Immoral Moral Law, Unnatural Nature

Excerpted from Dresden Codak’s Dungeons and Discourse. It was the closest I could get to Squeltchtoad’s hypthothetical

Squeltchtoad’s Immoral Moral Law thought experiment was weird and paradoxical enough that I had a lot of trouble getting purchase on the problem.  That confusion might be actually be evidence, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t giving myself an easy out.  Since I was having trouble thinking about the problem in situ, I tried to carry it over into another discipline.

For mathematicians or physicists, perhaps Squelchtoad’s hypothetical would be the discovery that the universe was disordered.  Perhaps it would be inconsistent or possibly they’d get let off and just find themselves in an inelegant universe — a world where there would never be a Grand Unified Theory that described physics at every scale.  Ah, there’s the queasiness I was after.

When OPERA found data that suggested neutrinos could move faster than light, my friends and I didn’t feel exhilarated that our understanding of the physical world was about to shift again.  We felt suspicious and a little fearful.  Einstein’s relativity has stood up so well to tests and has made such good predictions that, if it was overturned, we had our doubts that the system could be patched.  Luckily for us, the observations were invalid.

It wasn’t the first time we’ve been in suspense over Einstein’s theories. Yudkowsky wrote up the first major test of Einstein’s predictions as part of a discussion of a different epistemological point.

In 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington led expeditions to Brazil and to the island of Principe, aiming to observe solar eclipses and thereby test an experimental prediction of Einstein’s novel theory of General Relativity. A journalist asked Einstein what he would do if Eddington’s observations failed to match his theory. Einstein famously replied: “Then I would feel sorry for the good Lord. The theory is correct.”

The evidence, like Einstein, turned out to be right.  And if the skies had been cloudy and the answer had been delayed, Einstein and most scientists wouldn’t have been agnostic on the question until Eddington came back with the data.  The evidence that had led them to expect an orderly, investigatable universe (one where “God did not play dice”) is weak evidence compared to the kinds of proof we expect in number theory, but it’s still evidence.  (It’s about the same kind of rigor as anything else that depends on causality actually existing).  And it was hard to imagine what kind of result could trump it.

If I were ever confronted by the Immoral Lawgiver in Squeltchtoad’s example, I’d be much more likely to doubt my own senses and reasoning than I would be to doubt that indiscriminate slaughter of other thinking, feeling beings is wrong.

And if I really accept the hypothetical and try to express a preference between a world with no moral order and one where the moral law seems so abhorrent, I’d have to plead the fifth.  Squeltchtoad’s hypothetical puts me in the position of a psychopath — so jarringly out of step with the order of the world that my preferences can’t be trusted.  And even though every fibre of my body urges rebellion, I’m quite possibly in a “Not even if it’s the right thing to do” situation.

But this world feels as distant and alien as the hypothetical world where there is no regularity in Nature.  I don’t see any reason to let this made-up idea creep into my philosophy.

I guess the only thing I could say in answer to Squelchtoad is that at the scale at which I’m living, it’s better for me to follow the Good as far as I understand it than it is for me to seek out an authority whatever horrors may come.  My will is better directed in the first case than the second, since I’m practising listening to my moral revulsion instead of disconnecting from my moral-sense perception of the world.


P.S. In the course of writing this post I discovered there was a BBC program titled Einstein and Eddington that featured Gollum as the physicist and Doctor Who as the astrophysicist.  Goodness!

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  • Maiki

    I may need to watch that. Seems like a good companion to Hawking with Sherlock Holmes.

  • Jay

    Out of curiosity, Leah, have you read Eliezer’s meta-ethics sequence? I can’t say that all of it clicks perfectly for me, but there are parts of it that I find quite powerful, especially his discussion of this very sort of issue in “The Moral Void” ( I feel pretty comfortable saying that the right way to act isn’t to go out looking for the ancient stone tablet or the great light in the sky or whatever that dictates morality, but to just figure out the best thing that stone tablet could say, and just do that. To me, the question of “what would you do if it turns out that the one true objective morality is actually atrocious?” sounds a bit like asking “what would you do if you found a stone tablet in the wilderness reading ‘pain is good’?” I don’t see why I couldn’t just go on living how I did before, favoring pleasure over pain, joy over sorrow, life over death, etc. (And no, I don’t think this position necessarily collapses into pure nihilism/relativism — although it maybe does reduce to something like rational egoism. But this part’s probably too complicated for a blog comment.)

    • Thanks for the link, Jay. While I didn’t know that Yudkowsky shares my suspicion about overly privileging what he calls “stone tablets,” I can’t say I’m surprised. I think it’s a pretty natural position for someone with a relatively Bayesian world-view to hold re: morality.

    • Joe

      “………but to just figure out the best thing that stone tablet could say, and just do that.” WWJD?

  • Another way of working toward this problem of a supposed immorality governing the world (like Descartes’ Evil Genius, perhaps?) would be working through the question of what ‘good’ means, what ‘evil’ is, and ways in which the one might be prior to the other. I can think of few better guides in this light than Aristotle in his Metaphysics, especially the later books. Plato probably says something equally wise, but I wouldn’t know where to find it. My hesitating response might be questioning the way we define evil. If evil is a privation of the good, then it seems probable, if not necessary, that good is prior to evil.

  • Ray

    “If evil is a privation of the good, then it seems probable, if not necessary, that good is prior to evil.”

    What is with the obsession people have with one concept being prior to another. I mean sure, if you give a system of definitions where evil is defined in terms of good, then I guess good is prior to evil *in your particular system of definitions.* It doesn’t mean there aren’t equivalent ways to define terms so that evil is prior to good. For example, you can either define Euclidean geometry by way of Euclid’s axioms and use that to define Cartesian coordinates, or you can start with Cartesian coordinates (tuples of real numbers with the L2 metric) and derive Euclid’s axioms. You get the same set of true statements either way. The claim that Euclid’s axioms are prior to Cartesian coordinates is then, at best, a historical oddity concerning the development of geometry on our planet. It however seems more likely that geometry developed on an alien planet would have either developed in the opposite order or would have used a completely different axiomatization than Euclid’s.

    For morality it’s even worse, since we learn the terms “good” and “evil” from experience, not from precise definitions, and if there are no explicit definitions, the concept of logical priority makes no sense whatsoever.

    • deiseach

      If we learn by experience that certain sensations, stimuli or acts are “evil” and others are “good”, then we also learn that the “evil” is a privation of the “good”.

      For instance, if pain is bad, to take Jay’s example, it is because we (or the majority of us at least) are not from the moment of our births in a constant state of pain, with any cessation being ‘good’; ordinarily we are not in pain. The same with hunger, thirst, cold, heat, fear and the rest. We don’t go about with chunks bitten out of us by lions and then have those missing chunks heal back; we are in a state of (more or less) bodily integrity, which to us is the normative good, and any damage or lack is an evil.

      I would submit that even in logical definitions, it makes a difference whether you have the horse before or after the cart.

      • Ray

        I’m not sure if I follow you here. You seem to equate that which is unusual with that which is the absence of something. This seems pretty odd. Is not the universe we see primarily empty space? Does this make every odd planet, star or, galaxy punctuating the void a defect where the vacuum of space falls short of perfect emptiness? That would seem to make emptiness a perfection and matter a privation.

  • All the more reason to properly understand the most important terms ‘good’ and ‘evil’, yes? Does it necessarily follow, that since many are first acquainted with ‘good’ and ‘evil’ through experience, that no precise definition of them is possible? I should hardly think so. Rather, there is a serious history of men who considered that very question. Aristotle argues rather persuasively in the Metaphysics that evil has not substance of its own, but is only a privation of what is good. I think the actual argument is contained in Θ.9, which I shall consult.

    • Ray

      I’ve got to say I find Aristotle’s argument thoroughly unpersuasive. He just flat out assumes that logical priority is the same thing as moral superiority in going from “in the case of bad things the end or actuality must be worse than the potency” to “the bad is in its nature posterior to the potency”, which is begging the question. But never mind that. The problems are many with these sorts of arguments in general.

      1) There is no reason to suspect a *simple* precise definition of the good is possible. Other human concepts that evolved naturally in the culture, rather than being invented, do not tend to be simple. Take color for example. You might define color as “electromagnetic reflectance spectrum” or something to that effect, but you would get wrong answers fairly often (variously due to radiating bodies having color, metamerism, adjustment to ambient light, wavelengths invisible to the human eye etc.) At some point you just have to admit that people are talking about something similar to reflectance spectrum when talking about color, but not exactly the same thing. There is every reason to suspect that what the moral sense is actually responding to is a fairly complicated concept, not optimized for understanding (where simple definitions are preferred), but rather for usefulness (this is not a simple concept either) in human society. Philosophers pretty much always try to come up with simple definitions, even when it’s not appropriate.

      2)There is no reason to suspect that different people using the terms “good” and “evil” are using identical as opposed to merely similar definitions. Jonathan Haidt has persuasively demonstrated that Liberals and Conservatives base their moral decisions on systematically different criteria. This would appear to indicate that Liberals and Conservatives simply mean different things by the terms “good” and “evil.” There are probably subtler differences even within the groups.

      3) Even when you have unique, simple, and precise definitions, and even if those definitions only define evil in terms of good, it does not preclude the possibility that you can come up with an entirely equivalent set of precise definitions which defines good in terms of evil. Do you deny that Euclid’s first four axioms plus the Pythagorean theorem is an equivalent system to Euclid’s five axioms? So what does it mean to say that the fifth postulate is prior to the Pythagorean theorem?

      • @Ray,

        I am swamped for time, so before I address your concerns with Aristotle’s argument, I shall inquire as to what you meant in 3). Proposition I.47 (Pythagorean Theorem) is only possible if we assume the Fifth Postulate (one cannot construct a square without it – see Props. I. 46, 29, and Post.5), so it seems to make very good sense that the Fifth Postulate is prior to the Pythagorean Theorem; prior in the sense “a is necessary in order to have b; therefore a is prior to b”. Granted, one can remove the Fifth and retain a geometry as consistent as Euclid’s (though rather unusual), so one cannot really say that the Fifth is prior to geometry, but for I.47? Absolutely.

        The rest of your argument seems to be: since a common definition of good and evil is quite difficult, it is impossible. I suppose this is a possibility, but a dialogue about them is itself only possible if one agrees to what the specific terms mean. If we throw up our hands and say “there is no definition possible of good that makes consistent, compelling sense”, then conversation about them is rendered meaningless.

        As to your suggestion concerning a definition of evil as prior to good, I am greatly intrigued, and should very much like to hear it.

        • Ray

          On the Pythagorean theorem:

          This uses the algebraic concept of squaring, so you’re implicitly assuming the axioms of multiplication and addition of real numbers can be applied to lengths. (I’m pretty sure Euclid’s common notions plus the 19th century continuity axioms, which Euclid assumes but does not state, are enough to do the trick even without the parallel postulate.) But if you don’t like that, just assume the fact that we can do algebra on lengths is taken in addition to Euclid’s four axioms. That assumption, on its own, does not imply the parallel postulate (since lengths in standard models of hyperbolic geometry are also real numbers.)

          “a definition of evil as prior to good, I am greatly intrigued, and should very much like to hear it.”

          Fine. Good is the privation of evil. Evil is an adjective which can be correctly applied to any action I would label as “evil” if asked.

          If this sound like a cop out, I should note that you Aristotelian sorts haven’t exactly done a good job of defining “good” in the first place. after all, Aristotle thought slavery was A-OK. If you want to use Aristotle’s arguments, you’ll need to show you’re talking about the same thing as he is when speaking of “good” and “evil.” And if you also want to condemn slavery, you’ll need an argument that demonstrates how Aristotle contradicted himself by condoning slavery.

          So if you have a definition of “good” as prior to “evil” that you can show meets the above requirements, I’d love to hear it.

      • deiseach

        Okay, Ray: most human beings have two arms. To lose one is a privation. Is the two-armed state good or bad? Is the one-armed state (having lost a functional arm) good or bad?

        Suppose a human being was born with one arm and then was given an artificial arm, or the super-science of the far-flung future grew the missing arm. Is this good or bad? Was his original one-armed state good or bad?

        This isn’t just a thought-experiment; there is some discussion about deaf culture and deaf parents choosing to have embryonic implantation of selected embryos in order to have deaf not hearing children. Is deafness a deprivation or not? Does it really make no difference whether you start off deaf or become deaf? Are these parents – if such reproductive technology goes ahead – doing ill to their children? What about hearing parents who might choose to abort children if prenatal testing shows they are likely to be born deaf (as apparently some choose to abort babies with cleft palates even though this is surgically repairable after birth)?

        • Ray

          I agree that most of the time, it’s better to have a thing than to lack it, but this is not always true. People don’t seem terribly fond of having 3 arms or 3 copies of chromosomes 18. And I seem to recall certain religious teachings that indicate extra gods are a bad thing. And of course, welts and boils don’t really seem like the lack of a thing either.

          You’re trying to claim that this loose heuristic is a fundamental and inviolable principle of nature. In order to do this, you not only have to show that there are no exceptions, but that the lack of exceptions isn’t just an artifact of using an odd set of definitions for the terms of common discourse.

  • Patrick

    Maybe the reason you’re having a hard time imagining a world with a moral order contrary to your moral beliefs is because the idea of objective moral order itself is incoherent, and separating your subjective belief in the rightness of your own moral views from the purported existence of an objective moral order denies the idea of an objective moral order the only support it ever had.

    • How is the theory that evil is a privation of good incoherent?

      • Patrick

        Its hard to tell on the internet, so I’m just going to ask: Before I answer with any depth, I’d like to know whether you mistook my comment as a direct reply to yours. It was intended as a reply to Leah.

        • @Patrick:

          Hah. I mistook your comment as a direct reply to mine. Apologies.

    • Maiki

      I find the idea of the summation 1+1 !=2 incoherent (unless we are using drastically different symbols), that doesn’t mean the idea of arithmetic being objective is incoherent. If anything, if morality is objective, completely alternate moralities *would* seem incoherent. If morality is wholly relative, it being completely different would not cause any disturbance.

      • Patrick

        That wasn’t my reasoning.

        On top of that, even if it were my reasoning, what’s being hypothesized isn’t a “completely alternate morality.” Its actually the same morality (do whatever the supreme being says), with one of its contingent facts adjusted slightly.

  • @b

    This thought experiment asks us to pick our preferred universe (1) godless and humane, or (2) autocratic and inhumane.

    The extent which it’s useful is the extent to which we find ourselves leaning towards chaotic compassion instead of a structured moral authority.

  • John

    Insofar as communication of concepts is a universal human phenomenon, I don’t see how one can argue for subjective morality, subjective, sui generis definitions of “the good” or “the evil” which only apply for individuals and cannot be applied to all people, everywhere.

    That is, we obviously can become aware of objective (outside our imagination/whimsy) realities in mathematics, astronomy, biology, physics, and inter-personal relationships (which is why marketting, sales, music etc. is even possible). This being the case, that certain chords always invoke reactions in listeners the world over (on commercials, in movies, in theaters, etc.)… how can we not ask whether certain interpersonal actions are likewise universally beneficial or universally not beneficial? In a world where natures seem to exist independent of our whimsy and opinions, how could we not conclude that we of the conceptual communication humanity don’t also have a Nature in which certain actions are always good, or always bad? This isn’t religion, this is phenomenology.

  • anon athesit 78

    What I find interesting is that if you stay in the analogy of the physical laws and the moral laws I would say we live in the case 2) universe where a lot of our intuitions about the universe turned out to be wrong. Take the observation that the sun goes around the earth or quantum mechanics as examples. I wonder what that means for morality.

  • Warren

    Hi Leah,
    I would highly recommend you check out Edward Feser. He’s an Aristotelian-Thomist philosopher, and has a very enlightening and entertaining blog dealing with questions such as this one. For an Aristotelian-Thomist, it is both incorrect to speak of God as a “supreme Being”, and to speak of God as capable of giving an “immoral moral law”. On the first point, God is not a being, even supreme, among other beings, but “Being itself”, that which gives everything else its being. On the second point, God is not only “Being Itself” but also “Goodness/Beauty/Truth/Love Itself”. Thus, any law God gives flows from this nature, and therefore must be good. We recognize it as good because He designed us to recognize it as good.

    On the first point, check out this post:
    On the second point, check out this post on “Euthyphro’s Dilemma”:

    Happy Reading!

    • leahlibresco

      I have been reading Feser. I was trying to stay within the bounds of the hypothetical.

  • keddaw

    Leah, I assume you have altered a few of your positions over time. At time X you had a belief, even if loosely held, in a universe with objective moral laws that you later decided were incorrect. So not only is it not difficult to imagine a universe with an objective morality which differs from yours, you have already done so.

  • Darren

    I believe we are missing the point, or something along those lines, with concluding that option 2 in Squelchtoad’s thought experiment equates with an “Immoral Morality” or “Unnatural Nature”. He never said it was an immoral world. He just laid out a morality designed to shock and offend our sensibilities.

    If we posit a divine lawgiver, and further that this lawgiver has the right to give laws, then our opinion of the content of those laws is immaterial. Right and Wrong is defined by what God says, not by what our 21st century post-Enlightenment sensitivities might desire.

    God says to sacrifice your first-born son? Well, best be sharpening up your dagger then. The fact that we find these distasteful is in no way relevant to the commandments of an eternal, objective morality.

    If we find God’s laws odd, or think to presume to call them “immoral”, then it is only because we, as fallen humans, are incapable of knowing Right and Wrong without the Revelation of God. Anything the moral lawgiver commands is moral, de facto. This is the price of admission for living in a universe with an Objective Morality – we get no say in what that morality is, and if we disagree, tough nuggies.
    All of this hand-waving is because we don’t want to face up to this. We _want_ a big bearded Man in the Sky to tell us what to do, but, we want to pick which Man in the Sky. We want the Western post-Enlightenment God, not the tossing babies in the sacrificial fire God…