Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist November 22, 2011

Earlier today I explained why moral nihilism is self-contradictory in reply to a comment by thedudediogenes on my earlier attack on moral nihilism from last Friday.

thedudediogenes also wrote:

How I look at morality is influenced most strongly by Nietzsche, Mackie, Leiter, Garner, Greene and Blackford. I think we project our moral sentiments onto the world.

Yes, as a psychological matter of fact, we do sometimes project our moral sentiments onto the world, but this is not mutually exclusive with there being objective relationships of goodness and badness in the world which either justify our particular feelings as correct or are the basis for realizing our feelings are incorrect. Our feelings of preference should be towards those things that conduce to our flourishing and our feelings of aversion should be towards those things that harm our flourishing.

I view belief in moral facts or truths as similar to theism belief – as an intellectual comfort blanket.

That is a simplistic interpretation of both moral truths and of theism. Neither are purely comforting to those who think they are true.

Moral facts, say, “Slavery is wrong” play no explanatory role in our understanding of the world.

Moral facts are not explanations, they are conclusions which determine that an action is the best, the worst, or somewhere in-between. The apprehension of the fact that slavery is wrong plays a deep role in our understanding of the world, which presently prevents millions of people from owning slaves.

(That is, to put it crudely, slavery’s being putatively wrong is not why slavery is illegal in the places in which it now is illegal.)

I hardly see how such a blanket statement could be made. Even were the initial reasons slavery was abolished in most parts of the world more cynical and less moral at the time, that is no reason to assume that it does not remain illegal out of moral judgments or (at least) moral abhorrence. And even were it legalized–or even were there ways to get around the law–there are still millions who would abstain from owning slaves on moral grounds, given the current state of values in the much of the world. And if it is true that slavery is wrong (damaging to overall flourishing and maximin flourishing) in the contexts where people think it is wrong, those people may be said to have true, rationally correct moral reasons against it.

But even if I am mistaken and there are no moral facts, surely people are motivated to do some things and to refrain from others by what they think are moral facts and because they think those things are moral facts. That is the definitional feature of Mackie’s error theory–there need not actually be any moral facts for us, nonetheless, to think and to be motivated as though there were.

Moral facts, then, if they exist, are inert in a way that other facts don’t seem to be.

I do not know exactly what he means by “inert”. If he means they have no ability to move us to action, then he is wrong for the reasons I just noted. Even if they did not exist, Mackie would be right that the misapprehension of them would still be enough to make them effective.

But by “inert” we might read thedudediogenes to be referring to another common argument among moral nihilists. He might mean that moral facts cannot be discovered to be facts because, aside from motivating us to action, they do not have causal influence on states of affairs in the world independent of our thought processes about the world. Presumably the only real kind of facts are mind-independent ones and they are proved to be really facts by the ways they observably change the universe by being present. So, the fact that there is a smoke in the air is demonstrable by its effects by which we smell or see it as it affects the air and our noses and our eyes. Smoke changes our perception of the world by its presence and enters into observable causal connections with other physical things, and through all of this the fact of its being is foist on us whether we want to believe it or not.

So, on this reasoning, moral facts would not exist because they do not do things like change the other empirical facts about the world by their presence and thus alert all objective observers to their presence–whether those observers feel like acknowledging them or not. We cannot infer moral facts through any tangible, sensible, or scientifically observable manifestations they make in the empirical world.

But if it is sensible to talk about “moral facts” these are not facts about empirical objects but about actions, such that some actions in particular cases are the best actions even when they go against shortsighted perceptions of our self-interest. The only way to say that a moral claim is a fact is the same way that we would say that a hypothetical imperative expresses a fact. It is a fact that if you want to make an omelette you must use eggs—given the definition of an omelette. Similarly, given the mathematically describable dynamics of strategic decision-making studied in game theory, and given the ways that we humans flourish in our powers, it is a fact that betraying others’ trust is usually not the best available action and so it is a fact that it is immoral to do so in those cases where you are shortsighted and feel like betraying others anyway. It is also a fact that it is in your objective interest to flourish in your powers since they are you and so their effective realization is your effective realization. And there can be no good reason, short of concession to sheer inability, to desire to realize yourself less than you can.

If moral facts exist, if morality is in that sense a “real phenomenon”, it is a sui generis phenomenon; no other “real phenomena” can be trangressed. The laws of physics can’t be broken, the “laws” of morality can freely be broken. I’m clearly not the only one who finds that “queer”, to borrow Mackie’s term.

Yes, and bats clearly cannot be used in baseball because it would be impossible to get winged creatures of such strength to stay still in the hitters’ hands. And because their bodies are not long enough or inflexible enough to be used for hitting a pitched baseball.

Law in the sense of “moral law” and law in the sense of “physical law” are homonyms. No moralist has ever thought that a condition of being a moral law was that no one could ever violate it. Moral laws have always been in principle violable. If they could not be violated then no one could ever choose to violate them. If no one could choose to violate them, they would not be matters of choice. If they were not matters of choice they could not be subject to moral appraisal.

The only sense in which there are “natural moral laws” is the sense is that, in given circumstances, if one were to choose against the recommendation of a moral law for a shortsighted short term interest, one would be harming one’s own ultimate effectiveness in power. What constitutes one’s ultimate effectiveness is a matter for factual investigation. Those are law governed natural relationships. Various functions in reality are either more or less effectively realized. These functions are naturalistic through and through and are as “governed” by the laws of nature as everything else.

I cannot effectively function as a human being without a brain. This is determined by the laws of nature. It is a fact that were I to damage my brain, I would damage the functioning through which I come into being at all. It is a fact that this harms my own objective interests as the essentially brain-having being that I am. I have this interest in the preconditions of my own existence since it (obviously) depends on them and I necessarily depend on it in order to be at all.

(FYI Greene’s dissertation is freely available online, as are several papers by Leiter that are tangentially related. Unfortunately, his “Moral Facts and Best Explanations” isn’t easily found online. Additionally Blackford has written numerous blog posts and columns explicating his views, and Richard Garner’s book “Beyond Morality” is also available online. To anyone still reading this comment, all are highly recommended.)

Your Thoughts?

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”


Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral


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