Sunday, June 21, 2009

Another crack at explaining, and defending, moral objectivity

What it means for something to be objective is for it to be the sort of thing where if there are opposite positions taken, the law of noncontradiction applies and one person must be right and the other wrong. So, for example

1) The cat is on the mat.

and

2) The cat is not on the mat cannot both be true once we know which cat and which mat.

Now in a subjective matter, someone who says
3) McDonald's Quarter Pounder is better than Burger King's Whopper
and someone else who says

4) Burger King's Whopper is better than McDonald's Quarter Pounder

don't really contradict one another, because each implicitly includes a "for me" clause into their respective statements. The law of non-contradiction doesn't apply here.

Let's take another pair of cases.

5) Belching after dinner is rude.
and
6) Belching after dinner is polite

is again subjective, not because it is an individual judgment, but because it is a societal. When we say these things, we assume that we speaking on behalf of a social group of which we are a member. So if cultures differ on this, there is no real contradiction, and neither party has to be wrong.

What about

7) More than 50% of the abortions done in America today are done without adequate moral justification.

This is a tough question about which people might disagree. One's beliefs on this matter might be caused, to a large extent, by one's religious and cultural background or beliefs. It's a moral toughie, one we can argue about until the cows come home. Does that make it subjective?
You have to remember, though, in ethics class we deliberately pick out tough issues to deal with, ones where there are moral considerations on both sides. There are other moral statements, however, that are not so tough, such as

8) Whoever sliced the throats of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman did the wrong thing.

If you remember the OJ trial, you will remember that everything in that trial was controversial, except for the moral judgment implied in 8. Johnny Cochran would have been out of his tree if he had tried to acquit OJ on the grounds of justifiable homicide. But if you are a moral subjectivist, you hold that all moral judgments are subjective, including 8. Ayer's position implies that all moral statements are either true for a person or for a culture, and not across the board. When you think of all this includes, I think it is tough to swallow, although some people try.

35 comments:

Doctor Logic said...

I don't see an explanation or a defense.

You say that some people find the subjectivity of (8) to be hard to swallow. That's not much of an argument.

I don't think that people find a claim hard to swallow when there are no consequences to the claim. So why do they find (8) hard to swallow? They must believe there are significant consequences to (8).

Usually, when moral realists are trying to argue from those consequences, they do a really poor job of it. It would be refreshing to see a decent exploration of the consequences. IMO, that exploration goes something like this.

Suppose we have two agents. Ian does whatever he wants in the contemplative sense. For example, Ian hates mowing the lawn, but he dislikes the consequences of not mowing the lawn more than he hates mowing it. So he mows the lawn.

Ian helps the poor from time to time because it makes him feel good about himself, and leads to a more harmonious society. However, he finds the actual performance of this community service most unpleasant. He does it anyway because his global preference favors the community service.

Meanwhile, agent Oliver possesses a magic 8 ball that informs him of what is objectively right and wrong. Oliver obeys the 8-ball, even if it will violate everything he holds dear. If the 8-ball tells him to eat a newborn baby, he does so, even if it disgusts him. If the 8-ball tells Oliver it is right that people who are born into lower circumstances should suffer a lot more, Oliver goes with the 8-ball, even if it makes him feel materially good in the short run, but offends his aesthetic sense of justice and morality.

What is the consequence of subjective morality? The consequence is that agents like Oliver will be dissuaded from following their 8-ball. That's about all.

The problem is that agents like Oliver do not exist, as far as I know.

Do moral realists resemble Oliver? Nope. Moral realists feel that their moral positions are aesthetically preferable. They are like Ian. For example, if Ian is a Christian, he thinks that obedience to God is a good thing, even if it is a personally inconvenient thing some of the time (e.g., when he wants to sleep in on Sunday morning), and Ian prefers to go to church overall.

Indeed, there's a really good case to make that Oliver is irrational. If the 8-ball's morality offends Oliver in every way, it is irrational for him to follow its directions. Why should Oliver be objectively good and subjectively evil?

Crude said...

Actually, one consequence is that Oliver isn't really doing anything wrong by following his magic 8-ball, regardless of what it says or how he feels. And anyone who buys into subjective morality while attempting to persuade him otherwise has no leg to stand on other than personal preference. And of course, persuasion, including brute force. Which they can also use on Ian to get him to knock off his assisting of worthless eaters. Of course, they can also lie. Anything they wish, really.

Still waiting on that "decent exploration of the consequences". All I saw here was some strange attempt to obscure the results of a worldview where all moral choices are ultimately subjective. (Yay, the guy who thinks murdering children is right isn't actually right! Oops, he's not actually wrong either! Oops, our only reason to oppose him is personal preference! Oops, we could also oppose him for defending children from murder if we wanted! Etc.)

Clayton said...

Victor,

Which Ayer are you referring to? I didn't think Ayer was a subjectivist.

Doctor Logic said...

Crude,

Thanks for a perfect example of the kind of childish and superficial responses I'm used to seeing from moral realists.

Actually, one consequence is that Oliver isn't really doing anything wrong by following his magic 8-ball, regardless of what it says or how he feels.

First of all, you're begging the question when you use the term "really" as a synonym for "objectively". "Real" morality is what we're investigating. "Objective" morality is your conclusion.

Second, your comment is irrelevant.

Explain to us why your behavior is going to change should you discover that morality is subjective. Sure, the universe won't care if you reverse all your likes and dislikes. It won't care if you reverse your ideals. So what?

If you discover today that morality is subjective, will you become what you now regard as evil just to prove to subjectivists that subjective morality is a bad thing? Or will you continue to go about your life as you think is right?

I expect you think it preferable to punish bank robbers. And I quite expect that you'll feel the same way if you were to discover that morality is subjective.

So what is the point of bringing up child murderers? Well, you seem to think (subconsciously, perhaps) that I'm more likely (or you're more likely) to murder a child if I (or you) believe morality is subjective. I see no evidence of that. I think you are letting your own irrational fears dictate your conclusion on this issue.

normajean said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
normajean said...

Doc, from subjective moral values, the consequence is that there are no non-arbitrary checks upon the unbridled will to power-whoever has power is able to determine what the truth is. Crude was right and clear, in case there are no objective moral values then Oliver isn't "really" doing anything wrong—Nihilism, anyone?

Doctor Logic said...

normajean,

Doc, from subjective moral values, the consequence is that there are no non-arbitrary checks upon the unbridled will to power-whoever has power is able to determine what the truth is.

Tyrants aren't beaten by moral proofs. They're usually beaten by armed rebellion. Or heart attacks.

Would Saddam or Hitler have held onto power more tightly if they were moral subjectivists instead of moral realists? Hard to imagine.

Look, if there were an objective way to determine right and wrong, realists would have a case. As it stands, they can do nothing but try to provoke irrational fears of subjective morality. Realists might be able to scare wittew children with spooky moral thought experiments about dictators and child murderers, but they can't scare rational people who care about the truth.

You'll never prove morality objective if your proof relies on our subjective moral distaste for consequences.

Steven Carr said...

CRUDE
Yay, the guy who thinks murdering children is right isn't actually right!

CARR
Or as William Lane Craig would put it :-

'God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel. The killing of the Canaanite children not only served to prevent assimilation to Canaanite identity but also served as a shattering, tangible illustration of Israel’s being set exclusively apart for God.'

Killing children is wrong, but there are times when children cannot be allowed to grow up.

Ask any leading Christian philosopher.

Mark Frank said...

Whenever this dispute comes up the realists will put forward examples such as 8 while the subjectivists will put forward examples such as 7. The problem is that in case of 8 it might be subjective, but virtually everyone agrees it is wrong; and in the case of 7 it might be objective, but hard to discover the truth. “Amount of agreement” is not a fruitful way of clarifying whether something is objective to subjective.

A more fruitful approach is to look at how dispute is resolved. If someone disputes that the cat is sat on the mat we can solve it by taking them to see the cat. They can touch it – check it is a real cat – that it is not levitating or an optical illusion. What is utterly irrelevant is their personal reaction to cats sitting on mats. Whether they find it deeply abhorrent, a wonderful sight or just plain boring, the cat is still there on the mat. It would be there even if no human being had ever existed. If two people disagreed as to whether a McDonald's Quarter Pounder tastes better than Burger King's Whopper (and you can imagine a context where it was a dispute e.g. which shall we buy for the office party?) this could not be resolved without reference to human reaction. It doesn’t matter which one has the highest fat content etc. If the people at the party prefer the taste of McDonald’s then that settles which one tastes better.

Now where do ethical disputes sit? Let’s take the example above that most suits the realist cause – Nicole Simpson’s throat being cut. Suppose someone says “actually I think it is perfectly OK to cut people’s throats when the mood takes one”. Clearly we all think that such a person is out of their tree. But how do we prove them wrong? By showing them details of the crime? But they know those already. Perhaps by looking it up in the Bible – where it says “thou shalt not kill”? But they may say that just shows the Bible is in error. In the end we have no recourse but to appeal to their nature as a human being and hope it has something in common with the vast majority of humanity. If that appeal doesn’t work we call them a psychopath (i.e. out of their tree) and lock them up. Their emotions are bizarrely out of kilter with humanity. But their logic and ability to observe may be perfectly normal.

Crude said...

Good God, DL. This is all you have? Your reply to me is nothing but a lame attempt at psychoanalysis - so much for the logic, doc!

First, *I* did not bring up child murderers. *You* did, with the story of Oliver, the guy who eats babies because his Magic 8-Ball. I simply ran with it.

Second, I'm not begging the question when I say that under a subjective moral view murder isn't "really" wrong. I'm pointing out the obvious, and a detail you seem to want to squirm out of acknowledging or highlighting. Hence your dive to pull the conversation over to psychoanalysis and pragmatism.

Third, what I would do if I were to find out that morality were utterly subjective is such a wild distraction from that topic that I've got to laugh. I didn't say you, or anyone else, would be more or less likely to murder or kill in a world where subjective morality is thought to be true - interesting subject though it may be. I pointed out an obvious consequence of a subjective moral world.

So, one more time: Under the subjective moral viewpoint, Oliver - if he does whatever a Magic 8-Ball says, including killing and eating babies - isn't really doing anything wrong. The only justification others have to stop him is 'We don't like that'. They cannot encourage him to behave "better" in any real sense, just as they cannot encourage him to behave "worse" in any such sense. They aren't acting on and pursuing objective moral truths. They're doing whatever they damn well please, however they wish to accomplish such.

Finally: Again, I never brought up the actions of individuals or groups that would take place if they took subjective morality to be true - I simply pointed out what would be the real moral value of their actions, certainly from their own perspectives if they were consistent. But I will say that your apparent view of 'Everything will just be hunky dory' betrays an ignorance of human nature and history that is downright precious.

Mark Frank said...

Crude

under a subjective moral view murder isn't "really" wrong


The trouble is - the word "really" isn't contributing much. Watching paint drying is really boring. But it still a subjective decision that it is boring. If there is someone, somewhere who finds it compelling we have no way of proving them wrong. Similarly if someone thinks its perfectly OK to eat babies then we have no way to prove them wrong. We just think they are inhuman.

Crude said...

It's contributing -plenty- Mark, especially given DL's squirmy and tense reaction to it even being brought up. It speaks to what people mean when they talk about things like "right" and "wrong", and "good" and "evil". And how empty those words really are when said speaker takes a subjective worldview.

As for your insistence that "we have no way of proving them wrong", why should I find *that* anything more than boring? I can't very well prove a solipsist wrong either. Or someone who subscribes to Last Thursdayism. I can't even prove that 2 + 2 = 4 to someone damn determined to reject the result. There's always a way to deny a truth, at least outwardly. Somehow, that doesn't cause me much worry.

Mark Frank said...

Crude

"And how empty those words really are when said speaker takes a subjective worldview."

Is it empty to say that a film is fascinating, a TV presenter irritating, a piece of music too loud? Particularly if everyone agrees? Subjective does not equate to empty or unimportant.

"As for your insistence that "we have no way of proving them wrong", why should I find *that* anything more than boring?"


I should been more precise. Your strategy for convincing them in the end has to come down to human emotions. Otherwise proving it was wrong would not provide a reason for action. Your strategy for proving 2+2=4 or for proving that solipsism is wrong is not based on human emotions.

Crude said...

Yes, subjective does equate to empty and unimportant under certain worldviews and perspectives. I've seen some herculean efforts by some to use flowery poetry and drama to try and draw attention away from this - but when no objective morality is taken to exist, what the subjectivist "means" by their dramatic talks of 'good' and 'evil' and elsewise is inevitably fluff. Just as all the poetry in the world won't make 2 + 2 = 5, it won't make moral judgments somehow more valid in a universe where all morality is subjective.

As for your second - it's not clear that convincing someone that 2+2=4 or that solipsism is untrue, etc, does not have an emotional aspect to it. (Just look at Einstein's reaction to QM. It was a scientific, even largely mathematical issue. Emotion was in play in a big way.) Nor is it clear that nothing but emotion is all I can appeal to to convince someone of a moral truth. While emotional appeal is popular and does have its place, there are arguments based on cold, hard reason as well. Granted, they cannot be proven to a person such that they can't find some way to deny the conclusions if they really want to. But again, I have that handicap with 2+2=4, Last Thursdayism, and solipsism as well. It's not a big concern.

Mark Frank said...

Crude

"Yes, subjective does equate to empty and unimportant under certain worldviews and perspectives."

Are you going to offer any kind of evidence for this or just assert it? (I have offered several example of subjective judgements which are far from empty.)

"Just as all the poetry in the world won't make 2 + 2 = 5, it won't make moral judgments somehow more valid in a universe where all morality is subjective."

I don't think we do talk of moral judgements being valid do we? Proofs and deductions are the kind of things that are valid. Moral judgements might be sound, justified, convincing - all of which applies to subjective judgements.

"it's not clear that convincing someone that 2+2=4 or that solipsism is untrue, etc, does not have an emotional aspect to it. (Just look at Einstein's reaction to QM. It was a scientific, even largely mathematical issue. Emotion was in play in a big way.) "

But Einstein's reaction was not evidence for or against QM. These things may cause emotional reactions but that is utterly irevelant to their truth.

"Nor is it clear that nothing but emotion is all I can appeal to to convince someone of a moral truth. While emotional appeal is popular and does have its place, there are arguments based on cold, hard reason as well."

Examples?

Crude said...

Your examples were fascinating films and irritating TV presenters. If those are your examples of the sort of meaning and fullness present in subjective morality, then you've provided ample evidence for me as is. "I find murder to be wrong the way I find Spongebob Squarepants to be funny." Sweet-n-low meaning.

Moral judgments are privy to investigation by rational argument, discovery, defense and deduction - natural law theory would be an example. I'm sure someone can argue that some degree of emotion will always be a component in any moral consideration, but such is life.

And when did it matter whether Einstein's emotional response was evidence for or against QM? We could quibble over whether intuitions and hunches count as evidence, but you wrote "Your strategy for proving 2+2=4 or for proving that solipsism is wrong is not based on human emotions." Einstein serves as an example otherwise - an emotional appeal (or at least addressing Einstein's emotions) would be important in convincing him, despite the question being in the realm of math and science.

Either way, it simply illustrates why outward disagreement over objective moral truths doesn't do much to show that objective moral truths don't exist. Can thirty million frenchmen be wrong? Why, yes.

normajean said...

Doc, I don't believe there are any bullet-proof arguments here. But suppose there are features of reality (mental data) that remain inexplicable at the physical and are necessarily true in every possible world where minds exist (logical laws-LNC). If it’s true that such logical laws exist independent of physico-mechanical laws, don’t we have room for God and the existence of objective moral values? All are incorporeal and empirically unobservable.

J said...

But if you are a moral subjectivist, you hold that all moral judgments are subjective, including 8. Ayer's position implies that all moral statements are either true for a person or for a culture, and not across the board.

I think you are misconstruing the positivists' views, which concerned the status of moral/ethical language, not merely what one feels about certain actions (even murder).

Ayers (following Carnap, and I would say Hume on fact/value distinction) points out that moral statements--say, "Abortion is Eevil"--do not function like ordinary declarations of fact, nor are they mathematical/axiomatic. Obviously many would disagree that abortion is evil. The word "evil" does not refer to some object or state of affairs, and does not seem definable as one would define cats, or triangles. "Evil" is not a fact, and not axiomatic. So it seems prima facie that the concept "Evil" relates to something psychological, mental, a strong feeling of repulsion, etc. Yet what repulses one person does not repulse another.

That holds even for OJ situation. Even assuming OJ did it (not proven, and LAPD's corruption an issue) that might not mean "eevil." Maybe Nicole was an adulteress (it appears so), many times over, cheating, swindling, etc. That might not justify 187, but would certainly complicate the issue (and even the law recognizes that--adultery/cheating spouse often a mitigating factor ).

In other words, the language of "morality" tends to reinforce an archaic, theological type of thinking.

normajean said...

haha. J's prepared to do away with ALL folk talk. Thank God for quiet nights and foxholes ;)

J said...

Not that simple , Norma. I would call nazis shipping off jews, poles, slavs, POWs psycho-pathology of the most heinous sort. Same for stalinists liquidating kulaks, or serial murder, etc. But not "Eeeevil" in theological sense---unless you are prepared to grant an imperfect God, manichaeism, or some other heretical view--and then even dubious. The supposed Gott did not stop Hitler or Stalin did he--no angels appeared above the panzer divisions, or camps. And the theological justification-jargon from a Plantinga--God wants men to prove their worth, heroics, moral character BS fighting "Evvil"--seems pretty futile, even obscene.

Doctor Logic said...

Crude,

Your responses remain childish and superficial.

You assume moral discourse is like some sort of mathematical proof. Moral discourse isn't proof-like, and never has been.

Moral discourse is an exchange of opinions. It is the packaging of policies to make them appear concordant with the other party's own values. It is an attempt to make your own moral policies seem more tasty than the competitions'.

And since this is how moral discourse actually works, our inability to base arguments on objective axiomatic foundations is irrelevant.

You think that if I reject absolute morality or absolute moral progress, somehow, this will contradict my own subjective moral experience. Total bollocks!

Gastronomic taste is subjective. Yet many people think their palate to be more gastronomically advanced as an adult than when they were 6 and eating chicken nuggets. Tell them it's not "really" more advanced. See if they care.

I don't eat what I eat because it is objectively delicious. And, similarly, I don't take moral action or make moral judgments because they are objectively moral. And neither does anyone else. That goes for you, too.

Doctor Logic said...

normajean,

But suppose there are features of reality (mental data) that remain inexplicable at the physical and are necessarily true in every possible world where minds exist (logical laws-LNC).

You're using a completely different approach than Victor is using above. You are using a kind of AfR approach.

There are two problems with your argument. First, if you abandon LNC, there's no such thing as necessity. LNC isn't necessary in a vacuum. It's necessary to rational thinking or intelligibility, but who says rational thinking or intelligibility is necessary? We desire it, but that's something different.

Second, just because we can be rational doesn't mean we ought to be. You can't come up with a rational argument to prove rational thinking is morally obligatory without arguing in a circle. You would have to assume rational thinking was correct in order to conclude it is correct.

Suppose I can't help myself being kind to children and old ladies. My compulsion to be kind is not evidence that kindness is objectively good action. If it were, then the compulsive thievery of the kleptomaniac would be evidence that theft is objectively good action.

So why is my compulsion to think rationally evidence that rational thinking is morally good?

Some things cannot be rationally proven.

normajean said...

Doc, I wasn’t attempting to draw moral imperatives from logical laws in the way you’ve described. I’ll try again later.

normajean said...

Doc, suppose consciousness (and the features embedded in it) exist and is fundamentally non-physical. Are we in position to think objective moral values exist since we’ve already crossed the line of extraordinary and our intuitions tell us they exist?

normajean said...

Doc, have you seen any of this?

http://closertotruth.com/video-profile/Is-Consciousness-Fundamental-David-Chalmers-1-of-2-/372

or

http://closertotruth.com/video-profile/Is-Consciousness-Fundamental-David-Chalmers-2-of-2-/373

This is a great site, btw!

J said...

Actually, unlike Dr. Logic, I don't think moral statements ("Pol Pot was evil") are equivalent to mere aesthetic judgements ("I prefer mex. food to chinese"), though I do agree moral statements seem incapable of proof, except in the ordinary utilitarian sense (ie via popular vote, for one).

The point, which I think some of the believers miss, is how does one prove objective ethics holds, without recourse to theological dogma??? At best I think you can hammer out a contract of some sort, ala Hobbes (which Rawls tries to update), and certainly suggest it's prudent, in your best interest, etc. to uphold the contract, and/or law, some rights based on shared values, even subjective ones (ie X and Y agree to respect property, and not murder, steal, rape, since since X and Y don't want that happening to themselves). But consistency or agreeing to various laws is not really objectivity; and for that matter, the contract will be moot unless backed up by force (and sneaks following a "dont get caught" exception to the contract always a possibility". As are pirates of various sorts).

normajean said...

J, I'll speak for myself and submit that I'm not concerned with "proof." I'm hoping you'll discover OMV's in the quietness of night--that is, I'm hoping you'll side with your conscience.

J said...

That's not good enough, and that doesn't really address the problem; what's more that's a typical believer ad hom. George Bush went by his "conscience" as well.


Besides, the calvinist/protestant moralists are arguably part of the problem.

normajean said...

So you're playing games then. You've already pointed out that you "agree moral statements seem incapable of proof."

J, somethings can't be proved but without them you can't prove much else.

Cheers

Doctor Logic said...

normajean,

Doc, suppose consciousness (and the features embedded in it) exist and is fundamentally non-physical. Are we in position to think objective moral values exist since we’ve already crossed the line of extraordinary and our intuitions tell us they exist?

No. Why should we be? Can't subjective things also be non-physical in that world? And if so, how to tell them apart?

Also, why does your argument not boil down to "Assume I live in a world in which my intuitions are correct. My intuition is that morality is objective. Therefore, morality is objective."?

normajean said...

I'm under the impression that whenever something is nonphysical it doesn't fit the naturalistic-like worldview. You'll disagree and I'll wait for a convincing argument.

normajean said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Doctor Logic said...

normajean,

Trust is something that has to be verifiable. If I'm walking down the street in Pamplona, and I see a bull charging towards me, I'll know the difference between my senses being trustworthy and my senses not being so. If my senses are trustworthy, I predict that I will feel a big "ouch" when I get gored by the bull.

However, there's no such thing as trust when something is unverifiable in principle. I feel that theft is evil, but there's no experiment or experience that I could ever have that would confirm or deny that feeling because it doesn't predict anything. The same goes for aesthetics and taste in food. If I think the Mona Lisa is pretty, what does that predict? What possible experiment could I do to prove myself wrong?

So I don't think trust is an applicable term in this context.

Even if we all feel things are yucky, that doesn't mean they are objectively so. That would be a non sequitur. We humans all feel that oxygen is good, but that doesn't make oxygen objectively good. It makes it good to us. Another species might find oxygen poisonous. So the burden isn't on the subjectivist to show that theft is not objectively evil.

In fact, there can be evidence for subjectivity and evidence for objectivity. A peanut allergy is subjective. If I am allergic to peanuts, that doesn't mean that the allergy is in the peanuts themselves. It's in their interaction with me. So if I detail the protein interactions between me and a peanut, I can prove that the allergy isn't what is objective about the peanut. The protein is what is objective, what is in the peanut itself. The allergy is my subjective reaction to it.

In the case of morality, not only is there a lack of positive evidence for objectivity, there is an increasing amount of evidence for its subjectivity (e.g., from the evolutionary advantages conferred by moral behaviors in primates).

Doctor Logic said...

normajean,

Oops. I responded to a comment you deleted.

As for the last comment about non-physical stuff...

I care about lawful stuff, not physical stuff. Only lawful stuff can be explanatory. There can certainly be lawful non-physical stuff. It just so happens that there's no evidence for non-physical stuff, but if there were, that wouldn't be a problem for me.

Also, it's tricky to define the physical as distinct from the lawful: Hempel's Dilemma.

Anonymous said...

After all this cut and thrust of somewhat personal dispute I am no better able to make sense of the idea of "objective' morality.
The word just doesn't seem to be applicable.
Is that my problem? ie.. I don't see moral judgments as about 'facts' ( which could be confirmed by observation and test), but rather about attitudes, beliefs and emotional impulses towards facts.

Some such attitudes will correspond better to an over-arching moral rule -- such as " treat others as you would be treated " -- and could be said to be "objectively" or logically better expressive of such a rule, but it says nothing about some objective "out there" laid down by god, objective existence of such moral rules.
Er .. does it??

sorry , I really do not get this.

anonagain