What I Think About Metaethics

To get new readers caught up and to inspire all of you to resume old conversations and to get new ones rolling, periodically I will write posts which tour you through my archive.  In each post I will briefly summarize the positions I have taken in the past and provide links to the posts where I defend them in detail.  This should be a helpful guide to where Camels With Hammers has already been over the last 2 years and a launching off point for its future here at Freethought Blogs.  The first topic on which I want to summarize my views is metaethics: (below the fold)

Metaethics

I reject the notion that the is/ought boundary is an absolute one.  Effectiveness, either at making something happen or at being something of a particular kind at all, is a factual relationship. For example: Hearts are effective at pumping blood. Effective rational thought is integral to effectively being an adult human being.  All beings arise as functions of component parts. Their goodness is bound up with the effective combined functioning of their component parts into a more complicated function that we recognize as a new, emergent, level of being.  To effectively be anything, any being needs the sub-functions of which it is composed to function well in the way that creates that being.  The well-functioning of some

I think that because of this ultimately all of our value statements can be recast as effectiveness statements. When we say anything is good we are using a shorthand expression for saying it is effective either for some specific purpose or for the full realization of some kind of being as what it is. Other connotations of the word good which seem distinct from this effectiveness definition (such as moral good)  can more accurately be recast in these fact-based value terms.

Read Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness) where I develop these thoughts in my most basic metaethical statement on the blog. In my post Grounding Objective Value Indpendent of Human Interests and Morality, I explore the implications of this theory for the idea of an intrinsic good and locate consciousness’s ultimate value to us as a form of effectiveness.

In another post, I explore more directly the intrinsic connection between being and goodness and briefly defend a modern conception of forms, which I would like to develop more carefully in the future. Essentially I am very influenced by Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas on the idea that to be a good anything means essentially to realize one’s being as that kind of thing and that to be a bad anything means essentially to deficiently realize one’s being as that kind of thing. The degrees to which we fulfill a form are the degrees to which we are good instances of a kind of being and the degrees to which we fail to fulfill a form are the degrees to which we are bad instances of a kind of being.

in my post On Good and Evil for Non-Existent People, I deal with philosophical puzzles related to my thinking that our goodness is bound up with our being. I explore how if I am right we can still say, as seems right, that there can be good or bad done to both dead people and to hypothetical future people who do not yet actually exist (and some of whom may never exist).

In another major, clarifying post on these topics, I explain my view that effectiveness is the primary goal in itself, not merely a means.  Essentially this is my adoption and elaboration of Aristotle’s view that our highest good is a kind of activity—the activity of living well (effectively) according to the kind of being we have.  We do not live for anything further than our lives themselves and the activities which constitute them.  We do not live for pleasure itself (although it is quite often a wonderful enticement, aid, and satisfaction for living life well).  We thrive to function as what we are itself, not for external rewards.

In my post Non-Reductionistic Analysis of Values into Facts I defend my goodness as the fact of effectiveness theory from the charge that it is reductionistic.  I stress that translating values into fact terms does not strip of them of their character as genuinely valuable but rather makes clear just how “value is in certain fact relationships, inherently and necessarily”. I am arguing value relationships are a basic constituent of existence, which is a far cry from undermining their genuine validity by exposing their real sources (as reductionists would seem to).  Also, I am “not prejudicing the ‘non-good’ over the good but, rather, opposing the common prejudice that facts are inherently value neutral and ‘non-good’.”

Finally, for now, in my post Deriving an Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account of Morality, I tell an evolutionary story about the origins of our forms which determine our values and explain how morality arises as a psychological and social phenomenon and how all of this gives insight into morality’s ultimate value and normative authority. To me, explaining a morality’s worth, its particular substance, and its rightful claim to dictate our (or others’) actions is a matter of understanding its contributions to our flourishing in factual value terms.

Your Thoughts?

  • abb3w

    I’d disagree with your rejection of the absolute is/ought boundary.

    Yes, I would agree all of our value statements can be recast as effectiveness statements. (I’d further note that deontology maps isomorphically to consequentialism, because you can make “prefer this type of consequences” a rule, and contrariwise can make “these rules were followed” the sought consequence.) However, this does not establish WHICH effects are referred to as “good” and which are “bad”.

    It seems to me that values involve choices, and the consequences associated with those choices. If there’s no choice (or more exactly, only one alternative to “choose” from), there’s no “better” or “worse”. As such, values/morality involve establishing an ordering relationship over the set of choices – in mathematical parlance, a poset. (Unless, of course, you’d like to allow rock-paper-scissors morals, where A>B, B>C, but C>A; but that’s unusual, even for philosophers.) Given a pair of choices, we may have A>B, B>A, A=B, or A||B (better, worse, equivalent, or incomparable).

    I’m pretty sure it’s trivial to constructively show the existence of pairwise ordering relationships ≥ for an arbitrary set (in the Feynman sense — I’m sure someone’s done a proof from ZF up). However, for sets of more than one element, more than one ordering relationship exists. Thus, in addition to axioms required to resolve “is” questions (to the extent they may be resolved), a further axiomatic definition is required to state which ordering relationship you are identifying.

    Of course, there are some ways that get close to bridging is-to-ought. We can try and infer what IS the meaning humans associate to OUGHT, or even the underlying principle that IS responsible for similar OUGHT-ness. Sam Harris’ attempt would be an example. However, saying that we OUGHT to use that sense of OUGHT then takes that additional axiomatic step.

    The choice of what is-ought bridge is taken thus in turn implies what ordering relationship of values is used, what consequent purposes are preferred, and what Humpty-Dumpty chooses to mean when using the word “good”… which, hopefully but not necessarily, bears some resemblance to what others mean when they use such word. But from an abstract semantics vantage, all choices are equivalently cromulent.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      What this assumes though abb3w, is that there is not an inherent connection between what a thing is and what a thing does such that it has an indissolvable connection between its own self-realization and its own effective functioning. What is good or bad for me is primarily going to boil down to what leads to my maximally good (in the sense of effective) flourishing as the kind of being I am. Choices are constrained by this. The choice to develop as many of my powers as I can, to integrate my various powers into more complex powers that amplify each specific power in the maximum way for the maximum effectiveness at spreading my power into others so that they too are powerful and conduits of my own power outside myself, etc. is a choice that is given to me as the right one because it is the best one for me as the kind of being I am. One could ask, why ought I be the best I can be still, but I don’t think it is an interminable question to ask what the best I can be is. If it is unsolvable in practice, this is because of limits on our ability to know future effects with exact precision or based on hard choices when we have limited time and resources and have to make difficult judgment calls between competing powers we could develop. But in theory, were we beings with all the facts at our disposal, we could do the necessary calculations and figure out what makes us thrive most maximally effective according to the most of our powers most integrated into the most powerful effects in the world (effects which most increase others’ powers through which our power can continue to be powerful even beyond the limits of our bodies).

      If you ask why should I want to thrive maximally? I think it’s a simple matter of practical contradiction not to. I may take axiomatically (though, maybe not, I may be able to think through if there is a reason for this point) that a being has an objective interest in its own thriving regardless of whether it has a conscious interest in it too. That it ought to think it has an obligation to fulfill this interest is a matter of rationality. Just the way you ought to think what is true to fulfill your powers of rationality, you ought to do what is in your objective value interest as a matter of fulfillment of your rationality.

    • abb3w

      So, where you say, “What is good or bad for me is primarily going to boil down to what leads to my maximally good (in the sense of effective) flourishing as the kind of being I am”, this effectively defines what sense of the word “good” you’re using, and establishes which of the possible ordering relationships you refer to. (There may be implicit ordering in the metric for comparing degrees of flourishing and/or thriving.) While semantically legitimate, it is not the only possible such definition that may be taken.

      Similarly, where you say “it is the best one for me as the kind of being I am”, the ordering of “best” seems either definitional (defining the ordering relationship) or circular, (it is the best, because it is the closest to what you’ve defined as good). And for that matter, “functioning” seems to have implicit connections to “function” in the sense of “purpose”, which involves a similar bridge choice.

      That said, I suspect the difference between our actual bridges is minimal. I merely prefer mine taken explicitly.

       

      On the other hand, I’d fairly adamantly disagree with your claim that “were we beings with all the facts at our disposal, we could do the necessary calculations and figure out what makes us thrive most maximally effective according to the most of our powers most integrated into the most powerful effects in the world”, for computation-theoretic reasons. I’m fairly certain a close relative of Turing’s halting problem gets in the way. (For that matter, the problem of induction means underlying limits on the extent of resolvability of the “is” questions, too; “more probable” is a recognition problem, but “most probable” hits the halting problem. However, I think the “ought” layer exacerbates this.) Put simply: Flourishing for how long? Zen Master Avrakotos replies “We’ll see”.

      Of course, I may merely be mad as a march hare.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      So, where you say, “What is good or bad for me is primarily going to boil down to what leads to my maximally good (in the sense of effective) flourishing as the kind of being I am”, this effectively defines what sense of the word “good” you’re using, and establishes which of the possible ordering relationships you refer to. (There may be implicit ordering in the metric for comparing degrees of flourishing and/or thriving.) While semantically legitimate, it is not the only possible such definition that may be taken.

      I take this definition because it is semantically legitimate and I think it is the one sense of the word good that all other senses can be re-translated into so that they have a factual basis. The other senses of good hinge on desires, feelings, attitudes, intuitions, etc. all of which may be justified or not if we can see how they relate to the issue of effectiveness for functional being (or effectiveness for some more proximate goal which ultimately can trace its justification to basic functional effectiveness as the kind of being it is).

      Unless another sense of good can bridge the is/ought gap, values will be inevitably subjective and rooted in facts of our psychology and nothing truer than that. To define values that way is to preclude (arbitrarily) that values can only mean something subjective and cannot be granted their very available, already existing fact-based meaning. That seems like a prejudice against objectivity in values that leads to what is even worse—false thinking about them.

      Similarly, where you say “it is the best one for me as the kind of being I am”, the ordering of “best” seems either definitional (defining the ordering relationship) or circular, (it is the best, because it is the closest to what you’ve defined as good). And for that matter, “functioning” seems to have implicit connections to “function” in the sense of “purpose”, which involves a similar bridge choice.

      That said, I suspect the difference between our actual bridges is minimal. I merely prefer mine taken explicitly.

      My position is coherent, that’s all I (or anyone) can offer here. But it’s not circular. I am starting with premises that can be taken as axial that come from the ways we already see the world in common sense and scientifically informed ways and I show that we can reconcile these intuitions in a way that grounds objective value statements that can be traced back to defensible basic intuitions. I don’t see any logical problem there.

      And no, function does not require any sense of (at least not in any intelligent design sense). Biologists are constantly thinking teleological terms when they look for functions of organs (and they egregiously use anthropomorphic language in describing evolutionary processes as though they involved animals or evolution “looking” for solutions, etc.) But we understand that the biologists are really thinking in terms of natural selection—designs that function for effects, despite never having been given purposes to them by an intelligent purpose giver. I am doing the same thing, just saying various functionalities happen. When two hydrogen molecules hook up with an oxygen molecule they function a certain way. That function is what we call water. That’s it. No more purpose involved than that.

      WE have purposes because we are rational agents who act for reasons and can form conscious purposeful behavior. One of our functions is to do that. But it’s not part of nature for things to happen “purposively” (except insofar as purposive creatures are natural creatures, of course).

      On the other hand, I’d fairly adamantly disagree with your claim that “were we beings with all the facts at our disposal, we could do the necessary calculations and figure out what makes us thrive most maximally effective according to the most of our powers most integrated into the most powerful effects in the world”, for computation-theoretic reasons. I’m fairly certain a close relative of Turing’s halting problem gets in the way. (For that matter, the problem of induction means underlying limits on the extent of resolvability of the “is” questions, too; “more probable” is a recognition problem, but “most probable” hits the halting problem. However, I think the “ought” layer exacerbates this.) Put simply: Flourishing for how long? Zen Master Avrakotos replies “We’ll see”.

      Of course, I may merely be mad as a march hare.

      The ability to know with exactitude is not really the point. The point is that there is a reality, whether or not our inductive powers could be idealized to hypothetically see it perfectly. Some things will as a matter of fact increase our overall power, others will decrease them, we can infer rationally even if fallibly about these things, using evidence, so that is all I need to say rational debate about values is possible. There may be some impasses where one has to choose between two equally yet differently powerful paths, but that is not because there are no clearly rational good options, but because there could be in a given case an abundance of them. That would not relativize everything such that all options were as good as all others.

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ Russell

      What is good or bad for me is primarily going to boil down to what leads to my maximally good (in the sense of effective) flourishing as the kind of being I am. Choices are constrained by this.

      Choices also determine it. Individuals choose who they want to be, and quite different qualities determine what it takes to flourish as a politician, engineer, hermit, conman, warlord, philosopher, gangster, etc. The problem with efficacy is that it can be measured only relative to a prior end. Of course, no end of philosophers have tried to bootstrap a preferred choice from “kind of being I am,” thus sneaking in a variety of ethical premises. But all of those and more are well within the spectrum of human potential. We’re not talking about the choice to be a turnip or a water pump.

      You might argue that some of those choices are better or worse from other grounds. And then those other grounds reveal your ethical premises. Not derived from what is. Hume was correct.