My friend Squelchtoad has posed another useful thought example up at his interblag. I’m excerpting below, but you should pop over and read the whole set up. It’s targeted to people like me, who think morality exists in some objective, possibly neo-platonist way and therefore feel unsettled without a well-grounded moral philosophy. Squelchtoad writes:
Suppose I could demonstrate to you beyond all possible doubt that one of the following two propositions was necessarily true:
- There does not exist a supreme being.
- There exists a supreme being (In the sense of an eternal, omnipotent, and omniscient creator of the universe) who commands that people rape one another, abandon any children they bear, and cause as much senseless pain as possible to humans and other animals.
Would you—could you—hope that (2) was the case instead of (1)? Are you prepared to hope for an “objective” Moral Law if that law will be deeply contrary to your current (ungrounded) moral beliefs, or do you simply want those beliefs validated? …Indeed, I worry that some people who abandon ethical convictions they hold in order to gain the certainty of a spelled out meta-ethical theory may have fallen into a trap akin to the conjunction fallacy. People find stories with more specific information more plausible and likely, even though making a claim more specific makes it harder for it to be true! While it may feel easier to choose one meta-ethical theory than to be confident that “something-I-know-not-what” underlies your moral beliefs, that doesn’t mean you should do so, or that you need to in order to expound and act upon your moral beliefs.
I’ve had a post gestating for a while that now feels like a response to Squelchtoad’s challenge, so I’ll run it tomorrow. Today, I’d like to know what your intuitions are. The idea of an immoral objective morality is so bizarre to me that I instinctively flinch away when it’s proposed. And that’s a reminder to go back to the Yudkowsky piece linked:
When you’re doubting one of your most cherished beliefs, close your eyes, empty your mind, grit your teeth, and deliberately think about whatever hurts the most. Don’t rehearse standard objections whose standard counters would make you feel better. Ask yourself what smart people who disagree would say to your first reply, and your second reply. Whenever you catch yourself flinching away from an objection you fleetingly thought of, drag it out into the forefront of your mind. Punch yourself in the solar plexus. Stick a knife in your heart, and wiggle to widen the hole. In the face of the pain, rehearse only this:
What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse. Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away. And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with. Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived. People can stand what is true, for they are already enduring it. —Eugene Gendlin
So I’m screwing my courage to the sticking point and trying to see if Squelchtoad’s question actually relies on a contradiction or if he just managed to trigger a cognitive flinch by pointing me toward a reducto ad absurdum that holds one of my beliefs up to ridicule.
What tools would you bring to bear on this problem? I did think of going back to Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling (an exploration of the problem of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac) and marshalling the absurd Knight of Faith be my champion in this fight.
But, to be honest, I’m still baffled by that book and its pro-paradox arguments, so I’m going with my usual technique: try and shift a philosophy problem into another abstract discipline for a new perspective (and to see which bits you have to excise to get it to fit in a new frame).