Friday, May 15, 2009

Moral truth and moral diversity

If you and I disagree as to whether the earth is round, or whether the earth has been in existence for millions of years or was created 6000 years ago, or whether Jesus died by crucifixion (as Christians believe) or did not die by crucifixion (as Muslims believe), one of them has to have it wrong. So why does diversity show that it's all relative and no one is wrong.

15 comments:

Doctor Logic said...

So why does diversity show that it's all relative and no one is wrong?

It doesn't.

If I claim that the Earth is round, that predicts something other than how I feel about the Earth. If I fire a projectile at the right angle and speed, I'll see it disappear over the horizon, and then come back overhead. The projectile has no subjectivity, so that's good evidence that the world is objectively round.

There's (a posteriori) no analogue for morality. If I claim that theft is wrong, that doesn't predict anything apart from my own subjective intuition. It doesn't predict that you will feel the same or not feel the same.

Claiming that theft is wrong predicts no more than claiming Madonna is a good singer. Moral properties can only be detected by entities with subjectivity. If you remove human bias/subjectivity using scientific methods, morality vanishes.

The fact that there is diversity isn't the reason that relativists/subjectivists think morality isn't objective. The problem is that there is diversity and there's no objective way to resolve the differences.

Clayton said...

I thought that the more sophisticated arguments for relativism proceed from the observation that there are some moral disagreements that cannot be resolved by any rational means regardless of how many of the facts that potentially seem to matter to the moral judgment are known. From there, it is argued that the best explanation as to why there is such disagreement (i.e., rationally irresolvable disagreement between two subjects who know all the (seemingly) relevant non-moral facts) is that there are no facts to determine whether these particular moral judgments are correct. Seeing some important analogy between the case of moral disagreement (actual or counterfactual) and other sorts of disagreement (e.g., in the applicability of predicates of taste, predicates that denote sensible qualities), the relativist concludes that the truth of moral judgments is relative to something (e.g., the moral standards that the disagreeing parties apply).

This is why the moral case strikes some as importantly different from, say, historical facts as it seems disagreements can be rationally resolved (if only by helping ourselves to facts that we do not have or can not have).

normajean said...

This is why there are moral nihilists.

Clayton said...

?

Finney said...

I'm not sure if we can argue for moral objectivity from established facts. That's like arguing from what is to what should be. there is no evidence for moral facts, because moral facts simply don't operate in the same field as evidence operates.

Gordon Knight said...

the claim that there are moral disagreements that are both pervasive and fundamental is much weaker than often supposed. I take it that objective moral truths are very general propositions, such as 'friendship is good" or "suffering is bad" It is difficult to find people who disagree on this very general level. Most disagreements are based on different opinions about empirical facts.

but there is the example of the sociopath, but i really think taht when it comes to people like this it is really a kind of blindness. The serial killer just really does not get something that should be obvious to him. Most of the time people do the wrong thing because of a kind of moral solipsism (of which the sociopath is the extreme case).

Anonymous said...

An objective case for moral virtue can be read in book one of C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity".

Joseph

Eric said...

"Seeing some important analogy between the case of moral disagreement (actual or counterfactual) and other sorts of disagreement (e.g., in the applicability of predicates of taste, predicates that denote sensible qualities), the relativist concludes that the truth of moral judgments is relative to something (e.g., the moral standards that the disagreeing parties apply)."

Clayton, but isn't there an important disanalogy here as well? People may disagree about tastes and the like, but they tend to agree that these disagreements are not resolvable by appeals to rationality, self evidence, etc. When it comes to moral disagreements, however, we tend to think that these disagreements are resolvable (whether they persuade or not) by way of such appeals. Now, this doesn't mean that they are resolvable, but it does minimally show that we treat these varieties of disagreement differently, and it seems to me that it would be difficult for the sophisticated relativist to come up with a plausible error theory to explain this difference.

Doctor Logic said...

Eric,

Many moral issues can be resolved rationally because they are questions of policy, not of values. Also, there are strong motivations to find a compromise.

For example, in an eminent domain case, it is generally not true that the state (or officer thereof) wants to knock down Granny Smith's farm house as a moral value in itself. Knocking down the farm house is a policy that is intended to satisfy certain broad values on the part of the state (and the people, we hope). Those values might include duty, reduced suffering, more prosperity, more freedom, etc. Depriving Ms. Smith of her home is, in isolation, counter to those values. So Granny may make a case to the state that the state (and the people) would better satisfy their moral values some other way, e.g., by bypassing her home. Nothing in this picture suggests that moral values are objective. Moral values can be shared, and there will still be rational resolutions on questions of moral policy.

Eric said...

"Nothing in this picture suggests that moral values are objective."

I don't think that's true. Granny Smith and her supporters, and the state and its supporters, will be making and presenting arguments to justify their positions. This won't happen in any serious way if the debate is about whether Granny Smith's homemade chocolate chip cookies are better than her homemade oatmeal raisin cookies. And this isn't because the topic in this case is inherently trivial. Who will win the ballgame is pretty trivial, but the fans will reason about it in very sophisticated ways.

Now, this doesn't mean that moral values are objective, but it does at least show that we treat them as if they were, and that we don't treat them as if they were a matter of taste. And this does, I think, 'suggest' (your word, and an appropriately weak one, given the sort of evidence we're referring to) that moral values are not relative the way tastes are (remember, my initial point was about this disanalogy).

Clayton said...

"People may disagree about tastes and the like, but they tend to agree that these disagreements are not resolvable by appeals to rationality, self evidence, etc. When it comes to moral disagreements, however, we tend to think that these disagreements are resolvable (whether they persuade or not) by way of such appeals."

I'm sympathetic to part of this. I'm not a relativist, and I'd agree that it's often the case that moral disagreement can be resolved. Always? No. Does that support even a weak relativism? Not in my opinion. I've been pushing back against VR not because I'm a relativist but because I think that some criticisms of relativism miss their mark and some discussions of relativism ignore the more subtle versions of the view and the arguments for it.

Doctor Logic said...

Clayton,

I take your point on the word "suggest". I guess my point is that under relativism, things would look the same.

So what makes you a moral realist? Do you have a short, simple argument?

Jesse said...

Dr. Logic,

People don’t think that morality lies in their feelings; that’s the stunning thing about your subjectivism, the thing you don’t seem to get.

People believe the emotional reaction to immoral acts, especially to atrocities, are reactions from a real perception of value and worth in the human being.

People don’t say things like, “my mom lives in the village where thousands were just slaughtered in an ongoing genocide; oh, if I could only have these anxious feelings removed, I would be just fine.” No, instead they say, “I need to know that my mom is ok!” In other words, one ought to feel anxious about the safety of their mother in this case, because that’s a reaction that conforms to a true perception of human worth.

The subjectivist says, you’re perception is an illusion, only the emotional reaction is real. The obvious logic, therefore, is that the emotional reaction is the evil, for who wants to feel anxious!

Therefore, either some sort of anti-human hedonistic optimism, that is, drowning out that pesky conscience with sensual, or some type of immediate, pleasure, seems the best course, or (when that fails -- if you’re still alive), some sort of anti-human Stoic pessimism.

Moreover, it ‘s also true that if there’s no inherent human worth and dignity, then there’s no inherent human rights, only artificial rights leased to us, if we’re fortunate enough, by the State.

The State, therefore, becomes the originator and arbiter of human purpose, when all along idiots like me, oh, and Thomas Jefferson, thought even the State had a standard by which to check it -- in natural law, a law grounded in an eternal God, and which gave an overarching purpose to all men.

I’d also like to say that, morality IS predictive: it predicts what one ought to do in order to attain happiness.

Our will is determined to seek happiness, there is no arbitrary “will”; freedom of the will comes in choosing the means to the end we can no more escape desiring than our intellects can escape thinking without assuming the law of contradiction.

We may argue about what the means to that end are, just as people argue about the nature of reality, but that makes morality in principle no less objective and absolute than the reality with which our senses come into contact.

You write, “Moral properties can only be detected by entities with subjectivity. If you remove human bias/subjectivity using scientific methods, morality vanishes.”

Yea, and so does the scientific method! First of all, if you remove human bias/subjectivity using the scientific method, you would only do so on the basis of human bias/subjectivity! Secondly, the scientific method requires subjectivity, as it’s the subject who knows through his own perceptions and ideas, therefore you’re begging the question.

What you mean to say is, if we escape to a purely third person point of view, then the first person perspective, with all its conditions and facts, vanishes!

Indeed, but a purely third person point of view is a pure fiction, for it’s always a person in the first person who’s tacitly professing to take it up.

Our first person perspective, therefore, must have universality to it in order to say that anything is true; once that’s established, we have our ground, in principle, for absolute morality.

The thing that seemingly sucks about absolute morality, which is easily seen in the reaction of children, is that it means we have to do some things we don’t want to do; the trade-off, however, is worth it, for a) it means that people have real value and worth, b) it means that happiness is attainable, and c) we end up finding out, eventually, that the virtue acquired in the process is a reward in itself…

Clayton said...

"So what makes you a moral realist? Do you have a short, simple argument?"

Sure:
Here's a hand.
Here's another.
Therefore, external things that I should lend to someone in need exist!

I'm more certain of the conclusion than I am of any philosophical theory that conflicts with it.

Okay, that was sort of tongue in cheek. I tend to believe in stuff until reasons come along to get me not to and I've never seen an argument for an error-theory that I've found convincing and I've never seen an argument for non-factualism about moral judgment that I've found convincing. So, my basic outlook is Moorean.

Doctor Logic said...

Jesse,

People don’t say things like, “my mom lives in the village where thousands were just slaughtered in an ongoing genocide; oh, if I could only have these anxious feelings removed, I would be just fine.” No, instead they say, “I need to know that my mom is ok!” In other words, one ought to feel anxious about the safety of their mother in this case, because that’s a reaction that conforms to a true perception of human worth.

Before you give alleged justifications for objective morality, try your argument out on something you think is subjective. When Bon Jovi fans are stuck in an elevator listening to Muzak, they don't wish that they didn't like Bon Jovi. People don't want to change their identity.

The subjectivist says, you’re perception [that morality is objective] is an illusion, only the emotional reaction is real. The obvious logic, therefore, is that the emotional reaction is the evil, for who wants to feel anxious!

Please parse this "obvious" logic. What are the implicit assumptions? And, again, let's go back to Bon Jovi. Is the preference for Bon Jovi the problem?

You are saying that the "obvious logic" is that one ABSOLUTELY OUGHT to remove one's preferences in order to ensure that one's preferences can never be frustrated. First, this isn't obvious (or true), and second, there are no absolute oughts under subjectivism.

Therefore, either some sort of anti-human hedonistic optimism, that is, drowning out that pesky conscience with sensual, or some type of immediate, pleasure, seems the best course, or (when that fails -- if you’re still alive), some sort of anti-human Stoic pessimism.

You're suggesting that if A feels better than B in the short term, but my conscience says B feels better in the long term, I therefore ABSOLUTELY OUGHT to take cocaine and do A?!!

What you're missing is that, by following my conscience, I AM doing what feels best.

Moreover, it ‘s also true that if there’s no inherent human worth and dignity, then there’s no inherent human rights, only artificial rights leased to us, if we’re fortunate enough, by the State.

Yeah, England leased us the right to free speech, free assembly, the right to bear arms, and... oh wait. They didn't.

The State, therefore, becomes the originator and arbiter of human purpose, when all along idiots like me, oh, and Thomas Jefferson, thought even the State had a standard by which to check it -- in natural law, a law grounded in an eternal God, and which gave an overarching purpose to all men.

Hey, that worked really well. Except that it didn't. What worked was the colonists using bloody force to stand up for what they desired.

I’d also like to say that, morality IS predictive: it predicts what one ought to do in order to attain happiness... Our will is determined to seek happiness, there is no arbitrary “will”; freedom of the will comes in choosing the means to the end we can no more escape desiring than our intellects can escape thinking without assuming the law of contradiction.

Um, happiness is a feeling. Sounds like the kind of optimistic hedonism you just criticized.

Consider the axiom that murder is wrong. It is trivial that, if you subscribe to this axiom, I can predict you probably won't murder someone. But that's not an interesting question, right? If Hitler subscribes to the axiom that "murder is NOT wrong", we can predict he will murder people. And, again, that would be a trivial prediction. We don't think that murder is acceptable because it predicted that Hitler (who thought murder acceptable) would murder people.

The prediction of interest is this... What does "murder is wrong" predict apart from feelings and apart from the actions of its subscribers? Whether a person believes the axiom is irrelevant to the question at hand. It's trivial that people who subscribe to the axiom will act in accordance with it and vice versa.

We may argue about what the means to that end are, just as people argue about the nature of reality, but that makes morality in principle no less objective and absolute than the reality with which our senses come into contact.

I'll raise the Bon Jovi objection. Are musical tastes objective too? We all want to listen to nice stuff. We may not agree, but we all want to listen to stuff that makes us feel good. I'm not seeing a relevant difference.

First of all, if you remove human bias/subjectivity using the scientific method, you would only do so on the basis of human bias/subjectivity! Secondly, the scientific method requires subjectivity, as it’s the subject who knows through his own perceptions and ideas, therefore you’re begging the question.

This is a staggeringly flawed view of science and objectivity. I did not say that science was something that enabled us to directly see things without any subjective influence. What I said is that science can show us what part of what we see is in the thing itself, and what isn't.

Take the person who thinks that 13 is unlucky. He persists in his belief because he samples data incorrectly. When he loses on 13 it sticks out like a sore thumb in his subjective consciousness. When he loses on any other number, or when he wins on 13, he pretty much ignores the data. Is his delusion inescapable? Of course, it is not inescapable. He can get assistance and bet on numbers as he desires, and carefully track the outcomes. He can use statistics to show that 13 is not unlucky. Science is about detaching oneself from the emotional and psychological significance of events, so that we better measure the event itself, rather than simply our reaction to the event.

The thing that seemingly sucks about absolute morality, which is easily seen in the reaction of children, is that it means we have to do some things we don’t want to do; the trade-off, however, is worth it, for a) it means that people have real value and worth, b) it means that happiness is attainable, and c) we end up finding out, eventually, that the virtue acquired in the process is a reward in itself…

Nice self-contradiction there. You're painting the doing of things we don't want to do as... get this... something we WANT to do.