Sunday, January 13, 2008

moral objectivity

Again, I am redating the moral objectivity post because we are covering it in my Philosophy 105 class.

Are Moral Values Objective?

I. Facts and Opinions: Before I start to answer this question, let me rant and rave a little bit about the “fact and opinion” exercises that are given to school children. (Here, I am operating in the tradition of C. S. Lewis, who in the Abolition of Man complained about the implied positivist philosophy that he thought to be smuggled into students’ English textbooks). This “fact and opinion” dichotomy strikes me as being intellectual rat poison. According to the school exercise, A fact is what can be proven true or false and can be true for everyone, an opinion is a personal feeling and is not necessarily true for everyone.

This seems, pretty clearly, to commit the fallacy of the false dilemma. There can be a fact of the matter as to whether something is true or false, without our being able to prove it true or false. There can be a “fact of the matter” about something, and at the same time there can be more or less reasonable opinions about it. In fact, the most reasonable opinion about something may turn out to be false, nevertheless it is the most reasonable opinion. Consider Jack the Ripper. There are a lot of opinions about what Jack the Ripper was, but there is also a fact as to who committed those murders. Is opinion a) something purely subjective, or b) something about which there is a truth, but uncertainty amongst human beings as to what the truth is? I frequently use that term of b, but very often people mean a. This gets really difficult when I ask students to write papers and want me to give me their reflective opinions, supported by argument. If he fact-opinion dichotomy is exhaustive, then I am asking for an impossibility.

II. What is it for something to be an objective matter? An objective matter is about which it is possible to be mistaken. Let’s take
1) 2 + 2 + 4 or
2) The earth is round.

If someone says something that contradicts these claims, we quite straightforwardly say that they are wrong. There is, for example a Flat Earth society, headquartered in Illinois. (If you’ve ever been to Illinois, you might understand why people who live here are tempted to think the earth is flat). These people sincerely believe that the earth is flat, but there is little temptation to say that they the earth is really flat for them, even though it is round for the rest of us. Contrast this with

3) McDonald’s burgers are better tasting than Burger King’s
4) Belching after dinner is rude

In the first instance, we are inclined to suppose that the statement in incomplete; in order to assess its truth or falsity we have to ask “better tasting to whom?” It’s a matter of individual preference, and no further debate or discussion is necessary. In the second case, most of us are inclined to suppose that while it may have been true in our home, there are cultures elsewhere in the world where it is manifestly false, where an after-dinner belch is required by good manners to indicate that one is satisfied with the meal that has been prepared. In neither case are most of us inclined to think that the people who differ with us about 3 or 4 have false beliefs.

But now consider
5) There is life on other planets equivalent or superior in intelligence to our own or
6) God exists

In the case of 5, the matter seems clearly to be an objective one, although I at least, have no clue as to whether it is true or false. I’m very sure that it’s either true or false, whether it is true or false strikes me as something I am not in a position to know.

But 6 seems equally and obviously to be an objective matter. “But not everyone believes that there is a God.” Yes, not everyone believes that the earth is round. If no one can be mistaken about whether or not God exists, then it would have to be that case that God exists for everyone who sincerely believes that God exists, but God does not exist for the people who believe that God does not exist. On this account, God is like Tinkerbell, the fairy who continues to exist so long as people believe in fairies.

Now in order for the objectivity to be made clear, we have to have a clear definition of God in mind. The standard definition of God in philosophy is a being that is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good. If might be that one person might believe some being (say, the Force of Star Wars) to be describable as God, while another might not. That’s why we need a definition of the conception of God to make the claim objective.

But what about moral statements like

7) Abortion is always wrong unless carrying the pregnancy to term will endanger the life of the mother.

This is a profoundly debatable question, one that I can’t settle easily. Some people accept it, others do not. But the same can be said for 5 and 6. There are arguments that can be given both for and against 7. Sometimes the profundity of the disagreement about abortion is take to be evidence that moral differences cannot even be argued about, and that therefore they are subjective. However, let’s notice two things about the abortion controversy.
Both sides seem to agree that

A) Human life has value and
B) The quality of life has value

We don’t hear pro-life people denying the importance of the quality of life. We don’t hear pro-choice people denying the value of human life. Rather, we find pro-choice people arguing that human life in its fetal stage is doesn’t possess personhood in the sense required to give it a right to life, or perhaps it dependent status on the mother makes it acceptable for the mother to relieve her burden even though the fetal life is lost. (Sort of a justifiable homicide argument). But they normally don’t say life just isn’t valuable. (The closest I came to that came from an office-mate of mine in grad school. He claimed that pleasure was the only value and pain was the only disvalue. To the question “Why shouldn't I just kill you now.” my office-mate replied, “Only if you can do it painlessly.” But most defenders of a woman’s right to choose would not take such an extreme position. They think that human life is valuable; they just think either fetal life isn’t human life in the required sense, or that the value of life can be “trumped” in favor of quality-of-life considerations.

It seems, therefore, that the “deep” disagreements involved in the abortion controversy conceal deep agreements as to what our fundamental values are. But consider

8) It is wrong to inflict pain on little children for your own amusement.

If you are a moral subjectivist, you have to believe that 8 is subjective, that it is just a matter of custom that you accept it, and someone like, say, Jeffrey
Dahmer who rejected it, isn’t really engaging in wrong behavior, just distasteful conduct. And whether apply moral relativism to a case like this is the real test as to whether you are an ethical subjectivist or not. To do that, I suggest that you have to swallow very hard.

As you have no doubt been able to ascertain, I believe ethical judgments are objective. It may be difficult to determine if they are true or false, but I am confident that they are either true or false. Bertrand Russell thought otherwise. He wrote:

The theory which I have been advocating is a form of the doctrine which is called the "subjectivity" of values. This doctrine consists in maintaining that that, if two men differ about values, there is not a disagreement as to any kind of truth, but a difference of taste. If one man says "oysters are good" and another says "I think they are bad," we recognize that there is nothing to argue about. The theory in question holds that all differences as to values are of this sort, although we do not naturally think them so when we are dealing with matters that seem to us more exalted than oysters. The chief ground for adopting this view is the complete impossibility of finding any arguments to prove that this or that has intrinsic value. If we all agreed, we might hold that we know values by intuition. We cannot prove, to a colour-blind man, that grass is green and not red. But there are various ways of proving to him that he lacks a power of discrimination which most men possess, whereas in the case of values there are no such ways, and disagreements are much more frequent than in the case of colours. Since no way can be even imagined for deciding a difference as to values, the conclusion is forced upon us that the difference is one of tastes, not one as to any objective truth. (From the essay “Science and Ethics”

C. S. Lewis, on the other and, wrote:

The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike...Unless we return to the crude and nursery-like belief in objective values, we perish.
--C. S. Lewis

So debate on this question of moral objectivity rages on today.


Mike Darus said...

It seems to me that moral values are a hybrid of facts and opinions. On the decision level of a moral choice, there are many facts and opinions being considered. The facts include mitigating factors of the situation, family background, personal experiences, moral convictions, the opinions of others... The more difficult moral decisions even include a conflict between two values (the value of life vs. personal freedom).

I agree that moral values are objective. Just as we are able to decide whether a fact is true or false, we also make judgments as to whether a moral value is true or false. It is not the same as whether we agree with someone's opinion. Our evaluation of moral values is based on more than personal taste. We evaluate a moral opinion based on what we believe is true about ourselves. Victor's office mate who considered pleasure/pain as a determinator of values communicated an underlying conviction about what he believed was true about himself.

Perhaps what complicates our thinking is the premise that it is OK to argue facts but rude or pointless to argue opinions or values. The challenge is digging for the underlying facts that are the basis of the opinions and values. On this level they can be argued. Opinions can be true or false because they have a basis in true or false facts.

Steven Carr said...

If abortion is always morally wrong, why does God allow abortion?

Defences to the problem of evil maintain that there is an unknown purpose by which seeming evils like abortion or genocide actually lead to a greater good.

Only we cannot recognise this, because we do not have the knowledge that God has.

The following 2 statements cannot both be true
1) Therfe is never a morally valid reason to allow abortion
2) God has a morally valid reason to allow abortion

Mike Darus said...

Steven Carr said:
"The following 2 statements cannot both be true

Your (1) is clearly false even if we do not include the issue of preserving the life of the mother. If my daughter was seeking an abortion (assuming I oppose it) it would be morally right for me to allow her to get an abortion even if this is contrary to my beliefe. I am not obligated to restrain her or imprison her. I do not endorse abortion by my choice to permit her to make a free moral choice that conflicts with my own values.

Your problem is in the use of the verb "allow" instead of "justify" or "endorse". You cannot infer that because God allows something he endorses it. Often in the debate about the problem of evil, we want to convict God of negligence from his failure to act. From his failure to prevent evil, we accuse him of enabling the evil so that he becomes an accomplice to the crime, or worse yet, the utlimate cause.

We cannot imagine what greater good could justify the evil that has happened and continues to happen.

I think also there is a difference between moral objectivity and moral absolutes. You are attempting to confront the problem of evil using moral absolutes. You can be morally objective without endorsing moral absolutes.

Mike Darus said...

Joe mccarron said:
"A fact is something that occured or existed in time. It is some sort of event or at least a proposition about something that exists(ed)in the past or present. Never the future. Statements of fact do not make claims about the future."

I don't buy it. I think 2+2=4 anticipates that will be true in the future as well.

Steven Carr said...

If abortion is objectiveloy morally wrong, it is no more morally valid for me to allow my sister to have an abortion than for me to allow my sister to torture my children for fun.

And some countries count culpabable negoligence as a crime. Is it absolutely morally wrong for Bush or God to stanhd by while Katrina strikes America?

Steven Carr said...

It is a fact that a bachelor is an unmarried man. In fact, there is no logically possible world where a bachelor can be married.

Assume it is a fact that it is moral never to torture children for fun.

Are there logically possible worlds where it is a fact that it is moral to torture children for fun?

I'm talking about worlds where Victor would say, yes, that is indeed a fact in those worlds , and not just a world where some people mistakenly believe it is moral to torture children for fun.

If Victor would say that there are no possible worlds where it is moral to torture children for fun, then it is indeed a fact that it is moral not to torture children for fun, in much the same way as it is a fact that bachelors are unmarried.

It would be a tautology , on Victor's definition of what the word 'moral' means in the English language.

Jason Pratt said...

Actually, I'm with Steven on this. But it would take a _very_ long time to explain why I nevertheless also affirm the omnipotence and omnibenevolence of God. It would be better to reject the doctrines than to accept them due to theological thimblerigging, and there is no way in a comment (even by my standards of comment length {s}) that I can give an answer that won't necessarily look like mere thimblerigging.

Mike D has a good intuition (I agree there's a difference between allowing and endorsing); but it falls short, due to a lack of positive content. It would be better to emphasize what is positively being accomplished morally (if anything) by allowing a person to do what is otherwise morally wrong.

In any case, the discussion must proceed in something of a vacuum without an agreement (even if only per hypothesis, although a conclusion would be much better) of what moral behavior ultimately _is_.

(And in my experience, this is going to require a bunch of _other_ questions to have already been settled first, insofar as possible.)

Jason Pratt said...

_Did_ Victor even give a definition of what the word moral means? (I just read back through his post again, and _I_ never saw it.)

Giordano Sagredo said...

As a naturalist I can see no alternative to some kind of nonrealism, because ethical claims will ultimately depend on contingent antropological and biological facts. I take it that our brains paint the world with a moral hue in a way analogous to the way it paints it with colors and humorous people.

Even if we found a moral module, akin to Chomsky's grammar module, such that we could predict, given a person's environment and genetics, what they will judge to be ethical (i.e., their judgments about what actions they are committed to, and the intention that all people be so committed), this would not imply that those judgments are "true".

I think the best we naturalists can do is agree that, given certain goals by which to measure behavior (e.g., some utilitarian or deontic rights-based metric), we can engage in valid and sound arguments about how to acheive those goals.

In practice, this doesn't seem a big problem, but in theory you can think of scenarios in which it is disastrous (e.g., a Nazi society that considers itself moral for having "exterminated" the Jews, and in which dissent has been eliminated). However, moral repugnance is not enough to establish moral realism, any more than seeing colored objects establishes that color is independent of the observer. I take claims about morality to be on a par with claims about someone being humorous. Can we say objectively that Chris Rock is humorous? I don't think so. However, we can still have rational discussions of what color an object is, or how funny someone is, and our judgments about such things will evolve over time based on such rational pressures.

Jason makes an excellent point. I would put it as, what is the extension of an ought claim? For realists, what are its truth conditions? It seems criteria other than truth (as understood in an extensional, Tarskian fashioin) should be used for evaluating them.

A very interesting topic.

Mike Darus said...

Steven asked:
"Is it absolutely morally wrong for Bush or God to stand by while Katrina strikes America?"

I think not. It is (apparently) not God's job to prevent evil from occuring. Some reports indicate it was not the Federal Government's job to be a first responder (although the support was admittedly too slow). We want to make God (and Bush) responsible for preventing the catastrophe or at least make sure no one is hurt. But we tend to reserve this duty to the biggies. We consider it immature to blame Bush for weeds growing in my yard. We usually also concede that pulling the weeds is my job, not God's. Perhaps enduring the evil of this world is a task God considers us worthy of for the sake of personal and moral freedom.

Steven Carr said...

So Mike D thinks it is not morally wrong to allow children to be tortured for fun?

What is really important is that you stand back and allow the torturer room for freedom and personal development....

Theists clearly believe it is immoral behaviour to prevent evil from happening, or else God , who behaves morally, would prevent evil from happening.

Jason Pratt said...

And then, to extend Steven's point:

if someone (or even Someone) _does_ stand back (at least sometimes) "and allow the torturer room for freedom and personal development...."--because this someone loves the torturer and refuses to treat her as being something other than a person--

then what, in fairness, _ought_ to happen to that Someone? If He insists on doing this, what would help us trust Him anyway?

Notice that this judgment would apply, even if the someone (or Someone) _does_ in fact act on occasion (in various ways) to stop the torturer before the fact.

It may also be far more profitable to stop talking about this or that other real-or-imagined person or situation, and start talking about the problems _we ourselves_ contribute to the world. What is God supposed to do about _us_? How far are you willing for God to go, to stop _you_ from doing something 'wrong' (in whatever way you agree to accept a definition of 'wrong')?

Steven Carr said...

'What is God supposed to do about us?'

At the very least, he should do what any morally concerned citizen would do, if that citizen was in a position to stop somebody torturing somebody else.

Perhaps he should not allow abortion, if abortion is objectively morally wrong.

And perhaps answer Christian prayers not to be lead into temptation, and that his will is done on Earth as it is done in Heaven.

Answering prayer would be a good start.

Jason Pratt said...

So, if _you_ were about to do something you otherwise know to be wrong, you would want God to _always_ simply _force_ _you_ not to do it; and so you would pray for Him to do that? (And if He didn't grant that prayer every time, it would show He didn't exist or didn't care about you or the people you hurt, etc.?)

When I ask "what is God supposed to do about _us?_", I'm shifting the ground to us personally--you and me. Not to some abstraction, or generalized 'us-of-humanity'. Unless we're down to talking about how God should deal with _our_ transgressions, yours and mine, theodicy (the study of God's relation to evil) is never going to make any sense at all. How do we, as occasional sinners ourselves (some of us more than occasional), want God to fairly treat _us_, as persons who sometimes do what we know to be wrong?

When it comes down to brass tacks, _my_ sins and _my_ sinning are where I have to start, in consideration of how God does (and/or should) treat evil and suffering. Sometimes God _does_ stop me from doing ethically wrong things. Sometimes, though, He doesn't.

Granted, if He doesn't stop me, then He does share partly in the responsibility of what _I_ go ahead and wrongly do. And, He should pay for that, shouldn't He?--He should at least show us He accepts His share of the responsibility for what _we ourselves_ (including I myself) do wrong.

If He insists on continuing to let me, a sinner, go ahead and sometimes do injustice in history (against you, for instance); then shouldn't He pay for letting me do that? And do it in a public way, so that everyone can see and spread the story around to people who weren't there to see it?

And if He does continue to let me, the sinner, add my share of misery to history--are the only imaginable reasons because He doesn't care for the people I transgress against, or because He doesn't exist, or because He lacks the power to stop me, or because He Himself is less than altogether good?

Anonymous said...

How do your comments apply to the Christian version of heaven?
I don't see how you can coherently defend God letting people do things like torture and kill others here on earth and then turning around and preventing them from doing so in heaven.
You've also neglected, as far as I can see, to address the fact that most human and animal suffering is not due to human sinning.

Jason Pratt said...

Sorry for not replying earlier Tim (if this comment was attached to an earlier repost). Sometimes these things go off the bottom of the main screen, and (despite how it may sometimes seem {g}), I'm not always around to read them before they do. (In fact, I'm about to go on hiatus for a week or maybe longer now, by which time this will likely have cycled off again. But I do try to catch up with anything I missed when Victor redates them for his class.)

My (extremely over-)short answer to the first question, is that I don't believe God simply forces people to do right even in heaven. Obviously some Christians and I will have disagreements about that, though possibly fewer than you might think: that notion is far from being explicitly "the Christian version" of heaven. (I'm not sure to what extent there _is_ one official version of that among Christians. {shrug})

I think I have the advantage of at least agreeing with orthodox trinitarianism, on holding to this point; and I strongly suspect that the forced-good notion of heaven eventually involves a tacit (or even explicit) denial of that. (And as far as the scriptural witness goes--well, even RevJohn doesn't present a final picture of God simply making people in the Resurrection stop sinning. Indeed, there's at least one major rebellion forewarned about _after_ what might have been expected to be the end of the story...!)

In the case of animal suffering, I do not know that we are actually in a position to know for sure which animals are even conscious _to_ suffer. (I mean other than ourselves.) Up to the point that occurs, the problem simply doesn't exist. But since I happen to provisionally believe in the consciousness of at least some other animals, then I myself would not carry the rebuttal that far.

So, having said that: there _is_ (as you are probably aware already) a tradition within Christianity (and elsewhere) to the effect that even the travail of non-human Nature is, in fact, due to the results of human rebellion. Though not exclusively due to human rebellion, either.

But we're treading awfully dark water on that topic, and it isn't something I would recommend for belief without first having covered dozens (if not hundreds) of other points. Certainly it isn't a topic I reach myself in less than several hundred pages of analysis... {s} And as long as my comments are, even _I_ can't cram in _that_ much coverage of topic--the neglect is not due to oversight.

The points I discuss above, in any case, are not restricted in principle to only 'human' sinners. (I restrict them topically to humans only because at the moment I, the human, am speaking to other humans, about the logical necessity of focusing on what God is supposed to be doing about _us_ personally when _we_ transgress against another person.)


Edwardtbabinski said...

Dear Vic (Victor Reppert for the sake of blog search engines *smile*),

Is it me, or are you asking more philosophical questions concerning moral objectivity than you have in the past? Asking questions and analyzing the answers (interminably so, especially when such questions are large overarching ones) appears to be what philosophy does best.

On the question of "moral objectivity," I think that the most objective thing any of us can say with anything near certainty as fellow philosophical debaters is that we each like being liked and hate being hated.

We certainly like having our particular thoughts appreciated by others. And we are a bit perturbed when others don't "get" what we're saying, so we continue trying to communicate our views in ways we hope others might understand.

I also assume each of us generally prefers not having lives nor property taken from them, and generally prefer not being abused either psychologically nor physically.

I also assume that when one person has something in common with another, be it a love of a game (chess, golf, soccer), a song, the sight of a sunset/sunrise, a philosophical point of view concerning the big questions, or a religion, that liking the same thing tends to bring people together and increase their joys.

Therefore, I'm not sure that "objectivity" is necessarily what I am primarily after, nor what most people are primarily after.

But I will say that there is a marvelous article in this week's Discover about animals with feelings. One anecdote from the article involved a magpie (freshly deceased from an accident with a car) that lay by the side of the road surruonded by four live magpies that went up and pecked gently at it, then two flew off and came back with some tufts of grass in their beaks and laid it beside the dead magpie. Then they stood beside it for a while until one by one the four magpies flew off.

This anecdote sparked my own memory of another one that I read in a turn of the century book titled Mutual Aid by the Russian evolutionist, Kropotkin (his theory of evolution emphasized the benefits of mutual aid & cooperation). Kropotkin cited Australian naturalists and farmers who observed the way parrots cooperated to denude a farmer's field of crops. The parrots sent out scouts, then rallied the other birds, and they would swoop down quickly and devour the crops, but sometimes some of them got shot, and rather than simply fly off altogether the birds "comrades" (remember, this is a russian biologist speaking) would squawk in a fashion of bereavement, trying to remain as long as possible fluttering near the fallen friend and group member.

I also have read stories about the intelligence of crows, even their sense of humor. One naturalist mentioned seeing three crows on a wire, and one of them slipped, seemingly intentionally, and held himself upside down by one claw, which apparently amused the others. (I'd also read about experiments and anedcotes involving birds with amazing memories and vocabularies, even speaking and acting in ways one would consider appropriate for brief human-to-human exchanges.)

Elephants and llamas were some of the other animals mentioned in the Discover piece that reacted strongly to the death of members of their own species. Elephants have come back a year later to the spot where another elephant has died (as seen on Animal Planet) and they react strongly to the bones. I also recall reading in a Jan Goodall book about a young chimp (fully grown, not a baby) reacting so strongly to the death of his mother, that he simply climbed a tree and wouldn't come down and eat until he himself had died, apparently of grief.

The works of Frans de Waal (a famed primatologist), contain some touching stories about the compassionate behaviors of primates, notably of the most peace loving chimp species, the bonobo. When Frans took his own baby son (who was sitting in a forward facing harness strapped round Frans's chest) to visit some chimps at a zoo where Frans had gotten to know the chimps well, a mother chimp with her own young one saw Frans holding his baby up to the viewing glass, and the mother took her own baby's arms and twisted her baby around in a single movement so it was facing outward, and held her baby up to the glass so that the two babys could eye each other. Frans and the mother chimp also exchanged glances. Frans mentioned a case of a female photographing chimps on their little chimp island that had a moat around it. They were bonobos, a female dominated society, and food had just been given them, and they were portioning it out amongst themselves. The photographer wanted to get a shot but the chimps had their backs to the camera and were facing the food that had been delivered instead of facing the moat with the photographer on the other side, so the photographer started to wave her hands and scream and jump up and down to get the attention of the chimps. The other chimps looked round, except one who was suspicious and didn't turn around. So the female photographer continued waving her hands and shouting until finally that last female chimp turned around, and tossed the photographer a handful of food! The chimp apparently thought she was being asked to share her food! And well, she did.

In another case I've read about, Washoe the chimp was on a chimp island with other chimps, one of which climbed the fence and started wadding out into the moat surrounding the island (chimps can't swim, they sink, their bodies are denser than human beings since they have far less body fat). This chimp started to flail around in the water, drowning. Washoe saw this, clambored over the fence, and held onto some tall grass with one hand while extending the other to the drowning chimp, who was saved.

Meanwhile Robert Hauser (Harvard prof and author of Moral Minds) has asked a lot of people a lot of tough moral questions and found out how similar their responses were across the board regardless of whether the person was religious or not.

I have responded to the question of "moral objectivity" elsewhere on Victor Reppert's Dangerous Idea blog, and cited statements by philosophers and primatologists from Mary Midgley to Frans de Waal to Einstein. Anyone can view my responses by clicking here and here and here and here.
Ed (Edward T. Babinski for the sake of blog search engines *smile*)