Monday, November 03, 2008

Equal Protection and Abortion

McConnell: One can make a pretty convincing argument, however, that fetuses are persons. They are alive; their species is Homo sapiens. They are not simply an appendage of the mother; they have a separate and unique chromosomal structure. Surely, before beings with all the biological characteristics of humans are stripped of their rights as "persons" under the law, we are entitled to an explanation of why they fall short. For the court to say it cannot "resolve the difficult question of when life begins" is not an explanation.

Here's my claim. If this argument goes through, then you have a Federal case against abortion based on the Equal Protection clause. What is wrong with this claim?

54 comments:

Dominic Bnonn Tennant said...

Nothing is wrong with it.

Randy said...

I see nothing wrong with your claim either, Victor.

McConnell: One can make a pretty convincing argument, however, that fetuses are persons. They are alive; their species is Homo sapiens. They are not simply an appendage of the mother; they have a separate and unique chromosomal structure. Surely, before beings with all the biological characteristics of humans are stripped of their rights as "persons" under the law, we are entitled to an explanation of why they fall short. For the court to say it cannot "resolve the difficult question of when life begins" is not an explanation.

Are the embryos that come about through in vitro fertilization also to be considered persons before they are transferred into a woman?

Ron said...

I see nothing wrong with it, either.

ST said...

Dear Victor -

Even if the claim has no flaws whatsoever, even if it is completely legitimate, there is still the question of what can actually be achieved, at any point in time, in our polity.

Personally, I think it would be best to have a human life amendment to be added to the Constitution. But the path to that amendment may be through the overturning of Roe, rather than in exclusion of it. I think it is far more likely, at this point, that Roe and its companion cases would be overturned than such an amendment be added to the Constitution. Overturning the ruling of Roe, and putting the question of abortion to the states may well have the effect of reducing abortion substantially. It is not ideal, but few things are in the arena of politics.

Blessings,

Steve

Victor Reppert said...

I actually think overturning Roe would do almost nothing to reduce abortions. I'm not sure any state would outlaw abortion completely.

I think that there are numerous missed opportunities to reduce abortion because of the partisan gridlock on the issue.

Obama says he supports a late term abortion ban with a mother's health exception. He has further said that that exception should be specified in such a way that it is physical health that has to the issue, and it seems to me that there could be two more points included. First, the health difficulties have to be serious, and secondly, a viable fetus could not be aborted.

This is, of course, far from ideal from a pro-life standpoint. But this could get done. In fact, it should have gotten done a long time ago.

badass said...

Dominic, Randy, Ron: You uncritical bastards! Would it kill you to think about the argument for a moment Goddammit! Even if we grant that the fetus is a full person who has all the rights of any other person, including the right to life, that doesn't show that the fetus has the right not to be killed PERIOD; what the right to life actually entails is the right not to be killed UNJUSTLY. So the burden is on the opponent of abortion to show that it involves unjust killing. Give an argument, if you dare!

Randy said...

badass,
Even granting the validity of Victor's argument that doesn't mean there would never be a legal abortion again. If the woman's life was threatened, then a case could be made for aborting the fetus-person.

By the way, though I grant the validity of the argument, I don't think there are substantial grounds for granting personhood on a zygote or fetus.
I found it interesting that Mr. McConnell left out the most important criteria which we use to attribute personhood to a creature: the ability to understand and use a language which enables self-awareness and self-examination, the ability to make plans and act on them, the knowledge of good and evil, etc.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Thomson's violinist assumes the zygote is a person and still justifies the legality of abortion. In the case of unwanted pregnancies (e.g., rape, contraception used) it is hard to make a case against it being legal (even if it isn't always moral).

Steven Carr said...

In American law, is a fetus a person?

If somebody kills a pregnant woman, is he charged with 2 counts of murder?

If a will decrees that a certain bequest will go to the oldest descendant, does time of conception count for this, in American law?

I know that in English law, a fetus is not a person, but I don't know about American law.

Doctor Logic said...

They are alive; their species is Homo sapiens. They are not simply an appendage of the mother; they have a separate and unique chromosomal structure.

It's not a convincing argument because the first premise is false.

Dr. Zaius is a person, and he is a different species. E.T. has no DNA and is not our species, but is a person. Orac and Lt. Commander Data are not even biological, have no mothers, and they are both persons.

Personhood isn't about DNA, or else these characters and their stories would be unintelligible.

Aborted fetuses don't have thoughts, never had thoughts, and never will. They are not persons.

That doesn't mean they have no value. Pets are not persons, and they obviously have value. It's just that some things have more value than others.

Mike Darus said...

On what basis is Lt. Commander Data a person? Not everything that walks and quacks like a duck is a duck.

Bert Power said...

Certainly, per Roe etc., the law does not see fetuses as people and therefore they have no rights. Furthermore, even if they did there are some arguments that the rights of the fetuses would be in conflict with the rights of the mother in such a way that the mother would win anyway:

See, e.g. 56 Emory L.J. 1173
Emory Law Journal 2007 Article THE NEXT STEP AFTER ROE: USING FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS, EQUAL PROTECTION ANALYSIS TO NULLIFY RESTRICTIVE STATE-LEVEL ABORTION LEGISLATION Eileen McDonagh:

"Thus, once the state defines the fetus to be an unborn human being with the same rights and, hence, limitations as a born human being, the fundamental rights model of equal protection analysis obligates the state also to act to stop the fetus as an unborn human being from massively transforming the body and liberty of a woman without her consent."

Randy said...

mike,
On what basis is Lt. Commander Data a person? Not everything that walks and quacks like a duck is a duck.


He has the ability to speak and understand languages, to reason, to give reasons for his behavior, to make moral decisions. He sought to resign from Starfleet in order to retain his autonomy.
He is only an imaginary creature. But he meets all the essential criteria for ascription of personhood.

Steve said...

DL,

But McConnell's argument wasn't that having a certain DNA is necessary and sufficient for being a person, merely that belonging to a certain specified species is sufficient (perhaps not logically sufficient, but rather just a claim about the extension of various predicates) for being a person. All your examples do nothing to cast doubt on that.

BDK,

I've never been that impressed by the JJT's violinist. If the cases are made sufficiently alike, I'm willing to concede that certain abortions are morally permissible and ought to be legal. But to think that that means "abortion should be legalised" (either unqualifiedly or in something like the present situation) is a bizarre inference at best. Presumably that's not what you mean. But then how does the violinist count against the McConnell argument?

Randy,
You say that the most important criteria for personhood are certain conceptual skills:
the ability to understand and use a language which enables self-awareness and self-examination, the ability to make plans and act on them, the knowledge of good and evil, etc.

This seems to push in the direction of Michael Tooley's (in)famous paper on infanticide. Even after birth children are not capable of these things for quite some time. If the lack of ability to do these things prevents a fetus being a person, it'll do the same for an infant.

All,

I don't know anything about the "equal protection clause", so I can't really comment on the legal question VR has posed.

Steve

Randy said...

steve,
But McConnell's argument wasn't that having a certain DNA is necessary and sufficient for being a person, merely that belonging to a certain specified species is sufficient (perhaps not logically sufficient, but rather just a claim about the extension of various predicates) for being a person.

Would you extend this to a zygote or fetus that results from in vitro fertilization before it has been implanted in a woman's body?

Doctor Logic said...

Steve,

I think some folks are looking for a very simple rule, like "rights are given to persons, and persons are any member of an intelligent species."

I think that no such simple rule exists. Morality is subjective, complicated, and isn't correlated directly to species, DNA, persons, or pure behaviors.

Look at how we decide moral questions. The moral input data consists of our own subjective moral intuitions. We correlate our intuitions with the objective things we're studying, like behaviors, capacities, biologies, etc. Then we assume morality is an objective function of situations, and devise some moral theory. But how are such theories tested? They're tested by cooking up a scenario (usually an extreme one), and seeing if our moral intuitions match up with the predictions of the theory.

For example, if I propose some simplistic rule like "grant rights to persons on the basis of capacity and behavior", you'll find a scenario, e.g., newborns, and claim that newborns don't have rights under my rule. At this point we have two choices. We can say that the theory is wrong because its predictions don't tally with our intuitions, or we can say that our intuitions are wrong. But there's no basis for saying the intuitions are wrong. So the theory must be bunk.

This is why I put very little faith in moral rule arguments, or related slippery slope arguments. People fear that if personhood is defined based on behavior and capacity, babies and people who have lost their minds will lose their right to be treated like (almost) persons. However, pets don't meet any definition of personhood, and yet I suspect we would both intuit that pets should have rights. So society accepts that rights aren't just given to persons. In practice, rights are granted to non-persons in order to protect the feelings and well-being of actual persons.

This makes the rights of embryos a very complex matter. If you feel bad about a woman terminating her pregnancy, that has to be weighed against the feelings and well-being of the other persons involved in an abortion decision, e.g., those of the pregnant woman. We also generally intuit that the interests of people closer to a moral decision are more important. That's why people generally say that a woman has a right to choose that overrides your remote moral distaste.

As the pregnancy proceeds, the relative interest of others in society increases. Hence, society deems that early term abortions are okay, but late term abortions are generally not. Makes sense to me.

Mike Darus said...

Randy,
Your criteria for person has flaws on two ends. First, you give too much credit to a machine than emulates human actions as a function of its programming. This is a confusion of the conterfeit with the actual. Second, your requirements for the acts of a person are demanding. You open the door for infanticide and euthansasia for those who cannot perform the actions you detailed. Your definition of personhood should ideally include all living human beings (and no robots, please).

Randy said...

mike,

Your criteria for person has flaws on two ends. First, you give too much credit to a machine than emulates human actions as a function of its programming. This is a confusion of the conterfeit with the actual.

Not at all. If you watched Star Trek then you would know that Data responded as a person would in a wide variety of situations. He formed close friendships with a number of other persons. He respected their autonomy. He was often considerate of their needs. As I mentioned earlier, he also insisted that his own autonomy be respected. He was willing to place his life in jeopardy to aid others. Etc., etc.
As to whether it is possible to design an android that could be considered a person…? I seriously doubt it. But Star Trek is a fantasy and so the practical objection seems to me to be irrelevant.
Wouldn’t you consider Reepicheep to be a person even though he is only a mouse?
If we encounter a race of aliens from outer space are you going to deny them personhood because their insides are different than ours?


Second, your requirements for the acts of a person are demanding. You open the door for infanticide and euthansasia for those who cannot perform the actions you detailed. Your definition of personhood should ideally include all living human beings (and no robots, please).


I didn’t really give a definition of personhood. I listed some of the important criteria we use in ascribing personhood to someone.
We extend the concept of personhood to late term fetuses, babies, young children and senile adults. I think that there are good reasons for doing so even though they don’t meet all of those criteria.

The concept of personhood arose because normal, healthy adults have the capacity to use a language, to examine their actions and thoughts, to make moral decisions, to demand autonomy and grant it to others. They naturally extend it to their babies and young children because it is only those infants who can possibly grow up to be real persons. Most cultures have some sort of ceremony or ritual marking the transition into personhood.

Steve said...

Randy,

You ask: Would you extend this to a zygote or fetus that results from in vitro fertilization before it has been implanted in a woman's body?

Personally, I'm not sure about this extension, but I must say that IVF makes many pro-lifers uncomfortable for much this reason.

Steve

Steve said...

DL,

I agree that what we often find ourselves doing in moral reflection is attempting, piece-meal, to bring our intuitions about concrete cases into reflective equilibruim with some level of moral theory and that the result isn't always simple. But you seem to think that the modifications in coming to a reflective equilibrium would all be on the side of theory and not on the side of "intuition". You say:

We can say that the theory is wrong because its predictions don't tally with our intuitions, or we can say that our intuitions are wrong. But there's no basis for saying the intuitions are wrong. So the theory must be bunk.

I disagree. The theories themselves are often rooted in strong intuitions, and their simplicity (or lack of it) and ability (or lack of it) to explain or accommodate our intutions is one of things which makes moral argument (and moral progress) possible. You might equally say that "there is no basis for saying the theory is wrong" rather than "there is no basis for saying the intuitions are wrong".

I also think that simplicity is a virtue in these ethical positions just as in scientific theories, as I'm a moral realist. By contrast when you say things like:

In practice, rights are granted to non-persons in order to protect the feelings and well-being of actual persons.

you are indicating that rights (or at least some of them) are really a useful fiction and not part of the moral furniture of the universe. This becomes even more apparent when you say things like

If you feel bad about a woman terminating her pregnancy, that has to be weighed against the feelings and well-being of the other persons involved in an abortion decision, e.g., those of the pregnant woman.

and

As the pregnancy proceeds, the relative interest of others in society increases. Hence, society deems that early term abortions are okay, but late term abortions are generally not.

You are here effectively denying that any rights the unborn child might have could "reside" in the child itself. Rather the rights grow from the collective interests of society, the same being true, presumably of rights in general.

Obviously I reject that kind of social relativism, and those who endorse it have no genuinely moral case for the pro-choice position. Equally, against such a relativism, no pro-life arguments are likely to meet with any success ... the relativism itself must be addressed first.

Steve

Doctor Logic said...

Steve,

Thanks for your very lucid reply.

You are correct, I am a moral relativist.

I want to ask you about the relative priority of moral theories versus moral intuitions.

You seem to be arguing that moral theories have an attraction that is prior or simultaneous with moral feelings?

I really don't see this at all. What I see is that people want to rationalize their moral feelings, just as they want to rationalize all their other feelings. For example, do children have moral theories, or do they have moral feelings? I think they feel, and only later learn to rationalize the feelings by finding patterns in their feelings.

Contrast morality with physics. We know physics is objective because we can isolate individual properties of physical objects. I'll try to explain why I think this is important.

Suppose that I think apples are aesthetically pleasing, and bananas are not. Is this aesthetic appeal in the fruit itself, or is it in me and just the result of how the objective properties of the fruit tickle my brain?

Well, one way to test for this is to create a membrane through which only aesthetic appeal is transmitted. In that case, I would know that aesthetic appeal it could not be an artifact of my processing system. We can create such membranes for physical properties, but not for aesthetic appeal. (Negative evidence for objectivity/reality of aesthetic appeal.)

Another way to know that aesthetic appeal is an artifact is to note that aesthetic appeal has no impact on the interaction of fruit with non-subjective entities. Bacteria (which have no subjectivity) don't care whether the fruit is aesthetically appealing or not. (Negative evidence for objectivity/reality of aesthetic appeal.)

Finally, we have actual evidence that our biology has accidental preferences that differ from person to person. (Positive evidence for subjectivity/relativity of aesthetic appeal.)

Hence, we conclude that aesthetic appeal is not objective, but is an artifact of how we perceive objective properties.

We can do the exact same thing for morality. There are no "evil-permeable" membranes through which we can detect evil without knowing what is on the other side. Stolen gasoline burns with the same caloric result as fairly-purchased gasoline. And there are plenty of reasons to suggest that biological history and cultural influences cause us to have a morally subjective perception of the physically objective reality.

So there's not just an absence of evidence for moral reality, there's positive evidence against moral reality.

I think that the only way I can get around this argument is to deny the existence of subjectivity altogether.

Randy said...

Steve,

Personally, I'm not sure about this extension, but I must say that IVF makes many pro-lifers uncomfortable for much this reason.


Thanks for the forthright response.

That is one of the reason's I have a problem accepting McConnell's position on the attribution of personhood. Logically it would apply to the zygotes and fetuses produced through IVF.

It's my understanding that many of those zygotes and fetuses are ultimately discarded in the process of ensuring a pregnancy.
I would not want to deny a couple seeking to have a baby access to that method. But I think that access could very well disappear if something like McConell's position were to become the law of the land.

Personhood is much more than biology. It is the ability to make decisions, to know good from evil, to use a language, to be capable of reflecting on one's motives and reasons for acting, etc.
I think a good case can be made for startig from that basic concept of personhood and extending it to those members of the human species who have not yet matured into adulthood and also to the elderly or diseased who have lost many of those abilities.

Steve said...

DL,

Interestingly (given the blog we are on) the arguments you provide for moral relativism all seem (to me) to apply equally to mental properties as to moral ones. It may well be that I don't really understand the arguments you are presenting.

Obviously I agree that young children don't usually endorse any particular moral theories or rules. But the fact that certain beliefs come earlier than others is no evidence that they cause the others or are prior in any other sense.

In terms of intuitive appeal, though I'm not a consequentialist, I think that consequentialism, once explained, makes an immediate appeal at an intuitive level.

I also agree, to an extent, that moral theory results from an attempt to systematise our moral intuitions, but I think you'll have a hard time explaining why the should be systematised at all as a relativist. The only reason I can see is that doing so might allow us to justify our actions to others ... but only if they themselves think the systematisation is something worth aiming for or put credence in the generalisation you cite in those justifications. In short there's an implicit reliance on the acceptance of moral realism in the audience.

As a realist I can explain why systematisation is worthwhile, and the drive towards simple generalisations has the same basis here as in science.

I don't want to give any particular priority either to intuitions about concrete cases or to moral theory and generalisations. Rather I think the two should be brought towards each other in mutual adjustments to get the best of each. This is not quite the same as the scientific method in which data has a clear trump over theory. However, even in science the elegance and explanatory power of a theory can sometimes lead us to doubt our data and prompt further investigation which may lead to a revision of the data or a dismissal of it as anomalous.

Although I disagree with many of his conclusions, my model for moral reflection here comes from Peter Carruthers' book "The Animals Issue". Carruthers himself is, I believe, a relativist. In short, he thinks the process of reflective equilibrium is consitutive of "moral truth" in so far as there is any such truth. I think of the process merely as (one important way) of getting at moral truth.

Steve

Victor Reppert said...

Steve: DL regularly attacks the AFR. See Dangerous Idea 2 for extensive dialogue on that issue.

Doctor Logic said...

Steve,

Interestingly (given the blog we are on) the arguments you provide for moral relativism all seem (to me) to apply equally to mental properties as to moral ones.

Hmm. Are you saying that I ought not regard external minds as having certain mental properties? Do you have an example?

But the fact that certain beliefs come earlier than others is no evidence that they cause the others or are prior in any other sense.

I agree. However, let's make the analogous argument with vision. Children can see stars from a very young age, but generally they cannot make out the constellations until later. Once children are taught to recognize the Big Dipper, they see its pattern in the stars. They learn to predict the handle of the Big Dipper from the pan, for example. In this analogy, you are arguing that the Big Dipper pattern is more fundamental and more real than the stars themselves.

However, there are two kinds of evidence that make us dismiss this idea. First, there's the absence of evidence for the theory. If other stars (or other non-subjective entities) also reacted to the constellation, we would have excellent evidence for the priority of constellations over stars. As we know, stars interact with other stars, not with patterns of stars, and certainly not with arbitrary coincident patterns. The positive evidence for priority is missing. Depending on your perspective this lack of positive evidence may or may not be conclusive. Personally, I think we should always assume bias and subjective "icing" are coloring what we see, and so I demand positive evidence for objectivity.

But there is also positive evidence for bias and subjective icing. The stars in different constellations are often closer than stars inside the same constellation, and the constellations we see are an accident of our position in the galaxy. If our position were only a few light years different, all the constellations we know would vanish and be replaced by others. The constellations are named after stuff that's familiar to humans for essentially accidental reasons. We know that people have a bias for seeing patterns that do not actually exist.

I think the same analysis holds for moral reality as holds for zodiacal reality. How would considerations of "reflective equilibrium" affect our belief in the fundamental nature of constellations or in astrology? I don't see how reflective equilibrium enters into this when all the evidence points in one direction.

Steve said...

DL,

Nice analogy about the stars and constellations. But the analogy only works if moral realism is false. If realism holds, then there are (or might be) some underlying unifying principles which explain the patterns, which in the case of the constellations isn't the case ... any principle you could give would be mere ad-hoccery.

The realist thinks of moral theory or moral rules as being like the fundamental principles of physics which serve to explain disparate phenomena under a small number of assumptions and unifying principles.

Since some relatively simple rules can serve to explain a wide range of intuitions about concrete cases, the rules have some explanatory power which is itself evidence for their truth if the "appearances" are taken seriously. If the appearances aren't taken seriously, and are thought a mere trick of "perspective", then we'll have problems. But it's easy to explain, within realism, why things might appear differently to different people in different social environments, and in fact there are some remarkable convergences in moral practice across disparate cultures, plus the "appearances" themselves invite the realist interpretation and all our language about them is couched in implicitly realist terms. I think the burden of proof is on the relativist, and I'm not convinced by the arguments you presented (though, again, that may be because I don't follow them).

Those arguments apply to the mental as follows: (1) We can't create a membrane to allow through the mental without also allowing through the physical, therefore the mental are not objective features of reality. (2) Mental properties have no influence on non-subjective entities. Molecules don't care whether or not a belief is justified. (3) Not sure how this argument is supposed to work, seems to be an argument from disagreement or difference, but since all disagreements are in minds, the moral case may be sufficient for the general mental case.

Seems we've gone rather off topic, too.

Steve

Doctor Logic said...

Steve,

Nice analogy about the stars and constellations. But the analogy only works if moral realism is false. If realism holds, then there are (or might be) some underlying unifying principles which explain the patterns, which in the case of the constellations isn't the case ... any principle you could give would be mere ad-hoccery.

I still don't see the difference between the two. Your input data is the way people feel about moral scenarios. There is certainly a structure to the way people feel, statistically speaking. The question is whether this structure is in the people (as an accident) or in the universe itself. Here, I see no difference with the constellations. There's certainly a structure in the constellations, and they definitely look like stuff (crosses, pans, etc.). As with morality, the data and the patterns are objective and real. The question is whether the patterns are (pseudo-)accidental.

You are arguing that our intuitions make it look like the structure is out there, and not in us. However, this was never in dispute. The question is really this: what methods can we use beyond intuition to test the hypothesis?

If we're going to trust our intuitions without question, then what's to stop me saying that country music is absolutely rubbish or that Caviar is absolutely disgusting?

In other fields like physics, we have assurances. So it seems to me that unless we're going to apply some firm criteria, we'll just end up destroying any firm notion of philosophical realism altogether. (Everything is real in the trivial sense.)

The realist thinks of moral theory or moral rules as being like the fundamental principles of physics which serve to explain disparate phenomena under a small number of assumptions and unifying principles.

This is perfectly fine, whether the rules are about us or "out there" in some way. If we say things like "taking without consent is wrong," this is valid whether your a realist (wrong means absolutely wrong) or a relativist (wrong means "makes people feel bad").

Again, the questions is, how do we differentiate between the two philosophical cases?

But it's easy to explain, within realism, why things might appear differently to different people in different social environments, and in fact there are some remarkable convergences in moral practice across disparate cultures, plus the "appearances" themselves invite the realist interpretation and all our language about them is couched in implicitly realist terms.

And it's easy to explain in natural terms why this would be true also. We have common ancestors, and there are evolutionary reasons for morality. The couching in realist terms is another reflection of intuition. It's not a test of realism because it will happen in both philosophical cases.

Your other argument is that relying on my criteria for testing objectivity (objective = in the thing itself) would mean that certain mental qualities might not be objective. I don't see this for a couple of reasons. First, some of my own mental qualities are in me, and so I wouldn't expect them to be objective anyway. Second, if you're talking about certain logical truths, we can construct computing machines that are sensitive to these.

(1) We can't create a membrane to allow through the mental without also allowing through the physical, therefore the mental are not objective features of reality.

If the mental is a configuration of the physical, then it is an objective feature. That three particles are arranged as if at the points of an equilateral triangle is an objective fact by my criteria. That a computer computes is an objective fact by my criteria. So if minds are machines, then mental attributes are objective, too.

(2) Mental properties have no influence on non-subjective entities. Molecules don't care whether or not a belief is justified.

Again, if minds are physical systems, there's no problem here. A single molecule of water cannot freeze, but that doesn't contradict the reductionist view in which a configuration of multiple water molecules can freeze.

I wasn't sure what you meant by #3.

Randy said...

DL: Well, one way to test for this is to create a membrane through which only aesthetic appeal is transmitted. In that case, I would know that aesthetic appeal it could not be an artifact of my processing system. We can create such membranes for physical properties, but not for aesthetic appeal.


Steve:(1) We can't create a membrane to allow through the mental without also allowing through the physical, therefore the mental are not objective features of reality.

DL: If the mental is a configuration of the physical, then it is an objective feature.



And if aesthetic appeal is a configuration of the physical?
How could it not be a configuration of the physical if that is what the mental is?

Doctor Logic said...

Randy,

And if aesthetic appeal is a configuration of the physical?
How could it not be a configuration of the physical if that is what the mental is?


It will be. And so will moral feelings. But we are just saying that these things are objectively subjective.

Suppose I am allergic to peanuts. Is the allergic reaction in the peanuts? Are you blind or defective if you don't have an allergic reaction?

In my view, the allergic reaction is not in the peanut itself. If I didn't exist, there would be no allergic reaction to speak of. My peanut allergy is a subjective feature of myself. It is essentially an accident of my structure and composition that gives me the allergy. We're both being exposed to the objective attributes of the peanut - she shape, the proteins, the taste, etc. The difference is that my body is creating a secondary reaction to peanut proteins that I don't get from banana proteins.

All of the above could be objectively determined in the sense that you could show that the peanut allergy was in me and not in the peanut.

This same analysis is true of morality and aesthetics. There's no good reason to believe that beauty is in a painting rather than in the way my body and mind has a secondary reaction to that painting.

There's no good reason to believe that evil is in a murder act itself rather than in my secondary reaction to the facts of the case.

We can objectively show that the murderer has certain feelings or motivations, and we might label those feelings and motivations evil, but this label is relative and arbitrary.

Steve said...

DL,

Randy beat me to my comment about aesthetic value. I don't buy your response. You don't say that triangularity is "objectively subjective". I can't see where the principled difference is between the different things that do and don't get through your "membranes". Aesthetic value doesn't and but triangularity does? Even though both are configurations of the physical? I don't get it.

I can understand why you might want to argue for the idea that triangularity is objective and aesthetic appeal is not, it just doesn't seem like the right sort of argument.

My (3) was meant to be a parallel of your statement: we have actual evidence that our biology has accidental preferences that differ from person to person.

Funny that you didn't understand it, because I didn't understand you either! Whether I can explain myself will depend on whether you can explain yourself and just what that explanation is.

You seem to want some independent criteria by which we can judge our moral intuitions. But that's like asking for independent criteria by which to judge our sense perceptions. All we get is further sense perceptions or further moral intuitions. That's not a problem for realism. That's life. Or rather, if it is a problem for moral realism, it's a problem for realism in general.

That's my take on it, anyway.

Steve

Randy said...

Steve,
don't buy your response. You don't say that triangularity is "objectively subjective". I can't see where the principled difference is between the different things that do and don't get through your "membranes". Aesthetic value doesn't and but triangularity does? Even though both are configurations of the physical? I don't get it.

I agree completely.



DL,
I don't believe your peanut allergy addresses the point at issue.

Dictionary.com definition of subjective:

Subjective,
1. existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought (opposed to objective ).


The allergic reaction is an objective fact. What one thinks about it or one’s psychological reaction to it is the subjective component.

Doctor Logic said...

Steve, Randy,

I'll present my argument in a more formal way, in the hope it will be clearer.

Suppose I have system A and two other systems, B and B*, etc. System A is an observer. System A interacts with the B systems, and in the process, system A sees or intuits properties like b1, b2, b3 etc in B, B*. Suppose that system A perceives that B has property b1, but B* does not have property b1.

By my definition of "objective", b1 is an objective property of the B systems if b1 is a property that resides in B systems themselves. The alternative is that b1 is a "subjective" property of A observing B. In other words, I'm taking a systems approach to defining the terms "objective" and "subjective".

Let's look more closely at the subjective case. In the subjective case is that the B systems have other properties that actually reside in the B systems themselves (b2, b3, ...). The appearance of b1 is just an accident of the structure of A and A's interaction with the B's. For example, maybe b1 is some complex function of the properties of A and the other properties of B, e.g., b1 = F(a1, a2, b2, b3...).

I'll give an aesthetics example. Suppose I think that women with hourglass figures are sexy. Here, b1=sexy and B = "girl with hourglass figure", and B* = "girl without hourglass figure". The b2 and b3 are facts about the geometry of the ladies in question.

I am the observer A, and in my lingo, sexiness is objective if the sexiness or non-sexiness of the girls is in the girls themselves. But it's certainly plausible that sexiness is some function of how I perceive the geometry of the girls. That is, b1 = F(b2, b3, a1, a2) where a1 and a2 are properties of me that have been shaped by evolution, culture, etc. In this case, sexiness is a property of the reaction between me and the girls, and not a property that resides in the girls themselves. It is as much to do with me as it is to do with the girls.

Furthermore, non-subjective entities don't care about sexiness, but only care about geometry. For example, the girls cannot walk into a mouse hole on the skirting board because their geometry makes it impossible. However, there are no non-subjective entities that respond to sexiness in the girls.

Now, let's add a new observer system, C. C observes the system of A, B, B*. That is, C observes the A-B-B* system, including all the interactions between A and the B's. It may be objective to C that b1 is a subjective attribute relative to A's observations of B and B*. C may find evidence that the B's are described by objective attributes b2, b3, and that the interaction of b2 and b3 with A leads objectively to the appearance of b1.

C could also observe a D-B system, and show objectively that observer D perceives the b1 properties of B and B* as reversed, simply because D has different properties than A.


Randy, the definition of subjective you quoted is ambiguous. There are two meanings there. One is about properties residing in the things themselves. The other is about mental apprehension (qualia?). The latter isn't particularly relevant to my analysis. Even if A is a zombie, A would still see an apparent b1.

I'll put it another way. b1 labels a kind of interaction between A and B that does not happen when A interacts with B*. The question we are asking is whether b1 interaction is measuring something fundamental to B and B* or whether it is a hybrid function of other properties of B and B* and the properties of A.

Suppose that observer A correlates its perception of b1 with b2 and b3. For example, A finds female hourglass figures to be sexy. This predicts that future instances of hourglass figures will probably be found sexy by A also. But that doesn't imply sexiness is in the girls themselves. This is because we're not controlling for A's personal properties. If A could see sexiness independently of seeing their figures, then we would have very good evidence for sexiness being in the girls themselves.

Other evidence for the objectivity of sexiness would be the discovery of a simple material that reacts with sexiness, but not with geometry.

Evidence against the objectivity of sexiness would be finding specific and accidental mechanisms in A that cause him to find hourglass figures sexy.

To me, morality seems no more objective than sexiness.

Randy said...

DL,
Suppose I have system A and two other systems, B and B*, etc. System A is an observer. System A interacts with the B systems, and in the process, system A sees or intuits properties like b1, b2, b3 etc in B, B*. Suppose that system A perceives that B has property b1, but B* does not have property b1.

By my definition of "objective", b1 is an objective property of the B systems if b1 is a property that resides in B systems themselves. The alternative is that b1 is a "subjective" property of A observing B. In other words, I'm taking a systems approach to defining the terms "objective" and "subjective".


You’ve already made clear that you think minds are merely physical patterns: that they are to be categorized as physical systems.

But if the A and B and B* systems are merely physical systems, then there cannot be a difference in A’s physical response to B without a physical change in B. And if A responds differently to B* than it does to B that will be due to a physical difference between B and B*.
This assumes, of course, that A’s behavior is not merely random.
How can there be a physical change in B or B* without a change in their respective properties, the properties you describe as residing in the systems themsleves?

Doctor Logic said...

Randy,

There are most certainly differences between B and B*, and A is responding differently to B and B* on that basis. However, that does not mean that all properties perceived by A are in B or B* themselves. Certainly a subset of properties are in B and B* themselves, but not all.

I'll relate this directly to morality.

Suppose that in system B, Fred takes Bob's watch without Bob's knowledge. Suppose that Fred does so because he thinks the watch is pretty and wants it for himself. Suppose that these facts are objectively true.

Suppose that in system B*, Fred takes Bob's watch without Bob's knowledge. Suppose that Fred does so because he plans to repair the watch and return it before Bob knows it is gone. Fred believes that fixing Bob's watch will profoundly improve Bob's happiness, but that Bob cannot afford to repair it himself. Suppose that these facts are also objectively true.

You, the observer, are system A. In addition to seeing all these objective facts about the case, you intuit act B has the property of evil, and act B* has the property of moral good (or at least neutrality).

How can you tell B and B* apart? Well, you can't tell them apart by their degree of evil because we have no ability to detect evil in the absence of the other properties. You can only tell B and B* apart by their physical properties, i.e., who did what and what reasons they gave for committing their acts.

If morality is subjective, then evil is a property you synthesize from the physical properties of the situation, and from the physical traces of your own past experiences. In effect, the evil you feel is just your personal allergy to scenario B. It's not in B itself.

If morality is objective, then you probably ought to be able to detect whether a scenario is good or evil without knowing any of the details. You ought to be able to say "There's evil going on in the next room, though I have no idea what it could be."

The same analysis applies to judging the aesthetic appeal of painting B versus painting B*. In each case, you see the physical pigments, geometries, patterns etc. You judge B to be pretty and B* ugly. Again, if aesthetics are relative, then you are synthesizing ugliness from the physical and objective aspects of B and B* and from your own personal properties (e.g., culture, genetics, personal experiences, etc.).

If aesthetics are objective, then B has the property of prettiness, and B* does not. And we should expect you to be able to detect prettiness without actually seeing the painting! If you have to see the painting first, what justification do we have for believing painting B is objectively pretty? Wouldn't it be rather perverse if B had a property you could not detect, a property which had no effect on physical matter, and which is yet conveyed to you via physical matter?

Randy said...

DL,
There are most certainly differences between B and B*, and A is responding differently to B and B* on that basis. However, that does not mean that all properties perceived by A are in B or B* themselves. Certainly a subset of properties are in B and B* themselves, but not all.

I'll relate this directly to morality.



There is no point in going on to morality unless you can first substantiate that in a merely physical system A can perceive properties in B or B* that aren’t really in B or B*.
Since I don’t accept your view that mind is a physical thing, then you are going to have to give some examples of physical systems that interact in the way you are claiming above without bringing in mental or psychological attributes. Of course systems like computers would also have to be excluded because their behavior is simply an extension of the intentions of their creators.

Doctor Logic said...

Randy,

Imagine I have an instrument that measures humidity and temperature, and presents this information on three different gauges. One gauge displays the humidity (H) alone, another presents the temperature (T) alone, and the third presents some function of the two. This third gauge is labeled "glory", and unknown to us, it actually displays (T - H) / (1 + T).

All three gauges are displaying something accurate about the atmosphere. The atmosphere has a real humidity, a temperature, and a real "glory".

Now suppose you have your own instrument, identical to mine, except your glory gauge is wired differently, and (again, unknown to us) calculates (H - T) / (1 + 2T). Like mine, your instrument reads out accurate facts about the atmosphere.

Let's suppose that we're both seeking regions of positive glory. I call you over to an area where my glory meter reads positive. You follow but claim that I am wrong. Your glory meter reads negative. Is positive glory objective? Does the atmosphere have positive glory at this location or not? Is my instrument faulty or is yours?

The problem here is that we are operating on THREE definitions of glory.

Instrument 1:
Glory = (T-H)/(1+T)

Instrument 2:
Glory = (H-T)/(1+2T)

You and me:
Glory = "whatever the third meter reads"

If we consistently use definitions 1 or 2, we'll measure absolute glory. But if the definition is whatever the third gauge reads, then positive glory is a relative thing, and not in the atmosphere itself. Until we agree on what glory OUGHT to be, positive glory is not in B or B* themselves.

Our dispute arises because we have tied a meaning to the readouts of our respective third meters, but we don't understand what the third meter is actually measuring.

This is precisely the issue with morality. "Wrong" is just a readout inside our heads. The problem isn't that different physical scenarios have different morality readouts for a given individual. The problem is that your moral instrumentation may simply be wired differently than mine. So when we both see the exact same physical facts, we'll disagree on whether it's moral because moral is defined as the output of our respective third gauge. It is nonsense to talk about morality being in acts themselves when the definition is floating. The difference is in us!

Randy said...

DL,
Imagine I have an instrument that measures humidity and temperature, and presents this information on three different gauges. One gauge displays the humidity (H) alone, another presents the temperature (T) alone, and the third presents some function of the two. This third gauge is labeled "glory", and unknown to us, it actually displays (T - H) / (1 + T).

All three gauges are displaying something accurate about the atmosphere. The atmosphere has a real humidity, a temperature, and a real "glory".

Now suppose you have your own instrument, identical to mine, except your glory gauge is wired differently, and (again, unknown to us) calculates (H - T) / (1 + 2T). Like mine, your instrument reads out accurate facts about the atmosphere.

Let's suppose that we're both seeking regions of positive glory. I call you over to an area where my glory meter reads positive. You follow but claim that I am wrong. Your glory meter reads negative. Is positive glory objective? Does the atmosphere have positive glory at this location or not? Is my instrument faulty or is yours?


All instruments are calibrated to a standard.
And that standard is set by convention.
If there is a dispute over measurement then the standard needs to be referred to.

In real life that would probably mean we’d have to compare our instrument readouts to a more expensive instrument that was certified to be calibrated more accurately than our cheap instruments.

I’m having trouble understanding how this relates to the issue I raised about physical systems. In a physical system, if A perceives a difference between B and B* then there has to be a physical difference between B and B*: the properties that reside in the two B’s have to differ. I don’t see how you can go on to describe A’s reaction as subjective rather than objective when we can easily point to the properties of B and B* to account for the different reactions.

Doctor Logic said...

Randy,

All instruments are calibrated to a standard.
And that standard is set by convention.
If there is a dispute over measurement then the standard needs to be referred to.


The problem is that the definition of morality all but precludes this.

Sure, we could agree to a very specific standard. For example, we might agree on consequentialism wherein benefit to our human gene pool is paramount, or something silly like that. And under that standard, the moral status of an act can be quite objective. The problem is that choosing a moral standard is itself a moral action. There's no way to ground that choice objectively.

Suppose a god punishes you eternally for helping an old lady cross the street. After how many years in Hell do you concede that it was immoral to help the old lady cross the street? The thing is that you will never know because it's possible that the god who is punishing you is evil.

The only way I can see morality being objective is if the moral status of an act leaves a physical trace. For example, if stolen gasoline burned with a different output than fairly purchased gasoline.

In a physical system, if A perceives a difference between B and B* then there has to be a physical difference between B and B*: the properties that reside in the two B’s have to differ. I don’t see how you can go on to describe A’s reaction as subjective rather than objective when we can easily point to the properties of B and B* to account for the different reactions.

There is a real physical difference between the B and the B*, and A is reacting to it. You are right. But that's not what makes something subjective. If you prefer Reba McEntire, and I prefer Dolly Parton, this is surely due to the fact that we can both distinguish the two singers by their objective differences. But the liking is what is subjective. Which of the two singers is more likable is subjective because likability is a peculiar function of the objective attributes of the singers and of our respective makeups.

In principle, we could agree on a standard, e.g., what I like determines who is likable. Are you willing to agree to that? I would be surprised.

The same goes for morality. If I say that X is good and you say it's evil, that categorization (on both our parts) is prompted by real physical, objective properties of X. The problem is that good and evil are defined by our own internal meter readings. They are defined by personal tastes, with nothing else to ground them.

If we look back at the instrumentation analogy, the glory meter doesn't tell us anything more than the other two objective meters do except how the instrument is wired. In the same way, the likability of Dolly Parton doesn't tell me anything more than the other objective attributes of Ms Dolly. And the fact that you think a theft of Bob's watch is morally wrong, doesn't tell you anything more about the objective facts of the theft of the watch. It's just telling you about you.

Randy said...

DL,
There is a real physical difference between the B and the B*, and A is reacting to it. You are right. But that's not what makes something subjective. If you prefer Reba McEntire, and I prefer Dolly Parton, this is surely due to the fact that we can both distinguish the two singers by their objective differences. But the liking is what is subjective. Which of the two singers is more likable is subjective because likability is a peculiar function of the objective attributes of the singers and of our respective makeups.

You’ve failed to address my point, unfortunately. I’m asking for examples of physical systems in which subjectivity plays a role. How can you determine in a merely physical system that A is responding to B differently than B* without attributing that different behavior to the properties residing in B and B*?

As I've already mentioned, since we don't agree that minds are physical systems, you are begging the question by referring to mental behavior.

Doctor Logic said...

Randy,

Suppose physical objects have property x which is a real number. System A has two outputs that change when A contacts other physical objects. The first output is a direct reading of x, but the second output is the sum of the x values from the last 10 objects A has contacted.

Suppose that system B has x = 1.

When A touches B, it registers B's x value, so A's first output is 1. Suppose the last 9 objects touched by A had a net x total of -1.5. Then A's second output is becomes -0.5.

This system is totally physical. But the second output of A does not measure something that is in B itself. Why? Because it also measures the last 9 things A touched as well. (Alternatively, you can think of A's second output as reading something about A's history.) Sure, this second output depends on B and changes with B, but it depends not only on B but on the history of A, and that's why A's second output is subjective (as in not in B itself). The history of A is not in B.

N.B. I do not use the term "subjective" to refer to qualia. As I have done consistently, subjective means not in the thing itself. A definition that has nothing to do with physical versus non-physical minds.

How can you determine in a merely physical system that A is responding to B differently than B* without attributing that different behavior to the properties residing in B and B*?

I'm not claiming "that A is responding to B differently than B* without attributing that different behavior to the properties residing in B and B*". I never have, so I don't understand the question. Are you saying A should respond differently if A is subjective? If so, you're not using the same definition as me. As always, in my argument, "subjective response to B" means a response to B not purely determined by what is in B itself.

Steve said...

DL,

I don't have time for much comment just now, but I have a couple of points.

1) This no longer seems anything like the original "membrane" argument.
2) Since you seem to have moved over to a completely different argument, you haven't really addressed the basic questions we asked about that argument.
3) Do you really think that if aesthetic value were objective we should be able to judge the aesthetic value of a painting without seeing it? If so, it is presumably also true that if it is objective whether or not a shape is triangular we should be able to tell this without seeing it.
4) Perhaps the claim I am criticising in 3 isn't quite so absurd, that depends on what we mean my "membrane" if a membrane is allowed to be an instrument with complex detection and calculation abilities then perhaps we can accept it, but then it isn't so obvious that we can't create such a membrane.
5) Your "glory meters" are measuring objective things since those meters are such membranes and allow the passage of each type of glory through those membranes.
6) Given 5, you actually don't seem that consistent in your use of the word "subjective". If different people mean different things by "glory" that doesn't mean glory is subjective. On the contrary that just means the word glory is equivocal. Being a "bank" isn't subjective just because it can mean "the bit at the side of a river" and "a certain type of financial institution".

More thoughts when I've got more time.

Steve

Steve said...

DL,

Futher to my previous post, you appear to be working with a very peculiar definition of "subjective".

Your example of the device A which measures the x value of the last 10 objects it meets is peculiar indeed. Now I agree that this total value does not belong to any single entity as a property. But on most peoples understanding that isn't enough to make it subjective. Rather, it's an objective property of a group of objects rather than of a single object.

Going back to your illustrations of (alleged) subjectivity ...

You keep illustrating your point with examples like the following:
Two different observers see a common object and see different things, therefore the things they see are subjective.

But that's a woefully bad argument. If a blind person fails to detect the squareness of some object while I do not, that hardly makes the squareness subjective. The detection of squareness (or lack of it) is "in us" the squareness itself is not.

We all agree that different instruments will detect different things.

You say: The problem is that good and evil are defined by our own internal meter readings. They are defined by personal tastes, with nothing else to ground them.

If I were to grant this, I'd be granting relativism itself. As a moral realist, I just slightly reword the claim, and it has no relativist consequences: "good and evil are (fallably) detected by our own internal meter readings".

You'll have to argue for your claim not just illustrate it. The membrane argument isn't cutting it.

Steve

Doctor Logic said...

Steve,

It's true that I am pushing multiple arguments at once, and I'm sorry if that is confusing. However, if you go back to my first post, I gave two kinds of evidences for objectivity, and one kind of evidence for subjectivity. The membrane argument was one of the two evidences for objectivity. The other was finding that the property in question affects interactions of the object with other, non-subjective objects.

Do you really think that if aesthetic value were objective we should be able to judge the aesthetic value of a painting without seeing it?

I would expect so, but that's only one way of getting evidence for the objectivity of aesthetic value. Perhaps prettier paintings should weigh more, or reflect more light, or repel ugly paintings or something like that.

If aesthetic beauty is the result of some arbitrary wiring of the human body, even if all humans are wired that way, then beauty is not in the painting itself, right?

If the wiring is not arbitrary, what makes it non-arbitrary?

If so, it is presumably also true that if it is objective whether or not a shape is triangular we should be able to tell this without seeing it.

Let's be precise here. The membrane allows you to see the test property without seeing the other objective attributes of the thing. In this case, it means we can create a membrane that allows us to see the shape of the object without showing us its color, mass, temperature, etc. This is easy to do, e.g., by casting shadows.

4) Perhaps the claim I am criticising in 3 isn't quite so absurd, that depends on what we mean my "membrane" if a membrane is allowed to be an instrument with complex detection and calculation abilities then perhaps we can accept it, but then it isn't so obvious that we can't create such a membrane.

You are right, if we make a machine arbitrarily complex, then the machine could replicate us in every detail. I think the machine has to be simple.

5) Your "glory meters" are measuring objective things since those meters are such membranes and allow the passage of each type of glory through those membranes.

Again, if we go back to the definition of the membrane, the glory meters won't work. If the membrane hides the objective values of humidity and temperature from the instrument, it cannot measure glory at all. Glory can only be seen when humidity and temperature can be seen.

6) Given 5, you actually don't seem that consistent in your use of the word "subjective". If different people mean different things by "glory" that doesn't mean glory is subjective. On the contrary that just means the word glory is equivocal.

Positive glory is subjective in the sense that it first appears to be an independent property of external objects, but is actually 1) some complex function of the external object's objective properties, and 2) this complex function says as much about the observer (or the observer's history) as it does about an external object. That means the property is not in the external object itself.

Suppose aesthetics is subjective. What implications does this have? Well, I still have to actually see the painting before I get an aesthetic impression from it. However, that aesthetic impression isn't just a function of this painting before me now. It's a function of who I am, what paintings I have seen before, past life experiences, etc. In that way, aesthetic value cannot be in the painting before me. The painting before me does not know or encode my experiences and life history.


One problem with aesthetics and morality is that they ARE inherently equivocal. We cannot agree on conventions without destroying the definitions.

We cannot define good and evil by another convention without contradicting internal definitions. If you propose that "theft is good," I cannot accept that moral convention without contradicting my own definition of morality.

If you define theft as "taking without permission," I can easily accept that convention, but it is a linguistic convention, not a moral one.

The same goes for aesthetics. I can easily accept a convention that introduces the term "impressionism". However, if you say that impressionism is beautiful, and I happen to feel it is not, then I cannot accept that definition without losing track of what beauty means.

There's only one escape route. If all rational agents will, after rational reflection, eventually agree on what is right vs. wrong, what is pretty vs. ugly, then there could be an objective morality and aesthetic. However, I see no evidence for this.

I'll respond to your second comment in a little while...

Randy said...

DL,
When A touches B, it registers B's x value, so A's first output is 1. Suppose the last 9 objects touched by A had a net x total of -1.5. Then A's second output is becomes -0.5.

This system is totally physical. But the second output of A does not measure something that is in B itself. Why? Because it also measures the last 9 things A touched as well. (Alternatively, you can think of A's second output as reading something about A's history.) Sure, this second output depends on B and changes with B, but it depends not only on B but on the history of A, and that's why A's second output is subjective (as in not in B itself). The history of A is not in B.


I don’t think you’ve given me a reason here to call the first response objective and the second one subjective.
Both are responses to properties that reside in the objects touched. Output #1 is a response to the properties that reside in system B (the current object being touched). Output #2 is a response to the properties that reside in system B*(the last 10 things that were touched).

To produce the first output there are physical changes in A. To produce the second output there are physical changes in A. The changes in A that produce the second output are more complex, but that is not what we mean by the use of the word “subjective”.


N.B. I do not use the term "subjective" to refer to qualia. As I have done consistently, subjective means not in the thing itself. A definition that has nothing to do with physical versus non-physical minds.

You have already made clear that you think minds are physical. So the only systems you must be talking about are physical systems. I’m having trouble understanding how you can distinguish objective responses from subjective responses in a merely physical system.

Your definition of subjective as “not in the thing itself” doesn’t seem adequate to the task. There are always going to be physical changes in A that are not in B: how could there not be since they are separate objects? And your definition gives me no basis for thinking output #1 is essentially different than output #2 in the above example.

If so, you're not using the same definition as me. As always, in my argument, "subjective response to B" means a response to B not purely determined by what is in B itself.

That definition seems inadequate to the task at hand. The peanut allergy you mentioned earlier is a nice example. According to your definition, that would be a subjective response. But I think anyone else, including the person with the allergy, would consider it to be an objective one.

Steve said...

DL,

I'm near to giving up here. You don't seem to be understanding the most basic points. Probably you think the same about me!

Questions about meanings of words are quite separate from questions about objective/subjective.

Only once we agree on our definitions can we meaningfully discuss objective/subjective. Since meanings themselves are (I will grant) subjective, you might think this immediately decides the issue. But clearly it doesn't. If it did, it would decide every issue, as meanings about all words not just moral ones, would be subjective in the same way.

I still disagree about "glory" too. It's clear that if an instrument/membrane can be made to detect humidity and temperature and display them as well as displaying "glory" then one can be made which only displays the "glory" and not the humidity or the temperature. In that case only "glory" would pass through the membrane/instrument.

I genuinely don't see that the membrane argument can be made to work. Is the problem that the membrane is now "too complex" (following up on your comment in the previous post)? Well then how would a membrane relating to mental properties be any more simple? Is it that the membrane works in the wrong way, by not detecting the "glory" directly? Then the same would, on your understanding, also be true of the mental, would it not?

Your "one escape route" rests on a pragmatist conception of the correctness of moral theories, which I'm not happy with. But I needn't agree that it's the only escape route. So far I've seen nothing that I need to escape from. And, as yet, if I thought ethics needed to escape from your arguments, I'd think the same about just about every other field of knowledge too.

Steve

Doctor Logic said...

Randy, Steve,

There's a definitely a mismatch in terminology, so maybe I can step back and show you the motivation for my arguments.

I'm trying to distinguish opinions from privileged opinions. All opinions are both objective and subjective at some trivial level.

1) It can be objective that a person holds an opinion, even if his opinion is incorrect. If Bob is of the opinion that the sky is purple, this could be an objective fact about Bob. We might even be able to objectively describe why Bob has this incorrect opinion.

2) Every opinion of a conscious person is a mental impression of some kind. When Fred has the opinion that the sky is blue, there is something that it feels like for Fred to be of the opinion that the sky is blue. This makes Fred's opinion a subjective impression in a trivial sense. Not trivial with respect to qualia arguments, but certainly trivial with respect to this argument which is about whether the content of the opinion is objectively correct.

Do you agree with these statements?

I'm not interested in these trivial meanings of the word objective and subjective. They likely apply equally-well whether one is a monist or dualist, or whether one is a moral realist or moral relativist.

What I am interested in here is whether a person can be wrong about an opinion.

It seems that one of your objections to my analogy was that "glory" is objectively the "opinion" of Instrument One. I think that Instrument One's "glory" is objective only in the trivial sense of #1 - that we can objectively describe how Instrument One has the readout (the opinion) that it does.

Similarly, if Instrument One is a simple collection of wired gauges, then it has no consciousness, and so it has no subjective "opinion" in the trivial sense of #2.

But this doesn't invalidate my analogy as a tool for exploring the interesting question, namely, can Instrument One be "wrong" about its "opinion" of glory?

If we define glory as whatever Instrument One's third gauge reads, then Instrument One can never be wrong. This, again, is a trivial case. It's like defining good and evil to be identical with Fred's opinion of good and evil, in which case, Fred's moral opinions are always correct.

It's also not enough to arbitrarily pick Instrument Two as having the standard meaning of glory instead. In that case, Instrument Two is always flawless in its readouts, and Instrument One is generally incorrect in its readouts. This is yet another trivial case.

What I am seeking is evidence that an opinion can be grounded in something about the object itself. Physics does precisely this. The meaning of physical terms is grounded in predictions about the behavior of matter and energy. We find that matter and energy behave according to certain rules, even when we're not continuously looking at them (as best we can tell!). We can use science to eliminate our bias.

As we know, morality doesn't have this feature. Suppose I take an action that, in my opinion, is immoral. How will I tell that the act is really immoral?

It is, apparently, impossible.

There will be no difference in the outcome of my action if my act is immoral versus moral. If I steal a newspaper, I have the newspaper plus the money I would have had to spend. I will have these both whether the act was right or wrong. I will also feel guilt. But the guilt I feel guilt is just an expression of my opinion that it was wrong to steal the newspaper, and so it doesn't count as evidence that the opinion is really correct. (I can feel guilty about doing something good.) If someone else punishes me for stealing the paper, that doesn't help either because that's just someone else's opinion. So I never get objective proof that the action was moral or immoral.

Indeed, when people reason about morality, they just use test cases, and gauge their gut opinion about the test case. There's never anything more to go on. This is why I claim that morality has no grounding, and is therefore not in an act itself. At best, moral opinions it can be objectively described. They have no objective normative strength.

I hope this conveys the motivation for my analogies and criteria. If you can follow my motivation, you can probably figure out the function of things like the membrane. The basic idea is to answer the question, Does the property under study mean anything to the external thing itself?

Steve said...

DL,

Thanks for your latest post. I think this gets at the issues a little better.

For the record, let me say a little more about "glory-meters". The problem with your use of them is that you seemed to introduce them to support the membrane argument, but they do no such thing. Rather both imagined meters serve to prove that each type of "glory" is objective as they each let through (or can be redesigned to let through) only their kind of "glory" no other property. So as an illustration of the membrane argument they fail completely.

However, as an illustration of what you think goes on in moral discussion I think they are a valuable analogy. I disgree, of course, but they are a helpful image.

But obviously there's nothing special about "glory". If two voltmeters are differently wired, they could produce different results. But in that case we would just say that (at least) one of them is wrong. That's because we've already independantly decided that voltmeters measure something objective.

Now I think the argument you are presenting does carry some weight. The argument is a variant of the argument from disagreement. But what you are saying is that the disagreement is now so deep and pervading that we've got no sufficiently common ground on which to rationally persuade one another of any moral opinions at all. That may be true. I certainly don't think it's a mad position to hold. But that on it's own doesn't mean that relativism is true, it just means that we're unlikely to be able to get at the truth because we've lost (or never had) the tools by which to do so.

That's pretty much the After Virtue picture of the state of moral theory and practice.

I guess I'm a little more optimistic. But even were my optimism misplaced, I'm also wouldn't be as concerned as you seem to be about the supposed inability to convince my peers of the truth of certain moral positions. I can't refute cartesian scepticism either but that doesn't mean the common sense picture is wrong.

Steve

Randy said...

DL,

I'm trying to distinguish opinions from privileged opinions. All opinions are both
objective and subjective at some trivial level.

1) It can be objective that a person holds an opinion, even if his opinion is incorrect. If Bob is of the opinion that the sky is purple, this could be an objective fact about Bob. We might even be able to objectively describe why Bob has this incorrect opinion.

2) Every opinion of a conscious person is a mental impression of some kind. When Fred has the opinion that the sky is blue, there is something that it feels like for Fred to be of the opinion that the sky is blue. This makes Fred's opinion a subjective impression in a trivial sense. Not trivial with respect to qualia arguments, but certainly trivial with respect to this argument which is about whether the content of the opinion is objectively correct.

Do you agree with these statements?


I wouldn’t agree that these illustrate the trivial sense in which a belief (opinion) can be said to be objective or subjective.

#1 appears to be an objective fact about Bob rather than opinions.
#2 appears to be based on a particular theory about the mind. It’s not a theory I accept.
There is nothing it feels like to have the belief that 2 + 2 = 4. And if I fall asleep, I don’t cease to have the belief that the sky is blue.


I would rewrite them as follows:

1. A belief or opinion can be said to be objective in the trivial sense that beliefs or opinions exist. So it is trivial to point out that there is a belief that p.

2. A belief or opinion can be said to be subjective in the trivial sense that beliefs or opinions are attributed to a subject. So it is trivial to point out that Bob has the belief that p.

Would you agree to these statements?

Doctor Logic said...

Randy,

1. A belief or opinion can be said to be objective in the trivial sense that beliefs or opinions exist. So it is trivial to point out that there is a belief that p.

2. A belief or opinion can be said to be subjective in the trivial sense that beliefs or opinions are attributed to a subject. So it is trivial to point out that Bob has the belief that p.


I agree with these, but I think they don't cover all the trivialities.

In (1), I think that it is plausible that we could know precisely how belief p was formed, and yet still not know (yet) whether that belief is about something real. It depends on how the realism of the belief has been defined.

(2) may be too narrow, depending on your definition of "subject". If "subject" can include mechanisms, then it's broad enough for me.

These are just quibbles for now.

Doctor Logic said...

Steve,

Rather both imagined meters serve to prove that each type of "glory" is objective as they each let through (or can be redesigned to let through) only their kind of "glory" no other property. So as an illustration of the membrane argument they fail completely.

Well, I think that it's not a failure because the premise of the membrane is that it hides the other objective properties of the object. In this case, it would hide the humidity and temperature of which glory is a function. The glory-meter would be blinded by the membrane if we accepted that temperature and humidity were objective.


Another way to look at the membrane is that it distinguishes direct sensations from models about direct sensations. Models about direct sensation have to meet certain conditions before they're held to be privileged. Generally, these conditions center around prediction because prediction is a good way to eliminate our own bias. However, I think most moral theories reject any possibility of making predictions out of moral propositions. Since morality is transmitted to us physically (which is what the membrane tells us), any moral prediction would have to be translated into a physical prediction. For example, evil would have to have physical effects. While there are folk theories of morality that would work this way, I don't know of any philosophical theories of morality that would do so.

But even were my optimism misplaced, I'm also wouldn't be as concerned as you seem to be about the supposed inability to convince my peers of the truth of certain moral positions.

Hmm. I don't see this as a problem of the relativists, but a problem of the realists. I get the impression that most realists think that we reach moral conclusions by some sort of deductive logic from absolute truths. Hence realists are terrified by relativism because they think moral discourse will dissolve without the absolute truths. However, I'm mostly with you on the not worrying part. Practical moral argumentation and persuasion seems to work the same way whether one's target is a realist or a relativist. I think that if realism were false, the world would look just as it does today.

One last thing... given the General Theory of Relativity, should I think it more likely that spacetime coordinates are relative, or more likely that they are absolute? It seems to me that relativism predicts what we see, and realism doesn't. Realism is surely compatible with what we see, but that's not the same thing. The facts about 9/11 are compatible with a theory that extra-terrestrials did it, but that doesn't mean its on a par with the Al Qaeda theory. I feel this way about moral realism. If moral realism were true, the world would probably look very different. Moral realism is compatible with what we've seen, but it would have to be a very peculiar form of realism (the kind of realism that looks exactly like relativism).

Steve said...

DL,

I have no idea what you mean when you say: The glory-meter would be blinded by the membrane if we accepted that temperature and humidity were objective.

Firstly, the glory-meter is a membrane. Second, we already established that the meter/membrane could hide temperature and pressure without hiding "glory".

Are you denying one of those points or saying something different?

I'm not too sure about what you say about morality. I think there are moral categories that allow us to make predictions (I'm particularly thinking of moral virtues and vices or "thick" moral qualities). Moreover, since utilitarianism, while unacceptable to me, captures many of our moral intuitions, it follows that certain types of consequence do generally follow from good or bad actions, and that we could predict those outcomes as likely given the moral evaluation. Furthermore, if we take virtues and vices at all seriously, we'll have to say that bad acts lead us toward developing vices and good acts toward developing virtues, so character development (in a specifiable direction) becomes one of the predictions. If you also think that development of character has an intrinsic link to happiness, then you might hold that the good life will be the happiest, and get predictions out of that. Though this will likely be a religous view not directly verifiable (or falsifiable) in this life.

Beyond this, I agree with most of what remains in your latest post. One further quibble is with your statement: Practical moral argumentation and persuasion seems to work the same way whether one's target is a realist or a relativist. I think that if realism were false, the world would look just as it does today.

In a way, I agree with this. My main problem is that while the relativist can account for this sort of interaction, I don't see how s/he can justify it. The discourse only makes sense if we are attempting to "get it right" not just attempting to escape criticism. In short, acceptance of relativism undercuts the belief in reasoned argument about moral issues. They must all transmute into pragmatic, economic, political, sociological debates instead, and that doesn't seem right (to me).

Steve

Doctor Logic said...

Steve,

Firstly, the glory-meter is a membrane. Second, we already established that the meter/membrane could hide temperature and pressure without hiding "glory".

Are you denying one of those points or saying something different?


Actually, I didn't invent the glory meters to discuss membranes, but to discuss a meaning of the word subjective in a physical system. That is, I wanted to show that two systems measure different things in an external object because their instrumentation is wired differently. If the wiring is statistically similar across systems, it might be difficult to tell at an intuitive level whether the systems are measuring something objective or something subjective (arbitrary and wiring-dependent).

Still, I think glory meters are useful for discussing membranes. I did not intend them to be examples of membranes, but that is an interesting idea. We could imagine a glory meter with its first two gauges smashed as a kind of membrane. It's not the kind of membrane I have been talking about because it doesn't properly isolate us from the temperature and humidity, but we might not be aware that glory is just keying off of temperature and humidity! This would be analogous to accidentally making a membrane that passed through beauty, but which was really doing the necessary computations to mimic our faculties of beauty recognition (which would, of course, be very complex). In reality, I think it would be pretty easy to create membranes that hide objective physical properties, so that we could be assured that we're not looking at some function of the physical properties.

Anyway, the original premise of the membrane is that it isolates us from the other objective attributes of the object. That means that neither temperature nor humidity, nor any function of these, can pass through the membrane, and so the glory-meter would be blinded.

Moreover, since utilitarianism, while unacceptable to me, captures many of our moral intuitions, it follows that certain types of consequence do generally follow from good or bad actions, and that we could predict those outcomes as likely given the moral evaluation.

I think that predictions in this sense are descriptions of how we will feel (statistically speaking) based on our actions. We can do scientific testing in this area, and get real predictive models. The realist part of the claim, however, is that maximizing happiness is what we ought to do. And, it's the normative claim that lacks any predictive power.

Sure, we can statistically predict that certain acts will lead to happiness, but why ought that be a goal? Obviously, achieving the goal gets us happiness, but that's tautological. Normative claims have to rest on normative axioms, and normative axioms predict nothing apart from normative theorems (which are trivial).

I'm happy to grant that humans tend to behave in fairly predictable ways. Giving will generally be more pleasurable than receiving, for example. But that doesn't make it true that we ought to give.

FWIW, I also think utilitarianism (at a normative level) is unacceptable. It generally works at a practical level because most people want to maximize their happiness. :)

Though this will likely be a religious view not directly verifiable (or falsifiable) in this life.

I cannot imagine how normative claims would be verifiable in any life.

In short, acceptance of relativism undercuts the belief in reasoned argument about moral issues. They must all transmute into pragmatic, economic, political, sociological debates instead, and that doesn't seem right (to me).

Are there any practical arguments that get undercut? If realism were true, there would still be differences of opinion. To resolve those differences, we would have to transmute back to the pragmatic considerations.

For example, if I were a realist, I would still be pro-choice. The only difference would be that I might be less willing to compromise with others.

Steve said...

DL,

In a way you're right, no particular moral arguments are undercut by relativism. Rather the whole practice of arguing about moral matters at all is undercut, you can carry on giving reasons, but why should anyone else pay any attention on a relativist account? We can explain why they do pay attention, but not why they should, where that "should" is either rational or moral.

You write: That means that neither temperature nor humidity, nor any function of these, can pass through the membrane, and so the glory-meter would be blinded.

But surely on those criteria, for the materialist, mental states will not pass through any membrane, being functions of distinct physical properties, and therefore by your standard mental states will be subjective, which is what I said a while back.

I agree completely that my examples (and yours) of prediction do little or nothing to show that particular moral claims are true. I only gave the examples because you said that moral facts are not ones we could use to make predictions, and that that was a disconfirmation of moral realism. You haven't said anything to suggest my examples undercut your argument, you've only pointed out that they don't give much, if any, weight for an argument for moral realism or particular moral claims. I agree with that.

Steve

Steve said...

Oops,

Where I said: You haven't said anything to suggest my examples undercut your argument

I meant: You haven't said anything to suggest my examples don't undercut your argument

Apologies,

Steve