A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 4

This is part 4 of my “Think! Of God and Government” debate series with Christian author Andrew Murtagh. Read my latest post and Andrew’s reply.

Hi Andrew,

It’s been a while, but it’s good to hear from you again. Of course, I’m looking forward to our next in-person matchup on Memorial Day weekend. This time I’ll be the one with home-court advantage!

Just as we agree that morality is a real phenomenon with both rational and empirical components, I think there are moral skeptics among theists as well as among atheists. The theistic moral skeptics would be the people who believe that goodness consists solely of doing God’s will, as interpreted by them at any given moment, even if it starkly contradicts what they previously believed. I’m sure you can come up with your own examples.

When it comes to atheistic moral skeptics, as I said, I’m aware that I can’t convince someone who disagrees with me on first principles. The only answer I can give them is the same answer anyone can ever give to any kind of philosophical skeptic: namely, a practical answer (“I refute it thus!”). Whatever we might say about the unknowability of reality, no one in their right mind ever jumps off a cliff because they believe the law of gravity is just someone’s opinion. Similarly, whatever anyone says about how morals are subjective, no one really wants to live in a world where everyone else acts as if this were true – as if the way a stranger treated you was based entirely on their whim, and not on rules of conduct we all respect.

Then again, this is probably overstating the case. I think most self-proclaimed moral skeptics are perfectly good and decent people, and most of them even make moral decisions the same way as I do. Our disagreement, I’ve found, is mainly a disagreement over language, not ontology – much like the question, “Are numbers real?” Depending on your definition of “real”, two people may disagree quite fiercely about this, yet they can both still calculate and arrive at the right answer.

And I think that provides a good segue…

In our discussion of utilitarianism, you brought up an “Eskimo thought experiment” (I believe the people themselves prefer the term Inuit) about a tribe living in harsh conditions that’s facing starvation, and whose leader has to decide whether some people, like the elderly who can no longer help with the hunt, should be sent out into the wilderness to freeze so that there’s more food for everyone else. You suggest that in that scenario, you’d refuse to consign an elderly person to death, even if it means that more people will starve, and that doing anything else seems “radically disjoint” to you.

Daniel Dennett calls these kinds of thought experiments “intuition pumps”, and when you encounter one of them, he he suggests “twiddling the knobs” – changing some of the parameters to see if it’s some underappreciated feature of the scenario itself that’s doing the work. So, let’s try that!

Let’s say you’re a doctor in a hospital emergency room, and two people with severe injuries are brought in at the same time. You have enough units of blood to save one of them, but only one of them. What do you do?

In the Inuit scenario, you said, “I would rather starve to death than feed my infant to dogs or throw my grandfather into the tundra to freeze to death.” Would the analogous logic of the trauma doctor dictate that you do nothing, rather than be forced to choose who lives and who dies? Or would you ineffectively divide the available blood supply among both patients, knowing that it wouldn’t be enough to save either from death by blood loss? I would suggest that either of those options are less moral than saving one person. If you find it unbearable to make that choice, you could flip a coin or do something random. But when you can’t save everyone, at least save someone, for goodness’ sake!

If the Inuit scenario seems radically disjoint to you, I’d suggest that that’s because you (and I) have never had to make choices like this. Speaking for myself, I know my life has been greatly privileged: I was born to a middle-class family in a wealthy, industrialized nation, and I’ve never gone hungry, much less had to seriously contemplate the prospect of starvation. Assuming your background is similar to mine, it’s natural that we’d recoil in horror at having to make such a stark decision, in conditions of deprivation so unlike what either of us is used to.

To be clear, I don’t think this scenario applies to our society, which has ample ability to care for the elderly and the disabled. But across most of history, the vast majority of people wouldn’t find this scenario unrealistic at all. Poverty and deprivation have always forced people to make terrible sacrifices. For instance, I once wrote about a woman who had to choose which of her children would sleep under their family’s only anti-malaria net.

Morality doesn’t dictate that there’s always a good option. Sometimes, there’s only a least-bad option. But I’d argue that part of what it means to be moral is that we do what good we can, save as many people as we can, rather than throw up our hands and surrender to fatalism if a catastrophe can’t be entirely averted. (To tie this back to the overarching theme of our debate, another part of what it means to be moral is working together and pooling our efforts for the common good, so that we don’t have to face choices like this quite as often.)

I think morality is “innate” in the sense that human beings are born with both a capacity for benevolent cooperation as well as a capacity for prejudice and violence. In that sense, good and evil are both equally innate in us. Our upbringing and circumstances have a lot to do with which one predominates. And again, this is why it’s important to design good governmental systems to bring the good to the fore more often! Individual moral virtue is obviously something to be encouraged, but it’s also unrealistic to expect everyone to display it all the time, just on their own strength of character, regardless of their circumstances. It’s much better to create an environment where goodness can more easily flourish.

If you’d like to talk more about morality, I’m up for that. Otherwise, there’s something you hinted at that I’d like to follow up on. You said that one’s choice of religion is an irrational leap of faith, yet you also maintain that Christianity is in some way a distinctive religious worldview. I’m curious to hear how you reconcile these statements.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • FuzzyDuck81

    Techically eskimo is probably more acceptable as a generic term, Inuit is only 1 tribe, it’s like calling all native americans, say, Sioux, or even worse, all British people English.. the Scottish, Welsh & especially any Irish would probably like to, ah… “have words” :)

    On the thought experiment though, Terry Pratchett touches on this in the Discworld novel Snuff, referring to it as “the dreadful algebra of necessity”.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    When it comes to atheistic moral skeptics, as I said, I’m aware that I
    can’t convince someone who disagrees with me on first principles. The
    only answer I can give them is the same answer anyone can ever give to
    any kind of philosophical skeptic: namely, a practical answer (“I refute
    it thus!”). Whatever we might say about the unknowability of reality,
    no one in their right mind ever jumps off a cliff because they believe
    the law of gravity is just someone’s opinion. Similarly, whatever anyone
    says about how morals are subjective, no one really wants to live in a
    world where everyone else acts as if this were true – as if the way a
    stranger treated you was based entirely on their whim, and not on rules
    of conduct we all respect.

    You are venturing into the territory of false dichotomy. Opposing the concept of objective morality does not mean embracing the idea that morals are “just a whim.” You need to deal with arguments actually put on the table (not by Murtagh, but by others), rather than burn a strawman. To repeat a few things you should already have heard countless times:
    1) “morals are objective” and “morals are subjective and therefore completely arbitrary” are not the only two choices. The alternative I promote is “morals are intersubjective.” And what does “intersubjective” mean? That morals are not truly “objective” in a strict definition of the term, but we can expect almost everyone to agree on many moral standards.
    2) How, or why should this be so? My explanation is that humans are a species of social mammal, and that all humans share several billion years of evolutionary ancestry.

    So please, pull your fingers out of your ears and stop with the simplistic fallacies.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    I think morality is “innate” in the sense that human beings are born
    with both a capacity for benevolent cooperation as well as a capacity
    for prejudice and violence. In that sense, good and evil are both
    equally innate in us.

    And not just in humans. An understanding and acceptance of evolution would invalidate a great many pre-modern philosophical arguments that are, quite frankly, creationist in their consideration of man in the universe.

  • L.Long

    When it comes to morality I think that you hit it with…..” I’d suggest that that’s because you (and I) have never had to make
    choices like this. Speaking for myself, I know my life has been greatly
    privileged:” I have heard many say I would do this or that!!! and I know they are not actually lying but have never faced the situation so are just wishful thinking. For most people most morals are just wishful thinking.

  • GCT

    I was kinda hoping this “debate” had just fizzled out, as it seems to go nowhere. Mr. Murtagh has only 2 tricks. The first is to harp on morality (not the topic of the debate) because he thinks that atheists have no answer for morality and he’s unwilling to listen to anyone tell him differently. The second is to make bad arguments, like the Cosmological Argument, in order to claim that he’s rational in his choice of Xianity, then retreat to “admitting” that Xianity is completely irrational when called out, only to later pretend that his arguments are still sound. As “nice” and “polite” as he seems to be, he’s deeply intellectually dishonest when rubber meets the road, just like every other apologist out there that I’ve ever dealt with.

  • stanz2reason

    “no one in their right mind ever jumps off a cliff because they believe the law of gravity is just someone’s opinion. Similarly… no one really wants to live in a world where everyone else acts as if this were true”

    You’re drawing a false equivalence between a physical law and systems of value judgements. That people might be uncomfortable with the notion that other people might not hold identical or even similar moral values says little as to where or not it’s true.

    “I think morality is “innate” in the sense that human beings are born with both a capacity for benevolent cooperation as well as a capacity for prejudice and violence.”

    I’d agree, though this depends largely on how we’re defining morality. I’m certain we could list a series of basic behaviors & actions that would be more conducive to human flourishing & happiness and limiting to suffering. Were we to define morality as such, you could make a compelling case for a level of objectivity here. Yet, in terms of morality as a system of value judgements, somethings ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ is entirely the product of subjective tastes, even if the widespread acceptance of certain behaviors gives the illusion that there is some sort of value objectivity here. Capacity for taste is an innate feature of a person, but the judgement of something, particularly the goodness vs. badness value assignments of moral judgements are still ultimately made at the individual level. In regards to value judgement, you’re on no more firmer ground to argue somethings objective goodness as you are to argue a foods objective deliciousness or a which movie is objectively the greatest.

  • Jason K.

    You said that one’s choice of religion is an irrational leap of faith,
    yet you also maintain that Christianity is in some way a distinctive
    religious worldview. I’m curious to hear how you reconcile these
    statements.

    Are those statements difficult to reconcile? It seems obvious that worldviews can be both irrational and distinctive. Christianity and astrology are both irrational yet distinct from one another. Or am I not seeing some nuance in the question?

    At any rate, it wasn’t for me to answer, so I’ll wait to see where you are going with this.

  • RoverSerton

    As I understand it, in the 50′s as dialysis was just coming in, boards were set up to determine who would get the treatment and who would die until enough machines became available. Same Eskimo example. Saving someone is better than letting all die.

  • Leum

    In Alaska, where I live, Eskimo is regarded as a slur, and Inuit refers to almost all of the tribes living on the tundra and coastal planes north of the Arctic Circle.

  • J-D

    It is empirically demonstrable that people hold different and even sometimes contradictory positions on moral issues. I don’t think, however, that this fact by itself is sufficient to support the conclusions you are trying to draw. There are other domains where people give different and sometimes even contradictory answers to the same question, but sometimes the explanation for that is that some people are just simply wrong in their judgements.

  • stanz2reason

    I’m suggesting that moral value assignment and the subsequent experience of righteousness and it’s opposite (perhaps guilt?) are the result of judgements being made at the subjective level. I’m suggesting that efforts to claim an objective moral value system are the result of unwarranted claims for where such value came from (often some sort of religious tradition) or of adding qualifications to make an actions ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ affect a desired end (ie. Murder is bad… with respect to maintaining the social ties that hold society together). I’m suggesting that the gut feeling of something being ‘just right’ or ‘just wrong’ and that people ‘just know’ something is right/wrong is an illusion of a compelling subjective experience masquerading as some greater objective truth. I’m suggesting that this illusory veil is predominantly the product of natural human empathy & life experience including cultural effects. I’m suggesting the comparison of moral judgements to tastes and that saying something is definitively ‘right’ is like saying chocolate is definitively delicious.

  • Science Avenger

    #2 is on the mark. Our morals are subjectively based on our evolved instincts, desires and values. Since we share ancestries, we are going to agree a lot, and when we don’t it often reveals itself as a flaw in one participant.

    For example, we consider murder immoral for the simple reason that dead people stay dead. But its pretty easy to see that a race of Timelords, who regenerate after “dying”, might not see it this way.

    The “objective morals” arguments are all crap from start to finish. The proponents simply want objective morals, and twist themselves into all sorts of logical and factual knots to get there. But Hume remains unconquered, the is-ought fallacy remains. Morals are not only not subjective, the vast amount of agreement across humanity as to what is and is not moral* is proof positive that they don’t need to be.

    *Often the amount of disagreement is overstated by ignoring the vast swaths of behavior that is nearly universally categorized as moral or not.

  • http://teethofthebuzzsaw.blogspot.com/ Leo Buzalsky

    I don’t think astrology would necessarily fall into the “religion” category in the context of the discussion because it does not require god belief. I think the question is more in regards to only other religions that necessarily include god belief. Additionally, the term “distinctive” isn’t about distinguishing one religion from another; this would seem to be more about what makes Andrew think Christianity isn’t just another religion.

  • http://teethofthebuzzsaw.blogspot.com/ Leo Buzalsky

    “Intersubjective”

    Thanks! I’ve never seen that term before, but that seems to describe well the conclusions I have come on in regards to morality.

  • http://teethofthebuzzsaw.blogspot.com/ Leo Buzalsky

    Though, as that is the first time I’ve ever seen that term, I would question a bit if that would be something that Adam “should already have heard countless times.” Granted, I’m no where near as popular of a blogger as he, nor have I been giving thought to such things for near as long as he has. But considering that theists seem to love to push that false dichotomy, I can see it as a difficult “trap” to escape.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    That morals are not truly “objective” in a strict definition of the term, but we can expect almost everyone to agree on many moral standards.

    The problem is, people sometimes agree in the wrong direction. What would an intersubjective theory of morality say about the validity of, for example, slavery – if that belief happened to be held by a majority, as was the case a few centuries ago? Would the belief in, say, female suffrage or the equality of the races start out “wrong” (as judged by the majority) but transition to “right” as more people came to adopt it?

    I find that conclusion absurd. If slavery is wrong, it has always been wrong. The virtue of an objective theory of morality is that it has grounds for pronouncing something to be wrong regardless of the beliefs of people at a given time and place.

  • Izkata

    There’s an aspect to the two scenarios you haven’t considered/compared: Social interactions. In one, you have to confront the person who is going to die. In the other, you can avoid it. It makes the decision much easier.

  • GCT

    “Slavery is wrong,” is subjective?

  • stanz2reason

    In terms of a value judgement, yes, ultimately subjective. In terms of harm caused to those involved, no, there is a strong case for it being objectively harmful.

    I would say ‘slavery is wrong’ in conversation, however this is really short for ‘in my view slavery is wrong’.

    Consider again the comparison to taste. On what objective grounds can we ascribe deliciousness to chocolate? If no one eats the chocolate or the chocolate is just abandoned, can it be said that the chocolate is still delicious? Does it even have some intrinsic deliciousness to lose? The most important question here is the last one, and the answer is no, as somethings ‘deliciousness’ is the result of the subjective experience of tasting and evaluating the taste, not of some intrinsic feature of the chocolate.

    Why not view moral judgements in the same manner?

    My comparison suggests value assignment to be one more of taste or opinion, rather than of fact, an opinion influenced no doubt by natural inclinations, life experience, etc., but one that’s ultimately held by the individual. Being witness to an act that prompts an emotional response & moral judgement, a judgement that might be similar to & shared by everyone else giving the illusion of some form objectivity of value.

  • stanz2reason

    Where exactly does the judgement of slavery’s ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ take place?

  • GCT

    I don’t see moral judgements as questions of taste or opinion, like in the sense of how chocolate tastes or one’s opinion of whether vanilla or chocolate is better. Whether I go out and own another person and the moral question of whether it is right or not is much different from whether I prefer vanilla to chocolate. I also don’t see why you’d have to claim that slavery is wrong, but only in your view. Are there views out there where it isn’t wrong? If you can make an objective case that it is harmful, why hedge your bets in claiming that it’s only wrong in your view?

  • stanz2reason

    Whether I go out and own another person and the moral question of whether it is right or not is much different from whether I prefer vanilla to chocolate.

    I’d offer that the difference between food tastes & moral tastes is a matter of scale of the subjective emotional response rather than of principle.

    I also don’t see why you’d have to claim that slavery is wrong, but only in your view.

    I’d have to claim it as such (rather than the abbreviated conversational version of ‘slavery is wrong’) since the assignment of ‘wrongness’ is being made by me alone, even if it is a view that is shared by many.

    Are there views out there where it isn’t wrong?

    Those who still practice it or practiced it in the past are either OK with it, or not as opposed to the practice as you or I.

    If you can make an objective case that it is harmful, why hedge your bets in claiming that it’s only wrong in your view?

    It’s not hedging bets. It’s acknowledging a difference between saying ‘it’s wrong’ as a standalone moral value assignment and ‘it’s wrong’ in the context of some secondary principles.

  • GCT

    I’d offer that the difference between food tastes & moral tastes is a matter of scale of the subjective emotional response rather than of principle.

    You can’t very well say that ‘there is a strong case for chocolate being objectively more tasty,’ to paraphrase you.

    I’d have to claim it as such (rather than the abbreviated conversational version of ‘slavery is wrong’) since the assignment of ‘wrongness’ is being made by me alone, even if it is a view that is shared by many.

    Is there any time or situation where it would be right?

    Those who still practice it or practiced it in the past are either OK with it, or not as opposed to the practice as you or I.

    That’s not what I asked. I didn’t ask if people still do it or think for whatever reason that it’s moral. I asked if there are any views that anyone can use to actually show that it isn’t wrong?

    It’s not hedging bets. It’s acknowledging a difference between saying ‘it’s wrong’ as a standalone moral value assignment and ‘it’s wrong’ in the context of some secondary principles.

    No, it’s you sticking to your argument even in the face of something that you’ve admitted can be objectively shown to be harmful. The only way I can see you going forward with this is by claiming that doing something that is objectively harmful is not necessarily wrong, but I can’t, for the life of me, figure out how you would make that argument.

  • stanz2reason

    You can’t very well say that ‘there is a strong case for chocolate being objectively more tasty,’ to paraphrase you.

    Were I to say deliciousness was a measure of sugar and subsequent sweetness of Chocolate in comparison to crackers or ricecakes, you could make an objective argument for it being more tasty. In this instance measure of sweetness is the secondary parameter by which you’re assigning value, similar how you might use a measure of harm as a secondary parameter to judge an actions rightness or wrongness. Altering the metric by which you’re judging (say saltyness rather than sweetness, or harm to the society vs harm to the individual vs. harm to some sort of immortal soul) and it becomes clear that labels of rightness or wrongness are the product of individual assignment.

    Is there any time or situation where it would be right?

    In my opinion, no there is not.

    That’s not what I asked. I didn’t ask if people still do it or think for whatever reason that it’s moral. I asked if there are any views that anyone can use to actually show that it isn’t wrong?

    Perhaps I should have been clearer. The notion of slavery is abhorrent, so offensive to my moral sensibilities that it’s unthinkable to me to be comfortable enough with it that I’d engage in the practice. This is clearly not an issue for those who did or continue to engage in it. Those who have little or no problem with it or even engage in the practice with some sort of righteousness, I offer their views, whatever they might be, as a response to your original question of Are there views out there where it isn’t wrong?

    No, it’s you sticking to your argument even in the face of something that you’ve admitted can be objectively shown to be harmful.

    A measure of demonstrable harm might be a sufficient enough guideline for you to make practical real world moral choices, and is one of the basic variables that most people use in making moral judgements. But it is not the only metric by which people make moral judgements. People can be looking at the same situations, juggling the same variables and arrive at differing conclusions dependent on their subjective moral frame of reference. My point is the assignment of ‘rightness’ & ‘wrongness’ in the situation is ultimately made at the individual level, rather than something that is inherent in the action. It’s easy to believe the illusion of a concrete ‘right’ & ‘wrong’ by diving into the extremes of rapes & murders or slavery & genocides because the views of the overwhelming majority of people (though perhaps not as much the people committing such acts) align fairly cleanly across varying time periods & cultures. I don’t think such widely held views are the result of a few billion people stumbling on a deeper written in stone objective moral principle, rather empathy and cultural forces push a few billion people to arrive at a similar conclusion.

    The only way I can see you going forward with this is by claiming that doing something that is objectively harmful is not necessarily wrong, but I can’t, for the life of me, figure out how you would make that argument.

    Hitting a disobedient child? Imprisonment or capital punishment? Punching a bully? Demanding taxes? Engaging in nearly any sort of military action?

    All varying measures of objective harms that are likely to illicit ‘rights’ & ‘wrongs’ dependent on people’s judgement.

  • J-D

    If the only meaning of ‘Slavery is wrong’ is ‘In my view, slavery is wrong’, then the only meaning that can have is ‘In my view, in my view slavery is wrong’, which can only mean ‘In my view, in my view, in my view slavery is wrong’, and so _ad infinitum_. There must be something wrong with your analysis.

  • J-D

    If I report that Sasha prefers chocolate to vanilla while Taylor prefers vanilla to chocolate, I am not contradicting myself. So if Sasha says ‘I prefer chocolate to vanilla’ and Taylor says ‘I prefer vanilla to chocolate’, they are not contradicting each other. If Sasha says ‘People prefer chocolate to vanilla’ and Taylor says ‘People prefer vanilla to chocolate’, are they contradicting each other? Is it possible that they’re both right, or must it be the case that at least one of them is wrong? The answer to these questions depends on which people they’re talking about. If Sasha means ‘some people I know’ or even ‘most people I know’, while Taylor means ‘some people I know’ or even ‘most people I know’, their statements are not necessarily contradictory and it’s possible that both are correct. On the other hand, if Sasha means ‘the majority of all human beings prefer chocolate to vanilla’ while Taylor means ‘the majority of all human beings prefer vanilla to chocolate’ they can’t both be correct.

    But ‘X is morally wrong’ and ‘I dislike X’ are not synonymous. I dislike pawpaw, but I do not mean by that statement that pawpaw is morally wrong.

    If I say that chocolate is delicious, you may agree with me, or disagree with me, or neither, but you know what I mean. If I say that slavery is morally wrong, you may agree with me, or disagree with me, or neither, but you know what I mean, and it is something more specific than ‘I personally dislike slavery’.

  • J-D

    Your emotional response to an action you find morally admirable is not the same emotional response, even on a different scale, as your emotional response to a food you find delicious. It’s not just the same emotional response on a different scale, it’s a different emotional response.

  • stanz2reason

    ‘In my view, slavery is wrong’ is it’s own complete statement. It can be true or false. It happens to be true. There is no regression here. Puzzling why you’d suggest that’s the case.

  • stanz2reason

    There are some positions that are in my opinion morally admirable. I also admire the works of some filmmakers, but still have no grounds to suggest their works are objectively good or bad. That I might admire someones moral position changes notion as to where that position is actually coming. It’s comes from the individual judgement, not from some outside objective source.

  • stanz2reason

    You’re not really paying attention to what I’m suggesting. You’re unnecessarily drawing a distinction between food tastes & moral tastes. That moral tastes illicit stronger emotional reactions than a piece of cake simply makes the difference between the two a matter of scale, rather than principle. What I’m suggesting is the principle that the judgement of such things (deliciousness and rightness/wrongness) happens at the individual level. It is an illusion, albeit a compelling one, that your moral sensibilities are any more valid than your palate in labeling something as objectively ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The experience that something is just soooo wrong it angers you to even consider it leads people to draw a conclusion, that something so certain must come from beyond their own evaluations. Saying ‘slavery is wrong’ might feel like more than ‘I personally dislike slavery’, but it is not.

  • Jason K.

    Sorry for being unclear, but I wasn’t trying to allege that astrology is a religion, merely trying to demonstrate that there is no apparent irreconcilability between the qualities of irrationality and originality.

  • J-D

    It is true that ‘In my view slavery is wrong’ is a complete statement which can be true or false. That’s not the basis of my challenge. You wrote that ‘slavery is wrong’ is ‘_really_ short for’ (my emphasis added) ‘in my view slavery is wrong’. What I question is not what you mean by ‘in my view slavery is wrong’, but rather what you mean by ‘really short for’. There is not the same sort of equivalence between ‘slavery is wrong’ and ‘in my view, slavery is wrong’ as there is between ‘kg’ and ‘kilogram’. It is not a sufficient explanation of what you mean when you say ‘X is wrong’ to say that you mean ‘in my view, X is wrong’. To the extent that making any statement X implies the statement ‘in my view, X’, the same implication holds regardless of the content of the statement X, and there’s nothing distinctive in this regard about statements of moral judgements.

  • J-D

    The moral position doesn’t ‘come from’ the individual judgement, it _is_ the individual judgement. If it’s my individual judgement that slavery is wrong, then that’s the moral position I’m taking. How it comes about that people form moral judgements (or, equivalently, take moral positions), generally speaking or in particular cases, is not as clear to me as I would like it to be, but I see no reason to accept that there is no explanation. (For that matter, I see no reason to accept that there is no explanation of how you form your judgements of the work of film-makers.)

    If we did have a good explanation of how people form moral judgements, it would have to be one that explained, among other things, how different people form conflicting moral judgements. It is, as I mentioned earlier, empirically demonstrable that people form conflicting judgements on moral questions. It’s also empirically demonstrable that people from conflicting judgements on historical and scientific questions, but I doubt you would want to draw the same sorts of conclusions about history and science that you want to draw about morality.

  • J-D

    I am paying attention to what you’re suggesting. What I’m not doing is agreeing with it. You’re making assertions which you have not justified.

    All judgements happen at the individual level; there’s nowhere else that they could happen. If I judge that slavery is wrong, that judgement happens at the level of the individual (me); if I judge that marzipan is delicious, that judgement happens at the level of the individual (me); if I judge that I need to leave home within ten minutes in order to catch the bus that will get me to my appointment on time, that judgement happens at the level of the individual (me); if I judge that King O’Malley lied about his place of birth in order to enter Australian politics, that judgement happens at the level of the individual (me); if I judge that oxygen is required for combustion to take place, that judgement happens at the level of the individual (me). As all judgements take place at the level of the individual, this is not a distinctive characteristic of judgements on matters of morality. Happening at the level of the individual is a characteristic that judgements on matters of morality and judgements on matters of taste have in common with judgements on matters of fact and doesn’t distinguish them.

    However, the statement that judgements take place at the level of the individual is not synonymous with the statement that judgements are unaffected by anything except the individual. It is my judgement that oxygen is required for combustion. Why do I make that judgement? I may not be able to give an adequate answer to that question, but the question makes sense and it’s reasonable to suppose that there is an answer to it. It is my judgement that slavery is wrong. Why do I make that judgement? I may not be able to give an adequate answer to that question, but the question makes sense and it’s reasonable to suppose that there’s an answer to it. You give the appearance of taking the position that the only cause of my individual judgement is my individual judgement, that it springs into existence free of all external influence. If that’s your position, you haven’t justified it. It strikes me as implausible.

    Statements in the form ‘X is wrong’ and ‘I personally dislike X’ are not synonymous. If they were, then ‘pawpaw is wrong’ and ‘I personally dislike pawpaw’ would be synonymous. But ‘pawpaw is wrong’ and ‘I personally dislike pawpaw’ are not synonymous; I affirm ‘I personally dislike pawpaw’ but not ‘pawpaw is wrong’. So it is not a universal truth that ‘X is wrong’ and ‘I personally dislike X’ are synonymous.

  • J-D

    You wrote ‘I asked if there are any views that anyone can use to actually show that it isn’t wrong?’ I’m not sure what you mean by that. If you mean ‘Are there arguments that people have offered in attempts to demonstrate that slavery isn’t wrong?’ then the answer is yes. Examples can be found on the Web. I don’t find them persuasive, and my guess is that you wouldn’t either, but they demonstrably exist.

    But perhaps what you meant by your question was something different.

  • GCT

    Were I to say deliciousness was a measure of sugar and subsequent sweetness of Chocolate in comparison to crackers or ricecakes, you could make an objective argument for it being more tasty.

    No, not really, because not all people like sugary tastes. In fact, I enjoy dark chocolate better than sweeter white chocolate or milk chocolate.

    In this instance measure of sweetness is the secondary parameter by which you’re assigning value, similar how you might use a measure of harm as a secondary parameter to judge an actions rightness or wrongness.

    Except the judgement of harm isn’t up for personal whim or taste, which is what I’m driving at here.

    Altering the metric by which you’re judging (say saltyness rather than sweetness, or harm to the society vs harm to the individual vs. harm to some sort of immortal soul) and it becomes clear that labels of rightness or wrongness are the product of individual assignment.

    Except it doesn’t work the same way, and you’ve not shown it to work the same way by simply asserting it’s the same.

    In my opinion, no there is not.

    So, if there’s no argument to be made that slavery is good (or not bad) then why can we not claim that it’s objectively wrong?

    Those who have little or no problem with it or even engage in the practice with some sort of righteousness, I offer their views, whatever they might be, as a response to your original question of Are there views out there where it isn’t wrong?

    IOW, the heckler’s veto is alive and well. As long as any person finds something OK, then you can’t say differently? Lots of people think homophobia is just fine and dandy, and your argument against that basically would have to boil down to, “Well, I don’t think it’s OK, but I can only voice my opinion on the matter.” Seriously? Bigotry is a matter of opinion? Slavery is a matter of opinion? When your position becomes ridiculous, maybe it’s time to re-think it.

    A measure of demonstrable harm might be a sufficient enough guideline for you to make practical real world moral choices, and is one of the basic variables that most people use in making moral judgements. But it is not the only metric by which people make moral judgements.

    Adam has previously argued this point, and hopefully I’m accurately portraying the argument, but it goes something like this: people make all kinds of claims about how they base their moral judgments, but if you ask them “why?” and continue to drill down, the system eventually gets to a point where you can progress no further, and that point is the question of harm and happiness – what actions cause the most happiness and the least harm.

    People can be looking at the same situations, juggling the same variables and arrive at differing conclusions dependent on their subjective moral frame of reference.

    That people can come to different conclusions does not necessarily entail that morality is subjective.

    My point is the assignment of ‘rightness’ & ‘wrongness’ in the situation is ultimately made at the individual level, rather than something that is inherent in the action.

    And, I’m contending that this idea leads us to a ridiculous conclusion – slavery is a question of opinion.

    I don’t think such widely held views are the result of a few billion people stumbling on a deeper written in stone objective moral principle, rather empathy and cultural forces push a few billion people to arrive at a similar conclusion.

    Don’t confuse “objective” with “absolute,” “universal,” or “Platonic ideal.” They are not the same. No one is claiming that some perfect morality exists in a cave somewhere waiting to be discovered.

    Hitting a disobedient child? Imprisonment or capital punishment? Punching a bully? Demanding taxes? Engaging in nearly any sort of military action?

    All varying measures of objective harms that are likely to illicit ‘rights’ & ‘wrongs’ dependent on people’s judgement.

    IOW, slavery is only wrong to you if you think it’s wrong, which seems rather ridiculous. If something is objectively harmful, then the best we can say about it is that it’s only wrong if you think it is?

  • GCT

    At the risk of going down some rabbit hole with you, what I was getting at is that stanz2reason spoke about slavery being objectively harmful. What arguments are there out there that can justify something that is objectively harmful? I doubt that anyone actually has an argument that can justify slavery, even if they believe that they do.

  • OurSally

    Maybe morality is relative; the ancient Greeks held slavery to be the more moral alternative to genocide.

  • stanz2reason

    As I noted elsewhere here my comparison suggests value assignment to be one more of taste or opinion, rather than of fact, an opinion influenced no doubt by natural inclinations, life experience, etc., but one that’s ultimately held by the individual. I’m aware judgement is influenced by a number of variables. Someone’s cultural experience might heavily influence notions of ‘rights’ & ‘wrongs’. Growing up in a religious environment might make it nearly impossible for someone to view an issue like homosexuality as anything but ‘wrong’… yet in no way is that demonstrably true (or false) in an objective way.

    With regards to your comparison of ‘oxygen being required for combustion’, this is not only your judgement, but something that can be shown to be objectively true or objectively false. Your judgement in this case is grounded in empirically demonstrable evidence. Can you say the same for ethical principles?

    Statements in the form ‘X is wrong’ and ‘I personally dislike X’ are not synonymous.

    I agree, they are not synonymous. The first is at best unclear and at worst unintelligible in the sense that suggesting some thing is ‘wrong’ presumes the action or idea in question has some sort of notable intrinsic wrongness to it. I think a more accurate description of what’s actually happening is that actions themselves are morally neutral, and the emotional response, judgement and subsequent value assignment of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is where morals exist. As a result a statement like ‘I personally dislike X’ or ‘In my view, X is wrong’ are more appropriate.

  • stanz2reason

    It’s not an abbreviation as kg & kilogram are. I’m not suggesting an equivocation between statements other than the first (X is wrong) is typically used conversationally to mean the second (In my view X is wrong). That they aren’t saying the same thing is precisely my point. I address this further in another post.

  • stanz2reason

    With regards to filmmakers (and moral questions) we are capable of answering other questions that have more objective grounding to them. For instance we might be able to note good CGI vs. poor CGI in terms of how the images on the screen reflect a real environment; often matters of lighting and movement (hair, water, muscle, etc.). We might discuss the decisions the characters make and find inconsistencies with their logic that form plot holes. And of course we look for consensus amongst viewers and find that some movies are near universally liked while others are panned. Answering these questions might give you confidence to say that a film is ‘good’ while another is not, yet you really have no ground to say this in an objective sense. I might passionately feel and argue that ‘The Godfather’ is a better film than ‘Dude, Where’s my Car?’, I might note the critical acclaim and all the other merits of the former film, but ultimately the scale we’re talking about here is one of taste.

  • stanz2reason

    No, not really, because not all people like sugary tastes. In fact, I enjoy dark chocolate better than sweeter white chocolate or milk chocolate.

    You’re missing my point. I’m not suggesting sweetness is better, in fact what I’m saying is quite to the contrary. My point is that deliciousness is entirely a subjective judgement (as are ethical judgements). I’m suggesting you might ground such judgements by anchoring them to alternative parameters. I’ve chosen sweetness simply because you can objectively show that one food has considerably more sugar in it than another. That some people might not prefer sweet food is PRECISELY my point. There’s no objective deliciousness.

    Except the judgement of harm isn’t up for personal whim or taste, which is what I’m driving at here.

    I’d refer you to my previous examples Hitting a disobedient child? Imprisonment or capital punishment? Punching a bully? Demanding taxes? Engaging in nearly any sort of military action? All harms. Can you say if any are objectionably right/wrong?

    Except it doesn’t work the same way, and you’ve not shown it to work the same way by simply asserting it’s the same.

    I’m not certain what you’re referring to. Are you objecting that I’ve suggested a similarity in my analogy without noting why you should accept the analogy as accurate?

    You asked: Is there any time or situation where [slavery] would be right?

    I responded: In my opinion, no there is not.

    You responded: So, if there’s no argument to be made that slavery is good (or not bad) then why can we not claim that it’s objectively wrong?

    Simply because I personally can find no justifiable reason for slavery does not mean I’m making a case for it’s objectivity. I see no justifiable reason someone would listen to or attend a Justin Beiber concert either, yet as much as I’d like to, I can’t objectively state someone is wrong for doing so.

    As long as any person finds something OK, then you can’t say differently?

    Where did I say or imply that? I’m now repeating myself, but again Those who have little or no problem with it or even engage in the practice [of slavery] with some sort of righteousness, I offer their views, whatever they might be, as a response to your original question of Are there views out there where it isn’t wrong?

    Bigotry is a matter of opinion?

    Yes.

    Slavery is a matter of opinion?

    Yes.

    When your position becomes ridiculous, maybe it’s time to re-think it.

    Perhaps you’d be better off considering my opinion rather than preemptively jumping to a conclusion.

    “people make all kinds of claims about how they base their moral judgments, but if you ask them “why?” and continue to drill down, the system eventually gets to a point where you can progress no further, and that point is the question of harm and happiness – what actions cause the most happiness and the least harm..”

    I’d offer Jonathan Haidt’s ‘A Righteous Mind’ as a response to this claim. There are more variables than harm & happiness that shape peoples moral views, even if those two appeal more to people with a liberal sensibility (as they do to me). His studies suggest this to be a dubious claim. And at best you’re noting prominent variables that people weight while making their judgements, not how much weight each is granted.

    That people can come to different conclusions does not necessarily entail that morality is subjective.

    No it does not necessarily, but it is consistent with what you’d expect were that to be the case.

    And, I’m contending that this idea leads us to a ridiculous conclusion – slavery is a question of opinion.

    It’s only ridiculous if you’ve never seriously considered it otherwise. I’m suggesting that the passionate feelings against it supported by a culture that widely supports the notion that ‘slavery is wrong’ creates an illusion that you’ve bought in to.

    No one is claiming that some perfect morality exists in a cave somewhere waiting to be discovered.

    In terms of value assignment, that’s precisely what is being suggested by objective morality. Don’t get me wrong, using the real world practical parameters of ‘how an action affects the government of human interaction’ you could say on an objective level which actions are more conducive to that end and which are less. But it’s not the same with value assignment, which is what we’re talking about.

    If something is objectively harmful, then the best we can say about it is that it’s only wrong if you think it is?

    You’ve ignored my examples. I’m saying that even if something is shown to be objectively harmful that it might still be weighted differently against another competing variable that leads to different people arriving at similarly justifiable but opposing value assignments. Be careful as the views of people operating under an alternative frame of reference might not be any less defensible than your own.

  • GCT

    You’re missing my point. I’m not suggesting sweetness is better, in fact what I’m saying is quite to the contrary. My point is that deliciousness is entirely a subjective judgement (as are ethical judgements).

    No, I get your point. What I’m counter with is that simply asserting that they are both value judgments (deliciousness and ethics) doesn’t quite jibe because in the former case we can’t assign objective measures, while you’ve already admitted that we can in the latter. It’s not so much about preference as it is about objective harm.

    I’d refer you to my previous examples Hitting a disobedient child? Imprisonment or capital punishment? Punching a bully? Demanding taxes? Engaging in nearly any sort of military action? All harms. Can you say if any are objectionably right/wrong?

    Those are neither here nor there for the argument I made. You claimed that slavery is objectively harmful. Whether those other things are objectively harmful or not is quite a separate matter. I could go through them and make arguments, but it would be completely tangential to the argument on the table.

    I’m not certain what you’re referring to. Are you objecting that I’ve suggested a similarity in my analogy without noting why you should accept the analogy as accurate?

    You’ve suggested a superficial similarity, and I pointed out why it doesn’t work.

    Simply because I personally can find no justifiable reason for slavery does not mean I’m making a case for it’s objectivity.

    Except that you’ve already claimed that it is objectively harmful. Bieber’s “music” may be harmful to my ears, but not objectively so.

    Where did I say or imply that?

    By claiming that morality is completely subject to personal whim. In fact, you answered in the affirmative when I asked point-blank whether those are a matter of opinion. If person X holds slaves, how do you claim they are wrong to do so? Do you even make that claim? It is, after all, simply a matter of opinion.

    Perhaps you’d be better off considering my opinion rather than preemptively jumping to a conclusion.

    Why should I when your “opinion” leads to the ridiculous conclusion that whether owning another person or not is moral is up to opinion?

    I’d offer Jonathan Haidt’s ‘A Righteous Mind’ as a response to this claim. There are more variables than harm & happiness that shape peoples moral views, even if those two appeal more to people with a liberal sensibility (as they do to me).

    And, if you ask them “why” they value X or Y enough, it eventually gets to happiness vs. harm.

    No it does not necessarily, but it is consistent with what you’d expect were that to be the case.

    If correlation equaled causation, perhaps, but then we could also make the case that science is not objective.

    It’s only ridiculous if you’ve never seriously considered it otherwise. I’m suggesting that the passionate feelings against it supported by a culture that widely supports the notion that ‘slavery is wrong’ creates an illusion that you’ve bought in to.

    An “illusion” apparently supported by objective facts, that you, yourself, admitted to. Slavery is objectively harmful. It’s not simply passionate feelings, nor is it culture. It’s an objective fact, as you admitted, that slavery is objectively harmful. Why do you keep ignoring that?

    In terms of value assignment, that’s precisely what is being suggested by objective morality.

    No, it is not. That you think so means that you aren’t actually arguing against objectivity at all.

    Don’t get me wrong, using the real world practical parameters of ‘how an action affects the government of human interaction’ you could say on an objective level which actions are more conducive to that end and which are less. But it’s not the same with value assignment, which is what we’re talking about.

    What’s the practical difference there? What, that some people come to bad conclusions somehow invalidates objectivity? It does not.

    I’m saying that even if something is shown to be objectively harmful that it might still be weighted differently against another competing variable that leads to different people arriving at similarly justifiable but opposing value assignments.

    I disagree with that. That some people try to justify things and come to bad conclusions does not mean that everything is subjective.

    Be careful as the views of people operating under an alternative frame of reference might not be any less defensible than your own.

    They are welcome to try and we can let the facts help us determine who is right. I’m pretty confident that no facts will overturn the objective harm of something like slavery (as you seem to agree with).

  • stanz2reason

    This seems an example of two ‘bad’ options being considered in context to one another rather than judged on their own.

  • stanz2reason

    “What I’m counter with is that simply asserting that they are both value judgments (deliciousness and ethics) doesn’t quite jibe because in the former case we can’t assign objective measures, while you’ve already admitted that we can in the latter.

    I’ve already offered objective measures for judging deliciousness (sweetness in particular). A foods temperature, bitterness, toughness, etc. would also suffice. What I suggested is you can take alternative parameters that can be evaluated on an objective basis. At no point did I suggest that the subsequent value judgement would qualify as objective. Answering similar questions and weighting a reasonable set of variables might offer a practical enough base for day to day ethical decision making, but lacks the objectivity we’re talking about when saying something is objectively ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in and of itself.

    Those are neither here nor there for the argument I made.

    Those are ENTIRELY here & there (new phrase) to the argument being presented. You’d prefer to ignore them and dwell in the extremes of issues like slavery where the illusion of objectivity is most compelling.

    You’ve suggested a superficial similarity, and I pointed out why it doesn’t work.

    I don’t think the comparison is superficial. I’m noting the idea of alternative questions being answered (subjective deliciousness vs. objective sweetness) to provide practical grounds for justifying judgement. You seem hell bent in Harm Harm Harm being the measure of judgement on ethical cases. This is no different that Sweetness being the measure of deliciousness.

    you’ve already claimed that it is objectively harmful.

    Again with the Harm Harm Harm. One variable of many used to evaluate moral claims.

    If person X holds slaves, how do you claim they are wrong to do so?

    Simple. I say “In my view, that practice is wrong”. Ta-da!!

    Do you even make that claim?

    See previous response for the claim I make.

    It is, after all, simply a matter of opinion.

    Ultimately, yes it is.

    Why should I when your “opinion” leads to the ridiculous conclusion that whether owning another person or not is moral is up to opinion?

    You’re confusing your subjective discomfort with what I’m suggesting with ridiculousness.

    And, if you ask them “why” they value X or Y enough, it eventually gets to happiness vs. harm.

    Which again, is not necessarily true. That might be how your moral variables boil down, but that doesn’t hold for everyone. At least spend a moment and google ‘Moral Foundations Theory’ before continuing with Harm Harm Harm. It’s not an argument for subjective morals, but it does note, with some authority, that this is more complex than you’re suggesting.

    If correlation equaled causation, perhaps, but then we could also make the case that science is not objective.

    This doesn’t make much sense. Were that the extent of my argument you’d be justified in pointing correlation/causation. However it is not. In addition, this doesn’t apply the same way to science. Data is objective. Models are not. Models strive towards to most accurate description of things. Different models might be consistent with the same facts, but again these facts are objectively demonstrable and weighted in a manner that ethical variables are not.

    Slavery is objectively harmful. It’s not simply passionate feelings, nor is it culture. It’s an objective fact, as you admitted, that slavery is objectively harmful. Why do you keep ignoring that?

    I grow tired in repeating myself, so I will say this one final time, harm is only one a a number of variables people use to evaluate moral claims. Furthermore, even were we to establish that harm is objectively occurring, this doesn’t dictate the amount of weight every person assigns to it when factoring in other considerations.

    No, it is not. That you think so means that you aren’t actually arguing against objectivity at all.

    The moral objectivity I object to is the notion that ethical values exist independent of the mind. Alternate definitions are reworking the concept of objective morality to something more palatable.

    What’s the practical difference there? What, that some people come to bad conclusions somehow invalidates objectivity? It does not.

    There’s often very little practical difference. Some views are held so widely as to be effectively objective. Differing conclusions don’t necessarily imply faults in logic. Moral responses are emotional responses filtered through the lens of a person & their experience. The logic for arriving at differing moral conclusions can be sound.

    I disagree with that. That some people try to justify things and come to bad conclusions does not mean that everything is subjective.

    Again, you’re not disagreeing so much as simply ignoring.

    They are welcome to try and we can let the facts help us determine who is right. I’m pretty confident that no facts will overturn the objective harm of something like slavery (as you seem to agree with).

    There’s little here that wouldn’t be me simply repeating myself. I encourage you to consider that 1) there are more variables people consider when weighting moral situations than simply harm and that 2) In the event one or some of these variables were to be shown to be objectively true, it does not follow that each of us would assign equal weight to that fact. In other words an agreement on principle would not equate an agreement on price, at which point you’re still looking at morality be subjective phenomena.

  • GCT

    I’ve already offered objective measures for judging deliciousness (sweetness in particular). A foods temperature, bitterness, toughness, etc. would also suffice.

    And, they don’t work as I pointed out. You can’t simply make a superficial comparison and then declare “Case closed.”

    Those are ENTIRELY here & there (new phrase) to the argument being presented. You’d prefer to ignore them and dwell in the extremes of issues like slavery where the illusion of objectivity is most compelling.

    I’m asking you about X, and you reply with, “Well, what about W, Y, and Z?” This is you avoiding X, not me avoiding your red herrings.

    I don’t think the comparison is superficial.

    It is because we know that taste is subjective, while levels of harm are objective. Things like slavery are not as simple as one’s taste.

    Again with the Harm Harm Harm. One variable of many used to evaluate moral claims.

    Once again, the argument that Adam uses here (and I tend to agree) is that harm/happiness is the furthest you can dig down to figure out why people hold to moral positions. You can continue to ignore this point, but there’s no real point to moving on if you persist in doing so.

    Simple. I say “In my view, that practice is wrong”. Ta-da!!

    And, they say, “Well, in my view it’s not wrong, so there.” And, you’re down to the moral equivalent of figuring out how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Good job.

    You’re confusing your subjective discomfort with what I’m suggesting with ridiculousness.

    No, I’m comparing your moral depravity with ridiculousness. It’s a ridiculous position to claim that slavery is simply an opinion when it can be objectively shown to cause harm.

    Which again, is not necessarily true. That might be how your moral variables boil down, but that doesn’t hold for everyone. At least spend a moment and google ‘Moral Foundations Theory’ before continuing with Harm Harm Harm. It’s not an argument for subjective morals, but it does note, with some authority, that this is more complex than you’re suggesting.

    Take those 6 foundations and drill down deeper. Why does one value fairness? Because it leads to greater happiness/less harm. You’re not drilling down, you’re just claiming that Haidt or whoever said X and therefore it’s settled. You’re not dealing with the argument put to you.

    This doesn’t make much sense. Were that the extent of my argument you’d be justified in pointing correlation/causation. However it is not. In addition, this doesn’t apply the same way to science. Data is objective.

    So are the measures that you keep trying to come up with for taste. So is the fact that slavery causes harm. By your argument, I can look at a disagreement among scientists and claim it means that science is not objective, since that’s what I would expect to see if science truly is not objective.

    I grow tired in repeating myself, so I will say this one final time, harm is only one a a number of variables people use to evaluate moral claims.

    Hand-waving is really no different from ignoring. I’ve already addressed this and your hand-waving is ignoring that I’ve addressed your hand-waving now.

    The moral objectivity I object to is the notion that ethical values exist independent of the mind. Alternate definitions are reworking the concept of objective morality to something more palatable.

    No one here is arguing for Platonic ideals, so perhaps you need to understand that which you claim is wrong before you actually claim it’s wrong.

  • stanz2reason

    And, they don’t work as I pointed out. You can’t simply make a superficial comparison and then declare “Case closed.”

    The comparison I offered, as comparisons often are, was to illustrate a concept, not to suggest that that was evidence or the entirety of what I’ve offered. I suggested viewing moral judgements as similar to making taste judgements. I offered ways you might answer alternative questions & variables to consider with more objective answers to offer a working sense of both deliciousness & morality. I offer none of this as ‘proof’, nor have I ever suggested otherwise.

    I’m asking you about X, and you reply with, “Well, what about W, Y, and Z?” This is you avoiding X, not me avoiding your red herrings.

    Perhaps it would be wiser rather than to misuse philosophy/logical fallacies 101 concepts like ‘red herring’ to actually read the progression of comments. I’ll save you the time:

    You said: “The only way I can see you going forward with this is by claiming that doing something that is objectively harmful is not necessarily wrong, but I can’t, for the life of me, figure out how you would make that argument.”

    It seems you were searching for examples of ‘objective harm’ what aren’t necessarily wrong… I offered the following:

    “Hitting a disobedient child? Imprisonment or capital punishment? Punching a bully? Demanding taxes? Engaging in nearly any sort of military action?

    Each of these are objectively harmful… and each is ethically defensible/condemnable. A simple ‘You know, you’re right on that point’ from you should have sufficed… but instead you offered:

    “IOW, slavery is only wrong to you if you think it’s wrong, which seems rather ridiculous. If something is objectively harmful, then the best we can say about it is that it’s only wrong if you think it is?”

    This ignores a handful of on-point relevant examples you were looking for… so I responded & spelled it out clearly:

    “You’ve ignored my examples. I’m saying that even if something is shown to be objectively harmful that it might still be weighted differently against another competing variable that leads to different people arriving at similarly justifiable but opposing value assignments.”

    You responded with:

    “Those are neither here nor there for the argument I made.”

    Look back up a few lines at the bolded portion… now read it again… that is EXACTLY what you asked for… yet now they’re ‘neither here nor there’. So I followed with:

    “Those are ENTIRELY here & there (new phrase) to the argument being presented. You’d prefer to ignore them and dwell in the extremes of issues like slavery where the illusion of objectivity is most compelling.

    To which you responded with the quote noted in the previous blockquote

    Two things to take from this… the first is when you ask for examples of things that are objectively harmful but not necessarily wrong and I offer you a number of notable examples, this is not a red herring. When you use the term in that fashion it means you’re either too lazy to read through the comments, half of which you yourself wrote, or that you’re ignorant of what the term ‘red herring’ is referring to. In any case don’t do that because it makes you look foolish.

    And second… you’re still ignoring my examples.

    “Once again, the argument that Adam uses here (and I tend to agree) is that harm/happiness is the furthest you can dig down to figure out why people hold to moral positions. You can continue to ignore this point, but there’s no real point to moving on if you persist in doing so.”

    You and Adam can then continue to be incorrect on the issue. I’ve noted a number of times in a number of ways how ‘harm’ is 1 of a number of common variables people weight when making moral decisions. This is is supported by much recent research, and I’ve suggested where you can find it. I’ve also noted that even if people agree on some manner of harm involved, it does not automatically follow that they assigned equivalent moral value to it.

    “And, they say, “Well, in my view it’s not wrong, so there.” And, you’re down to the moral equivalent of figuring out how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Good job.”

    In your dismissive sarcasm lies a great deal of unintended truths. I’m not sure how much time you’ve spent actually considering how societal values evolve over time. You’ve just described a debate. Person A has a view. Person B has an opposing alternate view. They then present their arguments for their respective positions, and depending on the strength of their argument and salesmanship skills the feelings of the crowds are maintained or altered. Again, Ta-Da!!!

    “I’m comparing your moral depravity with ridiculousness. It’s a ridiculous position to claim that slavery is simply an opinion when it can be objectively shown to cause harm.”

    The equivalence of subjective morality with moral depravity is all the evidence I need to conclude you haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about.

    “Take those 6 foundations and drill down deeper. Why does one value fairness? Because it leads to greater happiness/less harm. You’re not drilling down, you’re just claiming that Haidt or whoever said X and therefore it’s settled. You’re not dealing with the argument put to you.”

    There are plenty of instances where fairness is sacrificed to address a harm. And vice versa. They are two separate variables regardless of your simplistic insistence that everything boils down to harm. Rather than list them for you to ignore… again… I’ll save myself the trouble. I’m suggesting Haidt’s (and others) research and models have quite of bit of explaining power and worth consideration for someone who insists on a black and white view of the world.

    “By your argument, I can look at a disagreement among scientists and claim it means that science is not objective, since that’s what I would expect to see if science truly is not objective.

    Data is objective. Science is a tool, one that uses objective data to create models for how the world appears to work. These models, even the best of them, are only representative of an objective reality (if such a thing exists…). So in respects to scientific inquiry using objective data, it is objective. As a tool, I’m uncertain if labels of subjective/objective even apply. Science uses very precise tools to take measurements that are objective mind-independent facts. What tool are you using to make such ethical measurements and what exactly are you measuring?

    I’ve offered a way of looking at things, one while uncomfortable maintains a great deal of explaining power. You’ve objected noting that everything boils down to harm & happiness (ignoring my response to this). You’ve objected noting that objectively harmful acts are automatically immoral (ignoring my response to this). You’ve continually misrepresented a simple conceptual comparison to taste (ignoring my response to this). You’ve asked for arguments in favor of slavery (dismissing my response as ‘a hecklers veto’). You’ve demonstrated that loquaciousness doesn’t guarantee honest & serious exchange of ideas. I grow tired of repeating myself and being ignored in return. I’ll allow you the final word if you wish.

  • J-D

    Perhaps it is true of you that you find statements of the form ‘X is wrong’ unintelligible, although I doubt it. I know that most people have no difficulty understanding the meaning of statements of that form. However, if it is true that statements of the form ‘X is wrong’ convey no clear meaning to you then it follows that statements of the form ‘In my view, X is wrong’ can convey no clear meaning to you either. The statement ‘X is wrong’ is an essential component of the statement ‘In my view, X is wrong’, and if an essential component of the statement is unintelligible, it makes the whole statement unintelligible.

    Your judgement that the statement ‘oxygen is required for combustion’ is grounded in empirically demonstrable evidence is itself a statement of your opinion without an empirical demonstration to support it. Likewise, your judgement that the statement ‘slavery is wrong’ is _not_ grounded in empirically demonstrable evidence is itself a statement of your opinion without an empirical demonstration to support it.

  • J-D

    I am not sure whether you think that this comment somehow contradicts something I have written earlier, but if you do, I don’t see how.

  • J-D

    If you are suggesting that there can never be a justification for acting in a way that causes harm, I see no reason to accept that suggestion.

  • J-D

    On the surface of the Earth, the third planet (about 150 million kilometres out) of the Sun, a star currently located on the inner rim of the Orion Arm of the Milky Way galaxy, about halfway along its length (or 25 thousand light-years from the galactic centre).

    But you probably knew that already, at least in general terms, so the point of your question is obscure.

  • GCT

    The comparison I offered, as comparisons often are, was to illustrate a concept, not to suggest that that was evidence or the entirety of what I’ve offered.

    I realize that. I also realize that I’ve told you a million different ways now that the illustration is faulty and doesn’t show what you think it shows.

    Perhaps it would be wiser rather than to misuse philosophy/logical fallacies 101 concepts like ‘red herring’ to actually read the progression of comments.

    Nope, it’s still a bunch of red herrings in that we were discussing a specific example, and you tried to make it about other examples.

    Each of these are objectively harmful… and each is ethically defensible/condemnable. A simple ‘You know, you’re right on that point’ from you should have sufficed…

    I don’t agree with your assessments and I still don’t see the relevance to the slavery issue. Yes, ethics is messy and yes it’s difficult to come to the right answers. So what? That it’s difficult doesn’t make it subjective as I’ve already pointed out. It’s not wise to jump to the most difficult cases when you’re trying to work out the first hurdles. Save those for when your understanding is more robust.

    Look back up a few lines at the bolded portion… now read it again… that is EXACTLY what you asked for… yet now they’re ‘neither here nor there’.

    No, it’s not what I asked for, and it entirely ignores the thrust of my argument in order to go off on a tangent.

    When you use the term in that fashion it means you’re either too lazy to read through the comments, half of which you yourself wrote, or that you’re ignorant of what the term ‘red herring’ is referring to. In any case don’t do that because it makes you look foolish.

    Wrong on all counts. It shows that you are trying to avoid the specific example I brought up in order to argue more difficult cases. Like I said, leave the more difficult cases for when you have a more robust understanding. I can very well argue those cases as well, (hitting a child is morally wrong and we have objective reasons why, for example) but they are not related to the issue that I brought up and was referring to and that you are avoiding.

    And second… you’re still ignoring my examples.

    Yes, because they are red herrings, they are not related to slavery, and they would take more time and effort to argue than the example we already have on the table that you are avoiding.

    You and Adam can then continue to be incorrect on the issue. I’ve noted a number of times in a number of ways how ‘harm’ is 1 of a number of common variables people weight when making moral decisions.

    And, I pointed out that the other items on your list all reduce to harm/happiness when you continue to ask why people value those things. But, continue to ignore that.

    I’m not sure how much time you’ve spent actually considering how societal values evolve over time. You’ve just described a debate. Person A has a view. Person B has an opposing alternate view. They then present their arguments for their respective positions, and depending on the strength of their argument and salesmanship skills the feelings of the crowds are maintained or altered. Again, Ta-Da!!!

    You seem to think this supports your view. It does not.

    The equivalence of subjective morality with moral depravity is all the evidence I need to conclude you haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about.

    Says the person who thinks that objective morality is the same as finding a Platonic ideal in a cave? That’s a good one. Claiming that slavery is a matter of opinion is rather depraved in my book.

    There are plenty of instances where fairness is sacrificed to address a harm. And vice versa. They are two separate variables regardless of your simplistic insistence that everything boils down to harm.

    Except that they aren’t. Why do people value fairness/justice? It’s because they think it leads to more happiness/less harm.

    Rather than list them for you to ignore… again… I’ll save myself the trouble.

    I proved that I didn’t ignore them (remember, I specifically said there were 6 on the list, which I couldn’t have known had I ignored your argument). So, you can take your accusations elsewhere. My point deals with your point on a more basic level which you seem to not want to deal with, but that doesn’t mean that I’m ignoring you. It means that you’re talking about something that doesn’t address my argument.

    I’m suggesting Haidt’s (and others) research and models have quite of bit of explaining power and worth consideration for someone who insists on a black and white view of the world.

    Objective is not synonymous with black and white. Again, you seem to not even understand that which you claim is wrong.

    Data is objective. Science is a tool, one that uses objective data to create models for how the world appears to work.

    Yes, and there is no platonic ideal model. Science works with models. Scientists disagree. Based on your arguments, science is not objective and is therefore subjective. Gravity is a subjective opinion.

    Science uses very precise tools to take measurements that are objective mind-independent facts. What tool are you using to make such ethical measurements and what exactly are you measuring?

    What tool did you use to determine that slavery is objective harmful?

    I’ve offered a way of looking at things, one while uncomfortable maintains a great deal of explaining power.

    And, I’m telling you that you’re still not drilling down enough.

    You’ve objected noting that everything boils down to harm & happiness (ignoring my response to this).

    Again, I’m not ignoring you, I’m pointing out that I’m addressing something that you’re not.

    At this point, your entire argument boils down to complaining about me ignoring you, when I’m not. It’s also clear that you still think that objective means something that it doesn’t. I don’t see this argument going anywhere until you can stop feeling persecuted, deal with my arguments, and learn what objective means.

  • GCT

    Yeah, not going down rabbit holes with you today.

  • stanz2reason

    It’s not a contradiction I was suggesting, but an expansion of a concept. It is my belief that ethical issues are not objective, or mind independent, so we have no grounds for claiming ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ without some sort of parameters being artificially set. We end up answering alternative questions (is something harmful) as a substitution for the value question of right/wrong, and lie to ourselves that we have answered the value question. I’ve offered as a comparison the judgement of films. As with right/wrong, a films good/bad questions are a subjective question. Whether 1 film is superior to another is subjective as well. You might answer alternative questions (as I suggested CGI, plot holes, consensus) and substitute that answer as grounds for your claim for a film being good/bad, but you would be incorrect in doing so.

    Both scientific study & historical study attempt to make approximations and create representations via models & stories of objective facts; the natural world & an historical event. Each is faced with difficulties of navigating distance, scale & complexity to create their approximations, yet both are attempting to draw conclusions about objective fact. The same can not be said for ethical disagreements.

  • stanz2reason

    You misunderstand my suggestion that ‘X is wrong’ being unintelligible. The statement ‘X is wrong’ suggests a definitive evaluation of X. In other words I’d respond with X is wrong based on what? ‘X is wrong’ by itself is a statement that requires context to make any sense, even though most of us would use the phrase as is in conversation. By saying ‘In my view, X is wrong’ you’re explicitly noting the context by which X is being judged, specifically by your own views.

    I see no need to remove any sense of objectivity from the world in order to comment on ethical issues. Statements based on empirical evidence have an level of objective grounding to support them, while ethical ones do not.

  • J-D

    Your statement that ‘Statements based on empirical evidence have an level of objective grounding to support them, while ethical ones do not’ is itself a statement of your opinion without an empirical demonstration to support it. What grounding does it have? What is it based on? What’s the empirical evidence for it? Why do you write ‘Statements based on empirical evidence have an level of objective grounding to support them, while ethical ones do not’ instead of writing ‘Statements based on empirical evidence have a level of objective grounding to support them, while, _in my view_, ethical ones do not’?

    If you said ‘Slavery is wrong’, and I responded by saying ‘Based on what?’, and you answered me by saying ‘That’s my view’, I would think, but probably wouldn’t say, ‘What a pointless, fatuous, silly thing to say’; I would think, and might say, ‘Of course that’s your view; you wouldn’t have said it if it weren’t your view; there was no need for you tell me it was your view because that was already obvious to me’; I would think, and probably would say, ‘That’s not an answer to my question; I asked you for the basis of your view; saying that it’s your view doesn’t answer that question, it just repeats what you’ve already said with some verbal variation’.

    But if I said ‘Slavery is wrong’, and you responded by saying ‘Based on what?’, I would answer you by saying ‘It’s wrong to enslave people because people don’t want to be enslaved’. I know you might not agree with my answer, but at least it is an answer to your question which opens the possibility of taking the discussion further (if that’s what we want to do) instead of going round and round in abstract verbal circles.

  • J-D

    If you’re _not_ contradicting anything I’ve written, do you then agree with what I’ve written?

  • stanz2reason

    You said the origination point of ethical value is ‘not as clear to (you) as (you) would like it to be’. This uncertainty seems unnecessary in light of viable alternatives available, simply that the source of such values is a matter of subjective tastes that are shaped by a persons natural inclination & life experience. What exactly is not explained by taking this view? What might be explained better by adhering to the notion that there is some sort of objective ‘right’ out there (even if you were able to identify it as such in the first place)?

    The assumption that there is some objective ‘right’ that some people just happen to be wrong about is an unwarranted one. It’s as irrational an assumption as one for divinity given the available reason to believe it so.

    I’ve previously noted why your comparison to scientific/historical study was inappropriate.

    I’ve previously noted how the statement ‘In my view, slavery is wrong’ does not lead to some sort of regression.

  • J-D

    That’s not an answer to my question. What I asked you was whether you agree with what I’ve written. If you don’t agree with something I’ve written, what is it that I’ve written that you disagree with? Restating your own views doesn’t answer that question.

  • stanz2reason

    I agree with some. I disagree with others. I’ve noted (just moments ago) some points of disagreement.

  • J-D

    No, you haven’t indicated something I’ve written that you disagree with. If you think any of the statements you’ve just made represent disagreement with statements I’ve made, I can’t see which of my statements are the ones you’re disagreeing with.

  • stanz2reason

    I acknowledge a level of Humian skepticism that is justified with regards to empirically demonstrated objectivity and knowledge based on causal reasoning. It has not been my claim, however, that an objective world in the physical sense doesn’t exist, nor that we do not on some level have access to it. If you’re not going to posit such things, why make an argument for anything at all? I also think that causal reasoning is in some cases reasonably justified.

    So with that being said matters of logic and physical measurement demonstrate a level of objective truth that is impossible to demonstrate with matters of ethics. It is not my opinion that a table is 3 feet tall, but an objective feature of the table that is verifiable by anyone with a ruler or measuring tape. With ethics, what exactly are you measuring and how exactly are you measuring it?

    ‘Statements based on empirical evidence have an level of objective grounding to support them, while ethical ones do not’

    “What grounding does it have? What is it based on?” Empirical evidence can be measured against a standard (say a ruler) by people other than myself. Ethical ones can not.

    “What’s the empirical evidence for it?” Empirical evidence is so by definition. It represents a statement about an objectively demonstrable truth. It is not simply a matter of opinion that a 3′ tall table is in fact 3′ tall, a verifiably factual supported by measurement. The same can not be said about ethical issues, particularly value assignment. By what standard are you measuring moral value?

    Why do you write ‘Statements based on empirical evidence have an level of objective grounding to support them, while ethical ones do not’ instead of writing ‘Statements…, while, _in my view_, ethical ones do not’? In our day to day life a 10′ wide room, a car going 50 MPH, a 20kg rock, a jet engine of a certain decibel level, etc. are all things that can be and are measured against some sort of established mind independent standard, standards we have no reason to believe vary from person to person, even if the system of measurement does (fahrenheit rather than celsius for instance). There is no established mind independent standard by which ethical matters of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are measured. Laws & cultural norms including religious customs are artificial constructs that frames ‘right’ & ‘wrong’, and for most intents and purposes this is sufficient for our day to day lives, but this is not the same as the value assignment implied when someone makes a definitive moral statement.

    If you said ‘Slavery is wrong’, and I responded by saying ‘Based on what?’, and you answered me by saying ‘That’s my view’…. I would think, and might say, Of course that’s your view; you wouldn’t have said it if it weren’t your view; there was no need for you tell me it was your view because that was already obvious to me’. Adding ‘because it’s my view’ isn’t being redundant nor is it some attempt to engage in abstract word games. It’s providing the context by which the statement of ‘slavery is wrong’ has been determined, which is that I’m saying it’s wrong based on my own subjective judgement. This should have no effect on further conversation regarding the reasons I’ve judged as I have, and in fact further conversation might lead me to place more or less weight on the variables I’d already weighted and consider variables I hadn’t prior and ultimately change my mind on a topic.

    if I said ‘Slavery is wrong’, and you responded by saying ‘Based on what?’, I would answer you by saying ‘It’s wrong to enslave people because people don’t want to be enslaved’. Take a moment a realize what you’ve said here as it goes to the heart of what I’ve been suggesting. You haven’t answered whether something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but answered whether they ‘do’ or ‘do not’ want to be enslaved and basing your value assignment of right/wrong off that answer. This is all regardless of whether or not people might actually want to be enslaved, nor even if their wishes on the issue should be the singular determining fact.

  • J-D

    Any distinction between a category of things that can be measured and a category of things that cannot be measured depends on the availability of measuring instruments. Atmospheric pressure can be measured by using a barometer. Before barometers were invented, people would have been correct to say that atmospheric pressure could not be measured. The invention of barometers moved atmospheric pressure from the category of things that cannot be measured to the category of things that can be measured. Temperature can be measured by using a thermometer. Before thermometers were invented, people would have been correct to say that temperature could not be measured. The invention of thermometers moved temperature from the category of things that cannot be measured to the category of things that can be measured. Earth tremors can be measured by using a seismometer. Before seismometers were invented, people would have been correct to say that earth tremors could not be measured. The invention of seismometers moved earth tremors from the category of things that cannot be measured to the category of things that can be measured.

    Your distinction between ‘things that can be measured’ and ‘things that cannot be measured’ is not a fixed one.

  • stanz2reason

    Before barometers were invented, people would have been correct to say that atmospheric pressure could not be measured.

    No, they would have been incorrect. It just was just beyond their technological knowhow.

    Before thermometers were invented, people would have been correct to say that temperature could not be measured.

    Same

    Before seismometers were invented, people would have been correct to say that earth tremors could not be measured.

    Same

    For each of these there is a physical something that each is accessing be it air pressure, heat or tremors. Aside from the old ‘if a tree falls in the forest…’ point, it’s safe to say that something like a pot of boiling water at sea level would be hot regardless of whether or not someone was capable of taking it’s temperature. In that instance the amount of heat energy in the water is objective. Same goes for the other two.

    What exactly is the objective phenomena by which you’re judging moral questions? How might we determine even if there is a moral yardstick that might serve to base our views? If we determined that there was one, how might we recognize it as such? A technological advance? Barring a miraculous technological product or an iPhone app, this seems not only unlikely, but unnecessary in light of the alternative, which is that there is no objective standard.

  • J-D

    We know for a fact that there are things which people in the past could not measure because they lacked the technology or the knowhow. We have no basis for concluding that the development of technology and of knowhow has attained its maximum possible level, so we have no basis for excluding the possibility that future development of technology and knowhow may enable the measuring of things which cannot be measured now, maybe even including things of whose very existence we are currently unaware. If you are making the positive claim that there is no way that intellectual breakthroughs of the future could enable deeper understanding of morality, you have not justified it.


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