I recently argued that when any of us act, we must act for reasons. When acting for reasons we must decide that the end we pursue is the best, most worthwhile, goal to pursue and that the action we take in order to achieve that goal is the most suitable one. I should also add that even thinking involves such value choices about ends (what kinds of things we should believe) and means to ends (how we should form our beliefs so we believe the desirable kinds of things). This means that:
(a) we must commit ourselves to certain ends in our thinking activities rather than others, on the basis that we think such ends are better than other possible ends
(b) we must commit ourselves to norms for how to reason in our thinking activities, which we judge are better than other possible norms for reasoning to achieve our ends
In this way, thinking is just a species of action, not different in kind from other actions (like walking, slicing a tomato, going to the movies, writing a blog post, kissing, paying back a loan, cheating on an exam, etc.). No less than all those activities, if it is to be rational, thinking involves making rational choices about the best ends and the best means to those ends. Implicit in all rational thought are value judgments about what is “best” which are believed to be true, and adherence to norms out of deference to their perceived legitimacy.
Moral nihilists want to reject the idea that moral actions can be guided objectively because they think there are no such things as true or good values or truly legitimate, objectively binding norms in morality. The reasons they judge such a thing are that, supposedly, we cannot infer values from facts in any way. They claim that we cannot infer from any factual relationship whatsoever what it is valuable to do or not to do. Factual discoveries are allegedly completely powerless to contribute to any such judgments.
I argued in my previous post on the self-contradictory character of moral nihilism that if this logic holds then moral nihilists cannot even rationally believe anything—even that they should be empiricists or moral nihilists who adhere only to facts and consider moral values “fictions”.
Commenters objected that moral nihilists can accept norms of rational judgment and norms of instrumental reasoning (e.g., I should choose the sharp knife rather than the dull one when I cut because it will be more efficient) but that they just do not accept moral norms.
But I want to argue that the same grounds on which they reject moral norms (or moral norms as I define them), if applied consistently, should lead them consistently to reject all norms whatsoever. (e.g. Why choose efficient knives over inefficient ones? Why is that more rational? What if dull ones have other benefits, how can reason decide between the value choices?)
The concessions moral nihilists want to make to allow for legitimate rational thought about truth and falsity and for legitimate instrumental reasoning are sufficient enough to validate my conception of moral norms and objective values too. If they reject my account of moral norms and objective values as too ungrounded in facts, then they must reject all rational judgments of true and false, and all instrumental judgments of better and worse efficiency, on the same kinds of bases.
The extreme moral nihilist wants to say that it is in some way just arbitrary when I say that it is better for humans to maximize their flourishing according to their constitutive powers (e.g. reasoning, having constructive emotions, being physically strong and athletic, being creative, being socially adept, etc.). They claim that these are not choices anyone rationally has to make. They disregard my considerations that without all such activities functionally there would be no human beings and that that gives us intrinsic rational interest in pursuing our own functioning, on pain of practical contradiction if we choose otherwise. That such a factual, efficiency relationship is necessary for our being to happen at all is supposedly irrelevant to a value judgment that such things are objectively good for us. We can just as rationally supposedly decide to undermine the conditions of our own flourishing. Values are that subjective and unguided by norms of reason.
To define our objective good as our objective maximal functioning according to what we are is allegedly “arbitrary”. And maybe they would judge the choices I make in defining what we are objectively as themselves arbitrary. The judgment that we should just die is supposedly as consistent with the facts as the judgment that we should maximize all our powers and live what people only feel to be a “great life”.
And there can, accordingly be no norms for better or worse ways to live, including more modest, non-absolutist, instrumental moral norms of the kinds I endorse, as an indirect consequentialist. Plus, they point out, that even if they were to concede a set of general values everyone wants to pursue or that are theoretically good for everyone to pursue, since people disagree about how to rank values when there are conflicts between them, there can be no right answers about better or worse in practical choices.
But all of these same problems come when we even try to define a specific proposition is true, i.e., “factual”. This is because our judgment of fact is an action, and as such it implicitly involves a value judgment. Specifically in a factual claim we make the value judgment that “it is better to take this proposition as true than to take it as false” and we implicitly adhere to a norm such that “we should think and act as though some propositions are truer than others”. The value judgments by which we decide what to count as facts, in any particular case, can involve disagreements and choices that not everyone will theoretically describe the same. Our judgments even of “simple facts” involve a whole host of choices based on norms and values that are not themselves further groundable in some entirely neutral, unimpeachably rational, decisive mediating “brute objective facts”.
For example: I decide to affirm the simplest and most obvious fact available to me: the fact that I exist. Well, now I have to define “I” and to do that I am going to have to conceive a characterization of what it means to be an “I”. Is it to have a “self”? What constitutes that? If the history of philosophy (or even my experience with freshmen in intro philosophy classes) is any indication there is going to be a whole lot of disagreement over what a self or an “I” are—including disputes over whether one, the other, or both even exist. We can raise a whole bunch of (presumed) facts about the experience of self or of activities of “I-ing”, and maybe if we are lucky agree on them all, and then still make different value judgments about which is more or less important in defining a self or an I or how the relevant agreed upon facts present should best be understood to relate to each other.
And into these value judgments will seep all sorts of practical concerns as we are eager to capture one or another aspect of the self experience or of the “I” experience from everyday life, or to reconcile our account with this or that fact of psychology or biology, etc. A tremendous amount of value judgments about the usefulness of one account or the coherence with experience or the coherence with scientific knowledge will all have to be made and weighed. Even where we can agree on which facts are relevant, these value weighings of what they mean to life and to other knowledge practices will not be settled by facts alone.
And even if we did agree on how to weigh all the relevant facts we could think of, we might still have left out other facts that, say, people from another culture might think are relevant to understanding personal identity (or lackthereof). What if based on their life practices they construct the conception of the self in a whole different way which makes much more practical, useful sense, compared to which our conception is alien and distortive? What about how we answer whether there even is an objective world, or how and in what ways you can trust your senses to give you the world in itself and not something merely useful that is nonetheless alien and distortive to “reality itself?
Even if we ignore this and just trust science anyway, scientific reasoning is riddled with value judgments which must be made by competent, judicious scientists. Though science has plenty of math and logic on its side, nonetheless the applications of purely quantitative or logical models to the world involves value judgments about how best they can map phenomena. Scientists must use objectively defensible value judgments in knowing how best to weigh, balance, and organize masses of data. Even our science’s most rigorous protocols are all value judgments about what yields the greatest likelihood of truth. And even despite all these, they have to select between incommensurate hypotheses, and sometimes even incommensurable theories weighing different, sometimes incompatible, rational benefits offered by each. They also have to estimate how true and accurate to consider a theory despite inevitable gaps, anomalies, apparently illogical puzzles, etc. Physicists have to go beyond the mathematical models into all sorts of controversial interpretations about how most valuably to explain discoveries and models that do not just explain themselves with unambiguous, non-controversial bare factness.
In biology, even as they rightfully reject an intelligent function-giver, they nonetheless are constantly having to reason about functional value relationships, of the kind that my value theory is built off of, in order (a) to understand how things work, (b) to define what they are in terms of their characteristic functioning, and (c) to discover how they evolved due to what I would call functional effectiveness relationships. If all value judgments are antithetical to knowledge judgments since they involve valuing and not mere assent to bare uninterpreted facts (which, frankly seem to be entirely imaginary postulates, as all facts are only understandable as such within interpretations), then there are no scientific facts any more than there are moral facts.
If these kinds of considerations are enough to fell moral objectivity a priori than they also fell all alleged facts, including the scientific ones, a priori too, by application of the same consistent logic. Apply the logic inconsistently and you make an arbitrary, unjustified, a-rational value choice, not one that is defensible on unimpeachable, strictly rational, terms.
If we are to be hard core positivist sorts of Nietzscheans about the ways that our values construct our moral judgments, then let’s be hard core positivist sorts Nietzscheans about the ways that value judgments construct our judgments of facts too. Let’s say that not only moral judgments but even factual ones are just human self-portraits which reflect our own preferences and the implicit conditions of our lives and nothing true about the world.
Sounds romantic and bold—a hard nosed honest rigorousness in thought willing to face harsh truths. That is, until you wind up with a presuppositionalist Christian telling you that creationism is just his coherent worldview and its no less valid than yours since your evolution-believing scientific approach is just a reflection of your values no less than his Bible-believing creationism is a reflection of his.
But that’s all absurd. We can rank competing values and recognize that the kinds of achievements for powerfully living in, predicting, and mastering the world that we get from thinking like modern, scientific people make our standards of rational investigation and affirmation better than theirs. Our values and the norms we follow are in some ways truly better. And the standards we appeal to for proof of their truthfulness will be no essentially different than those I list as the basic objective goods of humanity—they contribute to internal rational consistency, to a huge and mostly logically coherent explanatory scope in our rational judgments, to unparalleled creative and technological power, to long physically healthy life, to dazzling innovations in artistic flourishing, etc. When scientists wave away challenges based on the problem of induction with two simple words “it works”, these are the values that they (rightly) are assuming our thinking should work to serve. Similarly, we can justify our moral values and norms to the extent that they work towards the same goals. And to the extent they don’t, then we should revise them. And we should always be reassessing and improving our values and norms by considerations of how well they ultimately work to create those flourishing goods which we all most basically value (or would value if we understood properly).
Bring up the problem of induction and how two correlated facts never prove causation and we will dismiss this nagging logical fallacy and choose to say things like “objectively necessary scientific law” anyway. This is because we value respecting the tremendous power of that way of thinking for life over niggling about perfect, unrealizable consistency. We know that if we emphasized the problem of induction and said scientific knowledge was all really false, really no objectively more valid than religious superstitions, that the creationists would eat our lunch—and that it would be deceptive to the character of our experience in which science is mostly true and not mostly false. So we use big huge words like “rational”, “scientific”, “objective” as though they involve no value judgments and only valueless facts—lest the drops of value choice and norm choice and the ignoring of the problem of induction give the enemies of reason ammunition. We are right to do this with science.
But with morality? Oh, yes, the fallacy of induction is a matter of no consequence but that naturalistic fallacy sure is! Who cares if that gives rational comfort to people even worse than mere creationists—like slaveholders and tyrants and implicitly nihilistic Wall Street bankers who believe there is no greater value to worry about in life than that of their bank accounts—we’re big tough, no-nonsense empiricists who only believe in science and can accept hard ugly truths like that our moral feelings are really just fictions! Don’t talk to us about the fictional constructs in our scientific claims because those are too inconvenient to matter.
Yeah. Right. Gimme a break.
Either there is objectivity of the kinds I talk about in values, norms, and the subset of norms which we call “moral” or there really is no objectivity in any rational thought, including in empiricism and science (and no basis for saying “objectively” that moral terms are “merely” fictions, either). But there are kinds of objectivity that in values insofar as effectiveness relationships are objective relationships. There is objectivity in norms insofar as norms are vindicated by how well they effectively make a being realize its inherent, defining functions and flourish maximally, and insofar as it has an intrinsic interest in doing this as the being that it is. There is objectivity in moral norms insofar as there are some rules worth adhering to even when they violate our short term interest because they contribute vitally to the group’s thriving which indirectly is in our own long term interest and insofar as some activities we are in the habit of calling “moral” help us directly flourish the best and so are directly in our self-interest.
There are all kinds of coherentist and pluralist objectivities which can account for lack of absolute foundations and which can account for some genuine variations in objective goodness and badness in different times, places, and cultures. As even Nietzsche understood, our choices are not just absolutism, nihilism, or total values relativism. There can be objectively better and objectively worse for this person, this people, or this practice, which has some overlap and some difference relative to objectively better for that person, that people, or that practice.
Finally, you might say, “but just as we can dismiss creationism, we can also dismiss objective morality as a failure to make coherent sense in a way that science has”. And to that, I say simply that no you can’t. We can go without believing in a 6,000 year old universe and a creator deity with no problem. But we cannot extricate our dependency on language of good and bad and neither should we have to. It’s universal language because even though we quite imperfectly apply it we nonetheless have a wide array of objective means for adjudicating (or at least for making progress in debating) issues related to it. In fact, we agree about much more in our values than we disagree, probably even cross-culturally, despite the intense scrutiny we give our differences. For billions of people sharing a planet, we get along remarkably well on the whole–far better than we would if we had as deep divides as moral nihilists imply. Value judgments, including those about norms of behavior, which we have historically called morality, are ineradicable features of human life and so shrewd philosophers will give them the most coherent and constructive account of the nature of their reality and figure out the best ways to develop values going forward, rather than do the fruitless, counterproductive, and unimaginative work of trying to prove that they’re hopelessly contradictory.
But I have explained all these sorts of concepts before, so I leave the curious to judge by the titles of previous posts what parts of my moral theory they want to understand next: