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Austin Dacey - Moral Values After Darwin
Posted: 14 May 2008 10:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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B.,

Your words are brilliant, and I think you know that I think they are.  Thus here, as elsewhere, I have trouble disagreeing with you, because I think you are right most of the time.  But, on this one point especially, I have to voice my disagreement with your admonition that we are better off erring on the side of relativism than absolutism. 

Of course I know that neither you nor I is a relativist or an absolutist.  So these labels are not apt.  They are charicatures at best.  It is a wasted game to apply them to one-another.  Nonetheless, these are just the terms of debate that we’ve unfortunately been saddled with—and we have to go with the language that we’ve been given, we can’t re-invent the wheel.  (So perhaps my utopian philosophical dream that we can rise above the language we’ve been saddled-with and form our own more precise terms and reasonable language is just a pipe-dream.)  What matters is that we are both on the side of what our best reasons incline.  That is clear, and that is the point of inquiry—to use and abuse that title phrase (for what it’s worth). 

The issue is thus indeed a “pragmatic” one, as you, yourself, have repeatedly acknowledged; I am obviously open to that sort of approach.  And that, I suspect, is where we ultimately differ, if we differ at all.  I cannot accept relativism or subjectivism.  Chris Hedges personified the irrationality of that view, IMHO.  Of course moral absolutism is equally bankrupt—if not more so, as I take it you aver.  My “pragmatic” resolution is to change the dialogue.  The re-frame the issue—to put it as a true Lakoffian would: thus I insist, we are not subjectivists or relativists or panderers or propagandists.  The issue of framing is “pragmatic”—in your sense—to both achieve our common objectives.  The deeper philosophical issue is Deweyan—and that involves the improvement of the human situation.  That is a Humanistic objective: ameliorisation.  There is moral progress to be made.  We can do it.  It does take work.  It does take making a stand against ideological foes.  We are not on a par with them.  We are better.  And we stand for progress. 

I am only worried that subjectivism and relativism undermine the real possibility of the progress we seek.

The best is all I intend.  And I know that you share my intention.  Therefore this dialogue is itself a measure of our progress.  That makes me hopeful. 

Thanks for your time and wise words, I have reflected on them deeply.

The very best to you,

PN

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Posted: 14 May 2008 11:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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it’s wrong to torture babies for fun?

This is, oddly enough, a commonly voiced argument against relativism, in the hopes that you force your relativist opponent to admit that there are certain actions which are always wrong regardless of the circumstances.  But on closer inspection, it is easy to see that this is a straw-man argument.

A relativist holds that any single action can be both right and wrong (moral or immoral) given certain provisions or circumstances.  But “torturing babies for fun” is not a single action in the same way that “eating” or “killing” are single actions.  By including “babies” as the object of the action and “fun” as the motivating desire of the action, you are not looking at the action itself.  The real question is “is it okay to torture people in any circumstance?” and the answer, it must be admitted, is yes, there are some circumstances when torture is a permissible action.  Of course, we have to define torture too.  Does it mean “inflict intense and constant suffering on someone”?  If that is the case, then chemotherapy might be categorized as a form of torture.  Does it mean “subject someone to intense pain to procure some information”?  Or does torture inherently mean “to inflict suffering on someone for no reason other than to cause the person pain”?  Let’s take the last definition for the sake of illustration.  Of course, torturing a baby is unequivocally “wrong” but only because we as humans have developed empathy and sympathy for fellow human beings (and animals) and as such we simply cannot stand the idea of a defenseless, completely innocent child undergoing such intense suffering, especially if there is no rational reason for inflicting it with that kind of pointless pain.  In other words, our reasons for condemning such an action are predominantly emotional.  Of course, I would argue that only a completely amoral person, a psychopath, would even consider torturing a baby anyways, so it really is not a question we have to take seriously as ethicists, even if we have to take it seriously as members of society.

In terms of truth-value the statement “torturing babies for fun is wrong” is just as meaningless as the statement “worshiping frogs for insight is right” in that neither sentence has anything to do with an external objective fact in the real world.

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Posted: 15 May 2008 04:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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mckenzievmd - 14 May 2008 07:21 PM

I think there is nothing wrong with acknowledging and defending, even promoting moral standards. You’re no fundamentalist and I’m no pomo academic. However, I think the problem of excessive moral certainty is far more prevalent and pressing than the problem of nihilism. More harm, IMHO, has been done in the name of such certainty, and the belief that our beliefs are validated by something objective and external, than by the notion that our beliefs are conditioned by biology and circumstances and may very well be wrong. If we’re talking about slippery slopes, I think the one from realism/objectivism to absolutism is a lot easier to slide down than the one from provisionalism/relativism to nihilism. So on a pragmatic level, I think encouraging less moral certainty right now is a good thing. I certainly acknowledge that as circumstances change, the opposite could come to be true, of course.

Additionally, as a scientist and a philosophical naturalist, I think our understandings are superior and more useful if based on truth. And I am convinced, for now, that the truth of moral reasoning is that it is dependant on the factors I keep referring to. Knowing this, and understanding how it works and what influence it has on setting limits and patterns for our moral reasoning, gives us a better understanding of morality and how it works than trying to locate moral truth somewhere external and claim our intuitions and beliefs have some external objective existence. Just as we are more likely to critically evaluate our own perceptions when we understand how inaccurate they can be, and thus be safer from superstition and faulty causal reasoning, so we are more likely to critically evaluate our moral beliefs and hesitate to impose them on others if we recognize how they arise and how they are conditioned. Now, I don’t critically evaluate my eprceptions in the heat of a crisis, and there are times when we have to accept and act on our perceptions and intuitions even though we know they are flawed. I don’t advocate analysis to paralysis. But when it is possible to consider our own beliefs in a critical and skeptical way, I think it benefits us to do so, and I think recognizing the relative and subjective nature of them is part of this critical reflection.

Agreed, but this sounds to me like a moral argument itself—harm has been done in the name of moral certainty, hence expressions of moral certainty are morally wrong. But that itself is an expression of a sort of moral certainty. I do think there is something to what you are arguing here, but one must be careful not to say it in a way that is self-contradictory. I think one can avoid the contradiction by saying (something like) that in most circumstances moral humility is a moral virtue.

Further, we’ve gotten into a number of discussions here with moral dimensions; to take two, we’ve discussed the Iraq war and fanatics who refuse to immunize their children. In both of those arguments you and I have both made use of explicitly moral arguments. Do we really believe that those arguments are not in any sense binding on the people with whom we were arguing? What is the point of arguing about them at all if both our and their positions are indistinguishable on any objective moral comparison?

And if what I’ve just argued falls afoul of arguing against a straw man (moral nihilism) then how can we recover a sort of morality that justifies arguing against the Iraq war and anti-immunization crusades?

As regards taste in clothing or food, the french have an expression: “chacon a son goût”—“to each his own taste”. We recognize intuitively that while it is fun to argue about matters of taste, there is no equivalent universal dimension to them. If you like spicy food and I do not, there is no sense to any argument one way or the other, except to pass the time. But as regards women’s rights, or vaccination of infants, there are arguments to be made, and those arguments are at least apparently binding on all reasonable people. (Women are no different from men in what matters to having rights; infants need to be protected from disease; etc.)

For another topic that has come up in this thread: as regards the question about God, Hume’s Razor got it quite right above. Believers in God have the same problem that atheist moral realists do about the ground of morality. There will always be an is/ought gap. The theist might well say that God tells us to do X so we ought to do X, but the conclusion does not follow from the premise. (Unless we simply define God as someone who, when he tells us to do X we ought to do X! But that just begs the question). This sort of stuff has been known since Plato’s Euthyphro argument, and hence it is a mistake to think that somehow the theist gets off easy on moral questions.

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Posted: 15 May 2008 05:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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baffledking - 14 May 2008 11:02 PM

This is, oddly enough, a commonly voiced argument against relativism, in the hopes that you force your relativist opponent to admit that there are certain actions which are always wrong regardless of the circumstances.  But on closer inspection, it is easy to see that this is a straw-man argument.

The “babies” thing is just an extreme example—a “hard case” if you will—not a straw-man of relativism.  There are many more examples that can be pointed to to expose the problems of relativism—an obvious sort involve practices that, if universally held, would lead to the demise of the human race itself, like parents not valuing their children.  (Call that a biologically or evolutionarily engrained value if you will; it doesn’t make caring for one’s offspring any less valuable and it doesn’t make morality any more subjective.) 

Personally, I think that listening to the Hedges interview on POI is a case-in-point of the irrationality of the relativist position—it is a much better refutation than any argument I could put together.  He morally berates just about everyone for not having enough tolerance for the Muslim worldview.  Is tolerance a virtue then?  If the “new atheists” are just as bad as the old fundamentalists, then where is Hedges’ bitterness coming from?  What standard is he applying?  Where is his moral outrage coming from?  Why is he so judgmental?

A true relativist or subjectivist would just throw their hands up in the air and say “c’est la vie”.

Thus, I am not arguing with any relativists or subjectivists around here.

baffledking - 14 May 2008 11:02 PM

A relativist holds that any single action can be both right and wrong (moral or immoral) given certain provisions or circumstances.  But “torturing babies for fun” is not a single action in the same way that “eating” or “killing” are single actions.

Okay, forget the “for fun” part.  Let’s say the future of the human race depends upon me and you torturing the hell out of one little baby.  It may be the prudential thing to do, but does that make it “right”? 

Do you want to hold out for the view that torturing babies is “right” when the world depends upon it and “wrong” when done for fun?  Is that what relativism means?  (Actually that’s probably a form of consequentialism.)

baffledking - 14 May 2008 11:02 PM

In terms of truth-value the statement “torturing babies for fun is wrong” is just as meaningless as the statement “worshiping frogs for insight is right” in that neither sentence has anything to do with an external objective fact in the real world.

Here is where much of our disagreement lies.  You, and others, want to talk in terms of “truth-values”.  That’s fine.  But, at the same time, you want to say that the “truth-value” of any statement is to be determined by some claim or belief or “sentence” accurately mirroring or matching-up-with or representing some “external objective fact in the real world.”  This is where the problems begin: for it starts to look as if all of our language—every sentence we utter—is to be held to the same standard of certainty (in order to receive and up-or-down “truth-value”) as “this is my own hand” or, “I am looking at a computer screen now” or, “this cup is made of plastic,” etc. 

Of course it is also an “external objective fact in the real world” that the universe either contains a god or it doesn’t.  But do we conclude that, since we cannot determine for certain the truth-value of this claim, it follows that it’s just subjective or relative?!?

[ Edited: 15 May 2008 05:39 AM by Pragmatic Naturalist ]
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Posted: 15 May 2008 07:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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dougsmith - 15 May 2008 04:33 AM
mckenzievmd - 14 May 2008 07:21 PM

For another topic that has come up in this thread: as regards the question about God, Hume’s Razor got it quite right above. Believers in God have the same problem that atheist moral realists do about the ground of morality. There will always be an is/ought gap. The theist might well say that God tells us to do X so we ought to do X, but the conclusion does not follow from the premise. (Unless we simply define God as someone who, when he tells us to do X we ought to do X! But that just begs the question). This sort of stuff has been known since Plato’s Euthyphro argument, and hence it is a mistake to think that somehow the theist gets off easy on moral questions.

Isn’t applying the is/ought gap to proclamations of an almighty and all-knowing god a bit silly? If there genuinely is an all powerful and all knowing god who has the authority and wisdome to declare morality, those are the rules of the game and I don’t see how reasoning would change this if it were to be a fact of nature. What bearing would ‘defining god’ have on reality? I don’t see how re-defining god is anything more that refusing to consider the scenario of the all-knowing god.

I think a fundamental hindrance to this discussion is the fact that we don’t like accepting things on fiat. We like seeing the proofs. If an almighty and all knowing being revealed to us various law of physics, we would still have scientists trying to investigate the veracity of the claims. We can’t conceive how moral good and bad could be measured scientifically, but in a reality where there is an all-knowing god who knows what is truly good and evil, our inability to perceive moral truths on our own becomes a shortcoming of our species and not the basis of a paradox.

If we were to instead deal with the question of how we would know that we should really follow the dictates of the all-knowing god in this scenario, we can throw in divine inspiration. In such a scenario, the person would know that they have the truth. Even though the non-inspired would doubt the claims, the reality would remain that this person was enlightened by the all-knowing god. Those on the outside would just be SOL.

The real problem is that we know that people create the moral statements that they attribute to a god. The attribution to a god gets us nowhere. If anything, it makes morality far more relative when two schizophrenics can make opposite and trivial moral claims about the will of god concerning the shaving of beards, for example.

It seems to me that discussions about morality without god by the religious miss the fact that all the morality we have ever had is morality without god, since all moral statements were creations of human beings and most of our moral sentiments seem to be genetic.

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Posted: 15 May 2008 09:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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PN,

I certainly concur that we agree on far more than we disagree, and I don’t care for argument for argument’s sake. Labels carry baggage, and I spend a lot of time trying to disabuse people of the misconceptions I myself generate by using a term like “moral relativism” with so much baggage. I think in the end it’s probably worth the trouble because of some of the core issues we’ve talked about here, but I’m happy to let go of the labels and turn the discussion to more pragmatic purposes. I think reason and reflection are critical for elaborating healthy, functional moral systems, so I think such discussion is valuable and edifying, and I appreciate your thoughtfulness and ideas.

Brennen

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Posted: 15 May 2008 09:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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Doug,

Hmm. I guess I don’t see an internal contradiction, though I see how one could be perceived. I think of moral truths as much like scientific truths, provisional but to varying degrees. Gravitation as a scientific truth may be discredited some day, but I think it’s solid enough I’m willing to treat it as a virtual certainty for now. Likewise, the immorality of torturing babies may stem from biological, cultural, and personal roots and may be to some extent relative, but it is sufficiently well supported by argument, near enough to universal across cultures, and my own feelings about it are sufficiently strong and clear that I am willing to act as if it were a virtual certainty. The better supported a moral principle is by reason and logic, the more universal it is (and thus likely deeply rooted in our evolved nature), and the more consistent it is with other well-established and supported moral goals (such as a safe and stable functioning society, the maximization of human welfare and potential, etc), the stronger a claim to legitimacy and enactment such a principle has. This is not a perfect approach to moral reasoning, but I think it is a reasonable and effective one, and since I don’t believe in any external reality to moral truths, I think that’s the best I can hope for.

My argument about harm coming from excessive certainty does rely on the presumption that harm is bad and that avoiding it is a moral good, so it contains itself an implicit moral judgement. I view that judgement as just as relative and provisional as any other, but I don’t require it to be demonstrably otherwise, real or absolute in its own right, to feel comfortable holding and acting on it as a moral principle.

I am comfortable saying that the rights of women and children as individuals, which I support very strongly, is a concept I hold as a result of at least some cultural and personal factors, and as such it is relative. However, I am quite comfortable supporting it actively even against those who don’t share my views. To some extent this is a simple consequence of my natural tendancy, like everyone else, to be moved by my own strong feelings even if I can’t rationalize them as reflecting some greater external reality. But I also think the principle of women and children’s rights can be easily defended rationally and I think it can be demonstrated as a good thing empirically in the sense that it contributes more to the widely accepted goals of most societies than the competing views. Again, this is not a perfect defense of such a principle. I’m not convinced such a perfect defense is possible. Some would argue God’s will or commandment to treat women and children as indiviuals with rights would be the perfect defense, be we here generally don’t agree. Others would say some semi-Platonic abstract principle regarding individual autonomy can be deduced logically like the laws of mathematics, and that would be a better defense, but I don’t find such arguments convincing. So I am left with acknowledging that moral principles, even those I feel strongly about personally, are to some degree relative. Yet in order to be a functioning moral agent in the real and imperfect world, I have to make moral judgements and act on them. For me, the best way to go about this is to combine my intuition (which I see as only the reflection of my biology, enculturation, and personal experiences) with rational analysis and reflection, and then to subject the resultant principle to criticism by others with different points of view. If the principle comes through as strong after such “vetting” I am confortable acting on it the way I act on the notion of gravity—as a provisional but highly likely true moral fact on which I can comfortably base my actions.

I apply a similar process to issues like the Iraq war, which I think is not only a demonstrable disaster on purely practical grounds but also a moral failure. I don’t believe I’ve applied such explicitly moral language to the vaccination issue, though I feel strongly about it and so may have colored my arguments with words having moral overtones. In general, I think of that as a more practical and scientific issue, and I distrust moral statements regarding it, especially since they usually are invocations of notions of individual rights or religious freedom as a license to endanger public health. Now, I guess my underlying presumption that public health is a good thing and that the rights of individuals to control their own bodies or their children’s do not include willfully endangering others without good reason is a moral principle, so I suppose in that sense I am making a moral argument of a sort. In any case, I understand that you feel some sort of moral language is necessary to have meaningful principles on which to base ones own actions and to carry out into the world, and I agree. I use the words good and evil all the time, and my position as a moral relativist doesn’t make this problematic for me any more than my scientific skepticism makes me doubt the reality of gravity. I try to be clear about how I come to my moral principles and I try to temper any tendancies to dogmatism, absolutism, or arrogance with, as you put it, moral humility, and I find recalling form time to time that other people may have come to their principles in ways juts as natural and legitimate as mine helpful in this. But I still see my moral principles as strong and legitimate to enact or promote.

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Posted: 15 May 2008 09:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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Doug,

Sorry, feeling long-winded today I guess. Occam must be tearing his hair out, if he hasn’t already put me on Ignore. grin


As for the question of taste, I think the line between differences of taste and moral disagreements is blurry. I would say choice of clothing is a difference in taste and differences about whether or not to rape other people is a moral disagreement. But there are those who consider what kind of clothing a woman wears a deeply moral question, so even the distinction between taste and moral opinion is hard to make definitively. I think that both are beliefs conditioned by the factors I have discussed, and the main difference is how strongly one feels about them and what sort of implications one reads into the choice in the context of a larger world view. I agree there is a difference, but where the line is drawn is tougher, IMHO, than you imply.

Anyway, as I told PN, I have no doubt the differences between our positions here are miniscule compared with the similarities and with the differences between our points of view and that of, sadly, most of the rest of our society. While such debate is helpful to me inclarifying and amending my pespective, I don’t want to get hung up on quibbles and overlook the far greater and more important congruity.

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Posted: 15 May 2008 10:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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Right, the difference between matters of taste and matters of ethics is a vague difference, like virtually everything in real life. It can be hard to pin down around the edges. But I’d say what that difference is is just that matters of taste are not generalizable or universalizable, while matters of ethics are, at least prima facie. Certainly there are hard cases, but all we really need for the purposes of argument is to understand that there are some easy cases as well.

I certainly agree with your point about moral truth-claims being provisional and always defeasible, and that in that, they are on all fours with scientific truth-claims. There is no royal road to moral epistemology, any more than there is a royal road towards scientific truth. I am sure Austin would agree with all that.

The overarching concern here is that there is no bridge of the is/ought gap. Moral truths cannot completely reduce to physical or biological (or theological) facts. Either there are brute moral facts or there are not. If there are, there is at least the possibility that we could figure out what they are. If there are not such facts, then moral talk is basically a form of emotive fictionalization, as illusory as the ogre under the bed that children dream up at night, and no argument made on moral grounds is ever sound. (Since it must always have at least one false premise). The logic here seems quite airtight; there is no middle ground.

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Posted: 15 May 2008 11:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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Either there are brute moral facts or there are not. If there are, there is at least the possibility that we could figure out what they are. If there are not such facts, then moral talk is basically a form of emotive fictionalization, as illusory as the ogre under the bed that children dream up at night, and no argument made on moral grounds is ever sound.

Sorry, I just don’t accept that. I’m not sure what constitutes a “moral brute fact” for you, but based on previous discussions I’m guessing it’s something like the Pythagoream Theorem- an unequivocal objective fact about the universe that is what it is regardless of what we think or believe about it. I can’t see how moral facts can be like that, and I have not yet heard a convincing argument about where they might be located or how they might be demonstrated to be true in the way that facts about the physical universe like the theorem are true, independant of our beliefs, biology, culture, etc. Yet you seem to say that if I’m right about that then moral reasoning is meaningless, a pointless game. That doesn’t follow.

If our lives and minds are purely physical, natural phenomena not connected to any external supernatural or eternal reality, that doesn’t make them any less meaningful or real to us no matter what the theists say, and it makes sense to live them as if they mattered and not just consider them the pointless games of robots or zombies. And if our moral principles are merely ideas we hold as a consequence of our biology, culture, and individual experiences and elaborated by reason, that does not make them any less real or important to us, and it makes sense to take them seriously and act on them regardless of whether they are justifiable by any reality external to our beliefs. The logic of Xeno’s paradox is airtight too, but it’s obviously and demonstrably nonsense. I can’t see how invalidating any moral argument based purely on human beliefs and the factors that condition them is reasonable or practical regardless of how logically one might get there. Maybe I’m missing something or over-reading you, but you seem surprisingly strong in the conviction that moral facts must either exist outside of human beliefs or they are meaningless, and that just doesn’t make sense to me.

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Posted: 15 May 2008 11:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]
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Okay, forget the “for fun” part.  Let’s say the future of the human race depends upon me and you torturing the hell out of one little baby.  It may be the prudential thing to do, but does that make it “right”?

Just to clarify,  I’m not a card-carrying relativist, though I do think relativism itself can be defended against some oft held detractions.

In your above example case, that the future of the human races depends on someone’s torturing a baby, you ask would the action be “right” even if it were found to be “prudential.”  Instead of answering that question directly, I think we should first recognize that the reasons for our actions, the ends or desires that motivate us to act, greatly affect the morality of the situation.
We must admit that there is an obvious moral difference between “torturing babies for fun” and torturing a baby to save the human race; or to take another example, between killing an animal for sport or killing an animal for food.  Certainly the end does justify the means in moral cases.  Otherwise we are stuck with Kant’s Categorical Imperative which is ridiculously unrealistic.

But to return to your original question, is the prudential action necessarily the moral action as well?  I would argue yes, ultimately, if we are going to peg morality to anything objective at all, then it should be to rationality.  In other words, I think that ultimately the “right” thing to do should always be defensible on rational grounds and the “wrong” thing to do should be condemnable on rational grounds too.  For example, the holocaust was the “wrong” thing to do from a rational point of view just as much as it was wrong from a “moral” point of view.

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Posted: 15 May 2008 11:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]
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Hi Brennen,

I don’t want this to devolve too far into another discussion of moral realism vs. relativism; we already have plenty of them on the site. Just a couple of points: Xeno’s paradox is not nonsense. Indeed, it is a proof that the number of points in a line is a higher order of infinity than the rational numbers. His argument is not airtight, however, in that the conclusion that Xeno proposed (that since we cannot do an infinite number of things in a finite time, that therefore we must be incapable of moving) is unsound, because the first premise (that we cannot do an infinite number of things in a finite time, viz., move through an uncountable infinity of points) is false. We actually do move through an uncountable infinity of points in a finite time. This may seem odd, except that finite time is just as divisible as finite space; Einstein’s work showed that space and time are simply two dimensions of the same stuff.

Crucially, the argument I provided about metaethics did not depend upon any particular reading of what constituted a “brute moral fact”. At base, it simply means that there are certain things that are moral facts, and that do not themselves follow from other non-moral facts. If you accept that there is an is/ought gap, then if there are moral facts, they must perforce fail to follow from non-moral facts. That is, they must be “brute” facts.

The claim that either there are moral facts or there are not seems to me pretty airtight. If there are not, then the claim that any argument of the form:

X is a moral fact
Doing Y would violate X
————————
Y is wrong

... would be unsound, because the first premise would be false. E.g.:

Universal human rights are moral facts
Keeping women in bondage would violate their human rights
——————
Keeping women in bondage is wrong

Since the first premise is false, the conclusion does not follow, and this becomes a bad argument.

I would honestly like to know how to get around this problem. I do not ask this because I want to rile things up here. I ask it because I genuinely do not see any solution here except some form of moral realism (perhaps a modified one whereby moral facts are not like Pythagorean Theorems) or simple moral nihilism. Where is the middle ground?

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Posted: 15 May 2008 12:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]
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Well, my point about Xeno’s Paradox was only that it is logically sound yet does not describe our actual experience, as I would say the idea that you’re wrestling with about how we justify moral facts also fails to do.

I guess I would just say that I think the definition of what constitute a fact adequate to make the logical argument you outline sound is key, and though I don’t accept the realist definitions I’ve heard so far, I don’t have a better alternative that would accomplish what you want and still be consistent with my idea of what moral principles really are. I’m able to live with the argument in the following form, even though it doesn’t accomplish what you’re asking for:

X is accepted provisionally as a moral fact despite some inevitable uncertainty
Doing Y would violate X
————————
Y is wrong


Universal human rights are a strong, defensible, and logically sound set of principles even if ultimately they are derived from biological and cultural belifes crtically examined and empirically validated
Keeping women in bondage would violate their human rights
———————
Keeping women in bondage is wrong.

The premise is not absolute or external to human beliefs and their causes, but that doesn’t invalidate it, so the argument is a reasonable one, if not logically bulletproof. Again, I don’t demand that degree of certainty and don’t think it’s attainable in really any domain since smart philosophers like you can make great arguments to demonstrate that I don’t actually exist anyway. grin

And one has to look at the whole picture. Declaring something a moral fact is, obviously, at least as problematic as dealing with the consequence of there potentially being no such thing. How one defends such a declaration is critical to its usefulness for moral reasoning. Most moral facts in most common world views are ultimately defended as based on somebody’s intuition, feelings, or the word of a supernatural being. We may feel better about reasoning downstream from such dicta if we declare them factual, but I’m not sure how we reliably do so, and the most common ways of doing so aren’t acceptable to either one of us. I find the uncertainty of reasoning from the best subjective set of principles I can derive less problematic than trying to derive unequivocal moral facts that I can then work from without question. Obviously, we feel differently here, and I don’t see a better solution either. But I sure do learn a lto from hashing through it, so I appreciate the challenges you present.

[ Edited: 15 May 2008 12:12 PM by mckenzievmd ]
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Posted: 15 May 2008 12:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]
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I thought I was listening to smooth jazz up until this last paragraph, then the needle abruptly sliced across the record:

dougsmith - 15 May 2008 10:10 AM

 
The overarching concern here is that there is no bridge of the is/ought gap. Moral truths cannot completely reduce to physical or biological (or theological) facts. Either there are brute moral facts or there are not. If there are, there is at least the possibility that we could figure out what they are. If there are not such facts, then moral talk is basically a form of emotive fictionalization, as illusory as the ogre under the bed that children dream up at night, and no argument made on moral grounds is ever sound. (Since it must always have at least one false premise). The logic here seems quite airtight; there is no middle ground.

Does the airtight logic here involve going from the notion of an unbridgeable is/ought gap to the notion that, either there are moral facts that can be figured out (here I read: objectively), or there are no moral facts and so “moral talk is basically a form of emotive fictionalization” (here I read: purely subjective)?

I’ve been railing this whole time about morality not being this cut-and-dried thing that can be labeled either purely subjective or purely objective and that we ought to get used to that…and I’m dumped on with the bland assertion that “there is no middle ground”?  Granted, the assertion is preceded by the claim that the “logic is airtight”…but I can hear some air leaking.  Specifically, the hole has to do with an equivocation on the use of the word “fact”.

My point is that if we talk about “moral facts”—which we don’t, except when we’re doing philosophy—we are not talking about “facts” in the ordinary sense.  We are importing this factual, object and designation, model of language use and thereby illicitly reifying moral norms.  We are then led to think (mistakenly in my view) that morality (and other social phenomena) can be studied and investigated with the same rigor and standards of objectivity as the other facts that our hard sciences of inanimate objects study.  And then, when some see the ridiculousness of such a project, they are led to recoil back in the extreme opposite direction, rejecting the notion that there really is any such thing as morality or moral norms at all.  I think both options are mistakes and I reject the suggestion that it is either/or.  Consider the following statements:

  1. It is a fact that gravitational acceleration on Earth is 9.8 m/sec2.

  2. It is a fact that there is a computer screen before me.

  3. It is a fact that it is wrong to torture babies.

  4. It is a fact that the Iraq War is immoral.

  5. It is a fact that chocolate is better than vanilla.

I see plenty of middle ground here.  These statements seem to be arranged in an order descending toward less and less objectivity.  Furthermore, only 1 and 2 seem to really make sense within the context of the qualifier “it is a fact that…”  Then what is the qualifier doing in the last three sentences?  It seems to be superfluous really, but perhaps could be seen as an attempt by the speaker to convey to the listener the seriousness of the claim they are making by importing the language of objectivity.  Statements 3-5 are not objective (in the sense of 1 and 2: designating a physical object or force); but for all that, statement 3 is clearly not subjective in the same way that statement 5 is either.  And Doug, you yourself made a similar point when you referred to the French saying: “chacon a son goût”—“to each his own taste”.  This should all lead us to be a bit suspicious—dare I say skeptical—of the whole either/or dichotomy.  But to boil it all down: Norms aren’t things.  That’s why the language of objectivity—of object and designation, fact and non-fact—loses its same application and meaning when it is incorporated into moral discourse.

[ Edited: 15 May 2008 01:17 PM by Pragmatic Naturalist ]
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Posted: 15 May 2008 12:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 30 ]
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Facts are just true propositions (or states of affairs referred to by true propositions, but this gets us into some unnecessary hair-splitting). When the french say “chacon a son goût” what they are implicitly saying is that your #5 is not a fact. It is purely a matter of personal taste or whim that chocolate is better than vanilla, hence it is true-for-X and false-for-Y, and not a fact at all, simpliciter.

I do agree with Brennen’s reformulation:

“X is accepted provisionally as a moral fact despite some inevitable uncertainty”

... it’s consistent with the earlier one, however. Mine was from an objective point of view (leaving aside how we know about these facts), while Brennen is writing from a more subjective point of view (assuming that we could be wrong).

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