Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Fact, opinion, and morality

A redated post.

Contrary to what you may have learned in grade school, the terms "fact" and "opinion" are far from clear. In order to have a fact, does it just need to be true or does it have to be provably true. Is there a "fact" about who committed an unsolved murder, even if we can't prove who did it one way or another. After all someone did commit the murder, right? In order to have an opinion, does that mean that it is neither true nor false, or both true and false depending on how you feel about it? Or is all you need for an opinion that it be open to controversy, in which case someone could have a correct opinion or an incorrect opinion (just not a provably correct or provably incorrect opinion).

We have a lot of social consensus about the wrongness of some actions. There was a controversy about whether O. J. killed Nicole and Ron, but no controversy about the rightness or the wrongness of the act of killing these two people. Is it "mere opinion" to say that slaughtering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman was wrong? Does it make sense to say that the only thing that was really wrong with it was that our social group disapproved of it?

25 comments:

Mariano said...

Dr. Reppert;
Pardon the random nature of this comment.
I have just written an essay that you may be interested in regarding Prof. Richard Dawkins’ fundamentalism.
I did not just want to impose and write a comment linking to it.
I would prefer to give you the opportunity to email me, if you wish, so that I could send you a link and see what you think.
Thanks for your time and attention,
Mariano
rddbug@yahoo.com

Mike Darus said...

Victor asked: "Is it "mere opinion" to say that slaughtering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman was wrong?"

There is a legal framework that differentiates allegations from "findings of fact" through a judicial proceding. There is also a differentiation of factual evidence from the conclusions derived from the evidence.

In every day conversation, we probably put fact and opinion on a continuum between from what we can observe and what we can intuit from our observations.

Another complication to the issue is our confusion about what is moral with what is legal. Social consensus is sometimes used to determine what is legal, but sometimes social consensus can be ignorred due to historical, religious, tradition, or common law legacies.

There is a sense where the morality of the OJ case is tried in the court of public opinon. This opinion may or may not be informed. The case was also tried in an actual court where there were "findings of fact" that may or may not inform public opinion.

In this case, it is not a question of whether Nicole and Ron's death was morally wrong. The opinions are whether it is factual that OJ did it and whether the criminal court or the civil court got it right.

Victor Reppert said...

This was designed as a counterexample to ethical relativism, according to which matter of "fact" are open to being settled, while all ethical questions are "matters of mere opinion" which are inherently subjective. Here we've got a lack of consensus as to whether or not the jury got it right, or even whether OJ did it, but there is a consensus that that action, whoever did it, was horribly wrong.

Ilíon said...

And that turn-about is rather amusing, don't you think?

Mike Darus said...

OK, but isn't the appeal to consensus an admisstion to relativism? A stronger counterexample would be am moral issue where the majority opinion is clearly wrong.

Ilíon said...

Victor Reppert: "This was designed as a counterexample to ethical relativism, according to which matter of "fact" are open to being settled, while all ethical questions are "matters of mere opinion" which are inherently subjective. Here we've got a lack of consensus as to whether or not the jury got it right, or even whether OJ did it, but there is a consensus that that action, whoever did it, was horribly wrong."

Part of the problem, a large part of the difficulty, I think, in thinking and talking about the dichotomy between "fact" and "opinion" -- for that matter, even seeing this as a dichotomy in the first place -- traces to the pernicious influences of positivism in its various guises.

The word 'opinion' does not really mean something like "an unjustified (and likely un-true) belief; a prejudice." And the word 'fact' does not really mean something like "an unqualified (and logically unassailable) truth." --- And this is to say nothing of the confusion sewn by positivism concerning the word 'truth' and the concept it denotes.

Consider the anecdote about CS Lewis when he was a young boy and the family were preparing for a holiday in France. Lewis fils came to his father in his study and said: "I have a prejudice against the French." His father asked: "Why do you have a prejudice against the French?" And the boy replied: "If I knew why, it wouldn't be a prejudice."

Now, young Lewis' prejudice was an opinion. It was an unjustified -- and likely unjustifiable -- opinion, but it was an opinion nonetheless. That is, it is certainly true that the term 'opinion' can encompass the concept of 'prejudice.'

But, under the influence of positivism, the meaning of 'opinion' has been subtly altered so as to definitionally equate *all* opinion with unjustified (and definitionally, unjustifiable) prejudice. Then, to get a word to use for denoting 'justified opinion,' the meaning of the word 'fact' is subtly altered -- and then elevated to mean not 'justified opinion' but something like "unquestionable truth." And, for a further amusement, positivism tends to lead to the explicit denial either that there exists truth or that it can be known if it does exist.

Now, in previous times, a person might for emphasis say something like, "In my considered opinion ..." But, in general, 'opinion' as used was understood to mean that one was asserting not only that one held a certain belief, but also that one was asserting possession of justification for holding the belief.

And, it seems to me that part of this maneuver of equating 'opinion' with 'prejudice' involves eliding the whole set of issues involved in justification of belief/opinion/knowledge. <== That joining-together of the concepts 'belief' and 'opinion' and 'knowledge' is quite intentional. As I'm sure you must understand, frequently an important part of the purpose of invoking and asserting a dichotomy between 'fact' and 'opinion' is to assert that one's own beliefs are unassailably true -- by definition -- whereas the beliefs one wishes to deny are unworthy even of consideration -- again, by definition. Thusly, though never stated so bluntly: "*My* beliefs are fact (i.e. 'true'), but *your* beliefs are only opinion (i.e. 'unimportant' or 'unworthy' or 'pointless' or even 'meaningless')."


But, in truth, beliefs and facts and knowledge and opinion are not alien things; the terms merely denote different ways of thinking about the same thing: belief. The terms denote varying degrees of confidence (i.e. that justification issue, again) in the truth of some statement/proposition or another.


The fact-opinion dichotomy just doesn't work in real life. That's why we find ourselves saying things like "mere opinion" ... which phrase then allows us to revert to using the word 'opinion' to imply possession of justification for the belief.

So, allow me to suggest another qualifying phrase which may help to break up the intellectual log-jam positivism still inflicts upon our culture: "brute fact" -- So, the dead bodies of Nichole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were "brute facts," but the statements we make *about* (aboutness!) those dead bodies are "facts."

And, of course, such a distinction between "brute fact" and "fact" allows us to see and clearly understand (as I think we would, but for positivism) that "facts" are *not* definitionally true, but rather they are "theory-laden" -- "facts" are interpretations of "brute facts," and they may be true, or they may not. The theory under which we ask questions about the "brute fact" largely determines the questions we ask in the first place, and the questions we ask determine the "facts" we are able even to see and state.

Mike Darus said...

It is a fact that I have an opinion.

Ilíon said...

Mike Darus: "It is a fact that I have an opinion."

Certainly: it it a fact that you have an opinion.

Solon said...

>>Is it "mere opinion" to say that slaughtering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman was wrong?

You're asking if it is morally true. That has not been proven. Is it Wrong for the wolf to eat the sheep?

Ilíon said...

What fools these 'atheists' always are.

Clayton said...

"This was designed as a counterexample to ethical relativism, according to which matter of "fact" are open to being settled, while all ethical questions are "matters of mere opinion" which are inherently subjective. Here we've got a lack of consensus as to whether or not the jury got it right, or even whether OJ did it, but there is a consensus that that action, whoever did it, was horribly wrong."

How's _this_ a counterexample to relativism?

A counterexample to relativism would involve an action, A, where the R says that A has some deontic status but A's deontic status is something else. It seems that this is one of the cases where the deontic status that R assigns to the relevant action is the right one.

Can you spell out a bit more how this is a counterexample to relativism? To the extent that I understand the post and comment, you're suggesting that when it comes to certain matters (e.g., the identity of the person who performed an action) there is a gap between fact and opinion but when it comes to others the relativist thinks no such gap exists. Maybe that matters when we evaluate very crude arguments for relativism, but I don't see how this threatens relativism itself.

If the point is just to attack the idea when it comes to non-moral judgments there is a difference between fact and opinion , then the relativist has an immediate response: there's a difference between judgments about non-moral facts and moral judgments so this difference is to be expected.

Jason Pratt said...

Vic,

Quick editing note:

{{There was a controversy about whether O. J. killed Nicole and Ron, but no controversy about whether, but no one was arguing that whoever committed those crimes might have been morally justified in doing it.}}

As far as I can tell, the highlighted portion there is an editing blip left over from a previous version of your paragraph. Or, if it isn't, I can't say I have any idea what it's supposed to mean.

Back to lurking! {g}

JRP

Victor Reppert said...

It's a typical counterexample to relativism based on moral clear cases. Another example would be the case of someone inviting a person over for dinner and the eating them as dinner. Typically, a relativist argues that we can agree on non-moral issues, but we can't agree about moral issues, so therefore morals must be relative.

There is an appearance of chaos in moral discouse because we invariably focus our attention on issues where there is a conflict of moral principles (abortion, the death penalty, just wars, the morality of lying for a beneficent purpose, etc.)

In the O. J. case we could agree on the wrongness of murdering Nicole and Ron, and could get agreement about nothing else.

So it undercuts an argument for relativism, namely, the argument from disagreement.

Clayton said...

A lot of this depends upon how you define relativism. Suppose you define it as follows:

Metaethical Moral Relativism (MMR). The truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons.

Maybe facts about disagreement are part of one argument for relativism, but relativists will not deny that there can be some agreement. How could they? That's a psychological fact and theirs is a view that tells us that certain psychological facts have surprising philosophical consequences. So, I have two worries. Pointing to cases of disagreement is consistent with their view. Arguing from the fact that there is agreement (even universal agreement) to the denial of relativism looks a lot like arguing from the falsity of a premise to the falsity of a conclusion.

Anyway, the argument from disagreement (typically) rests on a premise that says that there is disagreement about some deep moral matters. This is perfectly consistent with there being agreement on other moral matters. I still fail to see how the passage above contains an argument against either relativism or a decent objection to one standard argument for relativism (i.e., arguments from disagreement).

Clayton said...

Oops:

Replace:
Pointing to cases of disagreement is consistent with their view.

With:
Pointing to cases of agreement is consistent with their view.

Both claims are true, but it's the second that's relevant.

Victor Reppert said...

Cases of agreement may be consistent with their view, but they don't support their argument.

Clayton said...

That's a different point.

I don't think that the relativist thinks that every possible observation supports their view, only that some do. So, the fact that there is some agreement is perfectly harmless. Indeed, even if there happened to be perfect agreement, that would be harmless. Most relativists would be happy to say that if there happened to be only one person or two people who agreed their view would still be true. They'd ask: what would happen if people (contrary to fact) did disagree? They could then argue from there.

Blue Devil Knight said...

I agree with Jason Pratt. The sentence is not grammatical. Victor I think you need to look at it with fresh eyes.

Ilíon said...

I had considered saying something about that sentence (notice: I don't mention everything I notice).

I suspect the intention was to say something like "There was a controversy about whether O. J. killed Nicole and Ron, but no controversy about whether [they were, in fact, murdered, and] no one was ..."

Ilíon said...

VR: "In the O. J. case we could agree on the wrongness of murdering Nicole and Ron, and could get agreement about nothing else.

So it undercuts an argument for relativism, namely, the argument from disagreement.
"

Thank you for that insight.

Gordon Knight said...

The best counterexample to relativism is any case in which a person judges X is to be right or wrong and yet the society/culture/whatnot disaproves or approves of X

Another problem is that it is hard to decide what is meant but "society" or "culture" is it my country? my religious community? my family? the group of friends I smoke dope with on friday night?

Subjectivism fares better on the above, but its odd to suppose that no one ever really contradicts another w/respect to moral views. And it is also odd to say that when, e.g. Hitler says "exterminating the jews is morally acceptable" he is saying something true.

narnialand said...

Dr. Reppert!
I am Rahim.
I am writing a thesis on Lewis. I came across John Beversluis 'C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion'. He is showing Lewis like a amateur thinker who has many flaw. Could you give me some advice ?

Doctor Logic said...

Gordon,

Subjectivists don't say that "when, e.g. Hitler says "exterminating the jews is morally acceptable" he is saying something true."

Just like they don't say that when Fred says that Metallica is the best band ever, Fred is saying something true.

In both cases, the subjectivist isn't saying the subject is saying something true period, but saying something true about the way the subject feels or about the subject's moral policies.

There is also the added connotation in such statements that the speaker encourages others to condemn and socially isolate those who differ in opinion.

There's nothing odd or peculiar about it.

Under subjectivism, the only thing that is illusory is the belief that morality is objective. Everything else fits perfectly. Moral persuasion, reasoning and psychology work the same way. If someone walks up to you on the street and gives you a moral rebuke, you don't care whether that person is a subjectivist or a realist. The persuasive force doesn't derive from some objective landscape, but rather from your own moral feelings.

I realize that subjectivism is toxic to Christianity, but that is not a flaw in subjectivism.

Gordon Knight said...

Well, Some christians ARE subjectivists--DC theorists. Of course for them only one subject matters.

But a subjectivist who holds that moral statements describe psychological states will have to say that literally speaking what Hitler says is true, on the plausible assumption that Hitler is sincerely describing his psychological attitudes.

but you might have in mind a non-cognitivist sort of subjectivism. Moral "statements' are really expressions of feelings or maybe commands.

But here too, there are problems.
Sure what H says is not true on this view, but neither is what I say when I deny H's claim.

your example of metallica is a good example in the case against subjectivism. For in ordinary discourse we allow difference of taste. Some people don't dig baroque music, but only a fool would try to move from this to some objective badness in the music (there may be objective aesthetic standards, but if there are, they are not based on some musical raw feel).

But ordinary moral discourse is completely different. When I argue that torture is wrong, I don't take myself to be merely expressing my feelings, I take myself to expressing a truth. And Dick Cheney is just WRONG. Its not a matter of taste.

Subjectivism, if true, undercuts this basic assumption of ordinary moral discourse.

Of course our everday assumption may be false, it may be a deep delusion, but don't act like there is not a radical disconnect between subj. understanding of morality and ordinary moral thought discourse.

Doctor Logic said...

Gordon,

But ordinary moral discourse is completely different. When I argue that torture is wrong, I don't take myself to be merely expressing my feelings, I take myself to expressing a truth. And Dick Cheney is just WRONG. Its not a matter of taste.


I don't agree with this.

There are two levels to our intuitions. First, level one. When you are in the thick of a heated moral dispute with someone (e.g., just like when you were 10 years old), the dispute is not about objective reality. It's a social and psychological contest that's based on some values that you assume to be shared. Shared is not the same thing as objective. You think your moral imperatives apply to Dick Cheney, but that's not the same thing as their being objective. You think that Cheney's desire to torture people isn't an axiom of his moral thinking. You assume instead that Cheney somehow values the results of torturing people. So you can argue with Cheney on the grounds that torture violates some general goals that may have to do with reduction of suffering, being in proper relation to God, etc. You assume torture violates Cheney's core values.

At level two, if you begin a philosophical analysis of moral interactions at level one, it may indeed be intuitive to assume that there are objective moral truths, i.e., that those shared assumptions are true, independent of any minds that hold such assumptions, or true because every rational mind will find them to be true. That is, when you create a philosophical model of your moral feelings and behavior, you will be prejudiced to make morality objective. But this is not a good argument for moral realism. Just because realism is, at first, the most intuitive model for your feelings and behaviors at level one, doesn't mean it is a good model. Subjectivism is a far better model because subjectivism is 100% consistent with level one, and it doesn't fail at level two.

If you want to give me evidence for moral realism, show me that morality predicts something other than how people subjectively feel. If you don't have that kind of prediction, I've got no reason to think morality is objective and aesthetics or taste in food isn't. If the latter are objective too, then nothing at all is subjective, and there is only defectiveness.

Let's suppose (contra fact, IMO) that the vast majority of people did base their level-one interactions on some assumption of objectivity (as opposed to universally shared values). What's the point of saying "X is wrong!"?

Presumably, the other party objectively thinks X is right. Just stamping your foot and saying "X is wrong!" is a waste of time. Since morality doesn't predict anything, you have no rational grounds for convincing the other guy that your objective morality is better than his. The only reason to say "X is wrong!" is either to (1) let the other guy know that his moral policy is inconsistent with his own moral axioms, or (2) to influence him psychologically or socially into compromising for the sake of his own social status.

In other words, the rational reasons for saying "X is wrong!" in the objectivist picture are exactly the same reasons someone would use in a subjectivist picture, the difference being that moral axioms in the latter case are shared assumptions instead of absolute truths.