Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

Taylor: I know you’re bothered that I don’t believe in objective values, Pat, but I assure you I still care about the same things that you do. I just don’t say I’m being “objective” when I do so.

Pat: I don’t know why you think I would be impressed by that.

Taylor: Well when you boil things down isn’t that all that really matters—that at the end of the day I am just as committed in practice to what you want to call “moral” values even though I don’t think they’re “real”?

Pat: No, I find your rational inconsistency troubling in itself and capable of potential negative real world consequences.

Taylor: What “rational inconsistency” are you referring to? I think I’m being very scrupulous here and constraining my beliefs to what is rigorously factual. I’m avoiding confusing my preferences and desires for properties of things themselves. When I say “x is good” I am not deluding myself into thinking I’m describing some real property of a thing which constitutes its “objective goodness”. Instead I’m rather strictly, humbly, and rationally consistently accepting that in such a circumstance I am just referring to and expressing my feelings towards it.

Pat: But you’re not. I know you. You still are in the habit of using laudatory language about some people and actions and condemnatory language towards others. You still use moral terms like good and bad, and right and wrong. You ascribe virtues to some people in some cases and attribute vices to other people in other cases and you do so with a great deal of conviction. You seem to think these people really have these traits and that these traits are truly good or truly bad and not just things you like and things you don’t like.

Taylor: So I like those whom I like and I dislike those whom I dislike. Isn’t that what I have described myself as doing? I never claimed to have stopped liking certain kinds of people and actions and disliking others. A moment ago I even stressed specifically that my patterns of liking and disliking don’t diverge very much from your own patterns of valuing. So where is the problem?

Pat: The problem is the strength of your condemnations is too strong for expressions of mere disliking. When you complain that someone is misogynistic or racist or homophobic or selfish or greedy, etc. you get angry in a way you would not if you were describing that someone simply liked different kinds of films than you did or preferred a different flavor of ice cream. It does not seem at all like you are just noting that that other person has different likes and dislikes from your own or different proclivities towards actions than your own. You seem quite adamant that their ways of thinking and acting are objectively worse than yours—that they are worse than they should be.

Taylor: So I dislike misogynists more than I dislike people who prefer strawberry ice cream. So what? They’re both cases of dislike even though one is much stronger than the other. This is merely a quantitative difference, not a qualitative difference. I find strawberry ice cream gross and don’t identify with people who like it in the instances wherein they express their preferences for it. But this is usually a fleeting and irrelevant feeling as it concerns me so little. Maybe if someone were singing the praises of strawberry ice cream I would find it mildly annoying since my brain’s automatic response might be to say “No, it does not actually have a pleasant taste! Why is that person saying that? It’s false! Make them stop saying that!” Then on reflection I would see how amusing and arbitrary my brain was being.

On the other hand, when someone hates women and expresses that view, my brain also says, “I find that gross.” I don’t identify with people who hate women. Now since I would think of the harms of misogyny these would naturally ramp up my anger and my disdain for a misogynist more than a strawberry ice cream lover. And I would not dismiss these feelings as laughably arbitrary as I would my possible knee jerk dislike of the strawberry ice cream advocate. It makes perfect sense that I would feel greater anger and feel more inclined to cling to that anger. But it’s still an emotional response of not identifying with someone, feeling at odds with them, and feeling annoyed by their attitude because it is different from mine. So it’s quantitative difference, but the brain processes are of the same kind. I’m not secretly leaping from differences in feeling responses to overreaching judgments that I have a “moral truth” that the other person does not—no matter how repulsive and loathsome I might find that person to be.

Pat: But you think that there is no objective “repulsiveness” or “loathsomeness”, right? Those are projective terms to you, right? Like, you are repulsed by a thing and then call it repulsive as though it was intrinsically repulsive—when in reality you think it’s not intrinsically repulsive in any objective sense but only that it repulses you and that it repulses you for reasons that have to do only with your psychology and which have nothing inherent to do about its objective features. That’s your view right? That when we attribute to things value properties we are confusing our responses to things as reified traits that the things supposedly have themselves, right?

Taylor: Yes, I would agree with that. “Repulsiveness” or “loathsomeness” are not true properties of things. I just am repulsed or I just loathe and that’s a matter of me and my feelings and not objective features of the things or people themselves.

Pat: And yet you use the expressions anyway in describing people.

Taylor: They’re only expressions. It’s not like I think the people I use them to describe have such properties which sit there as part of them independent of my reacting to them with repulsion or loathing.

Pat: But why use those expressions for describing people if you think they’re misleading about the truth and are just a projection of your feelings. Your language treats them as though they are real but you don’t really believe they are. So why not be consistent. Remove this moral sounding language from your vocabulary.

Taylor: Because that would be needlessly cumbersome and limiting and counter-productive to expressing my feelings in a natural way. These are still my feelings. I really feel them. I really want to express them. And I want to use the language that conveys them as I feel them, even if there is a bit of inevitable imprecision in this. I correct for this imprecision when the issues of metaethics are being discussed explicitly, so I don’t see what the problem is.

Pat: The problem is that in metaethics you employ an arbitrarily narrow and false conception of what may be called or treated as “real. You refuse to allow certain complex, objectively describable relationships of effectiveness value relationships to be considered in any sense objectively determinative of truth about values in general or about what it is either more or less rational for people to value in particular. In that discourse you want to choke off potentially productive formulations of what happens when we use moral language—formulations which could ideally preserve, clarify, systematize, and advance our best and most rationally objective ways of settling important ethical disputes.

You are indifferent to the consequences of knee-capping the very concept of ethical legitimacy when you cavalierly and misleadingly take its subjective components as completely negating its equally present objective and rational components. You are indifferent—or even hostile to—articulating the valuable ways that a constructive discourse about value can be legitimate despite degrees of subjectivity and relativity if only it accounts for and respects these things while also exploring what is fruitful and rational about the objective and universalizable components of moral discourse.

You want to stack the deck totally against the value of all “constructed” moral categories when doing metaethics. But when the rubber hits the road in real life and you start making real world value judgments, you don’t have the courage of your supposedly iconoclastic, lopsidedly anti-realist convictions but rather you speak in vehement and unqualified  moral language as though it tracked the very truths your metaethics prides itself on staunchly dismissing as “unreal”.  And you reason morally in ways that effectively track the kinds of truths you tell me are merely subjective and not matters of truth or matters for objective reasoning at all! So, for example, you insist that harming someone is not “factually wrong” but “just something we don’t like”. And yet in your own reasoning you go right ahead and treat harming as a legitimate reason to dislike someone.

Taylor: No, it’s not a “legitimate” reason to dislike someone It’s just a likely one.

Pat: But you feel justified. You judge yourself as silly when you dislike a strawberry ice cream advocate but you judge yourself as right when you dislike a misogynist. That’s not just a difference in strengths of feelings, it is a difference in rational judgments about the appropriateness of each feeling. You often like to claim, in a sophistical way, that harm is not an objective category. You reject the idea that there are intrinsic states of health or flourishing that could suffer objectively identifiable and denunciation-worthy harms. Yet, you realize that your negative feelings towards strawberry ice cream advocates are worth abandoning while your negative feelings towards those who cause harm—which you can identify perfectly well with common sense—are worth staying angry at. You might even judge it appropriate to increase your anger in that case.

Taylor: No, I’m not grasping differences in “true worth”. I’m responding to differences in strengths of feeling. Perceptions of harm, whether tracking something true about the world or not, anger me more than disagreements over ice cream tastes. And I follow my emotions.

Pat: But you admitted earlier that sometimes you have inklings of emotions that are your brain being annoyed in “amusing” and “arbitrary” ways that then you put a stop to. These judgments of what is amusing and what is arbitrary are rooted in logic. We are amused by logical absurdity—and it is absurdly arbitrary to treat a trivial matter, like a difference in taste in ice cream, as though it were important enough to feel anger over. But you know quite well misogyny is not something arbitrary or amusing to feel anger about. Because you know it correlates with objective harms and you know full well both how and why they’re truly harmful in ways that merit your anger as a human being with an intrinsically vested interest in human flourishing.

Taylor: The silliness of getting angry over a dispute related to ice cream flavors is not a logical one. It is a disconnect of feeling. One part of my brain is getting hyped up and adamant while all the rest of me just can’t bring myself to give a crap, and so my general apathy on that issue means that my anger impulse is isolated and emotionally blown off with a laughter response. In the case of misogyny, no part of me feels like laughing it off. That’s the only difference, not any cognizance of objective “truths” about “objective wrongness” that relate to misogyny’s “intrinsic property of badness” or any such superstition.

Pat: You’re making a strawman of moral properties when you make them sound like mystical fantasy properties and not merely a priori graspable relationships that all people intuitively understand to at least some extent with our natural common sense. These are categories we live by and whose truth we inevitably assume completely when anything practical is at stake. To attack these concepts as superstitious nonsense when it comes time to analyze their logical relationships to each other and to the empirical world is not a scathing honesty but an unnecessary inconsistency that cuts out one’s own legs and makes one’s whole intellectual and personal life—filled as it is with vital moral and political judgments and debates—philosophically incoherent.

But more to the point, I reject your characterization of the reasons you distrust your dislike of a strawberry ice cream advocate. It’s not just a matter of more feelings of apathy happening to swarm and subdue outnumbered feelings of anger. You feel more non-combative and indifferent because your cognitivea priori grasp of fairness is does not rule against the strawberry ice cream lover but judges in his favor and tells your knee jerk negativity to shut itself down.

Taylor: “Fairness” is just a matter of feelings though too. Different people feel different things are fair.

Pat: But fairness is still an a priori category even if we have trouble discerning how to apply it most accurately to the world, and even if our feelings can prejudice those judgments some times. We intuitively recognize it is not fair (either to reality or to each other) that we let our feelings, instead of our reason, determine our judgments of fair and unfair. You grasp this, you know it is fair to dislike a misogynist and consider them objectively repulsive and you know it is unfair to be angry with someone over a different taste in ice creams.

Taylor: Even if I grant certain brain tendencies which lead us to regularly apply certain distinct moral concepts and categories, that still does not make them “real”. Where is “fairness” in the universe which is scientifically describable apart from human concerns? We may have developed the concept for some survival benefit—some way that it helps us regulate human relationships effectively, but that does not make it a part of reality in the human-independent way that, say, atoms and molecules and water and trees exist in themselves.

Pat: As long as fairness has an internal logic and is vindicated as good for us for whatever ways it can be demonstrated to help us either minimally stay alive, maximally flourish, or successfully reproduce then that’s all the objective reality we need to overcome the charge that it is merely a matter of hopelessly subjective, relative, and distortively “false” emotions. I’m not saying there are no subject-relative or situation-relative components to morality. I am just that there are also objective, a priori, generalizable, and true aspects as well—and that an honest and practically constructive account integrates and makes sense of these too so we our practices and our discourses can be coherent, rational, and beneficial.

Your Thoughts?

These fictional characters, Pat and Taylor, previously discussed the related topic of Immoralism using Nietzsche’s view of it as a touchstone.

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

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

    As long as fairness has an internal logic and is vindicated as good for us for whatever ways it can be demonstrated to help us either minimally stay alive, maximally flourish, or successfully reproduce then that’s all the objective reality we need to overcome the charge that it is merely a matter of hopelessly subjective, relative, and distortively “false” emotions.

    Presuming, of course, that we can agree that that’s what vindicates fairness. But many people disagree that that is indeed what vindicates it, and without an objective way to settle the question you still wouldn’t have the objectivity you need.

    Essentially, it’s true that Taylor thinks that it is reasonable for him to, say, refuse to associate with misogynists while not being bothered by those who eat strawberry ice cream, but the emotivist position would simply argue that there is no MORAL reason for that difference; there may be other reasons, but they will not be ones based on an objective morality or objectively moral assessment.

  • Taylor

    I’m also a determinist. I can’t help what my moral feelings and metaethical views are.

    • brucegee1962

      Pat totally wins the debate.

      I think that it’s possible to possess an objective moral system, without any recourse to holy books or any outside reference. Mine isn’t perfect, but it’s a pretty good guide most of the time. It’s not quite Bentham, but along the same lines:

      1. Imagine a random person who lives in the future.
      2. Does the action that I am contemplating make this person’s life better or worse?

      For instance, if I vote to allow gay marriage, I am improving the lives of gay people in the future, without harming straight people in the slightest; thus, doing so is a moral action. On the other hand, if you impose your dislike of strawberry ice cream on others (say, by not stocking it at the ice cream store you run), then you’re hurting those who enjoy it without any compensating good, and thus acting immorally.

      As for this statement,
      “You often like to claim, in a sophistical way, that harm is not an objective category.”

      That seems a bit like saying that, because supercold or superhot liquids can exist, the property of being a liquid or solid cannot be objectively applied to matter. Just because there are categories of behavior that people might differ on when it comes to whether or not they are harmful, does not mean there aren’t behaviors that are categorically, objectively harmful. If I slice an organism in half with a chainsaw, I am harming it, just as surely as water at 500 celsius will exist as a gas.
      .

    • NSherrard

      Brucegee1962, I think you’ve avoided the real issue. I am not entirely sure I agree with your statement that cutting an organism in half with a chainsaw is “harm” just as surely as water becomes gas at high temperatures. “Harm” is a much fuzzier concept than “water” or “500 degrees celcius” for starters – its definition is far more uncertain. And your hypothetical may not apply to some organisms, like starfish (although that could also depend on how you define “harm”). But that’s not the question. The question is, why is harm “bad”? And, whatever your answer, what natural phenomenon do we test our ideas of “bad” against to discover whether we are correct?

  • Patrick

    Pat: But fairness is still an a priori category even if we have trouble discerning how to apply it most accurately to the world, and even if our feelings can prejudice those judgments some times. We intuitively recognize it is not fair (either to reality or to each other) that we let our feelings, instead of our reason, determine our judgments of fair and unfair. You grasp this, you know it is fair to dislike a misogynist and consider them objectively repulsive and you know it is unfair to be angry with someone over a different taste in ice creams.

    This is where Pat loses. He’s making recourse to exactly the straw man that he claims Taylor is attributing to him: things like “fairness” as magical properties we intuit with magical sixth senses. And he wraps it up with an emotional appeal, an assertion of mind reading, an argument that can be refuted by reference to moral pluralism, present and historical, and an argument that can be refuted by reference to the emotional state of the very misogynist under discussion, who presumably doesn’t “intuit” that his behavior is unfair.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Is the intuition that 1+1=2 the intuition of a magical connection between magical realities? You cannot “observe” 1 or 1 or 1+1 empirically. You use these intuitions to cognize particular realities as single or double or as having the relationship of addition. This is not a magical sixth sense. It does not pick up on some mysterious empirical feature that the five senses do not, so that’s where it is poor understanding and a category mistake even to make the comparison and talk about it in “sixth sense” terms. It is an inborn capability of conceptualization and a mental disposition to grasp a certain kind of abstract reality, distinct from particular physical ones.

    • Patrick

      It is an inborn capability of conceptualization and a mental disposition to grasp a certain kind of abstract reality, distinct from particular physical ones.

      For the life of me I will never understand why you insist on believing that this

      It is an inborn capability of conceptualization

      is in any way connected to this

      a mental disposition to grasp a certain kind of abstract reality

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Do you have any non-dogmatic and rationally consistent reasons not to?

      If the basic concepts that we deal with, including the basic abstract realities we are in practical terms incapable of disbelieving, were not shaped by the pressures of natural selection to be basically accurate it is quite likely we would not have survived as concept using beings in the wild. If discriminations like “being” and “non-being” were just arbitrary then how in the world would they keep us from getting killed? What more vindication do the abstractions “being” and “goodness” and “truth”, etc. need than that they were so vital that no rational humans survived within the species without capabilities of conceiving of them. Is it such a huge leap to infer there is something real about them if they implicitly underpin all the scientific and practical thinking which is so enormously successful in describing the world?

    • Patrick

      “If the basic concepts that we deal with, including the basic abstract realities we are in practical terms incapable of disbelieving, were not shaped by the pressures of natural selection to be basically accurate it is quite likely we would not have survived as concept using beings in the wild.”

      Useful /= accurate.

      “If discriminations like “being” and “non-being” were just arbitrary then how in the world would they keep us from getting killed?”

      Well, the way “I want to live” keeps us from getting killed is because it motivates our behavior. What exactly is the question? Adam wants to bake a pie. If discriminations like “pie” and “non-pie” are just arbitrary then how in the world would Adam end up with a pie? What sense of “arbitrary” is being used here?

      “What more vindication do the abstractions “being” and “goodness” and “truth”, etc. need than that they were so vital that no rational humans survived within the species without capabilities of conceiving of them.”

      What sort of “vindication” they need depends on what you want them to do.

      “Is it such a huge leap to infer there is something real about them if they implicitly underpin all the scientific and practical thinking which is so enormously successful in describing the world?”

      It depends what you mean by “something real,” or earlier, by “abstract reality.”

      “Is the intuition that 1+1=2 the intuition of a magical connection between magical realities?”

      When you say it, yes. This appears to the implied argument you are making.

      1. 1+1=2 is known to us by “intuition.”
      2. 1+1=2 is true.
      3. This shows that “intuition” is at least at times reliable.
      4. So we should trust other things it tells us.

      But intuition isn’t a magical sixth sense that feeds facts about reality directly into our brain through indiscernible processes. It isn’t even one single part of human cognition. At best, to say that you know P by “intuition” is just to say that P seems really obviously true to you, but you can’t figure out exactly why (or else you’d say). So lets reword the argument you’re making:

      1. 1+1=2 seems really obviously true.
      2. And it is true!
      3. Therefore other things that seem really obviously true are also true.

      That’s not a sell.

      The only things we have actual evidence of regarding the potential existence of objective morality are these:

      1. We have emotional states of moral approval or disapproval.
      2. The subjects we react to with these emotional states are, themselves, (usually) real things or events.
      3. There are some similarities between which things or events people react to in which ways, but also some differences.

      That’s it. That provides us with no reason to think that “morality” is any more real than “cuteness” or any other subject to which the mind projection fallacy clearly applies. And indeed emotional reactions of moral approval or disapproval, with their highly variable nature, their cultural differences, their historical differences, their person by person differences, and so on, are an even harder sell than the objectivity of “cuteness.”

      So if all you mean is that “morality” is as real as “cuteness” or “deliciousness” or “grossness,” fine. But I think you want more from it than that, and I don’t think you can get it.

  • Ariel

    The content of my comment in a nutshell: there may be something to the inconsistency charge. However, it doesn’t follow that the nihilist is irrational. His standpoint is still defensible.

    The inconsistenty charge in the dialogue (as I understand it) goes as follows:
    1. The nihilist is using our everyday, moral language.
    2. The linguistic meaning of moral terms is objective, not emotivist – “x is good” as an expression of English is not a synonym of “I like it” (or even of “I approve x, do the same!”); the expression is used rather as if it described a property of an object.
    3. Therefore by using phrases like “it’s good” (in ordinary communication) the nihilist implies the existence of the property of goodness.
    4. But the nihilist denies the existence of the property of goodness.
    5. Therefore the nihilist is inconsistent.

    Admittedly, a nihilist could quarrel with premise 2, but let’s leave it as it is. Let’s take the premises for granted. Then there is indeed a sense in which a nihilist is inconsistent – the conclusion follows. But the question is: why is it a problem? Why should the nihilist worry? Does that sort of a contradiction make him irrational?

    Note that it’s simply not true that all sorts of contradictions make us irrational. First, consider a case of a liar. He says “A”, while he thinks “not A”. There is a contradiction between what he says and what he thinks, that for sure. But does that sort of a contradiction make a liar irrational? I don’t think so. That’s not a sort of an objection we would use against a liar – I hope you will agree.
    Second, consider a case of a make-believe play (this will be perhaps closer to our case). The children are playing, acting out a space battle. Emotions reach a rewarding zenith with one kid saying “captain Picard, our ship is badly damaged!”. Well, there is a contradiction between the thought expressed and the real beliefs of the kid (unless the kid is completely crazy about Star Trek, which happens sometimes …). Does that sort of inconsistency make the kids irrational? Should they drop the play because of that? Again, my answer (I guess yours as well) is plain: no.

    What about our nihilist? We assumed the soundness of the above argument, i.e. we assumed that the nihilist is engaged in a contradiction. But the problem is that as a criticism of his position, it is simply not good enough. For a real, damaging criticism, one would have to claim that the contradiction here is of a vicious sort – that it makes him irrational, unlike in the above examples of a liar and kids. And I don’t know how such a claim could be justified. Why couldn’t a nihilist answer: “Yes, I don’t believe in objective values. I’m also using ordinary moral language with all its objective implications; moreover, I’m planning to use this language also in the future. It’s a convenient make-believe game. Literally speaking, it’s all false, but you know, it shows only that falsehood can be sometimes more effective than truth. Using objectivist language, I can influence other people more easily than by dropping it and propagating my nihilist standpoint. But please, don’t tell anyone: in fact I’m not planning to propagate my nihilism, true as it is, not really. Propagating it would be against my best interest, so I’m telling the truth only to you Pat, my dearest friend :-)” *

    *Professional philosophers are an exception – you can tell them whatever you want, this bunch is already spoiled enough. Besides, no one reads them anyway‼!

    • Axxyaan

      The nihilist can just answer that he uses language just as everyone does. People often enough talk about subjective things as if they are objective like a dish being delicious, while we all agree that taste is subjective. The delicousness of the meal is in the appreciation of the person and not a property of the dish itself. Someone disliking the dish just has a different appreciation. He is not making a mistake about the dish. Yet people often enough will describe their appreciation as if it is an objective property. So why should the nihilist worry about an inconsitency in word use that everybody engages in?

    • Ariel

      The nihilist can just answer that he uses language just as everyone does. People often enough talk about subjective things as if they are objective like a dish being delicious, while we all agree that taste is subjective.

      My idea was to assume that premise 2 is true and see what happens (with the claim that nothing particularly bad for the nihilist happens). Evidently, you are one of those who want to quarrel with this premise. I’m skeptical about your chance of success.

      One problem (not the only one) is that you will have difficulties with explaining away moral disagreements. We do not quarrel about whether a dish is “really” delicious or not. But we do quarrel about whether abortion is “really” morally wrong or not. If for the nihilist “abortion is wrong” means “I don’t like abortion”, then he is at odds with our everyday linguistic practice. Normally we consider claims like “abortion is wrong” and “abortion is not wrong” as contradictory – we behave as if these were conflicting claims. But on your reading, they are not. The first means “I don’t like abortion”. The second means “It is not the case that I don’t like abortion”. When stated by two different people, they are not mutually inconsistent (they are like “I like this dish”, “And I don’t like this dish”). It is simply not the colloquial reading; it is at best your reformed reading. And with such an interpretation, your nihilist is not “using language just as everyone does”. On the contrary, from the perspective of your nihilist, a lot of our linguistic practice (moral disagreements) just doesn’t make any sense.

    • Taylor

      That’s where error theory would be useful. People take moral statements as expressing true propositions, but are mistaken when they think they successfully make true moral statements. Clearly “pure emotivism” is false because, while there is obviously an emotive aspect to moral language, it is not sufficient to account for all aspects of how moral language is used. I think emotivism plus error theory can account for all of those features.

    • Axxyaan

      IMO is it not sensical to say that the linguistic meaning of moral terms is objective vs emotive. People can use moral terms in an objective or emotive sense, but so they can appreciating terms. I have known people who would quarrel about whether the dish was delicious or not. People who claimed that the deliciousness of a dish was an objective property of it. A property one could learn to recognize. And if you would find a certain dish not delicious, they would claim it was because you hadn’t been properly educated on how to recognize a delicious dish.

      Yes I found it very strange when I understood what these people really meant when they appreciated a meal but that was how they used the words.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Why couldn’t a nihilist answer: “Yes, I don’t believe in objective values. I’m also using ordinary moral language with all its objective implications; moreover, I’m planning to use this language also in the future. It’s a convenient make-believe game. Literally speaking, it’s all false, but you know, it shows only that falsehood can be sometimes more effective than truth. Using objectivist language, I can influence other people more easily than by dropping it and propagating my nihilist standpoint. But please, don’t tell anyone: in fact I’m not planning to propagate my nihilism, true as it is, not really. Propagating it would be against my best interest, so I’m telling the truth only to you Pat, my dearest friend”

      Well why can’t the nihilist in that case just go whole hog and “pretend” that these values are real too? Wouldn’t that make for even more effective play-acting? Why admit the game out of school? Does that not contradict the whole game?

      But the seriousness is that based on moral judgments people do serious things to each other. They fire each other, they jail each other, they begin and end relationships with each other, they vote for politicians, etc. If this is all a game and there is no such thing as true moral legitimacy then are these consequences just matters of emotional indifference to these play actors? Does it not bother them emotionally that with no good reasons to justify their behaviors they dominate others in these ways?

      And why don’t they lash out at others in more innocuous ways if there are no real differences in genuine values that they are tracking in tolerating strawberry ice cream eaters but firing misogynists who create hostile work environments?

      My charge is that the nihilist is also psychologically still engaged with morality on the practical level as genuinely accepting it as true, regardless of what she says on the metaethical level.

      And, finally, again the most important charge is that someone who has no belief in the validity of any true norms has no basis for commitment to any norms about beliefs as being better or worse. Claims that morality is “real” or “unreal” themselves must be just emotional power plays. Even a claim that they were emotional power plays would itself be an emotional power play. And that judgment itself too, all the way down an rabbit hole of infinite regress and self-contradiction.

    • Axxyaan

      My charge is that the nihilist is also psychologically still engaged with morality on the practical level as genuinely accepting it as true, regardless of what she says on the metaethical level.

      Let us for the sake of argument assume this is true. So what? That seems as relevant as saying that the person exposing an optical illusion is also visually still engaged with the illusion on the practical level. The nihilist is still human and that he can’t simply break some patterns of behaviour even if they go against his convictions, is nothing special.

      And, finally, again the most important charge is that someone who has no belief in the validity of any true norms has no basis for commitment to any norms about beliefs as being better or worse. Claims that morality is “real” or “unreal” themselves must be just emotional power plays. Even a claim that they were emotional power plays would itself be an emotional power play. And that judgment itself too, all the way down an rabbit hole of infinite regress and self-contradiction.

      This is just word salad. What does that mean a true norm? How do you differentiate a true norm from a false norm? And in a sense it indeed is all an emtional power play. AFAIU poeple can’t believe in something unless somehow feel it is correct. The most rational person will claim his partner is a double, if the emotional wiring is somehow damaged, even if he has to acknowledge that the other person can demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that she is his partner.
      We as people have to accept that we can do no better than to hope we both feel about the same about what is enough evidence before we accept something. We can be a bit optimistic about that since we share a great evolutionary history, which makes we have a lot in common. Now you may find this troublesome because it lacks the philosophical rigor to prevent you down that rabbit hole of infinite regres. That doesn’t prevent it from being a more or less accurate model of how we people really work.

  • Kevin

    I realize that I’ve come along in the middle of this — but the definition of “objective” is sorely needed.

    In the case of theists, there is a strong urge to redefine “objective” to mean “externally provided by a supernatural source.”

    Rather than using “objective” in the sense of “true per se; able to be validated as true 100% of the time with evidence agreed upon by all parties involved.”

    Using the second definition, one can see where Biblical theists get into trouble. There’s not one instance of a moral teaching that can’t be countered with an example from the Bible where God himself told his people to violate that teaching.

    Genocide, slavery, rape (including rape of virgins), eating of fecal matter, and on and on. All commanded by Yahweh — and according to theistic moral objectivists would be then be perfectly moral precisely because the instruction came from a god who cannot be immoral as a matter of definition.

    The bottom line is, if you can’t agree on the definition of “objective” and prevent theists from using it as a code for “god-directed” then the entire argument can never come to a conclusion.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Why are you bringing in theists and their notions of objectivity? They’re irrelevant to the discussion. This is an a dialogue between two people arguing purely on philosophical grounds.

  • Everett Attebury

    The only strawman in this imaginary discussion is Taylor.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I undisguisedly disagree with Taylor in fact, but that does not make Taylor’s arguments strawman ones. They’re legitimate positions to analyze. If you think Taylor has a come back to Pat’s charges by all means spell it out and refute Pat (and me). But the strawman charge is lazy.

    • everettattebury

      Yes I am lazy.
      Here is where the straw man occurs:

      Taylor: Well when you boil things down isn’t that all that really matters—that at the end of the day I am just as committed in practice to what you want to call “moral” values even though I don’t think they’re “real”?

      If Taylor is a moral nihilist, why would he think that something “really matters”?
      You have him arguing for and against objective values in the same breath. You have him begin his argument by accepting Pat’s premises. You have Pat arguing against Pat’s caricature of a moral nihilist. Very subtle. The Taylor you have crafted will indeed have a hard time arguing against Pat.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      I remember a post over at Metamagician that Russell Blackford was quoting and replying to that basically said that. Jerry Coyne, I think, went after that one first. So it’s hard to be a strawman if someone has actually said it.

      In addition, as I said elsewhere a moral nihilist CAN accept that things have value as long as they claim that value is only pragmatic or aesthetic or anything except moral.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      A commenter named Russell Turpin very frequently counters my metaethics posts with the kind of moral nihilism/fictionalism that Taylor adheres to. The germ of this post came from when Russell wrote the following months ago and it irked me until I wrote the foregoing post to get it out of my system:

      Just to be clear, I am not arguing that we shouldn’t value the things that keep us going, individually, socially, and ecologically. Those are important. I place quite a high value on them!

      And Russell’s not the only one to say this to me, in effect. So Taylor is not a strawman. Taylor’s self-defense is based on Russell’s.

  • octopod

    Is it true that “repulsive”, “wrong”, “laudable”, and all the rest are ordinarily to be taken to indicate that their object has some kind of inherent property of inducing repulsion or what-not, as Pat asserts? I mean, if I say something, presumably part of the statement is “I say that…” — it’s not as if there’s the option for me to speak ex cathedra or something. I would tend to say, instead, that if I judge something and you assume I mean this to be a universal truth about that thing, you’re succumbing to some kind of analogue to the fundamental attribution error.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      One does not need to speak ex cathedra with all the implications of arbitrary, individual, divining authority that entails. Arguing that something is objectively properly seen as repulsive is possible. It’s not done by fiat, it’s done by making reference to features of something that humans should be turned off to for its harmfulness. Whether or not they should be so repulsed and develop feelings of aversion if they lack them can be argued on grounds of the objective harms and disorders that they lead to. Pedophilia should repulse people. It is in this sense, objectively repulsive, even if some people (harmfully) are drawn to it.

  • Jesse

    Here’s the thing. Here’s why I can’t ever get behind the argument Pat is making.

    Gravity pulls at 9.8 m/s/s at the Earth’s surface. It does not matter what I think. It doesn’t mater what moral premises I have. If every human on Earth disappeared tomorrow, if we were all serial killers, if we were all angels that never, ever changes.

    I think slavery is wrong. Bob thinks it’s okay. We an make all kinds of arguments about what is better or worse but when you get down to it nothing in the physical world changes for either of s no matter which position we take.

    I can’t violate the law of gravity. I can’t make it change. It exists and behaves as it does no matter what. It has objective existence just like a rock in front of me that I smack my head against.

    But every time someone tries to talk about objective moral values it always seems to me they are just redefining terms without ever getting to the meat of the problem. Physical laws have objective existence precisely because you can’t change them. No matter what.

    But we can argue about moral laws all ay and violate the whenever we want. They exist nowhere but in our heads. Maybe asking humans happy to me is not a good thing at all — a chimp, whale or dolphin might argue that. They’d have good reason to think wiping us out was great.

    But all three are still subject to gravity. What they think of it doesn’t matter.

    Even using Daniel’s very own criteria for an objective moral good I was able to pretty easily come up with really awful things that could achieve the same thing, all I had to do was define it differently. Physics doesn’t work like that. I can’t define away the effects of relativity.

    I can’t violate the law of gravity. I can violate any moral law you please. To me that says they have no objective existence whatever. They are all made up. This doesn’t mean there aren’t things people have sort of figured out that work. But the sheer variety of moral systems should tell you that if you want to argue the objective existence of moral principles you are on shaky ground. Any system of morals can be made to work. Point to me any moral proposition you like and I can point to a society that categorically rejected it. Take murder: all you need do is redefine murder and you can kill whoever you want. The universe goes on as before. There’s nothing stopping me from killing anyone. There is no physical process that makes it impossible.

    This is such a trivial exercise, and I still can’t get my head around how people make arguments about objective moral truths, any more than I can see how you can argue for objective existence of gods. Give me “evidence” for any god at all. I can contradict it and claim an unrelated god is the reason. It’s easy. Therefore we say, “You know, the theist model has a problem.” (Leaving aside the lack of explanatory power).

    • Jesse

      “But we can argue about moral laws all ay and violate the whenever we want. They exist nowhere but in our heads. Maybe asking humans happy to me is not a good thing at all — a chimp, whale or dolphin might argue that. They’d have good reason to think wiping us out was great.”

      Arrg! “Moral laws all DAY…” and “MAKING humans happy…”

  • emily

    Taylor wins. Pat just doesn’t understand that Taylor is a fictionalist, just like I am about free will, or many philosphers of mind are about folk psychological terms. A person can deploy certain language with the knowledge that the terms don’t refer to objects, but rather a complicated cluster of shared concepts and behaviours with high social import.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      IMPORT? No, you’re claiming there is no such thing as import. That’s just a “fiction”. It’s vague what you mean about not referring to objects. If you mean not referring to physical things like chairs or trees, then yes, of course talking about goodness is not referring to objects. But if you really don’t believe that anything is objectively better or objectively worse, objectively of importance or objectively not then you would quite literally be arbitrarily making goodness and badness ascriptions not merely “fictionally” but with no logic to them whatsoever. You had might as well be just as angry at strawberry ice cream lovers as murderers—but hardly anyone is.

  • Jesse

    Here’s another aspect that reaches, BTW, to the last part of the dialog. Pat says:

    But fairness is still an a priori category even if we have trouble discerning how to apply it most accurately to the world, and even if our feelings can prejudice those judgments some times. We intuitively recognize it is not fair (either to reality or to each other) that we let our feelings, instead of our reason, determine our judgments of fair and unfair. You grasp this, you know it is fair to dislike a misogynist and consider them objectively repulsive and you know it is unfair to be angry with someone over a different taste in ice creams.

    There’s a lot to unpack here.

    1. Why is fairness an a priori category? A lord in 10th century England thought it was perfectly fair for him to pillage a town and kill everyone in it. Most of them probably gave it no thought whatsoever. So how can you begin to say “fair” has any a priori existence? What’s fair depends entirely on who is making the evaluation. In fact, I’d bet no two people ever completely agree on all aspects of fairness. Gravity does not have that problem. No mater what, everyone will measure the same acceleration due to gravity, even if they don’ have relativity or Newtonian mechanics.

    2. A misogynist is not objectively repulsive to someone from a culture in which it is accepted. TO take an extreme example, Saudi Arabia has a deep misogynistic streak in it and lots of people think that’s far from repulsive. THey even have elaborate and quite logically reasoned justifications.

    Here’s my challenge to anyone who says there is objective morality: find me a moral premise that cannot be violated by anyone. Ever. I can’t violate gravity. I can’t violate the second law of thermodynamics. I can’t violate the Pauli exclusion principle. Find me a moral law like that. Then I will buy that they have objective existence independent of what we all think.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      The problem is that you are using descriptive laws and the qualities of descriptive laws to criticize objective morality, which is normative, not descriptive.

      All of the laws you cite that you want moral laws to be like are things that simply say “If you do this, then this will happen”. That’s what makes them descriptive; they simply describe how things are. Normative rules aren’t like that. They say how things OUGHT to be, not merely how they are. So of course you can violate normative laws, and you will always be able to violate any normative rules, because normative rules talk about how things ought to be which of course implies that they could be otherwise. So objective normative rules — in any domain — will not have the properties you are demanding.

      What you need out of normative rules are rules like “If you do X, you are wrong and are not acting properly in that domain”. So rules like “If you do X, you are not being fair” and “If you do X, you are not being moral”. So you will always be able to act against those rules, but you will not be able to act against those rules and still be moral.

      And yes, there is no agreement yet. But unless you think that scientific theories — beyond measurements — don’t count as objective either, then there’s usually a lot of disagreement over those until things get settled. Since normative rules don’t just describe “the world” as is, you won’t have the avenues for testing them that you have for scientific theories, and so it turns out that it’s just a really, really tough question. But there’s no point in demanding things from moral rules that they aren’t intended to provide.

    • Jesse

      Then why can’t we just admit that we’re all just making it up?

      I mean, there being no objective moral laws in the way that there are objective scientific truths doesn’t mean you can’t make something up that works. And it doesn’t mean you can’t take a position that X is right or wrong. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking it means anything to the rest of the universe.

      After all, when you die the universe ends as far as you are concerned.

      Let’s just admit that we’re never going to come up with anything other than what seems to work at the time. I am perfectly ok with that.

      After all, anything can be normative. Anything at all. I give you the sheer variety of behaviors among humans that are considered good and moral as exhibit A.

      Maybe it’s all my own frustration with philosophy generally. I always feel like I end up with “turtles all the way down.”

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Then why can’t we just admit that we’re all just making it up?

      Because we’re not just making it all up. There are objective factors that determine our changes of mind and that constrain our reasoning.

      And to your question about the a priori—fairness can be an a priori concept, universally understood, even if there are disputes about the content of what it applies to. People can (and do) universally agree “different people deserve different things based on different considerations”. Figuring out what the relevant criteria for each deserving what is where considerations of empirical facts need to come in and where divergent opinions arise and divergent social institutions skew people’s opinions. But that does not make it in principle possible for there to be correct answers. The a priori principles in your own thinking (like, one should only believe true things) are not invalid simply because the world over people believe many false things. Neither is fairness not a matter of each getting what they deserve simply because the world over people confuse the unfair for the fair (and vice versa).

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      Then why can’t we just admit that we’re all just making it up?

      Because we aren’t. You are working on a false dichotomy where either a rule has to be inviolable in the way descriptive rules are or else it’s just made up. But normative rules don’t work that way; not being descriptive, they don’t have that inviolability but that doesn’t mean that they are just made up either. Are you going to argue, for example, that there are no objective engineering principles that say “If you want to build a bridge that stays us, do X” or even that you did a bad job of engineering if you didn’t follow a specific process? Heck, even the scientific method is a normative process about how to do science, where if you don’t follow that method you’re not doing science. Did we just make up the scientific method, too, or is it validated objectively despite being violable?

      I mean, there being no objective moral laws in the way that there are objective scientific truths doesn’t mean you can’t make something up that works. And it doesn’t mean you can’t take a position that X is right or wrong. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking it means anything to the rest of the universe.

      Well, I have no idea what you mean by thinking it means something to the rest of the universe, but do note that if we are just making it up then what you make up and what I make up may be JUSTIFIABLY different and you can’t in any way claim that I am wrong no matter how heinous you think what I’m doing is. THAT’S the cost of giving up objective morality. Are you willing to pay it?

      Let’s just admit that we’re never going to come up with anything other than what seems to work at the time. I am perfectly ok with that.

      Define “work”. One of the things that makes morality difficult is the fact that the ultimate end — which is what defines what it means for a morality to work — is also disputed. Those who focus on suffering will run into opposition from those who focus on duty or virtue. Settling that is problematic, and those sorts of disagreements preclude just making something up and hoping everyone goes along with it.

      After all, anything can be normative. Anything at all. I give you the sheer variety of behaviors among humans that are considered good and moral as exhibit A.

      I think you don’t understand what normative means. All of those things that are considered good and moral are, in fact, candidates for the normative rules of morality, but they could indeed be wrong. If they can be wrong, then there is some kind of objective morality that we can appeal to to say that some of those candidates are wrong and some are right. Alternatively, you can say that they’re all right and there is no legitimate way to judge any of them wrong, but then you would have to consider misogyny as much a matter of opinion as liking or not liking strawberry ice cream, and the one thing the dialogue did get right was the idea that many of those who deny an objective morality don’t want to accept that conclusion. Are you willing to accept that conclusion?

      Maybe it’s all my own frustration with philosophy generally. I always feel like I end up with “turtles all the way down.”

      In that case, you probably want to start with more of the basics rather than to jump into the middle of complicated debates. Not understanding the difference between the descriptive and the normative here means that your objections and demands, as I said, don’t actually mean anything to the debate that you’re purportedly trying to answer with them.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Here’s my challenge to anyone who says there is objective morality: find me a moral premise that cannot be violated by anyone. Ever. I can’t violate gravity. I can’t violate the second law of thermodynamics. I can’t violate the Pauli exclusion principle. Find me a moral law like that. Then I will buy that they have objective existence independent of what we all think.

      Jesse, this is so confused it’s not even funny. Your criteria of reality is entirely arbitrary here. You are demanding norms be judged true or not by the criteria of judging physical principles true or not. It’s a total and complete category mistake. You are denying the reality of one thing because it does not operate under the conditions of things which fit in an entirely different category. And if you wipe out all normative principles, then you have to wipe out all your confident insistence that you are being rationally correct in believing in some things while disbelieving in others. Your entire argument implicitly assumes the truthful validity of norms. In this case it is the norm that anything which is not a physical law is not real or a matter of truth. That norm you insist on applying as a matter of decisive principle for determining true and false is itself by your own reckoning not true. It is just your feelings. All norms are made up projections of feelings? Then so is your claim that norms are made up projections of feelings. So, you’re just emoting at me when you say I’m wrong.

      There is no physical law that stops me from disagreeing with your norm and telling you it is wrong. If a physical law does not stop anyone from violating a norm, on your confused terms, that norm is illegitimate. Ergo, your norm for proper and improper belief is illegitimate.

    • Jesse

      This is where I always get confused.

      If I kick a rock. it’s freaking real. You can’t fly off a building. If you stand in the street and car hits you you are toast.

      That’s real stuff. Physical, smack you in the head reality.

      How is that “norm” wrong? This stuff exists. The world exists. Assuming we’re not going all brain-in-a-vat, solid shit hits you and makes a whacking sound and busts bones if it is heavy enough.

      Moral laws don’t do that. I can’t argue with the fact that a car hits you and squishes the crap out of you. THat’s reality.

      Moral laws don’t seem to fit in that category at all. That’s my problem. Everything else I can touch, measure or whatever-the-hell has real, physical effects I can point to. Moral laws have none of those. None.

      That’s why I despair of coming up with objective moral laws. No matter what moral law I come up with I can always come up with the opposite and it is jut as logically consistent.

      Physics, chemistry, the other stuff doesn’t work like that.

      Yo see my problem?

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      Well, actually, physics and chemistry THEORIES work a lot more like you say morals do than like your examples do. Your examples are of measurements, and so you go out and measure something and get a number and that doesn’t change and there’s no real difference in that. Fair enough. But simple measurements aren’t all that interesting; what we want are reasons WHY the measurements are as they are and, in fact, that they’ll be in different circumstances. That requires theories. And there are indeed a great number of logically consistent theories that would account for all the data (some have posited that depending on how you construct the theory you can always adapt any theory to account for any measurements). And you say that moral systems work that way as well, but all the objectivists are saying is that like the theories of science there are right and wrong theories; theories that really do explain and get at “true” theories of how and why these things work and theories that don’t.

      Now, scientific theories can go out in the world and test to see if actions in the world conform to the theories, and adjust and justify themselves in light of that. That, as I said, is because they’re descriptive; since they’re only saying how the world actually is, they can be validated against how the world really is. But normative theories are not about how the world is, but are about how the world ought to be. So you can’t go out and look at how the world is to validate it. You need to appeal to something else.

      Now, I argue that we should start from the basic concept of what it would mean to be a moral code, and build the rules from there, and validate against that. That would give us a way to validate moral codes and say that moral systems that don’t conform to that concept aren’t really moral codes and are wrong. If successful, that would be an objective moral system. While it wouldn’t be inviolable in the way you want, I still think it counts as objective.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      That’s real stuff. Physical, smack you in the head reality.

      How is that “norm” wrong? This stuff exists. The world exists. Assuming we’re not going all brain-in-a-vat, solid shit hits you and makes a whacking sound and busts bones if it is heavy enough.

      Moral laws don’t do that. I can’t argue with the fact that a car hits you and squishes the crap out of you. THat’s reality.

      Moral laws don’t seem to fit in that category at all. That’s my problem. Everything else I can touch, measure or whatever-the-hell has real, physical effects I can point to. Moral laws have none of those. None.

      That’s why I despair of coming up with objective moral laws. No matter what moral law I come up with I can always come up with the opposite and it is jut as logically consistent.

      Physics, chemistry, the other stuff doesn’t work like that.

      Yo see my problem?

      Then don’t consider this first on the level of moral norms because the ambiguities on that level throw you off. Focus on the concept of norms themselves. Are you convinced that all rational beings should adopt the following norm (as an example): “Wherever there is an inconsistency between beliefs, one must be revised or discarded to remove the inconsistency.”

      This is a norm of rationality. If you don’t accept it (or numerous other epistemic norms operative in science) then you cannot establish that any empirical truths are true.

      If no norms are truly binding, then no truths derived from appealing to those norms are truly binding. Your empirical confidence in scientific conclusions assume the truth of a norm. The norm is an a priori commitment to the value of some formal achievements (like internal consistency among beliefs) at the expense of other possible beliefs. That norm must be objectively valid in some way independent of empirical considerations because it is the basis for making any empirical considerations in a scientifically rigorous way.

      Similarly, mathematical propositions should strike you as indubitably intuitive and justified even though they are not matters of things you can touch or feel but intuitions you apply to them, believing in them in a rationally necessary way.

      If you can accept that formally consistent concepts which contain no contradictions and which are consistent with all other known truths (like mathematical ones) are ones we can take to be true and if you accept that norms (like epistemic ones) are matters of truth, then it’s just a matter of exploring how our moral judgments can be grounded in consistent concepts and a priori norms.

    • Jesse

      I feel like I am starting to understand your position better, but I still am stumbling over a part of it. Math and science work in the real world. That is, it doesn’t matter what I believe.

      Take numbers. No matter what base math I use in this 3-dimensional universe, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter involves an irrational number. So even aliens who have three fingers will see something weird is happening when the make circles and divide the circumference by its diameter. Numbers aren’t physically real, in the sense that the number 2 will hurt my toes if I drop it, but no matter where you are in the universe (at least this one) you get the same kind of result, even if you are an alien.

      I have confidence in empirical measurements and scientific theories because the same thing applies. Yes, there are many logically consistent ways to describe planetary movement (see: Aristotle’s theory of epicycles) but only one makes any sense once you know that celestial spheres just plain don’t exist. I can use modern chemistry to make stuff. Phlogiston is no help there.

      Or to respond (I hope) in a way to you and Verbose Cynic, what you believe about structural strength doesn’t matter. The bridge you build will fall or stand independent of that. You can build a bridge with no knowledge of physics, but if you want to build one any bigger than a certain size range out of anything but a pile of rocks, you need a model for the word that works.

      Then we get to trying to figure out moral laws, and wham, I feel like it all boils down to “because I say so.” Precisely because, unlike even mathematics, every single human culture has some pretty wildly differing concepts of what is moral. Buddhism and western Abrahamic religions, for instance, have nearly diametrically opposed viewpoints on whether it is moral to execute anyone. People kill each other routinely with all kinds of justifications. Some cultures — say, Utah — think it is perfectly ok to marry children.

      And in the face of that we’re supposed to pretend we have anything in the world that resembles moral sanity, let alone objective moral laws. I know what to expect from physics. I take comfort from the fact that a rock will always fall at the same speed.

      Daniel has written eloquently on why we can come up with objective moral laws based on maximal human flourishing. But the problem I run into is that you can simply reject that premise. And even using some of his own criteria I can argue that maximal human flourishing has nothing to do with the maximum number of people who flourish. Why should it? That’s my problem. If you say that maximal human flourishing is actually ensuring that a minority of people get to do all they can and be all they can. and the price you pay is that everyone else is miserable, well, so be it. That is precisely the calculation many societies have made. If I told you that 1,000 people had to die at the age of 30 to guarantee that 100 would reach the age of 150, and all those 100 people were super-geniuses, what would you say?

      Putting it in terms of norms as used here — and tell me if I missed the boat — I can come up with norms that make scientific theories work and explain my world. But the philosophy I have read (I’ve done my Greeks and Hellenistics, and gone through a bit of Nietzsche, and would say I have a pretty good grasp of Zen Buddhism) doesn’t seem to offer anything like that. It would be as though you had two physical theories that fit the data equally well and there was no possible experiment to decide between them.

      And getting to something Verbose Stoic mentioned– that seeking objective moralities is to tell us how the world ought to be — there too, I ask what that means. Maybe the world ought to be empty of humanity — certainly from a chimp’s or whale’s point of view that’s pretty desirable, you know?

      So I admit to getting confused about how we’re supposed to determine moral laws, even given what Daniel and Verbose cynic say about norms. I feel like I can’t follow the logic the way I can with math.

  • http://quoded.wordpress.com quoded

    Going off Daniel Fincke’s comment, I’d like to extend the analogy to mathematics a bit (since I’m a mathematician, not a philosopher.)

    I claim, for example, the objective truth of the statement, “If the rows of a square, nxn, matrix are linearly independent, then it has reduced-row-echelon form I_n.” And I can prove to you, logically and mathematically, that that is true. But it all rests on things that Jesse, for example, would claim aren’t objective. There isn’t any objective reason why vectors add and scalar multiply the way mathematicians define them. We define these operations the way we do because they are *useful*, because they generate a logically consistent theory that is useful for the investigation of certain mathematical phenomena. Certainly, it is a logically consistent theory that is also useful for describing naturally occuring phenomena as well, but when it comes down to it, it isn’t *objective* if the criteria for objectivity are that you can’t do it any other way. You certainly could add vectors any way you wish to! No law will stop you!

    But the idea that all the knowledge derived from linear algebra (the concrete, not abstract kind) is subjective and derives merely from the individual desires and feelings of mathematicians is nonsense.

    Similarly, I don’t see how a moral theory can be seen to be purely subjective simply because it is possible to violate. That doesn’t mean that a moral theory which posits the violation as moral is equally consistent or valid, or useful.

    • Taylor

      The way I see it, we are only justified in thinking those things are in some sense real that factor in our best explanations of the universe. Mathematics or logic or scientific theories do play a role in our best explanations of the universe. Of course, the existence of moral systems plays a role in our best explanations, but that doesn’t mean any moral system is correct. What would the correctness of a moral system add to our best explanations of the universe above and beyond the role the mere existence of various moral systems plays? Take slavery as an example. We can easily see how the existence of a moral system which says that slavery is wrong plays a role in our explanation of, say, how certain historical events came about. But what would the correctness of the claim that slavery is wrong add to that explanation? Not a thing, as far as I can see. (For a better and fuller exposition of this idea/argument, see Brian Leiter’s “Moral Facts and Best Explanations.” In Moral Knowledge, edited by Ellen Frankel Paul, Fred D. Miller Jr., and Jeffrey Paul. Cambridge University Press, 2001 (reprinted from 18 Social Philosophy and Policy 79).)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Understanding of the wrongness of slavery adds to our knowledge of how to live our lives in the most intrinsically flourishing ways, for various reasons. You can a priori (as I have tried to do in numerous posts) explain how we are our various functional powers and how realizing them effectively is our intrinsic good and how our external functioning outside of ourselves to realize others’ goods and general social goods are further extensions of our internal flourishing, and in that context you can see how it is (at least usually or at least where otherwise avoidable) irrational to our maximal ultimate flourishing as powerful human individuals and societies to institute slavery systems.


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