Paths to Moral Objectivity: Pragmatics

On this blog I regularly declare myself for “objective morality”. But what I mean by the term is often misunderstood. My views are a bit idiosyncratic. People typically need to read a handful of the right posts to get a full picture so that they can situate the context for any one post. Those who are not specialists in philosophy often do not understand what I mean to refer to in part because they are generally unfamiliar with historical and/or contemporary moral philosophy.  And even those who are relatively familiar with moral philosophy, and who may even be specialists in it, often do not immediately grasp my meaning because the ways that I interpret and synthesize other moral philosophers’ ideas is unorthodox. While probably most of my views on ethics have arguments in their favor in the academic, professional, peer-reviewed philosophical literature, my particular way of relating various aspects of my system to each other is, as far as I have seen so far, quite peculiar (or, as I like to think of it, innovatively groundbreaking and correct!).

In order to remedy this problem, I have decided to write a number of posts about the various “paths to moral objectivity”. I do not think that everyone need accept every method for attaining morally objective outcomes to agree with enough of them to be able to say that to some important extent morality is objective. This post will start the series with a pragmatic argument for talking about “objective morality”. Along the way it will indicate further “paths” to be explored in future posts.

Interestingly a great many people seem to agree with most of my individual views about the facts,  concepts, and logical relationships relevant to the question of whether or not morality is objective and yet balk at my use of the simple phrase “objective morality” to describe all those facts, concepts, and logical relationships. Despite agreeing about so much, I think our differing choices to describe the overall endeavor of moral reasoning as either potentially “objective” or essentially “subjective” ultimately has practical implications of either encouraging discussion or encouraging entrenched disagreement and resignation to disagreement among people.

This is because, pragmatically, saying “morality is objective” often amounts to saying something like “you can’t just dismissively wave away my moral views just because you don’t like them; you have to have reasons to reject them!” or “let’s continue arguing even though we disagree because there are ways to overcome our differences.” And often saying either “morality is subjective” or “morality is relative” both amount to responding to a moral argument with “Just leave me alone to do as I please and I’ll do the same for you” or “I don’t have any confidence that we can persuade each other, so let’s just leave this alone” or “I can’t refute your argument so I won’t acknowledge any arguments in these matters have any truth”. None of which I consider helpful or honest.

Sometimes saying “morality is relative” is simply a confused way of saying “morality needs to take account of situational variations and consequences”. I think that’s true but that it doesn’t mean that morality is in the main relative. It is what we might call “objectively relative” and what it is best relative to each situation can be objectively determined (at least in principle, if not always in fact).

There are more philosophically sophisticated, technical (and even sometimes moral realist) accounts of moral subjectivism, of course. I hope moral subjectivists will forgive me for ignoring those for the time being. The conversation-stopping connotations I mention are, I would guess, the most commonly intended and commonly heard meanings of “morality is subjective” among non-philosophers and so that is why they concern me.

Now, I think that there are independently good reasons to think that the word “objective” is overall better for describing the nature of moral reasoning, or at least of its ideal potential. Despite a number of obvious subjective elements in moral reasoning, I think that I can show numerous ways that moral disagreements can make progress on grounds that are objective enough to say that the overall endeavor of moral reasoning and debating has the potential to be more objective than subjective. I have written a lot of posts about the possibilities for moral objectivity already and have even ambitiously tried to unite them into integrated accounts of internally consistent, robust moral objectivity on some occasions and in my overall project (between my dissertation and the blog posts on ethics all taken as a systematic unity).

But beyond just thinking that it is much truer to call morality more objective than subjective in the main, I am also deeply motivated by concern for the practical implications of calling morality basically objective vs. basically subjective.

Now, before I defend speaking of morality as objective, let me note that there is a downside to some uses of the phrase “morality is objective”. Sometimes it worrisomely means either “I hold my moral opinions with so much uncritical certainty that I will not listen to anyone who disagrees”. Sometimes it problematically means “All moral principles must be applied categorically and neither situational nor consequentialist judgments can have any place in morality”. Sometimes it means “All the identically same moral standards must be true in all times and places and allow for no defensible cultural or temporal variations responsive to differing needs and mindsets of differing peoples”. Or “Morality can not be rooted in the particularities of human lives or needs in anyway whatsoever but exists in a purely human-indifferent way”. I am at pains to distinguish that objectivity in morality is not nearly identical with such absolutist positions.

Such absolutist statements, and similar possible ones, have the dangerous potential to arbitrarily, falsely, counter-productively, and unethically shut down the necessary personal introspection, rational inquiry, and communal debates that make actual, objective, moral progress possible. They are actually antithetical to what I think defensible moral objectivity is. So when I say morality is objective I don’t mean those things and I don’t mean to endorse anyone who does mean those things.

The meanings of “morality is overall objective” that I mean to affirm are ones along the lines of the following:

1.     “Despite our current moral differences, people almost always have substantial points of both rational and emotional common ground between them, such that you and I have good reason to expect some progress towards agreement if only we patiently continue to clarify and argue for our positions with sincerity, introspection, reasonableness, and rigor.”

2.     “Just as there are with other beliefs, there are genuinely rational tests and criteria for determining the relative internal consistency, coherency, and logical sense of our moral judgments. Applying these familiar criteria for assessing the rationality of beliefs generally, we can see which moral beliefs are more and less rational too.”

3.     “Considerations of both our individual and our collective, subjectively and objectively, specifiable interests can lead to objectively compelling reasons to forego our short term or micro level desires for the sake of greater long term or macro level concerns.”

4.     “Even though there may be numerous circumstantial facts to take into account when determining what is best in any given situational context, and even though what is a right or a wrong action can sometimes genuinely be opposite given the relevant relative contexts, there are nonetheless ways to determine what is objectively right or wrong in a given situational context if we know how to weigh all the relevant variations of factors properly.”

5.     “Value statements, including moral value statements as a subset, can be both non-anthropocentric and descriptively true about the world in an objectively determinable way.”

I want to stress that I think that each of these connotations of “morality is objective” is objectively true and defensible and that I think others should be willing to say “morality is objective” if they believe any of these are true statements, even if they do not agree with all of them. I realize point 5 is the stickiest point for most people. Because they do not accept 5, people who agree with 1-4 go to the extreme of saying “morality is subjective”. I think that is a big mistake because it misleads themselves and others into underestimating just how much vitally relevant objectivity is present if 1-4 are true.

I think that each of these connotations of “morality is objective” has the vital practical implication of encouraging the kind of continued rational moral debate that makes possible the fairest reconciliation of the most people’s competing interests, with the effect of leading to the most people’s maximal flourishing possible. And I think that saying “morality is subjective” risks undermining their abilities to do that. I will have to argue for this elsewhere, but I think that the maximal flourishing in power for the maximal number of people (while not exploiting a minority such that it is wholesale disempowered just so the majority can be more empowered) is the objectively defensible highest good. Since I think that a heuristic assumption that objectivity is possible helps people reason together best about how to accomplish that, it is, pragmatically and morally speaking, the wiser linguistic choice to call our moral debates capable of “objectivity” rather than inescapably subjective.

Further, as not just a moral philosopher but as an atheist, I am deeply troubled by the false and arbitrary equation of objective morality with theism in the popular (and sometimes even the academic) mind. I think that since many people do (rightly) think that at least a few of the four meanings of “there is objective morality” are true that it is not only false and unnecessary but outright disastrous to encourage them to think that the only way such things could be true was if theism in general or (even worse) Abrahamic monotheism as interpreted by Jews, Christians, and Muslims was true. If they know morality must be objective in some ways and think that atheism is inherently inconsistent with that viewpoint whereas theism fits right in with it, then they have a false reason to think that theism better accounts for the world. And, worse, if they see the same pragmatic value that I do in having the possibility of discussing morality objectively as an assumption, then they would have strong reason to think theism (or, again, a specific theistic religion) was the best thing to promulgate ethically and pragmatically, even apart from truth considerations.

Worse yet! The more theism is seen as the only game in town when it comes to objective morality and belief in objective morality is the more that the absolutist definitions of objective morality I reject get assumed to be true, ethically necessary, and integral to the very meaning of the phrase. And like I said, such absolutisms are antithetical to truly defensible objective morality. And, pragmatically, I think they wind up outright counter-productive to genuinely maximizing genuine goodness, and so morally they should be countered.

The worst irony in all this is that the divine command theory assumed by many Abrahamic monotheists leads to moral arbitrariness, provincialism, and debates which are rationally incapable of being settled. “God says so” is a subjective basis (the will of God) for an ethics, not an objective one. And even worse there are no objectively compelling reasons to believe the God of the Bible and/or the Koran is real or that anyone knows what He thinks. So there are not objective reasons that the religious believer can give for her own acceptance of her moral views or for persuading those who do not already share her idiosyncratic theology to adopt them. That is hardly a solution to the problem of moral disagreement! Faith beliefs are the most subjective, the most relative and limited to cultures and subcultures of all. When two peoples both feel that their own competing, equally arbitrary and faith-based beliefs about morality are absolutely binding, then they can hardly come to agree with each other. Only reason provides mechanisms for agreement across differences, not faith (except where two or more people already share the same faith).

Finally, I think that if philosophers or atheists declare morality to be, in the main, subjective, without drastically revising the common understanding of that word, they become irrelevant. They become unable to coherently contribute to the numerous discourses that will go on proceeding as though morality was objective. For as long as we will go on acting as though it is objective, we need to be able to understand how to make it as actually objective as possible. Doing that, to a certain extent, means clarifying the best ways of accomplishing degrees of objectivity in moral disputes, rather than confusingly dismissing the entire project of morality as ultimately “just subjective”.

Your Thoughts?

Further in this series: A Map With A Few of My Paths to Moral Objectivity

To read more of the substance of my arguments for objective morality, read any of my many posts on the subject. Most of them are listed below:

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

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

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

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

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

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

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

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

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

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

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

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

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

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

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

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

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

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

God and Goodness

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

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

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

Immoralism?

Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

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

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

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

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

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

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

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.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.co.uk/ Steve Bowen

    The problem I have is proceeding from a position of anti-realism to objectivism. Whilst I agree that objectively appraised criteria can be used to arrive at a moral consensus, that is really just an alignment of subjectivites. Even if 100% of people agree on the moral correctness of an action that doesn’t actually make that action objectively moral, merely that everyone subjectively agrees that it is.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      How are you defining “objectively moral” though and how do you defend that definition? Mind you, I believe in connotation 5, I think we can do more than align subjectivities. And I also think, as specified in 2, that there are rational standards besides subjectivities involved. But even so, if someone can be convinced that they have decisive reason to sacrifice short term or micro level desires for the sake of greater long term or macro level concerns and a moral action is thereby effectively rationally necessary for them, then morality is bindingly objective in the most essential, pragmatic sense people have ultimately always been needing and aiming at. Even if it’s not what they understood it to be what they were aiming at.

  • Staircaseghost

    I agree that in upwards of 90% of non-academic discussions of moral objectivity, what the disputants are really tussling over is the connotations rather than the denotations.

    On the one hand, people want assertability. Moral seriousness. They are impatient with conversation-stoppers like “it’s all subjective”! and assume that the opposite of what the find annoying must therefore be true.

    But objectivity already has an ontological meaning, and I’m afraid as long as you insist on using that term, your opponents — those who know what they’re talking about — will always be able to reject your argument on those grounds. So the question you need to ask yourself is, are you just trying to appropriate the prestige of some transcendent non-human moral order to the universe in order to lend yourself conversational credibility against flippancy and unseriousness, or do you have independent reasons for the specifically metaphysical thesis of objectivity?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      There is no one ontological meaning for it. I spelled out 5 senses of objective that are perfectly valid. Transcendent morality is not the same thing as objective morality by any necessity. Moral naturalism is a long standing tradition in philosophy and it’s not one of transcendent beings. And yes, I do think the robust sense of ontological objectivity spelled out in 5 is real but it’s not “transcendent”, it’s naturalistic, like many other truths. And no there is no “non-human moral order” and that’s a false ideal in the first place. There are non-human values and within them there are objective values for humans and within those certain moral precepts are rational and others irrational. That’s enough for objectivity without morality having to be held to the pragmatically useless standard of being independent of humans. Pragmatically, it only matters at all that it being objectively binding for humans. Not for things that aren’t human. If pragmatically there is a reason you objectively must do something you don’t want to do, for the greater macro/longterm good, then you have an objective morality.

      And scientific truths are not transcendent, they’re naturalistic, yet they’re objective. Scientific truths are also not beyond all “taint” of human subjectivity in construction, yet they are on balance more objective than subjective. Comparable relative objectivity exists throughout moral discussions. There is no reason to call the whole realm of moral discussions in the main subjective rather than objective where you call the scientific one in the main objective rather than subjective.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.co.uk/ Steve Bowen

    I “think” I am using objectivism in the sense of moral realism, or that moral propositions can be truth apt. If I understand you correctly you seem to be suggesting that because the morality of an action can be measured objectively against consequences or that rational decisions can be made that defer gratification, with which I concur, that imbues the action with objectivity. Taking a non-cognivitist approach a rationally derived moral action whilst aquiring a certain “truthiness” still does not become true in a philosophical sense. If you want to define moral objectivity as a kind of folk wisdom, e.g “stealing is bad, M’kay” then fair enough, but is that really objectivism in the formal sense.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      No, I’m not talking about it in a folk wisdom way. I am saying that there is truth aptness.

      I shy away from the term objectivism, especially on a public forum, though because of the Ayn Rand connotations which are confusing.

  • sean samis

    Interesting. I need to give this some thought, but I believe I am already in basic agreement. One minor comment; “objectively relative”; perhaps “contextually sensitive” would work better. At least it does in my mind, but that may just be me.

    sean s.

  • sean samis

    I am interested in seeing where you go with this. I dabble on the same topic but Real Life keeps me from focusing for much time. So far I have no significant comments.

    sean s.

  • http://veryrarelystable.blogspot.co.nz Daniel Copeland

    I’ve argued for a kind of objective morality on my own blog (click the link to my username and scroll to “Imponderable I: Morality”). Perhaps “objective” isn’t the right word, but the more accurate term “intersubjectively stable” would be obscure and pedantic.
    What that means is: although moral propositions have no truth-value (being, semantically, imperatives rather than propositions), they do have a utility-value, one which will apply to any being capable of moral reasoning. That utility value, and I argue this in my blog post, is maximizing mutual trust within a social network.

  • Staircaseghost

    There is no one ontological meaning for it. I spelled out 5 senses of objective that are perfectly valid.

    Your first two are not ontological at all (intersubjectivity is not objectivity, and neither is coherence), your third fails to be about anything specifically moral, and the final two are simply reassertions of your conclusion.

    Transcendent morality is not the same thing as objective morality by any necessity.

    On the contrary, any objective anything transcends our thoughts and beliefs about it, being by definition mind-independent.

    Moral naturalism is a long standing tradition in philosophy and it’s not one of transcendent beings.

    See above. If you appeal to a source of authority beyond the human, you are appealing to a transcendent noumenal reality that in some sense “makes” the pronouncements in some domain of discourse true. That was really rather the entire point of Nietzsche’s attack on metaphysics. Metaphysically, there is no difference between obeying a sacred text or the dictates of a holy man on the one hand, and obeying Reason or The Destiny of the Proletariat or Our Selfish Genes or Whatever on the other hand.

    And yes, I do think the robust sense of ontological objectivity spelled out in 5 is real but it’s not “transcendent”, it’s naturalistic, like many other truths.

    Naturalistic is not an antonym of transcendent in this context. Indeed, any appeal to how nature “really is”, independent of human perspective, must transcend our experience of it.

    And no there is no “non-human moral order” and that’s a false ideal in the first place.

    Then by definition there is no objective moral order, in the sense of there being mind-independent truths “out there” to which our thoughts and desires must be made obeisant.

    There are non-human values and within them there are objective values for humans and within those certain moral precepts are rational and others irrational.

    Pardon me, you just said there is no non-human moral order, but now there are non-human values and moral facts? This is simply confused.

    That’s enough for objectivity without morality having to be held to the pragmatically useless standard of being independent of humans.

    No, it’s enough for what nonphilosophers think they are arguing about when they are arguing about objectivity (assertability, moral seriousness etc.) And I’ve agreed with you that this is really all anyone could reasonably ask for. The connotations of objectivity.

    Not its denotation.

    As long as atheists keep insisting on the latter, they will keep getting laughed off by theists, and by fellow atheists familiar with basic concepts and vocabulary in philosophy.

    And scientific truths are not transcendent, they’re naturalistic, yet they’re objective.

    As I pointed out, you’ve misunderstood what transcendent means in this context. And even a brief dip in the pool of 20th century empiricist philosophy of science reveals that the notion of scientific theories conveying truths about unobservable reality (i.e. truths over and above patterns in our own subjective experience) is devilishly difficult to vindicate. But that takes things a bit far afield.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Pardon me, you just said there is no non-human moral order, but now there are non-human values and moral facts? This is simply confused.

      No, it’s not. The point is that the values are objective for humans and within them come objective norms for humans to realize them. That’s not a non-human moral order outside of those values the realization of which creates objective norms for humans. And those ideals for those norms vary with the conditions humans find themselves in, sometimes greatly. But in all cases, there are objective tools for determining better and worse.

      But you need to start with my post on goodness as effectiveness to understand what I mean by objective value. It’s not identical with “moral fact”.

  • http://outofthegdwaye.wordpress.com George Waye

    I am quite excited to read this entire series of posts. As you know from previous discussions Dan, atheist moral and ethical theory has been a subject of great interest to me.
    After reading several of your posts on morality, I wonder if I seem to be so agreeable to them because I have been following your blog for so long and your posts have informed my own moral theories or if I agree with them because, as you said, they are innovatively groundbreaking and correct.
    My first observation is that I feel that when some people refer to “subjective morality” that they are describing moral systems and not morality proper. Moral systems do not necessarily reflect any set criterion to assess moral goodness- they can be and often are quite subjective- if you take subjective to mean based on traditions and preferences. I have had many an argument with someone who has told me that morality could be redefined to include any number of atrocities that entire civilizations might consider useful. Moral systems might be subjective or utilitarian- but I don’t think you can just call anything moral merely because it involved a series of ethically weighted choices.

  • Staircaseghost

    Finally, I think that if philosophers or atheists declare morality to be, in the main, subjective, without drastically revising the common understanding of that word, they become irrelevant. They become unable to coherently contribute to the numerous discourses that will go on proceeding as though morality was objective. For as long as we will go on acting as though it is objective, we need to be able to understand how to make it as actually objective as possible. Doing that, to a certain extent, means clarifying the best ways of accomplishing degrees of objectivity in moral disputes, rather than confusingly dismissing the entire project of morality as ultimately “just subjective”.

    Your choice of words, “dismissing” is very revealing. It shows you can conceive of no distinction between calling something subjective (in its actual, technical sense) and “dismissing it”. Pooh-pooing it. Saying it’s not real.

    But being a subjectivist about probability is not “dismissing it”, or saying “anything goes”. It is called, “taking Bayesian updating seriously”. If probability, a component of the most serious of serious enterprises (mathematics) can survive being told that it is subjective, then why can’t morality? I have never heard a frequentist say that subjectivists about probability “dismiss the entire project”. But maybe that’s because they understand what the word “subjective” actually means in a technical context.

    You have yet to establish that the common understanding of the term is not a common misunderstanding of the term. Wasn’t that the point of focusing on pragmatics — look at what people are actually worried about, and try to give it to them, rather than redefining what you’re giving them as something it’s not?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Because morality is not math. Morality is practical. In practical terms, “subjective” means varying according to taste. Objective means “binding whether you like it or not”. If the intersubjective and standards of internal consistency and coherency, etc. achieve a status of rationally binding and properly motivating even against one’s feelings, objectivity conveys this and subjectivity obscures this in the realm of real people.

  • Staircaseghost

    Because morality is not math. Morality is practical.

    Yes, mathematics is simply notorious for its complete lack of practical applications…

    You’ve missed the entire point of the comparison. Technical terms mean what technical terms mean. If people say “I’m not an animal!” as though it were a refutation of common descent, you simply point out to them that the remaining options are plants, fungi, and bacteria.

    In practical terms, “subjective” means varying according to taste. Objective means “binding whether you like it or not”.

    In “practical terms”, does Bayesianism about probability mean “varying according to taste”?

    In “practical terms”, is it true that humans are animals?

    Your verbiage, “in practical terms” seems to vindicate my contention (and the point I thought you were making in your post) that most people are obsessed with the connotation rather than the denotation.

    As long as you insist on referring to things like intersubjective agreement and coherentism as “objective”, you will continue to be laughed off by 1) theists and 2) atheists who understand basic concepts and vocabulary in metaethics. Why not argue for what you actually believe and let it stand on its own terms, instead of twisting and turning to rephrase what you believe into a vocabulary which enjoys some cultural cachet, simply to manipulate the masses into going along with it? When you resort to calling taxes by some euphemism like “patriotism fees”, are you convincing the people you really want to convince?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      you will continue to be laughed off by 1) theists and 2) atheists who understand basic concepts and vocabulary in metaethics.

      The issue is vocabulary, not concepts. The issue is semantics and these semantics matter for reasons I will explain in the post I’m writing now. Metaethicists do not agree as much as you imply and certain tendencies in some of the technical language as it now stands is counterproductive. I am not talking about denying all aspects of subjectivity or ignoring the difference between intersubjectivity and objectivity, etc. What I am talking about is what we say when we are speaking about morality “in the main”. Is it “in the main” a subjective or objective affair. Math is well understood to be “in the main” objective, independent of the subjectivity of Bayesian probability. The issue about practicality also had nothing to do with saying math was not practical. It had to do with the particular way that the words “subjective” and “objective” practically operate in the language and psychologically. The practicality of math does not hinge on whether you adopt the word subjective or objective when talking about Bayesian probability, it just hinges on how well it contributes to technological applications, etc. There is no feedback problem. There is a feedback problem when you flatly deny morality is objective, in the main, simply on account of its having various subjective and intersubjective components. I think those components add up to an overall verdict of realism because they add up to an overall verdict of normative force and that is what is the central motivating concern of morality in the first place. That’s the issue, not any sort of evasion. I can recommend a more judicious, true-to-common-language, and pragmatically valuable semantics without it being “laughable” of me as though it was just a matter of sheer ignorance.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      And it’s not a matter of “manipulating the masses” to get them to go along with what they don’t believe, it’s a matter of showing them what really justifies and accounts for what they believe and lining that up with their language for it.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Okay, Staircaseghost, thanks for helping me realize what I most urgently needed to explain. Here’s my follow up post spelling out what was obscured by my discussion of pragmatics. It’s my case for my semantics and an overview of the views that I think make me a legitimate naturalistic, objectivist realist within standard metaethical categories, even as possibly only a subset of objective human values. (I actually though would say that moral facts could be subsets of other beings’ values too, but not something totally independent of all potentially moral beings.)

  • sean samis

    It’s obvious that this topic is tangled up in semantic ambiguity.
    What does “objective” mean?
    For purposes of this topic, do we need to use a word other than “objective”?
    Or can we set the meaning at the outset and merely adhere to that specified definition?
    Would a neologism solve this problem, or just shift it around?
    Should we be prisoners of past uses/abuses of language?

    Transcendence means many things: extending or lying beyond the usual limits, or beyond the limits of ordinary experience, or beyond the universe or material existence; being incomprehensible; having universal application or significance. I’m sure there’s more.

    “Naturalistic is not an antonym of transcendent in this context. Indeed, any appeal to how nature ‘really is’, independent of human perspective, must transcend our experience of it.” Since this is a pragmatic project, which attempts to find a pragmatic morality, how could it ever find anything outside human experience or reason? Certainly nature “really is” quite different from our perspective; we cannot experience or perceive atoms directly, we can only deduce or infer their existence and properties from those things we can experience or perceive; yet it seems odd to call atoms “transcendent”. I suppose it is acceptable, but the point needs to be made clear at the start, IMHO.

    After reading Staircaseghost’s comments; I believe that this project will fail unless Daniel is extraordinarily careful to define what HE means by terms as he goes. Where his use of terms varies from any “standard” he needs to make that difference clear and purposeful. This is not to say Daniel is wrong and Staircaseghost is right, or vise-versa. The point is that if semantics can tie this thing up so quickly, then the effort is doomed. Perhaps doomed by the “original sin” of language uses in the past, but still.

    I also counsel Daniel to avoid talking about what others are doing, much less doing “wrong”. Tell us what you’re going to accomplish and let the results speak for themselves. Distinguish your work from others, but resist making judgments except that your way is “better”.

    sean s.


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