My Metaethical Views Are Challenged, A Debate With "Ivan"

This is the first interview of my blogathon for the Secular Student Alliance and the third post overall in the blogathon. Please donate to support secular college and high school students around the country organize, learn, and develop as a community together by donating to this important cause. See links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

In the interview below, I discuss my views on metaethics with Ivan.

Ivan studied philosophy in college, taught math in the inner city for three years, and is about to begin law school this fall. Starting back in high school, in the interest of effectively sharing the Christian gospel, Ivan began engaging with different views within Christianity, and in other religions, and outside of religion. He came to believe that our moral intuitions could be justified by religion but not by atheism, and that this was a big pointer toward the existence of God. Years later when Ivan began to question those moral intuitions, his faith and his ethical system collapsed together. He is now firmly, but unhappily, convinced that there is probably no God; and that without any religious foundation, our moral intuitions are merely instincts that helped our ancestors to survive, and they do not always help us to believe true things. He has read Camels With Hammers for some time and published several blog posts challenging Dan’s views on the reality of morality. 

Ivan: First I want to thank you for inviting me to debate with you! I really appreciate this opportunity, and I’m looking forward to some great discussion.

Second, I want to begin making excuses and apologies. Dear readers, as Dr. Fincke already knows, I leave home in a few hours for a month in South Africa. As exciting as this is, it unfortunately means that I’m more tired and distracted than I’d like, and that I won’t be able to engage with comments on this debate for quite a while. I’m sorry!

As for our essential philosophical disagreement, I will begin by rehashing what I wrote here examining what you’ve blogged about your own ethical system.

You’ve written that you “reject the notion that there is a fundamental distinction between facts and values,” and that you define goodness as a factual matter of effectiveness. This starts off well enough. If a heart is good at pumping blood, then it is effective at pumping blood; if a river is good at carving a valley, then it is effective at carving a valley; etc. “To say that x is good at y is to make a verifiable or falsifiable fact claim that x is effective at y-ing.” Sounds good so far.

You’ve also freely acknowledged that “any time we say something is good, i.e., that something is effective, we have to specify what it is good at.” So “no functioning is good in an unqualified way,” and “goods (instances of effectiveness) are only good in strictly specifiable contexts of effectiveness and never just simply.” This fact creates trouble when you go on to talk about hierarchies of goods.

Some functioning is more complex than other functioning. The aforementioned heart can function effectively as a heart. This is enabled by the simpler functionings of its constituent parts. And the functioning of the heart in turn helps to enable the more complex functionings of the heart’s entire body. In this sense, one can do a sort of functioning calculus or effectiveness calculus, and say that a heart has more gross effectiveness than a heart valve, and a human has more gross effectiveness than a human heart. And with your equating of effectiveness to goodness, wouldn’t this mean that a heart is better than a heart valve, and a human is better than a human heart? And might this sort of analysis be undertaken with regard to human behavior in order to create an account of good human behavior as that which maximizes gross goodness, i.e. gross effectiveness?

No. I don’t think it can.

Because we cannot make the move from observing an accumulation of gross effectiveness to declaring goodness. To do so would violate the constraint that “any time we say something is good… we have to specify what it is good at”—which was both clearly entailed by your system, and directly admitted by you.

What is good about accumulating gross effectiveness? In other words, what is accumulating gross effectiveness good at, or effective at? This question must be answered, since we know that within your framework “no functioning is good in an unqualified way,” and “goods (instances of effectiveness) are only good in strictly specifiable contexts of effectiveness and never just simply.”

As you’ve written, the identification of goodness with effectiveness is “the cornerstone of [your] theory of objective value.” The rest of that theory depends upon it, as does your whole ethical system. If the problem I’ve raised has no solution, then everything built upon your account of goodness falls.

All that being said, I also think that if we were to set your ethical system aside and begin talking more broadly about the sorts of ethical pictures that each of us would and would not affirm, we might appear to be in closer agreement. And one dynamic in play may be that we have some differing preferences for the use of moral language that are quite separate from our substantive ethical differences. Perhaps we’ll get to explore one or both of these issues a bit later.

Daniel Fincke: I would say that even though each kind of goodness can only occur in a specific context and relationship, that does not mean that they have no shared characteristics that can be compared. Think of it this way, if we were to talk about evolution, we would say that what it is for species a1 to evolve into species a2 it has to have specific, contextually observable changes that we consider an instance of an evolution. Those changes will be specific to the distinct contrast one finds when observing what species a1 is (or was) and what species a2 is. These changes will be different than the ones that make species b1 an evolution from species b2. But they are still both true instances of evolution. That general pattern we call “evolving” has occurred in the world in both cases. And it seems to me that we can say that one evolution was even more drastic than another. Or even if we could not precisely quantify that, it seems like it could be true in principle.

I think it is similar with goods. The pattern called goodness is a general relationship that is instantiated in different ways in different particular instances of goodness. Any particular instance of good has to be in a context and on a spectrum with a kind of badness and in a hierarchy of goods of the same kind. But all goods share the property of having an effectiveness relationship and the effectiveness relationships can be more intricately ordered and complex or less. It seems possible to say that a single cell organism is clearly less ordered and complex than a multicellular organism, for example, even though the effectiveness functions that make each of them good according to their species are vastly different. So the greater ordered complexity of the human makes us intrinsically more excellent beings than mere amoebas (wonderful as they are compared to much simpler beings), even though the functionality of the amoeba qua amoeba is quite different than our own functioning.

Ivan: I think I’m tracking with your evolutionary example. I agree that in many cases we can reach consensus that one instance of evolutionary change is more drastic than another. But we’re dealing in two distinct terms here. We can say that one instance of evolutionary change is more drastic than another, but we cannot rightly say that it is more evolution-y than another, or more evolved than another. (Speech about more complex, or more narrowly adapted, species being more “highly evolved” seems to be either a shorthand or a misunderstanding. The process of evolution is not teleological or directed or anything like that. It’s not even a “process,” in many senses. It’s just how life goes—always and everywhere. Well, at least as far as the life we know, with heritable differences. So the single-celled bacteria and archaea that evolved eons ago and still exist in roughly the same form—they are no “less evolved” than humans or wolves or whales.)

The term “evolution” that we use to describe these changes going on on one conceptual level cannot be jerked up a level, and used to make value judgments about those lower-level changes. At least, this cannot be done without some explanation and justification. In the same way, I don’t think that you can take the terms you use to talk about effectiveness or complexity on one level, and then jerk them up a conceptual level to declare the accumulation of effectiveness at being an apple, for example, to itself be more effective (at what?) than an amoeba is at being an amoeba. At least, I don’t think you can do this without giving more justification than I’ve yet seen.

As for what you’ve just written about your ordering of goods, I didn’t mean to challenge your effectiveness calculus. I agree with you that a human has more gross effectiveness than a human heart does, and a human heart has more gross effectiveness than a human heart valve does. The difficulty comes in trying to christen this difference in gross effectiveness as a difference in goodness. More effectiveness is more effectiveness, and more complexity is more complexity—sure. But is complexity itself effective at something, or good at something? Are greater quantities of raw effectiveness themselves effective at something, or good at something?

You wrote that the greater ordered complexity of the human makes us intrinsically more excellent beings than mere amoebas. If you mean this only as a tautology, that our greater excellence is our greater complexity, then sure, I agree. But if you mean something more than this, I think you need to offer some further justification.

Daniel Fincke: As for the language of being “more” or “less” evolved, there does not need to be a purposeful being that guides the process of evolution for us to nonetheless say that there is a greater degree of goodness (defined consistently as ordered, complex effectiveness) in a descendant organism than in its ancestor where that is the case. In that sense, yes, it is a better and more perfect organism. We are better than homo erectus in any number of our shared capacities and that does make us more perfect from a value standpoint. There does not have to be any being that intended our higher degree of ordered, complex effectiveness to emerge for it simply to be the case that we have this greater degree of objective value in numerous of our capacities as compared to homo erectus.

Now insofar as evolution occurs by natural selection and other processes that can actually make a particular greater intrinsic excellence harmful, there is a tragic irony in nature. Some organisms with lesser perfections may be lucky and have just the right combinations to survive. But that does not mean they are not still less perfect. It just means that some of the more perfect organisms in any given respect or in a total accounting are just not well suited to the environment anymore. For example, cheetahs will always be a more perfect instance of a running animal than present day humans are. Even if the environment were to work against cheetahs and they were to be wiped out, humans would not be suddenly better runners than cheetahs were. Our slower running capacities would not be better than the running capacities they had simply because our total organism happens to fit our environment better for passing on our genes.

Survival is just about what traits successfully enable organisms to transmit their genes. Survival pressures determine what traits are advantageous or disadvantageous. But the traits themselves have inherent features that can be assessed as excellent or not in their own right according to their kind of characteristic functioning, and in comparison with other comparable features in other organisms. The tragedy of evolution is that sometimes more ordered, complex effectivenesses of greater power are just sucker punched by the environment. But that does not make the standard of survival into the standard of goodness.

Now you might say we shouldn’t use “more evolved” as a synonym for “more excellently functioning” because it is possible that sometimes within a given species actually having lesser ordered complex functioning might aid survival and therefore what is more or less “evolved” won’t track the same traits all the time as what is more or less “perfect”. That’s fine. I have to grant that, of course. The best in any particular capacity (or even in total capacities) do not always breed the most within a species and obviously some magnificently excellent creatures have gone extinct.

Moving on, you ask, “Are greater quantities of raw effectiveness themselves effective at something, or good at something?” If goodness means effectiveness itself, as I contend one major meaning of the word goodness does, then we do not need to say that greater effectivenesses have to be good at something else to be more excellent. The greater effectivenesses are themselves greater goodnesses, Period.

Remember there are two ways things are effective, one is for a thing to be effective at creating something beyond itself. The other is to be an effective at realizing a specific kind of being itself. Not all effectiveness has to be determined by a fulfillment of something beyond itself. Everything can effectively be by effectively being what it itself is. In that way everything is good at least to some extent, i.e., the extent to which it is what it is. The greatest complex orders of effectiveness are great just for being high degree complex orders of effectiveness.

Ivan: I know that you speak of things being effective at being whatever they are, e.g. an apple’s effectiveness at being an apple, and a cheetah’s effectiveness at being a cheetah. In this way you might be able to say that a big, flawless, crisp, sweet, juicy apple is more effective at being an apple than a mangy, three-legged cheetah is at being a cheetah. But I am still not seeing how you can compare the very effective apple to the very effective cheetah. The cheetah is more complex, sure. But we haven’t yet ironed out how to equate complexity with goodness. At least, I’m not satisfied that we have, ha ha.

You wrote at the end of your last reply that “If goodness means effectiveness itself, as I contend one major meaning of the word goodness does, then we do not need to say that greater effectivenesses have to be good at something else to be more excellent. The greater effectivenesses are themselves greater goodnesses, Period.” I disagree. Because as your system implies, and as you’ve expressly written, your framework necessitates saying what a good thing is good at or effective at. If goodness means effectiveness, then we cannot say that something is simply good any more than we can say that something is simply effective. Of course we can say such things as a shorthand, when the the context of that speech makes the whole meaning clear. But speaking perspicuously, effectiveness is always effectiveness at something, and therefore your goodness-as-effectiveness must always be goodness at something. I affirm what you’ve written: “any time we say something is good, i.e., that something is effective, we have to specify what it is good at,” and “no functioning is good in an unqualified way,” and “goods (instances of effectiveness) are only good in strictly specifiable contexts of effectiveness and never just simply.”

I’m sad to see that we’re already running out of time, so let me introduce one other thought, alongside the thread of our conversation thus far. In discussing ethics, both you and I seem to be more concerned about truth than about strategy or politics. But I think that lots of atheists are also concerned about the strategic or political implications of ethical views, whether consciously or not. So let me take a brief step away from all our discussion of the truth or falsehood of moral nihilism, or your moral system, and talk strategy.

I fully appreciate that accepting moral nihilism doesn’t make atheism look good. I would certainly classify moral nihilism as a negative, or unpleasant, or unwanted implication of my atheism. Accepting moral nihilism can therefore be cast as something of a weakness or a concession. My primary response to this issue is that truth is truth, whether it’s pleasant or not, and whether it’s strategically helpful to the atheist cause or not. And I think that moral nihilism is true. And I personally am interested in believing true things.

But secondarily, I want to make a competing strategic point. Yes, on the one hand, accepting moral nihilism has strategic costs. But it also has an accompanying strategic benefit.

Admitting unpleasant implications of atheism—including moral nihilism, but not limited to it—exposes some motivations for religious belief. It shows reasons that people might want to believe.

Obviously, exposing these motivations for religious belief does not itself prove that religious beliefs are false. But it does help to show why people would hold religious beliefs even if they were false. It accounts for religious belief in a way that doesn’t lend that belief any credibility. It subsequently ratchets up the pressure on religious belief. We can ask, Hey, you’re believing something that would be nice and happy and comforting to believe—doesn’t that make you nervous? Doesn’t that seem a bit suspect?

This is the strategic benefit of moral nihilism. (Again, I think it is quite secondary to considerations of whether moral nihilism is true. My only reason for accepting it is that I believe it is true. I personally don’t care about these strategic implications.) It exposes a big reason that people might want to believe religions, even if they are false. And this is both more effective, and much more plausible, than the sorts of narratives I’ve often heard from atheists that try to paint all believers as simply stupid.

Finally, you wrote about goodness “defined consistently as ordered, complex effectiveness.” Is that an exhaustive definition of what you mean by goodness? Have we been largely talking past one another for months? Are you not so much trying to ground an account of goodness that is anything like intuitive or traditional or religious accounts, but rather trying to map the moral language of such accounts onto a quite different content relating only to “ordered, complex effectiveness”?

Daniel Fincke: Yes, I am rejecting so-called intuitive, traditional, and religious accounts of goodness. I am equating it with the perfectly observable, objective patterns of effectiveness, each of which have a degree of order and complexity. I am trying to identify it with a feature of known, objectively describable and assessable experience and explain how our normal uses of the word can be understood in this naturalistic way, as really just getting at a part of the world we can describe dispassionately and which is in many ways indifferent to us.

I think your dichotomy between truth and strategy is a false one. When describing any phenomenon in our experience, we take what we are practically engaged with and we try to figure out a concept that accounts for how that phenomenon actually works in reality. That is being truthful about that reality.

Now, in the past, some aspects of our experience were given accounts which were not at all consonant with reality as we can objectively figure it out in the 21st Century. So, we revise our concepts. What people understood any number of natural phenomena to be from common sense or from rudimentary philosophy has been proven drastically wrong. But we still recognize those phenomena exist even if the common sense, philosophical, and/or religious accounts of past ages misrepresented their true inner-workings in huge ways.

We also recognize that even though the scientific account of a given phenomenon does not much resemble our everyday intuitions of (what would an everyday intuition of a 2 hydrogens bonded with an oxygen even be), that it can still be a better one when we are dealing intellectually and practically with the fundamental relationships that make up what we actually experience.

Now, goodness is a concept that a lot of mythology historically developed around. But that does not make it any less basic a feature of our experience. It is not just some accident of the brain. People all around the world have a word for this. Saying it is all false is saying they are talking about nothing. That’s nonsense. People mean some very specifiable things when they say that certain foods are good for you, that the wrench is good for removing bolts, that the best available way to get to California from New York in one day is by plane, etc. These have objectively specifiable meanings if only we cash them out in terms of effectiveness.

So, why not say that when people are talking about goodness in the phenomenal realm of our experience, what they are latching onto and implicitly, and often in elided way, referring to are effectiveness relationships. And why not then judge moral uses of the word good in effectiveness terms? Of course, we then have to ask what kinds of effectiveness should morality be understood to be about. Which kinds of effectiveness does moral language try to refer to implicitly? And what kinds of moral judgments are good for us in the sense of effective for our purposes? To determine that we have to ask what are our purposes? What is it that is best for us? That’s a question of what is most effective for us.

Then you ask, effective for us in what sense? And I say, what is best for us is what is most effective at helping us realize ourselves. What is it to effectively realize ourselves? To be powerful as the kinds of beings that we are. Why should we do that? Because inherently we are ourselves. It is irrational, a matter of practical contradiction, to wish, all things being equal, that we ourselves be lesser or non-existent altogether. Our own power of existence, and our own maximal power in all the powers through which we have our existence, is the precondition of any effectiveness we could possibly have. Now there might be times we could be more effective in death than in life (like Obi-Wan Kenobi) but unless that is the case, we have an intrinsic interest in powerfully being alive.

Any other desires or goals anyone pursues further requires his or her being in the first place. It is wholly irrational to call one’s diminishment in total power better, rather than worse, assuming all things are equal. That’s a matter of truth, not just strategy. We are out of time, so let me just give you a chance to offer a final word.

Ivan:  Thank you for the offer of a final word. But since we are out of time, as you said, I won’t be able to write everything I’d like.

You don’t think I made a meaningful distinction between truth and strategy? Surely we can think of times when strategic considerations of benefiting an individual or group would seem to be served by lying, or misrepresentation, or indifference to truth. There is in principle a difference between asking “What is true?” and asking “What will make atheism look good and help atheists to gain acceptance or power?” A priori, it’s entirely possible that the answers to these two questions might sometimes diverge.

I appreciate your point about redefining terms as we gain knowledge, and sometimes redefining them in ways that are radically different from our former definitions, or even from our continuing immediate experiences. The chemistry of water is a wonderful example.

I don’t think that this can fully carry over into moral language, though. That would require dynamics comparable to the scientific ones in question, e.g. we all know what water is, and point to the same thing when we talk about water. Is morality the same way? Do we all know what morality is, and point to the same thing when we talk about morality?

Yes and no. On the one hand, yes, we all have pretty similar ideas of things like our “consciences,” and feelings of altruism or fairness or guilt, and the effects of actions on actors and on their broader social groups. We can redefine terms that name and describe those things. You define them in one way, I define them in another, a Christian would define them in a third. We’re all looking and pointing at the same things, and then giving them different explanations. This works just fine.

If we want to use moral language (e.g. of “right,” “wrong,” “should,” ought”) in all the same ways that a religious person uses it, though, this is a different situation. This is not like a chemist and a toddler sharing the word “water,” while only the former knows water’s molecular structure. This is more like the toddler picking up the word “hydrogen,” and beginning to use it in ways that bear very little relation to those in which the chemist uses it. “This cup of water has lots of hydrogen—feel how cold it is! Mm, I’m thirsty for hydrogen!” The two individuals are again sharing a word, but now they are using it in very, very different ways. The toddler does not mean the same thing by the word “hydrogen” that the chemist means. And it would be a lot clearer if the toddler either learned and adopted the chemist’s established meaning, or else used a different word.

I think that frames the issue we atheists face with traditional moral language. The question is whether we are using the same words only to point to the same things, which we all agree in pointing to; or whether we are instead using the same words in radically different ways, and being either accidentally confusing, or else intentionally dishonest.

I’m comfortable with the use of traditional moral language as an everyday shorthand. But in actual discussions of morality, I am not excited about the prospect of someone holding views like mine, while using this traditional language and redefining it. No, this lack of excitement is not moral disapproval, because obviously that would be silly and contradictory for me. It is instead confined solely to those folks who happen to value things like truth and clarity. You seem to be among them, so I’ll make my case to you. But if someone else doesn’t share these values, well then I can’t do anything but shrug.

As I’ve written about here, most people today use moral terms in very potent ways, as have most people throughout our cultural, intellectual, and linguistic history. Most of these people are, or have been, religious of course, so let’s simply look at the religious picture. God cares about humans, and human actions. God commands humans to do some things and to avoid others. After death, God rewards or punishes all people according to their actions. Etc. Most of those who are not, or have not been, religious, still tend to keep most of the religious moral picture. So we have the great mass of people, present and past, using moral terms in ways that involve things like an ultimate right and wrong independent of human thought, morality involving categorical imperatives that we can’t really critique or opt out of, some sort of cosmic justice eventually rewarding goodness and punishing badness, etc.

Obviously, you and I as atheists cannot affirm many of these things. We simply can’t draw on any divine commands, or human afterlife. At the end of the day, there is a whole lot of content expressed by the vast majority of people using established moral terms that you and I cannot rationally justify. If you and I are speaking rationally, we cannot mean much of what they mean.

So why use their terms? If the things we might want to say about “morality” wholly reduce to other discourses (e.g. about what helps society function, or what increases happiness while decreasing suffering, or what maximizes gross effectiveness), then why in the world would we steal moral language that we cannot believe in, and create fruitless confusion?

Sure, on the practical side, it can be very useful to employ moral language as a shorthand. For example, I might say that stealing is wrong, while meaning that stealing is illegal, carries risks, has certain social and economic costs, is generally frowned upon, is believed by most people to be ultimately wrong, etc. Speaking this way would save a lot of words, and a lot of unnecessary digressions.

And after all, it seems that moral language is already used as something of a shorthand, since three people can agree that murder is wrong, while one thinks it’s wrong because God forbade it in the Bible, another thinks it’s wrong because God forbade it in the Quran, and the third thinks it’s wrong because murder could harm and undermine society.

More substantively, one might want to use traditional moral language for PR reasons, or the “strategic” reasons I mentioned earlier. This seems simply dishonest. If an atheist chooses to use moral language simply as a PR move, any given hearer will either fully understand what is actually meant by that moral language—and how it differs from the normal meanings of such language, while fully reducing to other, non-moral language—or will not. If a hearer does fully understand, then the use of moral language was needlessly circuitous, and wasted time while inviting misunderstanding. If a hearer fails to fully understand, then the intended public relations goal may be served, and a more positive impression given than that which would have been given by straightforward, non-moral language. But that is the only way that I see PR interests being served: through successful deception.

Your Thoughts?

See links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

This is post 3 of 24 in the Camels With Hammers blogathon on behalf of the Secular Student Alliance. Please consider donating to this vital organization which provides an invaluable resource to young people struggling to get out of, overcome, or contend against irrationalism, and to build relationships with fellow atheists, humanists, and secularists.

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

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”


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

About Daniel Fincke

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

  • skepticalmath

    I broadly agree with what you’re saying, but you [Dan] seem to consider that which is complex more effective than that which is simple. Is this the case, and if so, why?

    • Enkidum

      Yeah, this bothered me as well. I’ve been prodding at Dan on a few posts about more precisely explaining what he means by goodness, and I’m not (yet) overly happy with pushing it towards complexity.

      There is a perfectly good formal description of complexity – the longer the minimum length of an algorithm necessary to accurately describe something, the more complex it is. (I forget the name for this, but it’s pretty widely accepted in, e.g., information theory, I think.) I just… can’t yet draw the lines between this notion and goodness.

      And I think there’s far too much hand-waving about the goodness qua goodness problem. The caricature I have in my mind is a swiss army knife – does it have more objective goodness than just a knife, or a file, or a pair of scissors, or a magnifying glass? (Let’s pretend for the sake of argument that it’s equally good at cutting, magnifying, etc as the single-serving versions.) The swiss army knife is clearly more complex – there are more different things that it is effective at. Is it thereby better in some overall sense? I think according to Dan’s logic it has to be, but this isn’t a conclusion I’m comfortable with (at least not yet).

      There’s a lot to chew on there, but that’s at least a start of my current worries.

    • skepticalmath

      Are you referring to the Kolgomorov complexity (also known as descriptive complexity) of a string?

    • Enkidum

      Yeah, that’s it. I guess one has to do a lot of hand-waving to pretend it can be directly applied to biological systems, but in principle something like it should work.

  • Erasmus


    I have been reading your blog for.a while and, as I am not a philosopher, have simply kept quiet and allowed my mind to slowly digest your statements, as being unfamiliar with some of the language used in a philosophical context and with prior arguments I have to look up a fair amount of reference material to get an solid impression of what you mean.

    This time, however, I feel compelled to comment as during this discussion you both talk alot about evolution and biological complexity, these are very close to my area of specialism so I don’t don’t need the time I usually do to unlock what you are saying.

    I feel obligated to point out that neither of you seems to have a good grasp of evolution or biological complexity, your examples are unsupported assertions for the most part, complexity of amoeba vs human for example and inappropriate comparisons for the rest, apples are not an organism, they are the fruiting body of an organism, cheetahs are organisms. Maybe compare an apple to a cheetahs gonad or something… Animals don’t have a good analogue for fruits.

    Because your examples are flawed your ability to draw conclusions from them and your generalisations are also flawed. I’d be happy to expand on the problems with your examples if you like, or for you to show me if I’m misunderstanding.

    • Enkidum

      I think on a standard information-theoretic account of complexity, humans simply are more complex than amoeba – it takes longer to describe them. Isn’t that right?

  • Erasmus

    The above typed on phone tiny screen apologies for typos and such.

  • Larry Clapp

    Dan and Ivan, thank you for this exchange. I enjoyed it.

    I take issue with some of Ivan’s opening points.

    > In this sense, one can do a sort of functioning calculus or effectiveness calculus, and say that a heart has more gross effectiveness than a heart valve, and a human has more gross effectiveness than a human heart.

    I don’t think you can.

    A heart pumps blood; I challenge you to find a human that can pump blood as long, tirelessly, efficiently, and *effectively* as a human heart.

    A heart valve intermittently keeps blood from flowing; find me a heart or a human that can do the same job as *effectively*.

    In the discussion of each of these things, you’ve left out the “at what”. The later discussion frequently omits the “at what”, and seems to just blithely assume this convergence of axes, as if “X does Y, and X is a part of Z, and Z needs Y, ergo Z is more effective than X, even though Z sucks at Y” is actually coherent, and I don’t think it is.

    I think if you (both of you) more often explicitly stated “at what”, your theories would make more sense.

    On a related note, I wish more philosophers knew more about E-prime. In a nutshell, speaking or writing in e-prime means not using any forms of the verb “to be”. I’ve found that using e-prime presents many challenges, and eliminates or “brings down to earth” many classic philosophical questions. You cannot ask “why am I here?” in e-prime. But you can ask “what do I want to accomplish in life?”

    In particular, use of e-prime removes the question “what is good?” and forces you to replace it with “what do I want?”. Or “what does society want?” Or “what would most benefit humanity in this context? Well, benefit in what way?” In other words, closer to what you actually mean.

    In this discussion, you both seem to implicitly agree that you prefer more effectiveness to less, but again too often don’t say “at what” or why, leaving to such reasonable inferences as “smallpox is good”. Do you disagree? But it does what it does so effectively! An asteroid hitting the planet would probably very effectively destroy all life. Would you call it good? Why or why not?

    Doesn’t discussing effectiveness skip over the question of what you value, and why you value it?

    As a programmer, I tend to think in terms of what we call “unit tests”. A scientist would think of “experiments”. So I ask: What experiment (even a gedanken one :) ) could I perform that would show the truth (or, consistency with reality) of what you say?

    • skepticalmath

      I don’t think E-Prime is as useful as you seem to. The copula “to be” has many functions (identity, what e-prime is really about removing, is only one of several), removing all of them doesn’t remove bias or assumptions of identity, merely makes them less immediately apparent.

    • Larry Clapp

      @skepticalmath, 4.1:
      > removing all of them doesn’t remove bias or assumptions of identity, merely makes them less immediately apparent

      Well, I use e-prime (when I use it :) ) as a tool, like any other. It doesn’t magically make all your writing crystal clear and perfect. I would agree that you can exhibit bias and assume identity without saying “is”. But I submit that not saying “is” makes both of those things harder, and that the presence of “is” can act as a red flag of sorts that your thinking may have gone a little fuzzy.

    • skepticalmath

      But my point is that the result of using E Prime can make identities more implicit, less obvious, and thereby create even more insidious hidden assumptions than when blatantly using an identity form of the copula. James French references the example phrase “The silly ban on copula continues” — which asserts an identity, but does so much less obviously than the copula, making it harder to find the hidden assumptions.

      So in order to remove identities E Prime doesn’t even manage to remove identities, simply hides them, and in addition removes completely unrelated categories of meaning for the copula. I just don’t see the point. Yes, it can be a useful exercise to think of things differently than usual, but the usefulness of that, much like Nietzschean perspectivism, scales according to the number of different ways used. E Prime isn’t worth much on its own.

  • Erasmus

    “I think on a standard information-theoretic account of complexity, humans simply are more complex than amoeba – it takes longer to describe them. Isn’t that right?”

    I’m not an information theorist, so I apologise if I misunderstand. I also am only moderately familiar with amoeba, I am much more familiar with bacteria and archaea.

    I’m going to come at this from a few different angles. Firstly I’ll talk about the Human and the Water Flea, then we I’ll talk about eukarya vs bacteria and you should see what I am driving at I think. Lastly I’ll mention plant cells compared to animal cells. Also please be aware that I am not telling you waht the answer is…. I’m telling you it is really complicated.

    If we compare a water flea to a human we can see they are very different. The methods they use for acquiring food, skeletal structure, muscle behavior etc. none of these give us a great way to compare them.

    Let’s look at something quantifiable that could be used as an indicator of complexity, gene number (specifically protein coding genes). A human has an estimated 20-21k genes in its genome whilst a water flea has ~31000. Here we are talking about functional, protein coding genes, all of these do something and do it pretty well. So is the waterflea more genomically complex than a human? Well, yeah. It has a whole bunch of genes that we simply don’t need for various reasons. Describing the functioning of a waterflea or human at any level of other than this (or a proteomic equivalent) in a measurable way is pretty much impossible, or at least so monumentally hard that no one would bother. Despite this I am pretty sure that most people would conclude humans were more complex than waterfleas.

    Now if we look at a bacterium, say Vibrio cholerae. V. cholorae has ~3.5k genes, considerably less than a human, but as established by the waterflea example above thus might not be the best way to compare complexity. A single V. cholorae cell has a lot things you need to describe than a human, but V. cholorae do not live in isolation, no more than a single human cell does. For this reason should we compare an individual bacterium to a complete human?

    Well maybe, maybe not. Multicellular organisms can be viewed as obligate colonies of single cells, for this reason it seems sensible to treat them as a single organism. The question then arises where do you delineate the end of the organism. A bhuman for example is by number 90% prokaryotic cells and 10% eukaryotic.

    Should we assume that only the eukaryotic cells count, even though there are complicated interactions between them and the prokaryotes and without the prokaryotes the whole would die?

    What about the prokaryotes that were ancestrally absorbed into the cell (mitochondria) and are now a part of the whole? Do we count them as part of the prokaryotic or eukaryotic group?

    How about obligate intracellular parasites that are very similar to mitochondria, but can move from host to host and are not beneficial?

    What about viruses? Viruses that infect bacteria? Viruses that infect bacteria and mitochondira whilst delivering beneficial or sometimes essential functions? Ancestral viruses taht are now a core part of the eukaryotes genome?

    The answer to all the above questions is usually it depends what you are studying. I would suggest though that the fullest view would be to include everything, so we treat a human as a colony.

    At this point if we switch back to V. cholorae instead of treating it as a single cell we should look at a colony, which regulates its dispersal patterns and lifestyle collectively. We find a whole range of behaviours in the group that woe would never see in the individual, including altruisitc suicide during starvation conditions, restriction on the number of organisms that can colonise a given infection site and changes in behaviour depending on specific environment, regulating the responses of the host, co-opting direct control of host cell processes and a myriad of other things that humans just cannot do.

    Now V. cholorae is by no means the bacterium that can do the most things nor is it particularly unusual. In fact many bacterial species form multi species colonies where groups of cells take up specialised roles, much like in a multicellular organism and can still survive independently when necessary.

    As far as I am aware protists, like amoeba, are similarly complex, although as I said I know little about them specifically.

    Which is more complex is a matter of how you view it and as our understanding of these systems and interactions grows deciding what constitutes a more complex species just become harder.

    As a final point I will give a very simple example. A plan cell has more functioning parts, more genes (on average) and is just as much a part of a multicellular organism as an animal cell. Is it more complex?

    To then take the incredibly simplistic view of biological complexity presented in the blog post and try to extrapolate any meaning from it, you can probably see is problematic as soon as you start to actually look at biological complexity. We probably end up being less “good” than rice.

    (For other biologists: I know I have only skimmed the topic, left a lot of relevant stuff out and oversimplified… I’m not a muppet I’m doing my best to write for a non specialist audience, which is not something I’m good at.)

    • skepticalmath

      Thanks for the detailed post (detailed, at least, for those of us non-specialists.)

      I’m not an information theorist, so I apologise if I misunderstand

      I’m not an information theorist either, but I am mathematician, and I don’t think the definition of complexity being discussed could really be applied to biological organisms, unless you could represent biological organisms as a string (a string is formally a finite sequence of symbols chosen from some set known in this case as an alphabet, but in informal usage usually refers to some sequence of alphanumeric characters). This is because complexity as defined above — Kolgomorov complexity — is defined to be the shortest algorithm capable of producing that string (or, as talked about above, shortest description of that string.)

      Which is more complex is a matter of how you view it and as our understanding of these systems and interactions grows deciding what constitutes a more complex species just become harder.

      I think this is my problem with including “complexity” in any discussion of goodness. How complex something is depends entirely on the definition of complexity, and it doesn’t seem like there can be any sort of general definition for the purposes of ethical judgement. Nor does it seem like complexity itself is at all related to effectiveness: a wheel is extremely effective at driving a car, much more so than an electronic joystick, although the latter is certainly more complex.

    • Enkidum

      Hah – well, I’m neither a mathematician nor a biologist (probably shows). Thanks for the corrections to my naive words…

      I wish I knew where I’m getting the connection between Kolgomorov complexity and biological complexity from – I know I’m far from the first to do it, and I’m sure someone has done it in a more sensible manner. But one can think of it in a couple of ways, (and apologies for the numerous gross mistakes I’m sure I’m about to make).

      One way would simply be to specify the entire genome as a string (which is hardly unusual, so far as I understand). Then you have a relatively straightforward way of determining the KC of a given genome. Of course you might want to restrict things to protein coding genes, as Erasmus does. Principle is still the same.

      But of course that’s probably nowhere near the appropriate level. Another option might be taking something like a behaviorist tack – how long would it take to adequately describe the organism’s behaviour? Here, wouldn’t one be on safer ground asserting that humans are more complex than amoeba?

      Well, perhaps not. I guess the trouble is that you would need some metric of behaviour that they could both be compared on. Argh. I dunno, maybe this is hopeless. It certainly feels like there’s a sensible thought in there waiting to come out, but I have no idea how to express it.

    • Erasmus

      The problems with behavioural analysis are manifold. Firstly there are several nigh impossible questions answer before you start.

      Are more behaviours indicative of being more complex? What is a behaviour? Should we prioritise neurological behaviours?

      Then you run into the same problem as earlier with what to compare to what, what counts as an organism, what counts as a group of them?

      The point about complexity and effectiveness is a good one. In molecular biology we often come across the concept of elegance as opposed to complexity. That is that a system that accomplishes the same function whilst being less complex (I.e. Is more elegant) is better.

      An example is comparing organisms that have a system that regulates their body temperature with one that does not. Organisms that do not regulate temperature must have enzymes that work at all the temperatures they inhabit. An organism that regulates just needs one. The former is more complicated, the latter more elegant (and a notable survival advantage).

      I also feel whilst I’m expanding on things that I should expand on my earlier point about the interview participants not understanding evolution properly.

      The view that Species A evolved into Species B and we can say that evolution happened is a grossly misleading simplification. We can look at species that evolved from a common ancestor and say Sb diverged from Sc and now they are different, but this doesn’t work in such a trivial way with ancestory.

      Lets say we go back a million years and look at Sb’s ancestor we can look at it and say that is Sa! Now lets move to 0.5 Mya and look again. Some people will say “This is Sa”, some will say “This is Sb”, others will say “This is a new species, Sd.”

      There is no simple transitional event, it is a Contiual process as such the view given in the blog post just feeds creationist nonsense and is a dangerous misrepresentation.

    • Erasmus

      For those interested in the human as colony/microbiome stuff there is a relatively easy to read piece on the nature website at the moment entitled Learning about who we are. Give it a look. Its free.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Thanks for all substantial and substantive criticisms, everyone. There is a lot I have to think about in terms I am not used to thinking in. Forgive my silence for the time being, it is not because I do not respect what you have to say here, but precisely because I do!

    • Erasmus

      Perfectly understandable and the exact reason I don’t usually reply to your posts. Not you not replying, them forcing me to think about them alot to get them

  • Walton

    I’m inclined to agree with Ivan and to disagree with you, Daniel.

    I agree that it is meaningful to describe a person, or another life form, or a body part, or an inanimate object, as good at something, and that goodness in this sense of the word means effectiveness. A heart can be good or bad at pumping blood; an engine can be good or bad at turning a wheel. A person can be good or bad at painting, or at cross-country running, or at cookery. I’m entirely satisfied that this kind of “goodness”, goodness as effectiveness, is a matter of objective fact. Thus far, I follow, and agree with, your argument.

    But I think it’s a fundamental error to conflate this with what we mean when we talk about moral goodness – when we describe someone as a “good person”. In this context, to say that “good” simply means “effective” doesn’t make a lot of sense. We can call a heart a good heart, and an engine a good engine, if they are effective at achieving the purposes for which they exist (pumping blood, say, or turning a wheel). But a human being, unlike a heart or an engine, does not have a single self-evident purpose. A human being may be good at some things and bad at others, but being good at a particular task does not automatically make someone a “good person” as we would ordinarily use that term. A human being can be good at (in the sense of effective at) painting, but we wouldn’t normally say that someone who is good at painting is therefore a “good person”. For that matter, a human being can be good at (in the sense of effective at) killing, or at embezzling. Clearly, in these contexts, goodness in the sense of effectiveness is not necessarily the same thing as moral goodness. To say that a “good person” is an “effective person” necessitates that we decide what things a person ought to be effective at. And while we could conceivably invent a list of the virtues that we consider to define a “good person”, we have there strayed outside the realm of facts and started making our own value-judgments about how a person should and shouldn’t behave – which means that it is no longer true to say that “goodness is a factual matter”. It puts us back where we started.

    I think this also relates closely to another philosophical problem – the problem of free will and moral agency. When we talk of someone or something as “good” in the first sense, meaning effective, we don’t necessarily imply that that someone or something possesses moral agency; to say that a heart is good at pumping blood or that an engine is good at turning a wheel, we don’t mean to suggest that the heart or the engine is a moral agent which is morally responsible for its actions.

    By contrast, to describe someone as “good” or “bad” in the second sense, as morally a good or bad person, is usually understood to imply that that person has moral agency, that xe is responsible for hir actions. So, for example, most people would say readily that if X deliberately harms people while in full control of his rational faculties, this makes X a “bad person”; but if Y harms people by pure accident, or while he is insane or unconscious, most people would not call Y a “bad person”, even if the harm caused by X and the harm caused by Y is exactly the same. Of course, I would contend that this distinction is illusory; I reject contra-causal free will, and I’m also an incompatibilist, in the sense that I don’t think there can be a coherent account of moral agency or moral responsibility in the absence of contra-causal free will.

    For me, the conclusion is that it makes little sense, objectively, to label someone as a “good person” or a “bad person”, and that the concepts of moral responsibility and moral desert are largely meaningless.

  • Ivan

    Erasmus, I’ll certainly admit to being a scientific layman. But I do try to be an informed one, so if anything I’ve said bearing on your area of expertise is mistaken, I do want to know, and correct it.

    Thank you for bringing up the metric of genomic complexity, by which humans can be easily bested by some very “simple” organisms. But aren’t there nonetheless quite legitimate senses in which a human is more complex than an amoeba? I think you’ve ably shown how there’s no single obvious way to, say, order all organisms according to their complexity. But when comparing such disparate examples as a human and an amoeba, can’t we get enough traction to meaningfully call the human more complex in certain senses?

    As for apples, yes, I am aware that an apple is not an organism. I was simply engaging with Dr. Fincke’s varied examples of complexity, including the apple. But I didn’t take him to be thinking or implying that apples were organisms, or even to have an exclusively biological concept of complexity in mind. Biological or evolutionary examples were used, yes, but Dr. Fincke’s focus seemed to be on an independent notion of complexity. This may have problems, as a couple commenters suggest, but I’m not sure that the simple fact that an apple is not an organism is itself problematic.

    Also, I know enough about speciation to reject the errors you mentioned. Did what I wrote seem to imply otherwise?

    Larry Clapp, just for the record those opening points were summarizing Dr. Fincke’s position. So I wasn’t concerned with asserting those points myself, but rather with invoking or granting those points of Dr. Fincke’s position, and then moving on to my challenges of his position.

    To venture a word of defense of those points, though, while a human cannot “pump blood as long, tirelessly, efficiently, and *effectively* as a human heart”—e.g. cannot climb into a human chest cavity and do so with her bare hands—it is nonetheless the case that a human fully encompasses a human heart. A human as a whole cannot do a heart’s job better than a heart. But a human’s heart can indeed do a heart’s job exactly as well as a heart. This is tautological. So a human contains a heart and its effectiveness. But then added to this is all the effectiveness of the rest of the human, ranging from an effective liver to effective reasoning.

    In the discussion of each of these things, you’ve left out the “at what”. The later discussion frequently omits the “at what”, and seems to just blithely assume this convergence of axes, as if “X does Y, and X is a part of Z, and Z needs Y, ergo Z is more effective than X, even though Z sucks at Y” is actually coherent, and I don’t think it is.

    I was again summarizing these parts of Dr. Fincke’s system, rather than asserting them for my own purposes. If you take issue with the summarizing I did on this particular point, it seems to me that this does not undermine my challenge to Dr. Fincke so much as it mounts a more stringent challenge to him. Dr. Fincke thinks that a whole human (including a human heart) has more gross effectiveness than a human heart alone. I happen to agree with him on this point, but find fatal flaws further down the line in his argument. If you happen to disagree with him on this point, then you’re introducing a new challenge to his system.

    Likewise, your smallpox and asteroid questions seemed aimed at Dr. Fincke’s position rather than mine. I’m only getting hit inasmuch as I’ve stepped in to engage with his position.