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Science and Morality April 12, 2011

Posted by Ian in Morality.
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Sam Harris’s book and recent debate with William Lane Craig have re-opened my thinking on moral evaluation and I have come to realise there seems to be a substantial “blind spot” in this discussion.

The primary (perhaps even only) argument anyone has for the objectiveness of morality is that we can list a bunch of things and agree that they are “wrong”. That isn’t good enough and anyone familiar with the scientific method (and the reasons for it) should see why immediately but for some reason in this sphere of discussion it is often overlooked.

Consider the optical illusion below.  We can all agree that squares A and B look like they are different colours but it is clearly shown that this is not the case.  In that sense our perception, despite being universally shared, is wrong.  Well actually that isn’t quite true – we all do perceive them as different colours but we are able to go beyond that and show that this perception is false – that they really are the same colour.

 

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In fact there is no problem if everyone agrees that A&B appear to be the same colour and leave it there.  The problem appears if people were to extrapolate and say A&B are the same colour, and everyone agrees with me, so therefore it is true.  This is a classic example of the logical fallacy argumentum ad populum.

My problem is that it seems to me like everyone is doing precisely the same thing with the objectiveness of morality including people on both sides of the theistic divide.  We can all agree that killing feels wrong so therefore killing is wrong and now we have a basis for objective morality.  Except that we really don’t – because all we can say is that we all perceive certain actions to be wrong.  It simply isn’t enough to say with any form of certainty that morality does have an objective base and therefore any arguments that build on that premise are on very shaky ground.

In the Harris/Craig debate both assumed objective morality and went from there.  This made life easy for Craig because all he has to do is keep asking where it comes from – something that science, which hasn’t even got to the point of granting the premise the whole debate is based on, can’t possibly contribute.  Neither could religion but religion has a lot more space to move in these debates because “god”  isn’t bound by the same rules as science.

Another thing that bugs me is the arrogance implicit in the assumption that things that we once thought moral and now don’t (the changing moral zeitgeist argument against objective morality) is because we were wrong in the past and see things more clearly now.  Here is where the we all agree argument really falls apart.  We all agreed then, we all agree now, but those two opinions are different.  How can we possibly argue that slavery is immoral except to say “we are more moral  than people in the past”.  There is no objective basis to make this statement though except that we perceive it to be so now so they must have been wrong and we are right.

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Comments»

1. Dale Campbell - April 12, 2011

Good thinking. I’ve got no logical contention with you. I agree that a naturalistic epistemology (including a naturalistic ontology) can only shrug it’s shoulders at questions of what is ethically binding action.

2. Ian - April 12, 2011

I’d prefer to say it can only point out we have no reason to think anything is ethically binding at all… and neither can anything else that I am aware of.

3. TaiChi - April 12, 2011

Ian, some points:
(1) A person does not generally believe that there are objective moral truths on the basis of what their cohorts think; instead, they believe that there are objective moral truths because they find that intuitive. So the charge of argumentum ad populum, is, I think, misplaced.
(2) The fact that moral objectivism is widely intuited, however, does shape the debate: those who argue in opposition to the view have to overcome the initial plausibility of moral objectivism in order to win supporters.
(3) Pointing out that it may merely seem like moral objectivism is true, though it is false, is not anywhere near sufficient to overcome that initial plausibility. But in that case, you give the moral objectivists (i.e. most people) no reason to reject their original viewpoint. We need some substantial arguments here.

Dale,
I’d shrug my shoulders at the suggestion that morality can be grounded in God. Why shouldn’t I? How, exactly, does God ground morality? Perhaps I should ask a preliminary question: what would it be for anything to ground morality?

4. Ian - April 12, 2011

Interesting comments TaiChi, some responses:

1. There is no denying that individuals have strong moral intuitions but that says nothing of their objectivity or universality. To argue that all people have a strong moral intuition therefore they are objective is a fallacy. If there are other strings to that argument then I’d be keen to hear them.

2. Is objectivism intuited? Or simply the need for moral judgements? I don’t really have a good sense either way on that one. Regardless, I can agree that moral objectivism could be considered an “A looks like B” scenario.

3. I guess the best way to approach this is to ask what an objective moral system would actually look like.

Firstly universality of moral judgement (at some level) is necessary. But in itself it is not a sufficient condition because universality could arise through evolutionary means.

Of course moral views are not universal – judgements change over time and space – so that necessary but not sufficient condition isn’t notably present. We’d need to see inexplicably high levels of concordance in order to ditch the natural cause for that reason alone.

You could also argue that the strength of these views is a possible indicator of their objectivity but such ideas are equally explained/expected via natural/relativist means, and objective morals could be lightly held so this isn’t really necessary or sufficient.

As far as I can see, at best all we can say about moral objectivism is that it is a plausible hypothesis. We cannot say anything positive about it though, and given it requires mechanisms we know absolutely nothing about and have no observation of (where does it come from, how is it transmitted, how is it stored, etc) relativism, which requires none of those things, is at the very least a more elegant explanation.

5. TaiChi - April 13, 2011

Ian,
1. “There is no denying that individuals have strong moral intuitions but that says nothing of their objectivity or universality.”

Since you’re arguing for relativism, it’s worth making a distinction here: Moral intuitions do not by themselves show moral propositions to be true, let alone that they are true across all times and places; however, moral intuitions do have as their content objective and universal propositional content.

“To argue that all people have a strong moral intuition therefore they are objective is a fallacy.”

Yes. I’ve never encountered that argument being made, though, which is why I’m skeptical of your charge of argumentum ad populum.

2. Yes, I think moral objectivity is intuited. That is to say, I think that our apperception of moral properties is the product of our evolved brains, and that some evolutionary story roughly explains why we have the moral concepts that we do. The alternative is to say that our moral practice is the product of culture, but I don’t find that explanation plausible, for moral systems are in every culture.

3.”Firstly universality of moral judgement (at some level) is necessary.. moral views are not universal – judgements change over time and space – so that necessary but not sufficient condition isn’t notably present.”

That only seems necessary if the moral objectivist is to make the fallacious argument you pointed out earlier. But leaving aside that attempted justification, I don’t see how the truth of moral objectivism itself requires universal endorsement. None of our other objective facts do (e.g. atheism is an objective fact, but it is an uncommon view).

“We’d need to see inexplicably high levels of concordance in order to ditch the natural cause for that reason alone.”

As I say earlier, I think that there is a naturalistic explanation for moral practice. But I don’t see why one should think that the explanation is in competition with moral objectivism: a naturalistic story of moral explains the genesis of our moral intuitions, but a moral theory says what the propositional content of such intutitions are, and so what, if anything, makes them true. That is, the explanation and the theory do different work.

“As far as I can see, at best all we can say about moral objectivism is that it is a plausible hypothesis. We cannot say anything positive about it though..”

I disagree. A theory of objective morality which concords with our moral discourse and appeals only to those entities described by natural science has much to recommend it, and were such a theory to appear, this would be a favorable development for the plausibility of moral objectvism as a viewpoint.

“..and given it requires mechanisms we know absolutely nothing about and have no observation of (where does it come from, how is it transmitted, how is it stored, etc) ..”

But moral objectivism need not be so mysterious. Sam Harris’s version identifying the moral good with the wellbeing of sentient creatures is, if objectionable in other ways, at least very clear on what moral goodness is and what mechanisms might promote it. So too for utilitarianism in general.

“..relativism, which requires none of those things, is at the very least a more elegant explanation.”

I doubt that relativism is coherent, let alone elegant, since it abuses the concept of truth. Error-theory is much to be preferred for not relying on such a contortion of basic philosophical concepts, and also because it allows that moral propositions have universal and objective content, though such propositions are all false.

6. Ian - April 13, 2011

1. This objective component is the part that needs to be universal – if everyone’s objective component of their judgements was different then it isn’t objective…

2. I may not have been clear enough here – I was meaning the “seeming objectiveness” of morality as the thing that is intuited, rather than the actual moral framework.

3. It seems we need to clarify terms before we continue just to make sure we aren’t talking past each other. When I use the terms I mean the following:

Objective morality: actions can be judged to be wrong independent of opinion or thought – which is to say that you could say “killing is wrong even if no-one thinks so”. This is the commandments style of morality.

Relative morality: actions can only be judged from a individuals perception. These views may be developed consciously or instinctively but they are dependent on individual perspectives at some level. In this framework it would not be possible to say “killing is wrong evern if no-one thinks so”. In fact you can’t even say “killing is wrong”, you can only say “I/we think killing is wrong”.

It feels to me like you are promoting a subset of the latter and calling it the former. It may well be me that has my terms mixed up but I think clarifying that before we go much further is useful 🙂

7. TaiChi - April 16, 2011

“This objective component is the part that needs to be universal – if everyone’s objective component of their judgements was different then it isn’t objective..”

I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean by ‘objective component’. To call a judgement ‘objective’ is to describe what kind of judgement it is; it is not to describe some component of that judgement. Analogy: to call Rafael Nadal ‘Spanish’ is to describe him in terms of his nationality, but there is no such component of Nadal which his Spanishness.
Setting this aside, you could mean a couple of things here. First idea: everybody (or nearly everybody) has to agree on what is objectively moral and what is not in order for morality to be objective. Unfortunately that’s false, because it is not generally true that the objectivity of an area of discourse depends on agreement: instead, it depends on the successful correspondence of its propositions to what exists. I gave the example of atheism earlier – the proposition “God does not exist” is objectively true, but the judgements of the mob are irrelevant to its being objectively true – and similar remarks would hold of any moral theory too. Second idea: everybody (or nearly everybody) has to agree that moral statements are objective, in that they are supposed to correspond to what exists, are true if they do correspond, and false if they do not. I think that’s correct, since I think that meaning is dependent on convention, and in particular that the objectivity of an area of discourse depends on a convention that it is fact-stating. But I do think that this requirement for objectivity is satisfied, and every introductory ethics book agrees with me on this. Whatever the merits of relativism, one cannot say that it is a common view.

“I may not have been clear enough here – I was meaning the “seeming objectiveness” of morality as the thing that is intuited, rather than the actual moral framework.”

Yes, I think that the seeming objectiveness of morality is intuited. Our moral intuitions are intuitions of certain facts about the world, facts are of course objective, and so having a moral intution involves intuiting objectivity.

“Objective morality: actions can be judged to be wrong independent of opinion or thought – which is to say that you could say “killing is wrong even if no-one thinks so”.”

How can something be judged independently of opinion or thought? Surely to judge is to think and acquire an opinion? 🙂 I’d recommend: “Objective Morality: moral statements are true or false, and they do not depend upon the judgements of individuals for their truth value”.

“Relative morality: actions can only be judged from a individuals perception.”

By this definition, I’m a relativist: I agree that actions can only be judged from an individual’s point of view, but that’s because judging is in general a process which takes place from a point of view. I’d recommend: “Relative Morality: moral statements are true or false, and they depend upon the judgements of individuals for their truth value”.

“It feels to me like you are promoting a subset of the latter and calling it the former.”

Not sure what you have in mind here. I don’t believe I’m advocating any relativistic views, though you might tend to believe that the naturalistic outlook I have leads to relativism. But of course, even were it true that my outlook did lead to relativism, it still wouldn’t be correct to say of me that my outlook was relatvisitic (instead, you should say I am inconsistent in holding the positions I do).

8. Ian - April 18, 2011

“Objective Morality: moral statements are true or false, and they do not depend upon the judgements of individuals for their truth value”.

Let us take this as a starting point. Now presumably this means a person can say an action is morally right and be demonstrably wrong about this statement? In other words the “wrongness” of the action is demonstrated in reference to something other than the judgement of that individual… the question is what?

To follow on, I can accept an objective morality in the following form: given set goals, set knowledge, and set constraints, it is possible to objectively compare possible actions and to determine which are better for achieving those goals.

However this is not what I would consider objective morality since it just pushes the subjectivity back a step to the choice of goals.

9. TaiChi - April 18, 2011

“Let us take this as a starting point. Now presumably this means a person can say an action is morally right and be demonstrably wrong about this statement?”

It means that someone can be wrong, period. Whether or not they can be demonstrably so is an epistemological question, which does not settle the ontological matter. That is: the thesis of objective morality may well be true in the absence of any reason to believe in it.
But surely we want a reason to believe in it, right? In that case we want it to be demonstratable. But plenty of moral theories are demonstrable, in that they appeal to entities that exist and are measurable. To return to Utilitarianism as an example, we have here a theory which refers to brain states (pleasure and pain) which can in principle be shown to obtain in various frequencies and intensities.
Now, this theory may or may not be correct (I’m inclined to think it isn’t), but the point is: there is no reason to believe that a moral theory which aspires to objectivity need be beset by epistemological difficulties.

“To follow on, I can accept an objective morality in the following form: given set goals, set knowledge, and set constraints, it is possible to objectively compare possible actions and to determine which are better for achieving those goals.

However this is not what I would consider objective morality since it just pushes the subjectivity back a step to the choice of goals.”

That does sound subjective, but it doesn’t sound like any theory of morality I know of. Let’s stick with the example of Utilitarianism: how does this theory fail to secure the objectivity of morality? What flaw does it have, shared with other purportedly objective moral theories, which prevents it from being truly objective?

10. Ian - April 19, 2011

The problem with utilitarianism is that utility isn’t really defined, and any attempt to define it immediately introduces the subjective element. To accept utilitarianism as objective, there would have to be a “correct” answer to what the definition of utility is, and as far as I can see we don’t know what that is.

Now I can’t show that there isn’t a “correct” definition, but in a world where there doesn’t appear to be one, morality is necessarily relative in practice. With that in mind, personally I see no reason to assume it isn’t just subjective in the first place and to discard the objective morality baggage leave the objectivity argument aside until there is a positive reason to accept it. (I rephrased that because it didn’t come across as I intended lol)

11. TaiChi - April 20, 2011

“The problem with utilitarianism is that utility isn’t really defined…”

The various versions of Utilitarianism [i]do[/i] define it, albeit in different ways. Here is a classic one: http://www.utilitarianism.com/utility.htm, and, if I cared to look, I’m sure I could find more modern attempts at pinning the concept down for you.

“..any attempt to define it immediately introduces the subjective element.”

It can’t both be true that ‘utility’ isn’t defined and that Utilitarians make their theory subjective by defining ‘utility’.

“To accept utilitarianism as objective, there would have to be a “correct” answer to what the definition of utility is, and as far as I can see we don’t know what that is.”

I’m not sure I’m getting this argument of yours. Several reasons:
(i) As mentioned, there are numerous definitions of ‘utility’ out there.
(ii) Such definitions are typically [i]stipulative[/i], that is, ‘utility’ will mean just what the philosopher says it means within her theory, and so there is a correct answer, and we know what it is because we are told.
(iii) Even if ‘utility’ weren’t a philosopher’s term of art, I see no more reason for any skepticism about our ability to find its definition as compared to any other words we might try to define.
(iv) Even were there reason to be skeptical about finding the correct definition of ‘utility’, this wouldn’t warrant the conclusion that any definition we did have would be without justification, a mere opinion.
And (v), even if I go so far as to concede that there are no definitions of ‘utility’, that it is not a stipulative term, and that there is reason to suppose it indefinable.. I’d still need a reason to believe that the use of indefinable terms in a theory would be a fatal flaw. Because if it’s not, then whilst those who attempted to define ‘utility’ would be making fools of themselves, one could still have a satisfactory Utilitarian theory in which the term is left undefined.

“Now I can’t show that there isn’t a “correct” definition, but in a world where there doesn’t appear to be one, morality is necessarily relative in practice.”

Well, no. Even if your above argument managed to show objectivism to be false, there is still an alternative to relativism, which is non-cognitivism (roughly: moral statements are neither true nor false, but are instead expressive or prescriptive).

12. Ian - April 21, 2011

Utility isn’t defined in the sense that its definition is an assumption, not an observation. You could define utility as twinkies and the theory would still hold. In other words the moral component of the theory is entirely contained within the definition of utility – which is necessarily made with no help from the theory at all. As a relative theory it provides a good framework for combining opinions. As an objective theory it would work wonderfully assuming there was some magical rulebook that defined the “good” definition of utility but otherwise it fails.

Ultimately I have a problem with any moral theory that requires some form of (to put it crudely) magic external rulebook, whether it is god or simply some universal truth. I don’t see how objective morality can exist without necessarily needing something like that.

13. TaiChi - April 25, 2011

“Utility isn’t defined in the sense that its definition is an assumption, not an observation.”

There is no sense in which something which has a definition isn’t defined: that’s self-contradictory.

“You could define utility as twinkies and the theory would still hold.”

No, such a theory wouldn’t hold. Why not? Because a moral theory is supposed to tell us what is right and wrong, and why that is so. A Utilitarian theory which used your twinkie definition would make false predictions, for example, that childhood obesity is a moral good and ought to be promoted as encouraging greater consumption of twinkies would lead to increased production of twinkies. A Utilitarian theory using pleasure/pain definition of ‘utility’ doesn’t generate such obviously false predictions, and that is why the pleasure/pain definition is to be preferred over the twinkie definition.

“In other words the moral component of the theory is entirely contained within the definition of utility..”

Well no: you have a Utilitarian principle (e.g. one ought to perform that action which brings about the greatest utility), as well as a definition of utility.

“As an objective theory it would work wonderfully assuming there was some magical rulebook that defined the “good” definition of utility but otherwise it fails.”

I still don’t see what the problem is. Yes, the definition of ‘utility’ is stipulative (or “assumed”, if you prefer), but the introduction of such theoretical terms is no more a problem for the philosopher than for the scientist, and scientists coin new terms all the time in the course of proposing their theories. Why can’t philosophers, if their terms allow them to construct a theory which would successfully predict right and wrong?

Well, I’ll have to leave you to ponder that, as I’ve other things to be getting on with. Cheers.

14. tim - October 6, 2011

I have watched this debate recently, and really felt similar regarding the ‘blind spot’ that you mention in your post. Thanks for your lucid thoughts on the matter.


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