A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Jesse is undeterred by my argument that at least some of our moralities (or elements of them) can be objectively defended even though the physical universe (taken as an entirety) does not care about them:

Daniel–

I haven’t gone deeply enough through the other posts you linked to, and I will — but I think ou avoid the question that I am asking.

Relativity works no matter what you or I think. Atoms give off photons when hit with certain kins of energy. If you and a serial killer jump off the Empire State Building, you will both fall at 9.8 m/s/s and die.

The physical universe doesn’t “care” about what we think — the laws that govern it just are. They work the way they do with zero regard for the behavior of the conscious beings in it.

So, in light of that, I can’t come up with any scheme of behavior that is valid in the same way as Relativity, Newton’s laws, or Quantum Physics is.

Give me any moral proposition you care to — I will make that bet. Any moral idea you come up with and I can argue why it is absolutely immoral. Give me any objective good — name one, any of them — and I bet you five bucks I can come up with a perfectly self-consistent reason why it’s objectively evil.

Slavery? Economic growth. Many of the civilizations that had slavery int he ancient world were quite advanced, and in fact might have owed their advancement to slavery itself.

Murder? Hey, gets rid of competition for resources. More for the rest of us and the species.

Helping old ladies across the street? Absolutely evil. It increases the chance a person who can’t contribute will survive and take more stuff from the rest of us.

Jonathan Swift was able to justify cannibalism.

Understand now what my problem is? Not that I want to be a sociopath, I just have never successfully come up with the same rock – solid argument for behaving like a non-sociopath that I can come up with for why Newton’s mechanics works.

My lengthy philosophical and (occasionally) polemical reply is below the fold:

The first thing that is puzzling is why the fact that seriel killers and I are both subject to the same laws of gravity that there is no difference in moral validity to the ways that we live our lives. There can be no relevant differences between us since we can be conceived of, from a physical point of view, as bodies of mass subject to gravity? This means that no other categories for analyzing us make any valid sense or have any truth to them? If we are going to be this reductionist and sophistical about what are true existences then let’s just go whole hog and say that even thinking about us as “bodies of mass” is not valid since really these can be further reduced to atoms or subatomic particles or some sort of quantum indeterminacies.

There are other levels of categorizations of beings beyond physics. We can talk about chemical and biological and psychological and, yes, even ethical realities without being reductionistic and saying only discussions of quantum mechanics are valid since everything in some sense could eventually be boiled down to that.

And in dealing with different spheres of life there are different standards of validity. To pretend that one thinks that the only way to assess any truth claim is in terms of physics calculations is to be willfully obtuse and in practical contradiction. You do not live your life rejecting all beliefs that are not derived from your careful calculations of physical laws. When you decide what to watch on TV tonight, or who to marry, or whether to punch someone or shake their hand, or who to vote for or what career you want, etc., you are not making predictions about physical events and such physical predictions would be utterly worthless to your thinking about such issues.

And neither are you making these kinds of choices in some utterly arbitrary way. You are not acting in a way that eschews all reasons. You are not a random decision generator acting chaotically. You are a creature with a reason that has been exquisitely honed to make innumerable rational calculations throughout your day which allow you to survive and to thrive. You are also a creature that has the blessing and the curse of deliberate rational capacities that allow you to make complex decisions that even your highly tuned subconscious mind is not equipped to make perfectly. And when you make these choices, you implicitly understand that a whole range of things are objectively good for you and another whole range of things are objectively bad for you. You implicitly understand all sorts of objective means/ends relationships connected to these goods too. And I have written many posts explaining how these can be cashed out in naturalistic, factual terms.

Now, I get it that there are some hard cases of fundamental values choices where highly valuable ends, or the means to attaining them, seem to conflict in deep ways. And there are hard cases of empirical uncertainty about what means really will best achieve the ends we choose. We cannot pretend to give a simple algorithm in any one post for solving all possible ambiguous problems in the future. We can only address specific values questions as carefully and contextually as possible as they arise.

But it is not especially shrewd and knowing to pretend that one does not understand the objective goods for humans or the basic means to attaining them when one thinks philosophically. It is not especially wise to pretend that the best solution to such problems is to act like they must be formulated (laughably) as physics problems so that they will be a priori impossible to solve. The false assumption that only the means of solving physical problems are valid means of solving any questions of truth is one no one makes in daily life. Animals of all kinds understand how to make choices about what practices to pursue and which ones to avoid. It takes only a sophistical human being to play dumb and pretend not to grasp what the right sorts of ways of formulating an understanding of right and wrong action and good and bad ends are.

Even when Jesse offers sophistical hints about how one can rationalize slavery or pretend to not understand the value of helping old ladies cross streets, Jesse implicitly assumes that there are objective goods like survival and economic growth. Jesse does not bother to say to me that slavery might be good because it might economically ruin us all or that helping old ladies across the street would be bad because it would help the species survive. Implicitly, even at Jesse’s most sophistical, the default assumption is that only laughter would follow suggestions that all things being equal our survival is worse than our extinction or our economic ruin is better than our prosperity.

Now, there are choices to be made. How do we choose between the prosperity of the many and the prosperity of the worst off if these are in conflict? Do we want overall prosperity to go up even if it means that the worst off suffer more than they have to? There can be conflicts between mere survival and maximal flourishing. There can be conflicts between choosing between the good of more human lives and the good of better flourishing but less numerous human lives. These are real values conflicts that we would have to painstakingly debate with lots of empirical considerations and no easy algorithm for computing the relevance of them all.

But at least modestly enough I can say some things are airtight goods, all things being equal. If any of the following things could be maximized in all people to the astounding pleasure and satisfaction of all people, then no one could ever seriously (and without practical contradiction) deny their value: intelligence, emotional strength, economic prosperity, social harmony, athleticism, creativity, artistic ability, humorousness, technological inventiveness, unencumbered physical vigor, autonomy, friendship, courage, generosity, patience, kindness, playfulness, merriness, and loyalty. I could list numerous other intrinsic goods of human flourishing, each of which anyone who is honest would admit they would prefer to have if all things were equal and it would cost neither themselves nor anyone else any of the other goods to have it.They are intrinsic and indisputable goods.

You may think it is philosophically hardheaded and say that since there is no physical law that says we must attain these things that they is not an “airtight, valid” proof of their value but that is just using words that are contradicted by your practice and everyone’s practice (or the practice of everyone with full information and full appreciation of exactly the difference between having any of these goods and not having them).

Now I seriously do not think it is good philosophy that pretends, when doing philosophy, that we do not understand implicitly what is good and how it differs from what is bad. Intelligent, non-socio-pathic psychologists, economists, ecologists, medical researchers, parents, athletic coaches, and nearly everyone else on the planet understands implicitly that the goods I listed above are the ones that, all things being equal, they should be turning the attention of their disciplines to creating as much as they can. They may have to deal with very difficult and taxing decisions about trade offs between these values in cases where they cannot be equally maximized. But their disciplines have no problem taking for granted the goods of flourishing that in general they should be concerned with.

But it is somehow philosophically deep to pretend that this is not objective rather to explore what insights into the objectivity are possible? It is philosophically uncompromising to divorce one’s abstract formulation of the question of ends from all awareness of how practical engagement with the pursuit of ends works and all its wisdom? It is philosophically logical to imply that just because calculations of how to weigh competing values is indeterminate by quantitative means that there can never be any discernible better and worse?

If that’s really the best philosophical conclusion, the best we could do with respect to truth on these matters, then to be really consistent and live in a truthful way we should just halt the endless debating and studying about ethical conflicts. If there is no truth about these things, no objectivity, then let’s be serious and honest people who stop living in contradiction and acting “as though there are meaningful, objective distinctions to consider” and let’s be on with it. If you have no reason not to be a serial killer then don’t give me your mealy mouthed assurances you have no qualms with serial killing, prove it to me in practice. Start killing if there really is no valid reason not to.

In fact, send your thoughts on the virtues of slavery to those involved in the sex trade. Here’s an idea—track down a sex slave and give them your disquisition on how slavery is not objectively bad. Find some domestic abuse shelters and show them what a clever person you are and how you can twist things around so that the wife-beaters are moral champions. Why save all this nihilistic wisdom for irrelevant philosophy blogs. Live by your words.

Write stirring defenses of despotism and publish them in millions of copies you donate in war ravaged countries in hopes that the next dictator might gain philosophical inspiration from your sophistries. What would be the difference, right? The laws of gravity don’t care so who gives a fuck?

If you oppose serial murder, despotism, sex slavery, genocide, etc. and fully intend to make arguments against them then either you are implicitly conceding that there is a theoretical objectivity possible towards which it is worth aiming or you contradict yourself every time you marshal an argument as though there is one but when you fully well know there is not one.

If you are going to make arguments for the best means to objective ends, then make them as objectively as you can and admit that implicitly your very attempt to use reasons presupposes you believe in objectivity. Even if it is a contextualized kind. Even if you recognize it is a matter of goods for humans and not for all species or that some moral disputes can be settled objectively differently in different times and places where objective factors are different.

But to me, philosophical truth and responsibility involve either consistent nihilism or acknowledgment that there are degrees of objective truth and that values discussions are not matters for pure arbitrariness.

Finally a few brief teasers on Jesse’s teaser arguments about slavery, cannibalism, etc. Whether or not slavery benefits the enslaved economically and whether economic prosperity that is confined only to a few at the expense of a great majority in the long haul is greater than otherwise, are empirical questions. It may very well be borne out empirically that even for those at the top a significant bit of prosperity in other classes is beneficial and that the situation is really win-win and not zero sum. I do take very seriously though the hard moral questions about whether this is true.

Secondly, though, even were abolition of slavery an economic drag on the richest, I do not think that flourishing human life is defined by material wealth so much as its ability to increase overall power outside of itself. I am powerful insofar as I spread my power outside myself and have it function in others too. When I empower you I can take pride and credit in things you accomplish to the extent that my contribution to them made them possible. Who would not prefer to be George Washington, whose power still lives on in the country, values, and institutions which he so magnificently helped to create, than, say a third world dictator whose only legacy is an impoverished and weakened people? Power is in our ability to flourish according to the objective goods we all—when not being sophistical—understand embody effective human living and is in our ability to spread that flourishing beyond ourselves.

Anyone can kill and destroy other powerful beings. How much harder is it to empower them? How much more power does it require of you and manifest in you to do the latter than the former? You can smash someone’s i-pod to pieces. Can you invent an i-pod? You can sew discord, hatred, war, and economic ruin. Can you create economic prosperity for all (or at least raise the standards for the worst off so that they meet Rawls’s maximin standard, so that any necessary inequalities are maximally tolerable for the worst off)?

You can create “self-consistent” schema wherein heinous practices would be justified theoretically. And there are imaginable circumstances where possibly, say, cannibalism, or (at least temporary) steep inequalities between workers and the wealthy exist because these would genuinely be, in empirically demonstrable ways, the most efficient routes under specific circumstances to creating the maximal flourishing possible for a specific people in terms of all the goods I listed (and more). But that does not mean that just any abstract theoretical world in which those practices are best actually has anything, empirically speaking, to do with our world, in our time and place. And so I don’t care about theoretical models in which possibly we would have to justify heinous things that in our world we clearly don’t have to justify. Yes, I will concede that under the wrongest and most diabolical circumstances even horrible things might be our best recourse. I have only ever argued for moral objectivity in contexts and cannot say that never could cannibalism be our best recourse. But just because our judgments of approvable actions are contextual in this way does not mean they are wholly arbitrary and lacking in any true validity.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Adam

    I enjoy reading your posts on morality, but feel little confidence in contributing any of my own thoughts on the topic. However, since reductionism and physics were brought up, I felt I should comment on them (but that I should keep the comment brief since it is a secondary topic). To be frank, I don’t think it’s entirely clear what ‘reductionism’ should entail. I’ve seen several different interpretations of what reductionism is, and some are more justifiable than others.

    Some, such as “only matter and space (or whatever sort of physical entities) exist,” beg the question of what is meant by “exist.” Within mathematical theories, entities such as sets, numbers and vectors “exist.” Eventually one has to specify that physical existence is meant, but then we have a useless tautology. I’ve seen the so-called “physicalism,” namely: only physical facts are true. This is clearly cannot be true without contradicting itself.

    The most coherent version I’ve seen was from Bohr, which goes along the lines: no observation shall ever contradict a correct physical theory. For instance, it is probably impossible to describe human psychology in terms of physics for a whole slew of reasons—especially since we do not understand our concepts of psychology in terms of the physics of the brain. However, any experiment done to examine how the human brain works, and how humans behave, will always be found to be consistent with the laws of physics.

    It’s a very neat view which is perfectly compatible with moral objectivity, not to mention the meaningfulness of disciplines in general other than physics. Indeed, the laws of physics have no concern for biology, or psychology, or subjective experience, or much of anything (besides the physics itself) for that matter, except that they be consistent with physics when manifestly physical descriptions are given. None of your proposed morals contradict physics, so I think you’re fine in that regard.

    • Physicalist

      According to most philosophers, physicalism is the claim that all facts supervene on the physical facts. This means that if a world is exactly like our own in every physical detail, then it’s impossible for any other facts about the world (e.g., facts about biology, or psychology, or morality) to vary.

      The question of “reduction” is something of a mess, because there are many different forms of reduction: ontological reduction, theory reduction, explanatory reduction, causal reduction, and so on.

    • Adam

      I’ll have to apologize for presenting an inaccurate description of physicalism, then. Admittedly, I’m not a philosopher and don’t follow the literature, and that definition is what was presented to me in an undergrad philosophy class.

    • Physicalist

      It’s a tricky topic, and surrounded by a lot of interesting debate.

      By the way, if you have a reference to a quotation from Bohr along the lines you mention above, I’d love to have it.

    • Adam

      Actually, what Bohr had said was slightly different. He did say experiments would always prove consistent with the physics, though that biology wasn’t reducible to physics. Rather than saying that because biological concepts weren’t in terms of physics, he spoke of the conditions of observation for biological experiments. (He insisted the reason biology wasn’t reducible to physics was that tracking the motions of every atom could not be done without killing the organism.) I think a lot of what he said turned out to be wrong regarding biology, and he’s had to revise his statements several times. (However, he was careful to never support vitalism, and spoke out against it too.)

      There were a few essays I’ve read. Off the top of my head, I believe he espouses the view briefly in Causality and Complementarity. I don’t have access to JSTOR currently, so I can’t find an exact quote, but here’s the link:
      http://www.jstor.org/pss/184445

    • Physicalist

      Yeah, I’m familiar with his speculations about biology being complementary to physics. As you say, that’s a bit different (and he abandoned the view later in life).

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

      Thanks Adam. I agree with Bohr as you have characterized him. I just posted a new article http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/11/21/thinking-according-to-scale/ in which I endorse Dawkins on reductionism too.

  • astrosmash

    And also heinous practices with the idea of having eventual positive flourishing outcomes, would have to have the outcome in mind AS it was commiting heinous practices. The truth is that heinous practices are justified as post facto their implimentation

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

      Yes, if they are to be morally approvable. Nietzsche likes to dwell on the ways that they sometimes wind up valuable in ways we have to grudgingly have to admit if we are to be just objective observers of value and not always imposing moral categories as the only ones that are important in value. But that’s not a direct line to approving them morally.

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

    Daniel Fincke:

    But to me, philosophical truth and responsibility involve either consistent nihilism or acknowledgment that there are degrees of objective truth and that values discussions are not matters for pure arbitrariness.

    I wonder if that notion is much of what motivates attempts to define a morality that is objectively true?

    In any case, I would argue the opposite. The most enlightening and meaningful moral discussions I read work from the ground up rather than from theory down. They present cases of actual value conflict, tell how people worked through them, explain how various values relate to psychology, daily habits, or familial life, explain how children acquire values, and how they don’t, and look at the stresses placed on values from work, school, family and friends, and social norms. All of that becomes more complex as it moves from the realm of the individual the realm of the social, since we value social institutions in various ways.

    Conversely, I find moral or theoretical discussions that work from moral theory down to be sterile. And the end of every definition of The Good is the reification of some subset of values. To the extent that I share those values, I can think about them directly, without the pretense that they are somehow the primary values from which all others derive or somehow definitional of The Good. So I sort of understand what you’re saying about power and function. But I don’t need a theory of The Good derived from it. And that’s the best case for such theoretical construction! The worst case is that the definition is muddled and the values occult. “Man qua man.”

  • Ariel

    My comment will be really a set of teasers. I will try to be as unsympathetic as I can, just to see whether you really have something substantial to counter it. (Normally I’m not so nasty … er … not always :-) but I’m a newcomer at your blog and I can’t resist giving it a try. Please forgive me if you can.)

    When you decide what to watch on TV tonight, or who to marry, or whether to punch someone or shake their hand, or who to vote for or what career you want, etc., you are not making predictions about physical events and such physical predictions would be utterly worthless to your thinking about such issues.

    Irrelevant. Unless you want to reduce moral claims to decisions (which you are evidently not planning, since you want to claim that moral claims are true.)

    Now, I get it that there are some hard cases of fundamental values choices where highly valuable ends, or the means to attaining them, seem to conflict in deep ways. And there are hard cases of empirical uncertainty about what means really will best achieve the ends we choose.

    The comparison of fundamental value choices with hard cases of empirical uncertainty is ill taken. In cases of really fundamental value choices no empirical data could ever settle the conflict. That’s when the value choice becomes “fundamental”, don’t you think so?

    The false assumption that only the means of solving physical problems are valid means of solving any questions of truth is one no one makes in daily life.

    Yeah, sure. Forget physics, what about scientific means in general? Do you think science can settle moral questions (especially the fundamental ones)? And if not, do you think it’s not a problem because in daily life we don’t ask physicists/biologists/sociologists etc. for advice, but we just go on? How about making the same argument for religion? Hmm, let’s try it: “in daily life most of us don’t assume that science provides the only valid means of solving questions of (religious) truth, therefore religion must have some validity after all”. How do you like it?

    the default assumption is that only laughter would follow suggestions that all things being equal our survival is worse than our extinction or our economic ruin is better than our prosperity.

    I will answer with a quote from Ahmed (taken from his debate with WL Craig): “That might pass for an argument at Talbot Theological Seminary, and it might pass for an argument in the White House, but this is Cambridge, and it will not pass for an argument here.”

    But at least modestly enough I can say some things are airtight goods, all things being equal. If any of the following things could be maximized in all people to the astounding pleasure and satisfaction of all people, then no one could ever seriously (and without practical contradiction) deny their value

    A moral fictionalist could answer: morality is a fiction, but it is useful. It’s like Santa Claus for adults. My point is that a “practical contradiction” objection doesn’t have much force against such a (pretty nihilistic) standpoint.

    Intelligent, non-socio-pathic psychologists, economists, ecologists, medical researchers, parents, athletic coaches, and nearly everyone else on the planet understands implicitly (…)

    A nice example of an ad hominem argument.

    If you have no reason not to be a serial killer then don’t give me your mealy mouthed assurances you have no qualms with serial killing, prove it to me in practice. Start killing if there really is no valid reason not to.

    Oh, there are valid reasons. I may get caught, you know. There is a lot of unpleasant consequences, providing reasons for my not becoming a serial killer. But being morally wrong is not one of them.

    Well, that sums it up.

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

      Irrelevant. Unless you want to reduce moral claims to decisions (which you are evidently not planning, since you want to claim that moral claims are true.)

      No, these are all relevant, because the truth of moral claims is whether or not they are conducive to thriving. Moral claims purport to be about what is best in action. They are testable in this way. The truth of their claims is whether they are truly best for action. We can figure out what ends are worth pursuing–based on an understanding of what kinds of beings we are and so what kinds of ends are best for us–and then assess whether the claim of a moral rule to be the best for us is true by the degree to which it helps us attain these ends which are best for us.

      That’s all moral truth means according to me. Properly defined as such, what’s the problem?

      The comparison of fundamental value choices with hard cases of empirical uncertainty is ill taken. In cases of really fundamental value choices no empirical data could ever settle the conflict. That’s when the value choice becomes “fundamental”, don’t you think so?

      You misunderstand, I was not saying that just because there are hard empirical cases that they are resolved in the same way as hard fundamental values conflicts. I was just listing another hurdle for objective moral reasoning. I was saying that on the one hand we have problems of fundamental values clashes and on the other hand we have problems where empirical understanding is needed and it is hard to determine precisely.

      That said, I would still add that I think fundamental values choices can be worked out with a high degree of objectivity philosophically, it’s just never with mathematical exactitude. This does not invalidate my contention we should reason according to an ideal that assumes that in principle objectivity is possible and, so, the discussion is worth having. I will argue in coming posts, I am sure, for why certain fundamental values are better than others so you can see how such reasoning processes work out in practice.

      Yeah, sure. Forget physics, what about scientific means in general? Do you think science can settle moral questions (especially the fundamental ones)? And if not, do you think it’s not a problem because in daily life we don’t ask physicists/biologists/sociologists etc. for advice, but we just go on? How about making the same argument for religion? Hmm, let’s try it: “in daily life most of us don’t assume that science provides the only valid means of solving questions of (religious) truth, therefore religion must have some validity after all”. How do you like it?

      The problem with theologies is that not that they do not use empirical scientific methods, it’s that they contradict scientific knowledge rather than incorporate it properly, they make claims which do not use philosophical rigor in clarifying their concepts or their logic, they make arguments which are philosophically poor, they use arbitrary human authorities and put their claims above all the testimonies of the senses and of reason, they train people to believe obvious absurdities willfully and in defiance of all future evidence, etc.

      All of this and more is all quite different than what we do in morality, in philosophy, and in moral philosophy.

      I will answer with a quote from Ahmed (taken from his debate with WL Craig): “That might pass for an argument at Talbot Theological Seminary, and it might pass for an argument in the White House, but this is Cambridge, and it will not pass for an argument here.”

      Sorry but that’s not an argument. What’s wrong with my argument?

      The claim I was addressing was that we could sophistically argue for anything and I was pointing out that in practice we cannot. Jesse was trying to show that he could say slavery was fine and killing old women was fine by appealing to how they served various good ends. My point was that his argument would not even appear to be valid if he did not appeal to universally understood goods in the first place.

      If he had said to me, “Look, I’ll show you slavery can sometimes be good because it leads to our own economic ruin” the obvious answer would be “Um, how does that make it good–who defines good as their own economic ruin?”

      So, if my refutation does not work, tell me, how at Cambridge is it unclear that one’s own economic ruin is not bad for one, if all things are equal and it does not contribute to any other good?

      Or, alternatively, what standard of objectivity could I possibly marshal that you would accept or are you just a priori assuming there can be none? Tell me what standard moral objectivity could ever meet or whether you have just defined it as non-objective and begged the question. And if you have so begged the question, then on what grounds? Why is it more rationally consistent to define moral objectivity in such a way that it could never actually exist than to define it in ways consistent with what we know exists?

      Also, I do not just argue from laughter at the absurdity of saying one’s own economic ruin is a good (all things equal), I also give the account I referred to in my post of how goodness can be defined from a third person standpoint: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/01/23/goodness-is-a-factual-matter-goodnesseffectiveness/

      But finally, the argument about what all would accept as good if all things were equal was developed in a very classic manner not at Cambridge but at Oxford by W.D. Ross. To this day elite moral philosophers at elite secular institutions make defenses of the objectivity of moral reasoning or moral goods quite comparable to my own. This is not theological question begging.

      So, either make a counter-argument, abandon the point, or don’t be so unjustifiably condescending please.

      A moral fictionalist could answer: morality is a fiction, but it is useful. It’s like Santa Claus for adults. My point is that a “practical contradiction” objection doesn’t have much force against such a (pretty nihilistic) standpoint.

      Problem is that we do not treat morality with any of the arms length distance and rejectability of Santa Claus. And what is this a fictional version of? If there are no such things as true norms then what are we basing the concept on? Santa Claus is based on things we know from reality just put together in a fantastic way. But if there are no such things as norms or rational ways to employ them at all then where do we get the mistaken thoughts about them to construct our fictions? And if there is no morality since there is no better or worse in action, then there is no better or worse in what we judge that we should think or should not think, since thinking is an action too. And that makes all thinking irremediably fictional.

      Then that means that scientific beliefs are fictions too. And we may choose to believe them if we find them more “useful” but that does not mean they’re inherently more rational. And, in fact, the term “useful” is just a fiction too then. So fictions are not even useful.

      Fictionalism is inherently contradictory and unstable in these ways. I should know, I spent about 8 years of my life desperately trying to make it work as an epistemology. Here’s my conclusions about what a better epistemology looks like: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/09/03/mostly-true-not-mostly-false/

      “Intelligent, non-socio-pathic psychologists, economists, ecologists, medical researchers, parents, athletic coaches, and nearly everyone else on the planet understands implicitly”

      A nice example of an ad hominem argument.

      No, that’s not an ad hominem argument at all. It is an appeal to the practical realities of the situation. In practice what I said is true. If the moral nihilist is right, the only thing to say is that there is nothing literally wrong with sociopathic or pyschopathic thinking. It misses nothing true about reality. In fact, it is unblinkered and unconfused by the “fictions” of morality. If you think that there are actual reasons why they have a less than ideal set of beliefs and norms for actions then you are conceding my point.

      And on my dare to become a serial killer if there are no reasons not to:

      Oh, there are valid reasons. I may get caught, you know. There is a lot of unpleasant consequences, providing reasons for my not becoming a serial killer. But being morally wrong is not one of them.

      For non-sociopaths/non-psychopaths, the primary reasons psychologically motivating are the social and emotional feelings out of which morality is based. And in terms of moral justification: since moral justification ultimately serves your own best interest, on my conception, then it is not so different from your conception of concern for consequences. http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/11/17/why-be-morally-dutiful-fair-or-self-sacrificing-if-the-ethical-life-is-about-power/ Except that I would argue that being a creator of others’ power is a better realization of my good than destroying power is. But I already explained that in the post and you haven’t offered a counter-argument so I will let the case I made speak for itself for now.

  • Jesse

    Daniel–

    I freely admit I was ribbing you a bit. For the record, I do oppose slavery, and I try not to be a complete nihilist.

    But I am talking about a question that I struggle with a lot. We talk all day long about how X is bad, but the whole reason these horrible things happen is precisely because people can justify them.

    I can’t make a rocket fly without a certain amount of propellant. It just won’t work. My opinion on the matter won’t change it — I think we should be able to fly with no expenditure of energy, but no amount of wishing makes it so. I can’t make it work if I ignore the laws of physics.

    But I can justify slavery — after all, people did it for thousands of years. And no matter how you try to define away the issue, many slave-owning civilizations worked. Roman society worked by any reasonable definition. It certainly lasted a lot longer than our current civilization with it. In any form that we recognize, industrial society has lasted about 200-300 years, tops, and the U.S. has only been around about 237. The Romans quadrupled that. Human societies have been constructed in all manner of ways and many of them lasted for thousands of years, with presumably at least satisfied inhabitants, doing things we would consider evil. (And if people do not want a society to function, it won’t. See: USSR. I was there. I saw that in action).

    Do I think this a good thing? No, but to a Roman it was — their whole social structure, which was highly stable, depended on it. And a lot of good stuff was produced as a result. I may not like it, but I can’t say “slavery is bad because of X” on any logical basis other than that the premise I start with is that it is wrong to own another human being and take away their autonomy. And when I go through the string of “why” questions that follows, I always end up in the same place: “just because.” You say that all things being equal we want to survive — or at least it’s better that the species does.

    In my examples I was trying to show that I could come up with a valid argument for preserving the species — an objective good, if I understand you — by doing things that are pretty evil. And that all assumes we think the species being here is a good thing. A whale might have a different view, and they might be just as smart as we are. I’ll throw out a similar question: ask a whale if she would be in too many tears if the human race went extinct.

    Maybe this is an issue I have, a frustration, if you will, with philosophy generally. Every one of your essays I have read so far — heck any philosophy — seems highly dependent on the definitions you start with to get to its conclusions. Mess with those and the whole thing falls apart. That’s less true in the physical sciences. I don’t feel like I can just define stuff any way I want in physics. (I could use quantum to generate many of the same results, by the way, that you see in classical physics, it’s just more complicated. But I would get the same result).

    You say, why not be a serial killer? Well, in the serial killer’s own mind, maybe he was doing precisely all the things you say are good. And Ariel provided a lot of good reasons not to kill people that are about self interest rather than morality.

    Maybe the killer is a schizophrenic and has voices in his head. There is nothing that makes the voices in his head any more valid than the ones in yours when you were a religious guy. (Assuming you heard them and thought it was God. I am not saying you yourself were insane or hearing voices, I am just using that as an example). But does that mean that a religious person who really does hear voices and obeys them, doing wonderful acts of kindness, is less or more insane than the guy who shot John Lennon?

    I read your essay on why murder is wrong. And perhaps because I agree with you on a lot of things it is why I am wary. SO I try and pick stuff apart. But maybe as I get older I have been getting more cynical.

    I keep asking myself why I believe in the things I do. And the best I can come up with is that it seems to be right and maximize happiness — at least I hope — for most people around me. And as you say, we make decisions, and they are based on a myriad of things. And all I can come up with is that the whole of my life is a long series of accidents that leads me to choose a peanut butter sandwich as opposed to a ham this morning. And there isn’t any good reason for any of it.

    Maybe it could all be summed up with “what’s the point?” No matter how many times people tell me all these great things about meaning I can’t feel that there is one. Not that I want to die or anything. But I never felt any particularly deep meaning except in the stuff I like to do. I mean I think knowledge is exciting, so I seek it out.

    I don’t feel that way with physics. The knowledge (not professional, to be sure) that there are fundamental physical laws is satisfying to me. I know the laws themselves are ultimately arbitrary, and I accept that. Hey, in this universe the speed of light was 300,000 km/sec. No reason for that, really, it’s just the way our universe turned out. Other universes will have different laws. We’re stuck in this one.

    But when I try to delve into ethical issues I end up feeling a lot less– what’s the word — grounded? I never feel like I have reached anything fundamental, not in the same way. Maybe that’s just what we’re all doomed to.

    Perhaps I am better with what rturpin said about working from the ground up. That kind of thought experiment makes a bit more sense to me. Because very time I try to come up with a self-consistent system of ethics — a theory, a model that works as consistently as math or physics– I always feel I fail. But maybe my education in philosophy — meager as it was — was the failure.

    So I accept that there isn’t one, there is no answer, that the universe ends when you die as far as you are concerned. And I try not to be a dick to people and muddle my way through.

    I hope I am making some kind of sense.

    • mazeRunner

      Great stuff Jesse. I have thought a lot of the same things that you say here. And it really is not self evident that there are objective morals. I’m a bit of a fence sitter myself leaning toward the possibility that there is, but my own knowledge / training is nowhere near good enough to have a well-informed position on this matter. And I’m in strong agreement with the sentiment you express at the end of this post.

      Here’re my own assorted thoughts:
      One thing that gives me some hint of a possibility for a realist ethics is precisely the idea that there are objective facts about the world such as its laws of physics and laws of biology(Darwinian evolution). Working from the ground up, as I’d also prefer, the fact that the world has come to be what it is based on these laws, and our own mind is a product of these laws, since it is part of the world, must count for something, shouldn’t it? At the very least it dispels the idea of an extremely arbitrary, extremely random system of values in most normative, functioning minds. The debate of why normative and why functioning is another tedious challenge.

      True, thats no guarantee that it will constrain the field enough to narrow down ethics to a set of facts which can be explained more satisfactorily by some other idea other than pure intuitionism. It may be that the world does allow for enough expanse in the range of possibilities that intuitionism becomes the only possible explanation for our values; whatever we value we value and thats it. But if only we could look closer and see patterns in how people value, there in those patterns we would find a candidate for a basis for a realist ethical theory.

      Given that our minds have had constraints on how they came to be and how they have evolved over time through our evolutionary pathway, it seems there is a possibility that we can narrow the field down far enough to look for something besides intuitionism. There’s also the idea that it may just be possible that there’s a set of facts deeper than people’s likes and dislikes which could inform us on how to be “better” and what to value, in order to flourish maximally.

      Even if people merely intuitively valued things, our knowledge about the existence of beneficial effects of valuing other things than they would normally value, would help us transcend our level of flourishing. May be when better informed people will slough off their old intuitions and realize that they would have likely have preferred these new values all along, had they only known about them. This happens many times.

      I think thats what Dan’s trying to address in his posts.

    • Jesse

      Thanks mazerunner. I read your post on how “enlightenment” values seem to be gaining ground, and of course, being raise dwith them I think that is a good thing.

      But as I have said before, this is where it gets tricky. Here’s a real-life example.

      The Aztecs practiced human sacrifice, as did the Mayans. We think that is pretty awful. So did the Spanish.

      But when the Spanish made war they wiped out and enslaved everyone. They did seriously scorched-earth on the Mesoamericans. They went medieval on their asses.

      The Aztecs were appalled. Even the Spanish allied rebelling against the Aztecs were shocked. You didn’t do that to people. It just wasn’t right. You might take a few slaves and captives for sacrifice. But the idea of committing wholesale genocide was quite alien to them. And they saw themselves as a warrior culture. (The idea that they were sacrificing thousands every day is not only wrong but plain silly).

      So whose values are worse? We still do genocidal warfare. In fact, even in western culture wiping out an entire city and all of its inhabitants was considered A-OK by your grandparents. They did it. Several times. (Dresden, Hiroshima, Hamburg, Stalingrad, to name a few).

      In Mesoamerica, to a large extent sacrificing people was one alternative to genocidal war. Sacrifice a dozen people, maybe, on holidays. In any case, you killed a few people, but you would never, ever wipe out their whole tribe. That was just wrong, in an Aztec’s eyes (as well as simply stupid, since dead people pay no tribute).

      The Spanish eliminated human sacrifice. But they brought in genocide and slavery on a scale the Aztecs couldn’t have dreamed of. They brought death. By any measure — even the ones Daniel uses — I would have trouble saying the moral code of the Spaniards was much better than that of the Aztecs. If anything, it was worse. In fact, the Spanish killed, killed and killed, either directly or via working the native people to death. They just defined away the problem by calling it something other than human sacrifice, even though that is exactly what it was. The Church sanctioned and supported this, and shouted down the one guy who thought natives had souls.

      And yet we say human sacrifice is a bad thing. Even though it actually served an important function perhaps even reducing violence by channeling it in a different way.

      You see my problem, right? Here’s a real life example where human sacrifice may have been the superior choice. The culture doing it certainly, by Daniel’s own criteria, did a much better job at being moral than anywhere in Europe at the time, I expect.

      Yet we kill thousands in a day. We do it right now. And we say we’re better? Do yo understand why I am left thinking “What kind of insane world do I live in? How can there be anything remotely resembling moral clarity?”

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

      Jesse, I appreciate all your concerns, I really do. The issue, as far as I can see it is coming down to issues Nietzsche is deeply worried about and which are familiar to me. My point is not that slavery may never be justified. My point is that if it is it will only be based on a true accounting that it genuinely advanced the prospects for everyone in the long run. If that meant that we could demonstrate the necessary value of things we find repugnant, then that sucks, but it is a truth we have to accept.

      My point is not that objective moral truth or the best values must come out as ones we find most desirable and preferable. It may mean that to maximize the real goods we are aiming for we might have to accept some awful things because the worst off, those who suffer from those things would be even worse off otherwise. And it is possible that our appearance of prosperity through autonomy and equality is a sham as I considered at sober length in this post which I think you’d like: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2010/06/18/some-suspicions-about-the-superiority-of-liberal-moral-values/

      I am not saying we should not have the hard discussions about whether some things we think of as evil were necessary contributors to progress. We can make two key distinctions however.

      One is that even if Rome thrived on the backs of slaves, it is not clear that it had to, or that it had to indefinitely even if it could be empirically shown that some people had to be the “stepping stones” for anyone to get to a higher way of life that they could advance prosperity in general, using that unfair advantage to do so.

      Secondly, the past does not determine the present or the future. We can be ingenious and we can find that when people trust autonomy and mutual cooperation in unprecedented ways, there is unprecedented prosperity, even to outmatch the Romans thus far. So I do not think that the evidence is at all conclusive that we need to keep the third world de facto enslaved for 1st world prosperity indefinitely.

      My only concern here is not to squelch these difficult values debates, but to clarify what the common shared ideals of flourishing are, why they are objective, and how we can and must assess every value judgment and moral judgment by how well they conduce to those goods. We realize there are awful, unconscionable, losses to flourishing in slavery. This shows us that the moral challenge if we are to maximize flourishing truly is to overcome the historic connection between slavery and prosperity. That’s a challenge for a moral program of improvement of values, not a challenge to the justification of morality itself. A challenge to flourish better is constructive. A challenge to the entire enterprise of moral reasoning is only another means for destructive power structures to oppress with no pangs of conscience.

    • mazeRunner

      Jesse :

      But when the Spanish made war they wiped out and enslaved everyone. They did seriously scorched-earth on the Mesoamericans. They went medieval on their asses.

      and

      The Church sanctioned and supported this, and shouted down the one guy who thought natives had souls.

      Exactly Jesse! Thats why I said enlightenment values, not European values or Western values in general. I’m pretty sure the Conquistadors would not count as representative of the enlightenment. Not the British colonists or even contemporary right wing American imperialists, who fantasize Armageddon, would count as representative.

      And as these things go, it took time, a little over two centuries more or less, for enlightenment thought to take some hold in mainstream culture. And even now its not as mainstream as we’d like it be. If you look where all of our modern liberal values have roots in history, I’m pretty sure you’d see that it was the enlightenment that broke the old medieval mould of barbarism and bigotry of every sort.

      Also its not just western European culture that has always engendered the broad ideas of equality and humanism, be it during Classical Greece or pre-modern Europe, these ideas can also be found in ancient Indian, Buddhist and other far eastern cultures, even before or around the same time as Classical Greece.

      Jesse:

      In fact, even in western culture wiping out an entire city and all of its inhabitants was considered A-OK by your grandparents. They did it. Several times. (Dresden, Hiroshima, Hamburg, Stalingrad, to name a few).

      Again, Hitler or Stalin don’t really count as representative. True nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki were terrible terrible things. The debate about the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and it’s ethical status is not a simple question. Japan itself was a genocidal imperial power that would have devastated all of Asia if left unchecked. But the morality of the bombing depends on whether there were any less evil, workable alternatives that didnt potentially result in more suffering, not on whether enlightenment values were better or not.

      But really the larger question is not whether modern liberal values are good or bad, since it is obvious we haven’t come up with the perfect moral scheme in enlightenment values. No doubt there will be improvements and corrections. The larger question and also the question we are trying to answer is, is there a way to understand and develop ethical theories which could establish which things are good and which things are bad objectively? The correctness or completeness of modern enlightenment values is only an ancillary question.

  • Patrick

    “everyone agrees that” /= “it is objectively true that”

    I’m willing to bet that everyone on the planet agrees that sweet foods taste better than battery acid. There are objective facts about sweet foods, battery acids, and human taste buds that make it likely that every human being would have this preference.

    But that doesn’t mean that sweet foods actually possess the property “tasty,” or even the property “tastier than alternatives that will burn your mouth and kill you.”

    Because the error isn’t in how we went about determining what we think is tasty and what we don’t. The error was in assuming that our opinions about taste are in fact properties of the object in question rather than properties about how we feel about the object in question. There is a difference between a thing, and the way we relate to a thing.

    • Sir Shplane, Grand Mixmaster, Knight of the Turntable

      This right here.

    • mazeRunner

      Patrick:

      The error was in assuming that our opinions about taste are in fact properties of the object in question rather than properties about how we feel about the object in question. There is a difference between a thing, and the way we relate to a thing.

      This is the old “thing-in-itself” argument. But really everything is subject to that distinction and leads us to the impossibility of “true knowledge”, all we can ever have is effects / experiences of the attributes of things-in-themselves but never true knowledge about the thing itself.

      I think what you meant to say was that, even though battery acid probably gives the same readout on any tastebud-o-meter, the value different people associate with this readout is simply different. Some, such as battery-acid-drinking sado-masochists may value it highly even though its “objectively” unpleasant but most other people, well, not so much.

      This, I think is a valid objection. But then again we dont have to be so narrow-minded and parochial in formulating or really, discovering, the basis for an objective ethical system. Ultimately “values” themselves have value for the people who value them and in this instance the masochist seeks the same thing as you do i.e pleasure but takes a rather somewhat unconventional route in going about getting it. So in this instance, its good for the masochist and bad for the non-masochist. Objectively. This is an easy, straight forward instance since autonomous drinkingof battery acid ever only affects the individual who’s drinking it.

      A real challenge would be the instance of a person who values making other people drink battery acid. And this is where Dan’s argument about power has a role to play in establishing a for-reals ethics, if its possible to do so.

  • johnhodges

    I am very impressed by the sheer number of essays you have written; I’ve never had that much to say.

    I read and thought about ethics for about ten years and arrived at a position that satisfied me. By the accident of personal history I did it in part through reading and criticizing Ayn Rand’s theory of ethics; so if you’ll tolerate mention of her, a concise summary of the meta-ethics I arrived at is here:
    http://www.atheistnexus.org/profiles/blogs/is-and-ought-rands-metaethics

    I have a summary statement of my view here:
    http://www.atheistnexus.org/profiles/blogs/atheist-foundations-of-ethics

    Also possibly relevant is
    http://www.atheistnexus.org/profiles/blogs/why-be-ethical

    You may enjoy
    http://www.atheistnexus.org/profiles/blogs/atheist-ethics-in-500-words

  • Chris

    I could list numerous other intrinsic goods of human flourishing, each of which anyone who is honest would admit they would prefer to have if all things were equal and it would cost neither themselves nor anyone else any of the other goods to have it.They are intrinsic and indisputable goods.

    You appear to be saying that your aims and definitions of good/bad are universal truths that no one could disagree with, reality doesn’t match your claims.

    The problem is that your intrinsic good aren’t universal and timeless.
    Some societies don’t agree that everyone should be equal under the law, I’m not talking about the obvious fact that in the west equal under the law doesn’t exist in practice but those cultures that have different rules for different groups based on age/colour/gender. Some are no more, many still exist.

    Defacto slavery still exists around the world, we may think it wrong others see it as simply paying off your inherited debts (indentured servitude in India).

    Many liberal westerners think that we need to cull (reduce to a sustainable number, whatever that number may be) the human race, others think their proposals are racially motivated.

    Then there is the obvious fact, most of us don’t really care much when, say, a dozen or more chinese miners die.
    Their families care, ther friends care but how many americans/europeans care enough to try and do some about it?

    People, generally, don’t consider the good of the species when acting. We tend to act for our and our kins/friends benefit and rationalise our choice afterwords.

    • mazeRunner

      Chris :

      Defacto slavery still exists around the world, we may think it wrong others see it as simply paying off your inherited debts (indentured servitude in India).

      Nope. Thats illegal in India, has been since the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976 and nobody today thinks of it as “simply paying off your inherited debts”. True, landowners and labour mafias in remote villages exploit hundreds of thousands of illiterate villagers by forcing them into bondage, because they dont know that its illegal, but thats not the same thing as a cultural difference in how bonded labour is understood.

      Also true that there are differences in different cultures about many many things, but one thing you consistently observe is that as time has passed and modern, liberal, “western”, enlightenment based values have proliferated, cultures across the world have been forced, oftentimes after lengthy struggles, to cede ground. People see wrong when its pointed out to them, no matter where they live or what culture they belong to. Not to say there havent been indigenous movements for such modern values inspired by non-western schools of thought. The point this progress illustrates is that there are at least some values genuinely independent of cultural precepts common to all human beings regardless of how you arrive at these values.

      This is not the same as fully demostrating an objectively realist ethics, but it is, in my view an important observation.

      Chris:

      Many liberal westerners think that we need to cull (reduce to a sustainable number, whatever that number may be) the human race, others think their proposals are racially motivated.

      Then there is the obvious fact, most of us don’t really care much when, say, a dozen or more chinese miners die.
      Their families care, ther friends care but how many americans/europeans care enough to try and do some about it?

      People, generally, don’t consider the good of the species when acting. We tend to act for our and our kins/friends benefit and rationalise our choice afterwords.

      You arent even a moral nihilist or immoralist with personal ethical preferences. You sound awfully close to a cynical relativist. Not sure how much you could contribute to this debate.

    • Chris

      mazeRunner:

      ….True, landowners and labour mafias in remote villages exploit hundreds of thousands of illiterate villagers by forcing them into bondage, because they dont know that its illegal, but thats not the same thing as a cultural difference in how bonded labour is understood

      So defacto slavery still exists (I could have mentioned Mali, Nth Sudan and a few others that still have actual slavery, whatever their laws say). Why isn’t it a cultural difference? The landowners don’t see it as wrong and probably do know what the law says (illegal and wrong aren’t the same thing, as we all know).

      The point this progress illustrates is that there are at least some values genuinely independent of cultural precepts common to all human beings regardless of how you arrive at these values.

      There are some values independant of culture, defend your own being one.
      Sad to say, I don’t see many others that are common to all cultures. Even such obvious ideas as helping the less well off/poor, health care free at the point of delivery, social safety nets, education free at the point of delivery, etc and common across cultures and even within cultures there are opposing groups. To me, it’s obvious that these are good things but that isn’t a universal belief.

      Yes, when a superior power imposes its ideas things improved but how entrenched are these changes. The Russians stopped a lot of the barbarism in Afghanistan, when they left it returned.

      Even in the west we seem to be losing a lot of these ethical battles against entrenched power groups (pepper spraying and batoning of peaceful protestors, reductions in social services to please bankers).

      We’ll need to re-fight the battles I’d hoped my grandparents and parents had already fought and won.

      You arent even a moral nihilist or immoralist with personal ethical preferences. You sound awfully close to a cynical relativist. Not sure how much you could contribute to this debate.

      Don’t blame me that some well respected liberals and even some conservatives want a human cull. It’s not my idea.
      http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1379376/Population-growth-stop-says-Sir-David-Attenborough.html
      Strnagely, the Optimum population trust website isn’t as blatent as it once was. Eugenics also comes into their ideas.

      As for being cynical how much would you care if the following happened to be struck by a large asteroid?:
      Touch in Stirlingshire
      Urumqi in western China
      Washington DC in USA
      Your home town

      The relativist bit is a low blow, I don’t believe that each culture is of equal worth nor that they are all worthy of respect or even tolerance.

    • mazeRunner

      Chris:

      Why isn’t it a cultural difference? The landowners don’t see it as wrong and probably do know what the law says (illegal and wrong aren’t the same thing, as we all know).

      Of course bloody well they know its wrong and illegal, that is why they run Mafias and hide from the law. They are criminals . And when they are caught, they go to prison. By your reasoning, if rural Columbia is run by druglords, does it mean the Columbians have a cultural difference with the rest of the world, in that their culture condones the practice of illegal drug trafficking and wholesale gang war. But you see even if it were a cultural difference, you’re trying to defend its correctness. And you said calling you a relativist was a low blow and now you’re defending

    • mazeRunner

      (Oops sorry, my bad. Accidentally hit submit before I was done.)
      (Continuing)

      this cultural difference as ethically relevant. Thats exactly what I meant when I said you were dangerously close to being a relativist. Do you think the de-facto slaves, when well-informed and educated and presented with real options, would also believe its their culture to be slaves and stick to being slaves? The cultural difference argument never works because cultures change, when the moral zeitgeist changes.

      Chris:

      Don’t blame me that some well respected liberals and even some conservatives want a human cull. It’s not my idea.
      http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1379376/Population-growth-stop-says-Sir-David-Attenborough.html
      Strnagely, the Optimum population trust website isn’t as blatent as it once was. Eugenics also comes into their ideas.

      And as for the link you provided, it seems a perfectly rational and ethically sound idea to not kill ourselves and other organisms on this planet by overpopulating it. Your reaction made me think David Attenborough was advocating genocide for population control or something. Culling population growth does not mean to kill living people. Again no amount of arguing about cultural differences could ever contradict the fact that if we overpopulate we make life as we know it on this planet unsustainable. Its clearly wrong to bring harm to beings who dont want to be harmed by being irresponsible. It doesnt matter what Eastern clerics or Western clerics decree is ethical.

  • Sir Shplane, Grand Mixmaster, Knight of the Turntable

    So what you’re saying is: “I assume that these ends are good. Therefore, these means that cause them are also good. Therefore, morality is objective.” Right?

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

      No, that’s not what I am saying. I have explained how objective goods are independent of any assumptions or preferences we have for them: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/01/23/goodness-is-a-factual-matter-goodnesseffectiveness/ and http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/09/07/the-contexts-objective-hierarchies-and-spectra-of-goods-and-bads-or-why-murder-is-bad/

      In this post, I was emphasizing that not only are goods objectively demonstrable but they are implicitly subjectively acknowledged even by those who try to show that somehow they are undermined by exception cases. All of us not only have these as objective goods but subjectively value them too. This combination makes it puzzling in what practical, meaningful sense they are incapable of providing enough objectivity for meaningful rational agreements about values to be possible, at least in principle.

    • Sir Shplane, Grand Mixmaster, Knight of the Turntable

      And, again, all I’m seeing there is you defining “Effectiveness” as “Good” and then proclaiming that the things which promote effectiveness must then also be good. There really is no objective reason for an entity performing its function to be considered any more “Good” than anything else.

  • Hazuki

    Isn’t all this forgetting the ideas of emergent properties and behaviors? There can be things that emerge from interactions of parts of systems that would not be suspected a priori just from the parts themselves.

    Take the idea of a house. A house is a shelter for humans. No one looking at a pile of bricks, wood, wire, pipes, etc, could see “houseness” in them. It takes a specific arrangement, and a specific use of the materials thusly arranged to make a house.

    Similarly, no one might guess from the arrangement of things like mirror neurons, inbuilt adverse reactions to painful stimuli, subconscious cooperation and so on that there is anything like a moral system there. But these things, in the intelligent and social mind (humans, apes, cetaceans) do make at least the necessary machinery for moral theory.

    This is how I believe morals can be both real and not first-order. As to objectivity, I am still divided on whether there is a possibility of that. I think there is, but it involves breaching the is-ought gap and I’m not completely sure how to do this without committing the naturalistic fallacy.

  • http://www.twitter.com/thedudediogenes thedudediogenes

    Supposing moral skepticism is right, why OUGHT the non-existence of moral facts or truths affect how I live my life? I suppose I could attempt to change my moral sentiments, but I quite like them the way they are. I like disliking rape and murder and torture and misogyny and homophobia. I am a moral skeptic, but why must I live nihilistically (whatever that might mean)? Where does that “must” come from?

    How I look at morality is influenced most strongly by Nietzsche, Mackie, Leiter, Garner, Greene and Blackford. I think we project our moral sentiments onto the world. I view belief in moral facts or truths as similar to theistic belief – as an intellectual comfort blanket. Moral facts, say, “Slavery is wrong” play no explanatory role in our understanding of the world. (That is, to put it crudely, slavery’s being putatively wrong is not why slavery is illegal in the places in which it now is illegal.)

    Moral facts, then, if they exist, are inert in a way that other facts don’t seem to be. If moral facts exist, if morality is in that sense a “real phenomenon”, it is a sui generis phenomenon; no other “real phenomena” can be trangressed. The laws of physics can’t be broken, the “laws” of morality can freely be broken. I’m clearly not the only one who finds that “queer”, to borrow Mackie’s term.

    (FYI Greene’s dissertation is freely available online, as are several papers by Leiter that are tangentially related. Unfortunately, his “Moral Facts and Best Explanations” isn’t easily found online. Additionally Blackford has written numerous blog posts and columns explicating his views, and Richard Garner’s book “Beyond Morality” is also available online. To anyone still reading this comment, all are highly recommended.)


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