Thursday, September 30, 2010

Moral subjectivism and the value of rationality

What's interesting to me here is the extent to which commitment to rationality is linked to a belief in moral objectivity. A believer in objective morality can argue that everyone ought to do one's best to believe what is true, even when believing the truth is emotionally costly. Whatever is legitimate in the Outsider Test for Faith appeals to this kind of commitment. But does this commitment make sense if moral relativism or moral subjectivism is presupposed?

Bertrand Russell wrote, concerning fideistic believers:

There is something pusillanimous and sniveling about this point of view, that makes me scarcely able to consider it with patience. To refuse to face facts merely because they are unpleasant is considered the mark of a weak character, except in the sphere of religion. I do not see how it can be ignoble to yield to the tyranny of fear in all terrestrial matters, but noble and virtuous to do the same things where God and the future life are concerned. 

But, if there's nothing objective about moral values, then there's no objective reason why I shouldn't be "pusillanimous and sniveling" if it keeps me emotionally comfortable. The appeal to intellectual honesty presupposes a commitment to the value of truth, which is going to be a subjective matter unless we accept objective moral values.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

Bob Prokop writing:

On this subject, I'd like to recommend the extremely worthwhile book by Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, "Survival in Auschwitz". I've already quoted once before from this book on another thread, concerning the story of the icicle. It bears repeating:

"Driven by thirst, I eyed a fine icicle outside the window, within a hand's reach. I opened the window and broke off the icicle, but at once a large, heavy guard prowling outside brutally snatched it from me. "Warum?" (Why?), I asked him in my poor German. "Hier is kein warum" (Here there is no why.), he replied, pushing me inside with a shove."

Primo Levi learned in the harshest possible manner the full implications of living in a completely amoral, atheistic universe. If you think the above quote is bone-chilling, consider the next:

"Here in [Auschwitz], there are no criminals or madmen. There aren't any criminals because there is no moral law to contravene, and there are no madmen because we are wholly devoid of free will. Our every action is, in time and place, the only possible one."

I've said this before. Without an objective moral framework (not the work of human hands), the INEVITABLE end state is Auschwitz, or the Gulag, or North Korea.

Doctor Logic said...

But, if there's nothing objective about moral values, then there's no objective reason why I shouldn't be "pusillanimous and sniveling" if it keeps me emotionally comfortable.

And does it keep you emotionally comfortable?

Victor Reppert said...

In some ways yes, in others no. But that is not the issue here. I'm probably not going to make it as a comfort-driven fideist, since I am in fact committed to the objective value of truth. In fact, I think the comfort-driven fideist is a straw man. But since unbelievers rail constantly against the comfort-driven fideist, I have to wonder what reasons they can offer to the comfort-driven fideist to give up their position, given a subjectivist moral philosophy.

Doctor Logic said...

Bob,

I call bullshit.

The Nazi movement was not atheist. The Nazi movement owes its position to (perverse) Christianity, in particular, Martin Luther. Luther was an anti-semite who said that the Jews should be put back into the camp of labor. Many German Christians hated Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals, and had no problem putting them into death camps. The camps weren't built and staffed by atheists, but by Christians.

Moreover, fascism and religion have a lot in common. They both use propaganda, songs, slogans and emotional appeals to control masses of people. They both hate intellectuals and gays, and look for scapegoats. They both create in-group/out-group tensions.

So, if you fear Auschwitz scenarios, it's religion and fascism you should be running from. Fear any organization that promotes dogma, is intolerant of free speech, and which avoids rational inquiry (and that includes communism, too).

Doctor Logic said...

Victor,

I think that we are all comfort-driven to some extent, but there are very few of us who desire to be comfort-driven. Almost everyone wants to be truth-driven and not comfort driven, but I think it is a psychological fact that this causes conflict for us (cognitive dissonance).

In other words, subjectively, we all happen to want to be truth-driven, even if we can't always live up to the goal. I think you're agreeing when you say that the comfort-driven fideist is a straw man.

The nonbeliever's argumentation is persuasive to anyone who shares in the desire or compulsion to be truth-driven, and that includes just about everyone. The person who is comfort-driven will not be persuaded by any rational argument from anyone.

Let's go back to what you said:
I have to wonder what reasons they can offer to the comfort-driven fideist to give up their position, given a subjectivist moral philosophy.

Are you really saying that a moral realist has a better ability to rationally persuade a comfort-driven fideist (or comfort-driven nonbeliever)?

Thrasymachus said...

I don't think this works. I can't see any reason to commit to epistemic normativity without reasons to 'do' moral normativity, but there's lots of stuff in meta-ethics which is trying to preserve this normativity sans the bitter-tasting metaphysics of moral realism. In other words, you can be committed to some senses of moral normativity (further, the sorts that motivate concern over rationality) and yet deny 'objective ethics'. To show this can't be done requires carpetbombing a lot of modern work in ethics.

I think this misguided angle of attack is I think because of ambiguity in the OTF. What Loftus seems to do to use the 'outsider' criterion to discount certain sorts of evidence - namely, all sorts that another party wouldn't have access to. This, ironically, isn't a rational thing to do: sometimes you just do have privileged first person access to certain things. Similarly, I don't think we need to worry about presup-esque 'how do you justify rationality' responses. The sensible thing to do is presume that all parties have some concern to epistemic norms.

Admittedly, Loftus's tone often suggests he regards believers as having no such concern. I think, however, it's clear the OTF stuff only works if they do. The best rennovation of the OTF I can manage (forthcoming) makes this assumption about believers. If not, why bother talking to each other?

Anonymous said...

Bob Prokop writing:

Dr. Logic,
I'm not the one you need to argue with. I am citing the testimony of one who lived through Auschwitz, and presumably knows what he is talking about. The absence of objective morality leads straight to the gas chambers. There were (unfortunately, but undeniably) most definitely antisemitic Christians throughought history, but it wasn't until government and society was decoupled from any moral compass that we ended up with the Final Solution.

Solzhenitsyn said much the same thing. He noted that the average Shakespearean villian quailed after the first couple of murders, but the Stalinists calmly sent MILLIONS to their deaths in the name of expediency. He explicitly blamed this on the Soviet regime's official atheism.

I've lived nine years in Europe, where militant atheism is very strong right now. Allow me to mention just two very disturbing trends resulting from this that I noticed. Firstly, the peoples of Western Europe are rapidly committing national suicide by not procreating. (After all, if this life is all there is, why should one spend so much effort providing for people you yourself will not see? (you'll be dead)) Secondly, there is a growing movement, especially in England, to class giving ones own children a religious upbringing as child abuse. Can you imagine even remotely how much state intrusion into people's lives this would mean? It would turn the UK into the DPRK.

Be very careful what you wish for.

Shackleman said...

"Moreover, fascism and religion have a lot in common. They both use propaganda, songs, slogans and emotional appeals to control masses of people. They both hate intellectuals and gays, and look for scapegoats. They both create in-group/out-group tensions."

Your post implies, (throughout all of them really), that it's objectively wrong to control masses of people, wrong to hate intellectuals and gays, etc etc etc. Yet, you argue against an objective morality.

*facepalm

But, this is par for the course with you.

Doctor Logic said...

Shackleman,

I'm constantly perplexed by your sort of hypocrisy.

Bob just gave a subjectivist argument. He basically said that if we don't *like* the Holocaust, we should eschew moral subjectivism because subjectivism gets us to death camps. Well, that's not an objectivist argument. That's an appeal to likes and tastes. Because, if I do happen to like the Holocaust, then I will not find Bob's claim to be a motivation to eschew subjectivism. (Never mind that Bob's premises are actually false.)

Every moral realist argument cashes-out in the same way, i.e., in terms of admiration or disgust.

So what are you going to do? Are you going to condemn Bob for making an argument/appeal not based on objective criteria? Or are you going to admit that the persuasive power of all moral arguments comes down to the receiver's personal feelings of moral disgust or admiration?

If the latter, then you don't have a bone to pick with my moral appeals. If the former, show us your argument for moral realism based on objective criteria, and pick up your philosophy prize on your way out the door.

Shackleman said...

Ah yes, instead of answering the criticism directly, you complain that I'm not picking on someone else. Another tired tactic of yours.

Let Bob speak for Bob. If there are holes in his position, fine. That speaks nothing for *your* untenable positions.

You try to have your cake and eat it too. On the one hand, you argue for moral subjectivism, whilst on the other hand you indulge in seemingly objective moral outrage toward Christians for their transgressions. You can't have it both ways. Well, you're a subjectivist, so I guess you can. But it's utterly incongruent, unconvincing, and hypocritical.

Doctor Logic said...

Shackleman,

On the one hand, you argue for moral subjectivism, whilst on the other hand you indulge in seemingly objective moral outrage toward Christians for their transgressions.

"Seemingly objective"?

The fact that I think you will be motivated by the same cares that I have is not a sign of objectivity. It's a sign of shared concerns.

If you don't share those concerns, say so. If you do share those concerns, then don't pretend my appeals lack a basis for persuasion.

Shackleman said...

Right, I get it. Morals are based on likes vs. dislikes; pleasure-inducing vs. disgust-inducing. So, according to you, Hitler wasn't "wrong". He was just "disgusting". We all hear you loud and clear. It's not difficult.

You're sick.

That's not an insult by the way. It's an observation that you're suffering from an illness. That being a sort of insanity created by "Hyper-reasoning".

There are facts about life and about the universe which are discoverable by things other than pure "reason". Objective morality may very well be an example of one, yet, it remains a fact that is discoverable.

If someone (God forbid) stole all your possessions, tortured your pets, and then burned down your house simply because it appealed to them, you would quickly discover that, contrary to your subjectivist positions, they would be objectively WRONG. And you wouldn't need "reason" and argument to know it.

Anonymous said...

Bob Prokop writing:

Call my argument what you will, it remains an argument from experience, i.e., this is what you get when a society embraces moral relativism, based on the historical record. And please don't give me that BS about Hitlerism or Stalinism or Kim Il Sung-ism not being atheist - that is exactly what they were. That is a matter of objective fact as surely as the statement, "FDR was a Democrat".

Doctor Logic said...

Shackleman,

If someone (God forbid) stole all your possessions, tortured your pets, and then burned down your house simply because it appealed to them, you would quickly discover that, contrary to your subjectivist positions, they would be objectively WRONG. And you wouldn't need "reason" and argument to know it.

How would I know? Because I would feel very strong emotions?

Are you saying moral realism is self-evidently true (i.e., doesn't need an argument)? Moral realism is infallible knowledge that you possess by unknown means?

And what difference does it make?

Doctor Logic said...

Bob,

Um, Hitler was a Christian. The others were atheists, but they were not moral relativists.

terri said...

Bob Prokop

It wasn't Moral Relativism that was at the root of the Holocaust.

There was no wishy-washy subjectivity that drove Hitler. No, he was perfectly invested in what he felt was a morally(?), truthful, objective task of ridding the world of the "evil" he imagined the people groups he didn't like were a part of. Madmen don;t suffer from subjectivism...they suffer from believing that they are the only ones operating under a moral(?)/truthful objective.

That's what makes them Insane.

terri said...

I don't hink it would be easy to classify Hitler as either Christian, in any sense of the word that we would recognize....or as an atheist.

He had his own little Aryan fantasy guiding him, and was happy to use any tool he could to achieve his horrific vision.

Anonymous said...

Bob Prokop writing:

Sorry, "Dr. Logic". Direct quote from Herr Hitler: "Jesus was the bastard son of a Roman soldier" (trans. from "Tabletalk"). doesn't sound like a Christian to me.

Fishermage said...

Hitler wasn't a subjectivist/relativist, but the Weimar Republic that preceded him was.

Out of that weak, relativist soup rose a man with his own subjective absolute.

Relativism seems to breed moral weakness, a lack of societal fortitude and the first thug that can come along and use this will seize control.

When morality goes away, we are back to the will to power.

Hitler's religion seems to have been Hitler.

Remir said...

The Nazi movement was not atheist. The Nazi movement owes its position to (perverse) Christianity, in particular, Martin Luther. Luther was an anti-semite who said that the Jews should be put back into the camp of labor. Many German Christians hated Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals, and had no problem putting them into death camps. The camps weren't built and staffed by atheists, but by Christians.

False. Try reading the Nazi plan for a National Reich Church. A few of the 30 points are especially relevant here:

"The National Reich Church is determined to exterminate irrevocably and by every means the strange and foreign Christian faiths imported into Germany in the ill-omened year 800."

"The National Reich Church demands immediate cessation of the publishing and dissemination of the Bible in Germany as well as the publication of Sunday papers, pamphlets, publications and books of a religious nature."

"The National Reich Church has to take severe measures in order to prevent the Bible and other christian publications being imported into Germany."

"The National Reich Church does not acknowledge forgiveness of sins. It represents the standpoint which it will always proclaim that a sin once committed will be ruthlessly punished by the honorable and indestructible laws of nature and punishment will follow during the sinner's lifetime."

The Nazis were in fact violently anti-Christian.