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The Nature of Morality November 25, 2009

Posted by Ian in Morality.
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Continuing on from my previous post I thought I’d offer my thoughts on the nature of morality.

Often discussions of morality focus on whether or not morality is objective or subjective but I am starting to realise this discussion is poorly framed.  We need to approach morality with a robust understanding of exactly what we are talking about and not just with vague nebulous concepts. 

It is easy to invent concepts and discuss them without any basis in reality and a lot of moral discussion fits into that category.  To base morality in reality we must treat it like any other model of the world and therefore it must be a descriptive or predictive model.

I see morality as a description of the patterns of behaviour and thought among people.  We start with the observation that most people think that murder (or whatever) is bad and go from there.  Absolute or subjective morality are models that attempt to predict these patterns of behaviour and thought by offering some sort of formula that describes the pattern.   

To help explain what I mean I will use the example of gravity.   We can observe that objects are attracted to each other and we can observe they tend to do this at a rate proportional to their size (i.e. big/dense things attract more than little/sparse things).  Gravity is the description of this pattern in observations.  There isn’t actually anything called gravity, it is just a pattern of observations.  If we ask why apples fall off trees the sensible answer is not gravity.  The apple falling is simply consistent with the observed pattern that things fall called gravity (and therefore predicted by it) but we have no idea why they fall.

I see morality as much the same except that it is more complex and there isn’t a  consistent set of patterns to work with.  People tend to not like killing each other but there are exceptions.  People tend to respect societal rules such as property rights but there are exceptions.  Etc. 

We know a hell of a lot less about morality as a pattern than we do about gravity and our discussions should reflect that.  We can talk until we are blue in the face about what we ought to do, what we should do, and the rest of it, but we don’t have any empirical reasoning behind those statements – they are just speculation.  At some point we have to base this discussion in the world we know about, not the world we think about.

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1. Damian - November 25, 2009

I have a slightly different take on morality (a definition that has been reworked a number of times over the last couple of years):

“Morality is the degree to which an entity, through choice, will achieve a defined goal.”

I.e. without a goal defined (whether you believe from God or self or group) then morality is meaningless. Without the ability to choose morality is meaningless.

Saying “killing another human is wrong” is a short-hand way of saying “killing another human is wrong if you want to [define goal here (i.e. ‘live without fear’|’please God’|’please my friends’|etc)]”. I think that most moral statements have some kind of implied goal even if not consciously.

I think most people when talking of objective morality mean either ‘prescribed’ morality (which would be subjective to the prescriber) or a goal so narrowly defined that there is only one set of actions that will work.

When it comes to the inevitable question of free will I think that this definition can cover either genuine free will (if such a thing exists) or any of the other forms of determinism so long as you are happy to allow that the ‘judging’ of actions as moral or immoral are a part of a determined system too.

I think that “wrong” (killing someone) is related to “wrong” (incorrect key) but that we tend to label things morally wrong the more they affect us emotionally.

That’s where I’m at with the question of morality at the moment. But I also know that I’ve been “wrong” about plenty of things in the past 😉

2. Dale Campbell - November 25, 2009

Hi Ian,
Here are my introductory comments,

I’d want to first challenge the notion that morality (as morality) could be studied in a descriptive sense. Morality/Ethics, the attempt to a) perceive/understand/’know’ and (presumably!) b) act/behave/do that which is good, right, ethical, moral, etc., is by its very nature a prescriptive enterprise.

Then, I’d want to raise again my strong conviction that morality/ethics is tied inseparably to teleology, and that without reference to a ‘goal’ or ‘end’ or ‘telos’, no activity/action/behaviour can be said to be ‘off course’, ‘immoral’, ‘wrong’, ‘negative’, ‘bad’, or ‘erroneous’, etc.

I also note that you seem quite clearly to have an epistemic preference (bias?) which appears to be forcing you to see non-empirical truth-seeking methods as (automatically?) unreliable – even (strangely to me?) in such a clearly non-empirical (metaphysical) field of enquiry such as morality/ethics. I’m picking this up from your language such as: “vague nebulous concepts” and “just speculation” and “think about”…

I’ll leave it there for now, 🙂

-d-

3. Dale - November 25, 2009

(just saw Damian’s post, and will just say that I entirely agree about the link between ‘goals’ and ‘morality’ – as we discovered in a past chat over a cuppa – or two? 😉 )

4. Ian - November 25, 2009

@Damian: I would 100% agree with your position in a normal (philosophical) discussion about morals but I think the question (and many others of similar ilk) can be better framed in the real world by being brutally honest about what we really do know.

@Dale:

I’d want to first challenge the notion that morality (as morality) could be studied in a descriptive sense. Morality/Ethics, the attempt to a) perceive/understand/’know’ and (presumably!) b) act/behave/do that which is good, right, ethical, moral, etc., is by its very nature a prescriptive enterprise.

Again I’d agree in a philosophical sense but if you are going to actually get to any answers you are going to have to find a way to include the actual real world in that discourse and I don’t think we can. All we know is that people tend to think and behave in certain ways. That’s it. We don’t have any more information than that.

I also note that you seem quite clearly to have an epistemic preference (bias?) which appears to be forcing you to see non-empirical truth-seeking methods as (automatically?) unreliable –

Non-empirical truth-seeking methods may also be known as philosophy and you may recall my view on philosophy from our chat 🙂

even (strangely to me?) in such a clearly non-empirical (metaphysical) field of enquiry such as morality/ethics. I’m picking this up from your language such as: “vague nebulous concepts” and “just speculation” and “think about”…

At some point the real world has to be involved for the concept to have any relevance. What can we possibly know about the world that isn’t grounded in that world?

IMO morality is another one of those issues that has become a linguistic exercise and has lost most of its touch with the real guts of the issue which is describing and predicting how people think and behave.

Incidentally this approach doesn’t rule out an objective moral code or even god – it just requires that they actually exist and actually have an effect on the world 🙂

5. Dale Campbell - November 26, 2009

Ian,
I’d want to point out that non-empirically demonstrable (a.k.a. ‘philosophical’) claims/assumptions/approaches are unavoidable. Your approach, for example, concerning the prioritisation of empirically-derived knowledge over non-empirically-derived knowledge, is itself a hugely philosophical one.

I’d also want to argue that there are fewer more ‘immediate’, ‘relevant’, ‘down-to-earth’, ‘grounded’, or ‘real-world’ areas of enquiry than ethics/morality (in the prescriptive sense). Healthy/unhealthy eating has very real, earthy effects on real people. Healthy/unhealthy sexuality has real, devastating effects on abused children, addicted adults, confused teenagers (I work with youth), etc., etc. Just because there are complex (a more positive word would be ‘interesting’) differences of view/understanding/approaches to morality doesn’t in the slightest make it useless, abstract philosophising.

Defining morality as (only) ‘describing and predicting’ moral thoughts/behaviour leaves no sense of morality being about what is actually right/wrong, and thus would (on that view) necessitate the use of ‘inverted commas’ for every use of the word ‘morality’.

I’ll cut my rambling off there. 🙂

6. Ian - November 26, 2009

Your approach, for example, concerning the prioritisation of empirically-derived knowledge over non-empirically-derived knowledge, is itself a hugely philosophical one.

My approach is simple. Anything that we can observe existing exists for all intents and purposes. Anything that we can’t observe existing is irrelevant. This goes for gravity, cows, morality, apples or gods. All your work is ahead of you to convince me that something we can’t observe is relevant.

I’d also want to argue that there are fewer more ‘immediate’, ‘relevant’, ‘down-to-earth’, ‘grounded’, or ‘real-world’ areas of enquiry than ethics/morality (in the prescriptive sense).

IMO prescriptive morality is the subjective study of governance strategies, not of any deep seated reasons or motivations for behaviour.

Healthy/unhealthy eating has very real, earthy effects on real people.

And is the subject of nutritional science, not morality.

Healthy/unhealthy sexuality has real, devastating effects on abused children, addicted adults, confused teenagers (I work with youth), etc., etc.

And is the subject of psychology, physiology, and the rest of it, not morality.

Just because there are complex (a more positive word would be ‘interesting’) differences of view/understanding/approaches to morality doesn’t in the slightest make it useless, abstract philosophising.

Those differences in approaches are what the descriptive science of morality is all about which is kind of my point.

Defining morality as (only) ‘describing and predicting’ moral thoughts/behaviour leaves no sense of morality being about what is actually right/wrong,

Before this statement makes sense you would need to go have a look at the real world and tell me why it makes sense to use the phrase “actually right/wrong”. There is a massive assumption in that statement that is unbased in my opinion. If we stop making that assumption then all we have left is the descriptive science.

I will note that a descriptive approach doesn’t rule out that some sort of objective prescription exists – it just requires that we observe it in action.

and thus would (on that view) necessitate the use of ‘inverted commas’ for every use of the word ‘morality’.

Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing 🙂

7. Dale Campbell - November 26, 2009

Hey Ian,
My comments were that your epistemic bent (your views on what kinds of knowledge gaining methods are valid/reliable) represents a philosophical position that is non-empirically demonstrable. Your response goes into issues to do with existence (ontology). Whilst ontology is not unrelated to epistemology, epistemology (‘how can we know anything at all?) is more general than ontology (‘how can we know what exists?’).

The point (bringing it back to the issue at hand) is that it could well be (indeed, I think it is the case) that whilst empirically-derived knowledge informs our moral judgments, our moral judgments (note: not ‘descriptions/predictions’) are always based on non-(strictly) empirically-derived knowledge, by which we discern/appreciate/perceive/’know’/apprehend certain modes-of-being/behaving that resonate with goal-sets and value-sets. Indeed, this discerning/appreciating/’knowing’/etc. is a different kind of truth-seeking than empirical science, but (here’s the rub) we have no empirical reason to either doubt or trust these (non-empirical) truth-seeking methods. We choose to trust or doubt them based on our philosophical/epistemic approach.

Further, I’m not wanting to deny that descriptions/predictions cannot be relevant to morality. I’d just want to carefully distinguish between a descriptive mode of analysis (i.e. [making these stats up] 65% of males age 13-45 have stolen an item of greater value than $50; – or 14% of married men admit to desiring sexual relations with their partner’s cousin; etc.) and a prescriptive mode of analysis (i.e. stealing is immoral; or infidelity are immoral).

Of course, one could (some do) have the view that both stealing and infidelity are a-moral or moral. And this raises the link between goals and morality. ‘Stealing’ has no meaning apart from the notion of ‘possession’ and the goal of ‘sharing’/’stewarding’/etc. things. Likewise, ‘infidelity’ has no meaning apart from the notion of ‘fidelity’ and the goal of stable, committed relationships/families/communities, etc.

To touch on the eating/sexuality examples I gave (and your response to them); ‘nutritional science’ is wedded (in practice) to a goal of ‘health’ – and ‘health’ is a concept that is only descriptive after it is first prescriptive. Speaking strictly in biological terms, the universe does not care whether any biological organism lives or dies, is ‘healthy’ (our idea of it) or ‘unhealthy’. We have (prescriptively) judged that certain biological states are ‘not the way it is supposed to be’ – but it could just as easily be the case (as far as nature is concerned) that we are all ‘meant’ to be ‘overweight’, ‘sick’, etc. ‘Health’, then, is a subjectively-discerned (perhaps more accurate to say ‘intersubjectively’) goal for biological functioning; first formed non-empirically, and only then informed by empirically-derived knowledge. Same for sexuality, etc.

On the phrase “actually right/wrong”, this hilights the stark difference between our positions. “At bottom”, because you (I presume) reject that any ‘goals’ are actual, but are mere social constructions of varying degrees of popularity at different times/places, you wouldn’t be able to say that any behaviour has any actual (prescriptive) moral significance. Put more simply, the degree to which actions have real/actual moral significance is directly proportional to the degree to which goals are real/actual.

For you (correct me if i’m misrepresenting) we can describe behaviour, but not prescribe it. That is what I mean by ‘morality’ being in inverted commas.

Our key difference is not that I think that prescriptive morality is easy/sussed/automatic and that you think it is a waste of time. Rather, you think it’s a waste of time, and I think it’s worthwhile, basic, relevant, universal – not to mention unavoidable.

8. Ian - November 26, 2009

Indeed, this discerning/appreciating/’knowing’/etc. is a different kind of truth-seeking than empirical science, but (here’s the rub) we have no empirical reason to either doubt or trust these (non-empirical) truth-seeking methods. We choose to trust or doubt them based on our philosophical/epistemic approach.

The problem with non-empirical methods is that I don’t think you can separate them from pure speculation. What possible test can you apply to them to test their accuracy? We can speculate all day long, invent self-consistent ideas, and wax philosophical until the cows come home but until we include the real world in the discussion, it really isn’t going to get us anywhere.

To touch on the eating/sexuality examples I gave (and your response to them); ‘nutritional science’ is wedded (in practice) to a goal of ‘health’ – and ‘health’ is a concept that is only descriptive after it is first prescriptive.

A question: how do you know that being healthy is a goal for humans?

“At bottom”, because you (I presume) reject that any ‘goals’ are actual, but are mere social constructions of varying degrees of popularity at different times/places,

I have a personal opinion along those lines but that is entirely beside the point here.

Whether or not the real world has “actual goals” of any kind (magical, objective, circumstantial, whatever) must be determined by looking at the real world! Either they exist or they don’t. Their mere statement doesn’t get us anywhere.

For you (correct me if i’m misrepresenting) we can describe behaviour, but not prescribe it. That is what I mean by ‘morality’ being in inverted commas.

We can prescribe behaviour from a governance point of view (“the law says don’t murder”) but you are really talking about some form of external or absolute prescription right? Yet again, such a thing either exists or it doesn’t and the only way to figure that out is to actually look at the real world.

Our key difference is not that I think that prescriptive morality is easy/sussed/automatic and that you think it is a waste of time. Rather, you think it’s a waste of time, and I think it’s worthwhile, basic, relevant, universal – not to mention unavoidable.

I don’t think it is a waste of time. I think it is a poorly framed concept that hasn’t been connected to the real world in any meaningful way yet. Maybe one day it will be but first we have to be brutally honest about what we actually know versus what we are just speculating about.

9. Dale Campbell - November 26, 2009

Ian,
thanks for dialogue, btw,

((trying to discern key points in our discussion, let me know if I drop any points))

First, we have your sharp distinction between “what we actually know” v. “what we are just speculating about”:
You ask how we can separate these non-empirical methods from ‘pure speculation’. (I’d like to note that even science involves creative, imagination – searching for models of reality that make sense of it – especially the more theoretical sciences. I think we shouldn’t expect any otherwise with non-empirical truth-seeking methods.) I think “heart” things (like emotion, intuition, and experience) need to be taken seriously as valid ways of discerning/discovering moral truth. Clearly, on their own, these aren’t enough, but when “heart” (think Romanticism) things and “head” (think Enlightenment) things (logic, reason, experiment)are in harmony and there’s a resonance or ‘fit’ and things ‘make sense’ – I think we can actually say we’re ‘getting somewhere’ with discovering truth (moral or otherwise). We are not all-knowing, and will never have truth captured and mounted on the wall, but we’ve good reason to distinguish what I take to be real progress toward truth on one hand and pure speculation on the other.

And again, I note in passing your references to “the real world”. I think some of these ‘subjective’ (or, again, intersubjective?) truths we progress toward (i.e. ‘speculative’ and ‘nebulous’ concepts such as: human rights, freedom, dignity, worth/value, etc.) are just as real as anything we might view through a telescope or microscope. And the objection that ‘waxing philosophical’ doesn’t really ‘get us anywhere’ is itself based on a philosophical/epistemic perspective/standpoint. What scientific experiment tells us that philosophy doesn’t get us anywhere? It is a very specifically philosophical bent that enables someone to view philosophy as worth little/not-much. 😉

Next, you ask a key question: “how do you know that being healthy is a goal for humans?” (I take that to mean that you’d have to admit that you yourself do not ‘know’ –via the epistemic methods you accept/trust– that it is?) As for me, I’ve no problem with the fact that I ‘know’ through non-empirical means; my “head” and “heart” agree – there is wide acceptance of that goal as good – it ‘fits’ (resonance) with the rest of what I know (via all kinds of truth-seeking methods – empirical and non-empirical), etc.

Also, to borrow a phrase (which you’ll likely despise) from the preamble to the US Constitution, some truths, I think, are “self evident” (or just true). Things (above) like ‘rights’, ‘freedom’, ‘dignity’, etc. are anything but empirically-based values/goals. If all beliefs must be verified by (purely) empirical knowledge, then no sensible person could/should be against slavery (in whatever form) – or against anything for that matter.

And of course, the question is raised who are the epistemic police who determined that all beliefs need to be empirically verified? To be clear, I always will want empirically-derived knowledge to INFORM (excuse all-caps) my beliefs, goals and values. But I think it’s unrealistic (even impossible) to imagine that empirically-derived knowledge could FORM (or validate) each and every belief – as if truth can only be found via empiricsm.

I’m hearing you say something like, “But if truth doesn’t need to be empirically verified, then people can/will believe literally anything!!
To which I’d respond firstly (and importantly) that even the belief that ‘truth must be empirically verified’ is itself not empirically verifiable. I’d also say that I’m far less worried about people ‘believing anything’ as I would be if people were not free to both express and challenge any/all kinds of belief. Also, if there were indeed (shock, horror!) such a thing as truth that is non-empirically verifiable, then the goal (oops, there’s that word again) of truth-seeking demands that we be epistemically open to it. Heck, even empirical knowledge isn’t perfectly known, is it? Why should we expect other-than-empirical knowledge to be flawlessly discovered?

10. Ian - November 30, 2009

How odd – I posted a reply the day you posted your last comment and apparently it didn’t appear – oops, here I was wondering why the discussion had died down! I’ll try and recapture the gist of it:

I think our difference (simplistically) boils down to this statement:

I think “heart” things (like emotion, intuition, and experience) need to be taken seriously as valid ways of discerning/discovering moral truth.

I am taking things a step further back than that and questioning whether the notion of “moral truth” is actually meaningful. I am not at all sure it is.

I think some of these ’subjective’ (or, again, intersubjective?) truths we progress toward (i.e. ’speculative’ and ‘nebulous’ concepts such as: human rights, freedom, dignity, worth/value, etc.) are just as real as anything we might view through a telescope or microscope.

The use of the word “truth” here is not productive. For example human rights is a concept and only a concept. It is as real as any other concept but that isn’t saying much. Now of course human rights are “real” in that we can easily observe that the concept has been invented and distributed throughout the world in various forms but that isn’t saying much either.

As for me, I’ve no problem with the fact that I ‘know’ through non-empirical means; my “head” and “heart” agree – there is wide acceptance of that goal as good – it ‘fits’ (resonance) with the rest of what I know (via all kinds of truth-seeking methods – empirical and non-empirical), etc.

You could have just said here “I know because I know” 🙂 Here is a question: was being healthy a goal for mankind before medicine or healing was invented?

If all beliefs must be verified by (purely) empirical knowledge, then no sensible person could/should be against slavery (in whatever form) – or against anything for that matter.

Isn’t that just saying there is nothing wrong with slavery except that for some unknown reason we feel it is bad? One must then ask why slavery was so prominent in the past.

But I think it’s unrealistic (even impossible) to imagine that empirically-derived knowledge could FORM (or validate) each and every belief – as if truth can only be found via empiricsm.

I don’t think we can ever really know the truth – we can just approximate it to levels of practical value. I’m not even sure it means anything to talk of some ultimate truth. Rather we are better served talking about whether or not something is contradicts what we observe. If I said the moon was really a giant paua shell we can’t demonstrate that is wrong, we can only point out that it seems to contradict what we have figured out about the moon in other ways.

Heck, even empirical knowledge isn’t perfectly known, is it?

Not even remotely close 🙂

Why should we expect other-than-empirical knowledge to be flawlessly discovered?

I can’t help but feel you are equating empiricism with materialism. Empiricism (well my interpretation of it) merely states that we have a narrow porthole to view the world through and that we should not make claims about anything we don’t see through that porthole.

If moral truth does exist in some sense then surely some part of that should appear through the porthole?

11. Dale Campbell - November 30, 2009

Cheers Ian,
No worries about the delay, understood 🙂

We may be quite close to the ‘agree to disagree’ stage, so I won’t bother quoting/responding in detail. But do pull me up on any significant points you feel I’ve dropped.

Quite clearly it’s an epistemic point of difference. Your wording such as “I’m not at all sure…”, “I don’t think we can ever really know…”, etc., signals that you feel that the ‘narrow porthole’ of empiricism is the only means by which we can gain knowledge that is reliable/trustworthy or that we can be ‘sure’/certain of.

(and I note in passing that the task of judging “whether or not something is contradicts what we observe” is anything but a ‘scientific’ task. Again, I want science to INFORM my moral judgments – but they remain (prescriptive) moral judgments, not scientific ‘descriptions’/observations.)

The first thing that comes to mind is that (having met you) you clearly are ‘certain’ of these ideas/truths enough to act on them. (this is yet another point where ‘abstract’ philosophical discussions are actually quite practical/down-to-earth)

The other thing I’d want to double-check with you is whether or not you’d agree that your view can be accurately termed ‘moral relativism’. It seems, from our exchanges, that according to you, no actions can be said to be ‘wrong’ or ‘immoral’ (or, of course, ‘right’ or ‘moral’). Perhaps ‘a-moral indifference’ would be more apt? Sure, humans say this or that, but as far as the “real truth” (TM) is concerned, the universe –at bottom; at the end of the day; etc.– careth not about any action performed by anyone. The only ‘true’ response is a shoulder shrug.

Again, my view is that the balance of rationality (mind) and emotion (‘heart’) –not to mention consulting human tradition– can be trusted enough (key: never trusted ultimately – humanity is never omniscient!) to act with urgency, certainty and confidence that we are (at least in part) ‘getting it right’.

Your view: only the ‘narrow porthole’ of empiricism can give us ‘sure’ knowledge, and we have no reason to be ‘sure’ that anything has moral significance or is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
My view: we don’t know perfectly, but we also aren’t totally in the dark. passion/heart or mind/rationality on their own will leave us going in circles, but balancing, correcting and enriching each other, we can actually make real progress toward reliably ‘knowing’ right/wrong.

12. Ian - December 1, 2009

This is a bit of a rushed reply as it’s going to be a busy day. Feel free to push me on anything I missed 🙂

I think it is clear that individuals have feelings, tendencies etc. I also think it is clear that the world “is” a certain way (whatever that might be) and is in principle mostly predictable (and almost certainly so at our scale at least). I suspect we agree on both those points.

Where we disagree is that I feel you tend to take the feelings and tendencies of individuals and extrapolate them to a concept independent of individuals. It is this that I have difficulty with and think is unjustified.

I will also note that the “narrow porthole of empiricism” is not narrow in that we can see things “outside” it if we learned to use other “senses” but rather that if that happened the porthole would expand. Everything observable in some way exists in the view through the porthole.

Regarding moral relativism – I believe individuals have tendencies to act in certain ways for a whole bunch of reasons (some known, some unknown) so one might say killing (or whatever) is bad IMO but not killing is bad full stop. However if enough people have a similar tendency then it may well become that killing is bad in OUR opinion. It is not an incidental thing that people feel that way so I don’t shrug it off, I simply don’t think we can justify extrapolating that opinion to say that killing is bad in THE UNIVERSE’S opinion.

I would like someone who believes in a universal or independent sense of morality outside individuals to actually argue the case for it rather than just assuming it.

13. Dale Campbell - December 1, 2009

A few more thoughts in response,

First, descriptive data about the “certain way in which the world “is”, and/or how “predictable” it is, are distinguished from the prescriptive question(s) concerning morality.

But yes, you’ve rightly framed the disagreement point in terms of morality being independent (or not) of individuals. More below.

On the ‘narrow porthole of empiricism’, I’ll draw attention to the word you used –> “…we can see things ‘outside’ if…” and “Everything observable in some way exists in the view through the porthole…”

Clearly, we’re using metaphor here with the talk of the ‘porthole’ and ‘seeing’/’observing’ things, so I’m not criticising your use of those words. Rather, I’m wanting to clarify what seems obvious to me; namely that moral principles (and the values and goals essential to them!!) could not ever be thought to be empirically measured or interacted with. To be sure, I’m convinced that we indeed can and do ‘measure’ and ‘interact with’ these principles/values/goals, but the method by which we do is simply not empirical; and why should it be?
Again, I suspect that your epistemic leanings prevent you from allowing ‘heart + mind’ ‘senses’/methods to –so to speak– enlarge the porthole.

On moral relativism (and more on morality independent of individuals):
I’d first want to observe that in your view, you seem to be prepared to take a moral opinion more seriously “if enough people have a similar tendency”? Which raises the question, ‘surely the majority (or a given population of individuals) could potentially endorse an immoral action?’ Also there’s the question of the relationship between large and smaller groups: if the majority-vote of a family decides that it is OK for their children to have sex with whoever they want, but society in general has a consensus view against it, does society have any kind of authority over the family? What about even one individual whose ‘moral opinions’ differ to those of society (or perhaps his/her family)? Does the society/family have any kind of authority over the individual?
I think it’s fair to call your view ‘moral relativism’, because —at bottom – at the end of the day— there is (on your view) no reason to prefer the moral views of any individual/group over another individual/group.

Again, I’d want to reiterate that in my view, we don’t know moral principles, values/goals in an omniscient/perfect way; but nonetheless, we can/should take tradition, logic/intuition (head/heart) as genuine, epistemically reliable ways of making real progress toward understanding (and more importantly, action based on!) moral principles/values/goals.

As for arguing the case for moral principles/goals/values outside of individuals:
It occurs to me that we initially give a ‘value’ to things:
(i.e. land, other humans, animals, etc.)
…and then discern ‘goals’
(i.e. ‘sharing and tending/looking-after land’; ‘treating others in ‘x’ way’ or ‘not killing animals for no reason’, etc.)
…and out of this, ‘moral principles’ emerge
(i.e. ‘it is good to share and preserve land, treat others in ‘x’ way, and not to kill animals for no reason’).
It also occurs to me that when people disagree at the level of ‘moral principle’ (or perhaps at a level even further along –> rules or Laws/legislation), they really are disagreeing about the ‘goal’ or even the underlying ‘values’. There are values science can measure (distance, duration, temperature, volume, decibel, weight, density, etc., etc. – though all these units of measure are fully arbitrary, as you probably know), and there are values which (like it or not) can only be ‘known’ via non-empirial means (worth, dignity, beauty, health, honour, respect, rights, responsibilities, etc, etc.). Interestingly, these latter kinds of ‘values’ can also only be dismissed as ‘subjective’ or ‘relative’ via other-than-empirical methods. There is no experiment that gives even the slightest guidance as to whether ‘dignity’ is fact or fiction – useful or un-useful.

An analogy may be helpful. Like starting directly at the sun, getting direct access to moral truth/principles is hard. But by looking at all the things that the sun sheds light on, we can discern that there is indeed a source of light. It makes no sense to use a candle or flashlight to try to investigate the sun, and all the more sense to simply look around and see what the sun is doing. You’ll observe that the sun’s light falls on things and that little ‘gaps’ in the light (shadows) are created. In the same way, we can look around us with head/heart ‘lenses’ and “see”/”observe” all kinds of moral principles/goals/values falling like rays of light on all kinds of people in all kinds of places – where people are behaving in harmony with various principles/goals/values. We’ll also observe little ‘gaps’ where people are behaving out of harmony with these principles/goals/values.
So the real moral question, I think, is how we discern what moral principles/goals/values are the truest/best –> which, btw, is itself an assumed moral goal! Our very discussion here assumes a kind of epistemic morality of sorts; where we both assume that believing something false is undesirable (nay, immoral?). It’s inescapable. We look around us frantically to try and find the root source of this insatiable quest for truth, but in our looking, we forget that it is the drive toward truth which is… well… driving our search for truth.

This comment is very long, so I’ll cut it off there and see what thoughts are prompted in your mind as you search for truth. 🙂

14. Ian - December 1, 2009

Another rushed reply lol:

First, descriptive data about the “certain way in which the world “is”, and/or how “predictable” it is, are distinguished from the prescriptive question(s) concerning morality.

Agreed. Again where we differ is that you think this prescription can be independent of people. I see no reason to believe this is so.

Again, I suspect that your epistemic leanings prevent you from allowing ‘heart + mind’ ’senses’/methods to –so to speak– enlarge the porthole.

Not quite – I don’t actually know what you specifically mean by heart + mind senses. If such a thing actually exists then of course it would expand the porthole but you haven’t shown this to be true yet.

Which raises the question, ’surely the majority (or a given population of individuals) could potentially endorse an immoral action?’

This question makes sense if (and only if) the judgement of an action as immoral is absolute. We’re busy debating this point so this question is putting the cart before the horse.

In the same way, we can look around us with head/heart ‘lenses’ and “see”/”observe” all kinds of moral principles/goals/values falling like rays of light on all kinds of people in all kinds of places – where people are behaving in harmony with various principles/goals/values

Another key difference. You say “behaving in harmony with various principles” whereas I’d say the principles describe common behaviours and thoughts.

15. Dale Campbell - December 1, 2009

A few more thoughts…

It occurs to me that the notion of ‘authority’ or ‘accountability’ is also relevant to the discussion. As another non-empirical statement, I’ll say that if morality is only within-humanity (individual or group), then we end up with everyone (individual and groups) being their own authority or accountable to themselves – ‘a law unto themselves’, etc. My own view is that our very real and ‘within-humanity’ struggling/wrestling/thinking/feeling about morals is a reflection of a real source/referent of principles/goals/values/authority/accountability. A useful image might be that our moral ground-work is like the reflection of the sun in a body of water. It’s not perfect, and it certainly is not the sun itself, but it reflects something real.

Also, I’d want to add that my view is NOT that there is two very long invisible lists of all possible actions (as it were) in the sky which outline the objective truth about which actions are moral (list 1) and immoral (list 2), etc. Rather, my view is that moral principles/goals/values (and the laws/legislations we make to summarise/codify/enforce them) have an authoritative/final source or referent. Here’s a scenario:

In NZ, our anti-slavery laws reflect the moral principle that ‘slavery is wrong’, which serves the goal of ‘humans not becoming property’, which is based on the value-ing of ‘human freedom/dignity’. Up to this point, this can be seen in descriptive terms (humans make ‘these’ laws/codes, reflecting ‘these’ moral ideas, serving ‘these’ goal-ideas, based on ‘these’ value-ideas); but we part company in the following way…

Your epistemic position does not enable you to have:
any preference for anti-slavery or pro-slavery laws
or
any preference for pro or anti-slavery moral principles/ideas
or
any preference of any goals pro/anti humans becoming property
or
any recognition of any ‘real’ value to human freedom/dignity.
In sum, your epistemic position can only allow prescriptive indifference (hence your tendency throughout towards ‘descriptive’ analysis of morality).

My position, however, allows me to have the above listed preferences, because the root values/goals (upon which the laws/principles are based) have a real basis in Truth, which I believe we can and do progress toward – even if only in part. In sum, my position allows me to have a prescriptive morality that is not merely self-prescriptive (i.e., I decide for myself what is right/wrong).

A quick question for you that I think will be key:

Do you think that intuition/feelings/’hunches’/etc. can EVER be carriers of Truth? (I’m assuming we both agree that they are not ALWAYS carriers of truth!)

16. Dale Campbell - December 1, 2009

I should also quickly add that not only is there ‘self-prescriptive morality’, but also a ‘self-determined rejection of the reality (or knowability) of any/all moral significance’

17. Ian - December 1, 2009

My own view is that our very real and ‘within-humanity’ struggling/wrestling/thinking/feeling about morals is a reflection of a real source/referent of rinciples/goals/values/authority/accountability.

I accept that is your view. I still don’t know why 🙂

…snip…but we part company in the following way…
Your epistemic position does not enable you to have:…snip…

What we want has little bearing on what actually is, as evidenced by the lack of a DB9 in my garage!

Do you think that intuition/feelings/’hunches’/etc. can EVER be carriers of Truth? (I’m assuming we both agree that they are not ALWAYS carriers of truth!)

I don’t see any reason to think the idea of “Truth” is meaningful so I would answer no. That doesn’t stop us comparing intuition/feelings/hunches against other observations to test their consistency with our narrow view of reality though.

I have a question for you Dale. It cuts across the discussion we are having but it might be a useful way to move the discussion forwards:

What specific reasons do you (or anyone else) have to think some external source of morality exists?

18. Dale Campbell - December 1, 2009

Ian,
as for “comparing intuition/feelings/hunches against other observations to test their consistency with our narrow view of reality”, since ‘other observations’ (presumably empirical/scientific ones) are purely descriptive, then how would one go about ‘testing the consistency’ of a prescriptive intuition/conviction/etc. against a descriptive observation? (i.e. how do we ‘test the consistency’ of the conviction that, say, slavery is wrong, against [insert scientific observation here]??? what scientific observation could even help us verify that moral conviction??)

As for “What specific reasons do you (or anyone else) have to think some external source of morality exists?”:

First, I’d point out that my reasons could not be ‘scientific’/empirical – just as your reasons for not believing in an external source of morality could also not be ‘scientific’/empirical. ((again, what scientific experiment is there that can measure/detect/rule-in-or-rule-out/etc. something like a ‘principle’, ‘goal’, or a ‘value’?))

Then, I’d say that I take moral principles/goals/values seriously –enough to act upon them– because I believe they have a basis in truth. Some of these truths are ‘self-evident’ (which will make you epistemically nervous), but are nonetheless reasonable. The other thing I’d say is that these moral principles/goals/values evoke a ‘resonance’ or a philosophical ‘fit’ or ‘harmony’ between ‘head’ and ‘heart’. Whether one has a casual ‘hunch’ (heart) balanced by mere light and passing ‘reflection’ (head); or whether one has a deep-seated flaming passion (heart/emotion) balanced by a robust logical framework (head/logic), the ‘resonance’/’harmony’ is there.

Honestly, I’m curious –if you don’t see ‘Truth’ as a meaningful concept/idea– why you bother having conversations like this? Surely you’re seeking the truth of the matter, no? Truth, as in, that which corresponds to reality?

The main thing I’m interested in confirming with you is whether or not you can agree that your position concerning (prescriptive) morality is not supported by (descriptive) science any more than anyone else’s is? In other words, can you agree that the main point of difference is epistemic?

19. Ian - December 1, 2009

then how would one go about ‘testing the consistency’ of a prescriptive intuition/conviction/etc. against a descriptive observation?

I was probably taking you too literally here – a hunch it is raining can be confirmed by looking outside which was my point.

First, I’d point out that my reasons could not be ’scientific’/empirical – just as your reasons for not believing in an external source of morality could also not be ’scientific’/empirical.

I totally disagree 🙂 Like gravity, we could get an idea that morality was external by studying how it interacts with humans, and how it operates independently of human brain activity and other such experiments. If it affects the world then it is detectable, at least in principle. If it doesn’t, who cares?

I look at the world around me and see something that is explainable without reference to an external source of morals. I therefore have no reason to suppose it exists. I don’t make any positive claims, just the absence of a claim. You are making the positive claim.

Honestly, I’m curious –if you don’t see ‘Truth’ as a meaningful concept/idea– why you bother having conversations like this? Surely you’re seeking the truth of the matter, no? Truth, as in, that which corresponds to reality?

It is the capital “T” truth that bothers me. Truth as a gradiant measure of how closely something corresponds with observations through the porthole is important. Also there are a lot of people out there (not necessarily you) making very definite claims of “T”ruth and I I want to call them on it.

My mantra is “brutal honesty” about what we actually know about the world so we can get on with adding to it.

The main thing I’m interested in confirming with you is whether or not you can agree that your position concerning (prescriptive) morality is not supported by (descriptive) science any more than anyone else’s is?

It is just a complex version of Russel’s teapot. Proponents of external sources of morality are making a positive claim and need to justify it. Absence of belief requires only no reason to believe it.

In other words, can you agree that the main point of difference is epistemic?

Not really 🙂

20. Dale Campbell - December 1, 2009

Ian,
You’re failing to distinguish between descriptive and prescriptive.

Looking outside (observation) to confirm the (descriptive) claim that it’s raining has no analogous connection to a discussion about (prescriptive) morality.

Likewise, ‘gravity’ is studied descriptively/predictively – empirically; whereas moral principles/goals/values are not ‘detected’ in this way.

((a side note – your ‘everything is explainable’ is to be severly challenged – though no doubt not in this thread. Ultimately, when it comes to final/ultimate/complete explanations, both of us claim a final, go-no-further stopping point where ‘explanation’ becomes circular and/or self-referential – meaning eventually we both say ‘this thing “just exists” on its own’… for me it’s a Creator – for you it’s Nature.))

And I won’t progress down the ‘positive claim’ about ‘existence’ track – let’s not muddle ontology with ethics, shall we? Actually, that’s a key distinction. Your insistence on treating morality descriptively (mis)construes an ethical discussion as an ontological discussion of sorts. Or, to put it in simpler wording, it makes the category mistake of discussing an ‘ought’ (prescriptive) issue in terms of what ‘is’ (descriptive).

As for your ‘brutal honesty’, how about being brutally honest that science (studying what ‘is’ – descriptive) cannot be used to establish moral (prescriptive) judgments (nor can it be used to establish that moral significance is illusory or unknowable)? 🙂

And no, Russell’s Teapot is not relevant to the distinction I keep trying to get you to acknowledge between descriptive/prescriptive. Again, Russell’s Teapot is about ontology (existence – what exists – or what ‘is’) – we’re talking about ethics (morals – what is moral/immoral – or how we ‘ought’ to act).

And would you care to explain why you can’t agree that we’ve got a massive epistemic point of difference?

((And I’ll add in passing that I prefer speaking of the truthfulness of moral principles/goals/values rather than the less clear language about ‘external source of morality’))

21. Ian - December 2, 2009

Descriptive views of the world are fairly easy to explain. We use our senses to observe what is around us (and then try and fit that into patterns for predictive purposes). If humans behave or think in certain ways then we can describe/predict that too. I don’t think you disagree with that.

Where we part company is on this rather elusive notion of prescriptons . As far as I can tell there is no analagous argument to the one I gave above for prescriptions – the notion is simply assumed. I’d like you (or anyone) to go back to absolute fundamentals and explain to me where this notion of “prescriptive truth” (I’m not even sure of the terminology here) comes from. I don’t want to know why it would be better to have it, I don’t want to know that descriptive views can’t do what they do, I want to know why I should pay any more attention to “prescriptive truths” of the world than to Russel’s teapot. I’d like someone to explain the ontology of ethics to use your phrasing 🙂

22. Dale Campbell - December 2, 2009

Yes, the descriptive/prescriptive distinction is pretty much the point of difference for us. You prefer to speak of ‘morality’ (as a ‘thing’/noun which can be described in a statistical, quantitative – indifferent – way).

Whilst ‘describing’ the ‘is’ of the world is a valid, helpful and necessary task, the ‘prescribing’ the ‘ought’ of our action in the world is ubiquitous, unavoidable and equally (if not more) necessary. Even you – who claims to have no reason to ‘pay attention’ to prescriptive notions – clearly do pay attention enough to actually behave in relation to them.

You argue for indifference to prescription, but you (like all of us) cannot act indifferently to prescription.

So it’s not so much a question of ‘why should I pay attention to prescriptive ideas’ as much as it is ‘why do we all behave as if prescriptions mattered’ (when we have no empirical basis for doing so)?

23. Ian - December 2, 2009

There is another distinction we need to be wary of. Individuals have opinions about oughts with a variety of sources and those are important but we can describe those and trace their sources (at least in principle). You are talking about something bigger and more independent than those right?

24. Dale Campbell - December 2, 2009

I’m curious how you know that the ought-ish opinions of individuals “are important”?? I’d have thought ‘importance’ would be quite a nebulous idea to you, no? 🙂 I’m not only being sarcastic, but point to a real example of just how indifferent ALL of our judgments should be (indeed, so indifferent they cease to exist) if we only go off of ‘is’ descriptions.

25. Ian - December 2, 2009

I don’t “know” that, it is my opinion that they are important, one I suspect you share. I don’t think you’d be happy to restrict morality to “mere opinions” however but you’ve yet to explain why we should grant any credibility to anything beyond opinion in these issues.

26. Dale Campbell - December 2, 2009

Again, the point is that we all grant enough credibility to these ‘opinions’ to act on them. So in spite of your argument for moral in-credibility, you (and me) act as though they have at least some credibility. Mentally, you reject that we are making any progress toward truth (indeed, you question that truth is meaningful/real), yet ACTually, you act as though there were at least some ‘weight’ of truth to them.

((side note: I observe that we all probably know the feeling of not doing what we do want to do, and doing what we do not want to do – which is different than what I’m talking about here, namely acting in accordance with what we believe.))

27. Ian - December 2, 2009

There is no doubt that individuals have opinions which involve judgements. That is an observable phenomenon. The question we are dealing with here is whether these things exist outside people which you still haven’t really addressed.

I don’t reject that we are making progress towards “truth” in some sense, I would just say our preditive models of the world are getting more and more reliable.

28. Dale Campbell - December 2, 2009

Yes, we all make judgments – we’re agreed there.

The question is whether or not these judgments (which we all make) can be said to have any quality of ‘rightness’ or ‘truthfulness’ to them – i.e. do they correspond to a ‘true’ and/or ‘good’ and/or ‘right’ goal(set) or value(set).

And as for ‘predictive models of the world’, they may be progressing in effectiveness in terms of better and better description/predictions, BUT they are utterly impotent/unable to even begin to help in any prescriptive sense.

For me the matter is like this:

I’m hoping you can agree that ‘prescriptive truthfulness’ (aka ‘rightness’ – if it indeed it can be known) is not discovered/known via descriptive models/methods. Also, to say that “this ‘prescriptive truthfulness’ cannot be known”, is itself a statement which cannot be supported by descriptive models/methods. ‘Ought-ness’ (if there is such a thing) cannot be discerned by even the most detailed accounts of ‘is-ness’

In light of this (‘is-ness’ will never get us to ‘ought-ness’), we can put the ‘is-ness’ (descriptive methods/’tools’) to the side (don’t worry, we aren’t destoying them, we will want them by our side), and try to agree upon what ‘tools’ there might be which are appropriate for ‘ought-ness’.

But first, can you agree that “is-ness” will never get us to “ought-ness” (If, of course, “ought-ness” is truly knowable/real/true)??

29. Ian - December 3, 2009

The question is whether or not these judgments (which we all make) can be said to have any quality of ‘rightness’ or ‘truthfulness’ to them – i.e. do they correspond to a ‘true’ and/or ‘good’ and/or ‘right’ goal(set) or value(set).

I think there are two levels of judgement. They are either isolated or they are predictive. An isolated judgement says killing is bad because it’s bad. A predictive judgement says killing is bad because x happens when killing happens. The first sense doesn’t make any sense to me. The second sense is framed in “is” statements and does make sense to me.

And as for ‘predictive models of the world’, they may be progressing in effectiveness in terms of better and better description/predictions, BUT they are utterly impotent/unable to even begin to help in any prescriptive sense.

Only in the first sense above. It is crucial to the second.

I’m hoping you can agree that ‘prescriptive truthfulness’ (aka ‘rightness’ – if it indeed it can be known) is not discovered/known via descriptive models/methods.

See the last section below

‘Ought-ness’ (if there is such a thing) cannot be discerned by even the most detailed accounts of ‘is-ness’

I think you are leaving “will-be-ness” out of the equation.

But first, can you agree that “is-ness” will never get us to “ought-ness” (If, of course, “ought-ness” is truly knowable/real/true)??

Serious question/request: Please talk me through an example of determining “ought-ness” without using “is-ness” or “will-be-ness” or “good-because-it-is-ness”.

30. Dale Campbell - December 3, 2009

‘will-be-ness’ is still merely descriptive (in the predictive sense). It says ‘x’ will happen. The prediction that ‘x’ will happen (or person ‘a’ will do ‘x’) is saying nothing at all of othe ‘right/wrong-ness’ or ‘ought-ness’ of ‘x’. So both ‘is-ness’ and ‘will-be-ness’ (and let’s not forget ‘has-been-ness’!?) are all descriptive – the only difference being ‘will-be-ness’ is descriptive of a future ‘x’ (and ‘has-been-ness’ is descriptive of a past ‘x’). The real distinction is between descriptive and prescriptive.

As for your notion of ‘isolated’ judgment, I’m not following you at all. Could we not make an ‘isolated’ descriptive analysis of something?

Can you, like Damian, agree that (prescriptive) morality is tied to goals (and beyond that, to values)? Because determining ‘ought-ness’ (without using ‘is-ness’ or ‘will-be-ness’ – or any other descriptive kind of analysis) depends, I am convinced, on the realisation (or at least acknowledgment of some kind – conscious or subconsious) of goals and values.

31. Ian - December 3, 2009

‘will-be-ness’ is still merely descriptive…

That was kind of my point 🙂

As for your notion of ‘isolated’ judgment, I’m not following you at all. Could we not make an ‘isolated’ descriptive analysis of something?

I meant isolated from description although in hindsight that probably wasn’t obvious.

Can you, like Damian, agree that (prescriptive) morality is tied to goals (and beyond that, to values)?

Yep (after the modification I made)

Because determining ‘ought-ness’ (without using ‘is-ness’ or ‘will-be-ness’ – or any other descriptive kind of analysis) depends, I am convinced, on the realisation (or at least acknowledgment of some kind – conscious or subconsious) of goals and values.

I completely agree with that statement (after the modification I made).

32. Dale Campbell - December 3, 2009

Could you give me an example of (precisely) how an ‘is’ descriptive piece of data helps in the slightest bit to determine/discover/verify an ‘ought’ prescription?

I’d venture to say that many/most/all atheists would cheerfully give the nod to these basic distinctions: is/ought, descriptive/prescriptive, fact/value, mechanism/goal, etc.

33. Dale Campbell - December 3, 2009

I meant to say that ‘many/most/all recognised philosopher+atheists (A.C. Grayling, Kevin Ward, ??) – but admittedly I’ve not ‘reasearched’ it so a very speculative comment

34. Ian - December 3, 2009

I can’t give a precise answer because we don’t have any precise answers about anything. I can probably give you a reasonable speculation about any particular example you might like to offer though (it’s been a long weekend and my creativity has gone to sleep).

Also I do differentiate ought from is. The difference is that I think the oughts are subjective and derived from is’s, not from mystical uber-oughts (isn’t that the coolest word?) for which you still haven’t given me any reason to suppose exist.

35. Dale Campbell - December 3, 2009

As for a particular example, it may serve well to choose one where we have LOADS AND LOADS of scientific, descriptive, ‘fact’ or ‘is’ knowledge about, which is all acknowledged by people of MANY various ethical positions: abortion. As I’ve maintained throughout, I am not disparaging of scientific/descriptive/’is’ knowledge (it vitally and critically INFORMS our ethical judgments). However, basically the same various ethical conclusions could be (and were?) made even if we thought pregnancy resulted from stork visitation. It is value-sets and assumed/understood/deemed-reasonable-and-good goals which lead to the different (prescriptive) ethical conclusions, not indifferent/naked/unbiased/descriptive ‘facts’.

And again, for me, I’m not pointing to floating lists of uber-oughts (7/10 for word-coinage 😀 ) in the sky. I AM saying that ‘oughts’ are based on goals and values – which we ‘non-empirically’ discern/discover (note: ‘non-empirical’ in the sense of ‘other-than-empirical’ not ‘anti-empirical).

36. Ian - December 3, 2009

Perhaps uber-goals or uber-values is more accurate but way less cool 🙂

As I’ve maintained throughout, I am not disparaging of scientific/descriptive/’is’ knowledge (it vitally and critically INFORMS our ethical judgments). However, basically the same various ethical conclusions could be (and were?) made even if we thought pregnancy resulted from stork visitation.

Does it? Surely shooting a stork carrying a baby out of the sky has different ethical considerations to terminating a fetus/embryo? That aside, the entire abortion debate comes down to two things: what is defined as life, and is it ok to end (or prevent) life? Now we agree decision making should be informed which accounts for all the is’s and will-be’s. Now onto the rest:

It is value-sets and assumed/understood/deemed-reasonable-and-good goals which lead to the different (prescriptive) ethical conclusions, not indifferent/naked/unbiased/descriptive ‘facts’.

We use descriptions/predictions to determine which act will best meet our goals or if an act is counter to our goals so no room for uber-ness here.

So where do these values and goals come from? It seems to me that is the big question at the heart of this right?

I’d say that some if not all goals/values are most likely evolutionary “presets” which predate human intelligence. (There are also short term task-based goals but we aren’t talking about those.) But regardless, I am happy to say “I don’t really know” and am satisfied with the description that people tend to share similar ones because we actually know that with some degree of certainty.

Now it’s your turn – show me what I’m missing 🙂

37. Dale Campbell - December 3, 2009

On storkness:
yeah was just meaning even if we knew next to nothing about how gestation works, it still ends up being values and goals that underlie moral judgments. knowing (for example) at what point the foetus/baby reaches a certain level of consciousness doesn’t offer any guidance whatsover as to the ‘ought-ness’ of whether or not it’s ‘OK’/moral-immoral/etc. to stop the process that is naturally going forward toward birth.

We use descriptions/predictions to determine which act will best meet our goals or if an act is counter to our goals so no room for uber-ness here.

Not so fast 😉 Yes, descriptions/prescriptions (even pre[un]scientific ones like “push knife into him and he dies” , etc.) determine which act will best meet our goals (i.e. “my goal is to kill this jerk who cheated me in a poker game”), but the whole point is not whether we have a goal, but whether it is a good/moral/’right’/true/ethical goal.

Likewise, it’s not so much ‘where do these goals/values come from?’, but rather ‘How can these goals/valules be said to be true/right/good/best, etc.?’

As for what you’re missing, your not (as you humbly admit by way of your “I don’t know” admission) providing a means by which we can appreciate the truth/goodness of our goals/values –> and thus our moral actions.

In one very real sense, I can and do stand with you and say “I don’t “know” either” – in some kind of omniscient/perfect sense. In Paul’s famous Love chapter (1 Cor 13), he says “we know in part”, and I’m happy to raise my hand and say I’m part of that ‘we’. At the same time, I want to affirm that whilst we don’t know perfectly, we aren’t in the dark completely either. I have no epistemic problems (though I suspect you do) saying “I know that things have inherent worth/value.” Rocks, tress, skies and seas are worth studying – a human being is worth more than a rock – etc. You mention (rightly) ‘certainty’ – which is really an issue soaking wtih epistemology. How certain do we have to be to say we ‘know’ anything? Can we actually say we ‘know’ what an atom is like (and heck, that’s description!)? Will we ever get to the ‘bottom’ of matter itself? Doubtful. But though human dignity and freedom have no empirical basis, we know ‘in our bones’ that this talk is not mere emotionalism out-of-control or only evolutionary baggage.

Again, I also mention the ‘resonance’ between rational, logical reflection and these deep, unshakable emotions/feelings/intuitions. It simply ‘makes every kind of good sense’ to (i.e.) dignity/freedom as rather large steps in the endless journey of discovering/’un-covering’ metaphysical truth.

Again, we have anything but 100% certainty with descriptive/empirical knowledge, so what logical/rational reason do we have for expecting prescriptive/metaphysical knowledge to progress flawlessly?

38. Ian - December 4, 2009

Likewise, it’s not so much ‘where do these goals/values come from?’, but rather ‘How can these goals/valules be said to be true/right/good/best, etc.?’

Has this not become circular? How do we know goals are true/right/best etc? By comparing them to other goals?

Your point (which it strikes me as quite similar to an argument for god) seems to me to be that there has to be an ultimate or first goal (or set of goals) around which the others fall back to?

What this really boils down to though is that you believe that there is, at some level, a degree of rightness or wrongness about something that transcends its consequences or subjectivity. You’ve yet to actually provide a reason to believe this is so other than you just think it is so.

I have no epistemic problems (though I suspect you do) saying “I know that things have inherent worth/value.” Rocks, tress, skies and seas are worth studying – a human being is worth more than a rock – etc

And yet I have never seen a shred of evidence that this is so. What basis do we have to believe such a thing might be true, let alone to know it?

Now rocks, trees, skies and sees are, IMO, worth studying but that says absolutely nothing about their intrinsic value and everything about my opinions of study lol.

Again, we have anything but 100% certainty with descriptive/empirical knowledge, so what logical/rational reason do we have for expecting prescriptive/metaphysical knowledge to progress flawlessly?

My problem is that I still don’t really have any idea what you mean by prescriptive/metaphysical knowledge. I know what the words mean, I think I know what you mean at a superficial level, but I can’t relate to it personally, I can’t imagine what such a thing would possibly “look” like, I can’t trace that idea back to any foundation, and I can’t imagine how I could interact with such a thing. These are big gaps 🙂

39. Dale Campbell - December 4, 2009

As for ‘evidence’ for how we can ‘know’ these things – I’ve maintained all along that it’s really an epistemic issue. I take emotions/intuition and reason/logic as valid epistemic sources, in addition to empiricism (which has it’s own unprovable assumptions – like the assumption that the world will always act in a predictable/repeatable fashion).

40. Ian - December 4, 2009

As for ‘evidence’ for how we can ‘know’ these things – I’ve maintained all along that it’s really an epistemic issue.

That’s just saying it is an issue relating to knowledge – we know that 😉

I take emotions/intuition and reason/logic as valid epistemic sources, in addition to empiricism

And I know you do that too – you just haven’t managed to tell me why yet. 🙂

(which has it’s own unprovable assumptions – like the assumption that the world will always act in a predictable/repeatable fashion).

I think we can build a fairly good case that it works to treat the world as predictable at a macroscopic level. It is also worth noting that many of our main predictive laws are actually probabilistic such as the 2LT and QED so we don’t need pure predictability to get working models.

41. Dale Campbell - December 4, 2009

It’s not merely that it ‘relates to knowledge’… one’s epistemology will determine what ‘counts’ as ‘evidence’ – as well as whether or not we’re likely to take intuition/emotion + logic/reason seriously. We know ‘is’-ish knowledge/evidence cannot yield ‘ought’-ish knowledge/’evidence’ – so we’ve either got to deny that ‘ought’-ish knowledge is real or can be known at all, or we’ve got to take seriously other modes of knowing – other tools of knowing.

It’s also worth me point out that you haven’t managed to tell me why you don’t epistemically accept emotions/intuitions + reason logic as being able to convey/reflect truth? As for why I do, it seems the simplest and most elegant and reasonable explanation – and one that transcends empirical & non-empirical ‘either-or’ games, and takes a ‘both-and’ approach.

((I think we who live on this side of two hugely impacting intellectual movements (the Enlightenment and Romanticism – throw in existentialilsm if you want) tend to be herded by our culture into either Enlightenment/rationalism/information-ism/etc. or Romanticised/intuition/heart/experience/etc. groups.))

42. Ian - December 5, 2009

Firstly I do take emotions and intuition seriously. They exist, and understanding them is important as just another phenomenon in nature.

However it has been shown time and time again that emotions/intuition get in the way of the truth, not enhance it.

Our emotions encourage us to see problems where there are none, to overreact to circumstances, and to fall in the trap of confirmation bias. Our intuition tells us optical illusions are different to what they actually are, they promote pareidolia from curiosity to something meaningful, etc.

The great step forward of the enlightenment was that reason is far more useful than emotion for trying to understand the world around us. So I have plenty of reasons to doubt your proposition, and s far no reason to accept it. The onus for explanation is very much on your side of the track at the moment 🙂

43. Dale Campbell - December 5, 2009

However it has been shown time and time again that emotions/intuition get in the way of the truth, not enhance it.

Interestingly, I’d want to say that I think whilst emotions/intuition can (at times) prevent or distort the truth, surely we cannot say that they always do.
Some emotions/intuitions are un-true or deceptive and others are helpful and reliable indicators of the truth concerning a situation or object, and clearly we’d have to agree that the heart of the matter is that both reason AND emotion are needed to arrive at truth – and I’m not talking about mere ‘factual’ truth.

And the enlightenment (no doubt having many positive/progressive features) appreciation of the usefulness of reason certainly wasn’t some unprecedented new idea – humanity had valued reason/logic for millenia. The enlightenment’s step backward was its tendency to value reason at the expense of emotion/intuition, (Romanticism had the opposite tendency) splitting humans into compartments which work best when reinforcing one another.

Evil things can, I suggest, be done with perfectly ‘reasonable’ and ‘logical’ justification. We need the harmony of heart and mind –as well as the wisdom of tradition and wise counsel of others– to rightly pursue truth. Again, we never know truth perfectly, completely – and I dare say that is one of the first truths that we can say (with no experimental evidence to support it) is truly true.

44. Ian - December 5, 2009

My point here was to show that there are reasons why emotions/intuitions often not useful for truth finding. Of course sometimes they might get the right result, but the right result is figured out by evidence. How else do you judge the validity of an emotional or intuitive idea?

Your point is that there are truths out there that cannot be judged by evidence. You call these prescriptive and essentially are claiming that in some sense good/evil/bad is something more than a human concept. You won’t give me any evidence of this, nor even a reason to suppose this is true, so I am not sure what I am supposed to do from here?

Evil things can, I suggest, be done with perfectly ‘reasonable’ and ‘logical’ justification.

Therefore that particular designation of “evil” is illogical 🙂

Again, we never know truth perfectly, completely – and I dare say that is one of the first truths that we can say (with no experimental evidence to support it) is truly true.

Actually there is no reason to suppose we can’t know the truth perfectly and completely – it just seems rather unlikely given the evidence 😉

45. Dale Campbell - December 6, 2009

scientific/empirical ‘evidence’ is on the ‘fact’ side of the fact/value distinction, the ‘is’ side of the is/ought distinction and the descriptive side of the descriptive/prescriptive distinction. Of course we wouldn’t expect there to be empirical/’scientific’ evidence for values/’oughts’/prescriptive-truths.

…sometimes they might get the right result, but the right result is figured out by evidence. How else do you judge the validity of an emotional or intuitive idea?

Again, I must disagree that metaphysical results (such as judging the validity/truthfulness of –for example– a feeling/intuition that ‘x’ is an ‘ought-not’ action, etc.) can NOT be “figured out by evidence” (at least empirical, ‘fact’-ish, ‘is’-ish ‘evidence’). Rather, the ‘evidence’ of a coherence between emotion/intuition and logic/reason seems the most compelling and reasonable approach for this. Perhaps we might even say the three at the table (intuition/feeling; reason/logic; and facts/data) need to all be in ‘agreement’ with each other for this metaphysical truth to be (imperfectly, yet still ‘really’) discovered. It seems to me that when you have this kind of ‘agreement’ accross rational, emotional and empirical lines, that this ‘agreement’ becomes another kind of ‘evidence’. At any rate, my epistemic approach allows me to appreciate both empirical and other-than-empirical evidence (remember: not ‘anti-empirical’).

The main thing I’m keen for us to agree at the very least is that empirical ‘evidence’ and ‘facts’ do not get us a milimetre toward establishing true ‘goals’, ‘values’ or moral principles (g/v/mp)

Either
1) g/v/mp are illusory (making ‘morality’ meaningless in any prescriptive sense – which is your take?)

2) g/v/mp are real, but unknowable to us, because the only valid epistemic source (empirical knowledge) can’t be used to discover g/v/mp (which raises question of how we ‘know’ they are knowable).

3) g/v/mp are real and at least partially knowable to us, through other than empirical means (such as observing an ‘agreement’ across rational, emotional and empirical lines).

that’s all I can muster at 1am 🙂

46. Ian - December 8, 2009

Sorry for the delay replying!

The main thing I’m keen for us to agree at the very least is that empirical ‘evidence’ and ‘facts’ do not get us a milimetre toward establishing true ‘goals’, ‘values’ or moral principles (g/v/mp)

Here you are asking me to comment on the properties of something that I do not understand or comprehend – namely “true g/v/mp”. In order for me to agree that evidence and facts play no part in “true g/v/mp” I first need to know what they are… and that means you need to describe them.

Now in response to your trichotomy, it makes one large assumption – that g/v/mp exist/don’t exist independent of humans. I’d argue that humans operate a constantly shifting moral zeitgeist that is mostly a function of our evolutionary and social development – in other words at some level the g/v/mp are manufactured.

Now because of that it might just be that, when you get right down to it, nothing really matters at all. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. That doesn’t change the fact that we somehow feel that some things do matter, and that we emotionally respond to things in good and bad ways. The fact that there is no magical source code for g/v/mp doesn’t mean we don’t have some form of them nor that we don’t respond to them.

For me to be able to contribute more to this discussion, you are going to demonstrate how these g/v/mp are external to humans. Your entire argument rests on that key point yet you seem reluctant to tackle it?

47. Dale Campbell - December 8, 2009

Thanks Ian,
I do appreciate the ability to sustain conversation. A few further responses:

n order for me to agree that evidence and facts play no part in “true g/v/mp” I first need to know what they are… and that means you need to describe them.

I do think that (empirical) evidence/facts “play a part” (i.e. an informing role), but not a formative part. Goals, values, and moral principles are all metaphysical things/ideas/notions/concepts (whether objective, constructed, or whatever), and (since they don’t have weight, thickness, temperature level, density, volume, decibel level, chemical composition, etc., etc. they cannot be formed by ‘evidence’/’facts’.

I’d argue that humans operate a constantly shifting moral zeitgeist that is mostly a function of our evolutionary and social development – in other words at some level the g/v/mp are manufactured.

First, a quick bone to pick with your word ‘mostly’. If the zeitgeist is ‘mostly’ based on our biological/sociological influence, then what’s the rest of it based on? Don’t you mean to say it’s totally based on biological development + social factors?

Having said that, I’d not want to deny that the practical application/outworking of moral principles and goals/values does shift depending on the situation. I’d also not want to deny the role of our biological/social history as a human race (though even one’s own current biological make-up and sociological pressures have massive import as well). But I’d want to specify that these biological/social factors do not affect metaphycial things like g/v/mp. I’d grant that g/v/mp are often (indeed, perhaps always?) transmitted via social/relational means, but the g/v/mp themselves are not created by our biology/sociology.

Now because of that it might just be that, when you get right down to it, nothing really matters at all. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. That doesn’t change the fact that we somehow feel that some things do matter, and that we emotionally respond to things in good and bad ways. The fact that there is no magical source code for g/v/mp doesn’t mean we don’t have some form of them nor that we don’t respond to them.

Indeed, very well put – if all metaphysical concepts are 100% constructed, then indeed “when you get right down to it, nothing really matters at all. (emphasis mine)” There is no ‘real’ moral significance to any actions/objects apart from what a few (or a lot, depending on the popularity of the g/v/mp) people have constructed themselves. Of course, as you say, we still make moral judgments and still react to this and that, but totally and 100% without any way to know which of two totally contradictory moral views to prefer.

On tackling the g/v/mp source, I’ve outlined my sense of the need for a harmony/agreement across rational, intuitive and empirical lines, and the need to involve others in the process (not ‘do morality’ on your own isolated from the real world of people and their ‘subjective-yet-real’ problems).

48. Ian - December 8, 2009

So to summarise, you agree with my position but argue there is more to it. What is specifically contained within this “more”?

Our entire discussion really rests on that one point. We seem to largely agree everywhere else on this issue.

49. Dale Campbell - December 8, 2009

i think it’s best to be specific about what we agree/disagree on (even in attempts to summarise), rather than talk of yours + ‘more’, etc.?

we agree that humanity can give a ‘scientific’ (and thus ‘prescriptively indifferent’) account of human moral thinking and behaving, but we disagree on whether or not human moral thinking and behaving can be said to have any quality of truthfulness or ‘right-ness’.

you, I think, are agnostic when it comes to prescriptive, ‘ought’ or ‘should’ statements, but I think that the admittedly ‘subjective’ process can still be one through which we (in part) can discover/uncover and/or ‘know’ (there’s the epistemic verb) moral truth (along with and based on values, goals and principles).

50. Ian - December 9, 2009

we agree that humanity can give a ’scientific’ (and thus ‘prescriptively indifferent’) account of human moral thinking and behaving,

Yes.

but we disagree on whether or not human moral thinking and behaving can be said to have any quality of truthfulness or ‘right-ness’.

Almost. I don’t agree that there is any reason to suppose truthfulness or right-ness are independent qualities. That doesn’t stop individuals or groups claiming or thinking that things are true or right.

you, I think, are agnostic when it comes to prescriptive, ‘ought’ or ’should’ statements,

Almost. I don’t agree that there is any reason to suppose oughts or shoulds are independent qualities. That doesn’t stop individuals or groups claiming or thinking oughts or shoulds.

but I think that the admittedly ’subjective’ process can still be one through which we (in part) can discover/uncover and/or ‘know’ (there’s the epistemic verb) moral truth (along with and based on values, goals and principles).

I understand that part. I just don’t agree that there is any reason to suppose moral truth is an independent quality. That doesn’t stop individuals or groups making claims or thinking about moral truth.

51. Dale - December 9, 2009

Thanks Ian! IMHO, that’s your most helpful reply to date (and I don’t at all mean to imply that my comments have been consistently helpful!!) 😉

So, you don’t agree that there is any reason to suppose:

that “truthfulness or right-ness are independent qualities”
that “oughts or shoulds are independent qualities”
that “moral truth is an independent quality”

And you note that this doesn’t stop individuals or groups:

“claiming or thinking that things are true or right”
“claiming or thinking oughts or shoulds”
“making claims or thinking about moral truth”

I suggest (as I pointed out initially) that our main difference is between our epistemology and worldview.

Whilst you agree that individuals and groups think all kinds of moral thoughts (oughts/shoulds/rights/wrongs), etc. (who doesn’t agree that this takes place?) you ‘don’t agree there is any reason to suppose’ that any of this moralising (for short) in any way corresponds to any objective (or ‘independent’) referent/source/basis.

In short, I think our epistemic/worldview point of difference can be summarised in terms of meaning itself? You’re happy to observe that people behave/think/act as though events have (some kind of) meaning/value/purpose, but you see no reason to suppose that there IS any meaning/value/purpose to any events. Which takes away any possibility of (‘meaning’-fully) attributing any independent/objective/true ‘ought’-ness/’should’-ness/’right’-ness/’wrong’-ness/’good’-ness/’evil’-ness to any event or action.

I personally think that the truth is somewhere between utter meaninglessness (no meaning to any thing) and full-on supersistition (any meaning to any thing!). This would of course take us into a general philosophical/worldview discussion, which –though immediately relevant to a discussion of ethics– neither of us probably have time for, and which wouldn’t be suitable on a thread about ethics/morality. I simply note the root point of difference here becauase I think that’s the case.

IF you are willing to say that there might be at least some kind of (inherent – not merely ‘constructed’) meaning to events, then we can talk about how to discern (again, not merely ‘construct’) this meaning. But if you maintain that there is no meaning to any events, then we may have reached the point of mutual understanding and/or ‘agree to disagree’.

52. Dale - December 9, 2009

oh yes, meant to add:

I find myself in a place I’m comfortable (intellectually and emotionally) to be in that I hold that we can ‘know’ truth/meaning/purpose at least in part (never perfectly). I find myself very much in the ‘middle ground’ between meaningless-ness and superstition – and between metaphysical ignorance and metaphysical omnicsience.

I can understand (that for someone who needs all beliefs to be supported by ‘facts’ and ‘data’) that talk of metaphysical truth can sound like speculative guess-work. But rationally and emotionally I (to use your phrase) ‘see no reason to assume’ that events have no meaning of any kind, nor that our emotions/intuitions/mental-‘constructions’ of principles, goals/values are not at least partially ‘getting somewhere’ towards truth. It feels like a whole swath of would-be ‘evidence’ is ruled ‘out-of-court’ with the fault of not being ‘facts’/’data’, when ‘evidence’ for moral truth wouldn’t (indeed couldn’t!) be ‘facts/data’ anyway?

I’ll leave it there for now.

53. Ian - December 10, 2009

You’re happy to observe that people behave/think/act as though events have (some kind of) meaning/value/purpose, but you see no reason to suppose that there IS any meaning/value/purpose to any events

Pretty much although I will note that if everyone shares a similar set of goals etc then for all intents and purposes it may well be the same as an external set of goals. The implications are different but the practicaly outcomes would be similar.

I can understand (that for someone who needs all beliefs to be supported by ‘facts’ and ‘data’) that talk of metaphysical truth can sound like speculative guess-work.

I only require that claims be demonstrable. You claim that some sort of goal/value/morality exists independent of people. It is easy to say, but apparently not so easy to demonstrate.

But rationally and emotionally I (to use your phrase) ’see no reason to assume’ that events have no meaning of any kind,

Enter Russel’s teapot. No reason to assume something doesn’t exist is the whole point of that analogy.

nor that our emotions/intuitions/mental-’constructions’ of principles, goals/values are not at least partially ‘getting somewhere’ towards truth.

Why can’t that “truth” be a communal understanding of the origins of those goals/values etc of humanity regardless of their source? Why does that truth have to include a specific state of independence?

It feels like a whole swath of would-be ‘evidence’ is ruled ‘out-of-court’ with the fault of not being ‘facts’/’data’, when ‘evidence’ for moral truth wouldn’t (indeed couldn’t!) be ‘facts/data’ anyway?

What possible evidence can you put on the table that is not a fact or piece of data that is of any value whatsoever? I am not dismissing them out of hand – I simply can’t think of any.

54. Dale Campbell - December 10, 2009

…if everyone shares a similar set of goals etc then for all intents and purposes it may well be the same as an external set of goals. The implications are different but the practicaly outcomes would be similar.

…but of course, everyone does not share the same goals. How ‘similar’ do they have to be until they are valid/universal and/or ‘binding’? More than that, some goals/values/etc. are contradictory/opposed to one another. You’d get a higher strike-rate of agreement on some issues, but it would still be a construction, which was the point.

I only require that claims be demonstrable. You claim that some sort of goal/value/morality exists independent of people. It is easy to say, but apparently not so easy to demonstrate.

Indeed – to ‘demonstrate’ morality is a far different thing than trying to establish morality from ‘data’/’facts’ (which they cannot be used for). I think morality is manifestly/obviously demonstrated (again, not in some humanly omniscient, perfectly knowing way) when we apply our thinking (admittedly ‘subjective’) and feeling (admittedly ‘subjective’) to real life situations and actions. We reason and feel that life is valuable, that taking food from the hungry is wrong, etc. We’re on to the truth with this stuff. The intuitive agreement you had just now reading those statements is at least some form of a demonstration. And again, we’ve no empirical reason to epistemically rule-out intuition 100% of the time (reason + emotion, etc.).

Enter Russel’s teapot. No reason to assume something doesn’t exist is the whole point of that analogy.

But if there’s truly no meaning to anything, then the Russell’s Teapot analogy is just as meaningful as tapioca pudding. As the teapot analogy assumes that a God would be existent in a way comparable to an orbiting teapot (let’s not go there), your use of it here assumes that the principle about ‘belief based on lack of negative evidence’ (or whatever) is meaningful and has some kind of basis in truth, so as to be applied to my statement.

But also, I’m not merely claiming that there’s a lack of evidence for there NOT being meaning to events, I’d also say there’s ‘evidence’ (hint, not empirical evidence) that there IS meaning to events.

Why can’t that “truth” be a communal understanding of the origins of those goals/values etc of humanity regardless of their source? Why does that truth have to include a specific state of independence?

Because that’s the difference between “truth” and Truth; or the difference between “immoral/unpopular/majority-opinion” and Immoral/Wrong/Evil (as best our imperfect discerning of Truth tells us). This again is our key epistemic (how can we ‘know’ the ‘truth’?) point of difference.

What possible evidence can you put on the table that is not a fact or piece of data that is of any value whatsoever? I am not dismissing them out of hand – I simply can’t think of any.

Again, experience, emotion and reason in harmony with eachother can be seen as a kind of ‘evidence’ that we’re on to something real, true and reliable. We speak (metaphorically, as one must when doing metaphysics – and if we get right down to it, even with physics/science!) of ideas having ‘weight’ or being ‘forceful’. They are compelling. They are reasonable. They are logical.

55. Ian - December 10, 2009

I think morality is manifestly/obviously demonstrated (again, not in some humanly omniscient, perfectly knowing way) when we apply our thinking (admittedly ’subjective’) and feeling (admittedly ’subjective’) to real life situations and actions.

This is all internal stuff. Where is the external stuff?

We reason and feel that life is valuable, that taking food from the hungry is wrong, etc.

We do, no mention of anything outside us here.

We’re on to the truth with this stuff.

How do you know?

The intuitive agreement you had just now reading those statements is at least some form of a demonstration.

That there is internal stuff yes, no necessity for anything external here.

And again, we’ve no empirical reason to epistemically rule-out intuition 100% of the time (reason + emotion, etc.).

These things exist and can be useful. No question. Do they reflect anything external? Big question, no answer.

But if there’s truly no meaning to anything, then the Russell’s Teapot analogy is just as meaningful as tapioca pudding.

You seem to belittle meaning to an individual. It is almost as if you think something that matters to me can’t possibly actually matter unless it matters to everyone (hyperbole but you get my point). I dispute that.

But also, I’m not merely claiming that there’s a lack of evidence for there NOT being meaning to events, I’d also say there’s ‘evidence’ (hint, not empirical evidence) that there IS meaning to events.

Firstly I think you meant material, not empirical in the parentheses. Secondly where/what is this evidence?

Because that’s the difference between “truth” and Truth; or the difference between “immoral/unpopular/majority-opinion” and Immoral/Wrong/Evil (as best our imperfect discerning of Truth tells us).

That is circular – it assumes the thing for which you are trying to explain exists.

Again, experience, emotion and reason in harmony with eachother can be seen as a kind of ‘evidence’ that we’re on to something real, true and reliable.

This is all internal. And it differs for everyone. No evidence of any kind here for an external “truth”.

We speak (metaphorically, as one must when doing metaphysics – and if we get right down to it, even with physics/science!) of ideas having ‘weight’ or being ‘forceful’. They are compelling. They are reasonable. They are logical.

And these are all internal qualities. And they differ for everyone. No evidence of any kind here for an external “truth”.


Let me try and clarify what I am after. In order for you to demonstrate that external “truth” exists, you need to show it in such a way that it is universal. I don’t mean universal in a crude “killing is bad regardless” sense, but universal in the sense that it affects the world somehow in a way that an internal source could not. In other words what reason (from any source) do we have to either reject the internal source (necessitating an external source) or to accept the external source directly? I still don’t see any. Maybe I just don’t understand?

56. Dale Campbell - December 10, 2009

Ian,
a few things:

I actually don’t prefer the language of ‘internal’ and ‘external’. It could well be (indeed I suspect it’s the case) that Truth is seen in and through the ‘internal’. This is why merely labeling my examples as ‘internal’ and demanding ‘external’ things could be missing the point.

Interestingly you seem to be appealing continually to an intuitively discerned authoritative metaphysical, logical, reasonable system which informs you as to what kind of evidence/reasons are needed to accept objective truth? How do you ‘know’ this?

You also seem to be aware of a Truth that informs you that intuition/reason/emotion “exist and can be useful. No question.” and also that Truth must always be discerned via a linear, deductive path, and not ever involve ‘circular’ reasoning. How do you ‘know’ this?

You seem to belittle meaning to an individual. It is almost as if you think something that matters to me can’t possibly actually matter unless it matters to everyone (hyperbole but you get my point). I dispute that.

This is actually key. A major part of our discussion about ethics/morality is that if we have an action which person ‘a’ attaches ‘immoral’ meaning to, and which person ‘b’ attaches ‘moral’ meaning to, it doesn’t work to say that the (contradictory) meanings they both give to this action both equally matter because both meanings matter to each of them. That is to make truth contradictory and 100% relative. Now, I do think truth can look different depending on the context, but I don’t think it’s the case that it matters just because at least one person thinks something.

This also relates to this:

And these are all internal qualities. And they differ for everyone. No evidence of any kind here for an external “truth”.

I highly doubt that 100% of humanity has ever agree on any single point. But (whilst I think we must always listen to opinions of the human community) I also deny that 100% human agreement is required for something to be True. And again, just because we can say that something is ‘internal’ doesn’t mean that it still (if we are not too epistemically narrow or confined) can be said to be a kind of ‘evidence’ pointing toward Truth.

It is significant to point out that all of your reasoning –and mine too, of course– thus far (both when I agree and when I don’t) is purely other-than-scientific. You (we) are expressing our attempts at logically/reasonably working out what kind of evidence must be required to say we can ‘know’ truth in general or ‘moral truth’ in particular. There are not ‘data’ or ‘facts’ which either of us have referred to in support of our perspectives.

57. Ian - December 11, 2009

I actually don’t prefer the language of ‘internal’ and ‘external’. It could well be (indeed I suspect it’s the case) that Truth is seen in and through the ‘internal’.

Seen in and through sure – but ultimately external right? I am fairly sure you are not talking about something entirely limited to individual’s minds.

Interestingly you seem to be appealing continually to an intuitively discerned authoritative metaphysical, logical, reasonable system which informs you as to what kind of evidence/reasons are needed to accept objective truth? How do you ‘know’ this?

I am not even sure what that means 🙂 I base my worldview on two things. Firstly we can only know what can be observed in the broadest sense of the word. Secondly our observations are not infallible and should be corrobrated by other observations to increase certainty about what was observed.

Truth must always be discerned via a linear, deductive path, and not ever involve ‘circular’ reasoning. How do you ‘know’ this?

You really want me to explain what is wrong with circular reasoning?

This is actually key. A major part of our discussion about ethics/morality is that if we have an action which person ‘a’ attaches ‘immoral’ meaning to, and which person ‘b’ attaches ‘moral’ meaning to, it doesn’t work to say that the (contradictory) meanings they both give to this action both equally matter because both meanings matter to each of them.

Why not?

That is to make truth contradictory and 100% relative.

If and only if you assume that moral truths exist independently.

Now, I do think truth can look different depending on the context, but I don’t think it’s the case that it matters just because at least one person thinks something.

It matters to that person. Your statement implies a “mattering” beyond any person though.

And again, just because we can say that something is ‘internal’ doesn’t mean that it still (if we are not too epistemically narrow or confined) can be said to be a kind of ‘evidence’ pointing toward Truth.

I have no problem with using internal beliefs/feelings as evidence for external “truth”. However it isn’t evidence of that by default, you need an argument to go along with it and I haven’t heard that yet from you.

It is significant to point out that all of your reasoning –and mine too, of course– thus far (both when I agree and when I don’t) is purely other-than-scientific.

Not really – I want evidence and you haven’t given me any.

You (we) are expressing our attempts at logically/reasonably working out what kind of evidence must be required to say we can ‘know’ truth in general or ‘moral truth’ in particular.

Any form of evidence that supports a rational argument is fine by me. But you haven’t presented either yet.

There are not ‘data’ or ‘facts’ which either of us have referred to in support of our perspectives.

Which is where I have an advantage. You are positively arguing for the existence of more than what I am so you have more work to do. Also I am not positively claiming you are wrong, I am claiming there isn’t enough evidence to believe what you claim we should believe.


BTW, thanks for continuing this discussion, we’re slowly making progress and it is enjoyable 🙂

58. Dale Campbell - December 11, 2009

Cheers Ian, indeed it’s good to stick with things to get past as many misunderstandings (of the others’ position) as possible.

I base my worldview on two things. Firstly we can only know what can be observed in the broadest sense of the word. Secondly our observations are not infallible and should be corrobrated by other observations to increase certainty about what was observed.

Yes, and our task is to discern what we count as ‘observations’ and why some things count and others don’t?

You really want me to explain what is wrong with circular reasoning?

My point here is not that I think circular reasoning is better than deductive (though I think large circles –that harmonise large quantites of evidence/views/ideas– are better than small ones –which only (selectively) harmonise bits convenient to the argument), rather, my point is that the very act of reasoning is, in my view, ‘evidence’ of a metaphysical ‘body’ (we have to use metaphors for such things, the word ‘body’ will suffice ;D science is forced to use metaphors too!) of truth. We’ve no empirical/’scientific’ imperative to follow/value/respect what we label as ‘rational’ brain activity any more than what we label as ‘irrational’ brain activity. When something ‘makes sense’ or is truly ‘reasonable’, we’re in ‘touch’ with (again, metaphor) something other than our own brains.

(me) “…it doesn’t work to say that the (contradictory) meanings they both give to this action both equally matter because both meanings matter to each of them.” (Ian) “Why not?”

Please don’t be as offended as Ken has been recently on my blog (which I still am mystified by), but this is precisely the scenario which allows Hitler’s ideas to ‘matter’ just as much as yours (or mine or Ken’s, etc.). I say it doesn’t ‘work’ because reason/logic (if we take them as truth indicators) insist that ‘x’ and ‘not-x’ can not be equally true (in the same way/context/etc.).

If and only if you assume that moral truths exist independently. (and) It matters to that person. Your statement implies a “mattering” beyond any person though.

Yes, my reasoning here would be similar to my argument from reason above.

I have no problem with using internal beliefs/feelings as evidence for external “truth”. However it isn’t evidence of that by default, you need an argument to go along with it and I haven’t heard that yet from you.

First, thanks for showing your willingness to take internal beliefs/feelings (let’s not forget reason/logic) as a kind of ‘evidence’ for external (not limited to human opinion) truth. You say that by default it is not evidence, but it should equally be the case that by defalut it isn’t “not” evidence. (annoying, but you get my point)

Back to the ‘circular’ and ‘straight’ reasoning for a moment:
given that we don’t know how much of our universe lies beyond our farthest reaching telescopes (not to mention beyond our most powerful microscopes), we ultimately have to work with, investigate, and make sense of what we have – scientifically speaking. One could fairly call this ‘circular’ – though of course a (by our subjective/fallible standards) a ‘our-known-universe sized’ circle! 😉 I think it’s the same with metaphysical truth. We ‘have’ 1) a pile of metaphysical/philosophical/traditional ideas, 2) experience of emotional responses of all kinds to various experiences/ideas/etc. 3) reason/logic, etc.

As science seeks to put forward theories/explanations of the physical data, metaphysics (of which ethics is a subset) seeks to put forward theories/explanations of the metaphysical data. The more ‘data’ one is able to fit into a theory, the more acceptable it generally is – the more explanatory power it has. Metaphysical theories/explanations (esp. for ethics) will involve discussions about value, goals and principles. And whereas S.J. Gould takes a ‘non-overlapping’ approach to these magisteria, I think they can (even should be!) related – regardless of how much or if they overlap.

But back to ‘goals’ etc.:
Quick example which I hope is relevant and makes use of logic/reason. In order to say something is ‘wrong’/’bad’/’evil’/etc., one must assume at least some kind of goal/telos/end toward which things tend, which has been violated or impeded. science/’physics’ talks of how things DO function, philosophy/metaphysics talks of how things OUGHT to function. Ethics/morality is in the latter category. Whilst humans are not indifferent to moral matters, science/physics is by nature, because it offers metrical and data-based explanations. Philosophy/metaphysics, however, asks questions about values, principles, reason, relation, goals.

My point here is to argue that we simply can’t help saying things that have no scientific basis at all. Your demand for ‘evidence’ (which I understand and agree with – in one sense) is anything but a by default necessary implication of some set of physical/empirical evidence/’data’, but instead is an outworking via logic/reason from your (philosophical) worldview in which ‘evidence’ is the most epistemically authoritative thing. Which brings us back to the need to determine what counts (or not) as ‘evidence’, and why or why not? I’m saying that science/physics and philosophy/metaphysics can both be fairly said to be ‘circular’ (self-referential), and that we tend to (again a big judgment call here) give more authority to ‘circles’ that incorporate the most (physical or metaphyscial) data.

Not really – I want evidence and you haven’t given me any

See above, perhaps? 😉

Any form of evidence that supports a rational argument is fine by me. But you haven’t presented either yet.

Again, see above mammoth, book-like rambling 🙂

Which is where I have an advantage. You are positively arguing for the existence of more than what I am so you have more work to do. Also I am not positively claiming you are wrong, I am claiming there isn’t enough evidence to believe what you claim we should believe.

Yet again, I refer to mammoth-ramble above. 🙂

many distinctions to this conversation, huh!?

descriptive/prescriptive
is/ought
fact/value
science/philosophy
‘physics’/’metaphysics’
matter/meaning
brain/mind
brain-activity/reason
etc.
😉

59. Ian - December 11, 2009

Yes, and our task is to discern what we count as ‘observations’ and why some things count and others don’t?

No – it is to determine exactly what was observed. For example you hear a bump in the night. The observation is that you heard a bump, not that you saw a ghost. Perhaps a ghost caused the bump but that isn’t what you observed. This is my brutal honesty policy.

Everything is a valid observation. The question is what we can learn from it.

We’ve no empirical/’scientific’ imperative to follow/value/respect what we label as ‘rational’ brain activity any more than what we label as ‘irrational’ brain activity.

Except that we recognise that irrational brain activity is based on things that are factually wrong. Factual wrongness and ethical wrongness are two quite different concepts.

When something ‘makes sense’ or is truly ‘reasonable’, we’re in ‘touch’ with (again, metaphor) something other than our own brains.

That is pure assertion based on the assumption that truth is external – the same truth you are trying to demonstrate.

this is precisely the scenario which allows Hitler’s ideas to ‘matter’ just as much as yours (or mine or Ken’s, etc.).

Hitler’s ideas matter as much as anyone’s ideas could be said to matter. However in some cases they might be factually wrong (there is no demonstrable reason to suppose the aryan race is any healthier than others for example). It makes far more sense (to me at least) to reject Hitler’s ideas on their own merits, not because he is supposedly evil.

First, thanks for showing your willingness to take internal beliefs/feelings (let’s not forget reason/logic) as a kind of ‘evidence’ for external (not limited to human opinion) truth. You say that by default it is not evidence, but it should equally be the case that by defalut it isn’t “not” evidence. (annoying, but you get my point)

I think you misunderstood. By default it is not evidence OF anything in particular. It is simply a fact that a person felt or saw a particular thing.

As science seeks to put forward theories/explanations of the physical data,

You are misrepresenting science by referring to “physical” data. Science can deal with any data of any form.

metaphysics (of which ethics is a subset) seeks to put forward theories/explanations of the metaphysical data.

What are some examples of metaphysical data and why can’t science use them?

The more ‘data’ one is able to fit into a theory, the more acceptable it generally is – the more explanatory power it has.

Almost – the more accurately a theory can predict new and existing data points the more explanatory power it has.

Metaphysical theories/explanations (esp. for ethics) will involve discussions about value, goals and principles.

Perhaps but we are trying to go beyond discussions.

And whereas S.J. Gould takes a ‘non-overlapping’ approach to these magisteria, I think they can (even should be!) related – regardless of how much or if they overlap.

NOMA is fallacious IMO. Science is the study of reality. Everything else is excluded though 🙂

Quick example which I hope is relevant and makes use of logic/reason. In order to say something is ‘wrong’/’bad’/’evil’/etc., one must assume at least some kind of goal/telos/end toward which things tend, which has been violated or impeded.

That entire statement assumes there is such a thing. One can say “I think x is wrong for the following reasons” but there is no reason to suppose that one can say “x is universally wrong” – the thing you are trying to demonstrate to me.

science/’physics’ talks of how things DO function, philosophy/metaphysics talks of how things OUGHT to function.

Your job here is to convince me that this “ought” goes beyond individuals.

Ethics/morality is in the latter category. Whilst humans are not indifferent to moral matters, science/physics is by nature,

It can’t tell you that people ought to do anything but it can say that the consequences of something will be x, and it can say that y% of people feel that x is wrong and it can say that there are psychological or biological or sociological reasons why people think that, etc.

because it offers metrical and data-based explanations. Philosophy/metaphysics, however, asks questions about values, principles, reason, relation, goals.

Philosophy/metaphysics under that definition is a baseless pursuit. It becomes based when you can demonstrate that these v/p/r/r/g are more than just opinion or personal tendencies.

My point here is to argue that we simply can’t help saying things that have no scientific basis at all.

Not quite sure what you mean…

Your demand for ‘evidence’ (which I understand and agree with – in one sense) is anything but a by default necessary implication of some set of physical/empirical evidence/’data’, but instead is an outworking via logic/reason from your (philosophical) worldview in which ‘evidence’ is the most epistemically authoritative thing.

How else can you know the world other than interpreting observation?

Which brings us back to the need to determine what counts (or not) as ‘evidence’, and why or why not?

Everything counts as evidence. The question is not what is evidence, but what can we reasonably say it is evidence OF.

I have an observation which I’d be interested in your comments on: I feel that my world view starts inside me and works its way outwards, encompassing my observations, others views, observations etc, and forms that way. I think your worldview starts as far away from yourself as possible and then works back towards you, making things fit with the bigger model along the way. I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense at all – just a thought that popped into my head.

60. Dale Campbell - December 15, 2009

OK (sorry for delay – been busy!),

I note the blogging-ish tension between replying to each point and not losing/dropping points, and the desire to keep the convo from getting to ‘bitsy’ – my attempt at ‘faithful summarisation’ is what follows:

No – it is to determine exactly what was observed. (and) Everything is a valid observation. The question is what we can learn from it.

Yes, and goals/values/principles (g/v/p) would be ‘observed’ and/or ‘learned from’ in very non-empirical – and non ‘5-senses’ kinds of ways. It’s not like a ‘bump’ that is or is not caused by a ghost, but rather whether or not our moral feelings/reasonings/intuitions/long-established-traditions/etc. can be taken to be ‘evidence’ that we are ‘getting somewhere’ toward truth.

Except that we recognise that irrational brain activity is based on things that are factually wrong. Factual wrongness and ethical wrongness are two quite different concepts.

Sure, that’s ONE kind of irrational brain activity, namely the empirically/factually verifiable kind. With moral/ethical brain activity –so to speak– we’ve no ‘facts’ or ’empirical data’ to tell us which moral/ethical brain phenomena is ‘irrational’. Sure, a man who feels moral guilt for killing his wife can be said to be irrational in the case that he has done no such thing (or isn’t married, etc.) – the data/facts contradict his thesis, so to speak. But there are no ‘facts’ and no ‘data’ to tell us that wife-killing itself is ‘irrational’ – though I’d want anyone who diagrees with that particular moral (subjective) opinion to be locked up! but factually/data-ish-ly speaking, wife-killing is not ‘irrational’. (Di, if you read this, be very afraid!! mwahahaha!)

(me) When something ‘makes sense’ or is truly ‘reasonable’, we’re in ‘touch’ with (again, metaphor) something other than our own brains. (you)That is pure assertion based on the assumption that truth is external – the same truth you are trying to demonstrate.

I don’t follow you here. And I’d not want to ‘internal’/’external’ language to hinder us here. I’m talking about human acts of reasoning as cases of interaction with truth (which probably transcends notions of ‘internal’ or ‘external’) – and truth is not a physical/material component of our biological brain.

Hitler’s ideas matter as much as anyone’s ideas could be said to matter. However in some cases they might be factually wrong (there is no demonstrable reason to suppose the aryan race is any healthier than others for example). It makes far more sense (to me at least) to reject Hitler’s ideas on their own merits, not because he is supposedly evil.

I’m glad you said ‘to me at least’, because that’s the whole point. Any and ALL ideas (whether ideas belonging to or conflicting with Hitler, or whether ideas about whether he should be judged on who he was, what he did, or what he thought, etc., etc.) end up mattering just as much (or just as little? who knows? who cares?) as any/ALL other ideas. There simply is no ‘facts’ or ‘data’ that tell us otherwise. It’s not that the ‘facts’ tell us that Hitler was wrong that the Arian race is healthier, but that there are no bare ‘facts’ about what ‘health’ is.

“health” assumes a goal (presumably survival rate and life-span increase – all able to be measured numerically – which is what distinguishes them as ‘facts’). But the universe does not care one bit whether a toad or a human lives long, reproduces quickly, or survives in its environment – and our popular and no doubt evolutionarily-biased impulse for survival, etc. adds no hint of metaphysical validation of the notion of ‘health’.

What are some examples of metaphysical data and why can’t science use them?

E.g. –> valuing life (or anything, for that matter) as ‘good’.

(me) Metaphysical theories/explanations (esp. for ethics) will involve discussions about value, goals and principles. (you) Perhaps but we are trying to go beyond discussions.

‘beyond’ discussions? you mean like being omniscient?

NOMA is fallacious IMO. Science is the study of reality. Everything else is excluded though

That kind of language (‘science is the study of reality’) is a) a half-truth (sure, it’s ONE method of studying reality, but…), b) unprovable (well, at least scientifically unprovable!), and c) utterly superfluous to the process/task of science itself. There is no experiment which demonstrates that science can investigate everything, and no working scientist ever needs to be concerned with whether or not science as a whole can investigate everything. These notions are for philosophical discussions.

One can say “I think x is wrong for the following reasons” but there is no reason to suppose that one can say “x is universally wrong” – the thing you are trying to demonstrate to me.

I can’t let you slip that phrase (‘…for the following reasons…’) in un-noticed. I challenge you to provide a concrete example of some ‘reasons’ why an action could be ‘wrong’ (in any sense, universal or not) – oh, btw, try to keep these ‘reasons’ nice and un-tainted from any assumptions regarding “at least some kind of goal/telos/end”. 🙂

Your job here is to convince me that this “ought” goes beyond individuals.

And I could say your job is to convince me that this ‘ought’ is always and unfailingly restricted to individuals. Don’t bother with any teapot-ish remarks – Oughts are felt (even if subjectively) by everyone, orbiting tea pots by no-one. 🙂

It can’t tell you that people ought to do anything but it can say that the consequences of something will be x, and it can say that y% of people feel that x is wrong and it can say that there are psychological or biological or sociological reasons why people think that, etc.

Again, please provide a concrete example of these ‘reasons’ and ‘consequences’ which are untainted by assumptions about “at least some kind of goal/telos/end”. 🙂
Science can tell us what the “psychological or biological or sociological reasons” are for why people think anything is wrong. But we’re not one milimeter closer to knowing whether it IS wrong.

Philosophy/metaphysics under that definition is a baseless pursuit. It becomes based when you can demonstrate that these v/p/r/r/g are more than just opinion or personal tendencies.

Ahh… but what is your statement (“Philosophy/metaphysics under that definition is a baseless pursuit.”) ‘based’ on? Opinion? Personal Tendency? What ‘facts’ undergird it?

How else can you know the world other than interpreting observation? (emphasis mine)

‘know’; the epistemic verb again. 🙂

I think there are more than one way to ‘observe’ the world. A concrete example (always good) will help. One can make a ‘scientific’ or ‘factual’ observation of a murder. Knife-blade inserted at ‘this’ angle, with ‘this’ much force, emergency call made at ‘this’ time, medics arrive at ‘this’ time, medical response time ‘this’ long, fMRI of accused killer shows ‘this’ brain activity when asked ‘these’ questions, fMRI of grieving wife and children shows ‘this’ brain activity (we call ‘grief’); etc., etc. Or, we can say a murder was ‘tragic’, ‘wrong’, ‘senseless’, or ‘brutal’.

I don’t think we have to choose between these, and I also think we can say that murder (as distinct from ‘killing’, btw) is (universally) ‘wrong’, and don’t thing we have to qualify it by saying that murder’s immorality is restricted to individuals.

The forensic police investigation uses one kind of ‘observation’ and assumes the other – the scientific observation gets the ‘facts’, and the police pursue and incriminate the murderer based on the traditional/intuitive and I insist reasonable ‘observation’ of the ‘wrongfulness’ and ‘tragic-ness’ of the murder, and on the metaphysical assumption that murder is ‘wrong’, ‘punishable’ and ‘unlawful’.

I feel that my world view starts inside me and works its way outwards, encompassing my observations, others views, observations etc, and forms that way. I think your worldview starts as far away from yourself as possible and then works back towards you, making things fit with the bigger model along the way.

Interesting question.
It’s always hard to evaluate one’s own thought process, esp. without ignoring subconscious assumptions.
‘Worldviews’ are typically referred to not as ‘sets of observations’, but more the assumptions/frameworks by which those observations are ‘viewed’ through. Worldviews, then, like a window pane or eye-glasses (or perhaps the best example is contact lenses currently applied to the eye) are not what you look AT, but what you look THROUGH. So, I actually think the question of starting ‘far’ and working ‘in’ or starting ‘within’ and working ‘out’ doesn’t quite get at what a ‘worldview’ really is.

However, I’ll try to respond to what I think you’re getting at. I think a lot of people live life very casually with little deep, philosophical reflection. Others think tons about why they know, how they know, etc., etc. and get very philosophcial, etc. I reckon that both deep or not-so-deep thinkers are probably BOTH starting ‘far’ and ‘within’ (and are working BOTH ‘in and ‘out’). What I mean is that we all probably have on one hand, ‘large’ or ‘distant’ notions about the world which we swim in and breathe in and never question (or don’t question until later, etc.); whilst on the other hand we all are constantly starting ‘inside’, from scratch, collecting ideas, of others and moving ‘outward’. I’d want to say that in reality you and I both do both.


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