If You Don’t Believe In Objective Values, Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

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.

Here’s why:

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:

The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”

Immoralism?

Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

  • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

    +1

  • kraut

    moral nihilists in my experience are just very weak persons unable to accept responsibilities for their actions.

    By declaring that no action has implications that are more or less valuable in an objective sense, they avoid to have to account for (to themselves, others will take them to account anyway)the consequences of their actions.
    No value scale for the morality of your actions means you never have to choose, as there is nothing to choose from.

    In the end – such a being is utterly dysfunctional in any society.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    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.

    Who are these moral nihilists? Do you have examples of someone actually claiming this?

    Because it smells of straw to me. For example: Science tells us that lead is bad for children’s development, and breathing exhaust from leaded gasoline and eating paint chips are big sources of lead. Then, incorporating this factual information, we make decisions about how to run our society by banning lead in gasoline and paint. This is not a pure objective factual calculation, it involves judgments about how much we value healthy children and how much financial burden we are willing to undergo to reformulate automotive fuel and elastomers. Nonetheless, factual discoveries certainly figure into our decision-making.

    So either you are misinterpreting the opposition, or else I stand with you in opposing anyone who actually does make such a silly claim.

    As even Nietzsche understood, our choices are not just absolutism, nihilism, or total values relativism.

    Well that’s good to hear. I do not believe in objective moral “truths,” and yet I certainly am not one of these “moral nihilists” you attack.

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

      And what are you denying when you say you don’t believe in “objective moral ‘truths’” exactly? It’s objectively bad for children to eat lead but it’s not objectively bad for people to be raped you’re saying? The former is true but the latter isn’t?

    • http://fromwinetowater.wordpress.com/ Ivan

      Both are objectively bad for human welfare. But human welfare is a goal that we choose to adopt, not one that is objectively good in some unqualified sense. Promoting human welfare is obviously good for the welfare of children, good for society, good for satisfying my evolved conscience and yours, etc. But none of those considerations leads us to any bedrock of goodness.

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

      1. It’s a practical contradiction as humans not to care about that or to care about their own flourishing (which I think involves caring about human welfare as part of it).

      2. Humans disinterested in human welfare are not only irrational but rare.

      3. We can be plenty objective among those of us who share that interest, even were it not irrational not to share it.

    • http://fromwinetowater.wordpress.com/ Ivan

      Perhaps I’ll try to write more soon, but I think one point of disagreement between us might be the relation between self-interest and morality. If a view of morality exactly equates to our self-interest in our own flourishing, then why talk about morality at all? We already have perfectly adequate ways of talking about our own interests. Why introduce a whole new set of moral categories if we mean them as perfect synonyms for self-interest, while most people mean them quite differently?

      In the mean while, I’d really like to see a post squarely addressing the crack in your foundation that we’ve talked about… ;)

    • Reginald Selkirk

      And what are you denying when you say you don’t believe in “objective moral ‘truths’” exactly? It’s objectively bad for children to eat lead but it’s not objectively bad for people to be raped you’re saying?
      Objectively, lead interferes with childhood development, particularly mental development. We view this as “bad” because we are humans.

      Do we care if female ducks get raped? (BTW, they do.) If not, then rape is not objectively bad. If we care only if humans get raped, then we are being tribal and provincial, not objective. You acknowledge that our views are contingent on our evolutionary history, and yet you call them “objective?” Wowza.

      Once upon a time, consequences only mattered if they affected heterosexual white male property owners. That the poor, non-whites, women, gays, etc. be considered “us” and therefore worthy of consideration of moral consequences has clearly changed over time. This makes it very difficult to claim that values are “objective.”

      The former is true but the latter isn’t?

      NO, I didn’t say that. You are saying it and pretending that I said it. Grow up.

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

      You said there are no moral truths. Ergo it is not a moral truth that raping humans is wrong. That’s the logic. I said it with a question mark because I was asking if you wanted to own the position.

      Now, clarify please. Is it a moral truth that it is wrong to rape humans or is it just our feelings and it was not really wrong in prior eras when some humans were allowed to rape others.

      Be consistent here. It was right to hold slaves as long as people felt it was? There is no moral truth about the matter? Just conventions?

      Finally, moral truths can be moral truths even if they are context relative in some cases. Many truths are context relative, that does not make them not objectively determinable.

      Please think more clearly, read what I argue more carefully, be more consistent, and be less sensitive about being challenged to explain the logical implications of what you say, please. In other words, “NO YOU GROW UP!!!!”

    • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

      Do we care if female ducks get raped? (BTW, they do.) If not, then rape is not objectively bad. If we care only if humans get raped, then we are being tribal and provincial, not objective.

      That’s a non-sequitur. We could judge rape of humans more harshly than that of ducks on the grounds that we understand the former better than the latter, and are better able to assess the effect of the former and respond to it.

      Also, the definition of rape involves consent and the lack thereof; so it probably means something very different for creatures like ducks, who are noticeably less sentient than humans, and can’t give or withhold “consent” the same way we can.

      In this case, even if we label these differing standards “tribal and provincial,” that doesn’t mean they’re not based on objective reality — in this case, differences between two species’ sexual practices and degree of sentience.

      There are also differing degrees of understanding on which moral judgments can be based. I know enough about human behavior and sexuality to judge rape wrong with confidence; and I can put my judgment into action by voting and advocacy. Ducks, I neither understand nor control, so I can’t judge their actions with the same confidence. So again, I have objective reasons for judging rape differently for ducks than for humans.

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

      Who are these moral nihilists? Do you have examples of someone actually claiming this?

      See many of those who base their moral nihilism on appeals to the alleged naturalistic fallacy.

  • kilane

    I’ve read the last about 5 posts regarding this topic and I appreciate you taking the time to explain. It’s helped me understand a lot about why I’m not a Moral nihilists even though I seem to have had thoughts that compare to them in the past (murder is bad vs murder is inherently bad).

    I’m curious though about why we assume truth to be good? Is that not a value judgment in itself?

    Why is fact superior to non-fact? I get it from your perspective (generally knowing things is better than not knowing them, it’s one of your goods) but is that not a value judgment in itself to say “Truth is good” or “Truth is suprior to falsehoods”?

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

      That’s exactly my point, Kilane, preferring truth to falsehood or facts to other kinds of beliefs are value judgments. Objectively good value judgments. To answer the question of why we should prefer truth we’re going to have to talk about the other goods that truth gets us and we’re going to have to talk about the goods that having truth realizes for us in itself as rational beings. As thinking beings it’s just inherently an exercise of our intrinsic powers to grasp truth. In that sense it is inherently good for us, given the kinds of beings we are. Additionally it is useful for more purposes than we could possibly count and even harsh truths are better for us to know in most cases if we are to create better situations in the world for ourselves.

    • kilane

      Not to belabor the point but I just don’t understand how this conversation made it this far then. Maybe you can tell me if this is a strawman and I just don’t understand their position properly. I know I’m kind of asking you to advocate for the other side but you seem capable.

      By even thinking the thought “is this true” means you’ve already made the judgment that truth matters. By them caring enough to correct your post it means they’ve made the judgment that accuracy is better than inaccuracy and that spreading truth is superior to spreading lies.

      Am I missing something here?

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

      Yes, when you’re engaged in rational discourse, that would be the case. That’s part of my point in the above. Everyone who either engages in a debate about the truth of an issue (or opts to not debate based on some rational conclusion) is implicitly making a value judgment in favor of truth.

      I’m only saying valuing truth becomes negotiable to some people in other contexts, like, say, in places where it might compete with happiness or control over others, or where symbolic thinking might be more satisfying than accurate thinking. So much of the debate with the religious is a debate about whether truth matters more than community, more than affiliations to traditional symbols or tradition itself, etc.

      I would argue for the value of truth in most circumstances but it is a question at least. It’s something we need to argue for on consequentialist and perfectionist grounds. There is not an absolute imperative “Thou Shalt Not Lie” (except from the norms of reason when one is reasoning with the aim of truth).

    • kilane

      That’s exactly how I felt. I happen to value truth very highly but I also understand that circumstances exist in which truth would be placed below other standards (murderer at the door etc.)

      I also realized I skipped a couple of steps in the process but really all you need is a foot in the door. As soon as *any* value judgment is allowed then you can build from there.

      Thanks for the reads. I’ve never checked out your blogs before but between this and the apology thing (in which you make great arguments regarding meaningful forgiveness) I’ve had several enlightening moments.

  • Patrick

    I’ve enjoyed, at least as an intellectual exercise, reading about your efforts to blow the hypothetical imperative objective to moral skepticism all the way up into an entire moral theory. But I can’t help but think that you’re missing the point a bit.

    Moral nihilism is generally defined as the belief that all moral claims are false. But that’s not actually the core of the matter. That’s a conclusion of moral nihilism, not its actual argument. The actual argument is the REASON they think all moral claims are false.

    For example, expressivists and non-cognitivists believe that moral statements are expressions of feelings, and are therefore not truth-apt.

    Others believe that moral statements refer to “moral truth” as if it were something that exists in the same sense as scientific truth, but believe that moral statements are false because moral truth does not exist in this sense.

    If you want to make your point into anything other than a technical matter, you need to overcome these issues.

    The first way you CAN’T do this is by just defining “moral truth” to mean something different. To the extent that this is your response, its like a pantheist claiming that there are no atheists because everyone believes in the universe. Its technically true, and might cause someone somewhere to tighten up their philosophical language, but it isn’t going to change the substantive positions of many (any?) atheists.

    Your efforts with the hypothetical imperative objection seem at least more on target, but the hypothetical imperative objection won’t do that for you. Take this classical formulation of it:

    “We have reason to do that which will enable us to accomplish our ends.”

    The problem is that this is a tautology that seems to reduce to:

    “We have reason to do that which we have reason to do.”

    And your efforts to reformulate it as something like (I’m too lazy to go double check your phrase from 3 posts back),

    “It is valuable to do that which will make us more effective,”

    don’t help anything. Its still tautological. You define being effective in terms of obtaining our goals, and the statement about value in the first half is defined in terms of those self same goals.

    Anyway I’m bored now so I’m going to wrap up. An emotivist or non cognitivist isn’t going to care about these arguments because they don’t contradict the claim that moral statements are expressions of emotional attitude regarding something. And someone who’s more into the non-realist aspect of moral nihilism isn’t going to care because your concept of value isn’t the one they’re worried about. You might tie some people in knots, especially the way you blithely mix objectivity and intersubjectivity, but that’s about it so far.

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

      The expressivists miss the point when they focus on the psychological question of what people mean or don’t mean, or are expressing or not expressing in their normal uses of moral terms.Those are psychological questions. I’m not saying psychologically or in folk language people get moral truth right all the time.

      And I’m not going to concede that “moral truth” has to be given an impossible, superstitious interpretation rather than tell people what they think they are aiming at is indeed true but not in some unnecessarily absolutist, universalistic sense. This is not like the pantheist/atheist situation at all. The language is with us, it is not going away, anymore than thunder and lightning are. I am saying just as we replaced the idea that Zeus or Thor cause thunder and lightning with a natural explanation without getting rid of the idea of thunder and lightning, so we can replace the idea that “God creates absolute, universal moral truth” with accounts of objective values and instrumental moral truths (as real and binding as any other hypothetical imperatives) about how to attain those values.

      Consequentialists and non-absolutist moral thinkers have long existed. To define moral truth in the most superstitious way possible is to cede crucial parts of our language and practice to nihilists for no good reason. Finally, I define flourishing in my goodness/effectiveness posts and in posts like “How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity”, if you can explain what is wrong with those accounts, I’d appreciate it, but the term is not empty in my usage—it does, rightly I think, allow for the contingencies of circumstances to have to fill it out in particular cases though.

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

      Also, I’m not only talking about the hypothetical imperative, but facts about teleological functionality in nature. The perfectionism is all Aristotle and Nietzsche and it’s more substance than just hypothetical imperatives (at least for beings such as we are, for whom our good is not just hypothetical to us)

    • Robert B.

      Redefining a term is actually a fair philosophical move, if you do it right. (Obviously there are all sorts of mistakes you can make by changing definitions wrongly, non sequiturs and equivocations and moving the goalposts and so on.) The idea is that words should help us talk about real things. If we discover that we’ve assigned a definition that doesn’t quite refer to the real things we meant to talk about, we can change the definition.

      For example, if you read certain dietary laws in the Bible, the authors seem to be using a definition of rabbit that’s something like, “a small furry animal with long ears and paws, which chews its cud.” There is no actual creature that meets this definition. Should we then conclude that there are no such things as rabbits? Or should we say that the biblical author or authors had a wrong definition of what a rabbit is, and that we should switch to a definition that actually describes what we’re trying to talk about?

    • Patrick

      It depends what your goal is.

      But simple academic standards require that when you define a term, you recognize the difference between discourse that doesn’t accept your definition, and discourse that does.

      Physics has disproved phrenology. I can’t meaningfully refute the anti-phrenologists by defining “phrenology” to mean “neuroscience.” And I think we’d all recognize the shadiness of that argument in that context.

      But there’s a sneakier way to do this in certain contexts. Instead of using the redefinition maneuver on a word with a clear and commonly accepted definition, use it on a word with a highly contentious definition, where many popular understandings of the definition turn out, on investigation, to be incoherent.

      Using the redefinition maneuver in this context grants you a really powerful (but logically empty) rhetorical maneuver. If your opponents say that X isn’t true, where X’s falsity is due to its logical incoherence, demand that they define X. If they don’t catch on that this is a mugs game, they’ll try to define it… and then you’ll have them. Their definition will turn out to be incoherent for the same reason they were right in the first place: the concept itself is incoherent. That’s when you substitute in your coherent (but also new) definition. If you watch the argument take place over time, it looks something like this:

      Alice: “[Incoherent concept] exists.”

      Benjamin: “[Incoherent concept] is incoherent, and so it doesn’t exist.

      Carl: “[Incoherent concept] exists. But secretly, by [incoherent concept], I mean this new, coherent concept.”

      Benjamin: “What are you talking about? [Incoherent concept] doesn’t exist!”

      Carl: “You can’t say [incoherent concept] doesn’t exist if you don’t even know what it is. So go ahead, define [incoherent concept].”

      Benjamin: “Uh, um…” *Benjamin then fails at defining [incoherent concept] because [incoherent concept] is incoherent.*

      Carl: “Victory is mine! The people who say that Alice is wrong are themselves wrong!”

      Alice: “Yay!”

      That’s what’s been going on in these threads. Its a form of rope a dope.

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

      We inevitably use moral language. Few people outside of academics have a coherent account of why it is true but they know it is important. Few average people would talk about “moral facts” but some do. Many average people have a sophomore relativism about morality which is incoherent and falls apart with just a little dialectical interrogation. Not many philosophers historically bothered with language of moral facts—it’s a 20th Century sort of thing. I’ll use it insofar as it’s pragmatically useful but don’t care otherwise.

      Nonetheless, a great many philosophers have a great many interesting insights into ways that morality can be coherently and systematically understood. Moral nihilists pretend that the only meaning possible for morality is a very specific incoherent one—the idea that moral facts are matters of “properties” analogous to empirical properties.

      That’s not what most people have any strong commitments to asserting when saying it is true that it is wrong to rape. To condemn all these practices of moral judgment making to interminable incoherence is foolish and unnecessary and pedantic in my view. There are internal consistencies behind many moral judgments and there are inconsistencies in others. To dismiss them all wholesale as inherently fictional and incoherent does no good in the real life project of sifting the more justified and coherent from the less. Clarifying for people what creates consistency and what has grounding in reality about their moral language illuminates. Obfuscating language of moral fictions and overblowing moral relativism only leads people to confusion and to underestimating the very real ways that they can justify their moral language.

      “Alice” from your example also has many incoherent, confused understandings of science and politics and innumerable other issues. She has some things right but does not have an expert’s grasp except maybe in whatever her own specialty is. There’s nothing wrong with a specialist coming along and explaining for Alice what truths she is on to and what errors she has to replace in order to speak more precisely and have more consistency in her concepts.

    • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

      For example, expressivists and non-cognitivists believe that moral statements are expressions of feelings, and are therefore not truth-apt.

      If “feelings” reflect an instinctive understanding that certain things are beneficial and others harmful (i.e., we’re terrified of civil disorder because we don’t want to be seriously injured or killed), then those feelings, at least, are based in reality and can indeed be considered “truth-apt.”

      Also, our brains are not computers: we’re not hardwired for purely rational thought, and our reasoning always gets a good bit of input from our emotions and instincts; so it’s not always possible to draw a line between emotional and rational thinking. So it’s wrong to say that moral truths are based solely on feelings; and it’s also wrong to say that feelings are always less valid indicators of truth than pure reason.

      Others believe that moral statements refer to “moral truth” as if it were something that exists in the same sense as scientific truth, but believe that moral statements are false because moral truth does not exist in this sense.

      A moral truth can exist if it’s based on objective material truths and sound reasoning. Also, if a subjective belief (like “I don’t want to be killed”) is consistently shared by an overwhelming majority of people, then that universal belief is, for all practical purposes, an objective fact: “killing people is bad.”

  • Cuttlefish

    As a pragmatist, of course I don’t talk about objective scientific truth. All we get are more useful explanations, and cannot even know if they converge on something someone could call “true”. Can I not believe in objective moral values now?

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

    That’s exactly how I felt. I happen to value truth very highly but I also understand that circumstances exist in which truth would be placed below other standards (murderer at the door etc.)

    I also realized I skipped a couple of steps in the process but really all you need is a foot in the door. As soon as *any* value judgment is allowed then you can build from there.

    Thanks for the reads. I’ve never checked out your blogs before but between this and the apology thing (in which you make great arguments regarding meaningful forgiveness) I’ve had several enlightening moments.

    Thanks Kilane! It’s always a pleasure to learn that. I hope you keep coming by and keep finding the experience enlightening.

  • Scote

    This seems silly. Saying that objective morality and objective science must both be true is silly. It’s like saying that you have to awknowlege an “objective” favorite color to have objective science of light waves. Science can inform us as to the nature of color, the physiology and psychology of perception, but it can’t dictate “objective” preference any more than it can dictate “objective” morality.

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

      If you erroneously trivialize morality as equivalent to favorite color, then yes. But that’s not what morality is. If you want to ignore all the intricate factual issues that influence our most effective and life enhancing moral reasoning, that’s your problem. But “slavery is wrong” and “torture is wrong” are hard won moral discoveries that will not be preserved if we confuse them for matters as trivial as “I prefer orange to yellow”.

      I recommend you investigate what I mean when I say morality and you’ll see the ways that it is groundable in facts. The links are all above in the post.

    • Scote

      You say “trivialize” I say “simplify”, cutting through all the over done philosophy talk using argument by analogy. I think cutting the Gordian Knot was cheating the test rules, but I also think the direct approach can cut through layers of over thinking.

      The psychology of morality demonstrates that morality is what our “gut feelings” tell us about what is right and wrong, about what we and other should do. We make snap judgements about what is moral and then backfill our judgement with motivated reasoning. We can use science to inform and study morality, but not to dictate it. Morality is inherently subjective, as it is based on our social instincts, including empathy, and is informed by our individual upbringing culture. One can also scientifically study other human judgements, such as aesthetics, attraction, food preferences–but such expressions can’t be dictated by scientific inquiry, only informed.

      I think you, as a philosopher, are, perhaps, prone to making arguments more complicated than they actually are.

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

      No, those are not “simplifications” of the same points, they are psychologizations. The psychology of how various cognitive and emotional processes function in making moral judgment are made is entirely different from the question of their normative worth. Psychologists can explain all they want the brain mechanisms that are at work when judgments are made but those don’t explain, or undermine, their truth. The law of non-contradiction is true, even if someday the cognitive scientists will be able to show the brain reactions that happen that allow us to recognize it.

      So, explaining the psychological mechanisms by which we make moral judgments as a matter of practice does not thereby make them false or merely emotional, etc. The worth of such judgments can be rationally assessed in the sorts of normative teleological and consequentialist terms I am talking about.

      You’re not cutting any Gordion Knots by psychologizing, you are missing the whole meaning and truth of normative justifications.

    • Scote

      So, explaining the psychological mechanisms by which we make moral judgments as a matter of practice does not thereby make them false or merely emotional, etc.

      Why do we think there is “morality” to begin with? That has to start with psychology. One of the prime rules of science is to not fool yourself–and if you skip the psychology of human judgements when analyzing human judgement you leave yourself open to self deception, in this case, open to self deception about the “objective” nature of morality.

      I’d say here is no evidence that morality is objective–point to the sound evidence for “objective” morality that is separate from animal psychology. The psychological explanation, on the other hand, is sound. So, your supposition of the “truth” of objective morality doesn’t seem to be in any way justified.

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

      Why do we think there is “morality” to begin with?

      There are words and sets of practices, habits of thought, etc. that are loosely grouped as “morality” we can analyze what those are, what functions they serve, how they accomplish their explicit goals, etc. and we can think about their internal rational consistencies or inconsistencies. Some of these questions are psychological and others are normative since morality includes practices of normative thinking. Norms have to be assessed in terms of their internal consistency and in terms of their objectively determinable success or failure at accomplishing their goals.

      That has to start with psychology. One of the prime rules of science is to not fool yourself

      That’s an order and then a norm. Why give me this order that I have to start with psychology? Is it because of this norm about not fooling myself? Where do such values and norms come from? You are already engaging in moral judgments insofar as you are giving me orders and appealing to rules and that is what morality is about. So, let’s apply your norm and value judgment consistently. Let’s start psychologically with why you think you may not fool yourself. What real psychological processes make you lay down such a rule. There is a set of psychological occurrences and preferences, rooted all the way back in animal instincts which have been culturally refined. Therefore, this scientific rule is a value judgment. If you are saying that makes it a “self-deception” and that makes it “supposition of ‘truth’” not in any way justified since it has a psychological origin and happens when psychological mechanisms are engaged, then I need not accept your norms (apparently) and listen to your arbitrary psychological “rules of science”. Those are just your values and norms. Values and norms have psychological explanations which, according to you, are incompatible with objective normative force. Therefore I can just ignore you, since there’s no normative force to your imposition of norms on me if I don’t feel like it. And I’m not being irrational in doing this since, again, all that is happening is in your head when you tell me about “rules of science” and make bizarre inferences that a “rule of science” is to assume that norms are not binding but are proven false when their psychological mechanisms are exposed. Those statements are only understandable psychologically, they have no “truth” that I need to recognize and submit to. I don’t need to share your subjective values or your psychological norms. I can have my own quirky psychology and make different values according to different psychological patterns. And there is no “truth” in your case or “falsehood” in mine.

      Or, there is truth in what you say, but then that means that you can assess your norms and values in science independently from the psychological events in which you think about them. You can argue that they have truth beyond those psychological events in your head. If you can say that in the case of some norms, you need to explain to me why the instrumental norms of morality cannot similarly be assessable in terms of truth but must be revealed as “self-deceptions” simply because studying them we can recognize they occur to us in our brains through psychological processes. You also have to justify why you just presumptuously ignore all the arguments (and links to arguments) where I talk about ways to assess moral categories from a third person perspective and don’t just say “I have a psychological brain event and automatically trust it without applying investigations of its real world efficaciousness relationships or its internal logical consistency according to norms of reasoning.

    • Robert B.

      The psychology of morality demonstrates that morality is what our “gut feelings” tell us about what is right and wrong, about what we and other should do.

      Doesn’t this beg the question? You would never try to determine facts about a real objective thing by studying the psychology of it. You’d never say “The psychology of physics demonstrates that physics is what our ‘intuition’ tells us about how objects move and fall.” By calling on the psychology of morality to demonstrate what morality is, you are assuming before you start that morality is just a psychological phenomenon and not a real objective thing. But that is exactly what you are trying to demonstrate.

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

    I will read those in a bit–a first reaction though, is that it appears we are in great agreement, but you want to save the word “objective” considerably more than I do. I think it has baggage that adds more confusion than clarity. The (objective?) fact that the same word you use to describe the fact that you are sitting down, is used by others to ‘prove’ that atheists have no morals, shows that this word is being tasked with more than its poor spine can take. In common usage, “objective” is a loaded word; you are asking to remove a lot of baggage, and I am suggesting that, since a great many people won’t want to remove that baggage, that we avoid that swamp. To mix metaphors.

    Yes, I think we are in agreement and our dispute it primarily an issue of strategy. To me the fight is for the meaning of the word objective. We cannot give up the word because of its baggage because the other alternative is to be painted with exactly what they are trying to tar us with—a nihilism you cannot constructively build coherent values or education of children with. They are constantly demanding we give a coherent account of how we can provide values without god.

    It was 19th Century Christians who created this canard that without god, we would be without objective meaning, purpose, or morals. The 20th Century atheist existentialists walked into this trap and owned this Christian prejudice and defined atheism by it and it did us NO good in winning favor with the mainstream that wanted objective values. And atheists just keep repeating this mistake of telling people life is meaningless and morality is a fiction when that’s misleading and counterproductive to our coherent argument that we have the moral high ground over the religious in our moral principles. It undermines our particular moral arguments when we misleadingly imply that they can be supported by no coherent metaethics.

    I think that’s not only strategically mistaken but false. A great deal of (properly context-sensitive) objectivity is establishable and a basically objectively defensible overall metaethical framework is establishable. We should develop these lines and we will have a more truthful and internally consistent way of speaking.

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

    Perhaps I’ll try to write more soon, but I think one point of disagreement between us might be the relation between self-interest and morality. If a view of morality exactly equates to our self-interest in our own flourishing, then why talk about morality at all? We already have perfectly adequate ways of talking about our own interests. Why introduce a whole new set of moral categories if we mean them as perfect synonyms for self-interest, while most people mean them quite differently?

    In the mean while, I’d really like to see a post squarely addressing the crack in your foundation that we’ve talked about…

    Yes, I need to explain the connections between morality and self-interest in much more detail. It’s been on the agenda for a while but this basic work dealing with moral nihilism has seemed more urgent to complete before moving on to that. There will be posts on it soon. In the meantime, I would distinguish that self-interest and morality are not nearly identical. Morality is just one way to serve our flourishing but not the only one by far. This is why I distinguish between ethics broadly (the pursuit of flourishing broadly) and morality more narrowly. The following posts narrow what I mean distinctively by morality a bit:

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/11/17/why-be-morally-dutiful-fair-or-self-sacrificing-if-the-ethical-life-is-about-power/

    http://http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/02/17/apostasy-as-a-religious-act-or-when-a-camel-picks-up-a-hammer/2010/07/11/how-our-morality-realizes-our-humanity/

    http://http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/02/17/apostasy-as-a-religious-act-or-when-a-camel-picks-up-a-hammer/2011/01/28/moral-vs-non-moral-values/

    http://http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/02/17/apostasy-as-a-religious-act-or-when-a-camel-picks-up-a-hammer/2009/07/06/towards-a-non-moral-standard-of-ethical-evaluation/

    http://http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/02/17/apostasy-as-a-religious-act-or-when-a-camel-picks-up-a-hammer/2009/07/17/further-towards-a-non-moral-standard-of-ethical-evaluation/

    And I’ll get to your other issues as I feel ready. I don’t think they’re really a crack in the foundation itself, but cause some important puzzles. Part of the problem is that I constantly feel the need to put on the blog more of my abstract metaethics as a foundation for more specific judgments. I will sometimes be challenged to write on a very practical topic and spend months working out the metaethics and still not be ready to address that practical topic. My goal though is to be able, when dealing with the practical topics, to be able to lay out basic premises with links to support them and go on to the topics at hand with foundations established.

  • Robert B.

    @ Cuttlefish:

    Well, that’s an entirely resolvable difference. Is there a different word you’d prefer? “Physical”? “Empirical”? “Real”? Personally I think “physical morality” sounds awesome, but maybe we shouldn’t pick philosophical terms for sounding cool, or we’ll all be “radical awesome explosionists.”

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

      but maybe we shouldn’t pick philosophical terms for sounding cool, or we’ll all be “radical awesome explosionists.”

      hahahahahaha

  • Bruce Gorton

    Of course morality is subjective – morality isn’t an object.

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

      That’s just wordplay that does not address any of the extensive arguments, either those in this post or in the copious links I provided, in any way whatsoever.

    • Bruce Gorton

      Scientific truth is generally based off of the study of objects and how they behave. A ball runs down a hill, this is either true or not. One cannot derive whether the ball ought to run down the hill from this statement, only that it does.

      Whether we like that or not doesn’t change the basic facts of the ball rolling down the hill.

      Morality meanwhile is subjective in that it is subject to the aims it espouses. Depending on what you are aiming at, what the moral course actually is changes.

      Take prison systems. If we take prison as being aimed at protecting the innocent, then we can adopt a rehabilitative system where living conditions are relatively good.

      If however we take the prison system as being aimed at punishing the guilty then we see moral arguments saying we don’t want to “reward crime.”

      One can further see it in moralising about economics. How many times have you heard arguments against social welfare based off of the recipients “Not working for it.”? To those of us who see maximising social health as the aim these arguments are obscene.

      To those who however see society as being based off of “you get what you put in” they’re often seen as being natural.

      To us genocide is morally repugnant, to William Lane Craig it is commendable if done on the orders of a sufficiently powerful and intelligent being (God.)

      In a debate I recently watched an atheist was being lambasted for saying that raping one woman in order to avoid the extermination of humankind by aliens would be horrible, yet possibly the moral course.

      The Christian he was debating with on the other hand argued that the extermination of the human species would be preferable.

      Sam Harris receives endless crap for his argument that if the alternative to torture is a nuclear weapon going off in a crowded city then torture may be morally justified.

      We cannot say that your working definition of “good” is a universally accepted one.

      Morality is by its nature subjective. It does not study the object of good, because there is no object that can be called good, but the broad genre of subjects that fall under the headline “good.” What is considered good is often an artefact of our ever-changing cultural baggage.

      All too often one notes that the moral objectivist idea of what is morally good is pretty identicle to the moral objectivist’s culture.

      And while objective truths have a bearing on what is or isn’t considered moral – people have their self interests and with limited resources those interests are raised or lowered based on the desirability of their conflicting aims – when it comes down to it we still can’t derive ought from is.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    By declaring that no action has implications that are more or less valuable in an objective sense, they avoid to have to account for (to themselves, others will take them to account anyway)the consequences of their actions.

    Nonsense. It’s also quite possible for a moral nihilist to refrain from speculating about morals because they are unconvinced of such a thing, while simultaneously doing what they need to do in order to live comfortably within society as it appears to be surrounding them.

    It’s the same way the ancient phyrronian skeptics survived in the real world while deferring judgement about their ability to actually make any objective statements about the real world. You may not be able to prove you even exist, but you can still appear to feel hungry and it appears to relieve it if you appear to eat.

    I remain unconvinced about morality, though I live my life in accordance with my own rules that appear to me to be quite strict and what you might even consider more rigid and balanced than many people’s. What I don’t do is what many who believe in morals appear to do – namely want so badly to have guidance for my behavior that I adopt a consenus reality and then convince myself I’m doing a “good thing” so I can be smug about it. Fortunately, I am unconvinced that such people exist.

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

      “Many people” do something but you’re unconvinced they exist. That’s completely incoherent. If scientists spoke so utterly incoherently—rather than just with cautious qualifications—there would be no science. Philosophy should not be so incoherent either.

      Related to your concerns is my post Mostly True, Not Mostly False.

    • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

      There appear to me to be many people. Your mileage may vary.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    Would you call someone a “moral nihilist” who withheld judgement about moral issues because they were unconvinced by any of the arguments they had been presented?

  • Axxyaan

    It seems your are confusing human values with objective values. That we as humans tend to some values doesn’t make those values objective.

    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.

    Well if you want to contradict the nihilists, why don’t you just infer a value from some facts? Just start from any facts you wish and without introducing values infer a value from these facts. If you succeed in that, I would be more inclined to accept the objectivity of some values.

    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?)

    There is a difference between rejecting the notion that values/norms are objective and rejecting those values/norms. I reject the notion that tastes are objective. How ever that has never stopped me picking an enjoyable dish from the menu in the restaurants I visit.

    Likewise I can reject the notion that valueing truth is an objective value but still value truth myself.

    So indeed reason can’t decide (base) value choises. Just as reason can’t decide what food I enjoy.

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

      And when you say reason “can’t” you don’t mean reason “can’t”, you mean you value thinking that reason “can’t” right?

      And I don’t confuse objective values with human values. I give an account of how values work beyond human values, how they exist in things of no personal interest to us. The case for this is in my post on how goodness is effectiveness.

    • Axxyaan

      No when I say “reason can’t decide (base) values” that is what I mean. I don’t value that reason can’t do this. I am indifferent about reason being able to do this. So if you think reason can decide/infer values (from facts) why don’t you give an example of how it is done.

      And no you haven’t made the case for how values exist in things of no personal interest to us. Goodness with the meaning of valued and goodness with the meaning of effectiveness are two different things. If the effectiveness of something is valued, that can only be because there is someone who values it.

      Besides how you seem to use effectiveness, I can say that a sick person is effective at being sick (and miserable). So in that sense being sick is effective/good.

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

      Re: being sick: Read The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies and Spectra of Goods and Bads.

      And no, “reason” as a psychological cognitive faculty from a “purely factual” perspective makes all sorts of judgments. When we start saying which cognitive judgments we make are truly rational this means we are acknowledging (valuing) the adoption of some norms rather than others. The person who uses their reason to infer a ghost when they hear creaking wood in their house is, psychologically speaking, going through cognitive reasoning processes of inference. So is the person who hears the creaking wood and infers there is no ghost based on scientific methods or conclusions. The choice to value the scientific methods or conclusions psychologically is “just” a value judgment unless you grasp that there are objectively superior value judgments (like scientific judgments are better than unscientific ones) and that some norms are true and not just matters of psychological quirk. We can ground these value judgments about the value of certain norms of cognition (say scientific ones) in the facts about how such judgments enhance life and flourishing. We can define life and flourishing themselves objectively in the ways I laid out in the goodness is effectiveness post—if you would just bother to read it instead of writing back telling me I can’t derive values from facts when I just gave you that link to show you how I do it.

      So to define rational norms as opposed to irrational ones you need to believe in norms that are not just psychology and make value judgments about which cognitive processes we have which are good and which ones are bad. It is inconsistent then to say that no value judgments of good and bad can be any truer than any others. And it is then arbitrary to specify that the class of moral judgments that are deeply constitutive and argued about according to all sorts of common norms in human life cannot be understood in terms that explain the differences between good and bad value judgments factually and how their norms are binding. You say “reason” just is a certain way and are effectively saying “norms of thought just are what they are”. Thought is an action. So the idea that there cannot be “norms of action which just are what they are” is a hidden premise that helps you make your judgment that reason just has norms that are independent of our valuing them or not.

    • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

      in the facts about how such judgments enhance life and flourishing

      Wouldn’t that require an ability to somehow know correctly what did and didn’t enhance life and flourishing, in order to make that judgement? Which appears to beg the question: if people are able to make such judgements accurately you can just call them “morals” and be done with it.

      In practice we appear to see many cases where people think something leads to enhancing life and flourishing but later they seem to change their minds or not agree with others or discover that they think they were wrong. Since we cannot have perfect knowledge at any given time, any judgement is always subject to revision in the future. That’s how you wind up with things like slavery being ok for millenia and suddenly being a not ok. If there are objective morals it would have to always be right or wrong and not behave like subjective morals and switch around depending on which way the societal winds are blowing.

    • Axxyaan

      And no, “reason” as a psychological cognitive faculty from a “purely factual” perspective makes all sorts of judgments.

      Which is beside the question. The question is are values objective, can they be inferred from facts. You want to convince people the answer to this question is yes, yet you constantly refuse to give the most convincing answer possible: Give an example of how it is done, without smuggling your base values into it.

      Yes some people value objectivity less than others. So what!? That doesn’t mean we can’t make a distinction between conclusions that are more objectively supported and those that are less objectively supported.

      And I have read your link. I even asked some questions when you were on your previous blog that you ignored. You don’t derive values from pure facts. You start with your base value of flourishing. Because without that base value, there is no reason why we should appreciate the effectiveness in coming to flourish.

      And the fact that rational norms are possible for finding out about facts statements being true or false, doesn’t imply that the same is true about values or e.g. taste. Saying that no value statement can be truer than any other is no more inconsistent than saying that no enjoyable statement (about food) can be truer than any other. Those kind of statment aren’t about the object, even if it looks they are stated that way, these are statements that learn us something about the subject.

    • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

      Goodness with the meaning of valued and goodness with the meaning of effectiveness are two different things.

      Indeed, if that were the case, one might refer to “goodness with the meaning of valued” as “valued” and “goodness with the meaning of effectiveness” as “effectiveness” and dispense with the word “goodness” entirely.

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

    In my view, your argument does violence to what rationality and science are about. “Rational” is first and foremost a qualification of arguments, not of people. Someone who is usually more confused than most people, who may even be seriously mentally ill, working for completely deluded reasons, may — in the midst of volumes of scrambled writings — create an argument that is nonetheless cohesive, sound, and well-evidenced. Rationally, such an argument stands on its own, and is evaluated on its own characteristics, independent of its disadvantaged origin. The attempt to move the locus of rationality from the argument to the individual obscures this. As does your lede, which suggests that you (and others following your view of rationality) shouldn’t pay attention to arguments from such sullied source.

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

      If you say “rational” is property of arguments and not of people, then you’re saying there are norms independent of the psychological human valuations and feelings through which we perceive them. I agree! But it’s puzzling to me why then moral norms cannot also have formulations which distinguish them from human valuations and feelings through which we psychologically perceive them.

    • Scote

      But it’s puzzling to me why then moral norms cannot also have formulations which distinguish them from human valuations and feelings through which we psychologically perceive them.

      Puzzling, perhaps, but not proven.

      Can the idea of a “favorite” color have any meaning outside of human valuations? As far as I can see, the answer is “no.” The same goes for morality.

      If morality is objective then you should be able to provide objective evidence for morality being so–evidence that shows that such morality goes beyond human behavioral psychology. I’ve yet to see any such evidence, and the burden of proof is on you. For all you philosophizing you don’t have any objective *evidence* for your claim of moral objectivity.

    • Robert B.

      But Dr. Fincke’s whole ethical structure is founded on the idea that whatever increases X’s ability to function, in whatever ways X can function, is a value for X. It’s very clear that the possible functions of things exist in an objective sense. I don’t think you would argue with that – but those are exactly the things Dr. Fincke means (I’m fairly sure) when he talks about moral truths, and you are simultaneously claiming that moral truths do not exist in an objective sense.

      In other words, this is not really a dispute about whether anything exists or does not exist. What we are really having is a disagreement about what we should mean when we say “moral truth.” So why don’t we each, firstly, say exactly what we each do mean by that phrase. Then we can pick apart those definitions and talk clearly about which one we should prefer.

    • Scote

      “But Dr. Fincke’s whole ethical structure is founded on the idea that whatever increases X’s ability to function, in whatever ways X can function, is a value for X. It’s very clear that the possible functions of things exist in an objective sense. I don’t think you would argue with that – but those are exactly the things Dr. Fincke means (I’m fairly sure) when he talks about moral truths, and you are simultaneously claiming that moral truths do not exist in an objective sense.”

      Those are not “moral truths” any more than the number 2 is a moral truth. You can attempt to quantify the data you use to make moral judgements, but that is all you are doing. The numbers are not the judgement. The judgement is a human one And just deciding what to make a judgement about, and what factors to use and how to weigh them is a judgement in and of itself. What Fincke is trying to do sounds more and more like equivocation of the kind that Sam Harris tries to do with his “Greatest Good” utilitarianism, as he tries to sweep the judgment part of the process under the rug as he hems and haws at how science can be used to quantify various types of goodness–without ever saying how it can actually decide which trade offs and compromises to choose from separate from human judgement.

      “In other words, this is not really a dispute about whether anything exists or does not exist. What we are really having is a disagreement about what we should mean when we say “moral truth.” So why don’t we each, firstly, say exactly what we each do mean by that phrase. Then we can pick apart those definitions and talk clearly about which one we should prefer.”

      Better yet, don’t use presumptive phrases like “moral truth”. The word “truth” in philosophy. theology and coloquial usage is far too plastic to be of value in trying to clarify matters.

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

      A norm is just a description with some sort of moral or desired direction attached. The description can be discussed quite independent of the direction. Plumb lines and right angles are the usual goal in frame construction. But not always. And to the geometer, a right angle or normal vector is just one meeting a certain definition. Sometimes, architects don’t want right angles. And if I were writing a text on formal or informal fallacies, it would be a mistake for me to include a perfectly rational argument as one such. Part of rationality is making these kinds of distinctions. Including when discussing rationality itself.

  • Cuttlefish

    Just a quick question I don’t have time to ask:

    Just read a student’s paper in which he/she said something to the effect of “money has no objective value; it’s just pieces of paper”. Of course, since I can trade a piece of paper for food, it clearly has objective value in the same sense that it is (or was) objectively true that you are (or were) sitting in your chair.

    That “objective” could be used on either side of this (after all, even the gold standard is not “objective”, let alone a trust model; the “value” of gold is a silly concept when it sits in a vault) irks me.

    The 19th Century canard is, as you say, as good as any beginning point to the excess baggage problem. My dislike of “objective” (as you say, a difference in strategy) perhaps comes down to my preference to argue that their own “objective” is every bit as false as they claim mine is. It doesn’t bother me at all not to use the word “objective”–I can make my point with intersubjectivity and agreement and usefulness and be happy as a pig in mud. But to have their objectivity blanket taken away from them seems to throw a spanner into the works for the theist side. By shifting something they took to be bedrock, I can (sometimes) now engage in a debate, where before was simply dismissal.

    • Cuttlefish

      D’oh! the “quick question” was whether you thought my student was right about money having no objective value.

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

      I think the student is wrong. There are objective consequences connected to the money. You will objectively starve without any, you will objectively have a tremendous number of other different effects in the world result from having different amounts of money. It is objectively a part of the world, even if it is a socially constructed one. Now, if the social construct changes, of course the money loses objective value. But as long as it has objective effects, it has objective relationships of effectiveness in my view and, therefore, it has objectively assessable value. This may be different from its perceived value within the social construct. Changes in perceived values change its objective effectiveness in objectively observable ways.

    • Scote

      “My dislike of “objective” (as you say, a difference in strategy) perhaps comes down to my preference to argue that their own “objective” is every bit as false as they claim mine is. “

      Indeed, objective can be used in ways that involve a frame of reference. Perhaps a more accurate term for the value of money would be collectively subjective?

    • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

      Just read a student’s paper in which he/she said something to the effect of “money has no objective value; it’s just pieces of paper”. Of course, since I can trade a piece of paper for food, it clearly has objective value in the same sense that it is (or was) objectively true that you are (or were) sitting in your chair.

      That would appear to depend on whether the person taking the piece of paper also felt it had value. In other words, the person giving the piece of paper(money) appears to think it’s a fair exchange for food and the person taking the piece of paper(money) appears to agree. That doesn’t mean that the money has an objective value, but rather that two people have agreed that at that time, in that place, it is suitable for that exchange. We observe cases where suddenly that is no longer the case because of “exchange rates” – the fluctuation of which indicates that the paper has no value; if there’s value its in the constantly shifting consensus of the people handing it around.

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

      Moral arguments can be vindicated on a deeper level than social acknowledgment. If the morality defended objectively increases human flourishing in terms of our definitive powers which constitute our being, then it is vindicated quite apart from our feelings about it. To the extent that, for example, cooperation in the social contract or judgments in accord with prisoner’s dilemma logic, etc., prove objectively in our interest and insofar as our objective interests can be grounded in the basic constituents of our being (i.e., that we thrive in rational, emotional, social, physical, technological, artistic, and political powers, etc.) we can determine objective grounds which we can assess moralities as good or bad for achieving or failing to achieve.

    • keddaw

      Your student meant intrinsic, not objective.

      Value, especially monetary, itself is subjective.

  • mazeRunner

    Whew, so much to read and I’m so exhausted my eyes are shutting themselves.

    @Cuttlefish how did you get so smart / witty? Is there a book…?
    Srsly I want to know.

    • Cuttlefish

      There is, but it ain’t prose. Actually, I have a post up now about cybermonday, with a link to my book, on my own blog.

      Daniel, please feel free to delete this comment if you consider it spamming; I won’t mind a bit.

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

      not at all, Cuttlefish.

  • mazeRunner

    Oops I meant how you are (not necessarily you got). That implied I assumed you became somehow and that seemed a little presumptuously rudish.

  • Beth

    Objectivity is an illusion. At least, that’s what I think. I think that subjective/objective really refers to the two end-points of continuum, not things that are always clearly one or the other.

    Objective scientific facts are those that have near universal agreement through measurements obtained via a diversity of routes that all converge to the same value. The distance from the earth to the moon varies, but the measurements of the closest approach and the average distance aren’t disputed outside of the precision we are able to get with modern measurements. Objective moral facts…well, there don’t seem to be any that achieve the same sort of convergence across different people and cultures.

    You can declare ‘murder’ to be objectively morally wrong, but most people are willing to make exceptions for various circumstances. The problem arises in that humanity does not agree on which exceptional circumstances are acceptable. To me, that puts it considerably lower on the subjective/objective scale than scientific measurements on how far away the moon is.

    You can declare ‘rape’ to be objectively morally wrong, but that requires a definition of rape that all agree to. Should consensual sex between an 18 yo and a 16 yo count as rape? How about between a 50 yo and a 14 yo? Between a competent adult and a retarded adult?

    How do you reason through diverse potential circumstances to consistently determine what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ not only in those situations but in a general way that can be applied in different settings and cultures, even those that allow practices are now considered immoral by all modern western civilizations, such as slavery?

    • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

      Do you think at all about the “continuum” between objective and subjective when crossing a busy street? I don’t think so.

    • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

      You can declare ‘murder’ to be objectively morally wrong, but most people are willing to make exceptions for various circumstances.

      That doesn’t make the basic moral truth any less true, any more than believing a falsehood makes the truth any less true.

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

      Objectivity is an illusion. At least, that’s what I think. I think that subjective/objective really refers to the two end-points of continuum, not things that are always clearly one or the other.

      That’s fine. Similarly I think the ideal of objectivity as complete detachment is the wrong way to see what is knowledge conducive about attempts at objectivity.

      My point in the use of the word objectivity is that there are forms of judgment that are not merely subjective in an idiosyncratic-just-how-I-feel sense, which rationally contribute to value judgments. Value judgments can be more rational or less and that is essentially all I mean by “objective”. They can be amenable to standards of rational assessment and not simple instances of emoting.

      Objective scientific facts are those that have near universal agreement through measurements obtained via a diversity of routes that all converge to the same value. The distance from the earth to the moon varies, but the measurements of the closest approach and the average distance aren’t disputed outside of the precision we are able to get with modern measurements. Objective moral facts…well, there don’t seem to be any that achieve the same sort of convergence across different people and cultures.

      That begs the question. Who is to say that with proper philosophical and empirical understanding you cannot forge increased agreement? There is a tremendous amount of basic agreement in a lot of ways in broad terms on various goods of flourishing and bads of misery. And in the future as more of the world is educated, more of the world is exposed to different possibilities and conditions of life, who is to say that the trends towards increased liberalization and autonomy and mutual prosperity cannot accelerate towards increased consensus on the superior morality of autonomous ethics over tribalistic ethics?

      Give the discussion of value a chance to continue on rational terms. It has barely gotten a start in the last couple centuries.

      And even where there is not agreement yet, it still does not matter. If I can look at a morality and see how it is leading to poor outcomes in rationality, social cohesion, technological innovation, artistic innovation, emotional strength, etc. within a culture, I can say, what they are doing is not conducive to their flourishing and so bad for them objectively—whether they feel that way or not because they are have low expectations or are stubbornly refusing to let go of irrational commitments to moral precepts that are harming them because their brains are wired naturally and socially to be so stubborn.

      We can say sometimes people do not know what will really improve their circumstances. We can do objective measures that have nothing to do with getting their agreement. In theory of course they would want to flourish in as many human powers as they could. Who wouldn’t? If they objectively are not, then they have an objective interest to do so. If they have religious beliefs deceiving them into thinking they will prosper in the after life in exchange for adhering to a morality that gives them a crappy earthly life, we can say, “look they cannot meet the objective good they actually want because they’re deceived by fairy tales about how it is attained.”

      All of this is rational and not just my feelings or an idiosyncrasy of my personal preferences.

      You can declare ‘murder’ to be objectively morally wrong, but most people are willing to make exceptions for various circumstances. The problem arises in that humanity does not agree on which exceptional circumstances are acceptable. To me, that puts it considerably lower on the subjective/objective scale than scientific measurements on how far away the moon is.

      There are two ways to answer this. Definitionally we can say “murder” is an “unjust killing”, not killing simpliciter, so yes, murder by definition is morally wrong as an act of injustice.

      As to whether killing is not objectively wrong because there are circumstantial exceptions–we can have rational debates aied at objective goals for human flourishing and the kinds of justice required to sustain and advance it, about which kinds of killing under which kinds of circumstances are conducive to the good of flourishing and which are not. We do not say, “Hmmm, that guy over there thinks that stoning women for being raped is okay. Well, I guess I was wrong that murder is objectively wrong then.” That’s ridiculous.

      Your point is only that killing is not absolutely wrong or universally wrong or, even more mildly, that not everyone thinks that it is absolutely wrong or universally wrong. That is different than it never being wrong. We can specify the contexts in which it harms the greater good of maximal human power and the contexts in which it aids it and say objectively it is good in the former and bad in the latter contexts. Weighing this up may require difficult judgments of competing goods and empirical data, etc., but the process can be guided by reason and not just be a matter of rationalizing our knee jerk feelings.

      You can declare ‘rape’ to be objectively morally wrong, but that requires a definition of rape that all agree to.

      Well, no, tautologically, rape will mean unjustly coerced sex. The definition problems are in what to classify as “unjustly coerced sex”.

      Should consensual sex between an 18 yo and a 16 yo count as rape? How about between a 50 yo and a 14 yo? Between a competent adult and a retarded adult?

      We can analyze these issues rationally and objectively. We can ask questions about the nature of rational judgment, of consent, and of autonomy and ask to what extents teenagers have these things sufficiently to be able to freely choose sex under different conditions. We can look at the nature of power imbalances. We can analyze this all in rational terms that demand we avoid inconsistencies, that we define concepts in ways that are objectively rational and fair.

      It begs the question to assume that just because we will have to use judgment that is not just appeals to brute facts (though, in these cases you mention, plenty of empirical information can definitely be brought to bear and be quite persuasive), that what we are doing is not objective or rational but fundamentally a matter of personal or cultural idiosyncrasy or feeling, i.e., fatally subjective.

      How do you reason through diverse potential circumstances to consistently determine what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ not only in those situations but in a general way that can be applied in different settings and cultures, even those that allow practices are now considered immoral by all modern western civilizations, such as slavery?

      Some cultures can be wrong. Sometimes in different settings, different factors make for objectively right different answers and sometimes they don’t. So what? That’s not being “subjective”, it’s being context-sensitive. Again, as I said in the post and as I say a thousand times, objective in a context-relative way is still objective even though it is not “a universally absolute rule for all times and places in the same way with no exceptions.”

  • Robert B.

    @ Scote:

    Then what do you mean by the phrase “objective morality”?

    • Scote

      Well, therein lies the whole debate, I suppose. I’d say it is incumbent upon those who claim such a thing exists to prove it. I’d say that it is a purely theoretical/philosophical concept. For morality to be objective there would have to be morality that exists independent of human judgement. And yet, even if there were such a thing, why should we assume such a thing would obligate us to pay any attention to it? What would it be? A huge stone tablet with rules on it floating through space? A “law giver” who’s will defines “morality” by his/her/its mere whim? A commonality of human judgement about something being wrong–even though we can’t agree on exactly what or what exceptions there should be?

      I think that “objective morality” is an incoherent concept. Morality is judgement. Judgement is inherently subjective. And, as has been pointed out elsewhere in this thread, we do not apply morality objectively. If murder is “objectively” wrong, why do we execute people? If murder is wrong why do we kill animals for food? It is rather clear that morality is not objective as troubling as that may be to some people. We, as individuals and people, can come to collective agreements on morality and make them into moral principles and law, but those are all just attempts to codify our social instincts.

      If morality is objective then I challenge someone, anyone, to provide evidence of the objective yardstick which dictates that morality–a yardstick that is independent of our human behavioral psychology. What you’ll find is that yardstick is not independent but rather merely made **based** on our psychology.

      So let’s dump all the philosophical hand wringing. If morality is objective, independent of human judgement, prove it with *evidence*.

    • kilane

      Let me ask you a different question:

      You say the distance to the moon is 384403 km (that’s the correct answer btw).

      I say the distance to the moon is 20,000 km.

      Is yours an objectively better answer? Why?

    • Scote

      Better is a subjective term, too. Better in what context, for what purpose? The correct measurement is accurate and objectively verifiable. “Better” is a value judgement. It seems like you are trying to insert equivocation back into the argument. I’d say we should try to remove it and be clear about what we are talking about.

    • kilane

      That’s really what I was getting at. It was a question of where you place yourself in the larger context. You didn’t answer his question for what a “moral truth” was so I wanted to see what your definition of “objectivity” is.

      Can you objectively quantify time? I mean, you can define time but 1 second where I am is different than 1 second where you are (not by much, but it’s different). Can you objectively do any better than “time exists” although prior to the big bang that may not have been true so I guess not that may be too much too.

      So I guess what I’m asking is, what can you say objectively about, say, time (a concept we know exists)?

      Sorry if this seems off topic. I just don’t understand the point in arguing for objectivity to rule the day when all objectivity does is stifle conversation by making debates completely about irrelevent things (if you think you caring about objectivity is relevent to anything, I’d love to hear how it’s helpful in any situation).

    • Scote

      “Can you objectively quantify time? I mean, you can define time but 1 second where I am is different than 1 second where you are (not by much, but it’s different). Can you objectively do any better than “time exists” although prior to the big bang that may not have been true so I guess not that may be too much too.”

      There are lots of ways to use objective measurement to define the passage of time. We have physical constants to define it. We can define 1 second as “9 192 631 770 times the period of vibration of radiation from the cesium atom.” http://oscience.info/physics/standards-of-measurement-length-mass-and-time/
      That is an objective measurement of time. But it doesn’t define the human subjective experience of time.

      “Sorry if this seems off topic. I just don’t understand the point in arguing for objectivity to rule the day when all objectivity does is stifle conversation by making debates completely about irrelevent things (if you think you caring about objectivity is relevent to anything, I’d love to hear how it’s helpful in any situation).”

      Its the blog owner who insists that there is objective morality, not me. Take your issue up with him.
      But, as to objecting to the concept of “objective morality”, I object to it because it is an unproven concept with no sound evidence to back it up. And as a concept it is used to try to force people into the acceptance of various moral codes by people who claim to have special, but unprovable, knowledge of the objective moral code we must all obey. Should we simply accept their unfounded claim to “objective morality” as the price of also having objective scientific truth? Or do we instead point out that science is objectively verifiable and convergent, whereas nobody can show evidence that morality is subject to an independent standard separate from humans?

    • kilane

      I can’t reply properly anymore so we’ll have to do it this way.

      “Its the blog owner who insists that there is objective morality, not me. ”

      You must have figured out by now that you both have different definitions for objective. That’s kind of the point of why people want to define terms. I’m using your terms here because I don’t want to debate you on terms.

      On to the time thing:
      All you’ve done is define time. If I define murder as immoral that doesn’t make it an objective truth.

      We’ve objectively arbitrarily defined a unit of time as “1 second as 9 192 631 770 times the period of vibration of radiation from the cesium atom.” That’s not a truth about time, it’s merely a way for us to navigate ourselves in a world in which time exists. That tells us nothing about time. Can science tell us any objective truths about time? Keep in mind that all these truths have to hold true prior to the big bang and in any dimension and at a quantum level (or else it’s not objective).

    • Scote

      “Keep in mind that all these truths have to hold true prior to the big bang and in any dimension and at a quantum level (or else it’s not objective)”

      I don’t accept your stipulation that objectivity must transcend the existence of the universe. I think it is sufficient to say that we can use our universe as the standard frame of reference for objectivity. To do otherwise is to make all discussion pointless.

      Indeed, the unit “1 second” is arbitrary, of human creation. But the reference by which is is measured is objective. The same goes for morality. We can measure the stress hormones in a person objectively, but that doesn’t tell us what we should do about them. That is a human value judgment.

    • kilane

      I don’t accept your stipulation that objectivity must transcend the existence of the universe. I think it is sufficient to say that we can use our universe as the standard frame of reference for objectivity. To do otherwise is to make all discussion pointless.

      I didn’t know this was an option. I don’t accept your stipulation that objectivity must transcend our human existence and the existence of that which affects our lives.

      Random planet 4275865 is no more relevant to my life than Random planet 4275865 in some other dimension. It’s especially not more meaningful in any objective sense (or from the perspective of the alien race on planet 4275865).

      My entire point is that your bad definition makes all discussion pointless. Thanks for confirming.

    • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

      If morality is objective then I challenge someone, anyone, to provide evidence of the objective yardstick which dictates that morality–a yardstick that is independent of our human behavioral psychology. What you’ll find is that yardstick is not independent but rather merely made **based** on our psychology.

      That doesn’t mean morality can’t be objective; it only means we only have that one yardstick at this time. If we meet another sapient species, and learn about their morality, chances are our morality will evolve — but it won’t necessarily become less “objective” than it currently is.

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

      Well, therein lies the whole debate, I suppose. I’d say it is incumbent upon those who claim such a thing exists to prove it. I’d say that it is a purely theoretical/philosophical concept. For morality to be objective there would have to be morality that exists independent of human judgement.

      No, for morality to be objective it just has to be something human judgment can reason about rationally and not just as a matter of feeling. It is objectively true that my shirt has red lettering on it. This is not objective in the sense of true without reference to human judgment since red is something that is created through interaction of human minds with wavelengths of certain frequencies. The “red” experience is objectively true, even though it only happens when a human mind is involved.

      Moralities make claims about what is rationally better and worse for action. If those claims are vindicated then they are objectively vindicated. Of course moralities would not exist were there no rational action-taking beings. But such beings do exist. The questions of what is truly conducive to our flourishing in our behavior is answerable with objective evaluations of what constitutes our flourishing (being rational, emotioanl, social, technological, artistic, political, physically strong human animals). Those are objective goods for us in the sense that if we do not realize those goods we do not exist. They are our preconditions of existence itself. From a neutral third person point of view with no interest I can recognize having those things means having what is good for us and not having them means having what is bad.

      I am not a plant but I can say, “oh look, it’s withering up and dying without water, that’s bad for it insofar as it is a being since it will cease to be at all and lose anything we could possibly ascribe to it as good when that happens.”

      That’s objective. I don’t need to be a plant to say “what is good for plants is to flourish as plants and to have the conditions of that flourishing, such as water.”

      So, insofar as from a third person perspective we can see how moral claims can be tested—”do they really result in humans that flourish in the powers that define them as they beings they are?” we can assess it in such a way that evaluates its value apart from just how we feel. I personally hate that physical strength and fitness are integral to my long-term thriving as a human. It sucks, but I have to work on it anyway because it is.

      And yet, even if there were such a thing, why should we assume such a thing would obligate us to pay any attention to it? What would it be? A huge stone tablet with rules on it floating through space? A “law giver” who’s will defines “morality” by his/her/its mere whim? A commonality of human judgement about something being wrong–even though we can’t agree on exactly what or what exceptions there should be?

      Boy it would be nice if for once someone read my posts before telling me I’m wrong.

      Again, objective morality is not proven, on my view, because it has nothing to do with human flourishing but because it is instrumental to it. Can we please address this consequentialist view of morality? It’s only existed for hundreds of years (maybe thousands). It’s a much better possibility than the strawman you’re burning.

      I think that “objective morality” is an incoherent concept. Morality is judgement. Judgement is inherently subjective.

      Science is judgment. Figuring out whether or not you have enough time to turn into the lane before the other car smashes into you is judgment. All inherently subjective? NO. All have standards of rationality and are not just arbitrary, idiosyncratic, unassessable feelings. Same with morality.

      And, as has been pointed out elsewhere in this thread, we do not apply morality objectively. If murder is “objectively” wrong, why do we execute people? If murder is wrong why do we kill animals for food? It is rather clear that morality is not objective as troubling as that may be to some people. We, as individuals and people, can come to collective agreements on morality and make them into moral principles and law, but those are all just attempts to codify our social instincts.

      If morality is objective then I challenge someone, anyone, to provide evidence of the objective yardstick which dictates that morality–a yardstick that is independent of our human behavioral psychology. What you’ll find is that yardstick is not independent but rather merely made **based** on our psychology.

      So let’s dump all the philosophical hand wringing. If morality is objective, independent of human judgement, prove it with *evidence*.

      Oh give me a fucking break. “Philosophical hand wringing?” You ignore every fucking argument I make and just dump a bunch of assertions that have nothing to do with my arguments and declare yourself shrewd. It’s tedious. Actually prove my arguments wrong. I make them over and over in the links above and in the text you either skimmed, didn’t understand or didn’t read. Asking for an account when you don’t even bother to address the one given to you is just foolishly proud and uncomprehending ignorance.

    • Bruce Gorton

      No, for morality to be objective it just has to be something human judgment can reason about rationally and not just as a matter of feeling.

      Since when does subjective experience preclude rational judgement? Wouldn’t it be better to phrase your moral system as being rational morality rather than objective?

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

      The objective emphasis is that there can be third person perspective on values in terms of looking at the human factually and asking about our constitutive powers and what leads to their maximization. Since I define value in factual terms as simple factual effectiveness, this can all be objectively worked out. Same with moral systems, we can assess their contribution (or lackthereof) to the maximization of our flourishing with objective considerations. The whole thing is not primarily subjective.

      I push against subjective because I am not talking about feelings or idiosyncratic intuitions. I am also not saying morality is vindicated by our making a rational law (as realist subjectivists like prescriptivists might). It’s vindicated ultimately by the contribution to flourishing in objective terms.

      One appeal I make for the rationality of my ethics involves exploring that it is irrational to undermine the preconditions of one’s own existence from the perspective of being a creature with interests. But this is a matter of avoiding an “objective” practical contradiction between one’s interests and one’s choices. It is a judgment not dependent on a subject properly recognizing it to be true.

      In all these ways emphasis on subjectivity is misleading.

  • kilane

    Let me ask you a different question:

    You say the distance to the moon is: 384403 km (that’s the correct answer btw).

    I say the distance to the moon is: 20,000 km.

    Is yours an objectively better answer? Why?

    • kilane

      Sorry, messed up a double post again. delete this if you can.

      thanks.

    • philboidstudge

      You must have figured out by now that you both have different definitions for objective.

      This made me LOL.

    • kilane

      This is the entire point of this post. This post (as in blog post) is saying that his definition of objective is superior. If you use a definition of objective which excludes morals you must also carry that definition over to exclude scientific truths.

      I’d argue that if you define objectivity to exclude morality you make the term not useful in any practical terms so it’s an inferior route. The point of my post is to say that people are applying an unfair standard of objectivity for morality while not applying that same standard for scientific knowledge.

      If morality has to be equally applicable in every situation ever to be objective then so does science.

      I’d argue that neither should be held to such an unreasonable standard.

    • Scote

      Show us evidence that morality is objective in a way that is independent of humans.

    • kilane

      Show us evidence that morality is objective in a way that is independent of humans.

      I don’t understand why I would need to do this anymore. We’ve determined that your definition of objectivity is bad. You must subjectively define boundaries in which which you make your objective assessments in.

      If we’re abandoning your definition of objectivity then I refer you to all of Dr. Fincke’s posts on the subject.

      If you still think your definition/interpretation is defensible, then we can discuss that.

  • Robert B.

    Thanks for following up on my question on definitions while I was away, kilane. It always really irritates me when someone I’m debating someone who can’t or won’t define their terms when asked to.

    But now I wonder if defining one’s terms is a philosophical skill not everyone has practiced. Maybe it’s not obvious to everyone that if someone asks you to give your definition of a term, this is an important request, or maybe it’s not obvious how to answer. Certainly I’ve seen a lot of the strange “arguing past each other” effect in this thread and others related to it, where each side in a debate means something different by a key word.

    So to model the sort of thing I was looking for, I’m going to answer my own question and explain what I mean by “objective ethics.” (I think I actually asked about “objective morality,” because I was talking to someone who used those words, but I don’t have a good definition for “morality” so I’ll answer with “ethics.”) I’m going to be a little more lengthy and thorough that I would be otherwise, because it’s an example as well as my honest position. So:

    For myself, what I mean by “objective” is something like “empirically grounded and repeatably observable.” Something “objective,” in my usage, is something you can observe in the physical universe. But also, if someone else managed to set up the same situation and conditions, they should observe the same thing, or it doesn’t count as objective. (I don’t see it as a problem for objectivity that another observer in different situation or conditions would observe something else.) This repeatability makes objective things different from things like beauty or delicious-ness that can be observed by one person, but someone else observing the exact same object might not see them.

    By “ethics” I mean the study of questions like “what should I do?” or “what should people in general do?” and the way(s) to get answers to those kinds of questions.

    So when I say “objective ethics” I’m talking about a way to answer to questions like “what should I do?”, a method that anyone who knew the same important facts about the situation could use, and they’d always come to the same answer about what the person in that situation should do. In an objective morality, what’s right and wrong wouldn’t depend on what feelings anyone had about what’s right and wrong, because there are rules of evidence and rules of reasoning on that evidence which everyone can use equally.

  • Ariel

    (At the beginning my comment will go (roughly) in a similar direction as earlier remarks by Patrick. There will be something new later on.)

    You formulate the claim, and you sketch an argument. Here it goes.

    Your claim: Let X be an activity such that not pursuing X would lead to the extinction of the human species. Then whoever rejects X as valuable is illogical (inconsistent).
    Argument: A contradiction follows when we observe that by our definition of “valuable”:

    (*) If not pursuing X would lead to the extinction of the human species, then X is valuable.

    Then someone who rejects X as valuable (while at the same time recognizing that not pursuing X would lead to the extinction of the human species) is engaged in a contradiction. End of the story.

    The rejoinder is that the moral nihilist has no reason to worry about this argument as long, as he has no reason to accept your definition of “valuable”. And that’s why the Argument taken in isolation is very weak; in fact the whole case against the nihilist rests not on the Argument, but on the following claim:

    (**) The nihilist has good reasons to accept (*) (perhaps together with your definition of “valuable”).

    So my proposal for further discussion is to leave the Argument alone, since it’s not important and discussing it in isolation makes no sense. It is (**) that is crucial. In effect the question is: what are these good reasons? I have an impression that you don’t even try to handle this question here. What you do instead is to try the line:

    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.

    This whole line leads nowhere. If you provide a factual definition of the notion of a value, so be it. The nihilist could just answer “have a good day with your definition”. The same question still remains: why should anyone (the nihilist in particular) care about your definition? What’s the point?

    Although you don’t answer this question in your text; you give some hints in one of the comments. You wrote:

    I am saying just as we replaced the idea that Zeus or Thor cause thunder and lightning with a natural explanation without getting rid of the idea of thunder and lightning, so we can replace the idea that “God creates absolute, universal moral truth” with accounts of objective values and instrumental moral truths (as real and binding as any other hypothetical imperatives) about how to attain those values
    To define moral truth in the most superstitious way possible is to cede crucial parts of our language and practice to nihilists for no good reason.

    The second part of the quote is useless – it like saying “you should accept my definition because it will help you to fight the nihilist”. As a part of a reply to a nihilist, this looks like kidding. So we are left with the first part. Which is not kidding. But in my opinion a lot of effort is required to make it work. Here is how I see it.

    1. I construe the nihilist as accepting that morality has some uses. My paradigm of a nihilist is a moral fictionalist who treats our everyday morality as a useful fiction (useful for social control).
    2. On this approach, the usefulness claim is a common ground between you and the nihilist. (The difference is that when considering a chain “A is useful for B, B is useful for C … X is useful for Z”, with Z being the last element, the nihilist would say “I can see nothing irrational in preferring not-Z over Z. It just happens that I prefer Z”).
    3. You are free to claim that adopting your approach would produce a more effective morality. I.e. the claim would be that your redefined morality is more useful (it’s an appeal to 1 – to the common ground!) than the old one – more efficient in producing the results you both want.

    It seems to me that an argument of this sort is really what is needed here. Especially the last step would give the nihilist the required reason to accept your definition of “valuable”. As I said, I think also that it’s all very problematic and requires a huge work. Obvious worries are:

    (a) Is the “common ground” really common enough? Is there a chance for agreement on the details of the explanation of why morality is useful?
    (b) Even assuming that (a) is overcome, would the reformed morality really be more useful than the old (superstitious) one? Maybe the free will illusion is really needed in ordinary situations (with the compatibilist accounts functioning well in philosophy journals, but not on an everyday basis)? Maybe treating moral values as deep and intangible (and messy!) gives them the aura of solemnity which makes the superstitious approach more efficient than yours? Maybe in practice it’s better to assume that other agents are irrational to a high degree (rationality assumptions, used sometimes in such disciplines as decision theory, are in fact pretty unrealistic) and base our public morality on such an assumption?

    To be sure, more doubts of this sort can be formulated. And I guess that a huge work would be needed to answer them. Good luck!

  • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

    @Daniel

    Have you read The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris? He seems to be saying pretty much the same thing. I think the whole problem is the historical association between subjectivism and anti-realism.

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

      I didn’t make it far through the book, the writing was self-absorbed, unrigorous, eschewed serious treatment of key issues for endless anecdotes of liberals who bothered him for not holding Muslims to standards of women’s rights and human rights they hold westerners to. Valid concerns, sure, but they need to be argued for in the painstaking ways philosophers do and Harris wasn’t doing in the first 50 or so pages of the book I read. So when I got interrupted I didn’t bother going back.

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      While I do agree that being subjected philosophical argument is generally quite a painful experience, I’m still not convinced that it really needs to be. Sam’s book is comparatively short and easy to understand, I think you should read it. I’ve also got an audio version if you want it.

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

      Philosophical arguments would have been nice but he skipped all such substance and gave an embarrassingly weak presentation of the ideas we share. Then there were the things we disagree and his cavalier dismissal of my positions were infuriating. I can only imagine how the enemies of both of us felt with his cavalier treatment of them.

      I can only imagine him persuading those who never thought of moral philosophy at all before, they’re the only ones who could take what I read as some sort of ground-breaking or worthwhile book. Others might like it for the reason I take it you did, just because they agreed with the theses, regardless of how thinly they were defended.

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      I can only imagine him persuading those who never thought of moral philosophy at all before

      I think those are primarily whom it is aimed at, although he does go into a bit more detail later on in the book as well as in the footnotes. I liked the simplicity of it. For instance, I’ve read all Dawkins’ books, but after reading his latest children’s book I saw many old ideas, which I thought I had understood perfectly, in a new light. I didn’t really learn anything new by reading it, but I think my ability to communicate that knowledge has increased.

      I’d also be interested in which parts you disagree with, perhaps you could post a review or something if you do decide to read it?

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

    Wouldn’t that require an ability to somehow know correctly what did and didn’t enhance life and flourishing, in order to make that judgement? Which appears to beg the question: if people are able to make such judgements accurately you can just call them “morals” and be done with it.

    In practice we appear to see many cases where people think something leads to enhancing life and flourishing but later they seem to change their minds or not agree with others or discover that they think they were wrong. Since we cannot have perfect knowledge at any given time, any judgement is always subject to revision in the future. That’s how you wind up with things like slavery being ok for millenia and suddenly being a not ok. If there are objective morals it would have to always be right or wrong and not behave like subjective morals and switch around depending on which way the societal winds are blowing.

    By this standard of objectivity, any field of human thinking in which anyone changes their views is not objective. Natural sciences have changed their views on issues radically, so it was all fatally subjective? This is absurd. Saying that a subject is amenable to rational discussion in objective terms is not the same thing as saying that the views of any given period have to be absolutely correct and immutable. That’s a foolish standard no area of thinking can meet. It’s prejudice against morality that demands moral thinking to meet that standard.

    The question is whether our views that slavery is wrong are merely “societal winds” blowing differently or whether they are rationally defensible in a way that pro-slavery views are not (or, at least, would not be under present conditions).

    To say it’s just social feeling that has changed is to beg the question.

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

    I think those are primarily whom it is aimed at, although he does go into a bit more detail later on in the book as well as in the footnotes. I liked the simplicity of it. For instance, I’ve read all Dawkins’ books, but after reading his latest children’s book I saw many old ideas, which I thought I had understood perfectly, in a new light. I didn’t really learn anything new by reading it, but I think my ability to communicate that knowledge has increased.

    I’d also be interested in which parts you disagree with, perhaps you could post a review or something if you do decide to read it?

    I’ve long wanted to review it but I’ve been torn over whether it is worth the time to finish the book. My time is really, really scarce. If I ever do make the time I will write about it for sure.

  • Jesse

    Daniel –

    I’m way late to this but I think I can after reading this better formulate the problems I outlined earlier.

    If I want to fly a rocket, lever up a heavy weight, or make a laser work, there are certain things I have to do because of the laws of physics. If I want to dissolve a metal I have to use acid. Whatevs. Point is, no matter what I think, no matter what system I use to define any of this, a rocket will not fly without X amount of propellant. It just won’t.

    But societies, for instance, work just fine with slaves. I mean, the Romans outlasted us (so far). Is it what I would choose? No. But it worked.

    If moral laws existed the way physical laws do, something just wouldn’t work, if you see what I mean. It would have to be something that was true across every culture. Just like in every culture you fall at 9.8 m/s/s. Nobody in any culture can fly like Superman, either.

    Moral laws to me seem to be this thing that we invent, but has no physical reality whatsoever. None. If every human disappeared tomorrow the sun would not stop fusing hydrogen into helium.

    Now, you keep bringing up that maximal flourishing is an objectively good thing, and I used that very definition to show how I could justify all kinds of evil, then you said it would be silly to say slavery is valuable if it brings ruin on us all. But maybe bringing ruin on humanity is a good thing. Just not to humans. (Whales and chimps would probably be thrilled if we all died out).

    Every time someone makes a moral claim I keep feeling like there is nothing under the foundation of it. It’s all about the definitions. But physics for instance doesn’t have that problem. No matter how we define anything the particle accelerator is still flinging protons at near lightspeed. But moral claims all I have to do is redefine what I think is good and voila.

    You say you can’t have rational scientific knowledge without making value judgements, but I don’t see it. It doesn’t matter what my value judgement is if a rock smacks into my head. The physics dictate the outcome. The moon is as far from the Earth as it is, and whether we use that knowledge to get a better picture of reality or not affects the rest of the universe not one bit. And the universe (as far as you are concerned) ends when you die anyway.

    Now, just to be clear, there are things I think will maximize equitable human survival and all that. I want that too. But I can’t make myself feel that’s anything but a preference on my part being a human and raised as I was. I can’t say X is “better” the same way I can say “X amount of propellant makes a rocket fly.”

    You see why I struggle with this?

  • Midwest Skeptic

    (1)
    In any debate of objective and subjective values, I keep returning to the idea that there are clear examples of subjective values, so why couldn’t moral values just be another subjective set of values?

    Examples:
    (1) Coke tastes better than Pepsi.
    (2) Meta-ethics is boring (per Sam Harris).
    (3) Blondes are more attractive brunettes.
    (4) Fuel efficient cars are better than pick-up trucks.

    The proposed properties of better-tastingness, boringness, attractiveness, and betterness do not exist – that is, no where are these properties instantiated. When Sam Harris says that meta-ethics are boring, it tells us more about Sam Harris than it does about meta-ethics. Boringness is not a property that something can possess. Boredom is an emotional reaction that people can have, and people are quite prone to projecting their emotions onto the world.

    I don’t see why morality can’t be perfectly explained as just a series of subjective preferences. I see moral approval and disapproval as simply particular types of emotional reactions. I see nothing contradictory in thinking that the statement “abortion is wrong” functions just as the statement “X is boring”.

    (2)
    I believe that there are more or less rational ways of reaching goals, but I do not believe that there are (always) rational means of selecting goals. Quite often, goals (wants, desires, preferences, etc.) simply impose themselves on us – perhaps based on our past, genetics, subconscious, etc.

    If you wish to buy a car with the lowest cost of ownership then it is rational to consider certain things – the purchase price of the car, the cost of fuel, the cost of service and repairs, etc. But I do not see a clear rational means of deciding which class of car to buy: sports car, luxury car, truck, SUV, mini-van, hybrid car, motorcycle? The choice may be constrained (maybe you need a family friendly vehicle), but for someone whose choice is not constrained, it comes down to personal preference. It doesn’t make much sense to say, “You ought to want an SUV.” But it does make sense to say, “If you like off-road driving then you ought to buy an SUV.”
    Means can be rational or irrational. It’s harder to see that is (or must be) the case for ends.

    The question of what do people value is unproblematic (just ask them). But a question of what ought people to value has a certain contradictory nature. People need a value system to answer the question of what value system they ought to have. Which would lead to an answer of ‘people ought to value what they value’.

    I can not give a rational explanation for why I like cherry pie better than pumpkin pie. It simply comes down to bare, primitive likes and dislikes. Maybe it’s because I have certain types of taste buds due to my genetics, or the food that my mother served me when I was three years old??? Although, knowing why I prefer cherry pie wouldn’t change the fact that I do prefer it.
    Preferences are a-rational.

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

      Not all values are subjective values (unless you’re willing to say that our value judgments in science too are just subjective preferences—your comment, like a dispiriting many in this thread just completely ignore the points I made about this connection in the post and do not even address how scientific values are rational and different than the allegedly a-rational moral ones).

      Here is a post where I explicate the difference between subjective (preference) valuing and objective values: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2010/10/06/subjective-valuing-and-objective-values/

    • Midwest Skeptic

      By your way of thinking, must all values be objective? You could just as easily be saying that people’s subjective favorite color or subjective choice in music undermines the objective state of science. Clearly some values are subjective – they are just personal preferences. Once at least one subjective value is acknowledged, then it opens the possibility that any value could be subjective. Why couldn’t moral values be subjective?

      There is no a-priori reason that anyone OUGHT to value scientific evidence. I do happen to value it, so science works for me (I happen to be an engineer). People often have curiosity, or a desire for knowledge, or think that knowledge might aid them in reaching a goal, so people adopt strategies that meet their needs. Really, most people don’t even think about these things. A certain propensity and ability to understand reality is ingrained in humans – either in their genes or their memes. Children grasp the idea of true/false long before they can formulate a philosophical argument. A young child with an imaginary friend just hasn’t come to the point of making reality a priority yet.

      Even if science had some type of intrinsic value I don’t see that there would be an intrinsic ought associated with it. There is no categorical imperative to be scientific. From where would such a requirement spring?

      Reality has a certain state. It is true that there are craters on the moon. And this is true even if no people exist to recognize the fact.

      I am an atheist, and I have to take a leap of faith that my senses give me an accurate portrayal of reality. I choose to make the minimum number of presuppositions that allow me to understand reality. If you are going to go beyond the minimum why stop at just one or two value propositions? Why not throw in all sorts of things like religious presuppositions? Once you go beyond the minimum presuppositions required for science, then you’re not doing science any more.

      I’m interested in understanding the base, raw essence of morality. My conclusion is that it is subjective. I’m not laying any extra requirements on it – I’m not saying that it has to counter religious theories or that it has to be a useful problem solving tool. Error theory explains why people use moral language the way that they do. People are also prone to projecting their emotions onto the world and to debating fictitious things (i.e. was Kirk or Picard the better Enterprise captain?). Billions of people are mistaken about their religious beliefs. I see no reason why billions of people can’t also be mistaken about the root nature of morality.

      In the page you linked to, you gave the example of “food is valuable for animals to stay alive”. This is an example only of an instrumental value. My position is that there are no intrinsic values. The statement that “food is valuable”, given without a context is false. Food does not have absolute value. Food is valuable only to the extent that it helps achieve some desired goal, and there is no goal which any living thing MUST aim for. Just because most people, or even all people want to stay alive doesn’t make living anything more than just something they very strongly want. There is no logical requirement to want to live. I do not believe that the act of suicide is self contradictory – and this is because life is valuable only in so far as people desire it. No amount of wanting something can create intrinsic value.

      There are no objective values. But there is a huge amount of overlap in what people happen to value, and this is a starting point for there to be a certain ‘democracy of values’ in areas of wide disagreement.

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

      By your way of thinking, must all values be objective? You could just as easily be saying that people’s subjective favorite color or subjective choice in music undermines the objective state of science.

      The link I just sent you to was pretty clear, there are some subjective values. But not all are subjective.

      As to the rest of your objections, read this post next: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/09/07/the-contexts-objective-hierarchies-and-spectra-of-goods-and-bads-or-why-murder-is-bad/

      You might also consider the following: http://http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/02/17/apostasy-as-a-religious-act-or-when-a-camel-picks-up-a-hammer/2010/07/08/on-the-intrinsic-connection-between-being-and-goodness/

      http://http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/02/17/apostasy-as-a-religious-act-or-when-a-camel-picks-up-a-hammer/2010/07/11/how-our-morality-realizes-our-humanity/

      http://http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/02/17/apostasy-as-a-religious-act-or-when-a-camel-picks-up-a-hammer/2010/07/11/how-our-morality-realizes-our-humanity/

      http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/09/23/the-facts-about-intrinsic-and-instrumental-goods-and-the-cultural-construction-of-intrinsic-goods/

      http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/11/17/why-be-morally-dutiful-fair-or-self-sacrificing-if-the-ethical-life-is-about-power/

      http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/11/18/a-philosophical-polemic-against-moral-nihilism/

      Really, there is a whole list of posts with self-descriptive titles at the end of the article you are commenting on here. Plus there are numerous comments I have made underneath the article. Read through them and see how I address all these concerns. Even re-read the article itself as it addresses a number of these issues. If you still have questions and challenges, let me know and I’ll try to answer it if it’s not already covered in another post I can refer you to.

    • Midwest Skeptic

      Do you have a post that explains the source of moral prescriptiveness? Why ought I be good?

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

      Yes, look through the titles, there is the one on norms from nature, the one, on how our morality realizes our humanity, and the one on why we should be dutiful if the good is power. Also the one on intrinsic and instrumental goods. Really most of the ones I just linked you to are about that.

      They are grounded in the intrinsic nature of value. Instrumental value is true and objective because it is a form of effectiveness relationship and those are objective. There is also an objective effectiveness relationship in being something intrinsically. So just as if x is instrumental for y, x is valuable for creating y, so also if x is constituted of z and w, then z and w are intrinsically valuable to x as effectively constituting it. In this way the preconditions of our existence are instrin sically and objectively valuable to us qua us. I argue that it is irrational as the beings we are to undermine our own effective being. We could do it, but not rationally.

      Morality comes in as objectively rational and defensible as an instrument of our own powerful flourishing, not as some intrinsic fact divorced from our pursuit of flourishing but as intrinsic (though situationally constructed) means towards our flourishing in contexts. Those posts I just linked you to develop this in detail.

  • keddaw

    Camels, I agree that there is no more basis for scientific ‘truths’ than moral truths. However, that leads us down the road of solipsism. It gains us nothing. So we take the leap of faith that we exist, the external universe exists, and that other people (and animals) have minds and agency much like we do.

    This is the one leap we have to make to hang the rest of science on. I accept this is logically, and philosophically, shaky ground to build the whole edifice of existence on, but it does seem to be consistent enough to work out relatively consistent and predictable relationships between the components of the universe and ultimately do science. This has worked often enough over long enough and made predictions that hold up to measurement well enough that we fall into the habit of describing them as facts. They aren’t, due to the initial leap of faith, but they are as close as we can possibly get.

    We then move on to objective morality. There are two forms, on states that there is a set of rules written into the fabric of the universe about what is good and bad. The other states that there are truths about people (or conscious creatures) that allow moral judgements to be made using the measuring stick of flourishing. Am I correctly describing your position thus far? If not the rest may be somewhat pointless…

    The ‘god given’ moral objectivity can be dismissed with out of hand because that’s not the argument you’re making and we both disagree with it. The flourishing one is more interesting because it seems to rely on some teleological ideal for humans and humanity to decide what constitutes flourishing – something never fully fleshed out. Maybe I missed a link to that.

    In my view morality is a heuristic, an imperfect amalgamation of values, goals, ideals, and preferences within an individual. Thus, there exists a morality for individuals, but it is not exactly applicable to anyone else, but it is common enough in any given culture for people in that culture to agree what is good and bad, giving the illusion of objectivity in the first sense. It is almost objective in the second sense in that if we could tease out what each of those constituent parts were we could potentially find a way to judge between any two situations by seeing which maximises the fulfilment of those parts, unfortunately it also only accurately applies to an individual or group of people.

    The problem with moral language, and it’s great advantage, is that it groups together a whole host of things under one concept and where it is used by people who share the values that go into that word it is generally agreed upon. However, when cultures clash there is a problem where what I see as good you see as bad – and we’re both right, we just have different measuring sticks. And while you think flourishing allows us to compare measuring sticks to find which one is better, I’m afraid you might find you’re using your measuring stick to decide what constitutes flourishing in a circular ‘proof’ of why you’re right and I’m wrong. Much better to tease apart why we think something is good, and what’s good about it so we can see if we share any fundamental values before so we don’t talk past each other.