Monday, December 16, 2013

Is there just one moral absolute?

Philosophical naturalists often take relativistic views on ethics. Yet, there seems to be one ethical area about which they are absolutists, and that is the ethics of belief. They say with Clifford "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." In fact, to some of them, this seems to be more obviously true than "It is wrong, always and everywhere, and for anyone, to inflict pain on little children for your own amusement." 

I don't understand this. 

17 comments:

oozzielionel said...

The postmodernist mantra is "Truth is what is true for you." In this vein,perhaps "insufficient evidence" works the same way. "What is sufficient for you may or may not be sufficient for me." This way, each person can believe what they want with no fear of their beliefs being evaluated by anyone else. This aligns with the another postmodern mantra of "Be true to yourself." And yet another, "Judge not." ...and the key to the whole, "There are no absolutes (except this one)."

William said...

A good Bayesian will avoid assigning anything a probability of absolutely 1 or absolutely 0, since that may mask evidence.

Thus, as ozzie says, it works best to be a Jamesian or practical voluntarist about belief and unbelief. Requiring absolute sufficiency to believe may close minds to evidence.

Thomas Henry Larsen said...

I would be interested to see an argument for theism developed from epistemic duties or virtues.

Josh said...

Reminds me of Lewis:

"1. The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of planting a new sun in the sky or a new primary color in the spectrum.

2. Every attempt to do so consists in arbitrarily selecting some one maxim of traditional morality, isolating it from the rest, and erecting it into an unum necessarium"

The Poison of Subjectivism (1943)

Papalinton said...

"Philosophical naturalists often take relativistic views on ethics. Yet, there seems to be one ethical area about which they are absolutists, and that is the ethics of belief."

It could be read that way. But it could also be read within a relativistic perspective and remain consistent. And oozielionel alludes to it. The degree of firmness one accords to the ethics of belief is relative to the quantum of evidence in support of the ethical proposition in question. I would say it is a reasonable proposition to suggest that one should seek to balance the degree to which they are basing their belief consistent with the evidence in support of it. If a fact claim is based on say, a miracle, then an absolutist position of skepticism would be warranted. That to me remains a relativistic relationship consistent with philosophical naturalism.

An example: As an atheist, I can accept that a Jesus character existed around which a centuries-length process of legendising agglomerated into the Christian narrative. There are innumerable historical instances where this has occurred, Alexander the Great, Appolonius of Tyanna, King Alfred, Jesse James, Julius Caesar. et al. And if one were intellectually frank and principled this is the very best explanation that could be expected to survive of the Christian narrative. The revivification of a three-day old putrescent cadaver, that then ate the equivalent of a month's lot of fried chicken AFTER its execution, followed by levitating wholly physically and bodily into the stratosphere, simply should not be claimed as physical let alone historical fact. If one can dismiss the Islamic fact claim that Mohammed rode to heaven on a winged horse [a variation on the levitation account], without equally dismissing the Jesus levitation story, then two utterly different and diametric standards are being applied, all without a scintilla of justification that does not bleed special pleading.

The historical evidence for a Jesus is reasonable. The historical evidence for a revived and levitating corpse is simply beyond belief.

unkleE said...

Beyond your belief, Papa, but not beyond mine! I think it is the best explanation of the evidence, only ruled out if naturalism is assumed a priori.

Isn't it interesting how one person's certainty is quite opaque to another person?

Jim S. said...

I don't think epistemic norms are merely an application of ethical norms. Having said that, I don't see how naturalism can account for either variety.

Papalinton said...

uncleE
"Beyond your belief, Papa, but not beyond mine! I think it is the best explanation of the evidence, only ruled out if naturalism is assumed a priori."

Evidence? I understand Judaism has never been convinced of even a straight forward prima facie case for the jesusgod character right from the get go 2,000 years ago. With the enormous benefit of 600 years of hindsight and assessment of the 'evidence', Islamists/Muslims equally eschewed the Christian narrative as fanciful. Ironically, all three share the centrality of the Abrahamic god but there the commonality of imagined 'evidence' comes crashing down. Neither Judaism nor Islam ever, even for a fraction of a moment, accepted the Christian trinity narrative or the jesus-as-god- incarnate mythos. This is a plain fact. for the world to see. It underscores your use of the word 'evidence' as something so far removed from anything to do with the usually understood meaning of that word.

And no, naturalism is not a presupposition, a priori, it is an outcome derived from testable, repeatable, and veridical circumstances, events and actions that are prescribed by the laws of physics. There is no epistemic reliance on untestable, non-repeatable, ineffable, mysterious, superstitious or shamanic circumstances, events or actions that are so fundamentally characteristics of supernaturalism.

I cannot but illustrate once again the despairing unreality of your claim unkleE:

""Your religious beliefs typically depend on the community in which you were raised or live. The spiritual experiences of people in ancient Greece, medieval Japan or 21st-century Saudi Arabia do not lead to belief in Christianity. it seems therefore, that religious belief very likely tracks not truth but social conditioning". Gary Gutting, "The Stone", New York Times, September 14, 2011.

There is nowhere, nowhere you can go that will turn the central claim of the Christian narrative into fact. Following thousands of years of repetition, incantation and rote learning will not make the lie any less of a lie. At the very best it can only attain the status that it currently enjoys, a factoid, ' an assumption or speculation that has been reported and repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact'. [All References Library]

Dan Gillson said...

Both philosophical naturalism and moral realism are held by the majority of academic philosophers (PhD or faculty), according to the PhilPapers Survey. Now moral relativism and moral realism aren't polar opposites of each other like relativism and absolutism are, but it would seem that, based on my interpretation of the survey results, most philosophical naturalists would probably deny that they are moral relativists in a normative sense. Moral relativism, after all, meshes better with moral subjectivism than it does objectivism; if there is no such thing as real moral knowledge, something similar can certainly be derived from cultural contexts. (That doesn't mean that one can't be a moral realist and relativist, merely that it's an odd pairing, or so it seems.)

Chris said...

I strain to see how anyone can hold to both philosophical materialism and moral realism consistently.

oozzielionel said...

Amazing. I never thought anyone (much less two people) would agree with any of my sarcastic spouting of inane relativistic rubbish. If any of it is true, how can we call each other bad names for our positions? Someone would make some outlandish truth claim and everyone else would respond, "That's nice." Instead, we try to dismantle opposing views as though there is truth worth arguing about. I am confused.

Crude said...

Dan,

If you look at the correlations between moral realism and naturalism, you get some interesting results on philpapers.

If I am reading these stats correctly - and I could be mistaken - it looks like 37.7% of respondents who accept moral realism accept or lean towards non-naturalism. 46.7% of moral realists accept or lean towards naturalism.

17.3% of people accepting moral anti-realism accept or lean towards non-naturalism. But 71.2% of people who accept or lean towards moral anti-realism accept or lean towards naturalism.

I'd also note that - as stated above - that these answers came in the form of both 'accepts' and 'leans towards'. It's easy to see, in theory, how someone could 'lean towards' two exclusive views - they can just be undecided in fact.

Dan Gillson said...

Crude,

The correlations are interesting indeed. Another thing that's interesting to me, and germane to Dr Reppert's post, is that the absolutism/relativism polarity wasn't included on the PhilPapers survey. I wonder if there are philosophers out there who are actually invariantist about following moral rules. For instance, Clifford talks a big game, but if the he believed that his neighbor was home because he saw his neighbor's car in the driveway, that would be believing something upon insufficient evidence. If confronted about it, he'd probably try to grant an exemption to such putative cases as believing that your neighbor is home, which would undermine the invariant nature of his categorical imperative: YOU SHOULD ALWAYS FOLLOW THIS RULE, EXCEPT WHEN …

Crude said...

Dan,

For instance, Clifford talks a big game, but if the he believed that his neighbor was home because he saw his neighbor's car in the driveway, that would be believing something upon insufficient evidence.

I was thinking about this just today, and I think there's an obvious move Clifford or anyone else could make given his formulation - just weaken the standards for 'sufficient evidence' in that case so, given the presence of a car in the driveway, it's reasonable to believe someone's home. (If CP's standard is that it's wrong to believe something that is untrue or possibly untrue, then it's going to look absurd out of the gates anyway.) What is or isn't sufficient evidence can turn into its own long, boring fight, and I think we end up seeing this sort of fight already, even when CP isn't expressly named.

The wiggle room with 'sufficient evidence' is tremendous.

unkleE said...

Hi Papa, you seem to have demonstrated exactly what I was saying, though I presume you didn't intend that.

You will recall I said"Isn't it interesting how one person's certainty is quite opaque to another person?"

Your post contains a number of things that seem certain to you (I say "seem" because you use the language of confidence), but which seem quite wrong to me.

I would think you know enough about philosophy and history to know you have overstated, so I don't know why you do that.

But when someone uses such words of certainty and makes such an ambit claim about truth, I know too well to discuss further.

Let's just leave it at my original statement:

Isn't it interesting how one person's certainty is quite opaque to another person?

Best wishes.

Papalinton said...

Then what is your best explanation for why Judaism and Islam eschewed Christianity?

Did god make them that way or are Muslims and Jews just exercising their free will willfully? What's your evidence?

unkleE said...

Hi Papa, I have no information on that question, and it has little relevance to me. Why do you think it important? Do you think the number of people believing or not in a worldview makes any difference to its truth?