudes.

There is plenty of force in saying "War causes massive suffering. We are all against suffering. Let us prevent it". The sentence "war is wrong" summarises this position (with lots of additional nuances) but doesn't make the conclusion any more powerful or logical. The psychopath who is not against suffering will not be any more convinced by adding that war is wrong.

The film analogy is only an analogy to illustrate two points.

1) you can't divorce meaning from context

2) that statements that express (express, not describe) our own attitudes can move to the stage where it is not possible to just say "we will agree to disagree" given the context.

Ilíon said...

Jason Pratt: "So then, you're saying your opinion of the act is mistaken. (Your opinion is that the act is wrong, but in fact the act is neither right nor wrong.)"

Isn't one always left dumbfounded by this eternal trying to square the circle?

Ilíon said...

Nacisse, do we somewhat know one another from the ARN discussion board?

Mark Frank said...

Jason Pratt: "So then, you're saying your opinion of the act is mistaken. (Your opinion is that the act is wrong, but in fact the act is neither right nor wrong.)"

Ilion: Isn't one always left dumbfounded by this eternal trying to square the circle?

No. Because when I say the act is wrong I am not assessing whether the act has the predicate "wrong". Try substituting the phrase:

(A) "Try to prevent X and encourage others to do so, because if you understood it well enough you would want everyone to stop doing X"

It's a real mouthful, but it has roughly the right logical form. The statement (A) might be mistaken, in the sense that the second part might be false, but not because there is no such thing as right or wrong. There is no squaring the circle.

Jason Pratt said...

Mark,

{{The meaning comes from the total context of how moral language is used. So it includes an exhortation to stop doing X [etc.]}}

But the exhortative additions to the context are an exhortation about no real quality, with no real meaning. The brute fact that there are exhortations to stop doing X, prevent others doing X, ostracise people doing X (or the positive versions thereof), ends up having exactly zero connection to any pertinent quality of X that these people think is worth the exhortations.

The analogy of interestingosity is certainly telling enough as a practical application of your theory about ethics. One person is fascinated by a movie; other people are not. But the objective content (almost the existence) of the movie itself is utterly disregarded--except by the people you’re talking about in the analogy, who must be under a misapprehension that there's something worth discussing regarding the movie itself. It becomes pointless to even be discussing the movie (dissenters are certain the others with agree with them if they only understood what??--a content-question with no possible answer); only (solipsistically?) discussing one’s reactions to (not even one’s pertinent judgments of) the movie.

As you yourself say in reply to me, the debate (under your theory about ‘ethics’) is only about reaction to the facts. Not only is it not about “additional facts”, it isn’t even about the facts themselves (beyond our reactions.) Indeed, it isn't even about our attitudes to the facts (as you go on to say to Nacisse.) What exactly is left to even be debating about?!


What is being excluded is any pertinent why. It may be descriptively true that “if [I] could see what is really involved with abortion [I] would call for it to be banned as well.” But why would I therefore call for it to be banned? An irrational reaction of some kind is the most I can suss out of your theory; that, or a completely mistaken apprehension that X (involved with abortion) is actually wrong. Either way, debating some putatively 'ethical' topic becomes a misguided enterprise at a root level.

{{The consequence is an action – not an additional property of wrongness.}}

This on the other hand is simply a category error; no one denies that the consequence of deciding X is wrong could be some kind of action. (Maybe always is some kind of decisive action?--except in unusual special case situations where decisive action is distracted from.) But the consequence of deciding X is wrong is not itself a property of wrongness (additional or otherwise).


{{It is not a farce to discuss a call to action which affects the whole community.}}

It is in fact quite technically a farce (in a literary genre sense) when a call to action affecting the whole community is based on either a total misunderstanding of the situation or else on a group solipsism. Comedies (in the sense of humorous dramas) are routinely designed on that principle; and the characters don’t usually come out of it respected by the audience, being revealed to be either incompetent/deluded fools, or raging egotists, or both.

Which doesn’t (as I point out routinely in my series to which I linked) make this theory necessarily wrong. But an ethical theory that does involve an objectively ethical grounding reality--within (and in relation to) which reality decisions about ethics made by persons can have something other than utterly mistaken or useful-legal-fiction meanings--that theory does have this advantage, if true: it means there can be true dignity in a person’s decision, as a person, evaluating the ethical quality of a situation and acting in conjunction with that evaluation. Even if the person ends up mistaken, she won’t be so mistaken as to think there was anything worth actually judging about.


{{I think there is massive ethical content in statements such as “torture is wrong”. I just don’t think the content is a statement about some property of torture}}

In which case your original statement that X-act is “wrong” is still totally misleading: for your statement was (prima facie) about some property of X-act.

Meanwhile, the “massive ethical content” you find in such statements can’t be about the rightness or wrongness of the act such statements are about. It’s about (a.) a dislike (but why?--apparently there is no ethical why, though) and (b.) exhortations to do or not-do X (but why?--apparently there is no ethical why, though.)

It’s non-ethical ethicality. It may be ‘ethical’, but it isn’t really ‘ethical’.


{{which would still leave the question – why prevent it just because it has the property of wrongness?}}

Which of course can only at best be a tu quoque reply. Why exhort about preventing it due to mere not-right-or-wrong dislike, either?

I will add in fairness here that when the metaphysical issue is approached from this direction, a tu quoque is going to be the best that a proponent of any ethical theory can wrangle out of the debate. I don’t hold the result against your position (in that sense). It only means that the logically prior question goes back to: what kind of reality do we in fact inhabit? If the properties are A then the next question is ‘How now shall we live?’ If the properties are B then the next question is still ‘How now shall we live?’

What I want to get clear is that without ethical content being even possibly true about X-act (or situation) such as “torture” or “abortion” or “child prostitution” (or whatever, including acts or situations typically believed to be ethically positive), it can only be a (proportionately) massive mistake at best to think there is massive ethical content in statements such as “torture is wrong” which purport to be about ethical content of (in this case) torture. In fact, under such a reality, it can only be a massive mistake at best to think there is any-at-all (much less “massive”) “ethical content” in any proposition or situation.

If you happen to find abortion abhorrent (using the example as provided; replace it with something you actually care about, to taste) and desperately want to stop the practice, that is nothing to the point. It may be a set of facts, but that set of facts as well can have NO ethical content if there is no such thing as having ethical content. (Indeed, under your theory ‘moral’ statements cannot even be describing our attitudes!)

Or, if you mean that there is such a thing as ethical content but ethical content has no quality of rightness or wrongness, then neither does your finding abortion abhorrent, desperately wanting to stop the practice, etc. Whatever “your way” is that I would also want to stop abortion if I could see things “your way”, it has nothing to do with rightness or wrongness. Not in itself, and not about abortion. Whatever “taking you seriously” means, it cannot have anything to do at all with “rightness or wrongness”.

And now I am left without any relevant content I can think of for why I would bother to “take you seriously” (in the sense of potentially agreeing with you) concerning your opinion about stopping abortion: clearly it has nothing at all to do with abortion being wrong (despite your opinion having been stated as “abortion is wrong”). Are you going to pay me, perhaps, to help you stop abortion? That has nothing to do with actually seeing things “your way”, whatever that is.


{{There is plenty of force in saying "War causes massive suffering. We are all against suffering. Let us prevent it".}}

Well, let’s see: it isn’t even a description of our attitudes; the “summary” sentence “war is wrong” is completely mistaken as to content (there is no rightness or wrongness about war); no right or wrong reason can be given for why anyone should be (or is) against suffering. Mob reaction to some mere distaste the mob happens (incidentally) to share, is the most that can be... I’m coming up short for a verb here... assessed?! Assessed about it. {shrug}

The other mob over there, also reacting to some distaste they happen to substantially share, is going to war instead. There is no, and can be no, rightness or wrongness in either case. Though I can tell you which mob is going to win and survive, given a conflict between the two. {s} Seig heil Hegelian pragmaticism! If all we’re talking about is a will-to-power “plenty of force” here, the Nazis win. Hope you aren’t a Jew or a gypsy or gay. (I’d say “too bad” if you are, but that would also be incorrect under your ethical theory, implying some kind of real wrong being done to you.)

{{The psychopath who is not against suffering will not be any more convinced by adding that war is wrong.}}

True, though your appeal to a cognitively crippled evaluator doesn’t go far enough; neither will non-psychopaths who have learned their lesson that there is no right or wrong. You do understand that someone who really does accept and believe that there is no right and wrong, is not for a single moment going to accept that “war is wrong” is a true statement--right? (I mean, correct? {g}) He is not going to be convinced of this by “war causes massive suffering, we are all against suffering” either.

{{when I say the act is wrong I am not assessing whether the act has the predicate "wrong".}}

Which pretty much reduces the statement to meaninglessness. Or deception, since after all you know very well most people are going to think that “is” means some kind of “is” in regard to some ethical quality of wrong (not in regard to some putatively ethical quality of not-wrong-or-right-but-called-wrong-for-some-completely-unknown-reason-which-Mark-denies-has-anything-to-do-with-deceiving-the-people-who-think-war-is-actually-wrong.)

Not that the deception of people who really do believe war is wrong, would itself be wrong, of course--that's self-consistent enough.

{{Try substituting the phrase:

(A) "Try to prevent X and encourage others to do so, because if you understood it well enough you would want everyone to stop doing X"}}

You forgot to include at the end “...even though X isn’t actually right or wrong.” That would seem to be important for an accurate understanding of X and why I would want Y-set of people to stop doing it.

JRP

Victor Reppert said...

"If others could see it our way they would agree." I wonder what this amounts to, and how this could be applied to cases like the exposing of infants by most ancient peoples before Christianity came on the scene, the practice of forced polygamy in Colorado City, the practice of slavery in the antebellum South, etc. The idea that somehow, if Bull Connor just had more information, he wouldn't have turned the hoses on the police dogs on the marchers in Alabama strikes me as, well, quaint.

Mark Frank said...

Jason

I started to reply to your post in detail but it got so long that I think the main points were getting lost. Instead I will summarise my position in a different way and what I think your position is.

My position:

There are things such as suffering, broken commitments, and gross unfairness that we (humanity) almost universally agree we want to prevent and other things such as happiness and long lives that we want to encourage. That’s just a fact of nature. I will call factors like these moral drivers.

A couple of complications:

* It is also true that we also mostly want to increase our own comfort and extend our own lives etc. That’s another fact about human nature. But these are selfish drives while the moral drivers are altruistic.

* Sometimes moral drives conflict with each other (the doctor who discovers he is operating on an evil dictator) or with selfish drives (I ought to give more to charity but I really want a new car). Nothing exceptional about this. All animals suffer from conflicting drives from time to time.

So far this is all biology, and surely beyond dispute? It can be observed.

Moral language get its meaning from this biological context. Very roughly speaking - it is used to indicate that these moral drivers are present and exhort the members the community to act on them.

This is very crude. We have built elaborate structures on top of this basis over the years.

Your position:

You want to insert an extra concept between the moral drivers and the action. Instead of going directly from – “there is suffering, let’s prevent it” – you find it necessary to go “there is suffering, suffering is wrong, therefore we should prevent it”

My question is – what does the “suffering is wrong” add to this? This model, if it were true, would raise some difficult questions.

Is suffering wrong and how do we know?

Is it a contingent fact that suffering is wrong which might be false at another time or place? Or does the wrongness follow necessarily from the suffering?

Just because suffering is wrong – what kind of reason is that for preventing it?

My position has none of the problems.

A lot of your counter arguments are on the lines of “if you leave out the property of wrongness or rightness then the argument ‘there is suffering, let’s prevent it’ is vacuous or it is not really ethical”. This is assuming your own model as a premise. My model is what I think we all mean by “ethical” if we recognise it and it is anything but vacuous. It taps into our deepest motivations.

I will have to stop this fascinating discussion shortly as it using far too much time.

normajean said...

Mark writes: Instead of going directly from “there is suffering, let’s prevent it” – you find it necessary to go “there is suffering, suffering is wrong, therefore we should prevent it.” My question is – what does the “suffering is wrong” add to this?

For one thing, unfortunately not everyone agrees with you (for example) that if there is suffering then it should be prevented. In this way, perhaps the statement “suffering is wrong” may serve as psychological value for human beings who might otherwise share opinions different than your own and are bent toward making people hurt—remember Dahmer?

normajean said...

Victor, sorry off topic!

You once summarized Quinne stating that physical facts do not logically entail mental facts, just as physical facts do not logically entail moral facts. Getting an "about" from an "is" is just as impossible as getting an "ought" from an is, and for much the same reason.

What were you getting at?

normajean said...

I got it here

http://dangerousidea2.blogspot.com/2008/01/some-replies-to-poeple-on-debunking.html

nacisse said...

Mark said: “Moral statements are not "about" human psychology. They are about things such as limiting suffering, honouring committments, sharing things equally. They get their force from our largely common reactions to these things. They express our attitudes to these things, but they don't describe our attitudes.”

But you’re talking about our dispositions to call things good when you say ‘our common reactions’ or ‘express our attitudes’ or even our ‘biology’ these may be the reasons we call things good or evil (it’s our psychological make-up maybe) but from the fact that people are disposed to call things good it doesn’t follow that they are good. That would be like saying from the fact that people are disposed to believe X is true X is really true.

Mark said: “There is plenty of force in saying "War causes massive suffering. We are all against suffering. Let us prevent it".”

I don’t think so – because it is a false statement. There was a rather infamous study done on peoples willingness to inflict pain on others that showed people are not that adverse to others suffering . i can’t recall more about the study right now unfortunately. But again it doesn’t follow that just because people are against something that therefore we should not promote it. Maybe it is a mistake to be against suffering in this case.
I’m not sure what makes people into psychopaths really so I could not say if a belief in the truth of moral statements if believed by a psychopath would alter behaviour or not. I think it may though – nihilism is probably common amongst psychopaths and contributes to the problem.



It is a small cyber-world after-all, ilion. I had read victor repperts book sometime ago and decide to check him out online.

nacisse said...

I was thinking of stanley milgrams experiments above...

Ilíon said...

Nacisse: "It is a small cyber-world after-all, ilion. I had read victor repperts book sometime ago and decide to check him out online."

Kind of the other way around for me ...

Nearly two years ago the sudden insight came to me (I phrase it that way because I wasn't consciously thinking about the issue) that ... contrary to what we've all probably been taught ... it *is* possible to prove that there is a God.

So, since I find it hard to believe that the particular argument that followed from the insight as it flashed into my mind is totally new/unique, I went looking on the internet for the same or similar arguments. I quickly found Mr Reppert's blog, and became a regular reader of it, and bought his book.

Mark Frank said...

Looking through the various responses I see I have not explained my position clearly.

I am not saying that humans always act to minimise suffering etc. I am saying the humans almost always find minimising suffering a reason for action. It may well be that other factors overwhelm this desire. In the case of the milgram's experiments the whole point was to show that the inclination to obey authority wins out over our compassion – but the compassion is still there. That’s obvious if you look at this famous clip. The subject is clearly unhappy about what he perceives as someone in pain.

At different times and places there are enormous cultural differences in what is considered right and wrong. Victor gives some examples. However, underlying this is a common core. See, for example, Jonathan Haidt’s work as described here.

That brings me to Victor’s post. Yes it is easy to point to examples where people have behaved in a way that most of us would find quite unacceptable. But I am not saying that all was needed was for the perpetrators to be better informed. There are two possibilities. Maybe the perpetrators felt guilty about their actions but were overwhelmed by other motives such as obeying orders or acquiring power. Or maybe they thought it was OK to act that way. The first case is not really relevant. Whatever our account of ethics we all accept that people suffer from weakness of the will. The second case is the important one. We condemn them because we do not believe their actions were OK even though they thought they were OK at the time.

On my account what is happening is that we believe that if they could see it from our point of view they would share our reaction to these activities. "Our point of view" is not just a matter of more information. For example, a key element is that we include a wider group as being equal to ourselves. A 150 years ago other races were widely regarded as not being equal. Education and exposure have changed our view and our reaction to the suffering of other races and groups has changed as a result. This is surely key to condemning the practice of slavery.

On the other hand those who see right and wrong as some kind of additional predicate have to give an account of how slaveowners never realised that slavery was wrong (even thought it was an objective fact) and how we “discovered” that it was. You also have to explain why anyone would want to prevent slavery just because they discovered it had the property of wrongness.

Mark Frank said...

On second thoughts I am not happy with the reference to Haidt. It is too obscure. A better reference is this essay by Stephen Pinker. I expect many of you have already read it.

Steve Lovell said...

Mark Said: On my account what is happening is that we believe that if they could see it from our point of view they would share our reaction to these activities. "Our point of view" is not just a matter of more information. For example, a key element is that we include a wider group as being equal to ourselves. A 150 years ago other races were widely regarded as not being equal. Education and exposure have changed our view and our reaction to the suffering of other races and groups has changed as a result. This is surely key to condemning the practice of slavery.

Well, for what its worth this seems substantially correct as an account of what actually happens, but it doesn't suffice to ground the objectivity of our judgements. Indeed, if you don't supplement this account with anything further, it seems equivalent to some form of cultural relativism, but with an extra stamp of the foot insisting that "our point of view" is somehow superior.

What, apart from capturing the moral facts (more) correctly, is any better about "seeing things from our point of view" as opposed to seeing things from some other point of view?

It's later in time that many views that we criticise, but it may even be a minority view in the present (at least it shouldn't worry you if it is), but then, I can't help but repeat the question: what makes the one point of view any better than the others?

Steve

Mark Frank said...

Well, for what its worth this seems substantially correct as an account of what actually happens, but it doesn't suffice to ground the objectivity of our judgements. Indeed, if you don't supplement this account with anything further, it seems equivalent to some form of cultural relativism, but with an extra stamp of the foot insisting that "our point of view" is somehow superior.

What, apart from capturing the moral facts (more) correctly, is any better about "seeing things from our point of view" as opposed to seeing things from some other point of view?


Steve

I am glad you agree I gave a correct account of what actually happens. I do believe that one moral view can be superior to another. I am not sure if you would call it truly objective.

In many, many cases, one view may be superior simply because it is right about the facts. Many racists probably did genuinely believe that other races were in some way inferior to their own or that to allow other races to have power would have all sorts of horrendous consequences. They were wrong. We have learned that there is no relevant difference and there are no such consequences.

Also there is such a thing as moral progress. In the 19th century many people moved from believing that slavery is acceptable to condemning it. There are very few people who made the reverse change. This is similar to aesthetics. Our response to moral issues has grown more refined. Once you learn to prefer Mozart to the Spice Girls you are unlikely to reverse your opinion.

I also think there a very few cases where it really is a matter of opinion. Abortion is probably one. Although you never totally eliminate the role of underlying beliefs about facts e.g. you may believe the foetus has a soul from conception. Which is not to say it is unimportant. It is massively important for both parties and resolving such a dispute is terribly hard.

None of this requires some additional objective moral property of good or bad.

Steve Lovell said...

Mark,

I do rather wonder what many of your claims amount to here. You make the following points:

(1) Many racists probably did genuinely believe that other races were in some way inferior to their own or that to allow other races to have power would have all sorts of horrendous consequences. They were wrong. We have learned that there is no relevant difference and there are no such consequences.
(2) Also there is such a thing as moral progress. In the 19th century many people moved from believing that slavery is acceptable to condemning it. There are very few people who made the reverse change. This is similar to aesthetics. Our response to moral issues has grown more refined. Once you learn to prefer Mozart to the Spice Girls you are unlikely to reverse your opinion.

On (1), I agree that some views simply get the "non-moral" facts wrong, and that this makes them inferior. I'm not sure what the the "relevant facts" are in the racism case. There are of course several important physical differences between the races, and whether these are relevant depends on your moral theory, and so the non-moral facts don't determine that racism is wrong.

On (2) I did rather wonder if you'd make this sort of point. It seems rather like claiming that "we can't turn back the clock". But if a clock is fast, then we do turn it back. And if we couldn't turn it back, that wouldn't mean it showed the correct time after all. It all seems rather like "chronological snobbery" to me, and you're not likely to get away with that here.

Consider also the claim that other people would agree with us if "they could only see it from our point of view". Your claim (2) seems to imply this is an asymetrical relationship, but it really needn't be ... and even we are only physically capable of moving in one direction, it still doesn't imply that that direction is "progress" in any morally significant sense. It might just be change or indeed be a turn for the worse.

I'm reminded of a philosophical phrase (I don't know who first wrote it) which one of my lecturers once denounced as "nonsense": "The absolute is involved in evolution but does not itself undergo it".

This "nonsense" is actually perfect sense. Evolution, or progress, is not mere change, it is change in a particular direction, towards some ideal, an absolute. But if the ideal itself changes, then movement towards the ideal is rather specious, hence the phrase. There are some nice Lewis and Chesterton quotes along these lines, but I'm typing this in my lunch hour so can't look them up just now.

Steve

Mark Frank said...

Steve

I think you underestimate the importance of (1). My thesis is that the vast majority of humanity has common deep-seated reactions to moral issues. Real moral debates mostly come down to non-moral disagreements - such as which God is the true one, are other races fundamentally different, what will be the consequences of leaving Iraq etc. Think of any real ethical dispute. It progresses by discussion of facts or possibily by pointing out inconsistencies (if you are against X then you must be against Y). It doesn't progress by trying to perceive or deduce whether one action has the property of good or bad.

Try to imagine having an ethical discussion with someone who did not see suffering as anything to be avoided (other things being equal). It is almost impossible. They would be almost literally "inhuman".

Wrt to (2). I don't agree at all that evolution has to be towards an ideal. Change can just be change.

Finally - I have never heard a coherent answer (on this debate or at any other time) to the question: if "good" is an objective property of some course of action why is that a reason for following that course of action?

Nacisse said...

That there are moral facts would show that there are true answers to moral questions. That we should take consideration of all truths when considering the best course of action is something that is uncontroversial, I assume. So morality is intrinsically reason giving. Also, when considering moral questions about behaviour it would seem that the moral facts would be paramount with respect to rationality. It would be odd after all to say that: it is true that act-X was good, that I was wrong for not X-ing, yet still that I had no reason to X. Also, if one were to grant something like an Aristotelian or Platonic idea of eudemonia and accept a view of rationality that prised self-interest than you’d have even more (the best even) reason for acting good.

Steve Lovell said...

Mark,

I agree about suffering, but that is hardly the only morally relevant feature of some action or event, and the list of other morally relevant features may vary widely from one moral theory to another.

As to change/evolution: Well, I agree, of course, that change can be mere change. But you implied that some changes of moral views amounted to progress and not merely to change. My only reason for using the word evolution, is that it figured in the unattribted quote I mentioned, which uses the word as synoymous with "progress" ... and progress does seem to imply some unchanging standard towards which we are progressing and against which the change may be evaluated.

Steve

Ilíon said...

Steve Lovell (to Mark Frank): "... On (1), I agree that some views simply get the "non-moral" facts wrong, and that this makes them inferior. ..."

But even this seemingly non-moralistic assessment is actually a moral assessment based upon moral assertions: we *ought* to get our facts correct; we *ought* to base our assessments upon correct facts.

Mark Frank said...

But even this seemingly non-moralistic assessment is actually a moral assessment based upon moral assertions: we *ought* to get our facts correct; we *ought* to base our assessments upon correct facts.

I don't buy this. If get our fact wrong then our moral judgement is more likely to be in error( as shown for example by changing our mind when give the correct facts). However, this is not a moral judgement itself. You can imagine circumstances where making the wrong moral assessment based on wrong facts was actually something we would approve of morally e.g. where it showed loyalty to a deserving cause.

Jason Pratt said...

Mark,

Sorry for the delay; been catching up on other things elsewhere.

{{I started to reply to your post in detail}}

I can sympathize. {g} A new summary restatement is fine. I’m not sure to what extent it’ll be legitimate for me to refer back to this and also to previous things you said in combination, but I’ll try to restrict doing that to places where you seem to introduce comparatives yourself.

{{There are things such as suffering, broken commitments, and gross unfairness...}}

Which I recognize to be interpersonal relationships, btw. If that helps any. (Yes? No? Do you agree these are relationships between real persons, and that this is relevant to ethics, thus to ethical theories?)

I will note in passing that while suffering and broken commitments can be (perhaps) quantified, “gross unfairness” would seem to be in a somewhat different category, or at least partially so. e.g., we can recognize a broken commitment without agreeing about whether this is also an unfairness (gross or otherwise). If we recognize unfairness, such as (for example) in a broken agreement, we seem to be recognizing a quality beyond the act of one person breaking an agreement with another person.

{{Nothing exceptional about this. All animals suffer from conflicting drives from time to time.}}

True; and so far all you’ve been talking about is (in essence) reactively suffering impulses (whether ‘moral’ or ‘selfish’.)

{{So far this is all biology, and surely beyond dispute? It can be observed.}}

Not entirely sure “unfairness” (gross or otherwise) fits into that category, but let it pass. I have no problem accepting the others, provisionally, as beyond dispute, and I think that’ll be fine enough for your purposes.

{{Moral language gets its meaning from this biological context.}}

Now you’re making a rather different category claim. I think an immediate examination would show the evidence points toward moral language being imported into biological contexts (e.g. “The Selfish Gene”). But I’ll accept the statement as a hypothesis for discussion and abductive reasoning concerning causation: i.e. the moral language we routinely import into biological contexts is (per hypothesis) itself only a result (perhaps at several removes) of biological contexts.

My first observation then would be that (per atheistic hypothesis certainly) this biological context is not and cannot itself be moral. It is amoral. Even Richard Dawkins (who famously coined the “selfish gene” phrase) has recently begun admitting that if we talk about ethics and morality from evolutionary biology, we can only do so with a negative sign. (After spending decades trying to tell people otherwise; now he acts like people are nits to have ever believed otherwise. {wry g} The fact that he and others call it a ‘negative’ sign is kind of interesting, since really it would be a zero analogically. But an adjustment of belief from a positive expectation to a zero would involve a negative adjustment, so that would be coherent enough as a description.)

{{Very roughly speaking - it is used to indicate that these moral drivers are present and exhort the members the community to act on them.}}

Except that what has to be remembered, is that these ‘moral drivers’ are themselves non-rational amoral reactions to mere environmental stimulus.

Which, incidentally, is why proponents of this theory typically go on to acknowledge:

{{We have built elaborate structures on top of this basis over the years.}}

Yes, and those elaborate structures tend to obscure the real character of the basis (per this theory).


{{You want to insert an extra concept between the moral drivers and the action.}}

Yes: I want to include the rational judgment of the person about the situation. Notably, your summary position excluded the rational judgment of the person in the total operation.

Incidentally, I don’t “find it necessary” to go from “there is suffering” to “I am going to act against that suffering” via “suffering is wrong”. Sometimes I simply instinctively behave against the suffering (or in favor of a suffering--pleasure and pain are both sufferings), in which case there is no rational judgment about how to behave because there is no rational decision to act. On the other hand, I could preveniently judge (quite rationally, as well as accurately): “there is suffering, I would not benefit from that suffering, nor (I recognize) do I enjoy this suffering, therefore I will act against it, and try to get others to do so, too (as applicable).” Ethical considerations are quite excluded from this judgment to act. (It might be descriptively called selfish, but that doesn’t necessarily require an ethical connotation.)

What is clearly nonsense, though, would be to reason, “there is suffering, suffering is neither right nor wrong, therefore I/we/whoever should prevent it.” Similarly, it would be logically valid (I suppose) but nevertheless incorrect (and so ultimately unrealistic) to reason, “there is suffering, suffering is wrong, therefore we should prevent it”, if there is no such thing as ethical right and wrong.

Similarly again, someone who tells me there is no such thing as ethical right or wrong, but then expects me to make a rational decision to act because of a duty or against an injustice, is (to put it mildly) not going to receive my support. {s} (I have a protagonist put this a bit more strongly in the novel which you may be seeing over there in my comment icon.)


As I noted in my previous comment in this thread, “the logically prior question goes back to: what kind of reality do we in fact inhabit? If the properties are A then the next question is ‘How now shall we live?’ If the properties are B then the next question is still ‘How now shall we live?’”

If there is in fact such a quality as moral right and wrongness, then a person may be correct or incorrect (even to various degrees and proportional inclusions) about whether an action is morally right or wrong (or perhaps both in various complex ways). If there is not in fact such a quality as moral right and wrongness, then a person cannot possibly be correct about whether an action is morally right or wrong (except to recognize it is neither). Then again, if there is such a quality of morality, then how does it obtain?--or perhaps, we discover first that reality has such-n-such properties and then discover as a consequent corollary that there is a real quality of morality, too.

{{This model, if it were true, would raise some difficult questions.}}

True; which would only be expected in a more complex reality than initially expected. {s}

{{My position has none of the problems [just mentioned].}}

Partly by excluding rational judgment from (pseudo-)moral behavior. For example, the only reason you wouldn’t also have the problem “just because X is X or Y or whatever -- what kind of reason is that for preventing it?” is because you’ve eliminated reason as a factor (at least in your summary statement).

And, partly by excluding morality/immorality from (actually psuedo-)moral behavior. If X is neither morally right nor wrong, then the answer to “is X wrong?” is “no (and not right either)”, and so there is no point asking how we know X is wrong or right.

On the other hand, if the question is asked “how do we know that X is neither morally right nor morally wrong”, then either this is still a problem for your position to solve, or else the answer is, “that is irrelevant--you’re going to behave by irrational reaction anyway, regardless. Rationalizations after the fact are nice as elaborate structures, but hardly necessary.”


{{A lot of your counter arguments are on the lines of “if you leave out the property of wrongness or rightness then the argument ‘there is suffering, let’s prevent it’ is vacuous or it is not really ethical”. This is assuming your own model as a premise.}}

No, it’s assuming your model as a premise.

If you tell me you don’t think there is such a thing as ethical right and wrong as a quality, and then go on to offer as an argument “there is X, let us prevent X”, then first I’m going to ask where the middle is that you’re excluding in that argument; and then if that middle happens to seem ethically-right-or-wrong I’m either going to disbelieve you really mean it to be ethical (in any, well, ethical sense {s}) or I’m going to conclude you actually believe in something being ethically right or wrong anyway. On the other hand, if your excluded middle turns out to have no ethical propriety (not to say no ethical property), then by tautology I am going to have no ethical reason to follow along with your conclusion (via that route).

I would call your argument “vacuous” due to the excluded middle. I would call your argument “not really ethical” insofar as I take you seriously about your not believing in right or wrong ethicality, whether or not you reveal what’s in the unstated middle there.

{{My model is what I think we all mean by “ethical” if we recognise it}}

Except most of us, by “ethical”, think we mean something having to do with ethical right or wrongness. What we are recognizing instead, on your position, is that there is no such thing. Calling it “ethical” afterward anyway seems a merely convenient nod to language history at best.

{{It taps into our deepest motivations.}}

Your position certainly involves tapping into our deepest non-rational (and amoral) impulses, and that is certainly realistic (as far as it goes); but it’s absurd to call such a position ethical and mean anything other than non-rational-and-amoral by it. (Which in turn seems, well, rather vacuous, too. {s})


Incidentally, I understand that your use of “suffering” as an example was (I suppose?) purely for ease of discussion; my critique is not that some people are for and some are against ‘suffering’ of various kinds, etc.


Moving along to the discussion of perpetrators:

{{There are two possibilities. Maybe the perpetrators felt guilty about their actions but were overwhelmed by other motives such as obeying orders or acquiring power. Or maybe they thought it was OK to act that way. }}

I could expand the option list quite a bit, I think. For instance, from examining my own conscience, I find that pretty commonly I do things I believe to be ethically wrong, even though I believe them to be ethically wrong--I can be pretty clever and persistent about shutting up or ignoring that little ‘whatever’ in the back of my head saying ‘you know this is wrong’. Why would these perpetrators be considered immune to such willful misbehavior?

Or, perhaps the perpetrators believed there was really no such thing as ethical right or wrong; consequently, whatever they felt like they could get away with was what they decided to do. We do know of situations in our world, both at the small and large scale, where perpetrators operated explicitly on that notional basis.

Be that as it may--and I think it is far from irrelevant to your own position--since you don’t discuss that possibility we’ll discuss the possibility you wanted to discuss instead. {s} I agree, that case is relevant, too, in many ways. (And, as usual, each case is its own case; for any given person, any of many things may be occuring in combination, including within that person’s own intentional judgment.)

{{The second case [where they thought it was ethically right to act that way] is the important one. We condemn them because we do not believe their actions were OK even though they thought they were OK at the time.}}

Well, actually, by “we” you clearly cannot be meaning yourself. You don’t believe (or you profess not to believe) that what those perpetrators were doing was either right or wrong (or any complex combination thereof). If you slip into believing that anyway, that may be understandable and explicable, but it’s still a mistake on your part--if your position is true.

{{On my account what is happening is that we believe that if they could see it from our point of view they would share our reaction to these activities.}}

But “our point of view” turns out to be an illusion, on your account. Whether or not it is just a matter of more information is irrelevant to that fact.

That being said, “including a wider group as being equal to ourselves” counts as “more information” being accepted as true. (Even you accept this, or else you wouldn’t have said that education has helped change “our view” about this.)

You didn’t give another example of “our point of view” not being just a matter of more information; which leaves us with your example: a matter of more information being accepted as true.

{{On the other hand those who see right and wrong as some kind of additional predicate have to give an account of how slaveowners never realised that slavery was wrong (even thought it was an objective fact) and how we “discovered” that it was.}}

True, but that’s pretty normal operating procedure on any rational endeavor. It’s an objective fact that the Earth orbits the sun, and it’s also an objective fact that people for the longest time thought it was the other way around, and it’s also an objective fact that all observational evidence (until the early-mid 1800s) would lead rationally to a belief in geocentrism. It’s also an objective fact that some people now come up with fanciful reasons for why people would be so deluded as to think geocentrism was true (often blaming religion.) Be that as it may, any paradigm shift has the same ‘problem’ of explaining why people used to belive X but now believe Y. Unless you mean ‘problem’ in a more particular sense, in which case you need to be opening up a whole other line of debate.

{{You also have to explain why anyone would want to prevent slavery just because they discovered it had the property of wrongness.}}

Whereas, by contast, you don’t have to explain why anyone would want to prevent slavery just because they discovered (or do you even consider it a discovery?) that a wider group has the property of being ‘equal to ourselves’?!


{{I do believe that one moral view can be superior to another.}}

But not in terms of moral right and wrong; those are not facts the view can be superior about (on your position).

Moral ‘what’, then? Happiness, long lives, and what you call ‘moral drivers’?

It is true that one view may be more correct about what will lead to a long life or to various kinds of happiness. Having ultimate power to protect myself at the expense of other people’s actions would tend to maximize my life span, for instance; but not many people would classify this as a moral superiority on my part. Kim Il Jung and Chairman Mao have lived good long lives, and seem likely to continue to do so: how are they morally superior in their views that lead to this, then? Was Hitler morally inferior in his views because he did things that ended up reducing his life span (such as pulling a trigger or plunging a syringe--I forget which--before someone else could kill him)? Kim and Mao were right about the facts that would lead to their long lives; Hitler was not. Stalin did okay on the long-lifespan, too (though there was some question at times!); Chaka, less so.

{{Many racists probably did genuinely believe that other races were in some way inferior to their own}}

But the slaveholders did protract their own lives rather well out of that belief!

Or do you mean that it is a fact that other races are not inferior to our own? This would be a moral view on your position in much the same way that 1=1 and not 0.5 is a moral view (and morally superior to 1 being greater than 0.5.) And is this lack of inferiority something we learned by natural science? (It sure wasn’t in the 19th century!--much the reverse.) On the other hand, there are creatures that become extinct or are harshly used by other creatures simply as a natural fact. Is there a moral superiority in recognizing and enacting this fact? An inferiority? Help?

I suspect that if you don’t want to involve yourself in moral casuistry (like those people who believe in a moral right and wrong and so who have to bother themselves with those extra problems of trying to figure out what’s morally right and wrong and why), you’ll end up having to deny that one moral view can be superior to another. A moral view could be different, but not superior. It might be more accurate as to facts, but we do not have to bring in morality or ethicality in that accounting--unless the facts to be accounted for are moral/ethical facts. And those facts are different from amoral facts... how?

{{We have learned that there is no relevant difference}}

Relevant in what sense? And if there were relevant differences, would that really justify treating x-person in y-way? (Not in any justification that has to do with a quality of moral right or wrongness on your view, though. Nor on any injustice, either.)

{{and there are no such consequences.}}

There were no consequences to allowing whites to have power!?

Granted, where the power is shared and balanced there are no (or fewer, on the balance), “horrible” (i.e. annoying, unpleasant, emotionally bothersome) consequences--for some of the entities in question. Which is exactly as “moral” and “ethical” as a truss design. How many people consider a well-balanced truss design to be ethical and/or moral, raise their hands...? (Gravitational balance keeping asteroids in a ring around the sun, would be ethical or moral, in just the same way; whereas flinging them all into the sun or out of the solar system would be a notable disbalance of power.)


{{Also there is such a thing as moral progress.}}

Which certainly goes along with the idea that there can be moral superiority about ideas; but which does not remotely go along with the idea that there can be no objectively moral standard. Progress, as Steve pointed out (good Lewisicist that he is {g}), is not merely change. You have to have an ideal to progress toward.

Aesthetics, on the other hand, as you yourself previously pointed out (iirc), is not something one can ‘progress’ in. It’s just taste. Our aesthetics can be refined in the sense of becoming more sensitive to differences (and incidentally most people think in moral ‘progress’ that they are becoming more sensitive to a quality of moral right and wrong), but aesthetics are not in fact morality. I can increase my distinction of mere taste perception without increasing my moral progress one iota. The Marquis de Sade had an exquisite sense of taste, in the strictest physical sense imaginable.

Let us consider the following quotes again, in order: “I do believe that one moral view can be superior to another. [...] Also there is such a thing as moral progress. [...] None of this requires some additional objective moral property of good or bad.”

One way or another, this has to be a muddled way of thinking. We have plenty of words already to describe states of affairs without having to use cognates of “ethic” and “moral” referring historically to beliefs about states or qualities which you deny to be true.

Here is another quote which synopsizes your view perfectly, though you criticized me earlier for claiming that this is what you were coming down to in the end: “Real moral debates mostly come down to non-moral disagreements.”

Then real morality is (on your view) non-moral. Otherwise you’d be focusing on the non-mostly-non-moral bits to those debates, insofar as you cared about the real moral claims involved. But if you deny there are any moral bits to those disagreements at all... well, then either there is (in fact) no such thing as a ‘real’ moral debate, or else any ‘real’ moral debate is only (not mostly) a debate about non-moral disagreements. Which is the same thing as there being, in fact, no such thing as a ‘real’ moral debate: the debate is actually about something else than morality.


{{Finally - I have never heard a coherent answer (on this debate or at any other time) to the question: if "good" is an objective property of some course of action why is that a reason for following that course of action?}}

It would only provide a reason (in itself) for following that course of action if the property corresponded to fundamental properties of reality, I suppose. Otherwise, the same ‘objection’ could be leveled against any rationale you yourself could raise: that property has nothing to do with correspondence to ultimate reality? But you still seek it anyway and rationally find it worth doing, don’t you?

Which brings us back to what I’m including in my position, that you cannot be including yours: the rational competency (at least in principle) of a person to decide what is worth seeking and corresponding to, in itself. Elimination of this by restriction to irrational reaction to stimulus does not provide (much less protect) several of the personal qualities you apparently do think are important (at least to yourself) as a person per se.

Which in turn highlights that ultimately we’re talking about the real existence of persons here and how important (or not) that existence is, in reality. Otherwise, a debate about ‘consequences of leaving Iraq’ (for example) would be nothing more than a debate about cardboard chits on a map.


{{I don't buy this. If get our fact wrong then our moral judgement is more likely to be in error( as shown for example by changing our mind when give the correct facts). However, this is not a moral judgement itself.}}

Incidentally, I can agree with that well enough.

{{I will have to stop this fascinating discussion shortly as it using far too much time.}}

As noted, I’m late getting back to it myself. {s} I routinely make a point to exhort readers not to hold a lack of reply against a respondent--outside life takes priorities.

JRP (2/16/08, 2:50pmCST)

Mark Frank said...

Jason

I appreciate your thoughtful and polite attitude to this discussion. Again I have tried to pick out the essentials. I might make a second post on some of the other things you wrote.

{{… My first observation then would be that (per atheistic hypothesis certainly) this biological context is not and cannot itself be moral. It is amoral.}}

I agree. The context gives morality meaning, but is not itself the subject of moral statements. As an analogy, it is only the context of a legal system that gives meaning to the statement “this is act is illegal” but the criminal system itself is neither legal or illegal.

{{Except that what has to be remembered, is that these ‘moral drivers’ are themselves non-rational amoral reactions to mere environmental stimulus.}}

{{Yes: I want to include the rational judgment of the person about the situation. Notably, your summary position excluded the rational judgment of the person in the total operation.}}

I don’t agree. My desire to prevent suffering is a perfectly rational moral response, often to complex events, and may be the result of lengthy consideration of the circumstances e.g. when weighing the suffering caused by invading Iraq against the suffering caused by SH.

{{What is clearly nonsense, though, would be to reason, “there is suffering, suffering is neither right nor wrong, therefore I/we/whoever should prevent it.”}}

{{And, partly by excluding morality/immorality from (actually psuedo-)moral behavior. If X is neither morally right nor wrong, then the answer to “is X wrong?” is “no (and not right either)”, and so there is no point asking how we know X is wrong or right.}}

I am not saying that suffering is neither right nor wrong, and I am not excluding morality/immorality. I am giving an interpretation of the statement “suffering is wrong”.

{{If you tell me you don’t think there is such a thing as ethical right and wrong as a quality, and then go on to offer as an argument “there is X, let us prevent X”, then first I’m going to ask where the middle is that you’re excluding in that argument; and then if that middle happens to seem ethically-right-or-wrong I’m either going to disbelieve you really mean it to be ethical (in any, well, ethical sense {s}) or I’m going to conclude you actually believe in something being ethically right or wrong anyway. On the other hand, if your excluded middle turns out to have no ethical propriety (not to say no ethical property), then by tautology I am going to have no ethical reason to follow along with your conclusion (via that route).}}

You seem to require the middle to be ethical. But I am saying there is no middle and that reacting to suffering etc is ethical. It is the nature of X that makes it ethical. Reacting to an opportunity to become wealthy is not ethical. Reacting to keep a promise when it is unpleasant to do so, is ethical.

An exhortation cannot follow logically from a description. The only kind of linkage that you can provide between “there is X” and “let us prevent X” is reasons why we might want to prevent X. For example, if I say “deadly nightshade is poisonous, therefore don’t eat it” the second part does not follow logically from the first. It is just a reasonable consequence given our usual desire not to die. If “X is causing great misery, therefore let’s prevent it” this is a reasonable consequence because given our usual desire to prevent others suffering. (It is ethical because it is based on our desire to prevent others suffering.) No other factor is going to make it logically necessary that we should prevent the suffering. The best might be a rule that says “if suffering exists, try to prevent it”. But then you have to explain why follow the rule.

junp said...

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Jason Pratt said...

Mark,

Took me a week to deal with some other projects elsewhere; but I’m free today to continue the discussion. (I also appreciate your thoughtful and polite remarks throughout the debate.)

Previously I had written: “My first observation then would be that (per atheistic hypothesis certainly) this biological context is not and cannot itself be moral. It is amoral.”

To this you have replied,

{{I agree. The context gives morality meaning, but is not itself the subject of moral statements.}}

In which case, the context cannot be giving ‘morality’ moral meaning!

When you agreed with me, you did in fact agree that the context (biological in this case) can itself be the subject of moral statements: we agree that the biological context is amoral. This amorality, call it this lack of moral quality (pro or con), is the context which, on your position, “gives morality meaning”.

Now, perhaps it does so by contrast to what morality actually is; but then the morality quality is not actually being derived from the biological context, nor from anything similarly amoral.

It can’t be had both ways.

Allow me a digression to illustrate the same principle criticism from a direction you may (I hope {g}) be more comfortable with. One significant criticism against many theistic ethical theories, is that the source of the ethics ends up being non-ethical Itself. It’s the main criticism against Divine Command Theory, and it's a strong criticism that Divine Nature Theory has to face.

It may be legitimately said from this, insofar as it has not been solved to an evaluator’s satisfaction, that trying to introduce a similarly a-moral source of ethics, in order to avoid appealing to amoral atheistic grounds, accomplishes nothing--it introduces a hypothesis for no gain at all.

Sauce for the Gander is sauce for the goose, however: the nothing-accomplished by appealing to an ultimately amoral theism (or absolutely alien and disjunctive moral theism, which amounts to the same thing), is the same nothing-accomplished by appealing to non-moral atheistic biology (much less anything principly underwriting the biology.)

{{As an analogy, it is only the context of a legal system that gives meaning to the statement “this is act is illegal” but the criminal system itself is neither legal or illegal.}}

That’s true; we tend to think of legal systems as moral or immoral! {g!} That quality judgment is what gives meaning to the propriety of the legality; unless we reduce (and even its proponents recognize it to be a reduction, though a reduction away from a perceived-to-be-false addition of quality) to a will-to-power justification. He who has the power makes the laws and other people have to obey them or else.

I assure you (and I agree strenuously with those critics), most sceptics realize this doesn’t remotely fly as an ethical theory when the foundational reality is proposed to be actively sentient in itself (i.e. theism is true). Consequently, it certainly doesn’t count as ethical (illusions to the contrary notwithstanding) when completely derivative entities such as ourselves try to enact it--whether within an ultimately amoral atheistic reality or not.

However, your analogy is not well to the point anyway--for a legal system is avowedly a derivative abstraction; thus judgments of legality or illegality are doubly derivative in context of the prior derivation. Biology may be derivative in various ways, but it isn’t derivative from entities even more derivative than it is!--much less is it an abstract reality.

Insofar as atheistic naturalism is true (per hypothesis) we and our behaviors derive from-and-only-from amoral biology, and from systemic reactions more fundamental than biology, none of which have moral qualities either. Nor is the situation improved if supernaturalistic atheism happens to be true.

{{}}Notably, your summary position excluded the rational judgment of the person in the total operation.{{

I don’t agree. My desire to prevent suffering is a perfectly rational moral response, often to complex events, and may be the result of lengthy consideration of the circumstances}}

I talked about this later, after the quote you borrowed. But rationalization after the fact, or logical evaluations before the fact, neither one factored into your summary position, which I noted in particular comments preceding this. We can go over your summary position statements again if you like. Or you may add rational judgment as a factor into your summary position statements now, if you like. But it wasn’t there before.

Now, you have agreed that the mere environmental stimulus is itself amoral (and non-rational). That is the context, not only that we are operating within, but which solely and completely produces our behaviors and behavioral abilities (if atheistic naturalism is true). If your desire to prevent suffering is, as you say, a perfectly rational moral response, my first observation is that you have to be talking about something more than a mere desire (since desire is an emotional reaction to something); and my second observation is that even if you reply that your desire is itself a reaction to a perfectly rational moral judgment on your part, or that your perfectly rational moral judgment includes evaluation of your desire, then your response cannot be solely constituted by non-rational amoral behaviors. You have to be getting those property characteristics and capabilities from somewhere else, in conjunction with the natural property characteristics and capabilities.

And it ought to be obvious what kind of system-reality this necessarily implies. (Hint: it’s one of the main topics of Victor’s journal here, and the main topic of his DangIdea2 journal. {g})

The moment you expect me to believe that you have abilities beyond the constituent capabilities of the natural system, and the moment I agree to accept that you have those abilities (which btw I do--an acceptance strongly in your favor personally, please notice); that same moment I become a supernaturalist (whether I realize it or not)--and if those abilities involve some amount of action instead of only reactions, then I also per acceptance am accepting supernaturalistic theism of some kind. The complexity of the topic may conceal this result from me, but logically there is not another option--so long as I do in fact agree to take your claim of rationality seriously.

Now, morality is quite another claim; but it should be obvious that without the rational action characteristic there is not going to be morality, either. Only, at best, the illusion thereof. (And the fact that an entity can distinguish illusions thereof is far from insignificant.)

I discuss the morality issue at great length (150 pages worth of entries, or thereabouts), including within context of supernaturalistic theism, in one of the links I gave previously. If I don’t do so here extensively, that’s why. {s} But I’m not really asking for a conclusion of supernaturalistic theism here. My main point for this discussion is that trying to derive ethicality from non-ethical grounding cannot and is not ever going to work. The context of non-moral biology is not going to give morality meaning except by contrast to it. The morality cannot be derived from it; not and still be real morality.


{{I am not saying that suffering is neither right nor wrong, and I am not excluding morality/immorality. I am giving an interpretation of the statement “suffering is wrong”.}}

Well that’s very peculiar, because I can point back to statements you’ve made to the effect that there is no ethical (or moral) right and wrong. That’s a position consistent with ‘ethical’ behaviors being derived from biological behaviors which you agree to be amoral. It isn’t a position consistent with suffering (or whatever) not being neither right nor wrong; and it isn’t a position consistent with not excluding morality/immorality.

An interpretation of the statement “suffering (or whatever) is wrong”, that appeals for explanatory grounds to-and-only-to foundationally amoral grounds, is not an interpretation that can coherently make true claims about the moral rightness or wrongness of a situation or behavior--except to claim that there is no moral rightness or wrongness to such a constituent behavior.

In effect, you’ve got the same moral-grounding problem as a Divine Command Theory monotheist (whether that theist is naturalistic or supernaturalistic). Neither you nor they are presenting an ethical theory in context of an interpersonal relationship of singular substance as the generating ground of all reality (including of not-God realities). The consequence is that you’re both stuck, either with denying real morality, or with trying to get a really moral morality (so to speak, not an amoral morality) out of an ultimately non-moral existence. (That's another way of stating the Euthyprho Dilemma, as you may recognize.)

There’s only one way that an ought can be gotten from an is, and that’s if the ultimate reality is an is-and-an-ought (and even is an ought in its is-ness, i.e. the self-generation of ultimate reality involves an interpersonal relationship of the singular reality.) Amoral system realities and even immoral behavior of derivative entities, can still derive from this, but there has to be a positive existence for them to be declensions from or rebels against.


Let’s go back a moment for a requote:

{{I am not saying that suffering is neither right nor wrong, and I am not excluding morality/immorality. I am giving an interpretation of the statement “suffering is wrong”.}}

The statement “suffering is wrong” was the middle you yourself had given between “there is X” and “let us prevent X”. So, what kind of interpretation are you giving of the statement “suffering is wrong”? You tell us what kind it isn’t in the very next thing you write:

{{You seem to require the middle to be ethical.}}

For an ethical judgment to be gotten out of “there is X, X is wrong, let us prevent X”, yep I require the middle to be ethical. {g} Obviously, though, you’re excluding that as a property, by contrast.

But I think somehow you must realize that you can’t coherently do this and also be taken seriously to mean, as you had just written, “I am not saying that suffering is neither right nor wrong, and I am not excluding morality/immorality.”

One way to even try, in appearance, to keep up both ends of this dilemma though, would be to deny that there is a middle; and then to turn around and require there to be a middle and that the middle is ethical in its nature. Which, in fact...

{{But I am saying there is no middle and that reacting to suffering etc is ethical. It is the nature of X that makes it ethical.}}

...you instantly proceed to do. {s}

After this, there cannot be further analysis on the topic. You’re jumping back and forth between mutually exclusive positions for sake of pure convenience. Obviously, I’m not the only one to require the middle to be there, and to be ethical. Just as obviously, you can tell your position requires there to be no middle--or if there is, that it isn’t in fact ethical (which has to be why you’re trying to dis-require the middle.)

As a tactical consideration, this is evidence that some resolving factor is required. Put another way, it’s abductive evidence that the worldview needs more detail.

I recommend, if trinitarian theism is too much of a jump to make (and I can see why it would be, I don’t hold that against anyone), that you go back to my first question (which you skipped) and proceed from there: do you agree that broken commitments and gross unfairness (which you recognized to exist) are interpersonal relationships (perhaps of a particular kind compared to other relationships), and that suffering can be, too? And do you, or will you, agree that this is at least crucially relevant (if not more relevant even than that) to ethics and thus to ethical theories?

A positive progress could be made, perhaps, after that. But it needs to be coherently consistent.


{{An exhortation cannot follow logically from a description.}}

True; but I wasn’t the one who had just written, “I am saying there is no middle”, am I? {s}

{{The only kind of linkage that you can provide between “there is X” and “let us prevent X” is reasons why we might want to prevent X.}}

Agreed. And by the way, I wouldn’t describe that middle as “reacting” per se, if I wanted to be sure people understood I was talking about a perfectly rational, logical judgment being made. (Yet you continually do.)

So you agree a middle is needed, and you yourself “seem to require the middle to be ethical”. Yet in your criticism of me for requiring the middle to be ethical, you replied by contrast “But I am saying there is no middle”.

(The subsequent clause “and that reacting to suffering etc is ethical” could still make some immediate sense in relation to the first clause, so long as by this you mean to be omitting rational judgment as a factor in the middle statment “X is wrong”. But you’ll be immediately crashing into a bunch of other things you’ve tried to say otherwise, if you do that. Including your immediate goal of describing the logical rationality of ethics in the paragraph I’m currently looking at. {s})

{{If “X is causing great misery, therefore let’s prevent it” this is a reasonable consequence because given our usual desire to prevent others suffering. (It is ethical because it is based on our desire to prevent others suffering.)}}

Not that I disagree; but you’re hiding the middle again. The middle here is “we have a desire to prevent others suffering”. If I ask, “and this desire is to be considered ethical, why?”, you’ve already answered that question in principle a little earlier: “You seem to require the middle to be ethical. But I am saying there is no middle, etc.”

Now, either no rational judgment to act is being made in this sequence (in which case so much for your desire being a perfectly rational moral response, with your desire being perhaps even the result of lengthy consideration of the circumstances); or a rational judgment is being made about “we should act in counter-X way” in relation to the middle premise, “we have a desire to prevent X”. And that rational judgment is either about a premise with ethical quality, or it is not. If it is not, then the rational judgment does not itself reach an ethical conclusion. If it is, then (for purposes of metaphysical analysis) we’re back to considering the ethicality of that middle premise, how it relates to morality, why, etc.

Which is probably why it’s tempting to just say there is no middle, and instead to position yourself against someone who, as a matter of rational judgment to an ethical conclusion, requires the middle to be ethical. {s}

Have a good week!

JRP

Mark Frank said...

Jason

Your post is so long it is hard to know how to respond without writing a book.

I am going to concentrate on two things.

1) Biology as a context for morality

It is important to be precise about what I am saying here. You write things such as:

“morality quality is not actually being derived from the biological context”
“trying to introduce a similarly a-moral source of ethics”

Words such as “derived” and “source” hide an important ambiguity. I mean that biology is a cause of our ethical motives and behaviour. But that is quite different from saying it is the justification for our ethical motives. To repeat an analogy I often use: our need for calories is the cause of our liking for sweet things; but our liking for sweet things is not a liking for calories (hence the success for low calories sweeteners).

This then raises the question what is the ultimate justification for our moral statements? My answer is that there is no ultimate justification. We can only appeal to commonly held motives and values. But this is different from saying there is no such thing as right and wrong. There is no ultimate justification for our assessment that one thing is more interesting/ frightening/ rewarding/ satisfying/ (..add adjectives to taste..) than another. But that doesn’t mean that things are not interesting/ frightening/ rewarding/ satisfying etc. These are all qualities based on common (but not universal) human reactions to things.

In fact I would go so far as to say that logically there cannot be an ultimate justification for moral statements. That would be to derive an “ought” from an “is”. You hint at that when you talk about the moral-grounding problem as a Divine Command Theory. You point out that both theistic and atheistic theories struggle to provide an ultimate moral source for ethics. If by “source” you mean justification then that is correct and I don’t believe there can be any such source. But to double emphasise – it does not follow from this that there is no such thing as right and wrong.

2) The middle ground
You appear to think that I am alternating between saying there is something between “there is suffering” and “let us prevent suffering” and saying there isn’t. Let me try to clarify. When I say "suffering is wrong" I don’t believe I am talking about an additional quality over and above the suffering. It is roughly equivalent to saying “suffering is the kind of thing we all find objectionable so let us try to prevent it”. I am not sure whether you call that middle ground or not. But certainly it does not involve some transcendent additional property that magically links the “is” to the “ought”.

You try to bridge this gap with this:
“There’s only one way that an ought can be gotten from an is, and that’s if the ultimate reality is an is-and-an-ought (and even is an ought in its is-ness, i.e. the self-generation of ultimate reality involves an interpersonal relationship of the singular reality.)”

To be honest I find that to be complete gobbleydook. Can you say the same thing in plain English?

Finally you want me to answer this question:

“do you agree that broken commitments and gross unfairness (which you recognized to exist) are interpersonal relationships (perhaps of a particular kind compared to other relationships), and that suffering can be, too? And do you, or will you, agree that this is at least crucially relevant (if not more relevant even than that) to ethics and thus to ethical theories?”

I avoided answering before because it is actually lots of questions and I don’t see their relevance. But here goes:

(As I understand it “interpersonal relationship” means a relationship between more than one person.)

Broken commitments are usually interpersonal – although I guess someone might break a commitment to an abstraction such as the state.

Gross unfairness might be interpersonal or might not (a law might be grossly unfair and this does not represent a relationship between people).

Suffering is not a relationship so it cannot be an interpersonal relationship.

I don’t see that this as crucial to ethics.


Cheers Mark

Jason Pratt said...

Mark,

It may be more profitable to skip past pretty much everything in my comment here down to the asterisks. I assure you, we already have enough problems between us there. {g}

{{It is important to be precise about what I am saying here.}}

Agreed.

{{I mean that biology is a cause of our ethical motives and behaviour.}}

And that’s what I understood you to mean.

{{But that is quite different from saying it is the justification for our ethical motives.}}

I was fairly sure I understood you to mean that, too. Go me! {g}

{{our need for calories is the cause of our liking for sweet things; but our liking for sweet things is not a liking for calories (hence the success for low calories sweeteners).}}

Only insofar as we are capable of actively conforming our ‘likes’ to something we rationally (and correctly) distinguish as being categorically different from calories. (Otherwise the two likes might as well be identical after all.)

However, it should be observed that I am not the one introducing ambiguity into statements such as “the morality quality is not actually being derived from the biological context”--which is quite strictly true, and which you apparently are agreeing with here: the recognition of the quality and the (qualitatively) moral justification of the behaviors involved, is not actually being derived from the biology; nor from the biological context to say the least.

Again, if you are not “trying to introduce an amoral source of ethics”, then it still remains true that biology is not the proper explanatory factor, nor the proper explanatory context, of morality. You’re simply avoiding the obvious contradiction; which is fine but then you can’t turn around and (ambiguously) try to get morality out of biology after all. Not real morality. I certainly applaud rejecting the contradiction; but the question is then what? If you insist on trying to get it out of the biology after all,then once again it won’t be me introducing the ambiguity here.

{{My answer is that there is no ultimate justification [for our moral statements].}}

Which is not a very practical answer. {s} Which of course is why you then immediately go on to add:

{{We can only appeal to commonly held motives and values.}}

Now, the last time you mentioned ‘motives’, a minute ago, those were caused by biology. (What about the values...?) The biology is amoral--you recognize that well enough or you wouldn’t have agreed that it’s worthless trying to get a moral justification from it. Why are we appealing to those commonly held motives then? Clearly not for any moral reason--unless we’re appealing to those motives within an overarching moral context somehow. Are there motives that do not derive ultimately from biology?

The result is that if you appeal to those commonly held biological motives, without appeal to something else that might in fact be a moral motive, with qualitative moral value, you’ve got only amorality masquerading as morality (intentionally or by accident.)

Which is only different from saying there is no such thing as right and wrong, if you are in fact prepared to appeal (or tacitly are appealing without realizing it) to something other than what is ultimately constituted by amoral biology. But I think you know well enough what that kind of appeal is going to entail by implication, sooner or later.

{{There is no ultimate justification for our assessment that one thing is more interesting/ frightening/ rewarding/ satisfying/ (..add adjectives to taste..) than another. But that doesn’t mean that things are not interesting/ frightening/ rewarding/ satisfying etc. These are all qualities based on common (but not universal) human reactions to things.}}

They are also very obviously not ethical right and wrong per se. If you want to say there is such a thing as (ethical) right and wrong that exists as an objective quality to be assessed, and then go on to describe mere taste and attitude assessments (which, as you’ve already agreed yourself elsewhere, are not moral right and wrong assessments), then you’re only wasting time. You had better move along to where the such a thing as right and wrong is, in your theory.

Otherwise, it is exactly the same as saying there is no such thing, really, as right and wrong. There is only (ultimately amoral) taste and attitude assessment.

{{But to double emphasise – it does not follow from this that there is no such thing as right and wrong.}}

All right, since you mentioned ‘interesting’ twice: is interesting ethically right, or ethically wrong? Assess it. You may allow and compare situations where ‘interesting’ is ethically right in one case and ethically wrong in another; I have no problem with situational ethics.

If you protest that x is different from saying there is no such thing as right and wrong, or that it does not follow from y that there is no such thing as right and wrong, but then refuse to take an evaluative stand on whether something is right or wrong (or perhaps even right and wrong depending on the situation), then I consider those protests to be specious at best. No ultimate moral source for ethics, means ultimately there must be only amoral sources for ‘ethics’.

Put another way, if you make an evaluation x is wrong (or right, either conditionally or absolutely), then you are at that moment making a statement that exactly combines the referent properties of “ought” and “is” somehow. That can only be legitimate, as such, if there is ultimately an ought in some fashion. Which you quite specifically deny (understanding full well that such an “is” would necessarily entail some kind of theism and Divine Nature ethical theory to be discovered.)

Again, I’m not the one being ambiguous about the logical implications here.


Moving along,

{{You appear to think that I am alternating between saying there is something between “there is suffering” and “let us prevent suffering” and saying there isn’t.}}

Which I discussed in some detail and with quotes. {s}

{{When I say "suffering is wrong" I don’t believe I am talking about an additional quality over and above the suffering.}}

Which is basically the same thing as saying that when you say “suffering is wrong” you don’t really mean that there is some quality of “wrong” over-and-above the suffering. That excludes the “wrong” portion. Which, as you point out, “is roughly equivalent to saying ‘suffering is the kind of thing we all find objectionable so let us try to prevent it.’” But we aren’t really finding it morally objectionable; we may think or perceive that there is some moral quality of wrongness involved in that, but that must be a mistake or an illusion. (Or possibly a pragmatic tactic on our part to take advantage of someone else’s mistake or illusion on this topic.)

In any case, what you are clarifying is that in fact you do not include any moral reality as a premise between “there is suffering” and “let us prevent suffering”.

What I had said about this, is that if you tell me this is true, that’s fine, but then I am not going to turn around and accept later (unless I am simply sloppy or forgetful) that there is supposed to be some moral quality of wrongness in this inference. Whatever your justifcation is, it cannot be a moral justification: that quality is excluded from your analysis and conclusion to act.

Or, reiterating my concluding paragraph from last time:

Either no rational judgment to act is being made in this sequence (in which case so much for your desire being a perfectly rational moral response, with your desire being perhaps even the result of lengthy consideration of the circumstances); or a rational judgment is being made about “we should act in counter-X way” in relation to the middle premise, “we have a desire to prevent X”.

(Apparently you are clarifying that a rational judgment is being made. So, on to the next option set.)

And that rational judgment is either about a premise with ethical quality, or it is not.

(You have now clarified that it is not. Suffering is just suffering, or whatever, but it is not ethically wrong: that quality is not real.)

If it is not, then the rational judgment does not itself reach an ethical conclusion.

If you wish, you can replace “suffering is (ethically) wrong” with the statement “reacting to suffering is (ethically) right”; but if there is no quality above and beyond the suffering in which context it can be judged ethically wrong, then what is the quality above and beyond the reaction to suffering in which context this reaction can be recognized by judgment to be ethically right? And why weren’t you talking about that instead?

Or, you can deny that there is anything morally right or wrong about ethics--which you’ve occasionally done, too. {s} But then so much for expecting anyone to believe you when you say “I am not saying that suffering is neither right nor wrong, and I am not excluding morality/immorality.”


{{To be honest I find that [gap bridging attempt] to be complete gobbleydook. Can you say the same thing in plain English?}}

Yes. But not nearly as briefly. {s}

Before I can say it not-as-briefly, though, and still have it mean anything other than complete gobbleydook (or gobbledygook either one {g}), we’ve got to be talking about ethics in terms of interpersonal relationships. And it’ll take a while even after that! But I made provision previously for getting past the gobbledygook by this route.



********** [somewhat recommend skipping to here]

{{As I understand it “interpersonal relationship” means a relationship between more than one person.}}

I agree. And that’s a start. There are relationships between more than one person that are not interpersonal, though. I can hit a nail with a hammer just like I can hit you with a hammer; or I can pick off bugs annoying a plant just like I can pick off bugs annoying you. Or I can feed a fish just like I can give you food to eat.

What, then, constitutes an interpersonal relationship? More than one person, yes, that’s part of it. Beyond that...?

{{Broken commitments are usually interpersonal – although I guess someone might break a commitment to an abstraction such as the state.}}

But ‘the state’ is only a derivative abstraction of persons. If I try to make a committment to the state, then by derivation I am making a committment to persons; and that can make sense as an interpersonal relationship. If I try to make a committment to a Furbee, I am not making a committment to a person; at best I can only be playing a game with myself. There would be no interpersonal relationship involved in that case. Interesting test question: if I break a committment to a Furbee, would this normally be regarded as an ethical breach on my part?--would it even be nominally regarded as possible for this to be an ethical breach?

{{a law might be grossly unfair and this does not represent a relationship between people}}

A law does not represent a relationship between people!!?

I assure you, there is no point in us trying to discuss more complex metaphysical issues, if we cannot agree on whether a law represents a relationship between people or not. {s!} We need not even bother to discuss whether a law can be grossly unfair--we have more basic matters to discuss on this topic!

{{Suffering is not a relationship so it cannot be an interpersonal relationship.}}

I could press that issue in some special case situations, but I qualified that with a “can be”, so it isn’t as crucial to discuss at the moment. We have more critical problems between us in regard to the law right now.

{{I don’t see that this as crucial to ethics.}}

I can’t tell if you mean by this “suffering” or “interpersonal relationships”. I’m not especially concerned if you meant the former; but I’m concerned if you meant the latter. At the very least, there can be no practical discussion of ethics outside of reference to some kind of interpersonal relationship. A law that doesn’t involve persons is of no concern to me as a person; and a law that was not made by at least one person would be rather interesting to see on the books. {g}

Have a good week!

JRP (3/1/08)

PS, Victor often redates posts for his classes; so even though this thread has been off the bottom for a while, maybe two or three times over (thanks to other redates recently {g!}), it could end up public again in a few months.

Mark Frank said...

Jason

As the business of interpersonal relationships is obviously important to you I will take this first. You wrote:


{….What, then, constitutes an interpersonal relationship? More than one person, yes, that’s part of it. Beyond that...}}

Unfortunately you didn’t finish this sentence and I don’t know the answer. I made a guess but your reaction suggests we have different ideas. I had in mind something very, well, personal so that, for example, all the people involved know each other and can observe the effect of the relationship on each other. Clearly you mean something else. Hence the confusion as to whether it is crucial to ethics or whether a law counts as an example.

Mark Frank said...

Jason (part 2)

I looked at responding to your other comments but I found I would only be repeating what I had already said. I fear I have failed to explain my position.

So I am going to try a different approach and ask you to make your position clear. Would you be prepared to do this in the form a thought experiment?

Imagine an alien (so beloved of philosophers)who

* Is highly intelligent
* Has a good grasp of English up to reading age of about 12 i.e. you need to avoid abstractions and long words
* Has no concept of right or wrong.

Now explain to it:

* how humans know what is right and what is wrong
* why many humans strive to do what is right and avoid doing what is wrong

Here is my explanation.

We humans often like to do things that do not benefit us e.g. prevent other humans and animals suffering. That is just a fact of human nature. Sometimes we want to do these things very, very much. So much so that we may be prepared to die while doing them. I will call these desires - X desires.

We also like other humans to act this way. If they don't, we give them a hard time - sometimes even hurt them or lock them up or kill them.

Luckily most humans have similar X desires (when people have different X desires it can cause a lot of problems).

We don't know for certain how we got X desires, but some scientists can explain why they might have been good for the human species in the past (and still are).

When we come across an action which we have an X desire to do, we say "it is right". This sentence does several things. It tells other humans that here is an action which they may well have a X desire to do (as most humans have similar X desires). It encourages others to do the action. It also acts as a warning that if other do not do it you may act do them harm or at least not want to talk to them!

So you see we know something is right because it is the kind of thing that excites an X desire and we want to what is right because X desires are built into human nature.

Your turn....

Jason Pratt said...

Mark,

{{the business of interpersonal relationships is obviously important to you}}

It is, because I recognize myself to be a person. And I see other entities around me categorically (and constiuently) similar to myself who behave in similar ways. Which brings us to why it's important to you (whether you recognize it or not) that interpersonal relationships are important to me. Unless you decide that you are not a person (which not-incidentally would be a contradiction: 'you' would be making a mistake to do so if 'you' exist); in which case it wouldn't have to matter overly much to you (personally! {g}) whether I treat you as a person and thus (on my side of things) try to have a coherent interpersonal relationship with you.

More succinctly, either we're having an interpersonal relationship now in this discussion, or we are not--in which latter case at least one of us either is (wrongly) not treating the other as a person, or is treating the other regardless of personhood (the personhood being irrelevant), or is not in fact a person.

I'm pretty sure I'm a person, and while I can't prove it (strictly speaking) I can infer what logical consequences would be true if I am not in fact a person after all, which quickly illuminates contradictions in trying to hold to that position. I can either treat you as being a person, too, or not, in our discussion. If not (or if I treat your personhood as irrelevant), then at most I can only be trying to get you to react irrationally to me. Which would be a violation of your personhood if you happen to be a person after all.

"This business of interpersonal relationships", therefore, isn't only important (to us personally or otherwise), it is absolutely necessary for you and I to be having any kind of real argument at all. I don't debate metaphysics or anything else with my little cousin's Furbee.


{{Unfortunately you didn’t finish this sentence and I don’t know the answer.}}

More than one person is required for an actual interpersonal relationship; but beyond that, the persons have to be treating one another as persons, too.


{{I had in mind something very, well, personal so that, for example, all the people involved know each other and can observe the effect of the relationship on each other.}}

I can treat you as a person-at-a-distance without specifically knowing you or being able to observe the effect of that relationship on you.

Laws do represent relationships between people, as do states; but you should be aware (from world history if nothing else) that there is a common trend of using the law and the state in an impersonal fashion as though persons are not involved (except the ones in power perhaps, and not even them when they want to avoid accepting responsible consequences of their actions!)

I accept your clarification that you were trying to stick with 'personal' interrelationships; but when you describe "an abstraction such as the state" in contrast to committments made to "persons", then in effect you are denying that it is possible to treat people as persons without immediate contact with them. (Ditto in regard to the law.)

I don't know any tsunami victims personally, and if I help finance aid to them I'm never going to be able to observe the effect of that relationship on them (not in this life anyway.) But acting to help them at a distance, or anyone else, still involves treating them as persons (whether there is life after death or not.) I don't expect the leaders of the state to know me specifically and to observe the results their interactions have on me; but I do expect them to treat me as a person in the actions they take that affect me--including legislation.


In regard to the thought experiment: I am highly doubtful it is possible to talk without abstractions on any topic, including this one. Language itself is intrinsically abstractive. Though admittedly a 12-year-old (even a highly intelligent one) may not understand that. {s}

But, supposing I had a highly intelligent 12-year-old (alien or otherwise) who, despite not being psychologically damaged (i.e. he isn't a sociopath by accident) and despite having learned enough language to even be discussing such topics, has no concept of ethical right or wrong yet. (I strenuously doubt a mentally uncrippled person could learn language from another person for 12 years without having tacitly derived or inferred some concept of ethical right and wrong, but let it be according to the example.)


Boy: How do I know what is right and what is wrong?

Me: Love your neighbor.

(Note: you ought to be aware that anything beyond this is going to quickly get into complex discussion!)

Boy: Who is my neighbor?

Me: All other persons, whoever they are and wherever they are.

Boy: Does this mean I never should fight or oppose them?

Me: No, sometimes it is necessary to do that. But you should still love them and act toward being at peace with them, even while you are fighting them.

Boy: What does it mean to love them?

Me: True love is not primarily about feelings, but is primarily about action. Feelings will follow the actions, and sometimes those feelings will help encourage more of the same actions and sometimes the feelings won't. You'll have to train your feelings accordingly to follow your lead; not the other way around.

Boy: What actions should I take to love my neighbor?

Me: Treat them in ways that would help you, if you were them. Treat them in ways that affirm and help support their personhood. And treat them in ways that help them learn to do the same thing for other persons.

Boy: What if they are not human?

Me: There may be persons who are not of my species (note: such as the boy if he is an alien!) Do the same toward them, so far as you can, when you find them. (This, btw, is the ethical application of the principle of rational progress: walk according to as much light as you can see, looking for more light thereby.)

Boy: But why does this count as ethical wrong or right?

Me: You can do other things and call them ethical, as you choose. But those other things will not ultimately be about interpersonal relationships. Also, other things happen that are not interpersonal relationships, and are happening to you all the time. You can surrender to non-personal reactions instead, if you choose; and you may even be forced to do so on occasion. But those other things will not be about interpersonal relationships either.

Boy: Why should I act toward helping persons in interpersonal relationships then? If I am only doing it for my own sake, then that is selfishness.

Me: True. You should be doing it for their sake, primarily, not first and foremost for your own sake.

Boy: Why should I be doing it primarily for their sake then? If I do it to avoid being punished by them or someone else, or to avoid something unpleasant that may happen to me as a result, then that is primarily for my sake and not theirs.

Me: True. You should ideally be acting for their sake primarily, not primarily for your sake.

Boy: But why should I be primarily acting for their sake and not primarily for my own sake?

Me: What you will find, if you follow out this line of thought, is that your actions cannot be the final ground of morality--even for only yourself.

Boy: Unless I simply call whatever I choose to do "the ethically right thing". Why not only do that instead?

Me: You could in fact do only that. It will be useless unless you accrue power over other people to make them behave according to your choice, though.

Boy: Why should I not focus then on building up this power?

Me: How much power will you need, in principle, to succeed at this?

Boy: Power over every other person.

Me: You are unlikely to get that far; but supposing you did, would you then be safe from unpleasant effects?

Boy: From other people I would.

Me: What about from non-people?

Boy: I would have to build up power to affect non-people without being unpleasantly affected.

Me: How much power will you need, in principle, to succeed at this?

Boy: Power over everything in existence.

Me: You are even more unlikely to get that far. But whether you could even in principle get that far, depends on whether you continue to exist because of the behaviors of something else than yourself. Are you self-existent already?

Boy: No, clearly I am not.

Me: If you tried to become self-existent, would you be going against that by which you currently continue to exist?

Boy: Yes.

Me: Could this thing stop you by making you cease to exist before you succeeded?

Boy: Yes, either by accident or on purpose (if it is a person.)

Me: If it (one way or another) allowed you to succeed, what would happen to you?

Boy: I would exist on my own, self-existent.

Me: Or you would cease to exist, having defeated that by which you continue to exist.

Boy: Perhaps. Until I do it, there is no way to tell, is there? It could go either way.

Me: Until that which sustains you allows you to do it, you mean. But would this actually change the history of your past?

Boy: No, unless I could simply remake the past. Why could I not simply remake the past so that my existence never depended upon something else?

Me: You would be contradicting your own existence and so would cease to exist.

Boy: If I am all powerful I can have it both ways.

Me: No, you cannot be absolutely against your own existence, which up to then necessarily existed due to something other than yourself. Your existence as the Independent Fact still depends (in this case, even if you could work your way there), on your previous existence dependent upon something else.

Boy: But if I change that to me always-having-been-self-existent, then there is no problem.

Me: To deny one's real history is not being realistic; and at the level of existence you're talking about, to not be realistic is to not exist at all.

Boy: I think it could work anyway. Consequently, there is no reason why I shouldn't go ahead and try to have all power over everything now, so far as I can.

Me: Or for anyone else to do the same as you, except against you and for themselves.

Boy: If it happens then it happens.

Me: Then you will not possibly succeed; for ultimately you will be competing against that which can always stop you from winning against it.

Boy: If it chooses to.

Me: Why would it not choose to stop you from winning the ultimate competition against it?

Boy: If atheism is true, then it would have no choice about stopping me.

Me: Hadn't you better then work on whether atheism or theism is true, before you consider how you will be 'ethical'?

(Which not-incidentally is what I said much earlier in this thread, too. {s})

Boy: In any case it is clear that 'ethical' right and wrong begins and ends with individual persons, whether or not there is a God.

Me: If there is a God and 'ethical' right and wrong begins and ends with individual persons, then what does this mean about the ethics of God?

Boy: That they are no more 'ethical' than whatever I choose to call 'ethical'. He simply has more power to enforce His choices, if He chooses to use that power. If He does not choose to use it, that is His perrogative.

Me: And if He does not choose to use it against you?

Boy: Then He is a fool, and I will overcome Him in the end. In any case He is no more 'ethical' than I am; and I am no less 'ethical' than He is.

(Not-incidentally, I also mentioned much earlier in this thread that if the issue is approached from this direction, the best that can be arrived at is a tu quoque: 'yeah, well, you too! So there!' {s})

Me: You reject, then, an ethic that involves actively fostering other persons as persons.

Boy: That is my choice, and you have shown me no good reason why I should choose something else.

Me: So much for altruism being ethically better or worse than selfishness.

Boy: That is correct: it is simply a fact about people and perhaps about their choices.

Me: And you have said that if God exists then He is doing no better than you ethically, and you are doing no worse then Him ethically.

Boy: Correct.

Me: Yet your existence as a person depends upon His choice for you to continue doing so.

Boy: That is true--assuming He even made choices in this case. Perhaps He chooses for the system to exist, and that's all.

Me: In which case your person-ness would only be an incidental system effect.

Boy: In that case, or in the case of atheism, that must be true.

Me: If, on the other option, God intentionally keeps you in existence as a person, then does your 'ethical' plan involve the same thing?

Boy: No it does not, if I choose to disavow or even work against the person-ness of apparent 'other people'.

Me: You had better hope God does not act in that regard, then, or He will act against you before you are able to successfully supplant Him (supposing it's possible to supplant Him.)

Boy: More fool He if He can but does not.

Me: Would you be so foolish?

Boy: Certainly not; if I supplant Him then I shall always act to ensure that I cannot be supplanted in turn.

Me: Because you would know better.

Boy: Exactly.

Me: Why would God, on Whom all reality (including yourself) currently depends for existence, not already know better?

Boy: He would know better but would refuse to act to save Himself anyway.

Me: Why would He do that?

Boy: I have no idea; but obviously such foolishness is my only hope of ultimately succeeding in my chosen competition--if God exists.

Me: Your only possible hope of defeating God then, if He exists, is that He truly loves you.

Boy: That would be one way to put it, I suppose.

Me: In which case allowing you to defeat and, in essence, kill Him (for there cannot be two Independent Facts and He must at least cease to be the IF if you win your ascendency), must be an action He takes in hope that it will be for your own best satisfaction, ultimately.

Boy: Which doubtless would happen if I became God instead of God.

Me: Would allowing you to become God be an action God takes for the sake of people other than you?

Boy: That is irrelevant to me.

Me: Considering that God (if He exists, on this scenario) is someone who cares for at least one person and acts toward that person's fulfillment--specifically for yours--would God be acting toward the sake of other people's fulfillment by allowing someone who has chosen zero concern for other people to become God instead?

Boy: Obviously not.

Me: This can hardly be irrelevant to you, then; since unless God is willing to permanently damn other people to the fate of having you as God instead, He will not allow you to win your rebellion against Him. Why would God allow someone who willingly cares even less for other people than He does to overthrow Him?

Boy: I have no idea.

Me: Do you have any hope at all of ultimately winning a rebellion against God even on this scenario then?

Boy: No, I suppose I do not. But that does not mean God is necessarily acting for the benefit of people other than myself.

Me: No, in itself, it does not; except insofar that your own existence might be considered a benefit to you.

Boy: Or my existence might not be considered a benefit to me, depending on the state of my existence. Yet again, if my mere existence as a person counts as a benefit to me, then other people would not necessarily be worse off if I became God instead of God, so long as I let them continue to exist.

Me: How then does a person know what is ethically right or wrong?

Boy: There is no such thing as ethical right or wrong, only choices made and enforced by persons. Either I have the power to enforce my choices, or I do not. If I do not have the power, then I am ethically in the wrong. If I do then I am ethically in the right. So to speak.

Me: Rather then, there is such a thing as ethical right and wrong: the power to do what you choose, or not. How does this distinguish from any other object's power to cause effects?

Boy: There is no distinction; that is why I said there is no such thing as ethical right or wrong.

Me: Because it would be nonsense to say that an asteroid or a molecule of cytosine or a whole group of DNA sequences is doing something ethically right or wrong.

Boy: Exactly.

Me: Including pleasing you in various ways.

Boy: If you come to it, I suppose that is true, too.

Me: And you are ultimately no different than they are.

Boy: Except that I am a person.

Me: You can cause power-effects qualitatively different somehow than non-person entities then.

Boy: Yes. Otherwise there would be no point for you to treat me as a person in this discussion.

Me: Which would you prefer that I do? How shall I treat you?

Boy: As a person.

Me: Why?

Boy: Because I am, and to do otherwise would be unrealistic. Also, it would annoy me if you did not.

Me: This power capability which is qualitatively different than what non-person entities can do, then: this difference in capability has nothing to do with ethical capability, too?

Boy: Perhaps it would, but I don't see how. Explain to me how my capabilities as a person have something to do with ethical right or wrong, then.

Me: As a person you can actively choose your behaviors to some extent, unlike non-personal entities which at best can only react and counterreact.

Boy: If that is all there was to ethics, then what I choose is always right for me, whether I can accomplish it or not.

Me: What about the choices of other people?

Boy: What they choose is always right for them, on the same principle, whether they can accomplish it or not.

Me: Can they choose something that is wrong for you?

Boy: Yes, and then we will be in ultimate competition against each other. But neither of us is more or less ethically 'right' than the other.

Me: Because one action is just as 'good' or 'bad' as any other action.

Boy: As far as I can see, yes.

Me: What if you are not in ultimate competition with each other, but are working together toward a shared goal?

Boy: If that is all there is to ethics, then no group is any better than another group in its actions, except in mere ability to enforce the goals of the group.

Me: It would at least be useless to appeal to some overarching standard of behavior in judging between two groups.

Boy: Both groups may be acting to survive; or both groups may be acting to protect the well-being of their own group. Those 'standards' simply as such would be leading to the ultimate competition between groups, not toward peace between them.

Me: What if one group is acting to protect the well-being of the other group?

Boy: There would be no superiority in that; it is only the choice of the first group compared to the second group again. Also, this relationship would be irrelevant to anyone outside both groups.

Me: Yet it would be relevant to anyone within one or the other group.

Boy: True; but the only way this could certainly apply is if all persons were in one or else the other group.

Me: How far would this scope have to extend to be certainly relevant to someone?

Boy: It would have to apply to all persons everywhere, living or dead, including in other realities (if there are any other realities).

Me: Would the choice of Group A, to protect the well-being of Group B, then be superior in any way to the choice of Group B?

Boy: No; because Group B is either doing the same in regard to Group A or not. If Group B is, then there is no difference in goals between them, only differences in objects for those goals, and the objects are neither superior nor inferior than the other. If Group B is not acting to protect the well-being of Group A, then that is only the choice of Group B. One action, even as a group, is no more important than any other action.

Me: What if the action of Group A is the action by which all reality, including Group B, exists at all?

Boy: Then there would be some kind of superiority I suppose. Are you saying that this is ethical superiority?

Me: I would call it ontological superiority first. But, what actions are involved in this ontological superiority?

Boy: If I understand you correctly, it would be the action of self-existence.

Me: Is that all?

Boy: No; if I understand you correctly, the action of self-existence would involve at least two persons acting for the benefit of each other as persons and therefore for the benefit of the single group.

Me: Is that all?

Boy: No; if I understand you correctly, this action of self-existence of multiple persons comprising Group A is itself necessary for the persons in Group B (and indeed everything whether Group A or not-Group A) to exist at all.

Me: Is that all?

Boy: No; if I understand you correctly, Group A must also be acting to positively foster the well-being of Group B, not merely to keep Group B in existence.

Me: If Group A acted toward Group B in some fashion ultimately different than this, would such a choice still be in keeping with the self-existent choosing of Group A?

Boy: No; Group A would be acting, toward Group B, in a way that is principly different than its own action of self-existence.

Me: How can Group B be sure that Group A will never act against Group B in such a fashion (assuming Group A exists)?

Boy: If Group A acted against Group B in such a fashion, thus acting in a fashion principly different than its own action of self-existence, Group A would cease to exist and so would Group B whose existence depends upon Group A's existence. So would everything else in reality, past present and future, all of which (hypothetically) depend for existence upon Group A's action.

Me: What if Group B acts, in regard to itself or toward Group A either one, in a fashion similar to what would be the death of Group A (and everthing else) if Group A acted that way?

Boy: Group B would not necessarily cease to exist; that depends upon the choices of Group A, not Group B. But Group B would be acting contrary to the source of its own existence, to some extent.

Me: Could this in any way be beneficial to Group B?

Boy: No, ultimately it couldn't be, even though it might increase the pleasure of Group B in the short term.

Me: If persons in Group B were trying to behave like persons in Group A primarily for the sake of themselves (in Group B) and not primarily for the sake of others (in Group B or Group A either one), then what?

Boy: They would not in fact be acting like the persons in Group A who act primarily for the sake of other persons, whether in Group A or in Group B.

Me: Consequently, there would be, in principle, proper and improper ways for a person to behave, even situationally. Those ways will be in conjunction with the ways of the persons of Group A, whose way of action is the ground of all existence, or not in conjunction. If so, the person is acting in accord with the superior way of action; if not, the person is acting in an inferior way.

Boy: But what if all reality does not depend upon the interpersonal relationship of a group of persons? If God is only one person, then any other person would be acting in a superior way to disregard interpersonal relationships in his own choices.

Me: Except that this would be to act in ultimate competition against God, too; thus it would not in fact be in accord with the superior action.

Boy: But neither would it be in accord with the superior action, except superficially, to act in conjunction with God. For God's own actions, if mere monotheism is true, have nothing intrinsically to do with people fostering the well-being of people.

Me: That's true. And what if atheism is true?

Boy: Then once again the existence of reality, including us as persons, has nothing intrinsically to do with people fostering the well-being of people.

Me: What importance would interpersonal relationships have, at most, in such a reality?

Boy: Only what they could personally benefit me from having. No persons are ultimately important, except perhaps to themselves. And as they cannot be ultimate persons (if atheism is true), even their self-importance to themselves cannot really be ultimately important.

Me: What if someone decided to act primarily for the sake of another person anyway, in such a reality?

Boy: They could choose to do so, perhaps, but it would be no better than acting primarily for one's own sake. One choice is as good or bad as another. But that is no argument that God exists.

Me: No; I am not engaging in a theistic argument from morality here--even though the topics and arguments are clearly related.

Boy: But neither are you talking about multiple Gods really; unless you forgot that you said earlier that there cannot be multiple Independent Facts.

Me: I had not forgotten, and I was not talking about multiple Gods.

Boy: Then a single God is the most that can be true. With perhaps minor gods in existence, but ultimately they would fall into Group B.

Me: A single God is the most that can exist, in that sense, this is true.

Boy: But a single God has nothing to do intrinsically with fostering healthy interpersonal relationships.

Me: Unless the single God is multiple Persons sharing a single existence.

Boy: That sounds rather like multiple personality disorder!

Me: Actually, MPD typically involves the persons competing against each other in sequential conscious existence. Whereas schizophrenia involves the persons existing simultaneously but unable to cohere. In either case it is a disorder, as you noted. This would not be a disordered relationship between persons, though.

Boy: Or the Persons are only masks or aspects or appearances of each other.

Me: Then the Persons are not distinct and no interpersonal unity can be actually happening.

Boy: But so what if there are multiple persons in a single unity? They are merely existing; this has nothing to do with action.

Me: In that case, you would be correct. However, the topic is being approached backward. Theism, distinct from atheism, involves intentional action at the most fundamental level of existence. The most fundamental action is thus...?

Boy: To self-exist.

Me: To act to exist. If an intentionally active entity acts to self-exist, then the entity will be both cause and result. And both the cause and the result of an intentionally active entity, acting thus in self-existence, must be intentionally active. The single intentionally active entity thus consists of an intentionally active cause and an intentionally active result.

Boy: But what is the intentional action of the result?

Me: To surrender back to the cause. The cause acts for the sake of the result; the result acts for the sake of the cause. These are distinct actions of united persons of an otherwise singular entity.

Boy: Isn't that paradoxical?

Me: Yes, but not contradictive--especially not self-contradictive. We are talking about final existence, so we will be dealing with paradox anyway, whether we accept theism or atheism. Active self-existence would necessarily involve this paradox.

Boy: But non-active self existence would not have this paradox.

Me: No; neither would it have anything else. If existence does not or cannot act to generate, it does not or cannot generate anything other than itself either.

Boy: This is still no argument that I should believe theism to be true instead of atheism.

Me: True; that argument would take topical priority. But that was not what you were asking me about at the beginning.

Boy: How do humans know what is ethically right and what is ethically wrong?

Me: The answer is first that ultimately there is no ethical right or ethical wrong, unless a very particular kind of theism is true.

Boy: Why should I believe that very particular kind of theism is true?

Me: You shouldn't, unless you believe theism is true. As to why you should believe this kind of theism to be true and not another, if you believe theism to be true, I have already largely discussed: the properties have to do with active self-existence.

Boy: Why should I believe theism to be true?

Me: That is a whole other discussion, though one worth having of course. But assuming for purposes of argument theism is true...?

Boy: There is still no connection between the self-existent actions of the Persons of this God, and how we can know what is right and what is wrong ethically.

Me: So far as I have discussed it, no. But, would it be coherent or incoherent to the self-existence of God, in this case, to refuse to act toward helping us know what is right and what is wrong to do?

Boy: It would be incoherent for God to refuse to act to help us in that matter.

Me: And yet here we still are. Therefore, if God exists He must be acting to help us at least a little bit (and ideally in some increasing fashion) to know what is right and what is wrong. Here I would discuss the Third Person of God, proceeding in distinction from the self-begetting/self-begotten unity of the first two Persons; but it would take me a while to explain the subtle technical reasons for why a Third Person would be necessary for this. (Part of it has to do with appreciating sceptical arguments about the consciousness of God, for what it's worth.)

Boy: Why do many humans strive to do what is right and avoid doing what is wrong?

Me: They are making their own choices as free-though-derivative persons, just as you insisted on making your choices. Those choices will either be in consonance with God, or not; and that is still true whether the person has any belief about God as God or not. You can choose to love your neighbor, or not to love him; the same choice God has, with the difference that if you choose to not love another person you won't necessarily pop out of existence (along with everything else). God makes His choices, too, one of which is to help you learn to do the good rather than the evil, and to encourage you to do the good. Sometimes the impulses of non-sentient Nature help one or the other direction, not on purpose but simply because it is going about its non-intentional business and this is the result.

Boy: Why would God not create a not-God Nature that always helped and encouraged doing good?

Me: He could only guarantee that if He manipulated all particles determinately, in which case there would be no freedom for us, either.

Boy: Why would God bother to create a not-God Nature at all, then?

Me: For numerous technical reasons which would take me a while to discuss. The first and perhaps simplest answer, though, is that if God acts in any fashion other than self-existence, He must by default be generating a not-God existence. Matters (even literally!) become more complex after that.


I have not tried to directly address your own explanation in this dialogue, btw. And since I am running long, I won't do so now. Perhaps next week. {s!} (Though looking back through it, I see that I have in fact addressed your explanation in detail as an integral part of the dialogue.)

JRP

Mark Frank said...

Jason

I am sorry but there is no way I can digest what you have written. As well as being incredibily long it really hard to understand what a lot of it means. If there are one or two sentences that are hard to understand I can ask for elucidation but this is overwhelming.

Maybe a very short version with the key points?

Jason Pratt said...

{{Maybe a very short version with the key points?}}

I can sympathize with the difficulty and the question; but that was a very short version! (I was summarizing roughly 150 pages of analysis where the paragraphs are often larger than the brief no-more-than-three-sentences standard I held to here in the dialogue.)

Rather than trying to digest it all, perhaps it would be better to start from the beginning and call a halt at the first place you would answer differently than the imagined highly-intelligent 12-year-old? (Which could be pretty quick.) I tried to anticipate as many questions and reasonable answers from the 12-year-old as possible and synthesize them together into logical progressions; but not everyone would necessarily proceed along the same line.

Have a good week!

JRP

PS: if you preferred, we could start a dialogue at the Cadre Journal in a couple of weeks--I have a series of entries to finish posting and collating first, though, that will probably take me to April. Let me know if you're interested; or we can stay here; or each move along (at no foul. I'm not interested in some kind of win/loss result.)

Mark Frank said...

Jason

I think it is a very good idea to move this discussion to another platform. I very much doubt anyone else is reading it and I don't want to clog up Victor's blog with our private debate.

I had not heard of the cadre journal but I just googled and came across this blog with your name as one of the authors:

http://christiancadre.blogspot.com/

So I guess that is it. Or is the journal something other than the blog?

Anyhow it seems suitable (while I am at it I think I might comment on the most recent post).

As you guessed, I falter at the very first reply. "Love you neighbour" doesn't seem like an answer to a question. It is an instruction not an answer.

Jason Pratt said...

Mark,

OMG, I actually got done in time today to catch your reply before a week had passed! {lol!}

{{I very much doubt anyone else is reading it and I don't want to clog up Victor's blog with our private debate.}}

Victor is in the habit of redating his posts for his classes, and this is a good candidate for a semi-regular redate. Besides, a lot of his commentary threads end up being a debate between two people. {g} But I’m certainly okay with moving it over, too. (When I do, I’ll come back here and post a link so readers will know where to go if Victor does do a redate someday.)

{{I had not heard of the cadre journal}}

I linked to it a couple of times, way back up in the comment thread. 150 pages worth of analysis, remember? {g} (That’s why I didn’t put in an address; sorry.)

Yes, that address is correct. It’ll be... hm... very likely the first or second week in April before I’ll be able to start a dialogue between us there. I’ll drop a line here when I do; Blogger should send you an email when that occurs.

{{while I am at it I think I might comment on the most recent post}}

Not by me, but you’re certainly welcome to. Be aware that Bill was intentionally trying to “stir up a hornet nest”. I don’t usually do that. (Which may be why my entries don’t get commented on a lot... {wry g})

{{As you guessed, I falter at the very first reply. "Love your neighbour" doesn't seem like an answer to a question. It is an instruction not an answer.}}

Then we can start with that next time. Though incidentally, it’s a Biblical precept: if we want to learn how to tell the difference between right and wrong, we should go love our neighbor. But it’s also meant as a challenge to prompt further questioning, including in its scriptural uses. (Who is my neighbor? What is involved in loving him? etc.) I avoided the usual scriptural connotations, though, and worked out the discussion along the lines of principle metaphysics.

JRP

Jason Pratt said...

Update, April 20, 2008: it took me longer to finish out my project than I anticipated, and I'm still taking a composition break afterward; so I still haven't restarted the dialogue/debate with Mark Frank over at the Cadre. It's still on my to-do list, though, and I'm looking forward to it. Maybe I can get around to it this week. (More likely it'll be May now, though.)

JRP

Jason Pratt said...

Update June 9, 2008: Well, I was distracted by completing another project at the Cadre (which will be finished tomorrow), and I need some time before working on my next big Cadre posting project; so there's a reasonably good chance I may re-start up the discussion with Mark there soon. I'll leave links here when-if-ever I get to it. (I also need a vacation for emotional stress purposes unrelated to apologetics. {s} Plus I have a third novel to be starting on soon.)

JRP

J said...

Most moral language relating to obligation--reciprocity ethics--does hint at a primitive identity function, aka the put yourself in the other's shoes meme.

You can't PROVE, however, that someone is obligated to put himself in the other's shoes, whether in regards to the law, crime, supposed duties (see Hume on fact/value dictinction). Inconsistency-- the professor or who argues against child prostitution then goes down to mexico to solicit some---is not really a contradiction, but hypocrisy. That sort of Hypocrisy of course may be a serious moral lapse, even from a secular standpoint, but not really logical. Similar scenarios can be imagined with the law, as with upholding Due Process, not convicting the innocent, etc. Yet at the same time, one could imagine a majority voting in certain special or aristo. rights, even a "hypocrisy right" (really slavery might be viewed as such). utilitarianism or contractualism does not guarantee justice nor does any system of ethics (theological included).

The importance placed on hypocrisy (say Bush's suspected misrep. of of supposed evidence of WMDS leading to IWE) does seem to suggest, however, that Ethics matters, and is not merely aesthetics, ie preferring mexican food to chinese.