Monday, July 09, 2012

A Defense of Objective Moral Values

By Neil Shenvi.

47 comments:

Papalinton said...

Bit of a crock really, 'objective moral values'. The wheels of his argument fall off almost from the beginning with his holocaust analogy.

"If objective moral values exist, then statements like, "the Holocaust was evil," can be objectively true. If objective moral values exist, then this statement would be true even if the Nazis had won World War II and had convinced every human being in the entire world that the Holocaust was good. In contrast, the position of moral relativism commits one to the proposition that moral statements like, "the Holocaust was evil," are subjective. If some person or some society, like Nazi Germany, believes that the Holocaust was good, then the Holocaust would indeed be good "for them". "

For the Germans the holocaust was deemed good, otherwise why would they have embarked upon it? The German people, the overwhelming majority of them practicing faithful christians, catholic and protestant, [the other 5% being Jews] that the final solution was an answer for cleaning out their community. One need only be reminded of Jugoslavia where the vast majority Serbian christians sought to 'ethnically cleanse' their Bosnia and Sarajevo of Muslims. And that was only a few years ago.

You might wish to read this investigation:
http://faculty.vassar.edu/tilongma/Church&Genocide.html

"In the aftermath of this horrific bloodbath, Rwanda's Christian churches have faced extensive criticism. Many journalists, scholars, human rights activists, politicians, and even some church personnel have accused the churches not simply of failing effectively to oppose the genocide but of active complicity in the violence.(2) According to a report by a World Council of Churches team that visited Rwanda in August 1994, "In every conversation we had with the government and church people alike, the point was brought home to us that the church itself stands tainted, not by passive indifference, but by errors of commission as well."(3) My own research in Rwanda in 1992-93 and 1995-96 confirms these conclusions. According to my findings, church personnel and institutions were actively involved in the program of resistance to popular pressures for political reform that culminated in the 1994 genocide, and numerous priests, pastors, nuns, brothers, catechists, and Catholic and Protestant lay leaders supported, participated in, or helped to organize the killings.(4)"

"Post-genocide conversions
Main article: Islam in Rwanda
Reports indicate the percentage of Muslims in Rwanda has doubled[9] or tripled[10] since the genocide, due to Muslim protection of Tutsis and to Hutus' wanting distance from the people who murdered. Although the growth of Islam stabilized after a few years, it is still attracting some converts. Conversions to Evangelical Christianity also increased after the genocide, while attendance in Catholic churches has decreased. Observers believe this is due to the participation of some Catholic priests in the genocide.[11]"
[Wiki]

CONT.

Papalinton said...

CONT.
"The most detailed discussion of the role of religion in the Rwandan genocide is Timothy Longman's Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda.[5] He argues that both Catholic and Protestant churches helped to make the genocide possible by giving moral sanction to the killing. Churches had longed played ethnic politics themselves, favoring the Tutsi during the colonial period then switching allegiance to the Hutu after 1959, sending a message that ethnic discrimination was consistent with church teaching. The church leaders had also long had close ties with the political leaders, and after the genocide began, the church leaders called on the population to support the new interim government, the very government that was supporting the genocide."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Rwanda#1994_Genocide

The only reason the holocaust was considered evil is because a group of other people thought it was evil. Fortunately that was our side and we were lucky enough to have won WW2. Other have not been so lucky.

Papalinton said...

Shenvi, in his concluding remarks says, "If the biblical God exists, then He is the standard of objective moral values. "

Tell that to the 1 million Rwandans that died at the hands of god-believing christians.

Papalinton said...

Shades of the Albigensian [a catholic massacre] and Anabaptist [a protestant massacre] 'objective moral values', methinks.

A god sat on his hands and watched it happen.

SteveK said...

So what exactly are you saying, Paps, that morality is not objective?

Papalinton said...

Steve K

I'm asking, what is the practical relevance of 'objective moral values'?

Philosophising over objective moral values seems a rather unprofitable exercise. And Shenvi's notion about 'objective moral values' says nothing about how we can actualize practical outcomes of these 'objective moral values, a way we can best enshrine them. There is no mechanism other than through secular law and jurisprudence, paying little heed rather other than being mindful of religious proclivity, that we can fully operationalize morality. No religion has been able to do it in modern times, unless you agree that Sharia law in the best of functional religious examples.

Shenvi's article is little more than a graceless and maladroit attempt to rationalise and 'prove' [use this word at your own risk] that 'objective moral values' come straight from an indeterminate, formless and amorphous spectral numen. Of course, how he does that is simply by personal attribution. Indeed he declares it such,

"There is a far more important question that needs to be answered, and it is not a philosophical question. It is a personal one."

So much for evidence of 'objective moral values'. To me the unknowable and the non-existent are indistinguishable.

CONT.

Papalinton said...

CONT.
There is a mountain of evidence and research and investigation, building as we speak, that is informing us how we can best realise commonality on morality. Dr Sam Harris, neuroscientist, for one [I quote],

".. brings a fresh perspective to age-old questions of right and wrong and good and evil. Harris demonstrates that we already know enough about the human brain and its relationship to events in the world to say that there are right and wrong answers to the most pressing questions of human life. Because such answers exist, moral relativism is simply false- and comes at an increasing cost to humanity. And the intrusions of religion into the sphere of human values can be finally repelled: for just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality."

Neil Shenvi said...

Papalinton,

You wrote:
"For the Germans the holocaust was deemed good, otherwise why would they have embarked upon it?"

I think you're missing the point, which is what Steve K. alluded to. My illustration demonstrated what it means for moral values to be objective. Moral values are objective if they exist independent of human belief. They are not objective if they are dependent on human belief.

You are quite right that the Nazis deemed the Holocaust to be good. But the question we need to ask is: was the Holocaust _actually_ good? If morality is not objective, then the Holocaust was indeed good 'for them' merely because they deemed it good. But if morality is objective, then the Holocaust was evil regardless of whether the Nazis or all human beings deemed it good.

So the question for you is: were the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide and the ethnic cleansing in Serbia actually good or not?

If you answer that these events were evil, then you agree with my thesis (objective moral values exist).

If you answer that these events were good because they were deemed good by the people that committed them, then you need to provide a better explanation for the five pieces of evidence I mentioned.

I also find it interesting that you quote Sam Harris approvingly. In The End of Faith, Harris utterly rejects what he calls 'the demon of moral relativism' and has written extensively in support of the thesis that objective moral values exist. Harris and I obviously disagree over the metaphysical grounding of objective moral values. But we both affirm that objective moral values exist, which was the subject of this essay.

-Neil

cl said...

Neil Shenvi / SteveK,

You are certainly free to do what you wish, and I don't want to discourage you from engaging "Paps" if you think fruit may result, but there's a reason many of us have agreed to take the "Paps Challenge," meaning that we were going to ignore him until his arguments became worthy of address. Not sure how familiar either of you are with Paps, but in my experience his "arguments" almost always:

1) ramble on forever;

2) favor cheesy rhetoric and evasion;

3) fail to grasp the objections mounted against him;

4) reduce to non-sequiturs (cf. July 09, 2012 7:37 PM and July 09, 2012 8:01 PM in this thread alone)...

I could go on, but 1-3 were enough for me. What y'all do with this knowledge is your call. Quite frankly, I think you're both wasting your time, but who am I to judge...

cl said...

Neil Shenvi / SteveK,

Perfect case in point... Paps shows up and denies objective moral values, but then, a few comments later, implies that scientists like Sam Harris is discovering them.

As an aside, it spooks me that so many ostensibly "rational" atheists believe this hokum. Here's Paps:

Dr Sam Harris, neuroscientist, for one [I quote],

Besides the fact that Harris is a total non-sequitur WRT to Neil's paper, two can play Paps game. Dr Sam Harris, neuroscientist, I quote,

Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.-The End of Faith, 52-53

Harris suggests it "may" be "ethical" to kill people, not on the basis of crimes they commit, but on the basis of what they believe. This is the "enlightened morality" from the "rational" secular world.

God help us all.

cl said...

Neil,

Nice post, by the way.

Papalinton said...

Neil
What you say in your follow-up comment is fine. I have no fundamental objection to objective morality. Rather it is your definition of the source of 'objective moral values' that is problematic and insubstantial and is supported largely by the convention of tradition rather than evidence. And equally, I would clearly articulate that of both Muslim and Rosicrucian moral perspectives.

It seems increasingly to me that we as a species are generally mindful of moral parameters that guide behaviour. But we also know that the strength or otherwise of that intuited belief has been compromised many times by more pressing social and cultural imperatives that were less than admirable. And religion, in its various forms and expression, has demonstrated little consistency in resisting these less than admirable influences. The Rwandan example characterizes much that demonstrates little correlative evidence between being a christian and moral values.

Science tells us, as a highly social species of animal, what we understand as objective moral behaviour or values is in large measure a product of our evolutionary predisposition towards altruism and sharing well-being. It seems that we are more predisposed to living in a community environment that generally favours letting one live a peaceful and supportive life rather than one of enduring perpetual existential anxiety. And I think religion per se has been less than successful in actualizing morality; and always as a function of group-think in one's own clearly defined membership or in-crowd, be it catholic, or Calvinist, Nth Korean, or Papua-New Guinean highlander, or however you might define yourself. If you describe yourself and your family as just human beings with feelings, and wants and needs, as every other human family with wants, desires and wishes, religions do not offer those objective moral values as a universal panacea. There is always a catch, a condition constrained and defined by one's particular stripe of god; and there are thousands of them. And I do not think this religious approach is a useful tool in global humanity.

Indeed, you and Harris do disagree over the metaphysical grounding of objective moral values. And it is that disagreement that is the focal issue of contention and the substantive reason why I consider religion as not as useful a vehicle in propagating universal moral worth as one would want to imagine it be, mainly because that worth has been narrowly prescribed through particular and limiting theological terms.

We have to think and act wider, deeper about the universality of objective moral values.

Neil Shenvi said...

Papalinton,
Good, I'm glad you agree with the proposition that objective moral values and duties exist. That was the sole thesis of the essay and forms the second premise of the Moral Argument. However, you are now asserting that objective moral values and duties can be derived from "our evolutionary predisposition towards altruism." I'll leave aside the is-ought problem for a moment and go directly to the essential issue: can naturalism indeed furnish a metaphysical ground for objective moral values? If you think this question can be answered in the affirmative, I suggest reading the following essay, which I completed recently (forgive the typos; I am a bad proofreader).

http://www.shenvi.org/Essays/NaturalismAndMorality.htm

Could you answer the two objections I raise in this essay?
-Neil

Papalinton said...

Neil
I can't begin to respond to your paper as your conclusion is largely inconsequential to me. I am not an apologist. I do not subscribe to superstitious supernaturalism of [putatively] live entities that inhabit a netherworld. From my perspective such a premise is misconceived, misinformed and erroneous.

However, it was an interesting paper from the perspective of the role of mythology, as a surrogate placemarker for knowledge, in our very early understanding of the world we inhabit. Many of the examples you use capture the zeitgeist of personal revelation. But there is little to inform us going forward on how to actualize morality, apart from abject supplication and misguided allegiance to an obviously contrived mythical reflective expression of ourselves, a product of a time that was without the benefit of 21st century education.

The religious perspective is not a universally accepted one; with some tens of thousands of 'revealed' religions available to us that offer mutually incompatible doctrines. For me to counter-argue the christian position would be to accord it an unwarranted and undeserved status and credibility. If I were a Buddhist or a Muslim, then perhaps it would be appropriate; pitching one mythos competitively with another. As Bob Geldoff responded when asked, "Are you a Saint or a Sinner?" His reply, "As an atheist, I cannot be either."

Sam Harris, eloquently posed the probelmatic nature of religion:
"The reasons for believing that any of the world's religions were 'revealed' to our ancestors are either risible or nonexistent - and the idea that each of these mutually contradictory doctrines [example: Islam and christianity] is inerrant remains a logical impossibility. Here we can take comfort in Bertrand Russell's famous remark that even if we could be certain that one of the world's religions was perfectly true, given the sheer number of conflicting faiths on offer, every believer should expect damnation purely as a matter of probability."

CONT.

Papalinton said...

CONT.
In respect of your, "... [and] go directly to the essential issue: can naturalism indeed furnish a metaphysical ground for objective moral values?"

The question is a theological/philosophical question of sorts. There are two streams of philosophy: one that is scientifically informed, the other that is not scientifically informed. Religious philosophy, that which is not scientifically informed, can be construed as ... theology. We tend to forget that, "[p]rior to the modern history of science, scientific questions were addressed as a part of metaphysics known as natural philosophy. The term science itself meant "knowledge" of, originating from epistemology. The scientific method, however, transformed natural philosophy into an empirical activity deriving from experiment unlike the rest of philosophy. By the end of the 18th century, it had begun to be called "science" to distinguish it from philosophy. Thereafter, metaphysics denoted philosophical enquiry of a non-empirical character into the nature of existence." Wiki
Naturalism, which is grounded in empiricism, is not a presuppositional stance. One arrives at naturalism as an outcome from doing science. Naturalism has no need to furnish a metaphysical ground for objective moral values. Naturalism goes right to the heart of the issue, and it uses all the investigative and research means available to it. Theology and religion are antithetical to the guiding principles of naturalism.

"The neuroscience of morality and social emotions is only just beginning, but there seems no question that it will ... deliver morally relevant insights regarding the material causes of our happiness and suffering. While there may be some surprises in store for us down this path, there is every reason to expect that kindness, compassion, fairness, and other classically 'good' traits will be vindicated neuroscientifically - which is to say that we will only discover further reasons to believe that they are good for us, in that they generally enhance our lives." The Moral Landscape p 80.

The placement of the study of morality, and moral values, on the much surer footing of empirical investigation and research, will obviate the need for a philosophical talkfest. We are increasingly becoming to understand good and evil, right and wrong, in scientific terms, because moral concerns translate into facts about how our thoughts and behaviours affect the well-being of conscious creatures like ourselves.

Neil Shenvi said...

Papalinton,
You write: "I can't begin to respond to your paper as your conclusion is largely inconsequential to me"

I'm not sure I understand this. You already stated that objective moral values do exist. But my thesis in the essay is that if naturalism is true, objective moral values cannot exist. So if you want to consistently and rationally affirm naturalism and the existence of objective moral values, you need to answer my objections. Saying 'I don't care about your objections' doesn't do much to answer them.

"Naturalism has no need to furnish a metaphysical ground for objective moral values."

This is a particularly interesting stance because it is rejected by Sam Harris, whom you continue to cite. Harris insists that objective moral values can indeed be metaphysically grounded in the flourishing of sentient creatures. You assume exactly this grounding when you write "moral concerns translate into facts about how our thoughts and behaviours affect the well-being of conscious creatures like ourselves." You can only make this statement if you accept Harris' contention that objective moral values are grounded in human flourishing. If so, then you certainly need to answer my objections to rationally maintain your position.

-Neil

Crude said...

Neil,

While I'd second what the others have said here, I just wanted to say "nice to see you", and glad to see you're still writing. I'll check your site to see if there are papers I missed - you're kind of refreshing to read due to the topics you write on.

Neil Shenvi said...

Hi Crude,
Thanks for the encouragement. I saw Steve K is here too. I guess it stands to reason that 'dangerous idea' is part of the Christian philosophers' blog circuit!
-Neil

Papalinton said...

Neil

. "But we both affirm that objective moral values exist, which was the subject of this essay."

. "Good, I'm glad you agree with the proposition that objective moral values and duties exist. That was the sole thesis of the essay and forms the second premise of the Moral Argument."

. "But my thesis in the essay is that if naturalism is true, objective moral values cannot exist."

I am as confused as you about the direction of your paper. And you have yet to respond to the findings I earlier drew to your attention, findings based on observable, empirical data drawn from a wide range of verifiable sources, anthropology, sociology, the neurosciences, psychology, etc, and from which a common collective, integrated and melding knowledge-base is emerging that simply contests the conventional wisdom of the philosophical and theological narrative. Philosophy and theology are not drivers of discovery into new knowledge, only the sciences has a demonstrable track record for enlarging humanity's commonwealth of knowledge of the world, the universe and our relationship in it. Theology and philosophy are second order functions, and if they are not scientifically informed, and remain self-separated from the sciences, they are little more than manipulative exercises hazarding to rationalise the very natural, but unlearned and deeply intuitive strata of our emotions and feelings.

The question you must satisfy in asking yourself, how can I justifiably continue to prescribe 'objective moral values' without recourse to the mounting research and increasing body of knowledge that is demonstrating how science can determine human values? Just as thunder and lightning have been shown not to be the result of an angry god as the innately intuitive response of our ancestors rationalised, so too will the moral landscape be shaped and influenced by the far greater explanatory power of empirical understanding, supplementing and enhancing our capacity to override our archaic reliance on intuition and emotion, when the evidence is counter-intuitive and shows our intuitions to be unreliable. Theology and philosophy cannot do this without being scientifically informed.

Sam Harris' work is seminal in the rethinking required to shift moral foundations from the supernatural domain to the natural domain. This work is gaining significant momentum, and insights into the scientific understanding of the instructive parameters of objective moral values and the context in which they operate, are becoming ever so clearer.

Of interest, as a scientist, how many papers have you submitted for peer review that have clearly identified the supernatural signature of creation in the field of chemistry? Indeed how many other papers are you aware of, produced from among your fellow christian scientists, that substantiate the connection between the Creator and the created? Where are the testable correlative data that establish the causative connections between the ineffable creator and the chemical constructs you peer at through the microscope?

"Can Christians believe in a young earth today? Certainly. But we should remember that it is a faith statement, and we must not consider Christians who think otherwise to be spiritually inferior. Can Christians believe in an old earth? Sure. But this is also a faith statement, and we must not consider Christians who think otherwise to be intellectually inferior."
Steve Badger: http://steve-badger.net/cfns/origins.htm

So which is it with you, Neil? As Badger rightly notes, how do you substantiate the assertion of a creator other than through the appendage of faith or intuitive attribution?

Neil Shenvi said...

Papalinton,
You wrote: "I am as confused as you about the direction of your paper"

Perhaps you missed the second paper to which I linked. My first essay "Do Objective Moral Values Exist?" argues that objective moral values do exist. We agree on this premise. But I then linked to a second essay "If naturalism is true, can objective moral values exist?" Here it is again:
http://www.shenvi.org/Essays/NaturalismAndMorality.htm

It is about this second essay that I wrote: "my thesis in the essay is that if naturalism is true, objective moral values cannot exist. So if you want to consistently and rationally affirm naturalism and the existence of objective moral values, you need to answer my objections."

I hope this cleared up the confusion and would be interested to hear your response.
-Neil

cl said...

Neil,

You're changing my mind, slowly but surely. Maybe we *should* engage Paps more? It's something about the way you hold your ground and don't lose focus of the point at hand... it really exposes the vacuity of Paps' ramblings. It's like watching somebody easily put someone in a headlock. I'm really enjoying watching as Paps wriggles and squirms and tries to deflect but doesn't even come close to loosening your grip.

Great work.

cl said...

Then again, when I read Paps' replies, it's abundantly clear that you're not getting through to him.

So, Paps Challenge stands in my book.

im-skeptical said...

Neil, so much to say, so little space.

You make the point that objective morality can't exist if naturalism is true. I don't disagree with that, but I would state further that objective morality doesn't exist at all. You make your case with examples, such as the Jewish holocaust, that virtually everyone agrees are evil. But what about the many things that are not so clear cut? There are broad grey areas where people disagree upon exactly where to draw the line between right and wrong. Even many Christians who believe that morality is objective and absolute can't agree among themselves in many cases about exactly where this line should be drawn. That being the case, I think it is absurd to maintain that morality is objective. It flies in the face of reality.

Morality is in fact circumstantial. We are all faced with situations that would challenge the notion of absolute moral objectivity. I can contrive cases where stealing or lying or even killing might be the right thing to do. Some people would agree with me, and others wouldn't. That's the point. In defense of the argument from evil, Christians assert that a perfectly moral God allows things that appear to be evil in order to bring about a greater good. Isn't that moral relativism? If not, could you please explain? After all, I'm no philosopher.

Finally, I think you have conflated moral relativism with an absence of morality. I felt rather insulted at your insistence that I, as a moral relativist, can't distinguish between good and evil, but must rely strictly on my emotions and feelings. I assure you that my morality is no less valid than yours. By the way, how would you respond if offered the hypothetical immorality pill? Would it be any different from the way I do? Aren't you really just claiming to be holier-than-thou?

Neil Shenvi said...

im-skeptical,
Would you mind asking just one question at a time? That way, I can be sure I answer it to your satisfaction before moving on.
Thanks!
Neil

Papalinton said...

Equally, I would be keen to read your response on the scientific underpinning of the understanding and growth of the empirical knowledge base of morality and moral values.

It is really the one way forward that has opened up recently following millennia of hiatus in christian thinking.

im-skeptical said...

Neil,

I'm not demanding anything. I just felt the need to respond to your paper. I hope it provides some food for thought. If you choose to continue a discussion, my first question was about the apparent relative morality of God.

Unfortunately, I need to sign off for the night now, but I appreciate your thoughtful reply.

Neil Shenvi said...

Papalinton,
"Equally, I would be keen to read your response on the scientific underpinning of the understanding and growth of the empirical knowledge base of morality and moral values."

The idea that empirical observation can lead to growth in our knowledge about morality is completely dependent on the premise that moral facts are metaphysically grounded in the flourishing of sentient creatures. This premise is false and the essay I provided explains why.

Neil Shenvi said...

im-skeptical,
No problem. Is this the right question? You wrote: "In defense of the argument from evil, Christians assert that a perfectly moral God allows things that appear to be evil in order to bring about a greater good. Isn't that moral relativism?"

No. Moral relativism states that moral values are wholly dependent on the beliefs of human beings. As a result, nothing is objectively 'good' or 'evil'. The phrases 'good' or 'evil' are relative to individuals, communities, or cultures. I might call rape 'evil'. But some other person might call rape 'good'. Since there is no objective standard of good and evil, neither of us can claim to be right.

In contrast, Christians assert that moral values are grounded in the character of God. So actions like rape which are contrary to God's moral nature are objectively evil and actions like kindness which are consistent with his moral nature are objectively good. So the Christian view of God certainly doesn't allow for moral relativism.

With regard to your question about whether God permitting evil entails moral relativism, the answer is also no. Just because God permits evil doesn't make evil relative to the individual or culture which is the essence of moral relativism. Perhaps you're thinking along these lines: "Christians believe that God allows evil to happen. Therefore they must believe that evil is suddenly 'good' because God allows it."

But that is not what Christians believe. The Bible never calls evil 'good' even while it affirms that God brings good out of evil. A classic example is Gen. 50:20. Joseph has been sold into slavery by his brothers, languishes in prison for years, but eventually emerges, saves Egypt from a massive famine and encounters his brothers again. He says this: "you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive." Here we clearly see that while God uses evil for his purposes, it remains evil and contrary to his character.

If that's helpful, we can move on to your next question. If not, just let me know and I'll try to clarify.
-Neil

Papalinton said...

Neil
"The idea that empirical observation can lead to growth in our knowledge about morality is completely dependent on the premise that moral facts are metaphysically grounded in the flourishing of sentient creatures. This premise is false and the essay I provided explains why."

Yes, you indeed provide an essay. However, you seem to be under the impression your explanation is a bona fide claim. That claim is false. Your explanation, with its origins deeply rooted in supernaturalism, is a conspicuously unfounded premise with little academic merit beyond the confines of theology. And that is clearly the message I am putting before you. An apologetical explanation is not a bona fide explanation because it has no advanced standing in any investigative stream of human research and study, not in anthropology, not in psychology, not in the neuro-sciences, indeed not in any of the sciences, sociology etc etc. Even historical accounting of supernatural claims seems to indicate a singularly one-way trend that once supernatural claims have been subjected to rational and natural explanation, they cease to be supernatural. There are endless examples of this trend.

There is a fundamental disconnect and a misapprehension in your premise that theology remains the single senior service in providing an interpretive model for describing and explaining the world, the universe and our relationship in it, including and especially, morality, and this is also false. This is no less reflected in the trends of Western countries, in Western and progressively throughout Eastern Europe, Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and others, where theological explanation has been largely set aside for a better, a more consistent, a more evidential and reliable explanatory tool than religion.

Your statement quoted above, is symptomatic of the deep confusion believers struggle under, in articulating their philosophical musings. Basing their philosophy on the innate and intuitive nature of theology [a neural condition now clearly identified as 'teleological intentionality', imagining agency where no agency exists] as they do, either at the expense of or in petulant reaction against, scientific empiricism, is a loose and misguided methodology for explanation.

To be bogged in the miasma of theological discourse is an unhelpful exercise.

Papalinton said...

Neil says, "No. Moral relativism states that moral values are wholly dependent on the beliefs of human beings. As a result, nothing is objectively 'good' or 'evil'. The phrases 'good' or 'evil' are relative to individuals, communities, or cultures. I might call rape 'evil'. But some other person might call rape 'good'. Since there is no objective standard of good and evil, neither of us can claim to be right."

So are you saying that rape is a universally acknowledged evil act under the rubric of 'objective moral values' that stand outside and independent of the beliefs of human beings?

Neil Shenvi said...

Papalinton,
You write: "Your explanation, with its origins deeply rooted in supernaturalism, is a conspicuously unfounded premise with little academic merit beyond the confines of theology."

No, the main argument of my second essay does not advance a supernaturalistic theory of ethics. The thesis of my essay was that if naturalism is true, then objective moral values cannot exist. My contention is that you are holding two beliefs which are incompatible:
1. Naturalism is true
2. Objective moral values exist
There is no need for you to accept the view that moral values are grounded supernaturally, since you can reject claim 2 rather than claim 1.

However, you do only have four choices:
1. Reject your belief in naturalism
2. Reject your belief in the existence of objective moral values
3. Show why the two objections, I raise in my essay are false
4. Ignore the irrationality of your position

"So are you saying that rape is a universally acknowledged evil act under the rubric of 'objective moral values' that stand outside and independent of the beliefs of human beings?"

No, of course not because rape is not universally recognized as evil, even though it is evil. You seem to be confusing moral ontology with ethics. The question we are asking is 'What does it mean for something to be good?' not 'Which particular actions are good?'
-Neil

Papalinton said...

Neil
"However, you do only have four choices:
1. Reject your belief in naturalism
2. Reject your belief in the existence of objective moral values
3. Show why the two objections, I raise in my essay are false
4. Ignore the irrationality of your position"


These are contrived choices that are couched in theological mandate. Naturalism is not a belief akin to a theological analogy. It is an outcome, a consequence of understanding the world and our relationship in it from an empirical perspective as exemplified through the sciences. Under the fresh and expansive view permeated by evidence-based maturity, and the virtue of skepticism, our highest duty, contrasted with blind faith, the one unpardonable sin, there is little in your perspective that can be construed as a reasoned argument in the four rather jejune options offered.

1. Rejection of naturalism is a return to superstitious supernaturalism, an excessively credulous belief in and reverence for supernatural beings, a thoroughly discredited primitive perspective of great inconsequence. To suggest 'the source of 'objective moral values' emanate from an ineffable spectral numen is indeed an unsophisticated and unlearned superstitious proposition.
2. 'Objective moral values' sits comfortably within the ambit of naturalism.
3. The basis on which your premises have been refuted is contained in my replies. You acknowledgement of them or otherwise is not of any concern to me.
4. One could not fail to appreciate the irony of your demand. Philosophy informed by theology is but Apologetics. One could hardly dabble in greater levels of irrationality and cognitive dissonance than Apologetics. Apologetics is the immersion into interpretation, of earlier interpretations, of previous interpretations, interpreting the meta-interpretations of the judeo-christian mythos. While believers have been submerged in their interpretative apologetics, every change in social governance since the Renaissance has been in spite of christian thinking or in reactive response to christian theism. Today, the resultant trend in the transfer of social issues such as women's health and reproductive responsibilities, homosexuality and equal marriage rights , corporate medical care etc etc, and now morality and moral values, will continue unabated, transferring from the theological to the secular humanist domain and subsequently enshrined in secular law.

It is the sensible thing to do.

Neil Shenvi said...

Papalinton,
I wrote that you had four choices:
1. Reject the proposition P (naturalism is true)
2. Reject the proposition Q (OMVs exist)
3. Show why it is false that P entails not-Q (which was the thesis of my essay)
4. Ignore the inconsistency of your position

In response you write: "These are contrived choices that are couched in theological mandate."

Not at all. When someone claims that P entails not-Q, then you cannot hold both P and Q and claim to be rational unless you at least engage with their argument. This hold for any belief P, Q and 'P-entails-not-Q'. It has nothing to do with theology. It is just a matter of logic and reason.

-Neil

cl said...

However, you do only have four choices:

...

4. Ignore the irrationality of your position


LOL! Sorry to double up, but LOL! I've literally never seen Paps take any other choice! Now you see why we agreed to the Paps Challenge!

Matt DeStefano said...

Hey Neil,

I enjoyed your essay and found myself responding in the combox, but I found myself spilling over the wordcount allowances by quite a bit. I ended up writing a blog post about it: In Defense of Moral Non-Cognitivism, a Response to Neil Shenvi.

In the piece, I argue that your evidence (and considered related matters) actually better fit the non-cognitivism narrative of moral values. I think there's an unnecessary dichotomy drawn in your essay between moral realism and relativism, and I illuminate other positions that aren't as self-defeating (ontologically speaking) as relativism.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Crude said...

It seems Neil's entirely allowing for such a reply by way of 2.

Neil Shenvi said...

Hi Matt,
Thanks so much for your post. I thought it was a very gracious and fair treatment of my essay. I will definitely prepare a lengthy response and post it soon.

To respond briefly here, it seems to me that non-cognitivism, even if it is more philosophically tenable than moral relativism, would still have to address the points of empirical evidence I presented. Any moral anti-realist position has to provide a better explanation for the five pieces of evidence I provided than the explanation I offered: OMVs exist and we have an immediate, though fallible, perception of their existence. In that sense, non-cognitivism is in precisely the same position as any antirealist moral theory.

Alternatively, you could call into question the strength of each piece of evidence, which is primarily the approach you take in your post. But even if we were to grant the weakness of each piece of evidence independently, the cumulative strength of all the evidence could still be substantial. And even if we were to entirely dismiss all five pieces of evidence completely irrelevant (which you do not claim to do), you would still have to present a positive case for moral anti-realism.

Anyway, I will address some of your more specific claims on your blog and hopefully will be able to improve the essay based on our interaction. Thanks again!
-Neil

Victor Reppert said...

Neil: I see you're at Duke. Do you know Eric Thomson (Blue Devil Knight)?

Neil Shenvi said...

Victor,
No, I don't know him. Is this him?
http://ericthomson.net/index.html
If so, there's a good chance he knows my friend John Pearson, who is a neuroscientist and a deacon at my church. But I haven't run across him myself? I mainly work from home.
-Neil

Matt DeStefano said...

Neil,

I'm glad you responded, and I am looking forward to a more thorough run-down. I understand your essay wasn't geared towards philosophers, but I figured I would offer some food for thought.

I'll respond briefly here to this:

Any moral anti-realist position has to provide a better explanation for the five pieces of evidence I provided than the explanation I offered: OMVs exist and we have an immediate, though fallible, perception of their existence

Evolutionary psychology supplies us with many reasons for arguing why pro-social behavior and the requisite psychology (both "beliefs" and actions) might have been selected for without supposing OMVs exist. As cultures developed and created their own social norms, it's easy to expect widespread disagreement about an array moral values while still holding on to most of the pro-social behavior that developed over the course of our evolution.

The thrust of my objection is that your essay vastly overestimated the case for "universal consensus" and that in reality this doesn't exist either in behavior or belief.

Additionally, if you are arguing that consensus serves as evidence for OMVs, then a lack of consensus ought to cast doubt upon their existence. Given a global scope, it's plain to see more instances of moral disagreement than moral agreement. So, if an anti-realist owes an explanation for moral consensus, then a realist needs to offer an explanation for the wide-ranging disagreement.

im-skeptical said...

Neil,

Thank you for your reply. You are most kind to address a layman like me.

I didn't understand that God gets a pass on moral accountability. I don't buy it, but I know I'm not qualified to argue the point, so I won't waste your time. I'll just leave it at that. Thanks for listening.

Neil Shenvi said...

Matt,
I responded extensively on secularoutpost. But briefly

"Evolutionary psychology supplies us with many reasons for arguing why pro-social behavior and the requisite psychology (both "beliefs" and actions) might have been selected for without supposing OMVs exist"

This is an appeal to 'group evolution' which falls prey to the free-rider problem. This is why Jerry Coyne derides 'evolutionary psychology' in the essay you cited in your post. Coyne, Dawkins, Pinker and others all reject group selection as scientifically implausible, so if you posit it as an explanation, you will need to also offer a solution to the free-rider problem.

"The thrust of my objection is that your essay vastly overestimated the case for "universal consensus" and that in reality this doesn't exist either in behavior or belief...Given a global scope, it's plain to see more instances of moral disagreement than moral agreement."

I agree that lack of moral consensus needs to be explained on moral realism just as moral consensus needs to be explained on moral anti-realism. The question is where the balance falls when it comes to moral behavior. See my response on your blog, but we may have to agree to disagree here.

Nonetheless, the existence of true altruism even in a tiny minority across all cultures (let alone as a nearly ubiquitous behavior which is demonstrated by the Science study you cited) is a major problem for moral anti-realism and for evolutionary accounts of morality.
-Neil

Neil Shenvi said...

im-skeptical,
I am a layman myself! If you'd like to continue the conversation, you're welcome to email me. Just Google my name and you'll find my contact information.
-Neil

Papalinton said...

Neil
"Papalinton,
I wrote that you had four choices:
1. Reject the proposition P (naturalism is true)
2. Reject the proposition Q (OMVs exist)
3. Show why it is false that P entails not-Q (which was the thesis of my essay)
4. Ignore the inconsistency of your position
In response you write: "These are contrived choices that are couched in theological mandate."
Not at all. When someone claims that P entails not-Q, then you cannot hold both P and Q and claim to be rational unless you at least engage with their argument. This hold for any belief P, Q and 'P-entails-not-Q'. It has nothing to do with theology. It is just a matter of logic and reason."


A couple of things:
Points 1 and 2 presuppose the validity of Point 3. Point 3 is by no means a done deal. One need not subscribe to the mutual exclusion of objective moral values and naturalism. It is perfectly reasonable to accept naturalism as true and concurrently acknowledge the possibility of 'objective moral values' as a working proposition. And as you agree, Harris makes just that proposition, albeit both of you disagreeing from where this objectivity originates. This instance alone renders your Point 3 moot. On the matter of logic and reason, these are tools of thought. They do not and cannot distinguish between false or true premises. One can still use logic and reason regardless of the truth or falsity of the initial premise. Indeed one can use logic and reason to argue a false premise and arrive at an equally false conclusion, without compromising the logic or the reasoning process.

In respect of your Point 3, that naturalism and objective moral values are mutually exclusive, it is based on very tenuous information, let alone that both your supporting arguments are based on hypothetical propositions [untested]. To append your thesis to the Rawl's 'Justice as Fairnes' experiment is a very thin and highly questionable connection by any stretch. There are critics, [I cite though I have not read] Susan Moller Okin, Allan Bloom, Kenneth Arrow, Gerald Cohen, Amartya Sen, etc showing that Rawl's contribution is not without its faults. It is understood that in light of the numerous philosophical criticisms, Rawls has made significant and substantial modifications to his theory, brought out in 'Justice of Fairness: A Restatement''. What I cannot find is the specific claim in the Rawlsian justice experiment that objective moral values are anathema to naturalism.

Searle's Chinese Room experiment equally contributes little to supporting your Point 3 claim apart from personal proclivity and interpretation. And ironically, " Searle holds a philosophical position he calls "biological naturalism": that consciousness and understanding require specific biological machinery that is found in brains. He writes "brains cause minds" and that "actual human mental phenomena [are] dependent on actual physical-chemical properties of actual human brains". [Wiki]
Again I cannot locate reference to naturalism and objective moral values as mutually exclusive concepts.

Neil Shenvi said...

Papalinton,
I wrote: "3. Show why it is false that P entails not-Q (which was the thesis of my essay)"

You responded:

"Harris makes just that proposition [that OMVs and naturalism are compatible]... This instance alone renders your Point 3 moot"

No, unless you are making a bare appeal to authority. The fact that Harris thinks that OMVs and naturalism are compatible does not prove that they are actually compatible. He also might think that Eastern Monism and Caterian dualism are compatible; that doesn't mean that they are.

I asked you to read my essay and show why my arguments are false. If you would like to do so, I would still be interested to hear your response.
-Neil

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

Neil
Your premise is false. Where do your Rawls and Searle propositions make the connection of naturalism and OMV as mistaken?

If, as you claim, Searle is right in support of your argument, then you would need to respond to Dennett's proposition, in defense of your Point 3, "Suppose that, by some mutation, a human being is born that does not have Searle's "causal properties" but nevertheless acts exactly like a human being. (This sort of animal is called a "zombie" in thought experiments in the philosophy of mind). This new animal would reproduce just as any other human and eventually there would be more of these zombies. Natural selection would favor the zombies, since their design is (we could suppose) a bit simpler. Eventually the humans would die out. So therefore, if Searle is right, it's most likely that human beings (as we see them today) are actually "zombies," who nevertheless insist they are conscious. This suggests it's unlikely that Searle's "causal properties" would have ever evolved in the first place."
http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2004/entries/chinese-room/

Pinker also notes in the paper, " ... that Searle relies on untutored intuitions."

"Hans Moravec, director of the Robotics laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University, and author of Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind, argues that Searle's position merely reflects intuitions from traditional philosophy of mind that are out of step with the new cognitive science."

Neil, you might wish to read this paper as it contextualises the Searle experiment in its proper setting at: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2004/entries/chinese-room/

Your co-option of Searle in support of your Point 3 contention simply does not add up.
Notwithstanding the issues that I have outlaid, your illustration of the Searle robot as an unthinking example akin to naturalism, is a somewhat egregious and spurious instance of sequestering one small segment, of the full explanatory treatise, in support of your Point 3. Your idiosyncratic reasons for this acontextual use of Searle is neither acceptable nor justified.

You say, "The fact that Harris thinks that OMVs and naturalism are compatible does not prove that they are actually compatible."
You have yet to read Harris's 'The Moral Landscape', then.

It is interesting to note what Sir Harold (Harry) Walter Kroto, FRS, the Francis Eppes Professor of Chemistry at Florida State University, and a shared winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, has to say about the role of science in society:
"The methods of science are manifestly effective, having made massive humanitarian contributions to society. It is this very effectiveness which the purveyors of mystical philosophies attack, because they recognise in it the chief threat to the belief-based source of their power and financial reward."

As a fellow chemist but a believing christian, am I correct in saying that you would disagree with this statement?