On what evidence?

This post is part of a series of responses to the comments on my ongoing series on math and morality.  You can check out previous posts in this series here.

So having spent one post answering questions using my sight metaphor, I’m going to move away from it in this round of answers. (Remember, as George Box said, “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.”).

Eitan said:

[M]orality is clearly quite different than EVERYTHING else we know. If there were objective values, they would be entities or qualities or relations utterly different from anything else in the universe. Furthermore, if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else. 

The best move for the moral objectivist is as you seem to have done, to look for companions in guilt. For example, Richard Price argues that it is not moral knowledge alone that we are unable to account for, but also our knowledge of other things like substances, etc.

Yet we have good empirical explanations for things like sight (light-waves, retinas, etc.), whereas your claim about morality depends on 1. Postulating value-entities or value-features of quite a different order from anything else with which we are acquainted; and 2. A corresponding faculty with which to detect them.

This was a pretty common objection to my post on certainty and morality yesterday. Crowhill and Hendy concurred with Crowhill adding:

I’d like to emphasize that with sight you can vertify it with other senses. I see a banana, I feel a banana, I smell a banana, I taste a banana. 

What’s the analogy with “morally right”? What other sense allows me to verify my intuition?

Ok, here’s where I’m going to step off the sight metaphor a bit. Morality is a system/organizing principle/schema and is not directly experienced. Taking moral action produces sentiments in us that are experiential. Optical laws are a property of light which are not experienced directly, but their applications are observable. We will never have experiential proof that the laws are laws.

I think our reason to ‘believe in’ morality here is most similar to our reason to ‘believe in’ causality or the idea that we live in an ordered universe or the continued existence of unobserved objects. These are conjectures we make that are required for our interpretations of experiential data to be coherent. They are not provable but have never yet been disproved. They are axioms for our way of reasoning about ourselves and the world, and should be regarded as at least equally true as the conclusions that are derived from them.

And now it’s time to return to the last question Eitan asked:

And how different is this imperfectly-knowable entity you posit, whose existence and relation to you you believe with quite some certainty, than some other mysteriously-known entities posited to exist throughout history? 

Certainly Christians have employed similar rhetoric in service of their God. In today’s On the Square column at First Things, Joe Carter puts forward a vision of evangelism that hinges on the idea that all people have a sensus divinitatis— an innate sense of God.

So, how do I differentiate between how I am arguing and how Joe Carter is arguing? On the very trite level, I say that I am right and he is wrong. By that I mean that my precepts are universal in a way his are not. Plenty of people (me among them) do not have any sense of God or yearning for the divine. Christians would need to put forward a reasonable theory of why his universal feeling is so limited. (They can get around it by defining God down to “a sense that there might be something larger than ourselves” or “a belief in morality as a meaningful concept” but these ideas are too vague to belong to any god or religion).

In contrast, as C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, even the most fervent relativists usually try to justify their actions according to fairness or some other moral principle. We find embrace of amorality among psychopaths and we find it correlates well with other widely reviled first principles (solipsism first among these). Just take a look at the Calvin and Hobbs cartoon below to see how quickly amorality breaks down in the presence of other moral actors.

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  • Anonymous

    "These are conjectures we make that are required for our interpretations of experiential data to be coherent."But what particular data needs to cohere here? What data would remain unexplained without positing a theory of objective morality? Surely you do not mean the sentiments that arise upon taking moral action – for those can be evolutionarily-psychologically-etc explained.There doesn't seem to be anything different about the world around us or our understanding of our experiences with or without such a theory.-Eitan

  • All social animals have to have something like morality. It seems to me that's what being a "social animal" means. You fit in with the pack according to some set of rules. Does there have to be some sort of "objective morality" for a dog to know how he's supposed to behave towards other dogs? Isn't it entirely possible that dogs simply developed some set of arbitrary social rules that happened to work decently well for them? Why can't something similar be true of humans? Why couldn't we have developed some set of social rules that helped our species survive? And then, when we got intelligent enough to navel gaze and all that, and we started wondering about these moral rules, the people who also believed that these rules were based on "absolute morality" were more likely to follow them (and therefore were more likely to get the benefit) than the people who didn't. So as social animals we developed moral rules, and then as self-reflecting, over-thinking, philosophizing moral animals we questioned them. The people who had a tendency to believe these moral rules were stamped in the root of Yggdrasil (or whatever) outperformed the ones who didn't. Where in all this is the need for "absolute morality"? Aren't you simply making an unnecessary assumption?

  • Leah: I must admit, absolute morality is a thrilling concept. It avoids the common a-hole response to relativism of being slapped in the face and then being told that slapping in the face is only wrong for some and not others.As unpalatable as it is, however, I have to wonder about the explanatory power of hypotheses along the lines of Crowhill's. I still have yet to see you make a crisp, clear argument for the existence of objective moral values other than some form of:- we all obsess about them and want to know what they are- trying to act like moral values don't exist doesn't get us very far- we quickly play the "fairness" or "dignity" cards when mistreatedBut doesn't the socially/evolutionary embedded trait of in-group respect take care of these fairly well?I also hold that you still are missing a huge component of the cultural/environmental shiftiness of morality. Should these values exist objectively and be perceivable… why must they be "taught" and furthermore, why do the need to be taught "correctly"? I can't imagine a scenario where a group attempts to teach someone that rotting meet smells pleasant, yet in the case of morality this equivalent can occur with the right amount of indoctrination.We're still missing the reference point for cross-checking our moral "sense" with other verification methods.We're also still missing the necessary bridge to cross the is-ought gap as you have simply pointed out that many things seem immoral without referencing the why.I think the why is the basis for any moral system.While I don't know an insane amount about it, take Luke Muehlhauser/Alonzo Fyfe's Desire Utilitarianism theory. They begin with the basis: humans desires exist. They are an objective fact that exists and can be universally recognized by all. Therefore, moral systems based on human desires have a basis in objective reality and are universally applicable to humans with desires.Does that make sense? I see your system resting on what we feel like which seems unreliable.

  • I’m going to do two quick responses to Crowhill and Hendy in-thread.@CrowhillI certainly think there are many moral behaviors that have been amplified/reinforced by evolution. However, as I discussed in ”Only animals can’t help what they are”, selection-induced societies have a lot of deficiencies. The broadest is that ‘in group’ is poorly defined, but it’s also the case that pressures to reproduce can blunt social rules that foster kindness (cf gorilla infanticide and orangutan rape).I don’t think our questioning our social instincts is just a matter of being philosophic navel gazers who were dissatisfied with the evolutionary explanation. I think it’s the result of being aware that there is a gap between evolutionary advantageous behavior and moral behavior and feeling a strong preference for the moral option.

  • @HendyFirst, I do promise to get to the question of teaching morality soon! The trouble with doing this all in a series of posts is that I know how I plan to answer some of the questions, but of course it’s not so clear until the relevant post goes up. I promise I’ll come back to this.I agree, I don’t have a rock-solid proof of morality here, but I do wonder what standard of evidence you think is required for other metaphysical claims (i.e. causality exists). I think a morality claim has to clear only that standard.

  • @Leah:No problem. You're taking your time and I might be itching for post to come… before they come!That's a good point about causality. I think that's even in another category than what you might be trying to establish. Causality could be taken as a first principle and then tested as a hypothesis. In other words, start by supposing it either is or is not true and then try to test those assumptions. I guess I'm not positive where one would go from here… try to find instances of no causality to disprove the a priori assumption?The reason I suggested a different category is that I'm not sure what the analogous route would be for morality. Suppose that objective values do or do not exist and then test the hypothesis? But how? I think that's what we're circling around.One interesting thought is that if you look at causality, we're right in assuming that causality exists, but look what happens when we start to try and figure out why or the "source" or even what the cause of certain effects are. Throughout history the most illusive causes have been called gods.What about morality? We are right that it is of value and "exists" as a subject of human attention… but what happens when we try and go further to define the "source"? We start to veer this way and that — actual values like mathematics that are eternal but simply being discovered? Or no actual values and all meaning is painted on by humans? Or evolutionary instincts that we think are morality but which are really not? Stuff like that.I look forward to the next posts. Trust me, I like the discussion and think that objective values make everything a hell of a lot simpler and easier. I'm just poking your hypothesis a bit to check it out!

  • RE: Morality/Causality/persistence of unobserved objects:Let me return to a point I made in my last comment. You say that morality is among the "conjectures we make that are required for our interpretations of experiential data to be coherent. They are not provable but have never yet been disproved. They are axioms for our way of reasoning about ourselves and the world." You further seem to claim that that the attribution of moral behavior to inherent (evolved) human psychological traits does not count as an assumption that can explain or "make coherent" these moral "perceptions" (I still prefer "sentiments," see my last comment) because humans are "aware that there is a gap between evolutionary advantageous behavior and moral behavior and fee[l] a strong preference for the moral option.""Party in the USA" grates upon my ears every time I hear it. I am aware that people have evolved inherent preferences that make them like crappy pop (talk to Aseel about "auditory cheesecake") yet I still feel a strong preference for Arléen Auger over Miley Cyrus. I cannot prove that the song is annoying because of some natural law, yet by your criteria it is a useful and necessary assumption for me to make in making my "perceptions" coherent. Using your framework, then, I therefore claim that music can be "objectively ugly."Maybe you do accept objective aesthetics, in which case…I love friends of mine with whom I share next to zero near-kinship, and from whose friendship I cannot expect to obtain fitness benefits (they are time sinks and don't do that much for me). I cannot prove that I love them because of some natural law. Yet according to your criteria it is a useful and necessary assumption for me to make in making my "perceptions" coherent. Using your framework, then, I therefore claim that people can be "objectively loveable." Why are these two cases different from that of morality? As before, I feel that my perceptions are ordered quite satisfactorily if I attribute my moral sentiments to the same source as my dislike of "Party in the USA" and my love for my friends: namely, a complicated set of emotions/preferences/feelings that have been produced in me by a complex and dynamic (yay!) process of interacting nature and nurture.

  • Crowley, You a fatal flaw when you discuss social behavior evolving or 'developing' – first you use the word 'develop' as if to make it insignificant, second you repeatedly say that they are arbitrary, etc…If rules exist within a social group because they helped the survival of a social species – they are ANYTHING but arbitrary!Now of course there is the distinct possibility of a mutation having zero effect of survivability and it still spreading to the whole population (in fact while untestable for obvious control reasons it can be shown that a mutation that has absolutely no effect of survivability, negative or positive, has a remarkably good chance of sticking around and spreading throughout the population over time) – I suppose you could call that trait 'arbitrary'. However I would posit that any mutation that has an impact on relations with others in the population can't possibly have an absolute zero impact on survivability/reproduction.