We Go Together / Like Essence and Telos / Doo-bop a doo-bee doo

Here’s Adam of Daylight Atheism’s reply to the questions I asked him yesterday about the difference between moral and mathematical laws, and whether either is human-independent.  (He also pointed out that we’ve sparred on this point before, and you may want to refer back to the map-territory post).

I believe that mathematics and logic are discovered, rather than invented, although those terms are apt to get us bogged down in deep semantic waters.

I think it sheds more light on my position to answer in this way: As jack put it, mathematics and logic depend on objective properties of the universe that are independent of humans. Morality also depends on objective facts, but these facts aren’t independent of humans. They’re objective facts about humans: facts about what harms us and what causes us to flourish, facts which are therefore dependent on the kind of creatures we are. If our evolution had taken another path, if we were a very different kind of creature than we are, the rules of morality that apply to us would be different; and if we never existed at all, there would be no true facts about us and therefore morality would not exist.

Technically mathematical facts aren’t independent of the objects they describe, either.  It’s not a property of math-writ-large that the angles of a triangle sum to 180 degrees, it’s just a property of triangles.  (Or, more precisely, a property of triangles in Euclidean geometry).  It would be true of Euclidean triangles whether or not any existed in the physical world or there were any people anywhere to think of them.

Once you name something a triangle or mention some of it’s qualities, you’ve pulled in many other properties, including some you might not yet have discerned (the sum of any two sides of a triangle exceeds the length of the remaining side, etc).  Technically you’ve encapsulated them all once you said “three-sided polygon” but it takes work and discovery to understand what logically follows and why.

I’m still inclined to believe we should talk about morality in the same way.  Once you define human, the moral obligations we have follow swiftly on the heels of the definition of our nature. If we define humans as the rational animal (or, to make it more unwieldy but more precise, the living thing that recognizes its own mind and those of others and can percieve that there’s a division) why shouldn’t there be rules that apply to this construct whether or not it’s instantiated?

Describing what a thing is (its essence) constrains its telos (the ends it’s directed toward).  There can be true facts about non-existent things — for example: unicorns have four legs, whether or not they exist.  It’s our ability to describe and predict the properties of things that may not exist that lets us come up with ways to test whether they’re real or categorize them at all.  If we weren’t humans, or if humans ceased to be, then their would still be facts about hypothetical rational animals, even if there was no one to hypothesize about them.

So, yes, moral law is dependent on humans insofar as the obligations of humans are different from those of dogs, but I think this kind of hairsplitting distracts from the bigger question about cultural relativism and changing norms.  I don’t want to get too far into the weeds on the very abstract “what if humans were different and so the moral way to treat them was different” question, because I think the moral law is actually fairly stable over a number of conceivable variations in human culture and human biology.  I’ll explain why in a second post, which will also be a chance to start making good on my promise to explain where I think C.S. Lewis gets it right.

(And, lo! that post is now up)

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • anodognosic

    I find that all my apparent disagreement with your position was a matter of disputing definitions (http://lesswrong.com/lw/np/disputing_definitions/).

    In terms of focus, it kind of depends on whom you’re arguing with. If it’s relativism you want to defeat, then you’re absolutely right to focus on this particular kind of human-independence. But focusing on its particular contingency on human nature is what you want if you’re addressing a fully general objective morality.

  • Ray

    Leah:

    “Once you define human, the moral obligations we have follow swiftly on the heels of the definition of our nature. ”

    Doesn’t this kind of presume that “to have moral obligations” is a well defined term in the framework used to define the human? This is by no means obvious given how I’d expect one to define humanity (a range of physical descriptions, or a range of DNA sequences, or more loosely anything that is more physically similar to me than a Bonobo is to a common Chimpanzee.)

    It seems to me like saying “once you define two points in R^2, the distance between the two points follows on the heels of this definition,” when you haven’t specified whether you’re using the L2 or L3 metric of distance. Now granted, distance pretty much always means L2 if you don’t specify otherwise, but I don’t think there is an unambiguous standardized definition of “moral obligation” that relieves you of the obligation to be more specific (if you want to communicate your thoughts clearly.)

    • Anonymous

      We usually roll the space and the metric all into one. Similarly, when you define human, you’ll likely define what it is… and where it lives. From there, Leah’s idea follows. This was fairly clear by the parenthetical statement concerning the possibility of non-Euclidean geometry and how it affects the definition of triangles.

      • http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com Eli

        “From there, Leah’s idea follows”

        Prove it.

        • Anonymous

          Sorry, I meant that her idea literally comes after those preliminaries, not that it is a logical conclusion of them. The complaint was that this metric possibility contradicted the preliminaries, when in reality they were considered.

        • Ray

          Anon, even if I were to grant Leah’s definition of humanity (which I think is a rather poor definition, being quite dissimilar from the sorts of heuristics people use in practice to identify humans): “the rational animal (or, to make it more unwieldy but more precise, the living thing that recognizes its own mind and those of others and can percieve that there’s a division)”

          This definition at no point depends upon the concept of moral obligation. It doesn’t mention it, or anything that looks like it would be defined in terms of “moral obligation.” So, it seems like one has not committed to any particular definition of “moral obligation” unless, the claim I am disputing — that people agree upon what constitutes a “moral obligation” — is true. So, unless you can show me how Leah’s definition of humanity depends on a particular conception of “moral obligation” or you can show me that people agree upon an unambiguous definition of what constitutes a moral obligation, my objection stands.

          • leahlibresco

            Ok, responding sporadically to comments right now, I know, but I’m wondering what definition(s) of human seem most useful to you in this sphere. I would expect a doctor to be more rooted in biology — what should an ethicist/philosopher be paying the most attention to?

          • Ray

            Explicit codes of ethics are much like explicit codes of law, and they’re created for pretty much the same reason. The only difference is whether you have explicit institutional enforcement by armed agents of the state or implicit enforcement by social pressure from subscribers to your ideology (that’s what a moral code is, after all.) Thus I would say that the ethicist should be able to define humanity in much the same way that the authors of law define it: e.g.

            “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

            It doesn’t seem like “person” needs all that much clarification in practice, aside from listing factors that do NOT disqualify a plausible candidate from personhood: e.g. “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” (and gender one might hope.)

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

    Wow, Leah, this post is extremely natural law compatible. I like it.

    This is my take, which I think fits with what you say (and this is Aristotle and Alasdair MacIntyre). Morality comes forth from the nature of the thing, in what it is and what its fulfillment is. The human telos is to be an excellent human, one who has become virtuous and avoided the vices. Morality is the path from what one is to where one ought to be, from nature to telos. Morality is how one becomes a good (and also happy) human.

    If you can agree with that, then congratulations! You are a natural law and virtue ethics atheist. :) Now the question becomes “what are nature and virtue?”

    • Ray

      Ah traveling the wrong direction on the abstraction ladder for fun, profit, (and souls.)

      http://lesswrong.com/lw/5kz/the_5second_level/

      good luck with that.

      • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

        I don’t think you know what you are talking about, so please say more. Do you think these ideas cannot be instantiated, or just that I didn’t do it in my above 10 lines?

        Aristotle’s entire point was that abstractions are taken from reality and not the reverse, like Plato does. A doctor can point out a healthy or sick person and explain specifically why (health is a virtue by the way) based on previous examples of health and sickness. One knowledgeable in other virtues, moral or intellectual, can do the same for other traits. Or do you not believe that “health” can be instantiated out of its abstract state? I am right that you think that “morality” cannot? Why “health” and not “morality”?

        What’s funny about your link is Yudkowsky is trying to instill habits (virtues…) of rational thought. This presupposes a normative understanding of human nature. That IS Aristotle. Read Nicomachean Ethics. Your supposed critique is actually fully compatible with and supports my assertion, as far as I can tell. But as I said above, say more if there is more to say.

        • Patrick

          “What’s funny about your link is Yudkowsky is trying to instill habits (virtues…) of rational thought. This presupposes a normative understanding of human nature.”

          No it doesn’t. Give one reason why it would.

          And bear in mind that “is compatible with” is not the same as “presupposes.”

          • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

            Fine, I’ll change the word “presupposes” to “is compatible with.” You may have your relativism back.

        • http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com Eli

          “What’s funny about your link is Yudkowsky is trying to instill habits (virtues…) of rational thought. This presupposes a normative understanding of human nature.”

          No and no: not all habits are virtues, and not all instruction pertains to human nature.

          • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

            You are correct, some habits are neutral and some are vices. But is the habit of rational thought not a virtue? As for instruction pertaining or not to human nature I do not understand what you mean.

        • http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com Eli

          “is the habit of rational thought not a virtue?”

          With respect to which end? The flourishing of the human who thinks rationally? Not really: rational thought correlates quite strongly with depression, and there’s very good scientific evidence that suggests that this relationship is more than just accidental.

          To the flourishing of the human species, then? I dunno – maybe. But then we have to get into whether “flourishing of the human species” means individual-by-individual, or the average of individuals, or if we’re somehow conceiving of the species as an autonomous entity, or…

          To the acquisition of truth? Yes, I’d imagine that it is. But, then, that’s not *usually* how “virtue” is defined in the moral context, so I’m assuming that you mean something different.

          “As for instruction pertaining or not to human nature I do not understand what you mean.”

          Really? It’s fairly trivial to think up examples. Take any set of (correct) instructions for adding decimal numbers: these instructions depend only on the base system, the symbols used to represent digits, and so on. Human nature never enters into the picture. NB that this is not to say that such instructions are human-independent in the sense described above; they are not. But all this tells us is that there’s fertile ground between “independent of humans” and “stemming from human nature.”

          • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

            rational thought correlates quite strongly with depression, and there’s very good scientific evidence that suggests that this relationship is more than just accidental.

            Just a brief aside here, but I’ve heard this claim before and always found it fascinating (if it is indeed true). Do you know of any legitimate scientific sources for this?

          • http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com Eli

            Apologies: “depression” may have been too precise a word. Try “unhappiness, of severity up to depression.”

            For the mechanism part I’m relying mostly on “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” which I would reference in more detail if I hadn’t just lent out my copy. The basic idea is that irrational cognition (story-making, simplistic pattern recognition, etc.) is easy, whereas rational cognition (logical analysis, anything involving math or statistics, checking for the proper scope of one’s evidence, etc.) is effortful and therefore unpleasant. There’s a reverse effect as well, wherein people who are primed to be serious, somber, or otherwise unhappy are more logical thinkers than people who have been primed to be happy.

            As for depressive realism as such, the link is weak but present (just see wiki for links). Unsurprisingly, the correlation is stronger in areas not related to story-making and simplistic pattern recognition and weaker in areas where those methods more closely reflect reality. I wouldn’t trust too much to the idea of “depressive realism,” though, because it’s not focused on logical thinking but rather accurate thinking about oneself. That obviously limits the applicability of that subject to this conversation, as the effect of logical thought upon one’s own flourishing is hardly limited to the cases in which one thinks logically about oneself.

          • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

            The flourishing of both individual and society. Rationality makes one sad? Then why pursue it? Clearly the implication is that the pursuit is good (excellent, virtuous) even though it makes one sad. There is, then, a higher good than pleasure, i.e. rationality. I agree, reason is worth it even if it pains one. Even the pursuit of a vice assumes that pursuing it is actually good.

            Truth, beauty, goodness, all the same. If those don’t make you happy… well, maybe you are pursuing the wrong kind of rationality. :) (I’m inserting happy faces to increase happiness, by the way.)

            And of course this is completely contrary to most of philosophy prior to, say, 1800 (?) or postmodernism (?). Because Aristotle thought philosophy was the happiest life. Surely the act of discovery is extremely gratifying to those who experience it, whether scientists, philosophers, or others.

            Maybe what we have here is a difference of personality. Or some depressed academics trying to make themselves feel better by claiming thy are more rational than those darn happy people. ;)

          • http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com Eli

            “Rationality makes one sad? Then why pursue it?”

            Because one has a desire to know things, and rationality is better than all the alternatives when it comes to knowing things.

            “Clearly the implication is that the pursuit is good (excellent, virtuous)”

            Er, no – the implication is just that one has a desire for knowledge. One can have desires for lots of things, good, bad, or neutral.

            “Even the pursuit of a vice assumes that pursuing it is actually good.”

            Sight – typical virtue ethics pop psychology, disproven by everyday experience and supported only by a series of increasingly convoluted equivocations about the meaning of “good.”

            “Surely the act of discovery is extremely gratifying to those who experience it, whether scientists, philosophers, or others.”

            Try to stay focused, Brian: discovery itself may well be gratifying, but we’re talking about rationality.

            Moreover, you’ve entirely missed my point: the rules of rational thought are not derived even indirectly from human nature. Even if rationality contributes to human flourishing – which, again, is unclear – your claim was that ANY instruction “presupposes a normative understanding of human nature.” Right now you’re not even trying to support that claim; rather, you’re doing apologetics for virtue ethics generally, and rather unconvincingly, at that.

          • http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com Eli

            Your problem, Brian, is that you’re going from “relative to accomplishing task X, these habits are virtues” to simply “these habits are virtues.” Virtue ethicists are prone to making this mistake, I know, but you really do need to be more careful. Merely because someone takes up task X is not sufficient evidence to conclude that task X is good for that person’s “flourishing” (which, now that you’ve admitted the possibility of a miserable flourishing person, I no longer understand). This can be demonstrated very easily: at least within your system, “vices are virtues with respect to the task of ruining one’s life” is a true statement. But that doesn’t mean that vice-seeking is virtuous.

      • Ray

        Of course these ideas can be instantiated. Problem is you can instantiate them in ways that are consistent with any perverse moral system you like, as was aptly illustrated by the Thomists in this thread:

        http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked/2012/03/exploring-stephen-laws-evil-god-challenge.html

        especially Sam Urfer.

        If you actually want to know what is moral and what ain’t, you need to put something concrete in in the place of abstractions like “telos.” To do this, you either can fill in your own preference or solve for the unknown from observing how native English speakers actually use moral terms. Either way, it’s human dependent. Your solution would be to fill in “God’s will” or “God’s nature” or similar for the telos. Problem is, nobody can agree what either of those is, or how to find out enough about either to answer moral questions. (And of course, you have the fact, which I’ve linked several times before, that appeals to “God’s will” are empirically indistinguishable from appeals to one’s own.)

        • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

          Okay, good. Yes, some moral systems are perverse. They hurt people and human society rather than helping them. Good moral systems help humans actualize their potentials for excellence, developing their innate talents (music, art, science, sports), etc., as well as promoting a culture which is enduringly sustainable. IOW, morality will produce a society that functions, the function of society being not only the enduring survival of it and its parts, but also their flourishing (and if flourishing is abstract, think of instances of its opposites and just avoid those).

          As for “my” solution, I just provided it above, so please don’t tell me what my solution is and then provide it yourself. God is nowhere invoked.

          Very few Catholic theologians invoke “God’s will,” aka voluntarism, typical of Protestants and Muslims. “God’s nature,” yes, which is a rational nature and is therefore usually just called “reason.”

  • http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com Eli

    “Describing what a thing is (its essence) constrains its telos (the ends it’s directed toward).”

    This needs its own post, if not its own book.

  • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

    I think the quickest way to begin to solve arguments about morality is to taboo the word “morality”.

  • Daniel A. Duran

    “Technically mathematical facts aren’t independent of the objects they describe”

    Are you saying that mathematical facts aren’t independent of the *material * objects they describe (or instantiate)? That doesn’t seem right. What sort of material object is described by number two? Is triangularity gaseous, liquid , solid or some type of energy?

    “I’m still inclined to believe we should talk about morality in the same way.”

    There seems to be confusion here. In what sense is moral goodness independent of our minds? This is the crux of the problem. You keep implying that they are like platonic forms the way numbers are but you do not tell us how it is so.

    perhaps we need to get back to the basics; what is moral goodness, Leah?

    As far as I can see it is a necessary component for moral goodness to possess free-will and reason, but moral goodness cannot exist without minds. Can you give a counter example to this? If you can do that then I will I concede that moral value is wholly independent of minds.

    • @b

      Like the Triangle, the number Two is merely a category that a material object might belong to. Since it’s a category it can be vaccuous, devoid of mass and energy.

      We can imagine Ethical as another category that a material *event* might belong to. That is, a brain event; some thought, action, restraint, subconscious desire, moral choice, etc.

      Unlike the category Triangle though, humans can’t yet agree on the “known” features of the category Ethical.

  • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

    “Technically mathematical facts aren’t independent of the objects they describe, either. It’s not a property of math-writ-large that the angles of a triangle sum to 180 degrees, it’s just a property of triangles. (Or, more precisely, a property of triangles in Euclidean geometry). It would be true of Euclidean triangles whether or not any existed in the physical world or there were any people anywhere to think of them.”

    As with Daniel Duran, I’m not quite sure that this can be stated boldly. (Unlike Daniel, I don’t think you mean that objects you’re refering to are necessarily physical ones, ’cause you’re a quasi-Platonist.) I took a philosophy of mathematics course once upon a time, and while I wouldn’t care to bet on whether I remember it all accurately (at the time I took the course I wouldn’t care to bet that I understood it all accurately), I do remember that logicism was only one of the ways of accounting for mathematics. You’re taking a strongly logicist approach, which has some as-of-yet-insoluble problems (namely, Hume’s fork winds up being an issue for it still), but is the popular one. However, there are empirical versions (Kant, in fact, began with an empirical version, and there’s an Aristotelian lineage) and pragmatic version which would base mathematics in physical phenomenon (which makes them strangely contingent and therefore not nearly as a priori as I think you’d want them to be). There are also fictionalist versions which make them not perfect and objective and a priori at all (and actually aren’t all too different from your imperfect-maps metaphor that you sometimes employ). As a strong logicist (most practicing mathematicians are strong logicists, so you’re in good if maybe naive company), this likely won’t phase you. And since this is an analogy, troubling the math part shouldn’t logically trouble the morality part, but I still think it’s worth pointing out that not everyone will get behind you on the math thing, so they likely won’t get behind you on the morals thing, either. (Except for weirdos like me who are more likely to be postmodernist about epistemology than about axiology.)


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