Some objective moral truths?

by Harry on April 3, 2013

Matthew Hutson’s interesting article in yesterday’s Times has, in the print edition, the unfortunate tag “How much does psychology determine moral principles?: a lot”, which led me to think it was going to be about whether ought implies can. In fact it is about research showing what anyone who teaches moral philosophy already knows, which is that people get confused the first time they encounter trolley-type problems:

For a recent paper to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, subjects were made to think either abstractly or concretely — say, by writing about the distant or near future. Those who were primed to think abstractly were more accepting of a hypothetical surgery that would kill a man so that one of his glands could be used to save thousands of others from a deadly disease. In other words, a very simple manipulation of mind-set that did not change the specifics of the case led to very different responses…..

Other recent research shows similar results: stressing subjects, rushing them or reminding them of their mortality all reduce utilitarian responses, most likely by preventing them from controlling their emotions.

Even the way a scenario is worded can influence our judgments, as lawyers and politicians well know. In one study, subjects read a number of variations of the classic trolley dilemma: should you turn a runaway trolley away from five people and onto a track with only one? When flipping the switch was described as saving the people on the first track, subjects tended to support it. When it was described as killing someone on the second, they did not. Same situation, different answers.

I haven’t read the papers he refers to, but I’d be impressed if it established either of the claims he asserts toward the end of the article:

Objective moral truth doesn’t exist, and these studies show that even if it did, our grasp of it would be tenuous.

There are, in fact, some objective moral truths. Personally, I think there are lots of them. And, in fact, our grasp of most of them is far from tenuous. Here are four objective moral truths:

Human suffering is bad

Torturing human babies simply for personal enjoyment is wrong

Deception that is much more likely to bring harm than benefits is bad

Being kind to people is good

Comments will probably attract nitpickers who want to deny one or another for these, or say that they simply express “western” values, or something like that, but all the statements are, in fact, true. The fact that stressing subjects, or reframing a problem, leads people to change their responses does not show that there are no right answers, on moral matters any more than on scientific or basic reasoning matters.

It also doesn’t show that our grasp of moral truth is tenuous. Lots of moral truths are completely obvious, and people have no problem with them. The point of varying the trolley problems is precisely to elicit confusion and inconsistency, by emphasizing different of the (very real) values that are at stake in the problems, which conflict in the circumstances described (as values do in many actual choices situations). The practice of designing and varying thought experiments is a tool for alerting us to what the conflicts are in a choice situation helping us to weigh them when we are forced, by the world, to make trade-offs. Our grasp of many of the values themselves—the objective moral truths—is not tenuous at all; under pressure it is difficult to identify all the morally salient features of a situation, and regardless of pressure it is difficult to weigh them in the circumstances.

{ 348 comments }

1

Martian 04.03.13 at 1:50 pm

Your 4 examples are ignoring individual perspectives / filters.
For example, in the 3rd one, different people will have completely different ideas about harm and benefits, and will weight factors affecting them / their community higher than those affecting strangers.
Alternatively, in the 1st one you’ve taken a very narrow viewpoint – a parent sending their child off to school for the first time experiences suffering, as probably does the child…but very few people would say that school is bad.
2 and 4 are arguably more universal, but I suspect a logical argument could be created that puts doubt on even their universality…

As an initial response, I would tend to disagree with your conclusion – I think humanity displays too great a range of opinions/perspectives/filters/behaviours for truly objective moral truths to exist. I’ll also note that yours display a very Caucasian-Western bias…understandably so, but a clear example of your personal filters…

2

Alex Knapp 04.03.13 at 2:05 pm

I have said this before and I’ll say it again: the reason why ‘trolley problems’ trip people up is because they’re divorced from reality. I’ll go further – they’re stupid.

Every trolley scenario has more practical options that philosophers and psychologists don’t allow their subjects to choose from, leading them to conclude that people are bad moral thinkers. But they actually just show that psychologists and philosophers possess limited imaginations for helping people during emergency situations.

3

Duncan 04.03.13 at 2:10 pm

a parent sending their child off to school for the first time experiences suffering, as probably does the child…but very few people would say that school is bad.

Correct. But Harry’s claim is that human suffering is bad, not that school is bad. Nor that everything associated with suffering is bad, or that the badness of suffering is never outweighed by anything good. So this isn’t a relevant counterexample.

different people will have completely different ideas about harm and benefits, and will weight factors affecting them / their community higher than those affecting strangers.

Again, this is true. But how does it show that deception that is likely to bring more harm than benefit is not bad? Or that it is not objectively true that such deception is bad?

4

Bob Pendleton 04.03.13 at 2:12 pm

I would have agreed with you before I read Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind.” Now I think Matthew Hutson has the more accurate view: moral judgments do depend upon some mix of psychologically defined moral values.

5

areanimator 04.03.13 at 2:20 pm

Those “objective truths” are not objective as much as they are tautological, distilling down to “bad things are bad”. They are simply artifacts of a synonym-laden language, where “bad things” is a set containing a number of elements such as “causing suffering” and “eating babies”, whereas “good things” is a set containing elements such as “being kind to people”. Pointing out that “something we define as good” is in fact a subset of “good things” is just playing with language. And even if this proves that there are in fact “objective moral truths”, it also means that there is no such thing as objective ethics that flow naturally from these truths, because of the situational, context-dependent and downright arbitrary way various behaviors, situations and activities get placed in the “bad things” or “good things” categories. Which renders the truths themselves rather impotent.

6

Lawrence Stuart 04.03.13 at 2:47 pm

#1 Who defines ‘suffering?’ Seriously, come down to my dungeon my little worm and I’ll teach you to love kinds of pain you never knew even existed … .

#2 Is just a subset of #1: a kind of bad suffering. So I’d give you this: human suffering is sometimes bad. But doesn’t that conditional ‘sometimes’ take us a long, long way from ‘objective’ morality?

#3 Again with the modifiers and conditionals: ‘much,’ ‘more,’ ‘likely.’ And what is the standard by which you judge ‘harm’ and ‘benefits?’ Just for example, what is the time frame in which harm and benefits are to be situated — as in long run v. short term? Then there’s cruel to be kind, ‘noble lies,’ and all that.

#4 I think it’s true. But is it objectively good? I don’t know what that word (objectively) means here. To posit kindness (‘do unto others’, really, not?) as a categorical imperative makes moral sense. But objective? What is that?

So maybe that’s my problem with what you are saying. These things you list as obvious moral truths are that: obvious, commonplace, widely held, etc. But they exist more as tautologies or even platitudes that really only acquire meaningful content when they are tested in some way by particular cases (as in the trolley experiment). So I guess I’m not buying the leap from obvious, etc. to ‘objective,’ or at least not in the way you have framed it here.

7

Sebastian H 04.03.13 at 2:56 pm

Maybe you perceive them as tautologies because they are true.

I find it weird that the same people who use far fetched trolley experiments to suggest that objective morality doesn’t exist strongly resist obvious conclusions of their alleged views: that murder, rape, slave owning and torture are no big deal. They react almost as if those things are wrong.

8

Harald K 04.03.13 at 3:06 pm

Never met a trolly problem that showed me anything new about my priorities. I’ve come up with one myself though, which like all trolly problems aims to bring moral discomfort to someone, this time self-professed moral relativists. It does not contain an actual trolley, but there’s a reason I’ve been calling them trolly problems, not trolley.

(I hope it’s sufficiently on topic? I’ve been looking for an excuse to show this one to someone.) Warning: Trolly problem.

It goes like this. Suppose you’re a neurosurgeon. The world’s foremost neurosurgeon, in fact. Your knowledge and understanding of the human brain is second to none. One day as you’re studying the meaty bits related to morality and conscience, you have a shocking insight: You could (with the help of your high-tech programmable brain surgery robots) turn yourself into a high-functioning psychopath, effectively removing your conscience.

You’ve worked it all out. If you do the procedure, you will never again feel guilty or ashamed about anything you do. However, you will still have a detached and fully developed understanding of these concepts. You won’t accidentally hurt your spouses’ feelings with your newly developed amorality, because you will understand perfectly well what moral behavior people expect of you. If you deem it more conductive to your own happiness to act empathetic towards your loved ones, you can keep doing it. You’ll still love them, in a sense. But you could also chose to stop loving them in an instant if it would make you unhappy – say, if they were in a terrible accident, or you saw better opportunities for happiness elsewhere. You could even kill them if you found (with your powerful intellect, remember) that this was the wisest course of action.

The procedure would be undetectable to anyone but you (you’re miles ahead of everyone in neurosurgery, after all). They’d never know. It would also be perfectly safe.

Just as a bonus, you think that the operation would increase your intelligence slightly, and your ability to take happiness in art, beauty and intellectual pursuits.

Now, would you take this surgery? Of course, right now you would be deeply uncomfortable with the thought, but you also know this discomfort will vanish like the memory of a bad dream the moment you do the operation. Seems rather silly to not to, right?

If you wouldn’t, you act as if you believe in absolute moral truths, whether you admit it or not. At that point I don’t care much about your intellectual justifications for not believing in it.

9

mdc 04.03.13 at 3:10 pm

@areanimater: this would make genuine moral disagreement impossible.

10

gnash 04.03.13 at 3:20 pm

@Harald K (8): I don’t see how your conclusion about believing in absolute moral truths follows. I conclude something very different: If you wouldn’t, you probably don’t believe that all human suffering is bad. You probably believe that some forms of suffering (like guilt or grief) make life more meaningful.

11

JSE 04.03.13 at 3:40 pm

I took “Objective moral truth doesn’t exist” to mean not “there are no moral statements whose truth is a matter of objective fact” but “There is no objective method of assigning truth or falsity to ALL moral statements.”

12

mpowell 04.03.13 at 3:44 pm

Stuart @ 6: I disagree with your claim in general, but specifically the class of trolley problems is a particularly bad example to make your point. As Harry say, these problems are difficult precisely because they place moral values in conflict with one another. That they are difficult does nothing to show that absolute moral values don’t exist.

13

mpowell 04.03.13 at 3:46 pm

JSE @ 11: That’s an interesting point, but I think it’s pretty clear that’s not the definition Harry is talking about (or that people are disagreeing with him based on).

14

areanimator 04.03.13 at 4:17 pm

@mdc: That depends entirely on what you mean by “genuine”. A moral disagreement would, in my view, simply entail a difference in ethical judgement. People don’t usually disagree on what label to attach to a phenomenon, but there is considerable disagreement on what to do once the label is there – what is the appropriate action to take. For instance, observation studies of consultations with doctors found that most patients had no trouble accepting the diagnosis “label”, but had a lot to say in regards to the proposed treatment, based on said diagnosis. Even if we did construct statements that were “objective moral truths”, the difficulty would then arise in interpreting those statements into concrete action. For instance, given that human suffering is bad, how am I to act in order to alleviate, prevent, or minimize it? That is, I suspect, the reason trolley problems are perceived as difficult – because they contain an element of personal responsibility and accountability alongside that of abstract moral reasoning.

15

FuzzyFace 04.03.13 at 4:22 pm

Just intoning some things that you believe doesn’t make them moral absolutes. Take “human suffering is bad.” What do you do with that? Do you declare that since some people are starving, that it is therefore always right and proper to confiscate property from others who have more than they need to alleviate their own suffering? Do you determine that an accumulation of wealth might be used to alleviate more suffering in the future, and therefore you should allow people in the here and now to suffer?

Ultimately, you have to ask, what makes these things bad beyond that fact that you (and presumably, many others) don’t like them?

16

David 04.03.13 at 4:31 pm

What annoys me about this very old, very tedious debate is that I always get the sense that people who argue for objective moral truths believe that belief in objective moral truths is a moral imperative! That people who follow the more Nietzschean line are just being childish, or obtuse contrarians.

17

Wonks Anonymous 04.03.13 at 4:34 pm

None of those statements pay rent.

18

gnash 04.03.13 at 4:46 pm

Besides the tautology issue, Harry’s four statements don’t belong in the same category.

A1 (“Human suffering is bad”) describes a condidion, not an action. I am not convinced it’s a moral statement at all. As areanimator @14 pointed out, there is a big leap from that to statements about actions (and then those are not only controversial but also relevant to consequentialists only).

A2 (“Torturing human babies simply for personal enjoyment is wrong”) is about actions, but as worded, it is about motivations for actions. Would A2′ (“Torturing human babies is wrong”) be equally objective truth? I suppose a pure deontologist would make a difference, but as a consequentialist, I don’t see why personal enjoyment matters. But what about A2” (“Torturing humans is wrong”)? What makes A2 or A2′ more “objectively true” than A2”? I can’t see any objective criterion behind that. But, if A2” is “objective moral truth”, why not use it in the first place? Probably because it’s easy to find enough people who might disagree…

A3 (“Deception that is much more likely to bring harm than benefits is bad”) would necessarily follow if we accepted A3′ (“Any action X that is much more likely to bring harm than benefits is bad”), and I think one would have to be an extreme anti-consequentialist to insist that A3′ doesn’t follow from A3” (“Harms are worse than benefits”), which I would regard as a tautology. So I think A3 is a corollary of a tautology. Moreover, I think that (A3”=>A3′=>A3) is less controversial than whether any of these statements are moral truths.

A4 (“Being kind to people is good”) is as tautological as any moral statement gets. It either defines “kind” or it defines “good”. And note that “good” in A4 is different from “good” in A1: Being kind to people is morally good, because it leads to the good condition of reduced human suffering. (God bless you, Dr. Kevorkian!)

19

js. 04.03.13 at 4:47 pm

One thing that lots of people seem to be missing is that the claim, “There are no objective moral truths”, is quite distinct from the claim “There are no true general moral principles”. You don’t show the former to be false by arguing against the latter (notwithstanding Harry’s examples, which I mostly actually agree with). See, e.g., moral particularism (SEP) for more.

20

Sebastian H 04.03.13 at 4:57 pm

Maybe I don’t understand what ‘objective’ is supposed to be doing in the discussion.

There are moral truths. We grapple with them subjectively just like we do with all truths, because humans deal with things through their own brains and not the brains of other people. That fact no more calls into question the existence of moral truths than it calls into question the existence of gravity. You may decide you have compelling reasons not to believe in moral or gravitational truths, but the fact that you experience them through your own subjective lens is not one of them. (Or at least no more fore morals than any other field of knowledge).

21

David 04.03.13 at 4:59 pm

“That fact no more calls into question the existence of moral truths than it calls into question the existence of gravity.”

That is so exactly the wrong analogy. Bravo~

22

roger nowosielski 04.03.13 at 5:00 pm

What I find rather sterile about this kind of discussion is that it lacks proper context. Morality is like a fabric of our lives in that if affects (or ought to affect) almost everything we say or do, and it is there, in our ordinary and or professional lives where it is interesting and where it counts the most. In any case, this discussion seems to revolve around the question of the relativity of morals, a dead (philosophical) horse.

I’m a Wittgensteinian, anyway, and I would argue that moral truths reside in, are the property of, our language.

23

Manta 04.03.13 at 5:21 pm

Isn’t asceticism based (at least in part) on the idea that human suffering is not, after all, bad? And what about masochism?

24

Patrick 04.03.13 at 5:35 pm

There are no objective moral truths for the same reason, and to the same extent, that there are no objectively delicious foods, or objectively cute babies.

25

Substance McGravitas 04.03.13 at 5:45 pm

Human suffering is bad

I wonder what a lion thinks of that.

26

Kevin McDonough 04.03.13 at 6:00 pm

Some of the examples being offered here against the objective truth of morality confuse a distinction between three distinct claims:

a. X is (objectively) bad.

b. X is (objectively) totally bad.

c. Objective bad, X, can never lead to (be instrumental to) some (possibly subjective) good Y.

The asceticism example and some others offered would be counterexamples if Harry were claiming b and c. But he’s not .

27

geo 04.03.13 at 6:08 pm

#24 seems to me exactly right. Would you please expand that comment a bit, Patrick?

28

Kevin McDonough 04.03.13 at 6:11 pm

The most straightforward way of reading Patrick’s claim, given the comparison group, is that moral claims are simply matters of personal taste. Why does that strike you as exactly right geo?

29

Trader Joe 04.03.13 at 6:14 pm

In good Trolley problem fashion:

A government (feel free to provide your own nation state) has captured a “terrorist or freedom fighter” who knows the location of a time-bomb planted somewhere in a major city that when detonated would be sure to kill a huge number of innocent people. There is, of course, limited time to act. You are the in charge of the interrogation and are presented with a variety of options including:

1) Torture him until he breaks in which case the human suffering of the terrorist might not be regarded as unequivocally bad (But human suffering is bad)
2) The terrorist has a sister with a 6 month old child. The secret police employ a sick puppy who would actually enjoy torturing both the sister and the baby until the terrorist breaks. (But torturing human babies for enjoyment is wrong)
3) Tell the terrorist that you know his organization has weapons of mass destruction and that if he doesn’t tell where the bomb is you will mobilize an invasion army at the cost of more than $1 trillion and shoot everything that moves until the weapons are found (But deception that is more likely to bring harm than good is bad).
4) Simply be kind to the terrorist and hope he will see the error of his ways in time to defuse the bomb (Being kind to people is always good)

Some like to say that morality is not relative, it is absolute, which is why we can discuss what constitutes a “Moral Truth.”

A trolley problem inherently asks the decider to make a relative judgement – i.e. 1 death or 5 deaths, one tortured baby or hundreds of deaths. For these reasons I think, at a minimum, a trolley problem is the wrong measuring device to weigh attitudes about moral truth.

Hopefully most agree that torture, murder, rape etc. are inherently bad and morally wrong even if one can find applications (as the above trolley problem) in which they may be less morally bad than alternatives (i.e. 1 murder better than 2).

30

David 04.03.13 at 6:16 pm

I can imagine a world in which God is objectively real, and objectively not real.

Can anyone here imagine a world where objective morality is real, and another where objective morality is unreal? How do they differ?

31

Bloix 04.03.13 at 6:17 pm

In the four statements, the words “good,” “bad,” and “wrong” appear to have no content. At most, “good” appears to mean “I and other proper-thinking people are in favor of this” and “bad” and “wrong” appear to mean “I and other proper-thinking people are not in favor of this.” But how does one determine whether other people are proper-thinking or not? Why, if they don’t agree with me as to these and similar statements, they are not! Pure tautology.

It’s like saying, “The Grateful Dead suck!” And then, if someone says, “I like the Dead,” you say, “Well, you suck!” There’s nothing there other than the expression of a personal preference plus the refusal to concede that someone else might have a different preference, masquerading as a claim to objective truth.

Which is not to say that I personally don’t agree with the statements and to disagree with other, competing statements. (E.g., the suffering of our enemies is good! deception that brings harm to our enemies is good!) But I don’t know the source of knowledge that permits me to decide to agree or disagree with them. And saying things like “in fact” or “objective” doesn’t explain the source of the knowledge.

I’m pretty confident that I reject the systems I’m aware of that claim to be able to supply a source of such knowledge: various religions, Marxism, utilitarianism, etc. So I’m left with, I believe in moral truth as a matter of convention. Which is not satisfying at all. But still, I believe in it. It’s a mystery.

32

Kevin McDonough 04.03.13 at 6:34 pm

To pivot from the admittedly tedious moral relativism/non-relativism debate, I suppose that the main point in the OP is simply that trolley-type problems are useful to the extent that they prompt us to think more deeply about the complexities involved in moral deliberation and judgement (note, interestingly, that Harry does NOT claim that there are any objectively true moral judgments in particular cases, though I’m interested in whether he does believe this and if so why). It seems to me that most the examples given in the thread actually support this claim, even though I do not believe they do anything to undermine the claim about the existence of objective moral truths. For example — the asceticism example certainly illustrates that making judgments about the value or disvalue of an ascetic life would have to take account of conflicting values, multiple morally salient features, etc. etc. All things that the OP also acknowledges.

33

Manta 04.03.13 at 6:50 pm

Kevin, I am not entirely convinced by your answer: in particular, is the statement
“X is bad” nothing more than
“most of the time and depending on the circumstances, X is bad”?

Because the latter statement seems to fall in the category of things that are not even false.

34

Bloix 04.03.13 at 6:53 pm

#24 – “There are no objective moral truths for the same reason, and to the same extent, that there are no objectively delicious foods, or objectively cute babies.”

Babies are cute for the same reason that sex is fun. If people didn’t find babies to be cute, they wouldn’t devote so much energy into taking care of them, and the babies would die. An innate positive emotional response to infants is a trait that tends to increase reproductive success, and so evolution tends to produce people who have that trait.

So cuteness is not a property of babies. Perception of cuteness is a property of adults.

And food is the same. We have evolved extremely sensitive detection devices in our noses and mouths which can identify hundreds of thousands of different chemicals, in very low concentrations. We have evolved preferences for some and repulsion for others, because expenditure of energy to obtain foods with some chemicals in them increases the odds of survival, as does avoidance of other chemicals. Foods that are delicious are foods that combine such innate chemical preferences in a way that, through cultural mediation, we find pleasing. So once again, “This food is delicious” tells us nothing about the food. It merely means “I like this food very much.”

But when we say, “X is an objective moral truth,” we do not think we are saying, “I have an innate belief in X because a belief in X tended to increase my forebears’ odds of surviving and raising children.” Or, “I believe in X because people have evolved an innate ability to believe in abstractions about behavior, and X is an abstraction that my culture has developed for people like me to believe in.” No, we think we are saying something about X that is distinct from us, our evolutionary past, our culture.

And I’m not at all sure how one would go about proving that what we think we are saying is true.

35

geo 04.03.13 at 6:53 pm

Kevin @28: simply matters of personal taste

Moral judgments are more complicated than judgments about what’s cute or delicious, but they’re subjective in the same way. That is, they all derive from dispositions, assumptions, preferences, perspectives, capacities, inclinations, memories, appetites — from our whole being — which can’t be made wholly explicit, much less fully justified. Of course we (at least some we’s) have a lot in common, so we can argue about what’s good, just as we can argue about food. But if we encounter an alien civilization, we can be sure that we’ll eventually agree about Newton’s or Maxwell’s Law, or at least fully understand one another. We can’t be equally sure that they’ll ever fully understand, much less agree with, our morality(ies). Perhaps that’s a useful way to define “objective moral truth”: something you can demonstrate to a being who shares no history, culture, or biology with you.

36

Kevin McDonough 04.03.13 at 7:01 pm

Manta, statements of the form “X is bad” simply pick out features of a situation – values – that should be taken into account in making moral judgments. Once you get into statements of the form “most of the time, depending on circumstances” you are involved in moral deliberation about multiple, conflicting values – deliberations that require an ‘all things considered’ judgment. It is possible to say that there are ‘objective moral truths’ without saying that any single one of them determines moral judgments under every conceivable circumstance. I take that to be Harry’s point, though he can correct me if I”m wrong.

37

David 04.03.13 at 7:03 pm

Even an imagined/constructed morality cannot be logically sound unless it falls back on at least one value that is held to be supreme.

38

Kevin McDonough 04.03.13 at 7:09 pm

geo at 35: That’s an interesting elaboration of the point, thanks. I do think, though, that it gets rather far away from the OP’s claims, which seem simply to be asserting the existence of ‘moral facts’ rather than the objectivity of moral judgments. It is an interesting and complicated question as to what would need to be shown to demonstrate objectivity in moral judgment — would it really require us to demonstrate something to a being with whom we share no biology? That seems to be standard that we wouldn’t even require of facts about the natural world? Why would this be a criterion of objectivity for morality?

But, as I say, this strikes me as a hugely complicated question.

39

bourbaki 04.03.13 at 7:10 pm

Is it perhaps useful to distinguish between ‘morals’ and ‘ethics’ (I’ve never studied philosophy and so apologize if this is at odds with technical meanings).

To me an action (and it seems to me only actions can have such a label) be would be moral (or immoral or neither) if one could make such a judgement absent of context. On the other hand ethics would relate to more complex (and subjective) context for an action. For instance, to kill someone is an immoral act, but to do so in self-defense might be an ethical act (or at least not an unethical one).

I’m not sure this distinction matters and I’m also not convinced there really are objectively moral or immoral actions…

40

bourbaki 04.03.13 at 7:13 pm

In the same vein, being kind to someone might be a moral act, but being nepotistic would certainly be unethical…

41

Marc 04.03.13 at 7:13 pm

Humans evolved in social groups. There are behaviors that are sufficiently destructive that they are taboo across a wide range of times and cultures – murder or incest, for example. There can be extreme circumstances – such as war, or self-defense – where one can suspend even the strongest of these (that against murder). Some can be relaxed for outsiders (again, war.) This doesn’t change the existence of some deep principles that are nearly universal.

If you want a shorter: The Golden Rule is pretty straightforward as a moral guideline.

42

Mao Cheng Ji 04.03.13 at 7:15 pm

Our social being determines our consciousness.

43

Trader Joe 04.03.13 at 7:23 pm

Bourbaki@ 39
You have it right. An act such as Murder, Rape, Torture etc. is morally wrong. As an absolute, deviod of context, even a caveman or an alien would see these truths.

However, as you note, there can be situations where a spectrum of people would hold that any of these acts is “ethically” sound. Torture to avoid murder. Murder to put a suffering being out of its misery, the list goes on…these are ethical questions for which there is no ‘right’ answer, but for which society might form a weak or strong consensus opinion (think of abortion as an example where there is a range of societal opinion as to whether the act qualifies as murder before even discussing if its a justifiable murder).

This is where these absolutes differ from opinions about foods or cute babies. There is both no underpinning absolute morality nor is there any consequence from the fact that there is not.

44

Patrick 04.03.13 at 7:35 pm

geo- as Bloix said above, cuteness is not a property of babies. Perception of cuteness is a property of humans.

And the thing is, that’s an objective fact. We (by and large) really do perceive cuteness. We may tell ourselves that the baby “is” cute, but what is at issue is our perceptions and emotional reactions. And while the baby’s cuteness may not truly be an objective attribute of the baby unless you abstract out to cuteness as “causes humans, by and large, to have a particular emotional reaction,” the propensity to have that is an objective trait of the human observing the baby.

Morality is the same. Murder does not have an objective trait of “wrongness.” I, however, do have an objective trait of emotionally reacting a particular way to murder. And that trait is, at least in part, a result of the physical reality of being human, much like the propensity to find baby’s cute.

Or I suppose you could reject all of that because someone bellows “Murder is objectively wrong! It just is!” with fire in their eyes. Which would also be a pretty human response to the suggestion that we regularly confuse our reactions to things with traits of the things themselves, particularly on issues we find most emotionally important.

45

David 04.03.13 at 7:37 pm

“I, however, do have an objective trait of emotionally reacting a particular way to murder.”

But there are also human beings who legitimately enjoy committing murder, no?

46

geo 04.03.13 at 7:41 pm

Kevin @38 (and Harry): Is it true that in science “objectively true (valid, demonstrable, factual)” only means “for humans”? Doesn’t the thrust to “formalize” mean eliminating all reliance on intuition, common sense, history, culture, biology — everything individual and contingent? Leaving aside the question of whether this is possible — whether “objective” or “absolute” truth exists even in science — isn’t it what we mean by “objective”?

47

Manta 04.03.13 at 7:41 pm

I think that a statement like “murder is bad” *can* be falsified: if there is a tribe where people are supposed to kill some member of some other tribe, where such killing is considered a moral thing, wouldn’t this falsify such statement?
Now, is there someone with some expertise (at least, more expertise than me) in anthropology and/or history that can tell us if such tribe exists?
For instance, would the Spartans qualify?

48

Manta 04.03.13 at 7:45 pm

Actually, isn’t it quite common in history of man that the correct statement not “murdering is bad” but
“murdering someone of your tribe/city/people is bad: killing strangers is perfectly fine”?

And by the way: babies are ugly.

49

phosphorious 04.03.13 at 7:45 pm

“cuteness is not a property of babies. Perception of cuteness is a property of humans. “

I’m not so sure about this: “Sweetness is not a property of sugar; Perception of sweetness is a prperty of tasters.” That’s right in one way, but quite wrong in another: if you fail to taste the sweetness of sugar that is known to be present, there’s something wrong with your tongue, not the sugar.

When we perceive the cuteness of the bay, there is presumably some objective feature of the bay that triggers the cute-response.

50

David 04.03.13 at 7:47 pm

“Actually, isn’t it quite common in history of man that the correct statement not “murdering is bad” but
“murdering someone of your tribe/city/people is bad: killing strangers is perfectly fine”?”

Right. That to me is the most helpful way of thinking of morality and where it comes from: morality is the attempt to force each individual, through complex and ingrained programming, to behave in the way that best benefits the group.

51

geo 04.03.13 at 7:48 pm

Patrick @43: the propensity to have that is an objective trait of the human observing the baby … an objective trait of emotionally reacting a particular way to murder

Goodness, if that’s what “objective” means, then what does “subjective” mean? It may be (objectively) true that most people will find most babies cute, or that most people will find murder wrong. But those aren’t moral truths, they’re statistical or sociological truths.

52

Marc 04.03.13 at 7:51 pm

We are not immune from natural selection and we evolved as social animals. The fear of snakes and spiders has evolutionary logic too, even if some people don’t experience it.

53

MPAVictoria 04.03.13 at 8:01 pm

“I think that a statement like “murder is bad” *can* be falsified: if there is a tribe where people are supposed to kill some member of some other tribe, where such killing is considered a moral thing, wouldn’t this falsify such statement?”

Not all killing is murder.

54

Kevin McDonough 04.03.13 at 8:01 pm

geo @ 45: Not answering for HB, but now it’s clear that the meaning of objectivity is really at the root of any disagreement (if that is what it is). I am not prepared to get into a discussion of what objectivity might mean (or if there is only one sense in which humans mean by that term, which strikes me as very unlikely). But, again, to say that something is a moral fact — e.g. ‘human suffering is bad’ — strikes me as simply saying that something in the world beyond mere individual taste makes the statement morally true (including things that depend on human biology!). Obviously, a lot more could be said about what sense of objectivity is in play here, but by the same token it strikes me as unreasonable to suggest that the only plausible use of objectivity requires all the formalizing moves you list above.

55

js. 04.03.13 at 8:04 pm

geo:

Is it true that in science “objectively true (valid, demonstrable, factual)” only means “for humans”? Doesn’t the thrust to “formalize” mean eliminating all reliance on intuition, common sense, history, culture, biology — everything individual and contingent? Leaving aside the question of whether this is possible — whether “objective” or “absolute” truth exists even in science — isn’t it what we mean by “objective”?

It’s certainly true that several strains in the history of philosophy (to speak of what I know) have held out for such a conception of objectivity. But I don’t see why one should be forced to accept it. There’s a perfectly good objective/subjective distinction that we can make without somehow trying to entirely leave behind the human standpoint and human concerns, etc.—a distinction (or a set of related distinctions) that allows us make rationally grounded criticisms of individual attitudes or actions. And isn’t that why we want a usable notion of objectivity?

How would this work? Well, there’s more than one way, quite possibly, but phosphorius’ example (48) is a perfectly good one I think. Secondary qualities like taste, color, etc., can only be made sense of with reference to the human perceptual apparatus. That doesn’t at all foreclose the possibility of evaluating someone’s discriminations of taste or color as defective.

(Also, what Kevin McDonough said at 26. There’s a fair bit of arguing against straw men going on in this thread. Not intentionally, I don’t think; just that people might be missing what a claim to objectivity amounts to.)

56

Manta 04.03.13 at 8:10 pm

victoria@52: in this context, your distinction seems a true Scotman thing:

Real murder is bad, and any instance when it’s not bad then it’s not really murder.
Said otherwise: if you define “murder: the kind of killing that is bad”, the statement “murder is bad” becomes a tautology: true, but useless.

57

mdc 04.03.13 at 8:26 pm

Do all ya’ll ‘no objective moral truth’ folks also hold that there are no moral falsehoods?

58

MPAVictoria 04.03.13 at 8:47 pm

“Real murder is bad, and any instance when it’s not bad then it’s not really murder.
Said otherwise: if you define “murder: the kind of killing that is bad”, the statement “murder is bad” becomes a tautology: true, but useless.”

Not really sure about this Manta. No one said all killing was bad and I see no reason why we cannot agree that murder is unjustified killing and unjustified killing is objectively bad.

59

geo 04.03.13 at 8:51 pm

js @54: And isn’t that why we want a usable notion of objectivity?

Yes, that’s what we want: a notion that will allow us to make necessary distinctions; a usable definition. We can all agree that the word “objective” does useful work in a sentence like: “Recruiting government regulators from the industry they are being hired to regulate and to which they will likely return after leaving government is not the best way to insure objective policymaking.” But I don’t see what useful work it does in the sentence: “That murder is wrong is not merely my opinion and the general — in fact near-universal — opinion among human beings; it is an objective moral truth.”

60

Manta 04.03.13 at 8:58 pm

Victoria @57
No, we don’t agree on that: we can agree that unjustified killing is bad, but what “objectively” mean? I am not sure what you or Harry means by it, but I say this: we agree that unjustified killing is bad because we come from the same culture, with its deeply ingrained Christian values.To claim that it is objectively true it seems to me that you would have to show (at least) that people from very different cultures would come to the same conclusion: that’s the reason why I asked about examples from history and anthropology.

For instance, the Spartan killing the Helots to keep them down would be murdering them?

(Also: what “justified” means here? Without reason? Then Alice killing Bob to get his possessions would be justified. Or is it a tautology again: a killing is justified unless it’s bad?)

61

mud man 04.03.13 at 9:07 pm

@Harry: Rank platonism. You can try to defend “human universal” if you dare.

62

David 04.03.13 at 9:32 pm

“For instance, the Spartan killing the Helots to keep them down would be murdering them?”

The more salient question re: Spartans and Helots is: If oppressing the Helots improved the Spartan lifestyle in material and, frankly, psychological ways, why should the Spartans CARE that it was wrong?

63

Mao Cheng Ji 04.03.13 at 9:36 pm

“Human suffering is bad” strikes me as a very simplistic view. Suffering is a human condition. The easiest way to avoid sufferings would be hook everyone up to an IV with heroine. Or sedate and kill them.

64

MPAVictoria 04.03.13 at 9:46 pm

“For instance, the Spartan killing the Helots to keep them down would be murdering them?”

Good point.

How about we just go with Kant and “act so as to treat people always as ends in themselves, never as mere means”
That seems to me that it might be an objective moral truth.

65

bourbaki 04.03.13 at 9:52 pm

Is suicide an immoral act?

66

Lawrence Stuart 04.03.13 at 9:53 pm

@12 mpowell : “I disagree with your claim in general, but specifically the class of trolley problems is a particularly bad example to make your point. As Harry say, these problems are difficult precisely because they place moral values in conflict with one another. That they are difficult does nothing to show that absolute moral values don’t exist.”

I take your point. The trolley problems are hugely manipulative and unfair. And the intractability of the dilemmas in them point out the importance of the competing moral claims with which the subject if presented. Moreover, thanks to the discussion here (thank you Mr. McDonough), I see more clearly the distinction between moral ‘facts’ and moral ‘judgements.’ But I’d still maintain that those moral ‘facts’ are moral beliefs, which doesn’t make them any less meaningful (powerful!) than an ‘objective’ moral truth. But it does, it seems to me, make them more amenable to historicization: one is not left dragging a metaphysical ball and chain.

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js. 04.03.13 at 9:58 pm

But I don’t see what useful work it does in the sentence: “That murder is wrong is not merely my opinion and the general — in fact near-universal — opinion among human beings; it is an objective moral truth.”

General opinion, near-universal opinion even, can be and often has been wrong, so it doesn’t well serve as a basis for rationally grounded criticism. That’s why one needs a notion of objectivity, I’d think.

In any case, I’m not that interested in defending “That murder is wrong is an objective moral truth” (which sounds a bit like a tautology to me frankly).

Take someone who wholly insensitive to the suffering of others. Is all we can say here: well, some people, most people, even almost all people are sensitive to (at least some) suffering of (at least some) others, but this one here is not—two distinct brute psychological facts or propensities, and that’s really all there is to it. Or can we say: there’s something about human suffering itself that people ought to be sensitive to, and insofar as someone displays no such sensitivity they are open to criticism for being insensitive to morally relevant features of the world. I think we can say the latter, and it’s why we need a notion of objectivity.

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Manta 04.03.13 at 10:11 pm

David @62, from the classical description Spartan were quite big on moral values (see: Thermopylae): my point is that those moral values are alien to us, like ours to them.

If murder were “objectively” immoral, they would also have seen it as immoral.

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Kevin McDonough 04.03.13 at 10:15 pm

I’m not seeing the tautology point that others keep making.

1. The belief that murder is wrong is (merely) a matter of cultural or social convention.

2. The belief that murder is wrong is (merely) a matter of personal taste.

3. The belief that murder is wrong is (also, in addition to being a matter of cultural convention and personal taste) an objective moral truth.

The fact that at least part of this discussion is a dispute over whether claim 3 is better than claims 1 or 2 (i.e. a more accurate and/or more useful account of what we mean when we make moral claims) suggests that 3 is not a tautology, doesn’t it?

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David 04.03.13 at 10:17 pm

“my point is that those moral values are alien to us, like ours to them.”

No, I definitely understood you. The point being that they had the moral values that made their society function.

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David 04.03.13 at 10:19 pm

“I’m not seeing the tautology point that others keep making.”

MPAVictoria was saying that not all killing is murder, but someone else pointed out that in order to delineate good killing and bad killing you have to fall back on more assertions.

72

Manta 04.03.13 at 10:27 pm

Kevin, these are the tow horns of a dilemma.

Either the tautology is in the definition of murder: i.e.
Killing is an act.
Murder already contains the moral judgement: saying “murder is bad” is like saying “bad killing is bad”: a tautology.

Or there is a less tautological content to the what constitute murder (as opposed to killing). In this regard, I think 3. does not hold water: there is no “objective” way to determine whether a certain killing is murder or not, and the reason why I think that is that different cultures will give very different answers (but I am open to be convinced otherwise).

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Anderson 04.03.13 at 10:30 pm

As for (1), does *some* degree of suffering “build character”?

As for (2), current politics should suggest that “baby” is tricky to define.

As for (3), how does one evaluate what is “much more likely”? Predictions are difficult, especially about the future.

As for (4), “kind” is so vague, it’s vacuous. What does a kindness imperative require me to do? Open doors for people with their arms full? Provide them three square meals a day?

74

Kevin McDonough 04.03.13 at 10:33 pm

David: ‘you have to fall back on more assertions’. Ok — thanks, that helps clarify the point I think (though I’m not sure this is exactly what js. had in mind when he brought up tautologies). But in any case the point seems to me wrong in an instructive way. We don’t need to fall back on assertions to distinguish murder from non-murderous forms of killing. This is precisely where cultural conventions, practices and ‘thick concepts’ that accompany them really DO come in as essential ethical tools — in providing conceptual guidelines for making just this kind of distinction. So we can say that murder is wrong and hold that this is an objectively true claim; but we can also concede that there can be reasonable disagreements about what counts as murder, and that understanding and evaluating these differing and potentially opposed ways of understanding the distinction between murder and non-murderous killing involves deep cultural understanding. On this point, John Kekes (in his book Moral Pluralism) has a really interesting extended discussion of a particular example — a burial ritual for tribal elders that is traditional for a group in the Sudan but which would strike most of us in ‘the West’ as murderous and cruel — at least on first glance. Kekes takes the reader through a layered and gradual journey that delves ever deeper into the cultural context for the burial ritual — the result of which struck me as a powerfully convincing illustration of why it is both accurate and useful (in the sense js. gives above) to understand certain claims as expressing morally objective truths, while also appreciating the dazzlingly diverse ways in which human societies can institutionalize and express these truths in particular and concrete cultural forms.

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js. 04.03.13 at 10:38 pm

If murder were “objectively” immoral, they would also have seen it as immoral.

This doesn’t follow. To use a different example, the following statement is perfectly sensible (perhaps even true):

Majorities of people in lots of human societies have failed to appreciate that it is wrong to enslave human beings and treat them like property.

Look, to say that something is “objectively true” (=true) doesn’t mean that it is self-evidently or obviously true. Imagine using that standard in science!

76

Kevin McDonough 04.03.13 at 10:39 pm

Manta: This is precisley what was confusing. Murder is wrong seems tautological in just the way you say. But murder is (objectively) wrong is not obviously tautological, especially in the present context.

77

David 04.03.13 at 10:46 pm

“Majorities of people in lots of human societies have failed to appreciate that it is wrong to enslave human beings and treat them like property.”

This leads to a lot of unhealthy assumptions. It is essentially saying that modern humans in the liberal west are the most enlightened human beings yet to walk the planet.

The science analogy is bad precisely because (and this is kind of the big point) there are no “morals” to study through a microscope. In order to assert that we have become more moral as a society, you first have to have defined a set of objective morals.

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Anderson 04.03.13 at 10:48 pm

JS @ 75: I find that proposition attractive, as no one today defends slavery (whereas even torture has turned out to have its supporters).

But I find it curious, at least, that there’s an “objective” moral truth that was discovered only 250 years ago or thereabouts. How did so many previous generations screw that one up?

Non-facetiously: how did we come to discover that moral truth? Considering this might be useful for figuring out how to discover further moral truths.

Also, is it only a coincidence that (if my armchair history is right) the wrongness of slavery came to be discovered only around the time the Industrial Revolution was kicking off?

79

js. 04.03.13 at 10:50 pm

Kevin @69:

I think of “murder” as unjustified killing, so I tend to think of the idea of wrongness as built into the concept of murder (via the unjustified bit). (So, technically, I’m thinking “murder is wrong” is analytically true.) Anyway, I don’t think this affects any of the main points at issue.

80

Manta 04.03.13 at 10:51 pm

js: what criterion do you use to decide if something is objectively true or not?

In science there is a long history of trying to finding a good way, but the essential root is: science is trying to describe reality, and reality is a harsh mistress: if your model does not work, you can see it.

What is such criterion in moral philosophy?
Said otherwise: if you think that there are underlying objective moral truths, why do you think you are right about slavery and many other people are wrong?

In my opinion, no such facts exist: our moral intuitions are the result of conditioning from society.

Thanks to Kevin for the reading suggestion.

81

Bloix 04.03.13 at 10:54 pm

“If murder were “objectively” immoral, they [the Spartans] would also have seen it as immoral.”

“If the earth ‘objectively’ revolved around the sun, they would also have etc.” Do you think so?

The whole point about objective truth is that it doesn’t depend its being known by a human being.

Harry is arguing that even if every single human being were a fully-fledged believing member of the cult of Moloch, infant sacrifice would be wrong.

And he’s right, isn’t he? I don’t think he’s made his point very effectively, but he’s right.

Why would it be wrong? Well, first, because even if every human being believed in Moloch, that wouldn’t make Moloch real. Belief in Moloch would still be delusional, and the belief that a god will look on us with favor if we put infants to death in his honor would be a false belief. We don’t have any difficulty with this, do we?

I’ve said on this blog (or maybe on LGM) that it’s not fair to judge, e.g., Thomas Jefferson, by the standards of our time, but I’ve never gone so far as to contend that the sex slavery that characterized the ante-bellum south was perhaps not evil in the context of their culture. There’s a difference between saying that within a given culture otherwise good people are blind to evil and saying that it’s not evil if they didn’t see it that way.

We shouldn’t have any difficulty saying that sex slavery, or infant sacrifice, or suttee, or the caste system, or burning heretics at the stake, or torture of prisoners, is always and everywhere morally wrong.

And we can all agree that Steven Landsburgh is at the very least a moral idiot, http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/04/03/steven_landsburg_rochester_professor_is_it_really_rape_if_the_victim_doesn.html

What we don’t know is how we know these things. I have confidence in my beliefs but I have no confidence in how I’ve come to believe them. There have been things that 30 years ago I believed to be perfectly fine that I now believe to be immoral, and vice versa. I was sure then, and I’m sure now. How can I be sure? I don’t know.

We can talk about first principles of individual equality and autonomy, etc., but at some point you get to the Euclidean problem of having simply to assume certain things because they just seem right, even if they change.

82

David 04.03.13 at 10:55 pm

“What we don’t know is how we know these things”

Sounds like Christian apologetics.

83

Anderson 04.03.13 at 11:00 pm

“Belief in Moloch would still be delusional, and the belief that a god will look on us with favor if we put infants to death in his honor would be a false belief.”

Okay, but I think this just points up that morality isn’t separable from one’s grasp of the facts. If it’s a fact that Moloch is a real god who will punish us for denying him infant sacrifices, then do we get a different moral truth? Maybe not, but it becomes an issue at least.

84

Manta 04.03.13 at 11:10 pm

Bloix, what does make you confident your moral judgement about slavery is superior to the one of an ancient Greek?
Isn’t it more likely that the ancient Greek was right and you are wrong?

In science we can answer in the negative: we take Aristotle’s and Galileo’s laws , make the relevant experiment, and see who is right(er).

85

Manta 04.03.13 at 11:16 pm

Steven Landsburg is a western guy now: his morality is (or, at lest, appear to be) in contrast with the dicta of his society, and therefore he is contemptible.

Jefferson was an American guy in 18th century: his morality was in accord with the dicta of his society, and as such he was admirable.

In this sense, we do have an objective criterion for morality: we check if our moral judgement is in accord with the one of the people around us, and adjust it accordingly.

86

bob mcmanus 04.03.13 at 11:23 pm

83:If it’s a fact that Moloch is a real god who will punish us for denying him infant sacrifices, then do we get a different moral truth?

Well, Abraham and Isaac wasn’t about the punishment, but the faith and unquestioned obedience, but we just don’t speak Kierkegaard’s language anymore.

87

js. 04.03.13 at 11:27 pm

reality is a harsh mistress: if your model does not work, you can see it.

People believed in a geocentric universe for a really long time. Or in the impossibility of action at a distance, etc. Quite specific technological innovations, conceptual breakthroughs, etc., were needed before we could discover what was objectively the case. I don’t see why it’s *so much more* problematic if the enlargement of moral capacities and sensitivities also requires quite specific conditions, or why once these capacities have been enlarged we shouldn’t think that they are responses to genuine (though previously unnoticed) aspects of reality.

Ok, you might say that we have no idea what methods we would use in moral cases. Here, I am going to outsource—of the top of my head to Charles Taylor, whose paper “Explanation and Practical Reason” is I think pretty excellent on this kind of question. (Unfortunately not available online, I’m pretty sure.)

88

Matt 04.03.13 at 11:27 pm

Objective moral truth is the tincture obtained from steeping qualia in water from Russell’s teapot. It is demonstrably correct within a complete and consistent theory of arithmetic.

89

js. 04.03.13 at 11:30 pm

Just realized that my 87 works better as a response to Anderson at 78. Which was sort of the comment I had in mind anyway.

90

Anderson 04.03.13 at 11:31 pm

JS @ 87: good points, and maybe this ties in with my question to Bloix. Are our “moral discoveries” really the application of the same old morals to new facts? Tying our supposed advances in morals to our (nearly) unquestioned advances in science looks promising.

91

Salient 04.03.13 at 11:37 pm

Objective moral truths are those statements with which we feel disagreement cannot be made in good faith.

An alien might have a completely different morality, but if it doesn’t have something I can recognize as some variant on humanism, I’d honestly suppose it was either sociopathic (incapable of assessing moral truths) or putting me on (pretending incapacity). Or that I was misunderstanding them. Or they me.

Now, there’s a debate tactic in which you pretend to feel the other person is arguing in bad faith, which I’d like to sidestep. (Hence the ‘honestly’ part above.)

Simply put: You know a moral truth is objective when you’re incapable of believing that a moral agent could disagree with it.

(Note, that’s actually about as close as it’s possible to come to a workable definition of the adjective ‘objective,’ which means it’s not terribly profitable to navel-gazingly implore the possibility that “objectivity is subjective!” or whatever.)

92

David 04.03.13 at 11:41 pm

“You know a moral truth is objective when you’re incapable of believing that a moral agent could disagree with it.”

There is almost nothing I could imagine a human being, raised in the right sort of society, being incapable of finding correct.

93

Patrick 04.04.13 at 12:07 am

David- yeah.

mdc- yeah.

geo- I’m not deeply invested in who gets to own terms like “objective.” As long as I’ve communicated the difference between existent reactions to a thing, and non existent traits of a thing, I’m happy.

For those who disagree with what I’ve set out, all they really have to do is give a fact or two about the world that is better explained by objective morality than by the objective reality of humans having similar cognitive features and similar resulting emotional reactions. Or, I guess, they could just admit that what they’re really worried about is the loss of access to emotional suasion that comes with openly admitting that the grounds on which humans reason about emotional issues like morality are deeply flawed. But as observed, most human emotional suasion occurs through things like a fervent tone of voice, widened eyes, and flared nostrils. So maybe we shouldn’t be expecting so much in terms of the rationality of that process.

94

Salient 04.04.13 at 12:09 am

There is almost nothing I could imagine a human being, raised in the right sort of society, being incapable of finding correct.

I think you mean “raised in the wrong sort of society.”

No, seriously, I’m not (just) being cute. What I mean is, my guess is that you would discount those human beings’ moral agency, like most people would. Which means maybe this was a really really roundabout way for you to point out that I may have misused the word ‘sociopath’ too expansively, or something.

Most likely that where I said “moral agent” you’re inserting “person” where I would insert person whom I feel comfortable holding individually accountable for their actions and intentions. Consider some of the individuals you had in mind as extreme examples when you wrote your comment. Do you agree that we should not insist on holding those individuals fully accountable as moral agents, without discounting somewhat on their behalf for their social environment? Presumably you wouldn’t want to actually take moral advice from or extend moral authority to those people, without filtering it through a lens that accommodates and discounts their zeitgeist.

95

Anderson 04.04.13 at 12:09 am

93: what are you calling a “cognitive function”?

96

Salient 04.04.13 at 12:22 am

all they really have to do is give a fact or two about the world that is better explained by objective morality than by the objective reality of humans having similar cognitive features and similar resulting emotional reactions.

Are you one of those people who insist we can only use the word ‘objective’ to identify things are things that remain true even when there aren’t any people around to observe them? Because that’s flatly ridiculous and you know it. Most people here on Earth use “subjective” to mean “things that reasonable people can disagree about” and “objective” to mean “things that reasonable people can’t possibly disagree about.” Granted, that’s not how the words will be used once there’s no people around to observe them, but that’s hardly a reason to clog a comments thread.

If you insist on disagreeing, consider whose definition is probably closer to what Harry meant, yours or mine. If you still insist on disagreeing, please do us all the favor of just writing YOU ARE MISUSING THE WORDS OBJECTIVE AND SUBJECTIVE. STOP IT. STOP IT NOW. More direct, less tendentious!

97

Anderson 04.04.13 at 12:25 am

Salient, if by cognitive faculties he means the brain equipment common to homo sapiens, then a morality that is “objective” for all of ‘em is objective enough. IOW I agree with you that much. Morality without moral agents is like gravity without mass.

98

David 04.04.13 at 12:27 am

“Do you agree that we should not insist on holding those individuals fully accountable as moral agents, without discounting somewhat on their behalf for their social environment?”

I feel it would be profoundly dehumanizing and condescending to hold a Nazi death camp officer, a slave holder, or an Athenian ephebophile as less than moral agents for having had the bad luck not to grow up in our more “enlightened times”. The raison d’etre of history is not to pass out “good guy” and “bad guy” cards.

99

David 04.04.13 at 12:35 am

“Most people here on Earth use “subjective” to mean “things that reasonable people can disagree about” and “objective” to mean “things that reasonable people can’t possibly disagree about.”

Then I really don’t think “most people here on Earth” should be taking part in a discussion that hinges on a distinction they are unwilling to care about.

100

Anderson 04.04.13 at 12:39 am

98: is this a history thread? There is plenty of proof that Nazi leaders knew their genocide was wrong.

101

David 04.04.13 at 12:42 am

“There is plenty of proof that Nazi leaders knew their genocide was wrong.”

There is plenty of proof that they knew that other countries would perceive their actions as a crime and prosecute them for it. Everything I have ever seen suggests that Hitler, Himmler, et al considered the Holocaust to be an act “for the greater good” so to speak.

102

Anderson 04.04.13 at 12:45 am

So prosecuting the Nazis was an act of injustice, or is justice non-objective too, just a matter of who wins?

103

David 04.04.13 at 12:49 am

Justice is so irretrievably bound up with morality as to belong to the same class of “things that don’t really exist outside of human perception.”

104

Anderson 04.04.13 at 12:55 am

Again you are confused. It makes no sense to set such a weird criterion for justice. Again: was executing the commandant of Auschwitz unjust, or does it make no sense to call that act just or unjust? Or was it indeed just?

105

David 04.04.13 at 12:56 am

I thought I just said that it was neither just nor unjust…

106

Anderson 04.04.13 at 1:09 am

Ah so. Well, you are entitled to that opinion.

107

Salient 04.04.13 at 1:28 am

Then I really don’t think “most people here on Earth” should be taking part in a discussion that hinges on a distinction they are unwilling to care about.

My point was exactly that you’re unwilling to care about the distinction on which the OP hinges despite taking part in the discussion of it.

I feel it would be profoundly dehumanizing and condescending to hold a Nazi death camp officer, a slave holder, or an Athenian ephebophile as less than moral agents for having had the bad luck not to grow up in our more “enlightened times”.

Two moments ago you were whining that for almost any proposed moral principle you envision an entire society of human beings willing to believe in it. One moment ago you shrugged off Auschwitz and got irritable when someone tried to prod you into clarifying. You don’t consider that profoundly dehumanizing and condescending? … ?

108

David 04.04.13 at 1:35 am

“My point was exactly that you’re unwilling to care about the distinction on which the OP hinges despite taking part in the discussion of it.”

I see no way to read any import into Henry’s post without seeing it as an assertion of the objective truth of his four moral statements.

“Two moments ago you were whining that for almost any proposed moral principle you envision an entire society of human beings willing to believe in it.”

I don’t really want to turn this thread into an INTERNET DEBATE, but I think you seriously, seriously misinterpreted me by assuming that I was “whining.”

“One moment ago you shrugged off Auschwitz and got irritable when someone tried to prod you into clarifying.”

I didn’t shrug off Auschwitz and I was not irritable.

“You don’t consider that profoundly dehumanizing and condescending? … ?”

No, and I do not see how it could be perceived in that way.

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geo 04.04.13 at 1:40 am

Kevin @74: we can say that murder is wrong and hold that this is an objectively true claim

But as others have pointed out, if the definition of “murder” is “unjustified killing,” then we’re speaking tautologically when we call it “wrong.”

js @79: I tend to think of the idea of wrongness as built into the concept of murder (via the unjustified bit). (So, technically, I’m thinking “murder is wrong” is analytically true.)

“Analytically true” is not fundamentally different from “tautological.” The former usually refers to an equivalence that takes a little analysis to recognize. But it takes no analysis to recognize that if “murder” means “unjustified killing,” then “murder is wrong” is a tautology.

Patrick @93: I’m not deeply invested in who gets to own terms like “objective.”

This sounds an awful like “I don’t care how people use the word ‘objective’. Any and every use of the word is fine with me.” I doubt that’s what you meant to say.

Salient @91: You know a moral truth is objective when you’re incapable of believing that a moral agent could disagree with it.

But if the definition of “moral” in “moral agent” rests on agreement that some moral truth is objective, then we have another tautology, since it’s a matter of definition that no one who disagrees could be a moral agent. The syllogism is:
A moral agent is someone I can’t imagine disagreeing that X.
No moral agent, as defined above, does disagree with X.
Ergo, X is objectively true.

Maybe we should limit “objective” to “non-partisan” and drop the other meaning: “non-contingent, absolutely, really and truly.” What is the difference between these three statements: “Bees make honey.” “It is true that bees make honey.” “It is objectively true that bees make honey”? No difference. They mean exactly the same thing. This is no less true of matters of opinion than of matters of fact: “Geo is a nice guy.” “It is true that geo is a nice guy.” “It is objectively true that geo is a nice guy.” The latter three statements mean exactly the same thing. Likewise for matters of fact: “Eating people is wrong.” “It is true that eating people is wrong.” “It is objectively true that eating people is wrong” — these are equivalent.

“Objectively true” is merely an exclamation point. That is to say, it serves a rhetorical function. Rhetoric affects meaning; in that sense the statements within each trio of statements above are not exactly equivalent. But that’s not enough for moral realists (ie, philosophers who believe in objective moral truth). They want more, and they can’t have it. In fact, they can’t even explain what it is they want. As Richard Rorty would say, it’s time to change the subject, or at least find a new vocabulary.

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David 04.04.13 at 1:43 am

“They want more, and they can’t have it. In fact, they can’t even explain what it is they want. As Richard Rorty would say, it’s time to change the subject, or at least find a new vocabulary.”

Now I feel bad because you contributed more to clarifying this thread in one post than I did in about 20.

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geo 04.04.13 at 1:43 am

Sorry, two typos:

1) ” … sounds an awful lot like … “

2) “Likewise for matters of morality.

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Anderson 04.04.13 at 1:50 am

Rorty would have balked at “objective,” but it would be a distinction without a difference. Cruelty is the worst thing we do, and while the liberal ironist is willing in theory to consider whether that is a mistaken belief, in practice it’s so close to her core identity that she’s not going to change her mind. He trots out the Schumpeter line about conceding the contingency of our values but standing for them unflinchingly.

So if one wants to say not “objective truths” but “core beliefs” I don’t think we are talking about a material difference.

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Anderson 04.04.13 at 1:53 am

(Did Rorty ever address whether it could be pragmatically better to argue like a metaphysician, in some contexts? Straussian pragmatists!)

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Patrick 04.04.13 at 1:54 am

geo- I come from a background where people can define their terms as they please, and it’s fine as long as they are clear. If my point was communicated well, I don’t care if you want to use “objective” in a particular way, or if you don’t like how I used it. Give me new terminology that communicates the same idea, and we can all pretend I used that. If my point was not clear, please tell me which part didn’t make sense and I will try to fix it.

Language is intersubjective, after all. See that, Internet? I just upped the ante. Now we have THREE ‘jectives running around.

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Salient 04.04.13 at 1:59 am

things that don’t really exist outside of human perception.

If it helps calm the waters or whatever, I’ll readily grant that justice requires sentience. In the absence of sentience, no concept of justice obtains. But again, there are plenty of things that are objective which don’t obtain in the absence of sentience.

If you’re looking to specify only “things that really exist outside of human perception,” then what you’re looking for is not the word objective; it’s the word material. Objective/vs/subjective is a purely social-interpersonal distinction divided by questions like, “They can’t possibly believe that, can they?”

“Objectively true” is merely an exclamation point. That is to say, it serves a rhetorical function.

A rather specific and content-laden exclamation point! Expressing “I refuse to acknowledge the possibility that someone could disagree with this in good faith” serves a fairly specific social-interpersonal function (which is the same as ‘rhetorical function’ but without the derogatory baggage).

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Salient 04.04.13 at 1:59 am

Now we have THREE ‘jectives running around.

addjectives.

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js. 04.04.13 at 2:19 am

geo @109:

(1) RE me @79: yes, agreed.

(2) The important point: I think you’re absolutely right that content-wise, “It is objectively true that p” is exactly the same as “p“. So maybe the only function of the phrase “it is objectively true that” is a rhetorical one (and since the “objectively” is quite redundant there, I’m inclined to agree with this). But, in #67 (esp. the last para), responding to a comment of yours, I laid out why I think we do need to appeal to a notion of objectivity with regard to moral matters. And, not coincidentally, I did it without ever using the phrase, “it is objectively true that”. And that’s what really matters I think, whether to carry out the kinds of criticism we think we’re entitled to—and that we think we’re so entitled is often better seen in what we do than in what we might say on a CT thread—whether we need a notion of objectivity that takes us beyond mere psychological propensity to certain kinds of recognitional capacities, etc. I think the answer’s pretty obviously, Yes.

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js. 04.04.13 at 2:23 am

Justice is so irretrievably bound up with morality as to belong to the same class of “things that don’t really exist outside of human perception.”

Going by this and other comments, I suppose I would be safe in assuming that you have never been upset at someone where you thought you had a genuine reason to be upset at them? That you’ve never thought, “S/he shouldn’t have done that”?

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geo 04.04.13 at 2:28 am

Salient: How does your refusal help establish the truth of your moral judgment? Doesn’t it just signify that this judgment is something you feel very sure about?

Perhaps I shouldn’t have said “merely” rhetorical. It does sound sort of derogatory, whereas I, like the Sophists and their descendants the pragmatists, have a very high regard for rhetoric.

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David 04.04.13 at 2:28 am

“Going by this and other comments, I suppose I would be safe in assuming that you have never been upset at someone where you thought you had a genuine reason to be upset at them? That you’ve never thought, “S/he shouldn’t have done that”?”

That is a bit of an unfair standard to hold me to. I consider my earlier points to be what is true separate from human subjectivity. That being said, I also don’t believe in capital punishment, but cannot guarantee that I would not engage in vigilante justice if a relative of mine were brutally murdered.

In other words, I aspire to have the perfect kind of self-control that makes my actions a mirror of my reason, but I am only human.

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js. 04.04.13 at 2:40 am

Re Geo:

I should have made more clear that I don’t think the Rorty position works—but it’s also been so long since I’ve read him, that I wouldn’t be comfortable mounting a critique just now. On the other hand, since I’d mostly entirely agree with Charles Taylor’s account of objectivity in these areas, I don’t think the position you’re defending is exactly worlds away from what I’m holding out for.

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GiT 04.04.13 at 3:29 am

I think it’s Anderson who has been using “discover” as a verb here, and for me I’ve found “discovery” to be a good way of sorting out what I think “objective” truth entails, in a sort of simple way. I set the dichotomy between something like discovery and invention/fabrication/construction/artifice/&etc. Moral “truths” seem to me to be much more along the lines of the latter verbs than the former.

The notion of some sort of moral fabric of the universe to be uncovered, persistent across time in the same manner as the laws of physics and such, is absurd to me – as if there was some obdurate reality against which one could test ‘thou shalt not kill.’ One can test that relative to some project, but projects are fungible.

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GiT 04.04.13 at 3:29 am

I think it’s Anderson who has been using “discover” as a verb here, and for me I’ve found “discovery” to be a good way of sorting out what I think “objective” truth entails, in a sort of simple way. I set the dichotomy between something like discovery and invention/fabrication/construction/artifice/&etc. Moral “truths” seem to me to be much more along the lines of the latter verbs than the former.

The notion of some sort of moral fabric of the universe to be uncovered, persistent across time in the same manner as the laws of physics and such, is absurd to me – as if there was some obdurate reality against which one could test ‘thou shalt not kill.’ One can test that relative to some project, but projects are fungible.

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Anderson 04.04.13 at 3:50 am

I’m not sure how attached I am to “discovery,” but if slavery has always been wrong, then that verb seems to fit. Compare how water has always been H2O tho no one knew it till relatively recently. And even that obdurate reality has been modified as we find protons and quarks.

Relativism, like skepticism or idealism, is easier to argue than practice. Up thread it was argued that one might act humanly rather than morally. I’m not sure that morality and humanity are separable. It may be like Kant said of causality, a category we can’t think without.

So as Nietzsche says somewhere (more or less), just as we are the animals who believe in causes and equivalences, we are also moral animals. And N certainly didn’t believe in Morality Up In The Sky.

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roger nowosielski 04.04.13 at 4:56 am

“Justice is so irretrievably bound up with morality as to belong to the same class of “things that don’t really exist outside of human perception.” #103

What has perception got to do with it? What has perception got to do with anything, for that mater?

Isn’t all about language?

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bad Jim 04.04.13 at 7:10 am

I’m not sure how we can claim that moral statements can be “objectively true” without describing a reasonably unambiguous method for discriminating among them. I can confidently assert that 1+1=2, that a rock accelerates towards the ground at 9.8 m/s/s, and that I had a pastrami sandwich for lunch, but one is a mathematical identity, the next an approximation useful on our planet’s surface, and the last could not be demonstrated logically or experimentally. Moral claims are clearly in yet another category.

We can’t just say that a moral truth is whatever all right-minded people must agree to, without acknowledging that in the past the consensus fell far short of what we now consider acceptable. It’s not just that we’ve moved past tolerating slavery and monarchy; right now we’re redefining marriage and what’s considered rape. It may seem as though we’re converging on a universal theory of conduct, since we seem to be making progress, but the process seems to be more a matter of interested parties staking claims than abstract deliberation from general principles.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.04.13 at 7:31 am

I hope we can all agree that at least modern western secular middle-class objective moral truths do exist. No murder, except when someone suspected of terrorism is in the vicinity. No chattel slavery, definitely, except for those convicted of a crime. No torture, except when it helps to find the enemy leader. Meat-eating is fine; living, on a personal yacht with servants, off a dividend income is fine. And that’s as close to ‘objective’ as you’ll ever get.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.04.13 at 7:56 am

…and I really can’t imagine why an alien (provided she is a human modern western secular middle-class alien) would have a completely different morality.

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Manta 04.04.13 at 8:27 am

Salient,
“You know a moral truth is objective when you’re incapable of believing that a moral agent could disagree with it.”

You think that Aristotle was not a moral agent when he was writing about slavery?

But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature?
There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.

Or that you would not feel “comfortable holding individually accountable for their actions and intentions?”

I think your definition has to be amended to possibly work “a moral truth is objective when you’re incapable of believing that a moral agent, *that shares your values*, could disagree with it”.

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mds 04.04.13 at 9:26 am

the attachment of the term “truth” to the idea of objectivity gives me a double impression that we are wandering afield. Are there “objective scientific truths?” Or does fallibilism mean that we see our knowledge as consisting of pragmatically useful theories? The idea of objectivity seems openly Platonistic. I am not so sure that to say “all people who are not madmen will agree that it is bad to torture babies” is to propose an objective moral truth, however fully I and human society however construed agree with the sentence. Further, while I agree that it is bad to torture babies–I don’t see what it adds to say that it is true that it is bad to torture babies.

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Dan 04.04.13 at 12:00 pm

I think you are absolutely right in your conclusion. The Trolley problem shows that people do think causing death is bad – otherwise there is no dilemma…

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Random Lurker 04.04.13 at 1:44 pm

I believe that we should drop the term “objective” and use the term “a priori” instead (though I’m not sure this is what Harry meant in the OP).

So:

1) My suffering is bad.
This is not a tautology but an axiom, rooted in human biology.

2) Other people’s sufferings are also bad, but to a lesser degree.
This is also an axiom rooted in biology.

3) The axioms 1 and 2 are actually the definition of the term “bad”.
That is, when I say that my suffering is bad I’m not stating a quality of my suffering, I’m using the pratical condition of suffering to define the abstract concept of “bad”.

4) The fact that my suffering is a priori bad doesn’t prevent that an act that involves my suffering can be a posteriori good.
For example, if I have a toothache it is good when I remove the tooth, because the consequence are worth the suffering of removing it. This doesn’t change the fact that the suffering in itself is bad.

5) as a consequence of 4, to evaluate wether an action is bad, in the real world we have to estimate the consequences of that action.
This means that a lot of beliefs that are not moral in themselves are involved when making for a moral judgment. For example, in the example of the torture of a terrorist, it is very relevant wether I believe that torture will lead the terrorist to tell the truth or not.
The difference in those “factual beliefs” among people can explain a lot of different moral opinions between people of the same culture (together with the difference between 1 and 2).

6) as a consequence of 5, since evaluating wether an action is good or bad is a really complex process, every culture developed a set of “values” that are secondary in nature but are assumed as a given by participants in those cultures.
For example we regard slavery as being inherently evil withouth thinking too much about it, because our forefathers in a long history evalued the institution of slavery for us. There are even bigger differences abouth “factual beliefs” among different cultures than among individuals, so this explain most of the variance of moral opinions in history.

7) but moral traditions by necessity must be applicable equally by anyone, so societies tend to collapse 1) and 2) in an unique concept of “objectively bad”. However every society has (I think) a ruling class and some losers, and the winners get to write the books of philosophy, so that the difference between 1 and 2 is collapsed usually to the advantage of the ruling class.
This explains why Aristotle believed that slavery was good, and the warrior ethics of many societys where, for example, Achilles was a great guy because he could slaughter one hundred of opponents a day.

When we say that ethics is relative, we usually speak of ethics at levels 6 or 7. Those ethic traditions are obviously culture dependent, but this doesn’t mean that also the previous leves are. I believe that it is possible in principle to think of an “objective ethics” as a complex ethic of level 6 or 7 done by an extremely good calculator.

As an addiction, I see that all the discussion here is about negative ethics (bad things), but real world ethics also have “good things”, that for some reason seem harder to define, like in “helping poor people is good”.
(note: I mean a ternary logic of good, bad and neutral, or if you prefer sacred, taboo and profane).
Since nobody took this part of the argument, I’ll try:

8) things that make me happy, or that remove my suffering, are good a priori

9) things that make other people happy, or remove their suffering, are good a priori, but to a lesser degree.

10) 8 and 9 are the definition of “good”.

11) the fact that one thing is good a priori doesn’t prevent that an act that involves that thing is bad a posteriori, if the consequence of that act create a lot of suffering later.
For example, if I eat a candy, and I like it (a priori good), but this causes an horrible toothache later, this act is still bad in the end.

12) all problems of calculations, and pre-done calculations made by traditions that I spoke of in 5, 6 and 7 also apply to “good” things.

13) since people tend to do things that are pleasant and avoid things that are unpleasant, most of the “secondary goods” that we take as given from tradition are things that initially are unpleasant but are supposed to produce better outcomes later.
This explains why most traditions have “ascetic” ideas of what is good, and the weird impression that most good things are umpleasant (as in: “eat the vegetables, not those sugar-saturated hamburgers”).

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Anonymous 04.04.13 at 2:05 pm

I’m afraid that without God it is difficult to establish objective moral truth. Indeed truth and objective get hard to maintain, if only at the margin. Perhaps that is what you’re driving at … we mostly don’t exist at the margin.

I choose God, absurd as that is.

#25 re: lions has a stronger point than many here are willing to consider … objectively … it seems to me anyways :)

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.04.13 at 2:21 pm

@130, your approach is too modern and western. Individualistic. I suspect that most ‘moral truths’ have little to do with your personal pleasures and sufferings, and a lot with the well-being of the tribe. No one cares about your toothache, a dog knows that toothache is bad. What is, above all, moral, is being an obedient honest worker, serial procreator, and brave soldier.

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Patrick 04.04.13 at 2:29 pm

Salient- the problem with defining subjective as “things reasonable people can disagree about” an objective as things they cannot, is that some disagreements have very little to do with our reasoning. If Arnold finds a baby cute but Barry does not, whatever you might say about Barry, he has not “reasoned” improperly. Probably reasoning never factored into it for either of them.

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chris 04.04.13 at 2:30 pm

Manta #129: I think your definition has to be amended to possibly work “a moral truth is objective when you’re incapable of believing that a moral agent, *that shares your values*, could disagree with it”.

But then you’ve deprived the term of its purpose: if it only works for people who share my values, then it isn’t objective at all.

OP: There are, in fact, some objective moral truths. Personally, I think there are lots of them. And, in fact, our grasp of most of them is far from tenuous.

I’d have been impressed if Harry had managed to establish these claims by the end of the post. Kind of ironic that a criticism of someone else for argument by vehement assertion is directly followed by an argument by vehement assertion.

The very numerous examples of people sincerely believing diametrically opposed things to be “objective” moral truth ought to counsel a little caution about the “we know these objective moral truths by intuition” (or, as it was once more famously expressed, “we hold these truths to be self-evident” — this coming from people I assume Harry would declare objectively wrong about slavery) line of thinking.

In practice, I follow conventionally accepted notions of morality unless I (think I) have a damn good reason to do otherwise. But I don’t pretend that this is based on some kind of rigorously established facts — it’s primarily going along to get along, with perhaps a little bit of “well, it worked for them” (although I know many moral systems worked distinctly better for some than others).

Anderson #83: If it’s a fact that Moloch is a real god who will punish us for denying him infant sacrifices, then do we get a different moral truth? Maybe not, but it becomes an issue at least.

If human sacrifice worked and was necessary, it would be very like a trolleycar problem, wouldn’t it?

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chris 04.04.13 at 2:33 pm

#131: I choose God, absurd as that is.

But which god do you choose, and how do you define him? Disagreements between equally sincere beliefs in different gods, or different interpretations of the same god (whatever “same” means in this context) make up a nontrivial proportion of the bloodiest parts of human history.

Or, in other words, an appeal to god is not objective, in the senses that word is being used in this thread.

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Anderson 04.04.13 at 3:31 pm

134: hm, maybe the thing about the trolleycar problems is precisely that we’re asked to make the kind of evaluation that theists think God is making every few seconds.

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Trader Joe 04.04.13 at 4:02 pm

It seems like 90% of the discussion has been semantics and about 10% has been actual attmepts to defend or reject the assertion of the OP that A) There are moral truths and B) people have a non-tenuous grasp of them.

Splitting hairs between when is a killing murder and when is a murder killing is a spectrum debate. Where the departure point begins is where the Moral Truth lies. Just like particle physics – the fact that it can’t be seen and is hard to measure doesn’t disprove its existence.

As mankind evolves we collectively become better able to measure these starting points (i.e. the strand of discssion about slavery) and distribute this understanding to a greater proportion of mankind in order to incrementally make a better world.

Perhaps there is just some enjoyment of the debate – but it seems hard for me to understand how certain contributors who are more than willing to defend social constructs such as wealth redistribution, taxing the rich, protecting the environment, use of drones etc…..cannot accept a first principles argument that “being kind” and “not taking the life a fellow human” – stated in some fashion – cannot be the Moral Truth which underlies the society that flows from it.

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Dan Kervick 04.04.13 at 4:14 pm

Well, I suppose I could ask for some sort of clarification – if not definition – of the specifically moral senses of “wrong” and “bad” that are supposed to be involved in these kinds of statements, and the source of those aspects of reality that are supposed to ground the truth values of the statements made with them. But experience tells me that the attempt leads to a dead end.

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Random Lurker 04.04.13 at 4:36 pm

@Mao Cheng Ji 132
“your approach is too modern and western.”

I believe that my approach is a variation on epicureism, so it isn’t very modern.
Maybe it is western, but I cannot know for sure because I know almost nothing about non european philosophy.
The only modern part is the one about “ruling classes”, which is some oversimplification of Marx I suppose.

I think that the point of view I outlined is in fact quite common in terms of “common sense”. The reason that most “traditions” don’t use this materialistic approach is that traditions are a collection of what I call “secondary” values, and as such tend to take a prescriptive approach, but this only hides the roots that are the “primary values” (pain and pleasure for me and my neighbours).
The “prescriptiveness” of those traditions is the reason they always sound so selfess and ascetic, however I don’t think that my approach is in any sense more individualistic than those traditions, since I also think that in pratical terms people use “secondary values” generated by society to give moral judgments.

Lucius Torquatus explains epicureism (related by Cicero) and in particular such values as roman heroism:

http://www.epicurus.net/en/finibus.html

This being the theory I hold, why need I be afraid of not being able to reconcile it with the case of the Torquati my ancestors? Your references to them just now were historically correct, and also showed your kind and friendly feeling towards myself; but the same I am not to be bribed by your flattery of my family, and you will not find me a less resolute opponent. Tell me, pray, what explanation do you put upon their actions? Do you really believe that they charged an armed enemy, or treated their children, their own flesh and blood, so cruelly, without a thought for their own interest or advantage? Why, even wild animals do not act in that way; they do not run amok so blindly that we cannot discern any purpose in their movements and their onslaughts.

Can you then suppose that those heroic men performed their famous deeds without any motive at all? What their motive was, I will consider later on: for the present I will confidently assert, that if they had a motive for those undoubtedly glorious exploits, that motive was not a love of virtue in and for itself.—He wrested the necklet from his foe.—Yes, and saved himself from death. But he braved great danger.—Yes, before the eyes of an army.—What did he get by it?—Honor and esteem, the strongest guarantees of security in life.—He sentenced his own son to death.—If from no motive, I am sorry to be the descendant of anyone so savage and inhuman; but if his purpose was by inflicting pain upon himself to establish his authority as a commander, and to tighten the reins of discipline during a very serious war by holding over his army the fear of punishment, then his action aimed at ensuring the safety of his fellow citizens, upon which he knew his own depended.

And from Epicurus’ maxims:
http://www.epicurus.net/en/principal.html

33. There never was such a thing as absolute justice, but only agreements made in mutual dealings among men in whatever places at various times providing against the infliction or suffering of harm.
36. In general justice is the same for all, for it is something found mutually beneficial in men’s dealings, but in its application to particular places or other circumstances the same thing is not necessarily just for everyone.
37. Among the things held to be just by law, whatever is proved to be of advantage in men’s dealings has the stamp of justice, whether or not it be the same for all; but if a man makes a law and it does not prove to be mutually advantageous, then this is no longer just. And if what is mutually advantageous varies and only for a time corresponds to our concept of justice, nevertheless for that time it is just for those who do not trouble themselves about empty words, but look simply at the facts.
38. Where without any change in circumstances the things held to be just by law are seen not to correspond with the concept of justice in actual practice, such laws are not really just; but wherever the laws have ceased to be advantageous because of a change in circumstances, in that case the laws were for that time just when they were advantageous for the mutual dealings of the citizens, and subsequently ceased to be just when they were no longer advantageous.

Epicurus rocks.

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David 04.04.13 at 5:27 pm

“Just like particle physics – the fact that it can’t be seen and is hard to measure doesn’t disprove its existence.”

Unless you are positing that morals have an existence separate from human perception (i.e. that morality would exist in a universe with no living things, as quarks and gluons would) then your analogy is very poor.

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Agog 04.04.13 at 5:32 pm

‘Rank platonism’:

Oh, for me it ranks very near the top. Much higher than the later Greek schools, for sure.

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Trader Joe 04.04.13 at 5:56 pm

David @140

I am not sure I’m positing a universe devoid of living things since that would be a little pointless. I doubt non-sentient matter requires morality, being already governed by physical laws.

My posit should hold for any sentient universe however. I’m referencing the problem of measurement, not the problem of multi-dimensional existence. Physics and astronomy have both provided examples where we believe something to be true and then science learns how to measure its existence.

Moral truths, in my view, share some of those same characteristics. Some use religion others use the techniques of psyhcology, anthropology, sociology and political science to measure existence.

Someone upstrand suggested the idea that a Moral Truth should be recognizable to an alien. I would agree, if you could somehow figure out a way in which to share share/discover such mutual understanding – I think my analogy is adequate to that inference.

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David 04.04.13 at 6:05 pm

” I’m referencing the problem of measurement, not the problem of multi-dimensional existence. “

I know. My point being that even with sub-atomic particles there are things to be measured. There are no “morals” to measure.

“Moral truths, in my view, share some of those same characteristics.”

It seems to be the view of many in these sorts of discussions, but I am fairly convinced that they are wrong and cannot seem to understand why they are wrong.

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Manta 04.04.13 at 6:05 pm

Chris #134: I think that by “objective” Salient (and I, and others) mean “universal”: a a universal value is a value that can be shared among (all/most/many) people.
But there are many degrees of universality: a certain belief or trait can be shared by “all” people in all of history and all possible cultures, or by all people in a certain context (notice: one may require an even larger degree of universality when inquiring about alien civilizations).

My claim is that moral values or moral “truths” do not have the most general degree of universality: the “good person” in, say, ancient Greece had a very different morality than the “good person” (in western society) today. And that is an empirical claim: while e.g it is a fact that “slavery is bad” is not a universal value in the most general sense, there may be some other moral values that are universal (Harry tried to list some, but i find his list unconvincing).

On the other hand, the value “slavery is bad” is universal among modern people.

Another point: on the existence of “objective” moral truths one should apply Occam razor: the people positing their existence should show that they have some explaining power.
And a moral truth that we cannot know is no different from a moral truth that does not exist: this is a fundamental difference with, say, the law of physics.

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geo 04.04.13 at 6:15 pm

TJ: The question raised upthread was, in effect, what kind of mutual understandings could you arrive at with an alien with whom you shared no history, culture, or biology? My answer was that you might be able to agree on mathematics and theoretical physics but not about morality; ergo, there are no “objective” — absolute, transcultural, universal — moral truths.

Agog: Don’t you think Plato was a swine, a kind of Allan Bloom who worshipped aristocrats, despised common people, and not only loathed democracy but dreamed up a fanciful concept of “justice” in order to discredit it?

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.04.13 at 6:17 pm

Right. Scratch ‘modern’. The word is ‘enlightened’.

149

geo 04.04.13 at 6:20 pm

RL: Very cool quotes from Epicurus. He doth indeed rock.

150

Agog 04.04.13 at 7:13 pm

Geo,

I’d grant you that there must be nicer treatments of politics than Grandfather Plato’s.

Actually I never got very far into the Republic, and I have to confess that my volume of Jowett’s translations of the dialogues hasn’t been opened for a few years. But when I was a kid I took in the Apology, Phaedo, and Protagoras and loved them. I’d enjoyed Lucretius’ book before that, but Plato seemed at the same time much less in tune with our times and much more relevant. Because the questions are still there (and I think it was all about the questions for him).

151

Trader Joe 04.04.13 at 7:40 pm

@143
So if I accelerate a particle at nearly the speed of light and smash it into its components and for 3 billionths of a second our scientific instruments detect a quark that our best measuring tools say have a mass of “X” and a charge of “Y”….you’re happy to believe in the existence of quarks even though for 999 out of 1,000 people the concept of quarks has absolutely no meaning for their daily life.

But if I I poll lets say 10 million people and simply ask “Is it wrong to kill another human – Yes or No” No context, no situation, just thumbs up, thumbs down.

Say that poll comes back and lets say, I don’t know maybe, 90% agree that its wrong to kill – I have no idea the answer – it sorta doesn’t matter – if an agreeably high percentage say “Yes” it is wrong to kill another human – you’d still have your doubts about the Truth of that statement?

Particularly in the context that the “rightness” of these polled humans cannothbe any more perfect than the “rightness” of your machine that measured the quark for 3 billionths of a second, since that machine was made, monitored and interpreted by these same fallible humans you can’t trust to understand what it means to kill another human?

I’ll make no claim to perfect insight…and really have no expectation of changing your mind…but at some point I do in fact trust the data I see before me and don’t need to conjure ever more elaborate “except fors” to call moral truth into doubt.

152

David 04.04.13 at 7:50 pm

“Say that poll comes back and lets say, I don’t know maybe, 90% agree that its wrong to kill – I have no idea the answer – it sorta doesn’t matter – if an agreeably high percentage say “Yes” it is wrong to kill another human – you’d still have your doubts about the Truth of that statement?”

Yeah, and while you are at it poll to see how many believe in UFOs and Jesus. This is really the argument you are going with?

153

Substance McGravitas 04.04.13 at 8:29 pm

Say that poll comes back and lets say, I don’t know maybe, 90% agree that its wrong to kill – I have no idea the answer – it sorta doesn’t matter – if an agreeably high percentage say “Yes” it is wrong to kill another human – you’d still have your doubts about the Truth of that statement?

What if that poll was conducted 2500 years ago?

154

Jerry Vinokurov 04.04.13 at 8:44 pm

Say that poll comes back and lets say, I don’t know maybe, 90% agree that its wrong to kill – I have no idea the answer – it sorta doesn’t matter – if an agreeably high percentage say “Yes” it is wrong to kill another human – you’d still have your doubts about the Truth of that statement?

Of course I do. All that means is that people agree with it, not that it’s True with a Capital T. Hell, I agree with it too, for the most part! Doesn’t mean it’s objectively true.

Other people might have learned this lesson from Schumpeter or Rorty, but I learned it from John Barth’s The End of the Road: Just because you can’t ground something in an objective deduction from first principles doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. Indeed, I acknowledge the contingency of my morals and stand for them unflinchingly. I think it’s the most honest and best thing to do.

155

David 04.04.13 at 8:48 pm

“Indeed, I acknowledge the contingency of my morals and stand for them unflinchingly. I think it’s the most honest and best thing to do.”

See, that is honest and healthy.

156

Bruce Wilder 04.04.13 at 8:51 pm

I don’t why, but lots of people seem to get confused by two issues, which are only tangential to moral issues.

One is that meaning depends upon context. Our moral judgments can be judgments about meaning, so this basic principle that meaning depends upon context is implicated, but when someone says, “objective moral truth” or “absolute moral truth”, some of people seem to lose their grip on the extent to which context still matters. You can get an infinite regress of Jesuitical or Talmudic reasoning, just turning on the tension between absolute imperatives and meaning in context.

The other is that “morality” has multiple dimensions. You might call this the Jonathan Haidt problem, since he has raised it most clearly. It is a problem, specifically, in relation to any critique of morality, which seeks to rationalize all the dimensions of morality to some single purpose or criterion. A lot of people hear “morality” and think first in terms of “sexual purity” and not ethical business dealings. This confuses lots of people and starts lots of arguments.

Neither of these two issues — though they generate lots of moral arguments — actually have any implications, I think, for whether humans normally have a reliable moral sense.

157

Substance McGravitas 04.04.13 at 8:53 pm

John Barth’s The End of the Road

That is a terrific little (!) book.

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David 04.04.13 at 9:00 pm

“Neither of these two issues — though they generate lots of moral arguments — actually have any implications, I think, for whether humans normally have a reliable moral sense.”

A group of Tolkien nerds could reliably tell you what color Gandalf’s hair is…

But the point that most of the “It doesn’t matter if morality is objective because people can generally come to a consensus” crowd is missing is that morality requires an imperative proposition to be morality at all. To say “Killing is bad” is to say “You should not kill”. To me, at least, it matters very much whether it is a true fact that I should not kill, or whether it is simply a convention that all humans generally agree to. One is binding and one is not.

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Trader Joe 04.04.13 at 9:25 pm

@150
If you want to use straw man arguments why should anyone believe anything? Should we believe we went to the moon or that quarks exist ? Because government controlled scientists tell me so? I’ll conceed the point that suggesting a poll was a poor debate tactic – but not the point that if you insist something is only truth if it can be measured is the wrong way to look at either science or human nature.

My point begun @137 is that people are making spectrum arguments or relative arguments – this is killing, that is murder etc.

If there is a spectrum, there is a starting point and where that starting point is – that is Truth. I may not, with polls or machines, be able to measure that starting point in a scientific way but, like in science, humans collectively can infer what that point might be from what can be know, observed, measured.

Perhaps I’m wrong – perhaps the killing of humans has no wrongness to it whatsoever and its only a theoretical construct that makes such thinking plausible.

That said, I think civilization has collectively advanced far enough to see the flaws in that line of thinking indeed most social constructs are for the preservation and betterment of humanity that tells me the direction of my thinking is toward truth not away from it.

Where does a string begin?

P.S. I enjoy Barth as well. I don’t know if that’s where I formed my views but I find myself smiling and nodding my head a lot when I read some of the stuff he comes up with.

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David 04.04.13 at 9:29 pm

“If there is a spectrum, there is a starting point and where that starting point is – that is Truth.”

When someone starts capitalizing “truth “is when you know you have hit “Christianity residue” territory.

161

jon livesey 04.04.13 at 9:49 pm

+ Human suffering is bad

Plenty of people fundamentally disagree. They think crime should be punished, that punishment should involve suffering, and that viewing the suffering of criminals teaches valuable lessons.

+ Torturing human babies simply for personal enjoyment is wrong

And torturing human babies because you have strange beliefs? Does a Nazi get off the hook because he sincerely believes some babies are sub-human? How about the Grand Inquisitor? How about a Nazi who claims the baby is sub-human but also claims to take no enjoyment from torturing it?

+ Deception that is much more likely to bring harm than benefits is bad

How do we know how much harm or good a deception will bring? And harm to whom? We use deception in warfare to the harm of the enemy and our own benefit, so in which column do we add up the harms and goods?

+ Being kind to people is good

Really? You want me to be kind to Pol Pot, Adolph Hitler and Timothy McVey? And you call that “obviously right”?

162

Harold 04.04.13 at 10:13 pm

Deception and Machiavellianism are the martial law of the soul.

163

Salient 04.04.13 at 10:31 pm

My answer was that you might be able to agree on mathematics and theoretical physics but not about morality; ergo, there are no “objective” — absolute, transcultural, universal — moral truths.

I really think you’re giving too much credit to mathematics and theoretical physics, and not nearly enough credit to language.

We’re not talking about aliens that can travel between planets–who’s to say they could even make us aware of their presence, or vice versa? No, we’re talking about aliens that are capable of holding a conversation with us. That’s the foundation on which you need to build your case: we discover an alien species that can converse with us.

I would expect any species that is capable of communicating with me about abstract and concrete things to have a predictable baseline understanding of how to treat one another nicely, with far more certainty than my expectation that they can swap calculations with me. All I really need is one mutually understood material fact: “It is very easy to end one another’s lives, and impossible to start them again once ended.” Maybe also “It is even easier to cripple and disable one another, and very difficult to compensate for those damages.” And whatever material facts are underneath that, like, we experience the flow of time in one direction.

But from that, you can derive quite a number of objective moral truths; even if the species has no concept of pain, it will have the concepts of harm and damage, and it will understand the consequences of damage. A species that has sufficient self-awareness for individuals to understand their own mortality, will be a species that has developed a sophisticated understanding of when and how it is acceptable to compromise life. While we might disagree about specific principles, there will be a common understanding underneath those principles, and it will consist of general vague ideas like “suffering is bad.” (Or the properly qualified versions of the same. Goddamnit, don’t make me type a hundred caveats trying to crystallize the aether.)

164

Manta 04.04.13 at 10:39 pm

Salient: we already have part of this communications when we deal with animals. And yet we have little compunction in killing them.
The principles you expose would compel to treat them as we treat people.

165

Salient 04.04.13 at 10:42 pm

Also…

Plenty of people fundamentally disagree. They think crime should be punished, that punishment should involve suffering,

Isn’t the material tactic of punishment, to cause something bad to happen to someone? And isn’t the goal of that punishment, to reduce overall human suffering by creating a context in which we have incentives to not impose suffering on one another?

and that viewing the suffering of criminals teaches valuable lessons.

Kinda hard to see what those lessons could even be, among people who didn’t agree that suffering is bad. “Oh look, the criminal is suffering. But since I don’t understand that the criminal is having bad things happen to them, I have no reason to avoid acting like the criminal, even if I know those actions will bring similar suffering down upon me.”

I honestly* don’t see how a person could even learn from getting punished themselves, without understanding that suffering is something that a person would ordinarily avoid, if able to do so without too much trouble. If you don’t understand that you’re experiencing something bad, how could you possibly develop whatever aversion to behavior the punishment is attempting to instill?

*another word that you are free to dismiss as ‘rhetorical’ because it has a purely social/emotive function

166

Salient 04.04.13 at 10:52 pm

Salient: we already have part of this communications when we deal with animals. And yet we have little compunction in killing them.

For various definitions of ‘we’ we have little compunction in killing one another.

You’re making the mistake of enforcing an absolutist interpretation on a nebulous concept. Nobody believes that suffering is bad absolutely always. Everybody believes that suffering is bad.

This. Should. Not. Be. That. Hard. To. Understand. When someone says “suffering is bad,” you will be able to offer them a hundred examples in which a specific instance of suffering is not bad, and they will agree with you, and they will mention that they had certainly been aware of those types of circumstances already, and then they will say, again, “but suffering is bad.”

They know what they mean by this. Whether you choose to cede that there’s common ground there, or demand that they impose precision on a nebula, is up to you. It really comes down to, how interested are you in preventing them from continuing the conversation?

They’ll never be able to spell out the whole range of caveats that constitute the boundary-post signs surrounding the dim and distant edges of their nebulous idea. By nonetheless speaking, they’re extending some charity in your direction.

You (and David and others) are certainly free to extend no interpretive charity in return, and demand tome-length revisions be appended to every statement. Just don’t pretend that you’re doing that in order to get a better handle on what they really mean, when you’re really just hoping to limit their opportunity to speak their mind.

167

Substance McGravitas 04.04.13 at 11:10 pm

You (and David and others) are certainly free to extend no interpretive charity in return, and demand tome-length revisions be appended to every statement. Just don’t pretend that you’re doing that in order to get a better handle on what they really mean, when you’re really just hoping to limit their opportunity to speak their mind.

That strikes me as unkind.

168

Salient 04.04.13 at 11:20 pm

Salient- the problem with defining subjective as “things reasonable people can disagree about” an objective as things they cannot, is that some disagreements have very little to do with our reasoning.

An unfortunate etymology or maybe bad choice of word on my part — I definitely don’t mean “reasonable” as in “person who reasons” or “person who reasoned” but rather as in “person that I more or less trust to not be trying to trick or deceive or entrap me when they talk with me about these sorts of things.” There might not even be any reasoning involved in the decision to consider someone reasonable (heck, it’s usually not a conscious decision).

Using that definition, when talking with a person I think is reasonable, I go into a conversation anticipating that we’ll disagree with plenty of subjective things. (Implementations of an objective moral truth are not objective, because social context isn’t objective. Since 99.99999% of moral discussion is haggling over when and where and how and why various implementations are appropriate, moral objective statements hardly even get mentioned; they’re assumed.)

And there’s a good likelihood we might appear from time to time to disagree about objective things, because we are failing to grok one another sufficiently well. With some effort and ingenuity and patience, we should be able to re-establish those objective truths as part of the common ground.

If I discover genuine disagreement about an objective thing, though, I probably have to abandon the aforementioned trust, I have to question the unconscious assumptions that I may have made as a precursor to conversation, and I have to question whether it’s even possible to continue the conversation in a meaningful and fruitful way.

Certainly a neo-Nazi could say, “suffering is bad, but teh gays deserve suffering anyway,” and a masochist could say, “suffering is bad, but I like this form of suffering anyway,” and we would know what they meant. And those statements are implied by more casual forms like “[thing nazis say]” or “I like to be shamed and embarrassed by my lover.”

But if a person genuinely didn’t grok that suffering was bad, the corresponding mood would be indifference, or a lack of any mood at all. It’s impossible to be a self-aware masochist (or without understanding that suffering is bad. I’d go so far as to say it’s impossible to be a self-aware moral agent without understanding that suffering is bad, the same way it’s impossible to be a physicist (or mere self-aware observer of physical phenomena) without some intuitive understanding of material truths. Then I’d drop self-aware, because it’s implied by ‘agent.’ And then I’d be back to where I started.

169

Pseudonymous McGee 04.04.13 at 11:21 pm

“Other recent research shows similar results: stressing subjects, rushing them or reminding them of their mortality all reduce utilitarian responses, most likely by preventing them from controlling their emotions.”

That’s one explanation, a nice one if you’re inclined to believe that 1) utilitarianism is more rational because it is more transparently calculable, and that 2) the unease we feel at condoning utilitarian calculations is irrational (merely emotional) because it does not readily admit of the same transparent calculation.

I would offer as a counter-explanation that utilitarian responses are reduced by rushing, stressing and confronting subjects with their own mortality because these factors inhibit our ability to rationalize ourselves into ignoring anti-utilitarian moral sentiments. Not saying this counter-explanation is clearly right and the explanation in the article clearly wrong, just that the “most-likely” status of the “uncontrolled emotions = rejection of utilitarianism” explanation needs more justification.

170

David 04.04.13 at 11:26 pm

“Just don’t pretend that you’re doing that in order to get a better handle on what they really mean, when you’re really just hoping to limit their opportunity to speak their mind.”

What happened to not accusing the other side of arguing in bad faith?

I have very little interest in continuing this conversation, as it seems clear that Salient and others are trying to steer this into an emotionalist showdown.

171

Jerry Vinokurov 04.04.13 at 11:38 pm

But from that, you can derive quite a number of objective moral truths; even if the species has no concept of pain, it will have the concepts of harm and damage, and it will understand the consequences of damage.

Salient, I don’t understand why you want these things to be objective. They might be desirable and important to us, but where does their objectivity reside? This is the problem that this type of discussion always runs into: if you ask me for an objective demonstration of the behavior of physical models, I can provide them, but no one has ever yet provided anything like a demonstration of an objective moral truth.

Perhaps the objectivity of moral truths is unlike the objectivity of physical facts, but then you actually have to show me your ontology and explain why I should take it to represent something objective, rather than, say, some contingent fact about what we both prefer. Of course one may be objectively able to claim “we mostly agree on X” where X = suffering is bad/killing babies is bad/etc., but that’s different from claiming that “suffering is objectively bad.” I would go so far as to say that the latter claim doesn’t even make much sense to me, philosophically speaking.

It’s not that I disagree with your evaluations of what’s good and bad (judging from your other posts I’d imagine we agree quite a bit). It’s just that I’m not sure we’re going to get anywhere trying to ground those evaluations in some fact about the world, rather than some facts about ourselves (e.g. we feel pain and desire not to feel pain, we are empathic and therefore don’t want to inflict pain on others, etc.). I agree with Bruce Wilder above that this doesn’t really matter too much in terms of cashing out the beliefs for actual effect, and if that’s true, I don’t see what’s to be gained by insisting on objectivity.

172

Salient 04.04.13 at 11:41 pm

That strikes me as unkind.

There’s no way for this to be meaningfully implicative without the assumption that “kindness is good” would be and should be an objective moral principle (so that we could skip straight ahead to assessing context and implementation of that principle, the subjective part). If you didn’t implicitly trust that everyone involved in the conversation agreed on the objective moral principle–that it’s beyond dispute–you couldn’t have offered that statement in the spirit that you did.

In fact, if I responded with complete incomprehension or indifference about kindness, you’d assume I had decided that unkindness was called-for in this circumstance despite kindness being, on balance, a good thing. In other words, you’d assume that you and I disagree about context and implementation-propriety. If you discovered that no actually I see no reason whatsoever for kindness or lack thereof, independent of context, then it wouldn’t be possible for us to meaningfully converse about the topic anymore.

…now I feel bad for taking what was actually a very kind statement on your part and exploiting it to make my (very old, very tedious) point yet again (~bravo~, me). I’d delete it but it feels like I finally got a couple things said the right way, concretely.

173

Jerry Vinokurov 04.04.13 at 11:44 pm

If you discovered that no actually I see no reason whatsoever for kindness or lack thereof, independent of context, then it wouldn’t be possible for us to meaningfully converse about the topic anymore.

I’m getting shades of Rorty’s “The Priority of Democracy To Philosophy” here (PDF)…

174

Kevin McDonough 04.04.13 at 11:54 pm

After what seems to have turned into a seriously deteriorated thread (quick scan after having to bow out earlier), Salient wins (and Jerry Vinokurov subsequently loses) the thread in the latest comments.

175

Jerry Vinokurov 04.04.13 at 11:55 pm

I wasn’t aware that this thread was being refereed, or indeed that it was possible to “win” or “lose” it. But you learn something new every day, I guess.

176

Salient 04.05.13 at 12:01 am

Salient, I don’t understand why you want these things to be objective.

It’s more, why do I want to recover the use of the word ‘objective’ from people who want it to mean divorced from the meaningful and useful colloquial way that nearly everyone, including the original post and the Times article it cites, uses the word. Had David been the author of the original post, and wrote something about objective moral truths, I wouldn’t have contested his use of the word ‘objective’ to mean material. Had the original post intended to use the word ‘objective’ in the way that David insists upon, I wouldn’t have contested his response (in fact I literally would not have been able to contest his response). etc.

More generally, there’s an impulsive response of protest when watching some avoidable technical phenomenon shut down contemplation — it feels shady for someone to source a disagreement in the definition of a word, without just explicitly acknowledging that’s the entire source of disagreement. If David et al were willing to accept some variant of the meaning of the word ‘objective’ that is in line with what is intended by both Matthew Hudson and Harry when they used the word, then none of the ensuing argument, all of my comments here included, could have possibly happened.

But the fight over the word, and the triviality of that, cuts both ways. Probably if neither Matthew Hudson nor Harry had specifically used the word ‘objective’ when expressing their thoughts, David wouldn’t have spoken up in the first place. If that means I’m engaging in a “emotionalist showdown” then… well, that’s uncomfortable territory and I dunno how to process it exactly, but it does feel like an emotionalist showdown (or whatever) in response to a technicalist hijack, and I’m not sure how else one goes about engaging with technicalist hijackers, when what one wants is to convince them to let us have enough breathing space and get past their demands for endless caveats and clauses and rephrasings.

177

geo 04.05.13 at 12:04 am

Contra Kevin, I thought Jerry @169 and 171 was right on the mark. I don’t see what’s to be gained by insisting on objectivity, either. And the Rorty essay he links to is a gem.

178

novakant 04.05.13 at 12:30 am

I remember reading “Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong” by J.L. Mackie – short, clear and enjoyable, even for those who will disagree with the anti-objectivist arguments presented (at least I imagine so, since I don’t).

179

Salient 04.05.13 at 12:31 am

I don’t see what’s to be gained by insisting on objectivity, either.

The problem (as I see it) is that you’re grafting your definition of the word onto a discussion that isn’t attending to that definition. I’m not insisting on geo-objectivity, I’m insisting on Sal-Harry-Hutson-objectivity. We are using the word to mean something different. I feel really frustrated that something so basic is proving to be such a fucking sticking point. We are using the word to mean something different. We are using the word to mean something different. We are not trying to say that these things are ‘objective’ according to your use of the word.

I’m not asking for you to abandon your definition of what ‘objective’ ought to mean, I’m just asking you to respect places and discourse events in which people are using the word in a different way — a well-understood colloquial way — and allowing them to talk about what they would like to talk about without demanding that they honor your definition by abandoning theirs.

Seriously, look at comment 167, which turns an eye back to the OP. We could be talking about stuff like that. Instead that comment sticks out like an oasis in a desert, and we’re stuck grinding our heads against a really really simple and frankly really really stupid sticking point.

I tried to help by describing the colloquial meaning in an understandable way. I feel like I totally failed. But look, srsly, if you comprehend, but refuse to accept, the definition that I offered, please, just say so. If you would like for us to stop talking about the original topic — or to never start talking about it — just because you refuse to accept the offered definition, please, just say so.

And in fact, whenever you’re out in public and here someone say “but let’s be objective about this,” please, exercise the same restraint I’ve been pushing for here — don’t step in and push that person to demonstrate that their forthcoming observations are independent of sentience or the existence of observers. It’s just not what they mean, and the act of stepping in to enforce the definition is completely lacking the interpretive charity that allows meaningful and enlightening conversations to flow in the first place.

(On the other hand, if it means Jerry Vinokurov loses, I don’t wanna win.)

180

Kevin McDonough 04.05.13 at 12:38 am

(On the other hand, if it means Jerry Vinokurov loses, I don’t wanna win.)

Well, it’s really Rorty who loses if that makes you feel any better.

181

geo 04.05.13 at 12:43 am

it’s really Rorty who loses

Come off it, Kevin. Rorty rocks even more than Epicurus!

182

Jerry Vinokurov 04.05.13 at 12:51 am

Salient, I think I understand what you’re getting at. I’d like to compose a longer response but I’m on my way out of the office, so I’ll try to get to it later. For now, what I’ll say is: this definitional haggling is frustrating, obviously, but that’s what happens when a loaded word like “objective” is tossed into the mix. As much as you’d like for people to use one sense of it, it inevitably has multiple senses that trigger multiple reactions. I guess my issue is that yes, I understand the “colloquial” meaning, but all that meaning says, to me, is that we more or less agree on it; there’s that second, technical meaning, which I guess you don’t want to see used, but I suspect there won’t be any good way of getting people to not elide the two. So it’s not that I don’t want to work with your definition so much as that I don’t know how to separate it from the other one, and the other definition is something I find really unsatisfactory. Maybe “objective” is just a bad word all around in this case, since it seems to lead to a discursive breakdown.

183

Bruce Wilder 04.05.13 at 12:54 am

David @ 156: ” . . . it matters very much whether it is a true fact that I should not kill, or whether it is simply a convention that all humans generally agree to. One is binding and one is not.”

I think it is useful to recognize that there are three separate domains of knowledge, each resting on its own epistemology. There’s the logical or analytic, whose truth value is logical validity, and which is a priori in relation to the facts of the world. There’s the experiential or empirical, which is concerned directly with the facts of the world, and with constructing synthetic statements about the world, and whose truth value is, factual truth. And, then, there’s the moral, which is about values and ethics in a social context, the truth-value of which is, good.

Asking whether a moral imperative is a true “fact” is nonsensical. In its way, it is just as wrong-headed as Kant seeking out a categorical imperative. Moral imperatives are not logical propositions or factual statements, grammatically or functionally.

When someone asserts that morality is “objective”, that person is either seriously confused, or they are using “objective” in a somewhat metaphorical way, as Salient
@ 177 has suggested, outside of its application denoting the use of measurement in the social construction of facts. Like Salient, I tend to think it is not a difficult metaphor to grasp in outline, if you are not being obdurate, resting on it does, on the social construction of morality and ethics.

No purely logical exercise can establish any fact, and no set of facts can settle any question of values or ethics. Since the pragmatists have been invoked, let’s also admit that no actual and genuine expression can be purely logical or factual. In interacting with the world, humans mix the logical, the factual, and the moral all together, inextricably.

We can move on, now.

184

Kevin McDonough 04.05.13 at 1:13 am

Geo @179: I am at least smart enough to know when I’m in a losing fight. But I am a bit surprised to see you ranking Rorty above Epicurus. What gives? Just based on my few years of reading this blog.

185

Kevin McDonough 04.05.13 at 1:18 am

Olive branch to Jerry (probably not necessary): I am also very sympathetic to this: “I guess my issue is that yes, I understand the “colloquial” meaning, but all that meaning says, to me, is that we more or less agree on it; there’s that second, technical meaning, which I guess you don’t want to see used, but I suspect there won’t be any good way of getting people to not elide the two. So it’s not that I don’t want to work with your definition so much as that I don’t know how to separate it from the other one, and the other definition is something I find really unsatisfactory. Maybe “objective” is just a bad word all around in this case, since it seems to lead to a discursive breakdown.”

186

geo 04.05.13 at 1:25 am

What gives?

Just loose talk.

187

William Timberman 04.05.13 at 1:35 am

This thought may be tangential to the discussion, but with respect to whether or not people have an inbuilt moral sense, I wonder if what I detect as a sort of adolescent belligerence in the pronunciamentos of right-wing and libertarian gasbags doesn’t have something to do with their half-repressed consciousness of doing something transgressive and in fact wrong in the moral sense. O’Reilly, Gingrich, Limbaugh — all seem unable to look anyone in the eye, at least in a figurative sense, when holding forth on why it’s in the interest of liberty to let widows and orphans perish in the snow, etc. Ayn Rand herself, being an order of magnitude smarter than her acolytes most of the time, disguised it better, but I sense it in her as well. We often say that they have no shame, but I suspect that in fact they do. A terrible thing to be them, in any event.

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Jerry Vinokurov 04.05.13 at 2:45 am

Kevin, olive branch accepted, no hard feelings.

Bruce,

When someone asserts that morality is “objective”, that person is either seriously confused, or they are using “objective” in a somewhat metaphorical way, as Salient @177 has suggested, outside of its application denoting the use of measurement in the social construction of facts. Like Salient, I tend to think it is not a difficult metaphor to grasp in outline, if you are not being obdurate, resting on it does, on the social construction of morality and ethics.

So let me ask you this then: is Derek Parfit “obdurate” or “confused”? Maybe by some definition he is, but since he’s a serious thinker and CT is a philosophically inclined blog, it might help to at least take him seriously to begin with. And Derek Parfit is very much convinced that the correct usage of “objective” here is not the metaphorical one preferred by Salient and (possibly) invoked by Harry in the OP (more on that later), but actually the same kind of sense that I use when I talk about the “objective” properties of the electron. Derek Parfit is so sure this is true that he wrote a two-volume tome about it; I guess that’s a kind of obduracy in itself, but it’s not like this isn’t a view that actual philosophers hold. Not one I agree with, but certainly one that commands a significant academic faction in support of itself.

To return to the OP, here’s what Harry said:

There are, in fact, some objective moral truths. Personally, I think there are lots of them. And, in fact, our grasp of most of them is far from tenuous. Here are four objective moral truths:

Human suffering is bad

Torturing human babies simply for personal enjoyment is wrong

Deception that is much more likely to bring harm than benefits is bad

Being kind to people is good

Comments will probably attract nitpickers who want to deny one or another for these, or say that they simply express “western” values, or something like that, but all the statements are, in fact, true. The fact that stressing subjects, or reframing a problem, leads people to change their responses does not show that there are no right answers, on moral matters any more than on scientific or basic reasoning matters.

If Harry is using the word “objective” in the metaphorical (let’s call it M-objective) rather than the technical (T-objective) sense, then it’s not really at all obvious, and I don’t think the people for whom this is not obvious are being obdurate about it. Saying “all these statements are, in fact, true” is a really strong claim; it’s a claim made in response to an article which claims, on the basis of trolley-problem studies, that objective moral truth doesn’t exist. Now, I would agree with the latter part of the OP, which is that the studies do not prove what Hutson, the author of the NYT piece, claims they prove. This is because, as the OP points out, it’s hard to isolate the morally relevant elements from trolley problems, which after all exist mostly to confuse people anyway, and framing is a powerful cognitive bias, so people’s inconsistencies can’t necessarily be read as giving us any indication about whether objective truths exist or not.

But just because Hutson is wrong in claiming that the experiments he cites prove the non-existence of objective moral truth does not mean that Harry is right in claiming that T-objective truth exists. M-objective truth we’ve already all agreed to anyway, but again, there’s nothing up there that leads me to pick one sense over the other. This is why I rebelled against Salient’s attempt to corner the market on objectivity, so to speak; I’m happy to accede to an M-objective moral truth, but not the other kind.

The reason I linked the Rorty piece up there is because I think Rorty really does a good job of getting at what the difference between those two things is (of course, he’d say T-objectivity is meaningless anyway). Rorty says (roughly paraphrased) that the proper response to those who claim that philosophically democracy produces the “wrong” kind of person or is unjustified in some other deep metaphysical sense is just to shrug. We should try to accommodate the illiberal critic of liberal democracy, but if we can’t, then that’s ok too; we’re not obligated to do so and it may in fact be impossible without giving up our commitment to liberal democracy. And if that’s the case, (my gloss) all we can do is suggest that the critic has no common project with us and move on (while also possibly taking measures to prevent him from destroying our project). The way I translate him into this discussion is that the “objective” character of morality consists of the things that I need you to agree on in order to undertake common moral projects with me. It is indeed the case that if I (or Salient, or Harry) can’t get you to agree on things like “kindness is good” and “cruelty is bad” then there is no hope for us as collaborators in a moral project, specifically the moral project of liberal democracy. If you don’t agree on the rules, then you can’t play the game.

Which is all to say that this is how I see M-objectivity as being cashed out in practice. Whether or not T-objectivity is A Thing, as Parfit might wish, or not, as I personally believe, seems to me entirely irrelevant; as long as I can get other people to accede to the premises of the moral projects I wish to undertake, then I’m happy with that and content, with Rorty, to toss out the debate about metaphysics altogether.

189

Jerry Vinokurov 04.05.13 at 2:51 am

By the way, insofar as the difficulty of perceiving moral truths is concerned, I would like to point out that this difficulty is not limited to moral truths, but to actual ones. Pose the Monty Hall problem to someone and see how they react; there exists an objectively correct answer to the problem (I just wrote a short script to simulate this) but it’s very hard for people to grasp. And the Monty Hall problem is childishly straightforward in comparison with many problems of practical reasoning.

In other words, thinking is hard. Thinking consistently about things is even harder, and really thinking through the consequences of your premises is harder still, even when the problem is well-defined and you know an objective answer exists. We shouldn’t be surprised that people mess this up in experimental settings.

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Bruce Wilder 04.05.13 at 5:33 am

I was thinking of the Monty Hall problem as well. The fact that people can be confused about moral problems is not evidence that moral reasoning is illusory. That people can generate and follow complex moral reasoning at all is evidence of some shared moral sensibility, giving a grammar and syntax to a common language.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.05.13 at 6:10 am

“Nobody believes that suffering is bad absolutely always. Everybody believes that suffering is bad.”

It seems that the glorious “objective moral truth” has now been reduced to a triviality: “suffering is unpleasant to the one who suffers”. Except, I suppose, for those who enjoy burning their skin with cigarettes.

If this was an objective moral truth, or, for that matter, even a personal moral truth, then “bad” wouldn’t mean “unpleasant”, but “wrong, always”. And then making criminals suffer would’ve been out of the question. The same way you feel about slavery, or rape.

But as it happens, even these days almost no one believes that suffering and killing is wrong. Except maybe for a few crazy Buddhist fundamentalists.

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novakant 04.05.13 at 8:22 am

I think it might help the discussion if “objective” as used by the proponents in this discussion would be substituted by “intersubjective”.

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Manta 04.05.13 at 9:21 am

Salient:
as I said above @144, I took “objective” to mean “universal to all (reasonable? good?) men”: and I am still disagreeing with the statement “there exist universal moral truths”, for the reasons I and others explained many times already.

On unkindness: we value kindness in comment threads because we want to have a discussion: in this context, kindness it’s not a moral value, but a mean to an end.

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Torquil Macneil 04.05.13 at 9:48 am

“Human suffering is bad”

I wish that were an objective moral truth, but most humans have not believed it to be true for most of human history. How could we persuade an Aztec priest and his sacrificial victim of the truth of that precept? The ‘objective’ truth would not be obvious to them.

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Asteele 04.05.13 at 12:17 pm

192. I don’t think we need to go to our conceptions of the Aztecs, I don’t think most people believe it now.

That said I’m basically on Salients side, I think in these conversations people tend to want to reify the word objective until it doesn’t mean anything that exists, rather than take it on the terms that most people use it.

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roger nowosielski 04.05.13 at 2:37 pm

@ 186, JV

” . . . as long as I can get other people to accede to the premises of the moral projects I wish to undertake, then I’m happy with that and content, with Rorty, to toss out the debate about metaphysics altogether.”

Precisely, except that I would expand the category of “the moral projects I wish to undertake” to include . . . please feel free to fill in the blanks. For indeed, I fail to see what else hangs on the outcome of this discussion.

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Substance McGravitas 04.05.13 at 3:06 pm

I’m interested in the Monty Hall script…

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Jerry Vinokurov 04.05.13 at 3:27 pm

Ask and ye shall receive.

Let me know if there are any mistakes there (I wrote this in about 15 minutes) but I think everything is right. You can run it from the command line by making the script executable and passing it the number of iterations and the strategy, like so: ./monty_hall.py 1000 always_switch. It does use pylab (or numpy if you like) so you’ll need that to run it.

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roger nowosielski 04.05.13 at 3:27 pm

@194

The following might be of help:

“. . . values are as objective as beliefs, since interpreting another requires a common framework of belief, desire, and valuation, within which, and only within which, disagreement about values becomes possible. The denial that values are objective should not be confused with relativism: of course what is valuable or right is relative to time, place, local custom, and so on. This is not in itself a denial of the objectivity of values; rather, it spells out what the interpreter must come to understand about the other in order to know whether to they disagree or not. Nor should objectivism about values be confused with realism, the ontological position that one or another sort of object — in this case, values — exist.”

From Introduction (p. xvi) to Donald Davidson’s Problems of Rationality Clarendon Press, 2004

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Bruce Wilder 04.05.13 at 3:30 pm

Mao Cheng Ji: If this was an objective moral truth, or, for that matter, even a personal moral truth, then “bad” wouldn’t mean “unpleasant”, but “wrong, always”.

Judgments of moral meaning depend by their nature on context. Meaning depends on context. That we could sit on a jury and hear arguments and evidence about whether a particular killing constitutes a murder, and arrive at a consensus of opinion on the case indicates to me that we have common notions of what is right and wrong conduct, and what justifies attaching moral force to the actions of the state. That doesn’t mean that we accept that killing is “absolutely” wrong. Quite the contrary. We think that killing another human persons is generally wrong, but that circumstances and intention and other elements of context matter in evaluating the justice of the case.

Our moral reasoning can be complex and sophisticated, adapting as it must to meaning in context. Still, I don’t have any difficulty in understanding such a general sentiment as, “kindness is good” or “suffering is bad”, or assenting to the same. Knowing that our moral reasoning can be complex, as circumstances and context requires, I also do not have any difficulty understanding why it might be difficult to formulate such a simple sentiment, regarding, say, deception.

How this discussion could bog down through over a hundred comments on such indefensible propositions as the notion that a moral imperative has to be absolute or objective to be true on its own terms, defies my understanding.

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David 04.05.13 at 3:39 pm

“How this discussion could bog down through over a hundred comments on such indefensible propositions as the notion that a moral imperative has to be absolute or objective to be true on its own terms, defies my understanding.”

Because the answers being pushed by you and Salient do not make sense and are not satisfying, and frankly you do not seem to understand why.

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David 04.05.13 at 3:44 pm

To elaborate, it is descriptively accurate to say that human beings make moral decisions based on context, but it is not clear that this should be prescriptively true, and prescriptiveness is generally held to be the defining characteristic of morality. Prescriptiveness is what I am looking for. I am not interested in the question of “Can a suitable and reasonably effective morality be created and implemented?” (The answer is obviously yes.)

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roger nowosielski 04.05.13 at 3:49 pm

So David, is your question about whether “ought” can be derived from “is”?

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Jerry Vinokurov 04.05.13 at 3:50 pm

How this discussion could bog down through over a hundred comments on such indefensible propositions as the notion that a moral imperative has to be absolute or objective to be true on its own terms, defies my understanding.

It’s very easy, actually: because moral realism is an actual view that people hold. Not a view that you seem to agree with (and not one that I agree with either) but one that isn’t exactly unpopular in the philosophical community. And of course when you step outside that community, people will tell you, quite explicitly, that certain things are “just wrong” or “just right” and that their judgments about these things are reflective of moral facts that exist entirely independently of any social context.

I’m actually more interested though in the question of why you think this represents a “bogging down.” Where exactly was a thread that started off with the proclamation that objective moral truths exist supposed to go? Seems to me like it’s actually generated a fair amount of useful and interesting commentary.

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David 04.05.13 at 3:51 pm

“So David, is your question about whether “ought” can be derived from “is”?”

I am not “asking” because I am certain that it cannot.

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roger nowosielski 04.05.13 at 3:57 pm

Well, we used to think that, but now, people like Elizabeth Anscombe, Phillipa Foot and Iris Murdoch have since been able to present quite cogent arguments to the contrary.

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David 04.05.13 at 4:00 pm

“Well, we used to think that, but now, people like Elizabeth Anscombe, Phillipa Foot and Iris Murdoch have since been able to present quite cogent arguments to the contrary.”

So, I guess all moral non-realists and moral nihilists have hung up their coats and joined the moral realist camp?

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Jerry Vinokurov 04.05.13 at 4:01 pm

Well, we used to think that, but now, people like Elizabeth Anscombe, Phillipa Foot and Iris Murdoch have since been able to present quite cogent arguments to the contrary.

I’m very curious about which particular arguments these are. Can you link some references?

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Infinitespiral 04.05.13 at 4:09 pm

Sigh. This again.

The point is not that moral rules aren’t objective, the point is that you cannot have acontextual moral rules. The sentence “torture is wrong” is an incomplete sentence. It must be “If you value , which makes you desire a state of affairs , then torture is the wrong way to accomplish or conflicts with other value .” That statement CAN be objectively true. You can then either change your behavior, change your valuations, or admit that those weren’t your real valuations in the first place.

To put it in CS terms, the function is GoodBad(action, specificDesire, otherValues[]);

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Trader Joe 04.05.13 at 4:14 pm

@202
“I’m actually more interested though in the question of why you think this represents a “bogging down.” Where exactly was a thread that started off with the proclamation that objective moral truths exist supposed to go? Seems to me like it’s actually generated a fair amount of useful and interesting commentary.”

Completely agree.

I don’t enjoy hashing over definitions any more than the next guy, but some of this is going to be inherently necessary in order to illuminate other perspectives and view points. Most any view point can be better informed by knowledge and understanding of its alternatives.

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Asteele 04.05.13 at 4:19 pm

I’m going to go of on a limb and say that no one outside the philosophic community cares about their internal debates.

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Patrick 04.05.13 at 4:25 pm

Novakant- it would be amazingly useful if people did that. But part of the (oft explicitly stated) motivation for using the term “objective” is to hang on to the persuasive power of treating your opinions as facts. So no one is going to surrender that bit of dissembling in favor if clarity.

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Bruce Wilder 04.05.13 at 4:45 pm

roger nowosielski : “So David, is your question about whether “ought” can be derived from “is”?”

David: “I am not “asking” because I am certain that it cannot.”

Just to be clear, I agree that just as “is” cannot be derived by deduction from axioms or any other form of logical analysis, just so, the “prescriptive” cannot be derived directly and solely from the “descriptive”. Knowing what logically could be, doesn’t tell us what is, and knowing what is, does not tell us what ought to be. These are different domains of knowledge, with their own epistemic truth-values. Just because we do not know the truth of Darwinian evolution by the same criteria that we know the truth of 2+2=4 or some Aristotelian syllogism does not make Darwinian evolution any less true. Descartes seeking after an undoubtable proposition of fact, or Kant seeking after a categorical imperative, were simply wrong-headed.

What I understand Quine or Rorty (pragmatists) as saying about this distinction between domains of knowledge is that it is an analytic distinction, and these things cannot be neatly teased apart. Real and practical interaction with the world will entangle all of our statements across domains. It isn’t just that descriptions have to be logically consistent or that prescriptions must be consistent with verified facts; there cannot be pure statements belonging to only one domain. Even mathematicians manipulating imaginary numbers are not entirely detached from the digits on their hands or the practical value of theory to understanding.

The demand that an expression of moral sentiment, however, be evaluated as a description of fact, and rejected as knowledge, because it does not satisfy criteria of empirical verification, can nevertheless be recognized as wrong-headed. A moral judgment might be rejected because its reasoning conflicts with verified fact, just as a factual proposition can be rejected as illogical, but that’s not what David appears to me to be contending. He seems to think there can be no moral knowledge which is not factual knowledge. Or, that an assertion that there can be moral knowledge, which takes a form making use of a metaphoric “objective” in implied analogy to factual knowledge, can be disproved by denying the metaphor.

It seems to me that we need to accept the metaphor as a metaphor, and approach the subject of moral knowledge and its peculiar epistemology more gingerly and with a greater allowance of goodwill for those attempting to discuss it.

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roger nowosielski 04.05.13 at 4:46 pm

@206, JV

Sorry, computer’s slow.

The following is a link to my pdf files. Click on #5, I believe, articles by H. Putnam.

Will come back with other references shortly.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.05.13 at 4:50 pm

Bruce: “Judgments of moral meaning depend by their nature on context. Meaning depends on context. That we could sit on a jury and hear arguments and evidence about whether a particular killing constitutes a murder, and arrive at a consensus of opinion on the case indicates to me that we have common notions of what is right and wrong conduct, and what justifies attaching moral force to the actions of the state.”

This idea, that we, in fact, can’t reach a consensus is exactly what led Matthew Hutson (up in the OP) to conclude that there is no “objective moral truths”. Apparently even we – you and I – will not necessarily arrive at a consensus, as our intuitions are affected not just by the context, but by the wording, framing. And good luck with arriving at a consensus with an average caveman, or a person from the 12th century, or someone from an uncontacted Amazon tribe.

Aside from that, I just don’t get it, that killing is wrong, or bad. There are circumstances, even today, when they will send you to jail for refusing to kill. If you’ve been ordered to kill. Only an unsanctioned killing is wrong. So, perhaps the single objective moral truth is: “obey the authorities”. Like in that old Carpenter’s movie.

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rf 04.05.13 at 4:53 pm

“There are circumstances, even today, when they will send you to jail for refusing to kill”

Out of curiosity, what circumstances?

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Jerry Vinokurov 04.05.13 at 4:56 pm

Roger, seems like that’s not the right link.

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roger nowosielski 04.05.13 at 5:02 pm

I guess it doesn’t transmit the entire folder. Will have to assign a particular URL to the document in order to transmit. Will take me a while.

Meanwhile, you can download from this site and then convert it to a pdf format at will. I was trying to save you guys some time and effort.

Oh, well.

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Wonks Anonymous 04.05.13 at 5:04 pm

Landsburg stated that the hypothetical was not about whether something is moral, but whether it should be legal since he opposes the prohibition of certain acts he also opposes (Nazi propaganda being his example). He also seemed to be arguing that it was hard to articulate why our intuitions differ in these cases, when there is an obvious answer: rule utilitarianism. It’s actually quite surprising he got so many comments, none of which contained that phrase.

220

Bob 04.05.13 at 5:10 pm

It seems to me that moral relativists tend to mix up or conflate issues of right and wrong with power and/or consensus.

Morals by societal convention seems particularly weak. Is torturing an innocent child, for instance, wrong because some authority figures told us it is? That seems to be a pretty weak reason for believing something is morally wrong.

Yes, there are many differences among cultures. So what? Do they speak to important moral issues? Usually not.

Lastly, it is strange that those that cling to variants of moral relativism are often those least likely to admit they are wrong.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.05.13 at 5:20 pm

213, the military. If they order to kill, and you refuse, I’m sure something unpleasant (bad) will happen to you. Court-martial? And conversely, people who kill willingly and professionally are celebrities and objects of admiration. So, “killing is bad” is really not a true statement, and never has been.

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Trader Joe 04.05.13 at 5:33 pm

Mao @217
Isn’t war and military action a human construct completely apart from a discussion of moral truth? One might argue acts done under the auspices of war or human conflict are inherently wrong which would trump any subset of those actions.

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You, you may say
I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

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geo 04.05.13 at 5:50 pm

Bruce @210: moral knowledge, which takes a form making use of a metaphoric “objective” in implied analogy to factual knowledge, can be disproved by denying the metaphor

What is the metaphor or analogy you’re referring to here? What do you take to be the meaning of “objective” as applied to factual knowledge? According to your (rather good, I think) summary of Quine and Rorty, there is no point using the word “objective” — which generally means “absolute,” “non-contingent,” “not context-dependent” (though it sometimes, and more usefully, means “fair-minded” or “non-partisan”) — in connection with any kind of knowledge. That’s all we anti-objectivists are contending. Are you with us?

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roger nowosielski 04.05.13 at 5:56 pm

@ 214, 215 — Jerry

This link should take you directly to the pdf file.

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Yarrow 04.05.13 at 6:09 pm

geo @ 219: “there is no point using the word “objective” … in connection with any kind of knowledge. That’s all we anti-objectivists are contending.”

geo @ 27: “#24 seems to me exactly right.” (Patrick @ 24: “There are no objective moral truths for the same reason, and to the same extent, that there are no objectively delicious foods, or objectively cute babies.”)

Geo, would you have said that it was exactly right to claim that “There are no objective scientific truths for the same reason, and to the same extent, that there are no objectively delicious foods, or objectively cute babies”? If so, why not say (way earlier!) “There are no objective moral truths for the same reason, and to the same extent, that there are no objective scientific truths”?

That’s a philosophical position; but it seems to me many folks here are arguing for scientific and mathematical realism but against moral realism. (Personally I’m wishy-washy about all of these realisms.)

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Bruce Wilder 04.05.13 at 6:12 pm

me @ 198 “. . . whether a particular killing constitutes a murder . . . “

Mao Cheng Ji @ 212: “I just don’t get it, that killing is wrong, or bad.”

And, to me, discussing this with you is like pulling teeth with pliers.

Killing is a fact; murder applies a moral concept to the fact. Killing is what it is. Murder is a killing, which is morally wrong and reprehensible, in some particular(ly, and legally cognizant) way. The epistemology of a fact is distinct from the epistemology of a wrong.

Knowledge of Euclidean geometry or electricity requires considerable effort to acquire, gives rise to misunderstandings and mistakes and disputes, and might not be comprehended by a caveman. That knowledge of those subjects entails difficulty or has a definite history is no indication that knowledge is not knowledge or is not shared socially (I’m a little unclear on what your denial denies.)

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CJColucci 04.05.13 at 6:13 pm

All I know is that I am one of a species of large-brained primates and that, as such, I have certain needs, wants, and feelings, which I want, as far as possible, to satisfy. I know that most of my fellow large-brained primates have similar needs, wants, and feelings, and that we’re stuck living together, so a “natural” code of “eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired, fight when you have to, and fuck when you can” is going to require some adjustments.
It shouldn’t be surprising that there would be widespread agreement on at least some basic rules for a flourishing life together. Details will vary with the circumstances: just about every culture expresses respect and affection for the elders, but some nomadic tribes leave them to die. Not really a moral disagreement — they respect and love their elders and probably aren’t happy about what they have to do — but it’s the best way they have figured out in their harsh environment to get on; if they don’t leave the elder behind to die, everyone starves. We’d probably do something similar in their circumstances; and if they were in ours, they’d have nursing homes.
Now someone might think it’s a good idea if everyone else followed whatever rules we’ve agreed on while he preys on everyone else. That takes a lot of nerve, skill, and luck. I don’t have it, and, on the odds, neither do you,or, eventually, many of the people who wrongly think they do.
And even widely-accepted practices can be criticized, and our views of whether they fit in a flourishing life can change. Nobody ever wanted to be a slave, but some people merely accepted it as a fact of life — winners own slaves, losers become slaves, them’s the breaks — and there was no damn moral issue about it. I sometimes think that was a saner attitude than the various efforts by people with nagging consciences to explain why it was right that some class of persons be slaves and others not. But sometime in the 18th century, it became possible to think that maybe nobody ought to be a slave. Maybe because it was only then becoming possible to envision a world where it wasn’t necessary or at least extremely convenient that there be slaves.
I don’t know any more “objetive” basis for morality than the deepest needs and desires and feelings of humankind, and you can make reasonable arguments for why certain rules, in certain circumstances, best satisfy them. It’s hard, but it’s a largely factual inquiry at that step. How much more objective does it have to be than that?

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roger nowosielski 04.05.13 at 6:14 pm

@221

“. . . it seems to me many folks here are arguing for scientific and mathematical realism but against moral realism.”

Precisely, and on what grounds. Aren’t all these “truths” embedded in a language?

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geo 04.05.13 at 6:20 pm

Yarrow @220: Yes, that’s a fair question. I suppose I didn’t think it necessary to take a maximalist position at that early point in the discussion. Since the question on the table then was moral realism, and I thought Patrick had offered a good argument against moral realism, I thought I’d just second him rather than raise the further issue of scientific/mathematical realism.

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Sebastian H 04.05.13 at 6:25 pm

” it seems to me many folks here are arguing for scientific and mathematical realism but against moral realism.”

This is exactly the problem. I’m ok with the idea of people being radical skeptics about the ability of humans to ferret out truth. I’m not one of such people, but their position makes logical sense from the right premise. If you don’t believe there is an objective anything, or that objective anythingness is so mediated by human perceptions that we can’t really access it, so be it. But so many of the arguments against knowing moral truths are equally applicable to how we know any truths, that I don’t understand why you think you can use them to undercut moral truths without destroying your ability to make arguments about all sorts of everyday scientific or mathematical truths.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.05.13 at 6:31 pm

“Murder is a killing, which is morally wrong and reprehensible, in some particular(ly, and legally cognizant) way.”

That’s right, but where is The Moral Truth? I certainly do realize that being human includes – uniquely, as far as we know, and non-trivially – to be able to distinguish good from evil. What I claim is that the contents of each of these two categories are not constant, not universal, determined by the environment. Do we agree on this or not?

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David 04.05.13 at 6:42 pm

“Or, that an assertion that there can be moral knowledge, which takes a form making use of a metaphoric “objective” in implied analogy to factual knowledge, can be disproved by denying the metaphor.”

Getting pretty warm. This is the closest to a profitable exchange we have gotten to here.

But the question of morality cannot be looked at as simply one of constructing metaphors, because in the real world there are power imbalances that hopelessly complicate everything.

We both agree that there are no moral facts in the same way there are scientific/empirical facts. Let’s go back to the Spartan/Helot idea discussed earlier. The Spartans enslaved the Helots, murdered them generally at will, constructed an elaborate master race ideology, etc etc. They profited materially and psychologically from the relationship. This was Marxian exploitation in its purest form.

I don’t think any form of morality I have ever seen provides a reason that the Spartans SHOULD have abandoned this arrangement. The deontologist (at least if he was modern) would say that slavery was wrong because it was wrong. The Spartan could reply, “Ok, I am wrong. Now get out of my way.” The consequentialist would also have little to contribute, as the Spartan would view the consequences as favorable, and if the consequentialist said, “Well, think of how the Helots feel” the Spartan would almost certainly shrug. The Egoist would probably not have a problem with the arrangement.

And we humans implicitly acknowledge that this is how the world works. We have our law enforcement, and our war, after all. We know that many people will not choose an option that is less than personally optimal because “it is wrong”, and many of them are not deterred by the threat of social consequences because they think there will be none. This is part of the reason that the whole Christian notion of Hell was created, and, while divine command theory is obviously flawed, most people intuitively understand that there is something fishy about a form of morality with no enforcement mechanism.

Now, we can say (and I think it is true) that we construct our moral systems from a complex set of references back to values that are assumed to be very very common among human beings because of our nature, and that we enforce these moral systems through social conditioning and, if necessary, violence, but none of this provides a reason that, say, a Hitler who is guaranteed to win World War II shouldn’t gas all his enemies and lay waste to every country on earth. In practice, might makes right, and it is not good enough to speak of contingent values and whether or not reasonable people can construct a modus vivendi.

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roger nowosielski 04.05.13 at 6:45 pm

In answer to your question, may I suggests Iris Murdoch’s essay, “The Sovereignty of Good.”

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roger nowosielski 04.05.13 at 6:48 pm

@228

“Let’s go back to the Spartan/Helot idea discussed earlier. The Spartans enslaved the Helots, murdered them generally at will, constructed an elaborate master race ideology, etc etc. They profited materially and psychologically from the relationship. This was Marxian exploitation in its purest form.”

Reminiscent of Thucydides’s account of the Melian Dialogue.

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Kevin McDonough 04.05.13 at 7:14 pm

I think the debate has become hopelessly confused in relation to the point of the OP (not to say that there isn’t much of interest in it). I was hoping Harry might weigh in at some point to offer some clarification as to his own points. But absent that, I guess as my last contribution will just be to say that, although I can’t provide a complete or even adequate account of it here, I believe the following 5 claims. I also believe that these 5 claims are compossible:

1. There are some objective truths. For example: Human suffering is bad and killing babies for personal enjoyment is wrong, etc. etc..

2. In general are circumstances in which justified moral judgments involve causing morally bad or wrong things to happen or doing morally bad or wrong things. Sometimes moral badness or wrongness can’t be avoided and sometimes it shouldn’t be avoided. For example, parents discipline their children in morally justified ways all the time. This often causes human suffering, which is bad. But (sometimes) not as bad as avoiding discipline or punishment. (However, I cannot imagine any circumstances in which killing for personal enjoyment is morally justified).

3. Moral realism is false. (Or, more weakly, the belief in objective moral truth does not depend on a commitment to moral realism).

4. Morality is a human social institution and thus is fundamentally different from the natural world.

5. As per 4, to say ‘there are objective moral truths is to use the term ‘objective’ analagously to the use of the term in sentences like ‘there are objective scientific truths’.

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Bruce Wilder 04.05.13 at 7:17 pm

geo: “What do you take to be the meaning of “objective” as applied to factual knowledge?”

In a word, measurement. “Objective” is the antonym of “subjective”. A subjective perception might be articulated as: “The bathwater is hot.” or “It is a warm day.” It is a statement about how a phenomenon feels to me, or seems useful to me. It becomes “objective” when the scientist, participating in the college of science, whips out his thermometer, and says, the “The water is 45° Celsius” or “The temperature outside is approximately 72° Fahrenheit.”

geo: “there is no point using the word “objective” — which generally means “absolute,” “non-contingent,” “not context-dependent” (though it sometimes, and more usefully, means “fair-minded” or “non-partisan”) — in connection with any kind of knowledge. That’s all we anti-objectivists are contending.

I’m sure as hell not with any or all of that. That’s just nonsense. “Objective” certainly doesn’t mean “absolute” or “non-contingent” or even “not context-dependent”, although maybe that last requires some qualification. “Objective” implies a method of measurement, which is socially constructed so that it can be replicated. Measures can be very much contingent, as the method may make use of probability concepts, as in the common use of error bounds, for example, to qualify polling results. Some would say, with cause, that probability is always implicated in measurement, in the infinite regress, which is precision.

“Absolute”, in a technical sense, is a claim about the a priori nature of logical arguments. Facts are never “absolute” in that sense, neither (contra Catholic doctrine) are moral imperatives.

It seems to me that “absolute” and “objective” correspond to one another across their proper applications in separate epistemic domains. This correspondence makes one a natural metaphor for the other. There are a number of such correspondences between logical propositions or arguments and factual statements or arguments, which are informative in outline about the differing epistemologies involved. Concepts correspond to generalizations, for example. We speak of logical proof and evidentiary proof, and I hope we know that the “proof” of Euclid is not the same as the “proof” of the courtroom or the laboratory — there’s a different “truth-value” involved, and either we’re using “proof” in the latter case as a metaphor derived from our understanding of its meaning in the former case, or we’re confounding one with the other, for the quite understandable reason, based on the insights of the pragmatists, that one is inextricably entangled with the other in practice (that is, every argument of fact entails a logical argument about method and its implications, so there is an element of logical proof in every claim of fact).

I don’t see what’s wrong with extending those correspondences to the domain of moral knowledge, as a heuristic entryway into systematically appreciating, in outline, moral knowledge (or aesthetic knowledge — I think they can be said to share that domain in common). Just as logic can have its concepts, and science can have its generalizations, morality can, too, have moral ideas — this is just an application of correspondence as heuristic. Claiming that morality is not “absolute” is just claiming that knowledge of what ought to be done is not the same as logical analysis of what could be, and claiming that morality is not “objective” is just recognizing that morality is not measurement of physical properties by instruments and method. But, looking for a correspondence in moral (or aesthetic) intuitions and arguments with the standards and methods of logical or empirical inquiry seems a better place to start understanding the epistemology of morality than denying that moral and aesthetic inquiry has validity, because it isn’t logic, or denying that it is “objective” because it is not scientific measurement and experimentation.

The pragmatists are not telling us that there is no objectivity. They are telling us that there is no objectivity in isolation, from logic and aesthetics.

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Manta 04.05.13 at 7:26 pm

Kevin, in sciences and maths people from different backgrounds can reach an agreement about what is true (for math) and what describe reality more accurately.
The methods do not always work in practice: proofs can be difficult to understand or have mistakes, scientist can refuse to be convinced by evidence: but at least in principle we have a method.

I don’t see any such method in morality: I don’t see how a modern person could convince Dante that homosexuality was OK, or how Aristotle could convince a modern person that slavery is OK.

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roger nowosielski 04.05.13 at 7:32 pm

@232

“. . . looking for a correspondence in moral (or aesthetic) intuitions and arguments with the standards and methods of logical or empirical inquiry seems a better place to start understanding the epistemology of morality than denying that moral and aesthetic inquiry has validity, because it isn’t logic, or denying that it is “objective” because it is not scientific measurement and experimentation.”

Seems on the right track to me, and certainly a more promising line of inquiry.

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Kevin McDonough 04.05.13 at 7:32 pm

Manta, Aristotle describes a ‘method’ in the Nichomachean Ethics (a pretty good one I think). But it’s not a method like the one used in science (as I say the terms are analagous not precisely the same in different domains). For one thing the method, as Aristotle says, is not designed to achieve same sort of precision as we would expect in the natural sciences – but that is due to the point related to my 4. above. Morality and the natural world are different, and thus (to paraphrase Aristotle) in making judgments in one area we should not employ the same standards or expect the same precision as we would expect in others. Doesn’t mean that Slavery is not wrong.

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MPAVictoria 04.05.13 at 7:33 pm

“If they order to kill, and you refuse, I’m sure something unpleasant (bad) will happen to you. Court-martial? “

So? Just because you will be punished if you don’t do something doesn’t make it the right thing to do.

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roger nowosielski 04.05.13 at 7:39 pm

@233

“I don’t see any such method in morality: I don’t see how a modern person could convince Dante that homosexuality was OK, or how Aristotle could convince a modern person that slavery is OK.”

Isn’t this more of an argument to the effect that morality is evolving? Anything wrong with that proposition, and how would impact (in any negative way) a contention that there may be certain moral truths?

And apropos of Aristotle, don’t we have Euripides, for example, to reach a different conclusion?

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MPAVictoria 04.05.13 at 7:41 pm

” I don’t see how a modern person could convince Dante that homosexuality was OK”

Really? People are changing their mind on this particular issue everyday. And I think the world is objectively better off for it.

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roger nowosielski 04.05.13 at 7:41 pm

@235

only the kind of precision the subject matter would allow . . .

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Kevin McDonough 04.05.13 at 7:43 pm

Precisely!!!

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Bruce Wilder 04.05.13 at 7:55 pm

David @ 227: “. . . the question of morality cannot be looked at as simply one of constructing metaphors, because in the real world there are power imbalances that hopelessly complicate everything.”

Metaphors, or trolley problems, for that matter. I wouldn’t concede “hopelessly”, because I think moral inquiry and construction are necessary and hopeful. But, yes, morality is about power in social organization and cooperation.

Moral dilemmas, in practice, are more likely to be about the difficulty of doing the right thing, despite temptation or threat, and not about the limits of individual cognition.

Emergencies, by contrast, are fascinating to us, partly because they simplify moral choice, by liberating us from imponderable conflicts and complex calculation of cost, to pursue expedience. Using a hypothetical emergency, as in a trolley problem, to confuse people about costs and conflicts is really unfair, because, in real emergencies, we act expediently with little consideration of cost or conflict. The expedience of emergency can be experienced as a great, dramatic release, a catharsis. I mention this in digression, as a way of pointing out things we might have discussed.

David: “I don’t think any form of morality I have ever seen provides a reason that the Spartans SHOULD have abandoned this arrangement.”

I guess you didn’t hear from the Helots, then; they might have had a view critical of their Spartan overlords. Social contract theory might take a dim view of the political constitution of Sparta, and question, for example, whether a social order, which so handicapped its own capacity to reproduce itself, was wisely chosen, as well as what obligations the Helots might properly be said to have in this arrangement.

There was a time, historically, when astrologers looked to the heavens for meaning, projected myths on to constellations, and attempted to divine portends from the movements of heavenly bodies. In the loss of enchantment, which was the Scientific Revolution and the subsequent Enlightenment, we took back our projections of morality onto the nightsky, and let mathematics model the movements of the planets and guide the measurement of our astronomical observations. We also stopped, in time, accepting the claims of kings to rule by divine right, and the execution of criminals by drawing out their entrails.

Moral reasoning in our disenchanted age may not be as baroque or mystical as it once was. Such is mundane progress.

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Jerry Vinokurov 04.05.13 at 7:56 pm

That’s a philosophical position; but it seems to me many folks here are arguing for scientific and mathematical realism but against moral realism. (Personally I’m wishy-washy about all of these realisms.)

What does “scientific realism” mean in this context? Is it realism about the claim that there are certain “brute facts” about the world which exist regardless of context, or is it a claim that the ontology of scientific language is isomorphic to the ontology of real things?

I ask this question because I think that the latter view is wrong but the former is right. Allow me to take a detour into some possibly esoteric physics: there exists a phenomenon called the quantum Hall effect, in which the application of a magnetic field across electron flow results in a resistance quantized in units of electron charge. So far so good. But there’s an even weirder effect called the fractional quantum Hall, in which the quantization is in terms of fractional units of electron charge.

That’s weird. All our (scientific) lives we’ve been told that electrons (and their charges) are indivisible; they are leptons, meaning they lack internal structure, unlike hadrons such as protons and neutrons, which are made of quarks that carry fractional charge. In fact, fractional electron charges are seen only under rather exotic conditions, but they are seen.

Now the question: given his apparent weirdness, just what is an electron anyway? Is there even such a thing, really? There are a few ways of answering that question. One way would be to say that an electron is a particle, but that seems like an unsustainable description in the face of what we know about particle/wave duality and this fractional hall effect business. Alternately, we could think of the electron as the result of a collective field excitation; indeed, you can get electrons and positrons in just such ways. But then you’re stuck with the question of what exactly is a field (“well, a field is just this thing, you see”) so ontologically speaking that doesn’t seem like it gets you very far; it just replaces one rung of the hierarchy with another.

Or yet another option would be to say, with Bohr, “shut up and calculate.” On that account, asking “are electrons real” is a pointless question. The only relevant question is: how can we construct a formalism that contains real predictive power? The problem with that story is that you need a way to verify (or falsify, if you like) your story. There has to be some arbiter of “what works.” This is where I think Rorty’s epistemology goes off the rails. He very much wants to claim that he’s really all about “what works” but the problem is that unless you can have some objective arbitration of whether your theory, you know, works, then the criterion is meaningless.

Experience teaches us that there is a concrete and tight coupling between the “success” of our physical theories and the extent to which they survive contact with the real world. So even if we were ordinarily inclined towards skepticism about objective reality, the fact that the world appears to behave for all intents and purposes as though such a reality really did exist should be sufficient to make us think again. Past a certain point, the difference between the success of your theory and whether the theory is “objectively true” becomes so muted as to be a merely semantic distinction. The better and better your theory works, the more the lines between your theory’s ontology (e.g. “electron”, “field”) and whatever the “real” ontology is, become blurred.

The difference between this and the realm of “moral fact” is that the world doesn’t seem to go away when we stop paying attention. It persists whether we think about it or not; carbon dioxide was trapped in ancient ice cores despite the fact that no one knew anything about carbon dioxide. On the other hand, moral realists have consistently failed to exhibit anything like the same tight coupling between theory and “reality.” The most audacious among them claim that the moral realm is real, but all evidence marshaled in favor of that argument are inextricably tied to human experience.

If you were just basing your judgments on the success of science as a research program and moral theory as one, what would you bet on? Would you really look at the relative accomplishments of the two and claim that they were equivalent? Or would you be more inclined to think that one research program was really onto something even if you weren’t sure what the “something” might be? I know where I put my money: the relative success of the last hundred years of science in coupling human theory to a human-independent world is really impressive and has no analogue that I can locate in moral theory.

Ultimately, though, I’m not bothered by scientific anti-realists (even though I view myself as some flavor of scientific realist) any more than I’m bothered by moral anti-realists. If I can get you to accept enough shared premises to allow us to work together (there is an external world, or something that looks like it, and it’s knowable, more or less), then I’m satisfied; you can have whatever weird metaphysical views you like as long as you keep calculating. But if you’re going to play Gorgias with me and insist that nothing exists, and even if it exists it can’t be known, and even it could be known it couldn’t be communicated, then I’m not interested; anyone holding those beliefs seriously is not someone I could enlist in any project I care about, so my answer is just to shrug and move on.

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roger nowosielski 04.05.13 at 7:58 pm

Yes, Victoria, our sensibilities are changing, more correctly perhaps, we’re forced to adjust our sensibilities by real-life circumstances or things we never fathomed before (because we’re usually thoughtless and uncaring); and yes, the world is better off for it.

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Manta 04.05.13 at 8:02 pm

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.05.13 at 8:06 pm

MPAVictoria 235, if defying your society (liberal, democratic, the constitution, blah, blah, blah) is, as far as you’re concerned, the right thing to do, that’s fine with me. But you are in a small minority, anomaly. Very recently masses of people, tens of millions, rejoiced when bin Laden was killed, cried from happiness. At this point, the straight statement “‘killing is bad’ is an objective moral truth” seems absurd.

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David 04.05.13 at 8:11 pm

“I guess you didn’t hear from the Helots, then; they might have had a view critical of their Spartan overlords.”

The consequentialist would also have little to contribute, as the Spartan would view the consequences as favorable, and if the consequentialist said, “Well, think of how the Helots feel” the Spartan would almost certainly shrug.

Again, people in this thread keep wanting to tie scientific progress with moral progress, and that is exactly what is unsupportable. This is just basic logic – it gets tedious having to listen to the same Captain Picard style speech every time the topic is discussed.

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roger nowosielski 04.05.13 at 8:13 pm

@242

Jerry, what precisely rides on the (scientific?) “fact” that “the world doesn’t seem to go away when we stop paying attention.”? What difference would it make one way or another what we happen to believe (other than, of course, our cherished epistemological position)? Aren’t all our truths and findings mediated by language, be it a natural language or the language of mathematics or physics?

To the best of my knowledge, none of us has privileged access.

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Substance McGravitas 04.05.13 at 8:13 pm

Thanks JV!

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David 04.05.13 at 8:13 pm

“Very recently masses of people, tens of millions, rejoiced when bin Laden was killed, cried from happiness.At this point, the straight statement “‘killing is bad’ is an objective moral truth” seems absurd.”

And most in this thread seem to want to treat this obvious point as tedious spoil-sportery.

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geo 04.05.13 at 8:19 pm

BW @231: That’s just nonsense. “Objective” certainly doesn’t mean “absolute” or “non-contingent” or even “not context-dependent”, although maybe that last requires some qualification. “Objective” implies a method of measurement

Harry @OP: There are, in fact, some objective moral truths. Personally, I think there are lots of them. And, in fact, our grasp of most of them is far from tenuous. Here are four objective moral truths:
Human suffering is bad
Torturing human babies simply for personal enjoyment is wrong
Deception that is much more likely to bring harm than benefits is bad
Being kind to people is good

If “objective” means “measurable,” then what on earth can Harry have meant by applying the term, even by some sort of analogy (which I still don’t quite understand), to those four propositions? How could any conceivable measurements be relevant to their truth or falsehood? I think your definition of “objectivity” is somewhat idiosyncratic, and the common definition does indeed mean “absolute” and “non-contingent.”

The pragmatists are not telling us that there is no objectivity

No, indeed. They are telling us that there is no objectivity in the sense in which moral or ontological realists (ie, virtually everyone until the seventeenth century, and quite a few people since then) use the word, ie, to denote absolute or non-contingent truth.

denying that moral and aesthetic inquiry has validity, because it isn’t logic

No, anti-objectivists don’t do that.

or denying that it is “objective”

Yes, we do that.

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Jerry Vinokurov 04.05.13 at 8:24 pm

Roger,

Jerry, what precisely rides on the (scientific?) “fact” that “the world doesn’t seem to go away when we stop paying attention.”? What difference would it make one way or another what we happen to believe (other than, of course, our cherished epistemological position)? Aren’t all our truths and findings mediated by language, be it a natural language or the language of mathematics or physics?

I’m not sure anything at all rides on it. Or, well, not much rides on your belief in it. If the world were really as capricious as all that, then my strong suspicion is that nothing that looks like the scientific project could ever even get started or make any sort of progress. The very fact that we have made progress by anchoring ourselves in that baseline assumption suggests that the assumption was a good one.

As I said, scientific realism of a sort is a view that I hold, and I think I have good reason to hold it, but if were doing a project together, I wouldn’t care whether or not you hold it too as long as we accepted enough common premises to make progress. Of course, if you were to start denying the notion that measurements were useful or that one could make causal inferences based on physical theory and on those grounds refused to work with me, then we’d get nothing done. While it’s true that our findings are mediated by language, the language of mathematics is highly formalized in the way that natural language is not. Once you accept certain premises, certain conclusions deductively follow, in a way that they just don’t in other scenarios. If you don’t accept those things, if for example you think derivatives are a tool of the devil (I think I recall Berkeley making an argument not unlike that), then I literally don’t know what to say to you.

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roger nowosielski 04.05.13 at 8:26 pm

I thought Wittgenstein had taught us that all truths, even mathematical truths, are contingent — if only on form of life.

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roger nowosielski 04.05.13 at 8:32 pm

Of course I do believe, Jerry, that there a world independent of us. My only point is, what’s the cash value of saying anything beyond that, or even making that claim (since it’s not going to make any difference in either my personal or professional life).

In that vein, I may as well be saying “I know I’m in pain.”

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Jerry Vinokurov 04.05.13 at 8:36 pm

Right, sorry, I didn’t meant to be attributing beliefs to you specifically. It was the general you, the royal you if you (specifically) will.

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Yarrow 04.05.13 at 8:38 pm

Jerry Vinokurov @ 241: “The most audacious [moral realists] claim that the moral realm is real, but all evidence marshaled in favor of that argument are inextricably tied to human experience.”

Isn’t human experience the subject matter of morality? It seems to me that “Torturing human babies simply for personal enjoyment is wrong” is about a brute a fact as “There’s a mountain over there”. The wrongness of torturing babies is inextricably tied to human experience — just as the solidity of the mountain is inextricably tied to the existence of matter.

P.S. (Are there really scientific realist philosophers who claim that “the ontology of scientific language is isomorphic to the ontology of real things”?)

“the relative success of the last hundred years of science in coupling human theory to a human-independent world is really impressive and has no analogue that I can locate in moral theory.” Granted. Easy problems get solved sooner than hard problems.

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Manta 04.05.13 at 8:46 pm

Isn’t human experience the subject matter of morality? It seems to me that “Torturing human babies simply for personal enjoyment is wrong” is about a brute a fact as “There’s a mountain over there”.

But that’s exactly the point: how do you choose which are the “brute facts” that the theory tries to model/explain?

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Jerry Vinokurov 04.05.13 at 9:12 pm

Isn’t human experience the subject matter of morality? It seems to me that “Torturing human babies simply for personal enjoyment is wrong” is about a brute a fact as “There’s a mountain over there”. The wrongness of torturing babies is inextricably tied to human experience — just as the solidity of the mountain is inextricably tied to the existence of matter.

Actually, “there’s a mountain over there” is only a “fact” if you accept that there are such things as mountains. What is a mountain? Well, it’s a…. and now we’re playing the Wittgenstein family resemblances game.

There isn’t any such thing as “mountains.” “Mountains” are simply a kind of ordering that human experience imposes on the world. There’s something out there, but it’s not like you can get at that thing by naming it. Many times, that’s not necessary; it’s good enough that both you and I know what we mean by “mountain” and that provides a workable theory for us to operate in the world.

As for torturing babies, I just don’t believe I can offer up the same kind of demonstration of the wrongness of that act, however much I believe that it is wrong, that I can of the existence of something like mountains. Ultimately of course one can never convince the skeptic; they could make up stories about their senses deceiving them, evil demons, and so on. I could only mass a preponderance of evidence on my side, buttressed with Occam’s razor (itself an unprovable assumption). Like I said: if it turns out that I’m dealing with Gorgias, the game ends. But I don’t know what sorts of evidence or facts I can collect that would show that torturing babies is wrong. Unless we’ve really solved the is-ought problem (I haven’t made my way through the Putnam link above, but I’m skeptical that he’s done any better than the rest of us), there’s no fact of the matter I could present that would lead one to accept my conclusion. And any a priori arguments would just lead to infinite regress of “why should I accept this premise?”

Rather, I think that the problem with baby torturers is exactly that you can’t convince them of any such thing. The best you can do is appeal to some kind of empathic capacity, but if you’re dealing with people who just don’t give a shit, then what can you tell them? People who are truly skeptics about the reality of the external world might quickly change their minds if they found themselves falling out of a high-rise window or in the path of a bullet; ultimately, I’m not sure any better arguments exist against people who like torture babies.

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roger nowosielski 04.05.13 at 9:21 pm

Well, Jerry, the old adage — you can’t argue about morality with a Nazi . . .

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Bruce Wilder 04.05.13 at 9:40 pm

geo: If “objective” means “measurable,” then what on earth can Harry have meant by applying the term, even by some sort of analogy (which I still don’t quite understand), to those four propositions?

Good questions, and better questions than some posed in this thread. I’m not Harry, so you’ll have to ask him. I can only speak to why I was willing to give him the benefit.

I presume that the metaphoric “objective” was invoked to suggest several possible parallels, including social construction and socially-mediated common consent, derived, perhaps, from a common moral sensibility.

As atomistic individuals, we have some sort of ground in somatic pain and pleasure, giving us some basic foundation of narcissistic “good for me” or “bad for me”. But, I think we mean something a bit more strategic and social than that, when we speak of morality and ethics, something that operates in the ordering of society apart from ourselves and our personal, idiosyncratic perceptions, and which demands something behaviorally from us beyond a purely narcissistic self-governance, and which allows us, in society, to formulate demands on others.

Does society exist even when some economists devoted to methodological individualism deny it? I, personally, would be willing to go so far as to claim that social animals are individually “designed” to be social, and so humans may have a moral sense, with which to perceive moral questions, and emotions to motivate and discipline moral behavior. It might not be easy to qualify in the form of a logical analysis when it is morally permissible to lie and deceive, but humans may be equipped with a range of socially-adapted emotions, which make it relatively difficult to tell lies and be undetected in telling those lies.

So, morality has an “objective” existence in several possible senses. One is the biology of human social life and emotions, which may extend to a kind of moral linguistics, which makes it possible for us to tell each other morally meaningful stories, which help us to govern ourselves and our societies.

I don’t have any difficulty in accepting the plausibility of the moral sentiments Harry sketched out. I saw them as sketches. But, I also think I see their broad acceptance in outline, provided, of course, that one can maintain a distinction, say, between (factual) killing and (morally reprehensible) murder, while also walking and chewing gum.

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roger gathman 04.05.13 at 10:31 pm

As many other commenters have noticed, “objective” is a strangely superfluous addition to the contention that there are norms that seem to be common to all social groups, which justify actions and motivate elaborate excuses for their violation – violations which are just as universal. We won’t torture children but we will firebomb cities to keep children from being tortured in concentration camps, etc.
That said, what is the meaning of objective here? To my mind, it has either a natural or a supernatural meaning. If Harry is contending the latter, well, I that is an argument that needs to be developed. If the former, however, the argument would have to be about some kind of force in nature, something that we could distinguish from natural selection, for instance. And it seems to me it would have to apply not just to humans, but, like other objective forces, to guppies and lions and even on some level to bacteria. Something that would counter the guppy mother eating her offspring, or the male lion slaughtering his. That is a very strong contention, and would require looking at instances of symbiosis and sacrifice in nature. But I don’t think it is proven by looking at the behavior of one species, in which we do find cooperation and sacrifice.
I don’t really think there is any harm done to our moral system to say that it is not objectively founded. Many things aren’t – languages, fashion, aesthetic judgment. Myself, I think the post-Kantian dualism between subjectivity and objectivity is ill formed. However, even if we think that it isn’t, it seems to me that the opposite of the idea that moral values are objective is not cultural relativism, which is where Harry is leading the argument. “Universal” norms – norms among all humans – can easily be conceded without arguing that they reflect objective moral values.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.05.13 at 11:26 pm

I see most of everyone is mighty impressed with the drama of “torturing babies”? But that’s the most common thing in the world. C’mon, give him that sugar he craves, as much as he can swallow. And now he’s crying, you won’t let him play with that shiny razor – why are you torturing him? What about the circumcision? But I see that this (obvious) comment was anticipated, and so “for personal enjoyment” part is there. But “torturing for personal enjoyment” (of anybody, baby or not, even an animal) implies a complete lack of empathy, and therefore some sort of mental disorder. A moral truth can’t be simply a confirmation of normal biological behavior. We don’t torture babies for our personal enjoyment, simply because it’s not enjoyable to us. We torture them for their own good.

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Manta 04.05.13 at 11:27 pm

““Universal” norms – norms among all humans – can easily be conceded without arguing that they reflect objective moral values.”

Well, we spent quite a bit in this thread NOT conceding that, I would at least drop the “easily” modifier.

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Roger Nowosielski 04.05.13 at 11:27 pm

@263

Superfluous indeed, only appearing to do any kind of work but, in the final analysis, only derailing the discussion and sabotaging the meaning.

For some reason, I can’t help but think that those who are most keen on employing the term (intent as, in their own minds, they may well be on clarifying the discussion or making a real contribution), suffer from some kind of (linguistic?) confusion.

Is there any other?

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Roger Nowosielski 04.05.13 at 11:51 pm

More correctly, perhaps, if not more psychologically true as well, they suffer from some kind of angst. The “confusion” is, if not feigned, then at least a defense mechanism. And since most of the contributors here are philosophically astute, I’d opt for the latter. Besides, I wouldn’t dare to impinge on anyone’s integrity.

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Sebastian H 04.06.13 at 12:18 am

“The difference between this and the realm of “moral fact” is that the world doesn’t seem to go away when we stop paying attention. It persists whether we think about it or not; carbon dioxide was trapped in ancient ice cores despite the fact that no one knew anything about carbon dioxide. On the other hand, moral realists have consistently failed to exhibit anything like the same tight coupling between theory and “reality.” The most audacious among them claim that the moral realm is real, but all evidence marshaled in favor of that argument are inextricably tied to human experience.”

I’m not sure what you are trying to accomplish with this point. It seems to be that moral phenomenon are only observed between moral agents, therefore they aren’t real. But gravitation is only observed between two objects with mass. Electrical phenomena are only observed between objects with charge. Furthermore the definitions are circular–we say that a thing has charge when it causes the regular electrical phenomena. We say a thing has a particular mass when it interacts gravitationally with other masses.

Why is it so weird to say that we observe moral phenomena in the interactions between moral agents?

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Yarrow 04.06.13 at 12:39 am

Jerry Vinokurov @ 216:

There isn’t any such thing as “mountains.” “Mountains” are simply a kind of ordering that human experience imposes on the world. There’s something out there, but it’s not like you can get at that thing by naming it. Many times, that’s not necessary; it’s good enough that both you and I know what we mean by “mountain” and that provides a workable theory for us to operate in the world.

Agreed. And similarly for “baby” and “torture”. But I take you to be saying that there is a difference in kind between “out there” and “wrong”. The difference you mention is that you can’t “offer up the same kind of demonstration of the wrongness of [torturing babies] that I can of the existence of something like mountains.” I’m not seeing this — that is, I see the worries about whether the something out there is a “mountain”, whether the entity in pain (or in “pain”) is a “baby”, about whether the act in question is “torture” — but these all seem to me to be after-the-fact. The something-out-there is there. And huge. The pain-causing act is also there (as much there as the mountain, at least). And wrong. So yes, it’s a two-step: physically there, morally wrong. But you’re willing to be a cautious realist about the physical, why not also be a cautious realist about the moral? I agree that heaping up evidence won’t convince someone who’s fine with torturing babies that it’s wrong; neither do I think that heaping up evidence will convince someone the mountain over there is real if they’re looking straight at it but don’t believe in it. Both of those non-perceivers are crazy.

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Salient 04.06.13 at 1:10 am

But “torturing for personal enjoyment” (of anybody, baby or not, even an animal) implies a complete lack of empathy, and therefore some sort of mental disorder.

This is pretty much what I have been saying, yes. Or rather: there is a reason you are inclined to say this, and that reason is, because “torturing for personal enjoyment is bad” is a foundational moral truth.

If you encounter such a person, you don’t just assume they are hideously immoral, the way you’d assume a Nazi is hideously immoral. You go on to diagnose that their ability to ascertain moral truth is broken. Your assessment is immediately comprehensive — not just one truth out of place, but a general mental disorder. You abandon any notion that you’ll even be able to have a coherent and meaningful conversation about morals with the person. That one fact — that one disbelief — is enough to categorize the person as someone acting without the faculties necessary for moral agency.

You presumably wouldn’t say that of, say, a Nazi prison guard — we intuitively recognize a boundary between heinous contextual frameworks and actually broken framework-supporting machinery.

In the latter case, if you were somehow able to verify that in fact they’re not suffering from any mental disorder type thing, you’d go on to assess something like, “they must be putting me on or making fun of me.” If you intended to be cautious and accurate, you might still feel a little uncertain or uncomfortable about just saying “their morals are worse than mine” because the person doesn’t seem to even comprehend what morals are in the first place. That’s the dividing line.

And all of that could be true with the person never actually doing something heinous. They might understand the criminal consequences. But they’d be indifferent to the social component of their (hypothetical potential) interaction with the baby. They wouldn’t intuit “suffering is bad.” And it’s the kind of thing you can only grok by intuiting, through lessons learned at a very early stage of development, before you have become an autonomous moral agent.

A moral truth can’t be simply a confirmation of normal biological behavior

This might be a little off — ‘confirmation’ doesn’t really work. But I would think a moral truth should at the very least have some close and intuitively clear association with biological behavior, sentient biological behavior. Or at least I think, a priori, there’s got to be some strong and inextricable associations between ‘moral fact’ and ‘sentient biological fact’.

(For those ready to pipe up with BUT THAT MEANS IT’S NOT OBJECTIVE BECAUSE OBJECTIVE MEANS ABS–: Fucking hell. Did you notice I completely avoided the word? I even changed “That’s the dividing line between subjective and objective” to just say “That’s the dividing line.” You win! Objective always in all discourse events means ‘absolute and context-independent and non-contingent’ and no one ever legitimately uses it in a conflicting different way; indeed, apparent evidence to the contrary is really just instances of a writer trying to trick or swindle people. Never mind that I completely conceded the technical definition is perfectly legitimate, and limited my complaint to frustration that people were butting in here in this particular instance, to either demand their definition take precedence or argue consciously pretending as if their definition were common ground when it wasn’t. In fact, let me concede that all of social-emotive language is ‘rhetoric’ intended to mislead, divert or obfuscate, rather than impart social information about the speaker’s sense of their interpersonal relationships to others and world surrounding. I’ll never use ‘objective’ in its colloquial sense again, I won’t ever make noises standing up for anyone else who happened to intend that sense of the word, and I’ll never attempt to be helpful by offering a definition more closely aligned to what the original speaker seems to have intended. Now. You won. Comprehensively. Give it a fuckin’ fuckin’ rest. Or go talk at Matthew Hudson about it. He’s the one who started the devilish swindletricking misuse in the first place. The rest of us were just following his lead. Seriously, if you need some evidence for that, consider that Hudson’s original statement — about what we can conclude from trolley-type problems research — makes no sense at all under your definition. The existence or non-existence of ‘objective’ truths using your definition would not depend whatsoever at all on what people thought of trolley problems. So you’re left arguing that Hudson didn’t say anything coherent or meaningful. So go complain to him about it directly, since had he used the word in accordance with your definition, none of this awful stuff would have happened.)

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David 04.06.13 at 1:16 am

Frankly, Salient, you are the one who has been most corrosive to the tone of this discussion.

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Salient 04.06.13 at 1:27 am

@roger gathman, I will point out that “If Harry is contending the latter” is pretty low blow thrown at someone who was merely acceding to the word usage of the original article they were responding . Seriously, why is this not “If Hudson is contending the latter” ? Really? You trace back as far as the OP but not to the article it’s responding to? People responding to Hudson are now the ones principally responsible for ‘contending’ the definition Hudson has assumed and used? Really? Trying to offer you a reasonable attempt at nailing down what Hudson meant was not enough? Now we have to assume the additional responsibility of recasting his article in language more acceptable to you?

and @Roger Nowosielski, I think “derailing the discussion and sabotaging the meaning” runs two ways; there were several people trying to inhibit acceptance of the obviously-intended ordinary colloquial meaning of a fairly ordinary colloquial word, without reflecting on the fact that this would render the entire original article and original post completely unscannable and meaningless (and thus unworthy of discussion, shooing us all away). Which is fine, except that some folks did this in a way that obfuscated the actual disagreement over definition, earlier by pretending everyone involved had already agreed to their definition, and then later by insisting that nobody could possibly be demanding acceptance of an alternate definition for reasons other than deceit or malice or overreach.

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Salient 04.06.13 at 1:28 am

Frankly, Salient, you are the one who has been most corrosive to the tone of this discussion.

Bravo~

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rf 04.06.13 at 2:03 am

Jesus David you waltzed in here like a bat out of hell, and then.. (actually I can’t finish that sentence but ..

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geo 04.06.13 at 2:06 am

I sympathize with Salient’s frustration. (As I should, being one of those responsible for it.) Yes, “torturing other people is bad” is a foundational moral truth, if by “foundational moral truth” we mean “I can’t imagine having normal social or civic relations with someone who denies it” or “it’s presupposed in every society I know of or can imagine, except for a few which ended notably badly” or something equivalent. And yes, Harry’s four original propositions are foundational moral truths in that sense. They’re among the foundations on which we base our everyday moral judgments and decisions.

But “foundational,” like “objective,” has another meaning in moral philosophy, a metaphysical meaning. Traditional metaphysics is so alien to everyday contemporary parlance that it’s hard to make that meaning clear, especially for a philosophical pragmatist (like me), who have no use for it. It’s something like “conforming to the nature of Being itself” or “true without any assumptions whatever.” But there are still enough metaphysical moralists, or “moral realists,” around (some of them very prestigious, like Thomas Nagel and John Searle) that long, frustrating arguments like this one are probably inevitable for another generation or two.

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rf 04.06.13 at 2:07 am

….I think a bat out of hell *waltzing* in here is what threw me..

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roger nowosielski 04.06.13 at 2:40 am

@275

“Yes, “torturing other people is bad” is a foundational moral truth . . .”

How can this be foundational in any sense of the word? The fact you disagree with the practice or think it despicable doesn’t make it foundational by any stretch of the term. To do what you want to do. you have to make a grammatical remark. You’re nowhere near that.

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roger gathman 04.06.13 at 4:05 am

Salient, I don’t get the low blow remark. I’m saying that you shouldn’t accede to using objective. Once Harry does so, it is his argument. It is not a low blow, but a form of respect, to argue with Harry in the terms he has put his argument. I don’t really care about Hudson’s argument, frankly. Or at least, care enough to respond to it.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.06.13 at 8:13 am

Torturing people is not bad, simply because torturing people can be good, under the right circumstances.

Torturing people for personal enjoyment, or let me rephrase it slightly: feeling enjoyment from observing a person being tortured, is bad, but only in the same trivial sense as ‘color blindness is bad’. It’s a symptom of a damaged brain. That’s because empathy, empathic concern (“the inclination to experience of sympathy and compassion towards others in response to their suffering” — wiki), is our innate function. And not only in humans, but, wikipedia tells me, perhaps in all mammals.

We don’t need any moral philosophy to know that damage in the brain, physical disability, is bad.

We do need moral philosophy to force us to do (or abstain from doing), for the sake of society, something contrary to our innate biological disposition. For example: to torture people, when it’s ‘the right thing to do’.

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Manta 04.06.13 at 10:58 am

Salient, it seems to me by “objective” you mean “I lack enough imagination to conceive somebody could disagree about it”.

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Bruce Wilder 04.06.13 at 3:27 pm

This thread has not left much to the imagination on that score.

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William Timberman 04.06.13 at 4:36 pm

Context is difficult, abstraction seductive, I know it when I see it misleading. This is one of those CT threads that are great fun to read, but daunting to contribute to. Anyway, thanks to all who’ve entangled themselves here so that I might learn something.

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MPAVictoria 04.06.13 at 5:29 pm

“We torture them for their own good.”

You are REALLY REALLY REALLY stretching the definition of the word torture here Mao. In fact I think you have managed to stretch it so much it broke.

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Salient 04.06.13 at 6:11 pm

I don’t really care about Hudson’s argument, frankly. Or at least, care enough to respond to it.

…but…then why would you engage in a comments thread devoted to Hudson’s argument? To shut down the discussion unless it happens on terms you’re happy with, at a level of rigor you find satisfactory?

The problem with speaking up in response to this sort of thing (besides boring lots of people) is that I’ve pretty quickly devolved into contentless/repetitive whining. Once someone goes ahead and admits “I decided to step in and help shut down the conversation because you shouldn’t accede to using objective” there’s not much left to do but shut up and wander off and I guess thank the person for being honest.

But “foundational,” like “objective,” has another meaning in moral philosophy, a metaphysical meaning.

*wince*

How can this be foundational in any sense of the word? The fact you disagree with the practice or think it despicable doesn’t make it foundational by any stretch of the term. To do what you want to do. you have to make a grammatical remark. You’re nowhere near that.

At the moment, I don’t trust you to have any genuine interest in comprehending what I want to do, much less helping me to do it. Should I?

For what little it’s worth, foundational was redsquiggled, so I thought it was safe. I had contemplated inserting an extra l at the end. Is there really no way for us to talk about this, using a word, without getting shut down? Is philosophical language really so comprehensively hostile to social language?

Salient, it seems to me by “objective” you mean “I lack enough imagination to conceive somebody could disagree about it”.

YES, almost perfect. Very very close. (I am letting you substitute “lack enough imagination to” for “can’t” because it’s close enough to work. If you want to get your digs in, but nonetheless retain the meaning of the sentence, that’s the way to go about it.)

You get a lot of credit for genuinely trying to grasp the flavor and content of social language, and while you’re obviously trying to insert some derogatory self-abasement into the phrase, that’s actually a pretty common feature (“I might be bullshitting here, but what I think is, …”).

However, to fix the statement up, it should read more like “I can imagine the existence of somebody genuinely disagreeing about it, but that somebody would have to be a person that does not understand what morality is.” (Not to mention, can imagine the existence of a person disingenuously disagreeing about pretty much anything.)

And, again, the question isn’t whatever I personally want objective to mean, the question is how we go about trying to understand other people. The fact that colloquial ‘objective’ can be used deceptively does not mean that its usage is inherently indicative of deception. I only offered the alternate definition in an attempt to capture something closer to what Hudson probably meant, not to argue for broader acceptance (so long as you leave me ‘objective’ as ‘goal whose accomplishment will require a major project,’ I’ll be fine…).

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Manta 04.06.13 at 7:28 pm

Here is why I think your position is wrong (“objectively” wrong, if you will): there are people that argue in good faith and do understand what morality is, who nevertheless do not agree with your (I should say, our) moral “truths”: the example of ancient Greeks and slavery was meant to show exactly that.

Anyhow, at least we reached a statement that (more or less) can be falsified…

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

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novakant 04.06.13 at 7:42 pm

Yes, “torturing other people is bad” is a foundational moral truth, if by “foundational moral truth” we mean “I can’t imagine having normal social or civic relations with someone who denies it” or “it’s presupposed in every society I know of or can imagine, except for a few which ended notably badly” or something equivalent. And yes, Harry’s four original propositions are foundational moral truths in that sense.

Sorry geo, but you have been so lucid in this thread and then this? A majority of Americans think that torture and killing is justified, some relish the idea. And generally speaking people don’t care about other people’s suffering (and especially when they’re living in far away lands with different cultural mores), they tend to be indifferent or cruel.

So I don’t see at all how these things are “presupposed in every society” – granted I wouldn’t want to have close personal relations with such people, but they are the majority.

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geo 04.06.13 at 8:00 pm

Novakant: Yes, you may be right about Americans’ indifference, cruelty, and approval of torture. It doesn’t matter what sentence you want to plug in for “torture is bad” — perhaps something like “tossing babies in the air and spearing them with bayonets is bad” or “marketing cigarettes to tens of millions of teenagers in China, India, and other countries that don’t have strong consumer-protection laws is bad.” The point is simply that if by a “foundational moral truth” we mean “I can’t imagine having normal social or civic relations with someone who denies it” or “it’s presupposed in every society I know of or can imagine, except for a few which ended notably badly” or something equivalent, then the expression “foundational moral truth” is intelligible and useful. If, on the other hand, you mean by”foundational moral truth” what some moral philosophers and perhaps some people on this thread mean by it — ie, a truth that follows from the “ontic condition of humanity” or the “moral constitution of Being” (Leszek Kolakowski) — then there isn’t any such thing.

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novakant 04.06.13 at 8:32 pm

I totally agree with you on an abstract philosophical level, I just think that you were granting too much to your opponents since they seem to ignore empirical realities as well.

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Patrick 04.06.13 at 8:47 pm

If “foundational moral truth” means “I can’t imagine having normal social or civic relations with someone who denies it,” and we admit the actual, normal truth that in real life there have been tons of people who have denied all kinds of things that any one of us might call a “foundational moral truth” under that definition, then “foundational moral truths” are subjective.

Which is fine, I guess.

People can define things as they like, as long as they’re clear. But we have a perfectly good word for “value judgment which I hold but on which there is or could be disagreement.” Its “opinion,” or perhaps “belief.” And given the facility which people elide between treating moral disagreement as a matter of other people being “wrong” in the sense of “not believing what I think is proper,” and “wrong” in the sense of “having incorrectly perceived the answer to a factual question,” its worth starting to look for the card up someone’s sleeve when the word “truth” starts getting used in this fashion.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.06.13 at 8:52 pm

“You are REALLY REALLY REALLY stretching the definition of the word torture here Mao.”

Well, they really-really hate having to eat those veggies. Or maybe it’s the humiliation of having to submit to our stupid unreasonable demands. They protest, they cry, they scream, hysterically. They beg. They roll on the floor, they visibly suffer, and suffer terribly. If that is not torture, what the hell is it?

And if you’re still unsatisfied, there are also things like this:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judge_Rotenberg_Educational_Center

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roger nowosielski 04.06.13 at 9:26 pm

@289

“Judgment” or “moral judgment” are perfectly ordinary, natural language terms, found deficient only by those who, for some perverted reason, happen to think that natural language terms are vague and ambiguous. Hence the compulsion to keep on reinventing ordinary language in the interest of what . . . greater clarity?

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Arvind 04.06.13 at 9:27 pm

“it seems to me many folks here are arguing for scientific and mathematical realism but against moral realism.”

Yarrow:

I tend to lean towards accepting scientific realism, but not moral realism. There’re two aspects of scientific realism that (to me) seem to distinguish it pretty sharply from moral realism: firstly, that terms fundamental to scientific propositions will have real-world referents, and secondly, that you can conceptualise of the truth of scientific statements in probabilistic terms. Put differently, this means that you can believe in scientific propositions with a particular degree of confidence (or epistemic certainty) and use your real world experiences to update your degree of confidence in that proposition, AND that this is built into scientific propositions – because their main terms are supposed to have real-world referents, you should always be able to figure out testable implications. While all this is pretty fundamental to scientific realism, it doesn’t seem to be true of moral realism. The way people like Dworkin portrayed it, you either believe the truth of a moral statement completely or not at all. There’s no room for probabilities – it’s a matter of certitude. Adding to this, moral properties like ‘wrong’ or ‘immoral’ don’t seem to need or have real-world referents in moral realism.

I’ll give you an example. If I say, “My bedroom wall is impermeable to the human body”, the property ‘impermeable’ that I attribute to my wall has a number of real-world referents that I can use to assess its veracity. It includes, for instance, this prediction: “If you attempt to walk through my bedroom wall, you will fail.” When I make the statement, I can’t know with absolute certainty that this is true – there may be some as-yet undiscovered property of the human body or of brick that makes this possible – but I can hold the belief with a fairly high degree of epistemic certainty, always leaving room for the possibility that I’ll be proven wrong. And, in addition, ‘impermeability’ is simply a convenient way of aggregating a set of related predictions as to the likely outcome of various attempts to interact with the wall. I could easily dispense with the concept and category altogether and just work with the predicted outcomes that are its referents, all of which I recognise to have some degree of episemic uncertainty. Both these, taken together, are what make scientific realism’s claims so powerful.

I don’t see how either of these hold for moral properties – ‘wrong’, ‘unjust’, ‘immoral’, etc. They would hold if one were to adopt an emotivist account of morality (which would be compatible with scientific realism), but moral realists seem to be saying ‘wrongness’ or ‘immoral’ mean something more fundamental than “If you were to torture a child, most people would react with contempt, outrage and revulsion, and many would seek to ensure that you were subjected to mental and physical discomfort.” i.e., it would be wrong or immoral even if nobody would react so, because everyone should to react so. Professor Bridghouse’s original post certainly seemed to be making the latter claim, not the former. You can’t, in other words, dispense with fundamental terms and replace them with real-world objects or predictions as to real world happenings, and you can’t believe in moral propositions with degrees of epistemic certainty. These, to me, makes scientific realism and moral realism completely different animals, so that it is perfectly consistent to hold by the one but not the other.

I’m not a philosopher, and I apologise for straying into territory that’s pretty far from my own, but I thought this might in any event give a sense of how scientific and moral realism come across to people who aren’t philosophers and why quite a few of us are comfortable with scientific realism while being more reluctant to concede the claims of moral realism.

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Patrick 04.06.13 at 9:28 pm

Hey, I’ll take “foundational moral judgment” over “foundational moral truth” any day. We can do that. That’s fine.

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roger nowosielski 04.06.13 at 9:38 pm

Except that, why do we need to call it “foundational”? What’s the payoff?

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Patrick 04.06.13 at 9:40 pm

Because its ok to let people attach pro-words to things, as long as they’re not doing so with intent to mislead?

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Kevin McDonough 04.06.13 at 9:43 pm

I haven’t been able to follow the discussion closely for awhile (I’m actually pretty amazed it’s still going!); but wasn’t it you, Patrick, who originally equated judgmetns about human suffering with the cuteness of babies, etc.? If so, in what sense of ‘foundational’ is it OK to say that there are ‘foundational moral judgments’ that doesn’t simply mean — I have no taste for human suffering; but if you do then there’s really not much I can say in order to show that my judgments is wiser or more morally sensitive or better in some sense?

As I reflect on my own contributions to the earlier stages of this discussion, it seems to me that the really important point is not so much to insist on the ‘objectivity’ or ‘truthfulness’ of moral judgments (though I do happen to think that there are senses in which these sorts f terms can be meaningfully used). Rather, the important point is to insist that moral judgments are more than simply simple expressions of taste or individual preference; and that to say something like ‘human suffering is bad’ is not simply to utter a tautology. For example, I think one can say that moral judgments are fundamentally different from expressions of taste in food or beauty to the extent that morality is a very different kind of (Wittgensteinian) language game or ‘form of life’ than is the language game aesthetics. This doesn’t seem to entail any sort of metaphysically mysterious assumptions, but it provides a basis for something *like* a non-metaphysical, non-subjectivist view of morality.

I guess my question for skeptics like Patrick is — does the concession that there are ‘foundational moral judgments’ represent a change of mind from the earier claims about cute babies, etc. ? Or are you suggesting that your latest claims are compatible with earlier ones? If the latter, I don’t see how the compability is possible.

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Kevin McDonough 04.06.13 at 9:48 pm

Roger @ 293, isn’t the payoff simply that if we have foundations then there is some not-merely-subjective basis for moral disagreement, deliberation and evaluation? And isn’t this pretty important to have?

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Roger Nowosielski 04.06.13 at 10:04 pm

@ 296

Of course it would be, Kevin, except that, in my thinking, this kind of argument has got to be made in a different context. Political theory would be one context where some such argument would not only be out of place but, I judge, necessary as well. But in the moral/ethical context, where the presumed object is the rightness or wrongness of human action, don’t we already have Kan’t categorical imperative, or Christ’s teachings, as a sufficient guide to thought and action? What more is necessary?

Of course, if this thread is about the validity of the categorical imperative, then by all means I stand corrected.

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Roger Nowosielski 04.06.13 at 10:06 pm

… would not only be not out of place . . .

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Kevin McDonough 04.06.13 at 10:15 pm

Maybe I’ve missed too much of the discussion to participate usefully at this point – and I don’t have time to go back and re-read everything carefully — but on its face the thought that the CI or Christ’s teachings provide an adequate basis for morally satisfactory thought and action seems obviously unsatisfactory. CI is far too general to be a sufficient guide for thought and action; And Christ’s teachings far too controversial in a context where people from diverse moral backgrounds have to interact. But this seems too obvious and I think I must be missing something. Maybe your comment about political theory is a clue — but the kind of political theory we would need to provide a foundation for political deliberation would have to be one for which the political/moral distinction involves quite a bit of overlap a law RAwls’s Political Liberalism. So I’m not sure how far that gets you.

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Roger Nowosielski 04.06.13 at 10:27 pm

Kevin, I believe I wasn’t trying to skirt the issue.

In any case, my understanding of moral/ethical concepts –virtues is a good ole term — is that they’re “ideational.” Think of justice, for instance.

Now, how does logic or logical argument pertains to the concept of justice? How can it prove it or disprove it?

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Kevin McDonough 04.06.13 at 10:37 pm

Roger, I think a lot is getting lost in the translation so maybe it’s not worth pursuing this much further, but I don’t see how anything I’ve said has much at all to with the claim that Logical argument ‘proves’ anything about justice. You asked earlier what the usefulness of foundations for moral judgment was. I said that if we can say that there are foundations (in the metaphysically uncontroversial sense outlined in my comment 297, which seems to me consistent with the general thrust of lots of the thread) then they provide a basis for communication about ethics (deliberation, criticism, disagreement, etc.) that is not simply ‘subjective’. I thought the sense in which I was suggesting foundations are both possible and useful was nothing at all like a simple very general principle such as the CI. So I didn’t see how your response really addressed my point.

Aside from that there was some stuff about political theory and justice that I’m not sure is really getting us anywhere.

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Patrick 04.06.13 at 10:41 pm

Kevin- There’s no concession here. “Foundational moral judgment” was very precisely defined as “I can’t imagine having normal social or civic relations with someone who denies it.” I completely believe there are people who feel that way about their moral beliefs.

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Roger Nowosielski 04.06.13 at 10:55 pm

First off, Kevin, I really don’t see how you can separate the object political theory from justice. Isn’t that what a political theory, any political theory, is supposed to be all about?

And yes, perhaps I did not address your point directly. Yes, perhaps I’m guilty of trying to steer the discussion in order to consider the concept of justice. All I can say at this point, my gambit didn’t produce the kind of results I was hoping for.

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Salient 04.07.13 at 3:00 am

Hey, I’ll take “foundational moral judgment” over “foundational moral truth” any day. We can do that. That’s fine.

Which is great and all, but if you get to comment 300 and we’re just getting around to figuring out what words the original writer can be allowed to use…

Except that, why do we need to call it “foundational”? What’s the payoff?

We’ll, let’s be clear about this: there’s no payoff for you. Allowing it would mean you have to put up with conversations happening that you don’t want to put up with and would otherwise intervene in to shut down. There’s really not much you get in return, except maybe some minutely less strained and more amicable relations in other settings. Nothing measurable.

But if you’re asking about society-wide payoff rather than personal payoff, it’s pretty easy to demonstrate: At some point I’ll follow you around all day and hiss at you whenever you try to speak, on the grounds that the tone of your voice is unsatisfactory. At some point you’ll ask me pointedly to stop, and I’ll say: alright, except why do you need to talk in that tone of voice? What’s the payoff?

You’ll try to answer that you do so naturally, and I’ll point out that that’s completely unacceptable in recitative opera. You’ll wonder for a moment why I’m expecting you to meet the standards of operatic performance, but hey, that’s certainly where voice tone carries its greatest precision and weight.

After trying to convince me it really is okay and normal for most people to deploy voice tone in a different way, and trying unsuccessfully to convince me that this in no way compromises either operatic performance or workaday conversation, you’ll decide to be a good sport about it and give changing up your voice tone a try, even though it feels artificial. But I protest that you’re still butchering genuine recitative. Why should I accept and allow this? What’s the payoff?

there are people that argue in good faith and do understand what morality is, who nevertheless do not agree with your (I should say, our) moral “truths”: the example of ancient Greeks and slavery was meant to show exactly that.

I’m pretty sure slave-owning Greeks (and slave-owning Americans for that matter) do share foundimental moral truths. Nazis, too. And whatever other heinous society you want to name-check.

I actually made a mistake when talking at David earlier, I was wayyy too quick to discuss discounting moral agency, and allowed him to slip in examples that don’t qualify (and then got too distracted by “profoundly dehumanizing and condescending” to fashion a properly nugatory response). “Beyond the pale” is definitely not sufficient. Beyond the pale marks the boundary beyond which the speaker can’t respect a person’s morality. Foundimental, colloquial-objective, marks the boundary beyond which the speaker can’t believe the person comprehends what morality is.

Something interesting that we could have been talking about, is the fact that the former of these are extremely volatile-variant from person to person and even from moment to moment, but the latter remains roughly constant. Another interesting thing that we could have been talking about, is the fact that the former boundary is highly emotionally charged, and the latter not so much.

But three hundred comments in, we still have people wondering out loud what the “payoff” of trying to extend interpretive charity to people is. Gee. Maybe a few folks could have been a little patient with other people’s unfortunate word choices, and we’d have discovered the “payoff” by now.

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TStockmann 04.07.13 at 3:26 am

There;s no point in nitpicking the “absolute moral principles”. The statements all amount to: “I value what most people who read this value.” That’s what passes for absolute.

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MPAVictoria 04.07.13 at 3:41 am

“If that is not torture, what the hell is it?”

It isn’t torture and you know it. You are just being intentionally obtuse. Why?

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chris 04.07.13 at 4:30 am

#295: Except that, why do we need to call it “foundational”? What’s the payoff?

Because if I have a moral judgment and you disagree, we can discuss it, whereas if I have a *foundational* moral judgment, I am unwilling to discuss it with anyone who doesn’t already agree with it. It clarifies the limitations of what moral discourse is acceptable to the person labeling their judgment “foundational”. If you’re willing to have a polite discussion with someone who sincerely believes that homosexuals should not be legally allowed to marry each other, but not willing to have a similarly polite discussion with a Nazi or a slaveowner, then that says something about you, that might be useful to someone contemplating having a discussion with you.

I happen to believe that at least some Nazis and possibly an outright majority of slaveowners believed in the rightness of what they were doing every bit as sincerely as I believe my own beliefs and probably with equal or greater confidence, which goes a long way to explaining the low value I place on sincerity and confidence as indicators of truth.

If someone considers *all* their moral judgments foundational in this sense, it’s useless to discuss morality with him at all, and you might apply a label like “fanatic” to him.

But I think it’s important to bear in mind that the foundational-ness of a particular judgment is a property ascribed to it by the person who holds it; some people may have the same judgment but be willing to discuss it with people who disagree, and some other people may have the contrary judgment (and be accordingly declared beyond normal discourse by the first guy) or be undecided on the issue. Indeed, de-foundationalizing a judgment someone else holds as foundational can make that person uncomfortable even if you don’t actually disagree with them about the judgment itself — perhaps because the mere fact that you’re willing to discuss it suggests that you might be open to persuasion.

I’m starting to think that we need some kind of modal logic here — not only do you consider it wrong to do X, you also consider it wrong to not consider it wrong to do X.

At this point I think we’ve gone about as far from *any* meaning of “objective” as it is possible to go, but maybe we learned something from the journey.

I used to think that quandaries about objective moral truth could be resolved if someone could construct an instrument capable of measuring evil, but now I think that was too simplistic. Whatever it was the instrument actually measured, people would always be capable of disputing whether that was really evil, or whether the instrument produced false positives or negatives under certain conditions. If I had such an instrument and got a reading from a murderer, a rapist, and a Nazi, but no reading from a slaveowner, I doubt if I would actually reevaluate my views on slavery (even with the full knowledge that many people and even entire societies have actually held the contrary view); rather, I would conclude that there was something wrong with the meter, or that what it measured wasn’t quite the same thing as evil.

#292: “Judgment” or “moral judgment” are perfectly ordinary, natural language terms, found deficient only by those who, for some perverted reason, happen to think that natural language terms are vague and ambiguous.

Experience? It’s very common for natural language terms to be vague and ambiguous. That’s why jargons are contrived to permit greater precision and lower ambiguity. Sorry, I mean “decrease” ambiguity — “lower” is another of those vague and ambiguous natural-language terms.

The ambiguity of natural language is the basis for innumerable jokes in the vein of “Hit the books? Why don’t you just read them?” which would be impossible in a language that genuinely had no ambiguity (and are notoriously difficult to translate into a language that has *different* ambiguities). But in discussions like this, ambiguity can become no laughing matter.

Hence the compulsion to keep on reinventing ordinary language in the interest of what . . . greater clarity?

Yes, exactly. I don’t get why you seem to think this is some kind of joke. For example, “normal” has lots of meanings in ordinary language. In vector mathematics it has one precise, unambiguous meaning (which happens to not have much to do with any of the colloquial meanings, but that happens sometimes). This is useful to vector mathematicians, although I suppose you could argue they could have made up a different term rather than adding even more polysemy to one that already had too much.

“Polysemy” is another example — linguists invented it because “ambiguity” was too ambiguous. No, really.

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Manta 04.07.13 at 6:20 am

I like the answer by Chris@308, but:

“If I have a *foundational* moral judgment, I am unwilling to discuss it with anyone who doesn’t already agree with it”

Don’t we read books by people which expose opinions contrary to our “foundational” moral judgments?
I think the social interaction should have a greater role: a foundational moral judgement is something we are willing to ostracize people for not having.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.07.13 at 8:50 am

“It isn’t torture and you know it. You are just being intentionally obtuse. Why?”

Because in order to be able to analyze the scope of morality, you have to step, if for a moment, outside of your personal little box. It may not be easy, but otherwise, as other noted above, you’ll just be repeating again and again: whatever I feel, that is the objective truth. And that makes this discussion impossible.

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Bruce Wilder 04.07.13 at 11:05 am

If we were to take up a discussion, as a topic, human sexuality, in place of the topic, human morality, would any of the philosophical assertions commenters have been making, be recast appropriately (for the topic) and still make any sense?

As a set of phenomena, which social psychologists or other scientists, might want to study, morality and sexuality would seem to be roughly similar in scope, (except, perhaps, for the ambiguity about whether non-humans can sensibly be said to have a “morality” or ethics — I’m thinking about the role of language and story-telling).

Would we debate whether sexuality was “real”? Or “objective”? Or “absolute”?

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Patrick 04.07.13 at 11:13 am

“But three hundred comments in, we still have people wondering out loud what the “payoff” of trying to extend interpretive charity to people is. Gee. Maybe a few folks could have been a little patient with other people’s unfortunate word choices, and we’d have discovered the “payoff” by now.”

Probably not, honestly. If you start a conversation on the nature of morality by using the phrase “objective moral fact” to mean something roughly like “subjective value judgment which I hold strongly enough that I feel justified in totally discounting the value judgments of those who disagree,” (paraphrase, not direct quote) then given the subject matter and the approach you’ve selected, the conversation is probably doomed until someone remedies that word choice.

As always, you can use whatever words you like as long as you’re clear. But that’s not clear. And its particularly unclear given that there are loads of people out there who believe in moral realism such that “oughtness” in their view is just as real, objective, and binding as gravity.

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Patrick 04.07.13 at 11:17 am

Bruce Wilder- possibly, but probably not. Because one of the things people often seem to want from morality is an objective “binding-ness,” which they often believe stems from its objective, factual, and possibly platonic nature. That highly contentious point isn’t necessarily analogous to a debate about sexuality.

I mean, maybe we’d be having a similar debate if half the commentariat were strict Catholics. So I guess its possible. But at the very least , for most people there’s a disanalogy on one important point of debate.

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temp 04.07.13 at 1:42 pm

Arvind@293,:

The nice features of scientific realism, like testability of propositions, depend on massive, unprovable assumptions. First, the fundamental principles of deductive logical reasoning must hold. Second, you must accept the validity of inductive reasoning, which cannot be derived from deductive logic. Third, in any given experiment, there are always additional unprovable assumptions. Consider your proposition “My bedroom wall is impermeable to the human body.” Suppose you see a human body permeating your bedroom wall. Do you discard your proposition, or do you doubt your senses? Perhaps you are dreaming? Any test is always a test of a large number of propositions, so any given proposition is only testable under a specific set of assumptions that enable us to declare that a test has bearing on the single proposition we are interested in.

Moreover, this isn’t just a matter of abstract philosophy. The assumptions in scientific testing are usually violated. We build and test models that we know are not true because they are convenient. Measurement error always exists and often is unknowable, because it depends on the specific experimental conditions. The idea that we can assign a number to represent our precise degree of confidence in a scientific proposition, updated as we get more data, is simply not correct; no such concept exists in scientific practice. A confidence interval is not a statement of objective fact, but an assumption that comes out of our model, which, again, we usually know to be false before we even begin the experiment.

Nevertheless, I am a scientific realist. I’m a scientific realist because I can’t help myself. I have absolute faith in science, and so believe, with no good justification, that the experiments I conduct actually do generate knowledge about the world. It is the same with morality. My faith that inductive reasoning works is equal to my faith that murder is wrong. I can’t justify either, but I am both moral realist and scientific realist all the same.

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Andrew F. 04.07.13 at 1:44 pm

In fairness, Huston doesn’t claim that the studies show that objective moral truths don’t exist; he claims they show that, if such truths existed, our ability to understand them would be weak because our moral understanding is so easily influenced by non-moral, contextual factors. To the extent Henry puts forward moral propositions that do not seem so easily influenced as the examples in the studies cited by Huston, I think Henry is correct.

But, being a philosophical pragmatist, I also don’t think that it makes much sense to talk about “objective moral truths,” for reasons stated at various points in the long thread above (it was nice to see Davidson and Rorty cited).

What I do believe is that, within given webs of ethical beliefs, some beliefs can be inconsistent with more strongly held beliefs. “Foundational”, which implies a certain epistemic structure to moral beliefs, seems to me to be misleading. Some beliefs are stronger than others, and we do reason from sets of beliefs, but we also don’t learn ethics by building on first principles.

I also can imagine a species which holds to a morality that finds torturing human babies for personal enjoyment to be morally permissible. Some comments above have a tendency to conflate substantive ethical judgments (torturing babies is wrong) with the very idea of ethics as a type of discourse. We can speak coherently about an ethical system with moral prescriptions that are entirely repugnant to us; we can even have coherent conversations with adherents to such a repugnant system about ethics! We will not agree with them on any substantive ethical judgment, but we will be able to recognize that we’re talking about ethics.

If you admit to that possibility, then the notion of any substantive ethical judgment arising from the very concept of morality (or moral discourse, or moral agents, or moral language) must be viewed as false.

And once that notion is viewed as false, I don’t think the claim of “objective moral truths” carries any plausibility or usefulness.

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Bruce Wilder 04.07.13 at 4:32 pm

“we also don’t learn ethics by building on first principles”

Perhaps not. But, you don’t think ethics builds up from infantile empathy and the primitives established by parental care and training? The seed of unconditional love that grows into a tree of self-esteem. Basic respect for others and politeness. Or, instinctual primitives, like the ones governing cursing and profanity. (Weird to think of profanity as being, foundationally, instinctual, but it is; language just fills in the blanks, with culturally appropriate curse words and euphemisms.)

It seems to me that the ability to reason at all builds on infantile experiences and discoveries, applied as metaphors and extended to make sense of things, as, for example, basic mechanical intuition, thru Piaget’s propositions, etc. And, just so, we can have a moral sense, that builds up in a similar fashion, founded in the processes of psychological and social development.

And, I’m not so sure analytic theory and simulation modeling do not provide insight into morality. Isn’t that what game theory does? Provides insight into the primitive memes of socialization, embedded, with logical necessity in systems of social cooperation between competing/cooperating strategic agents. Granted that game theory does go beyond the apologetics of scholastic theologians and timid Enlightenment philosophes by, for example, showing the possibility of a diversity of “ethical” “strategies” in a sustainable social “equilibrium”, it does not require of us relativism. Equipped with that kind of meta-insight into strategic “ethics”, we might still judge some social equilibria more desirable than others, and not just more desirable from idiosyncratic preference, but beyond the Rawlsian veil, for example.

Just as the infant and child learns basic primitives of, say, mechanical or spatial reasoning as well as social and moral reasoning, and builds, at a later stage of cognitive development, with sophisticated theories (Euclid’s geometry, which is definitely deduction from first principles, builds on basic spatial reasoning), it seems to me that fairly sophisticated theories of social and moral, applied in law, economics or organizational and institutional policy design, build on primitives, extended by story-telling and literature. The novel, in its way, is a Euclid’s geometry of social and moral behaviors.

I’ve been one of those, who felt that some commenters were too quick to be doctrinaire about terms, particularly epistemological terms they clearly do not understand to begin with, and too quick to dogmatically insist on a conformity, where none is justified. Morality and ethics can be grounded in “objective” social psychology, and informed by analytic theory and modeling. It is a rich and curious set of topics, about which we could learn a great deal more than we know, and establishing a better human ethics may by the summa of public policy goals. I don’t think this comment thread did much credit to CT.

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roger nowosielski 04.07.13 at 5:11 pm

@chris 04.07.13 at 4:30 am, #309

You go on a lengthy diatribe in order to trivialize my comment about terms of ordinary language. I would have thought it clear enough – given the general context of the discussion on this thread – that I was making a philosophical comment, criticizing a certain philosophical tradition –(held by such people as Feigl, Ayer, and many logical-positivists) which regarded ordinary language inadequate to the point of having to replace it with a more precise, artificial language. To the best of my knowledge, this position has long been discredited; yet, in light of a good many comments on this thread, one wouldn’t have known that. So yes, I was making a kind of joke, albeit a philosophical kind of joke, to be more precise. Perhaps re-reading some of the articles in an old tome edited by Rorty, The Linguistic Turn is in order if you’re not entirely convinced. In any case, I was under the impression that we were dealing with a dead horse, but I guess old habits never die.

As to your other complaint, of course I have a clear and distinct idea what you were trying to get at, so no, you didn’t have to try to explain to me the difference between “foundational” and other kinds of truths. Again, I was making a philosophical joke there too – a philosophical move, if you like – because here, too, I think the distinction that you and some others here are pressing with is belabored. First, the kinds of contexts in which the concerns you express typically surface are, almost without exclusion, limited to some kind of philosophical discussion or debate; rarely if ever do they surface in ordinary-life contexts, and this is good enough reason for me not to pay it much heed. And as to what ordinarily transpires in ordinary-life contexts, well – each of us is a more or less competent speaker of a natural language, and we usually do not run into any inordinate difficulty in order to understand one another, not any inordinate difficulty, at any rate, that a question or two would not resolve. So yes, we all share a great deal in common, predicated on our form of life, the language we speak, and so on and so forth, and if I wanted to be really smug about it, I’d say that those are “the foundational truths” you’re looking for. For a more precise argument as to the common background, understanding and sensibilities we all share in common, you might want to revisit Quine’s “Two Dogmas” or some of Searle’s writing on the subject.

Philosophy is a game, Chris, and it consists of making (philosophical) moves, and it’s different from logic or linguistics. The sooner you become more comfortable with these notion, the sooner we’ll understand one another better.

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Andrew F. 04.07.13 at 5:43 pm

I agree that moral systems can be studied, and I agree that our awareness of our ethical beliefs is enriched and expanded by the social sciences, by philosophy, and by logic and mathematics. I also agree that moral claims can have logical implications for other moral beliefs, and that to some extent we learn by elucidating the implications of our existing moral beliefs.

Everyone in the thread above would agree (yes, any claim beginning with those words, in connection with a 300+ comment CT thread, should be viewed suspiciously) with that, I hope.

The pragmatists would agree, but caution that when we say:

p is wrong

we’re more precisely saying:

p is wrong according to (our lights) or (neothomism as described by) or etc.

When someone says:

p is wrong, and that is objectively true

that person seems to be saying that we need not add the “according to X’s lights” qualifier. p is wrong. Period. Torturing babies is wrong. Full stop.

For the pragmatist, the question of the objectivity of moral truths is not all that relevant to our conduct. It doesn’t bear on whether one should use coercion to enforce a given moral claim. It doesn’t commit us to an empty moral relativism which prevents us from judging anything done in a different culture. It doesn’t stop us from studying moral claims, the structure of ethics, the sources of ethics, etc.

But it can be relevant in that the rejection of the question clarifies what we’re doing when we think about morality, and it clears away some confusing metaphysical claims. The latter can be especially important if the metaphysical claims are being used to assess ethical or meta-ethical arguments.

It’s the clarity brought by rejecting the objectivity question which spurs the eagerness of pragmatists to avoid the use of phrases like “objectively true” in ethical discussions. The question is an incoherent swamp, into which enormous amounts of philosophical effort have sunk, that can be escaped only by seeing that it exists in muddled maps, and not in the terrain we actually travel.

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Lawrence Stuart 04.07.13 at 7:16 pm

@317 Bruce W “The novel, in its way, is a Euclid’s geometry of social and moral behaviors.”

This thread got me thinking about Crime and Punishment — Raskolinkov’s double murder, and even more the ‘ring of Gyges’ temptation when Svidrigailov shoots himself.

Perhaps it is that one is either a Raskolnikovian moral realist, or a Glauconian moral relativist. For Raskolnikov, guilt is very real: phenomenologically necessary for the possibility of confession and redemption. Glaucon might say that both ‘guilt’ and ‘redemption’ are social constructs, and as such don’t come into play when the gaze of authority is rendered blind by Gyges’ ring. What matters is not ‘guilt’ or ‘innocence’ but social reputation.

But, and I think this is the meat of Socrates’ argument against Glaucon as well, there is something more than reputation at stake: Raskolnikov experiences how the coherence of the self itself (which is quite clearly a social self) becomes unwound through guilt. Guilt is the acknowledgment that the individual cannot live in isolation, that terrible deeds, though they might go unpunished by authority, inflict a punishment of conscience that is alienating to the point of madness.

Raskolnikov’s example, then, suggests that certain moral facts are foundational to a self, any self, that coherently exists in a life-world. It suggests further that transgressions of prohibitions resting on those facts lead to a fundamental dissolution of the self that one would be right in calling ‘madness.’

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geo 04.07.13 at 7:33 pm

BW: I don’t think this comment thread did much credit to CT.

I think, on the contrary, that any comment thread which culminates in ## 317 and 319 is well worth the slog.

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Roger Nowosielski 04.07.13 at 7:55 pm

@320

“. . . certain moral facts are foundational to a self, any self, that coherently exists in a life-world.”

excellently put

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john c. halasz 04.07.13 at 10:11 pm

Ethics concerns actions and material and symbolic exchanges with respect to relations with others qua other, (i.e. entirely separate beings). But the other is there from the outset, “prior”, a fundamental implication of the condition of language by which we are and become at all “human”, as that which is invoked and addressed by any utterance. The self related interiority of a self and the intentional agency that sustains its identity are formed only through the prior exteriority of the relation to the other. Which is what makes an ethical dimension to our existences compelling, unavoidable, inexpungeable.

But that’s also why talk of the “objectivity” of moral values or ethics is misplaced, even though interactions do take place as events and have real and material consequences. The other is not a cognitive object, something that can be objectified and reduced to the cognitive or psychological identifications of the ego, but rather, as a separate source of intentionality that withdraws from the products or manifestations of that intentionality, the other qua other is unobjectifiable, can only be a “space” held open as something related to responsively, communicated with. The ethical “exists” on a different “plane” of sociality than what can be captured in terms of an opposition between an objective world and a subjective intentionality. A “plane” wherein the opposition between inner and outer doesn’t make sense, since the ethical can be no more contained within a given order of the objective world than it can be reduced to individual intentions. And, as responsive openness to the other, the ethics is without “foundations”, an-archic, since it must always be open to the disruptions and innovations of the relation to the other. Nor can it be derived from “first principles”, which abstract from actual ethical “perception” and responsiveness, and attempt to impose as systematic logical order upon the contingency of responsible actions, as if to deny the possibility of conflicts between equally valid, but incommensurable values.

“Thou shalt not kill” is the first commandment, even though in some situations killing might be “necessary”. And even though, as embedded participants in a world of mortal beings and institutional orders, we might, at least potentially, be implicated in or complicit with the deaths and degradations of others.

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chris 04.07.13 at 10:28 pm

#312: If we were to take up a discussion, as a topic, human sexuality, in place of the topic, human morality, would any of the philosophical assertions commenters have been making, be recast appropriately (for the topic) and still make any sense?

I doubt if anyone would attempt to claim in the first place that so-and-so is objectively sexy and whoever disagrees is just wrong. Because AFAIK, everyone already accepts that sexuality is a matter of taste and there is no objective fact of the matter about it.

If you’re talking about the morality of sexuality, then we’re right back at the discussion we’ve been having all along — some people and societies have had a pretty strong opinion/consensus that certain sexual behaviors are morally wrong, which some other people and societies have accepted, can you really say that one of them is “objectively” wrong on the issue and if so, which?

We don’t ordinarily debate whether sexuality *itself* is objective because nobody can ordinarily be found to take the pro side of the argument.

#318: I would have thought it clear enough – given the general context of the discussion on this thread – that I was making a philosophical comment, criticizing a certain philosophical tradition –(held by such people as Feigl, Ayer, and many logical-positivists) which regarded ordinary language inadequate to the point of having to replace it with a more precise, artificial language.

Well, I suppose that depends on what you mean by “replace”. For ordinary experience I would tend to think that is a fool’s errand, but for this kind of discussion, I think we’ve all just seen the mischief that can occur when two different people are using the same word to mean different things and neither of them is aware of it. Taking a little time to shine a light on definitions and reframe ambiguous statements to be less ambiguous can indeed be productive in that kind of situation, which sometimes results in the introduction of jargon.

If you want to argue about whether that constitutes “replacing” the language or just “modifying” it, feel free, but I don’t attach much importance to the choice of one description over the other.

The usefulness of the effort itself seems clear enough to me that when someone appears to be jeering at the very idea that natural language can lead to misunderstandings if people do not take care to be precise, I might react, or even overreact.

Anyway, I find the term “judgment” useful in this context because it calls attention to the importance of the judge. Judgment is as much a property of the person doing the judging as it is of the thing being judged, which is the very fact that people who talk about objective moral truths are so often attempting to sweep under the rug (which may or may not be accompanied by labeling dissenters crazy or evil).

Bruce’s sexuality analogy may be illuminative here — it is sometimes said that such and such a person “is sexy” but I don’t think anyone means that it is literally an *intrinsic* property of the person so described — it is shorthand for saying “A great many people are sexually attracted to that person” or something of that nature. And we would (I hope) all acknowledge that plenty of other people are not sexually attracted to that person because of personal tastes, sexual orientation, or whatever other reason.

A red-hot iron is equally hot for you and for me. A “hot” person of the appropriate sex isn’t necessarily. Which of these is a closer analogy for moral judgments seems to me to be one of the main points of contention of this thread — particularly since inter-observer agreement is sometimes proposed as a distinction between objective properties and subjective judgments. We recognize that those things are different even if we don’t agree which bucket morality belongs in.

To the best of my knowledge, this position has long been discredited; yet, in light of a good many comments on this thread, one wouldn’t have known that.

Some people might have said the same of moral realism, if they hadn’t found a post apparently espousing it at the head of this very thread. Many dead horses come back to life occasionally, often repeatedly, on the Internet.

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Roger Nowosielski 04.07.13 at 11:09 pm

“We don’t ordinarily debate whether sexuality *itself* is objective because nobody can ordinarily be found to take the pro side of the argument.”

And rightly so but for a different reason entirely. Because to take either position on the subject wouldn’t amount to saying one thing or another, a waste of breath.

Even the stupidest among us would like to think that whatever we say or do makes a difference.

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Roger Nowosielski 04.07.13 at 11:52 pm

@324

But that’s precisely what the program was, Chris, to replace.

And as to your concern about getting the meaning clear among the disputants, I believe I addressed that too in my remark when I said that there ought to be nothing that stands in the way of reaching understanding that couldn’t be cleared up by a question or two –not exactly an uncommon procedure whenever two inquiring minds truly desire to become one.

327

js. 04.08.13 at 5:31 am

Jerry Vinokurov from way back when!

It’s just that I’m not sure we’re going to get anywhere trying to ground those evaluations in some fact about the world, rather than some facts about ourselves

But, umm, aren’t we ourselves parts of the world, so that “some facts about ourselves” are “some fact[s] about the world”? You don’t really need much more than that for objectivity. The point is that moral claims are more than expressions of subjective preference. That’s what the claim to objectivity means. (Sorry if this has been covered already.)

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Kevin 04.08.13 at 5:52 am

Welcome back js. — “The point is that moral claims are more than expressions of subjective preference. That’s what the claim to objectivity means. “

Yes — this is the point I was making back at 297 and 298. But there is no need to apologize because the point did not seem to stick at all with those still following the discussion . I think it’s a pretty important, obvious and not all that complicated point. Which is why I am both glad you made it again and sort of amazed that it seems to be rejected by so many around here!

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GiT 04.08.13 at 6:46 am

The truth about what people think is moral and moral truth are not the same thing.

And something being more than just a preference does not mean that it is “objective.” There is probably room for more than a simple binary subjective and objective, especially if subjective is simply mean to mean, “those things which are generally a matter of indifference to everyone other than the individual (e.g, favorite color or pasta dish)” and objective is meant to mean “everything else.”

330

Chris Bertram 04.08.13 at 7:01 am

I don’t think this comment thread did much credit to CT.

AFAICS not a single member of the CT collective has contributed to the comment thread.

331

Mao Cheng Ji 04.08.13 at 8:00 am

““Thou shalt not kill” is the first commandment, even though in some situations killing might be “necessary”.”

“I am your God, and doncha dare worshiping any other gods” is the First Commandment. Everything else follows from here.

332

Yarrow 04.08.13 at 8:32 am

Chris Bertram @ 330, quoting Bruce Wilder @ 317 (or geo @ 321 quoting and disagreeing with Bruce): I don’t think this comment thread did much credit to CT. and then “AFAICS not a single member of the CT collective has contributed to the comment thread.”

Four quick comments: (1) Given that Bruce’s paragraph started out “I’ve been one of those, who felt that some commenters were too quick to be doctrinaire about terms, particularly epistemological terms they clearly do not understand to begin with, …” I read him as withholding credit from the CT commentariat rather than the CT collective.

(2) I’m somewhat inclined to agree with geo over than Bruce, though Bruce certainly has it right about large sections of the thread.

(3) Great posts with very minimal followup from the poster (or from others in the CT collective) are pretty common here, John Holbo excepted. You’re all busy folks, so that fact is completely understandable; and I also think that your comment threads would do even more credit to CT were there more participation from the front-pagers.

(4) Wow — a comment that was true until posted!

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Yarrow 04.08.13 at 9:11 am

Thirding Kevin’s seconding of js’s 327: “The point is that moral claims are more than expressions of subjective preference. That’s what the claim to objectivity means.”

Yes! “Fire is hotter than ice” is a fact. “Torturing human babies simply for personal enjoyment is wrong” is a fact. I can live with a philosophical position that works out to “These so-called ‘facts’ are just heuristics”, as long as it doesn’t prevent us from treating them as facts in our daily lives — doesn’t prevent us from using the heuristic.

I do have some sympathy for the folks who are more skeptical about the existence of moral facts than about physical facts. Almost everyone acts as if they believe that fire is hotter than ice, and almost everyone acts as if they believe that torturing human babies simply for personal enjoyment is wrong; but the tiny percentage who act as if they disbelieve the moral fact is probably larger than the even tinier percentage who act as if they disbelieve the physical fact.

And clearly our skill with the physical has advanced much further since, say, the pre-Socratics, than has our skill with the moral. Perhaps we’ll do better in a few thousand years; and perhaps we won’t.

So there are puzzles about what kind of fact moral facts are; and why we’re so much better at physics than we are at ethics: but none of that makes a philosophy that says “Torturing human babies simply for personal enjoyment might be OK” less silly than a philosophy that says “Fire might be colder than ice.”

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Yarrow 04.08.13 at 9:14 am

Oops — should be. So there are puzzles about what kind of fact moral facts are …

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.08.13 at 10:02 am

Damn, I could never imagine that so many people around here would fancy torturing babies, and they only restrain themselves because they know that it’s morally wrong. This is quite shocking.

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Harry 04.08.13 at 1:04 pm

Well, I should probably put a disclaimer up when I post. I didn’t get to the thread till there were about 70 comments, and to be honest I find threads impossible to follow at that point, unless they are very dull or I’ve been participating throughout.

I’ll follow up sometime maybe with an analysis of the basic mistake that underlies many of the readings of my proposed objective moral truths…

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Jerry Vinokurov 04.08.13 at 3:20 pm

I do have some sympathy for the folks who are more skeptical about the existence of moral facts than about physical facts. Almost everyone acts as if they believe that fire is hotter than ice, and almost everyone acts as if they believe that torturing human babies simply for personal enjoyment is wrong; but the tiny percentage who act as if they disbelieve the moral fact is probably larger than the even tinier percentage who act as if they disbelieve the physical fact.

I guess I’m one of these people? Like I said before: I can’t figure out what sorts of evidence I could possibly marshall to construct a moral fact about torture. Where is the facticity of the statement “Torture is wrong?” Can you show me where it resides, other than in our collective moral understanding? “Fire is hotter than ice” is a bit off (you must add qualifiers like “at standard temperature and pressure,” and so on), but the gist of such a statement is that it has a corresponding measurement in the real world which can act as confirmatory or disconfirmatory evidence for it. There just isn’t any such thing as far as moral facts are concerned.

I’m not going to construct a full-fledged argument for scientific realism, but I will say that I believe in a fully materialistic universe. In such a universe there really isn’t any room for moral facts as facts; where would they come from and how would I get at them? Given that we’re the product of a long and complicated evolutionary history, that whole morality thing is, like language, almost certainly “layered up” on top of earlier developments. So there are a whole host of possible evolutionary reasons why altruism might be good or torture might be bad or whatever (it’s easy to tell just-so-stories about these things, which I’m not doing; all I’m saying is that all of this had to be an evolutionary byproduct one way or the other, definitionally) and what we’re working with today is contingent on that history. That doesn’t mean it’s not valuable to us, and certainly my feelings about, say, torture constitute an objective fact about what I personally feel, but I have no idea how to translate that into any notion of universalizable moral fact that doesn’t depend on the notion that I’m interacting with people who already recognize the wrongness of the act. All I know how to do is to appeal to people’s already-existing sense that torture is bad; that sense itself is an objective phenomenon (which probably explains why people can be appealed to in this way), but there’s just no “moral fact of the matter” about it the way that there is a fact of the matter about the flow of electricity or the concept of temperature.

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Lawrence Stuart 04.08.13 at 3:51 pm

M. Cheng Ji @ 331:’“I am your God, and doncha dare worshiping any other gods” is the First Commandment. Everything else follows from here.’

For those who subscribe to some reified ethical codes, yes.
As J.C. Halasz sketches out so ably in @323, however, the ‘other’ is always already ‘there’ — related but not reducible to ‘me.’ The very ‘there-ness’ of the other makes language both possible and necessary. Reified (or metaphysical, or pragmatic) ethics depends upon that opening of communicative potential that begins with the mutual recognition of the other as addressable other: thou shalt not kill.

And just a general comment that addresses your 335: most behaviour, most of the time, is habitual, or at best pragmatic. We don’t torture babies because, well, you just don’t torture babies. Everybody (almost) knows that. So I think we generally operate at the level of Jane Austen, not Dostoyevsky. For most people, most of the time, morality is equivalent to ‘obeying the law and paying your taxes.’

But I think it is equally clear that while habit and authority cover most (many?) quotidian eventualities, some events, both quotidian and extraordinary, bring habit and convention into crisis. It’s in these crises that questions like the ‘objectivity’ of moral truths come into focus. Look no further than schisms within the great monotheistic religions for evidence that even ‘our Truth is God’s Truth’ is persistently rocked by crisis.

From a phenomenological perspective, I have to acknowledge that this shit is gonna happen. There is no last word, because plurality and difference are the preconditions of language and human subjectivity. But acknowledgement of this plurality implies restraint: empathy and respect for difference. And I know, that’s basically just ‘do unto others.’ But what’s wrong with that as a moral fact?

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GiT 04.08.13 at 6:42 pm

What’s wrong with it as a moral convention? Why the insistence on calling things that look like mutable agreements and constructions facts?

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roger nowosielski 04.08.13 at 7:17 pm

Isn’t one of the reasons that conventions have an arbitrary air about them?

Are our natural languages built on conventions, or our “language games”? I’m certain we can point to some conventional aspects, but don’t these language games also reflect certain rationality, logic and grammar.

These aren’t arbitrary features.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.08.13 at 8:14 pm

You’re making everything so complicated. There-ness, thou, language games. Meanwhile, today, yesterday, and every other day, somewhere out there, thousands of young people, their brains still plastic, repeat, over and over: “without my rifle I am nothing … without my rifle I am nothing.” And sure enough, after a few months this becomes their moral truth. And this is how they become United States Marines, useful members of the society, well-conditioned for the tasks they will be assigned to do. And when shit happens, they’ll turn on the radio, and ask the sergeant for instructions. I know, this is an extreme case, but how much more complicated does it have to be in the real world, with its parents, teachers, fairytales, TVs, songs, pledges of allegiance?

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roger nowosielski 04.08.13 at 8:32 pm

If you’re addressing #340, what’s complicated ’bout that?

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john c. halasz 04.09.13 at 2:20 am

Just briefly, batting clean up here, since this thread must be about to end:

There are no “moral facts”; there can only be morally relevant facts, as framed in one ethical perspective or another.

And norms are not themselves facts: they are shown forth as much by their violations as by their observances or enactments. That’s part of the meaning of being a norm: something not determined by material or causal conditions. (The expression “inalienable rights” gets at part of this: such “rights” can be all too readily violated, but that doesn’t diminish their normative status, nor authorize their transfer).

Cognitive norms and ethical norms are not reducible to one another. Cognitive norms concern “ontological” or epistemic issues about truth with respect to states-of-affairs or processes in the world. Ethical norms, with respect to rightness, justice, or goodness, refer to human relations, potentials and responsibilities within the world, but are not derived from its prior conditions. There is no “super-truth” which would subsume ethical norms to cognitive norms, which is an Hegelian myth. “Truth” and “justice” can be and often are opposed, if cross-implicated, criteria.

I don’t think it’s readily appreciated by many here and elsewhere how difficult it is to cast ethical intuitions, impulses and injunctions into the “logical form” of propositions. (Wittgenstein is concerned about that, but, as usual, sotto voce). It’s not that ethical propositions can’t be formed, nor that deliberative inferences adduced to form judgments. It’s that the “force” of such judgments, (which is not the same as motivation), can’t be captured in terms of formal logical inferences. There are always “loose screws” involved there. Hence the emphasis on the “pre-logical” source of ethics.

“Judge not, lest ye be judged”. Ethical judgment always redounds on one’s own head. Which is as it should be.

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john c. halasz 04.09.13 at 2:30 am

Oh! The above all goes to why the subject/object dichotomy or split is irrelevant here. Or rather, the source of unnecessary troubles.

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js. 04.09.13 at 5:04 am

Haven’t had a chance to look through all the thread (grading!) but wanted to pick up on a point or two of Jerry Vinokurov’s (also, geo, etc.)—and picking on these people because I think there’s very much a point to what they’re saying.

JV:

Like I said before: I can’t figure out what sorts of evidence I could possibly marshall to construct a moral fact about torture.

Right, I agree one would find oneself at a loss to find evidence! for the claim, Torture is wrong. Given what we normally conceive of as evidence. But, what about evidence for the claim, “John [for some value of "John"] is unkind”. You could present straightforward facts in support of this, no? Ways that John has behaved, say, etc. But, in doing this, wouldn’t you also be making a value judgment about John? Could you prevent yourself from making this value judgment while you cite the behavioral evidence that speaks to John’s unkindness? (Do you really want to go with R.M. Hare on this?)

In any case, this, and lots of other “thick terms” of moral evaluation, present fairly straightforward cases, I think, where you can in fact cite evidence for moral claims (evidence for the claim that John is unkind, or that it was cruel of Margaret to treat little Johnny the way she did, etc.) And if you want to say something like, such value judgments are fine, it’s Objective Moral Truth I’m concerned about, then as far as I’m concerned you’ve conceded the point—for you’ve conceded that you can have factive (objective!) criteria for predicating kindness, cruelty, etc., of persons and actions.

More generally: of course, there’s an implausibly demanding sense of “objective” that’s attracted many , many, philosophers through the ages (Parfit keeps good company!). But at the same time, there’s a ton of stuff on the objectivity of values, or of morality, etc., and there are several more attractive ways of making out the claims to objectivity. If you want to ignore all of those, and insist that, well, Parfit’s view is insane (though also intuitively compelling way), then, well yes, all of that is true, but why ignore the other stuff. (Also, Parfit or Rorty is the worst false dichotomy I’ve seen in a long time.)

Anyway, finally: why objectivity? Because, as I suggested way up ahead, if you want any sort of ground for reasoned disagreement, argument, or critique, you’re going to have to appeal to something preference. And actually existing consensus would be a disastrous standard as well, for reasons I hope are too obvious for me to spell out. Given that most of us do (in our practice if not on CT threads) do think there are grounds for reasoned disagreement, etc., we must already be thinking that there’s something objective about values. No?

Kevin @328:

Thanks! You did make exactly the same point I did. Also, don’t get either why this is so hard.

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js. 04.09.13 at 5:08 am

Damn, I could never imagine that so many people around here would fancy torturing babies, and they only restrain themselves because they know that it’s morally wrong.

You have a rather strange conception of how moral awareness works.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.09.13 at 6:20 am

How does it work, then? When it tells you that some action “is wrong”? Explain, please, but keep obscurantism to the minimum.

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roger nowosielski 04.09.13 at 6:36 pm

@ 208, Jerry Vinokurov 04.05.13 at 4:01 pm

Jerry, here’s the link to Phillipa Foot’s work I was talking about earlier:

“Natural Goodness.”

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