Moral realism

ethicsby Massimo Pigliucci

New Scientia Salon video featuring a discussion between between Massimo and Dan, this time on the issue of moral realism. This is also being published as part of a new initiative by Bloggingheads.tv, called MeaningofLife.tv. Dan and I have our own channel, called, appropriately enough, Sophia.

Anyway, in this video we talk about just how hard it is to define moral realism, explain why I am not a moral realist, and ask whether utilitarians and Kantian deontologists are moral realists (not necessarily). We then talk about why we will likely not arrive at a single “true” ethical theory (and why this isn’t a problem, really), moving on to discussing human nature and why there will never be a Marxist (or libertarian!) utopia. Finally, we ask what happens to those who refuse to play “the moral game,” with a nod to Wittgenstein.

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Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

Daniel A. Kaufman is a professor of philosophy at Missouri State University and a graduate of the City University of New York. His interests include epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, and social-political philosophy. His new blog is Apophenia.

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89 thoughts on “Moral realism

  1. Computational Morality (CM) — or [not well-named, IMO] Machine Ethics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Machine_ethics — is a field in AI/CS which seems to merge in all types of moral theory from philosophy. I don’t know what CM says about “moral realism” per se, but it’s a pretty open and “emerging” field.

    “Towards Computational Morality with Logic Programming”
    http://www.cs.nmsu.edu/ALP/tplp/content/tplp-volume-13-2013/
    http://journals.cambridge.org/downloadsup.php?file=/tlp2013037.pdf

    The computational models, developed successfully deliver moral decisions in accordance with the double effect principle. They conform to the results of empirical experiments conducted in cognitive science and law.

    “Towards Modeling Morality Computationally with Logic Programming”
    http://centria.di.fct.unl.pt/~lmp/publications/online-papers/padl-14.pdf

    Modeling such cognitive capabilities in individuals, and in populations, may well prove useful for the study and understanding of ethical robots and their emergent behavior in groups, so as to make them implementable in future robots and their swarms, and not just in the simulation domain but in the real world engineering one as well.

    Moreover, we touch upon the potential of our ongoing studies of LP based cognitive features for the emergence of computational morality, in populations of agents enabled with the
    capacity for intention recognition, commitment and apology.

    Like

  2. I’m not of fond of video philosophy, too time consuming, but I watched the first half and found it an interesting discussion. Some comments came to mind. The issues are easy to muddle up but this is how I would see it.

    An ethical scheme cannot be secure and justifiable unless founded on an ontology. Science and scholastic philosophy currently have no ontological scheme so cannot have a metaphysically sound or justifiable ethical scheme.

    The question that arises in the discussion is whether it would be possible to have a ‘weird’ metaphysics such that a real or objective ethics would fall out of it. I would say yes, and would endorse exactly that ‘weird’ metaphysics for which ethics follows from ontology. I struggle to see what else it could follow from.

    A mind-independent ethics would surely be just as impossible as a mind-independent science. I would agree that in ethics the Realism/anti-Realism debate as usually conducted is not useful, since neither side have a metaphysical scheme in place to ground their ideas and are just hand-waiving. But it seems a mistake to assume that the only choice for the Realist would be Theism. It would be my view that Theism must be abandoned for a logically sound realist or objectivist ethics, so dissent on this one is possible.

    Lastly, I picked up on the point about instrumentalism and how ethicists may go about discuss ethical problems and developing an ethical scheme without making any underlying claims about ontology. This is a work-around but not a solution and I don’t think it even works as a work-around but is simply a postponement of the problem. It would be like building the roof of a house before even designing the foundations.

    I’d like to draw some attention to Mark Siderits and Shoryu Katsura’s recent book on Nagarjuna’s Middle Way, which has an excellent explanation of how the Middle Way view makes use of a practical instrumentalist approach for dealing with the conventional world whereby we would set ontology and absolute truth aside for the sake of practicalities and everyday discussion, but would apply a rigorous and ultimate approach for ultimate truths and for any deep justification of ethics.

    Without this deep justification ethics seems to reduce to a matter of opinion such that both Realists and anti-Realists are equally incapable of making a decent case.

    The main issue for me would be the futility of trying to build an ethical scheme in the absence of an ontological scheme. It would be very strange and surely pointless to construct an ethical scheme that did not make a solid prediction for materialism and freewill, say, and these predictions concern ontology.

    The central issue for me would be that absent a working metaphysics nothing else can be sorted out and so discussions like this can never be concluded. It’s a high-level discussion with no low-level framework.

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  3. Thanks so much for this chat. I really enjoyed it.

    There are a couple of things worth noting here:

    So I think it is important to distinguish two kinds of dependency relations surrounding the metaphysical moral realist (here understood as someone who holds that moral properties *really* exist in some robust sense).

    (1)

    One kind of dependency relation can be understood by looking at a conceivable kind of dualism about the mind; one could hold, without being accused of being linguistically incompetent, that the mind has properties which don’t depend, metaphysically, on natural properties (such as extension, hardness, electrons, neurons, etc.). In other words, someone could believe that these non-natural mental properties are in no way metaphysically metaphysically dependent on the natural world. This would be the kind of view Massimo mentioned: Moral properties exist in the mind of God. If certain properties exist in the mind of God, intuitively you are claiming that these properties don’t depend on natural properties for their existence. Also, the view that moral properties are like platonic form properties seems to also have this kind of dependency relation in mind.

    (2)

    Another kind of dependency relation, however, is one where a property is metaphysically dependent on another property for its existence. Specifically, one could hold that a non-natural property (like a moral property) depends on natural properties for its existence, but these non-natural properties are not identical or reducible to these natural properties. For example, one could have this view about the mind: the mind has non-natural properties which depend on natural properties (like proper brain function) for their existence. A different kind of example which doesn’t have to do with non-natural properties could be something like this: whether or not something is a lie depends on what prior beliefs the alleged liar had, but some action being a lie can only exist if certain natural properties are instantiated in certain ways.

    Now, almost no realist believes that the first kind of dependency relation is the one which obtains for non-natural moral properties. However, it is worth pointing out that many people have *accused* realists of holding this kind of dependency relation (Warnock, G. J. (1967), Contemporary Moral Philosophy, London: MacMillan).

    Realists believe, I think, a certain kind of dependency relation which is similar to the second kind holds. This would be the following dependency relation: moral properties depend on non-natural properties (such as something like maximizing happiness) for their existence in the sense that non-natural properties *make* moral properties. However, moral properties are not reducible, or identical, to any particular natural property. In other words, non-natural properties are multiply realized. Also, these non-natural properties which make moral properties aren’t necessarily intrinsic properties, they could be relational.

    There are various ways “make” could get cashed out and what kind of non-natural properties these moral properties would be, but I don’t have the expertise to go further into that here, I’m afraid.

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  4. I also just want to agree with something that seemed to be alluded to frequently in this discussion; that realism is notoriously hard to define. The reason for this is because it is associated with 3 different views which are contrasted with anti-realism. Those 3 views are:

    Truth conditions: Moral propositions have truth conditions

    Cognitivism: Our moral judgments express beliefs.

    Success theory: What makes the proposition “lying is wrong” true is when there actually is a property or wrongness to the action of lying.

    These get mixed and matched in various ways, and most people will call themselves realists as long as they satisfy some of these. It has made the “realist” terminology a mess.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent discussion, I enjoyed it a lot! 🙂 Especially the analogies between properties of ethics and properties of math.

    I do have one question though. At the end of the discussion, Massimo argued that ethics is a game one “ought” to play due to social pressure, since the rules of ethics are agreed upon by the community. Of course, one is free to refuse to play by those rules, but then one becomes a social outcast, and they are welcome to go elsewhere and build their own community.

    My question is then the following — what happens if one does go away, builds a new community based on different rules of ethics, and then the two communities start interacting later on? That’s where the problems of ethics get interesting. For example, one society upholds the ethical rule of freedom of speech, while another society upholds the ethical rule (coming from a different ethical framework) that sacred things should not be ridiculed. And if the members of the two societies happen to live on the same territory, the Charlie Hebdo type of events are bound to happen. In such a situation, who’s to say that either group holds a moral high-ground? Each society upholds its own ethical framework, and the two frameworks happen to be very incompatible. And yet each group keeps judging the other based on their own ethical standards, refusing to acknowledge that the other group is simply playing according to a different ethical social rulebook.

    So if one refuses to play by the social rules, one does not really have a freedom to go elsewhere and build their own community — the Earth has finite territory, and different cultures are bound to clash against each other.

    While I don’t really know what Craig was arguing for/against, it seems to me that he has a point when he says that ethics cannot simply be an arbitrary rulebook with a social consensus. Instead, one needs to ground ethics in an irrational and emotional religious feeling that some rules are God-given right while others are God-given wrong. In the context of the above example, the assertion that “thou shall not kill” rule trumps the “thou shall not ridicule sanctity” rule cannot be based on reasoning, but only on irrational emotional (and ultimately religious) intuition.

    So (following Craig or otherwise) I think that the above arguments defeat interpreting ethics in terms of “obey the rules of the club if you want to be a member of the club”. When two different belief systems stand opposed to each other, talking about club membership doesn’t do justice to the seriousness of the situation, and is also completely impotent to resolve it. One really needs religion as a strong enough (irrational) foundation for ethics, or in extreme cases even religious fundamentalism.

    Am I missing something here? The purpose and application of ethics in these kind of situations is actually its raison d’etre, and yet it wasn’t discussed at all?

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Hi Philip,

    I have always liked John McCarthy’s (the inventor of LISP) take on the subject http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/robotandbaby/robotandbaby.html. I am kind of skeptical that there is anything substantial we can say about morality of non-animal machines, but it is an interesting way of unpacking what we mean by morality.

    Hi PeterJ

    I’m not of fond of video philosophy, too time consuming, but I watched the first half and found it an interesting discussion.

    I treat it as a podcast. That is not a judgement on the appearance of Dan and Massimo, just that, as you say, there is little time for sitting and watching a discussion. On the other hand if I listen rather than look I can do work around the house or listen to it while driving.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Hi Dantip,

    The reason for this is because it is associated with 3 different views which are contrasted with anti-realism. Those 3 views are:

    Truth conditions: Moral propositions have truth conditions

    Cognitivism: Our moral judgments express beliefs.

    Success theory: What makes the proposition “lying is wrong” true is when there actually is a property or wrongness to the action of lying.

    None of these really capture what moral realism means to most people. For example, moral propositions have truth conditions even in anti-realist scenarios because they are based on a moral framework, even if the framework itself is subjective. If you decide the basis for a particular system of morality is ‘maximise the well being for all sentient beings now and in the future’, then the proposition ‘we should do something about global warming’ has a truth condition.

    Moral realism would imply that there is at least one unqualified deontic proposition with an objective truth condition. I think that I have demonstrated in other discussions that this is logically possible, however it does not appear to be practically possible in this world.

    But also moral realism is a position about meaning. When we say that a parent loves his/her child we think that this entails that there is a feeling about the child.

    But since a feeling like love is a brain state which has no representative relation to the child then there is no way of saying that the state is ‘about’ the child (in the way we might say a visual mental picture of the child might be a representation), rather it is triggered by the child.

    Suppose there is a parasite in our gut which releases a chemical that makes us very hungry. We have a feeling of hunger but it is not for our benefit. We could say that we are hungry on behalf of the parasite, but we might not even know of the parasite.

    But still it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the brain state of ‘love’ stands in just the same relationship to the child as the brain state of ‘hunger’ stands in relationship to the parasite. Certainly there can be no categorical difference.

    But most parents would think that their feeling of love is about their child in quite a different way than the feeling of hunger is about the parasite.

    The nature of the difference (if there is any) between these two examples seems to be the important content of any discussion about morality.

    You could say that a child has potential to bring great joy and fulfillment to a parent. Certainly, but that still does not make the feeling about the child, rather it makes it about us Do we say that we love our children because of the joy and fulfillment they will deliver to us in return? Most parents would say that we love our children because we value them for what they are, and not for what well-being we can get out of them.

    And what if the parasite could release a chemical which made you feel great joy and fulfillment at having a parasite in your gut? Would the two cases be the same again?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Marko wrote: [O]ne needs to ground ethics in an irrational and emotional religious feeling that some rules are God-given right while others are God-given wrong. In the context of the above example, the assertion that “thou shall not kill” rule trumps the “thou shall not ridicule sanctity” rule cannot be based on reasoning, but only on irrational emotional (and ultimately religious) intuition.

    —————————————————-

    Needs for what?

    What I never understand about Craig and others is what they think they are going to *get* out of God being involved. Ultimately, if what one is worried about is the *force* of the claimed obligation — by which I mean the extent to which the claim *compels* another person to do (or not do) something — then how does God change anything?

    At the end of the day, it seems to come down to whether the person in question cares, and I don’t see how invoking God is *inherently* more likely to cause people to care than otherwise.

    One could have an entirely relativistic view, in which obligations are only relative to communities, but if the person *cares* about being a part of that community, then a credible claim of obligation will carry plenty of force, irrespective of the fact that the obligation only obtains “locally.” It is also the case that one could hold a divine command theory, in which obligations come straight from the mouth of God, but if the person in question doesn’t care about pleasing or obeying God, then the claimed obligation won’t carry any force all, regardless of its having such a “real” source.

    In the case of the person who doesn’t care, on *either* account, the only way to *compel* them to act is through force, but even there, if the person doesn’t care about pain or dying he still won’t be compelled to act.

    It almost seems as if people like Craig think that somehow, magically, if obligation has a “real” source — like God — then *claims* of obligation will automatically have force and compel. I just don’t see why that’s the case. And given that it would seem *not* to be the case, the question of the normative force of a claimed obligation — i.e. an imperative — is entirely a matter of whether the person cares about the benefits of obeying it or the costs of failing to obey it. But whether or not the imperative is understood as having a source in “reality” or not makes no difference in this regard.

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  9. I will say to those here what I would say to Richard Dawkins. If you need to straw man William Lane Craig in order to refute his arguments, then you are doing it wrong.

    There is plenty of musing about what it is that WLC might be saying rather than addressing that which he does say. If you want to comment on WLC’s opinions then bite the bullet and read what he writes. If you can’t bring yourself to do that then don’t speculate on what you think he might be saying. If you have read him and don’t understand what he says you could always email him. He seems to be very helpful in that respect and would probably keep an exchange private on request.

    There are plenty of wrong things that WLC says and you don’t need to criticise him for things he didn’t and wouldn’t say or for things that he would positively deny.

    I won’t try to speak for WLC who is quite capable of doing that himself. I am no fan myself but everyone deserves to be correctly represented.

    What most people miss, though, is that Theism, of the sort espoused by the major monotheistic religions, is not just a claim about some being that exists, but a claim about the fundamental nature of reality. Theists say that things like mind, emotion and value are the fundamental, necessary nature of reality and that physical things are just the furniture.

    A physicalist will say (I imagine) that things like empathy, compassion, pity and the concept of value exist for no other reason than that their presence increased the probability that some pattern of nucleotides predominated over others in some ancient and vanished landscape*. A Theist will say that they are part of the fundamental and necessary nature of reality.

    So a physicalist who wants to create his own values still has to do in the context that the very concept of value only came to exist to help some pattern of nucleotides predominate hundreds of thousands of years ago. So a Theist will say that value is something, not to be created, but which is there to be recognised.

    Whatever the nature of reality, we inhabit the same reality. Theists, generally, don’t think that atheists are immoral, on the contrary they gleefully point out the morality of atheists at every possible opportunity.

    The difference is that Theists consider that when atheists look for what is right, they consider that they are looking for something which is real, fundamental and necessary, rather than something that just happens to be the case because of ancient microscopic chemical events.
    _____________________
    And please, correct me if I am wrong, I would not want to be complaining about straw men and perpetrating them as well.

    (And I can’t believe I wasted a post defending William Lane Craig 🙂 )

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Aravis, Massimo,
    I can’t let the question of what constitutes ‘force’ in impelling ethical behaviors in society go without pointing out that in any society the first line of such ‘force’ is social-psychological – like peer pressure, parental guidance and discipline, ridicule and praise, etc. – which occurs in any society or culture. That’s really important, because it creates considerable problems for any rational metatheory, and for any rational-theory injunctions for social change; first because it occurs without a lot of forethought, and second because it is resiliently resistant to rational arguments for change. Assuming we value some changes, in the direction of desired futures, this makes it sound like a bad thing; but to the extent that it is inevitable, it is neither good nor bad, it just is. To the extent that it provides intergenerational stability, it helps keep the given society together.

    Drawing on recent readings in Japanese philosophy, I suspect we in the West have concentrated so much on the question of ‘what the individual should do’ and why (and during an historic transformation of Western culture that emphasizes individual choice, and responsibility), that we have blind-sided ourselves to the social pressures that allow us to inherit, maintain, and pass on any culture at all. And in turning to those pressure, we parcel them out atomistically for specialized research in a way that loses the full flavor they can only have in their collective wholeness. For instance, in ‘trolley problem’ used in psychological tests for ethical thinking, the emphasis is on how an individual responds to an atomized event. What if the question were broadened, concerning the community ethics of allowing people to work on the rails when trolleys are running? What if this is asked of a group? What if the subjects were allowed to call their parents, siblings, friends? My guess is that the results would look different from what we’ve seen so far.

    BTW, the trolley problem has a resolution that is not presented in the question; in the bridge version, rather than throwing the fat man into the line of trolley to prevent its reaching its targeted workers – throw yourself off the bridge instead. In some cultures this would be considered noble; it would probably prove as effective; and if it weren’t, you would never know. But the suggestion is rarely included in the problem’s presentation, probably because of our antipathy toward suicide, to the extent that expression of suicidal thoughts is considered a dangerous pathology, and failure to report it to authorities a crime in some states. But this is a Western perspective; in other cultures the community is considered of greater value than the individual, and the individual is expected to act accordingly.

    That raises a further question, concerning the clash of culture-in-proximity, which Marko raised, requiring further consideration. But I will note here that religion is hardly the possible resolution to it, since conflicting religions express themselves in conflicting cultural mores….

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  11. Let’s get back to these parasites in the stomach. Suppose they could release a chemical that made you care about them. So you would value having parasites in your stomach and put up with the discomfort in order to give them life.

    Would you really care about them? Is there any difference between caring for some parasites that have manipulated you to do so and caring for a community?

    Again, is there really such a thing as something having value? I mean is there a difference between having this brain state we call ‘seeing value’ and something actually having value?

    If you became aware of the way this chemical, released by the parasites, is manipulating your brain, would you continue to regard ‘seeing value in them’ as a valid reason for keeping the parasites, or would you look to have something done?

    So we know that we care for our community because the kind of social interaction that it impels increased the probability that certain patterns of nucleotides predominated over others.

    With that in mind, is “caring for the community” really any valid basis for moral action?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Robin,

    Thanks for the link to the John McCarthy story.

    I think if I were to make a moral robot I would take the “synthetic” (the new synthesis of AI+SB: artificial intelligence + synthetic biology) approach. That’s based on my predisposition to think that our morality is linked at least to some degree to our biochemical composition, and isn’t some substrate-independent thing “out there”. On the pure AI side, that’s at least a case of a field importing a lot of moral theory from philosophy.

    Like

  13. Marko,

    “what happens if one does go away, builds a new community based on different rules of ethics, and then the two communities start interacting later on?”

    Well, that has historically happened a number of times, in a sense. Different societies have emerged over time, some of them with significantly different ethical rules from others.

    “In such a situation, who’s to say that either group holds a moral high-ground?”

    Depends on which meta-ethics one subscribes to. From a virtue ethical perspective I’d say that freedom of speech is more conducive to flourishing than a blind respect for “sacred” things, so I’d argue that the first society is more virtuous than the second one.

    “While I don’t really know what Craig was arguing for/against, it seems to me that he has a point when he says that ethics cannot simply be an arbitrary rulebook with a social consensus”

    That’s right, it isn’t. Ethics has to do with communal living among human beings, so it is affected by the specifics of human nature.

    “some rules are God-given right while others are God-given wrong”

    Plato took care of that in the Euthyphro, which of course people like Craig deny.

    “One really needs religion as a strong enough (irrational) foundation for ethics, or in extreme cases even religious fundamentalism. Am I missing something here? The purpose and application of ethics in these kind of situations is actually its raison d’etre, and yet it wasn’t discussed at all?”

    Again, see the Euthyphro, which is why I think religion is a dead end in this context. Even if gods exist (Plato was no atheist).

    ej,

    “Drawing on recent readings in Japanese philosophy, I suspect we in the West have concentrated so much on the question of ‘what the individual should do’ and why (and during an historic transformation of Western culture that emphasizes individual choice, and responsibility), that we have blind-sided ourselves to the social pressures that allow us to inherit, maintain, and pass on any culture at all.”

    Agreed. But this focus on the individual is actually very recent even in Western history, a product of the Enlightenment, really, and not a particularly good one.

    “the trolley problem has a resolution that is not presented in the question; in the bridge version, rather than throwing the fat man into the line of trolley to prevent its reaching its targeted workers – throw yourself off the bridge instead”

    That solution is precluded by the thought experiment, which usually explicitly says that one cannot sacrifice oneself. That’s because the objective is to see how one regards *others* in an ethical context. Of course, if we did allow that option, it would be interesting to see how many people would *claim* that they would throw themselves in front of the trolley, vs how many people would actually do it. Then again, that particular experiment would be unethical, I suspect…

    Robin,

    “Is there any difference between caring for some parasites that have manipulated you to do so and caring for a community?”

    I would think so, since you are a member of that community, and you benefit from communal living. You don’t, by definition, benefit from your parasite.

    “is there really such a thing as something having value? I mean is there a difference between having this brain state we call ‘seeing value’ and something actually having value?”

    I’m not sure what you mean. “Value” is something we attach to things, not something things have in themselves. And of course everything we do is the result of our brain processing certain types of information, so yeah, it’s the result of a brain state. But such reductionism is unhelpful, since then you wouldn’t be able to make sense of why we make certain choices and value certain things: all of those activities are equally the result of our brain.

    “is “caring for the community” really any valid basis for moral action?”

    Yes, though this caring is motivated by the fact that you are a part of that community, benefiting from it. What other basis would one have for moral action?

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Thanks to both of you for another excellent discussion.

    Massimo, I’m a little confused about your argument here. I was delighted to see this video appear, because I’d just reread your excellent 2011 review of Harris’s Moral Landscape, and I was surprised to notice that you wrote;

    “Let me first begin by making clear that there is much about which Harris and I agree. We are both moral realists, i.e. we believe that moral questions do have non-arbitrary answers, though our realism is, as will be clear in a moment, of a very different nature.”

    Here you say you are an antirealist about morality, which I’d understood to be your view before. Have you changed your view, and if so, why is that? Or is it a matter of using different senses of realism, or what?

    A second point; you both use a definition of real objects as “mind independent”. Your usage seems to imply that no institutional object can be real; for instance money, political office, natural languages. All of these exist only by virtue of an agreement between minds, yet aren’t they real? Your example of the invention of chess seems to regard chess as objective but not real? Is that correct? In which case you are an anti-realist about money, Congress and French?

    I’m thinking about Searle’s examination of social ontology. He describes his project as in his second book on the topic “Making the Social World” as explaining “how is it possible that we have factual objective knowledge of a reality that that is created by subjective opinion?”

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  15. Surprising as this may seem, I pretty much agree entirely with where Dan and Massimo ended up in the video, though I’d word things a little differently at one point.

    First, I agree with them in rejecting moral realism (as they defined it). Indeed, I think they were too easy on the theists: Morality “in the mind of God” does not give moral realism since it is not mind-independent.

    So the more important issue here is moral objectivity. Massimo uses a chess analogy, and argues that if we agree the rules of the “moral game”, then we have moral objectivity.

    I would agree, but would argue that if the rules of chess or of the “moral game” only exist by agreement amongst humans, then the rules are not mind-independent, and therefore the scheme overall is subjective not objective. So the question is whence the rules?

    Massimo also says that human nature is not arbitrary, and that we have strong constraints on our nature from our evolutionary heritage. Again, I agree.

    So Massimo then gave the “geometry” analogy, saying that, given human nature, some “rules of the game” will match human nature, whereas others won’t. Again, I agree, though noting that that is a descriptive statement, not a normative one.

    From there, Dan and Massimo proceed to the idea that “normativity” in morality amounts to statements of the form: “if you want to live in a flourishing society then …”.

    The “normative force” is then practical, and the sanctions for violation are also practical. Effectively they are how other humans will react.

    Again, I entirely agree. That’s why evolution programmed us with moral feelings, to facilitate and police cooperative behaviour among humans, enabling us to exploit our highly cooperative and social ecological niche.

    All of the above is descriptive. It is also subjective, in that the rules of the game are collective social agreements, deriving from human minds.

    Further, the “normative force” element comes from how other humans will react. It comes down to whether other humans like or dislike your behaviour. This is the very epitome of a subjective scheme of morality.

    The phrase “you should do X” is then a declaration by the speaker that “I would like it if you did X”. Or it means, given human nature, and how other humans will like or dislike your behaviour, and thus given how other humans will react, if you want a flourishing and harmonious society, then the course of action that will achieve that is … ”.

    I would only disagree with Massimo over whether this can be labelled an “objective morality”. It is objective given the rules of the game, but the rules of the game derive from human feelings, values and emotions, and thus the scheme is subjective.

    It is, though, true that the reasons we have those subjective feelings, values and emotions then trace back to objective facts about our heritage.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Robin: I don’t know that I caricatured Craig. I said that people *like* him advance moral realism, in part because they are concerned that without it, moral imperatives will not have the requisite force. I think that’s true of him — and people like him — in part because I have watched *many* of his debates (including his debate with Massimo) — and he says this sort of thing.

    As I said in my response to Marko above, however, I don’t see how God helps. When we talk about the the “normative force” of an imperative, what are we talking about? It’s capacity to compel action. And as I said before, I don’t see how saying the imperative comes from God *inherently* is any more compelling that saying that it comes from society. In either case, the imperative will only have the requisite force *if* one cares about obeying the source, *whatever* source that may be.

    You say that for Craig this is a matter of God being “necessary” and that moral truths are a necessary feature of the universe. He may think this, but I don’t see how it helps either. To say that a statement is necessary — and it is statements to which modal operators apply, not things — is simply to say that it is true in all possible worlds. Thus, if Craig is correct, the statement “God exists” is true in all possible worlds and if “x is wrong” is necessary, then it is true in all possible worlds. So what? How does this fact give these statements any more force than before? If we imagine a person who doesn’t care about obeying God, how does the statement that God and morality are “necessary” compel him any more than if they are not?

    Gwarner:

    Even though your comment is directed towards Massimo, let me just say a thing or two.

    The idea of “mind independence” as I understand it, is largely an Enlightenment inspired way of construing Realism. When Hume asks, in “Skepticism with Regard to the Senses,” whether an object like a chair continues to exist, when no one is perceiving it, he describes that view as the belief in “the distinct and continued existence” of that object. What is understood is a kind of indepdence of human perception. This is contrasted with properties like colors or smells which, in traditional empiricist epistemology, are perception-dependent and only exist in the mind of the perceiver.

    In the 20th century, when everything went linguistic, this idea of realism was cashed out in terms of “conceptual scheme independence” — i.e. the idea that to say that something *really* exists is to say that its existence is not dependent on a conceptual scheme. Nelson Goodman is a classic example of an anti-realist, in this sense.

    But this all becomes messed up when one wants to distinguish between Realism and Objectivism, and one can see why one might want too. Certainly the US currency has an *objective* existence, but does it exist independently of our conceptual schemes? Of course not. And what about something like an Aristotelian virtue? As I said in the discussion, once we establish certain features of a context — it is a just war, my enemy is villainous and dangerous, etc — rushing this group of people with a gun is clearly courageous. That would seem to be *objectively* true. But is courage, as a virtue, “real” in the sense of mind-independence or conceptual dependance? It would seem obviously not — how can it be real in that sense if it only obtains relative to various contexts (not to mention, to our activity of valuation)?

    I am not suggesting that there are no problems in making the realism/objectivism distinction. I am only giving some reasons why one would *want* to make it.

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  17. Hi Massimo,

    Yes, though this caring is motivated by the fact that you are a part of that community, benefiting from it. What other basis would one have for moral action?

    I just don’t think that this is what most people mean by caring or morality.

    There are many, many people who are part of our community and benefiting from it who don’t care about it, unless the ice dealer, the loan shark, the money men getting rich off the misery of others can be considered to be caring for their community.

    On the other hand there are people who do not do well from the community, the poverty stricken for example, who nevertheless care for their community.

    The way most people use the word, caring for the community is not just about benefiting from it but wanting to have the benefit accrue to as many in the community as practical.

    I’m not sure what you mean. “Value” is something we attach to things, not something things have in themselves.

    That may be the case, but, again, I don’t think that is how most people understand the word

    I think that most people would consider that we attach value to a thing because there are properties of the thing worth valuing.

    In my gut parasite example we attach value to the gut parasite because a chemical secreted causes us to attach that brain state to it. But I don’t think that most people would consider this the same as valuing our children. Most people would think that the child is actually worth valuing.

    And I don’t think that we would consider our children worth valuing because of the benefit we could derive from them.

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  18. Hi DanK and Massimo, that was a very enjoyable discussion. You set out very well why I am an anti-realist and critical of deontological/consequentialist moral theories, while supporting approaches from virtue ethics.

    It was interesting to see how you developed the idea that moral theories do not require moral realism for their judgments to have (objective) validity and force.

    Now for some challenges…

    1) I was not wholly satisfied with the argument that “naturalism” would not constitute a form of realism. As long as the idea is that nature sets up conditions where there are moral facts for us (whether as living, conscious, or human beings) independent of what we might think or wish locally, then that seems like external rules or truths that are roughly equivalent to theistic based rules or truths. If the watchmaker is blind, the watch must still operate on certain principles. The only difference would be that gods can reveal the rules, while naturalist accounts would require empirical support. This does not undercut of course the point that realism is not necessary, appeals to nature can reveal objectively useful/valid if not “true” rules, I just think that there nontheistic versions of realism are available.

    2) As a moral relativist, I didn’t see how “objective” accounts get anyone past moral relativism. Perhaps I am wrong but that seemed to be what you were suggesting. A relativist can agree that given specific (well-defined) desired ends and existent conditions, certain choices will make more sense than others.

    3) I recently watched a lecture by Jesse Prinz on moral relativism, which I liked and largely agreed with. I am an unabashed moral relativist (well… subjectivist). While this was not mentioned in his lecture, Massimo brings up Jesse’s scepticism regarding human nature. Massimo rejects this but then I would like to understand what Massimo means by human nature? I broke this down in a previous thread, but in short if human nature means the way we behave, rather than common interests and dispositions, then I (as a biologist) agree with Jesse that there is no human nature to speak of. At best, diversity of behaviour seems to be the only hallmark of human nature.

    4) In discussing the force behind moral obligations (from now on “moral force”), you seemed to bypass what I consider moral force, replacing it with practical forces: physical (will it work to achieve X) and social (will I be allowed to do A and/or to achieve X). As an anti-realist I wholly agree that these are forces worth considering (and basically the only ones we get that are based on objective, external “truth” claims). But it seems clear people can and do concern themselves with right and wrong (and are motivated to act on such feelings) regardless of practical concerns. I’ll unpack this in a second post.

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  19. Hi DanK/Aravis (how do you prefer to be addressed?), point four of my first reply argues that you and Massimo bypassed what I consider moral force. This charge can be suitably unpacked based on your (excellent) reply to Marclavesque’s reply (which I also liked), asking what William Lane Craig expects God to deliver beyond the same considerations available to the nontheist.

    It is true that a believer can act out of practical considerations, whether physical (that their action will not work given the nature of the world God has created) or personal (how others around them will react, including God). But these are not synonymous with moral considerations.

    The difference between these can be easily demonstrated. Taking the normal Kantian reductio, one’s consideration if it is “right” to lie to protect people in your home, or to hide them in the first place, does not boil down to practical considerations if it will work, or if you will be punished for doing so. Indeed lying being “right” in that case should stand even if it is unlikely to work and one is likely to be punished, right? If so, there must be another value in play. The presence of a third consideration becomes more explicit when the example is changed such that everything will work and you are unlikely to feel social repercussions but you choose not to do something because it is felt to be “wrong.” Using a gaming example/analogy, what prevents one from cheating at solitaire? And if one does what makes one feel bad afterward?

    It is correct that the force of any obligation comes from within oneself (I don’t think Craig would deny this). But the moral truth claim underlying it does not come from within. That is you can decide not to play by God’s rules, or in any case not feel any obligation to follow them. But that is the same as choosing not to follow the rules of solitaire. One is objectively defying the actual rules if one does not. One is playing solitaire “wrong”, even if one would “win” and if no one would hurt you for doing so. If one feels like playing the game by the objectively true rules then one becomes obligated (to oneself) to follow the rules.

    What God delivers (to believers) are the objectively true rules of moral conduct for the world. I know Euthyphro is waiting in the wings, but I don’t think it holds in this case since that expects moral rules of the created world to apply to its creator. There is no logical need for that to be the case. Things are good in this world based on what God says because he created it. It is his game. Designers get to do that.

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  20. dbholmes:

    Address me anyway you like. I don’t have a preference.

    I’m not sure if we disagree on the issue of force. What we mean by the normative force of a moral imperative is its capacity to compel. Kant, famously, believed that only moral imperatives have categorical force — that is, compel unconditionally. Theists believe that God given commands compel unconditionally.

    What I am asking is “in what sense do they compel unconditionally”? And my answer is — they don’t. One cannot compel another to act, although one could forcibly move someone’s limbs. Certainly, one cannot compel another to act, simply by way of uttering sentences.

    One acts if one cares to, and my point just is that one can both care/not care to act, regardless of whether the statement “you ought to do such-and-such” comes from God, society, or a Platonic reality.

    I *think* that many moral realists are moral realists because *they* think that if one is a moral realist, one’s imperatives carry more normative force than if one is an anti-realist. The point I’ve been making is that I see no reason to think this is the case.

    I *do* agree that if moral realism is true — and certainly, if, say Christian theism is true — then there is only one true set of moral imperatives, but this has nothing to do with the question of the source of the *force* of those imperatives when deployed.

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  21. Aravis

    “It is correct that the force of any obligation comes from within oneself (I don’t think Craig would deny this). But the moral truth claim underlying it does not come from within.”

    I would mostly agree with your comments here but would say that this particular thought is a mistake. You assume that there is a ‘without’ and a ‘within’ but some would deny this. Where it is denied ethics becomes a very different beast indeed.

    The point has been made a few times that if we are a Realist then an existent God does not help us much since we can simply ignore Him if we wish. We would still have to explain why we feel (if we do) an ethical imperative to take any notice of His wishes (as if God could have wishes).

    Schopenhauer explains altruism as the breakthrough of a metaphysical truth. No mention of God, just the idea that at some level (what he calls his ‘better consciousness’) we are aware of the shared identity of sentient beings, This allows the distinction between selfishness and unselfishness to be ‘sublated’ or reduced and then ethics ceases to be a question of ‘oughts’ and imperatives but one of simply behaving in ones own best interests, which would naturally coincide with the interests of others.

    If this ‘metaphysical truth’ spoken of by Schopenhauer is a living reality for us and not merely a conjectural theory then our behaviour can be spontaneous, free of rules and social habits and almost free of calculation, and yet be fully ‘ethical’ and always the best choice for the greater good. This takes us very close to Massimo’s Stoicism but for me Stoicism fails to explain its own ethical scheme as well as Schopenhauer in that one sentence. It would more obviously be the Zen approach, where the ethical system is grounded in Nagarjuna’s ontology or, if we are down the road far enough, in our own knowledge. .

    At any rate, it would be the goal for many meditative practitioners to end any worries about ethics and to respond spontaneously to situations guided by a deep knowledge of what the situation actually is, from a metaphysical level on upwards. After all, we don’t need a complex ethical scheme to stop ourselves behaving badly towards ourselves, we just have to have some common sense.

    I appreciate that this takes us into a very different way of thinking about ethics and that it will not appeal to those who see mysticism as being all about flying spaghetti monsters, but it seems an error not to examine this view since it does actually work.

    It cannot get off the ground, however, if we reify the distinction between ‘within’ and without’.

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  22. A few notes.

    1. I agree with Aravis on the use of god. As secularists have long noted, if you have to ultimately appeal to god that way, you’ve lost the moral argument. Besides, this gets into the whole Euthyphro dilemma.

    Note: I actually had a (former) FB friend, a process theology type, studying at Harvard Div no less, who claimed Euthyphro applied only to the Greek gods of Plato’s day, and not to the Ground of Being. (sigh) As with other people who invoke such things, ultimately, just as with the William Lane Craig types, you can either risk a Gish Gallop, or you just walk away. Massimo notes this in his first response, and of course has had the “pleasure” of a debate, or a “debate,” with Craig before.

    This relates to EJ Winner, I think. Religion is often the final “big stick” of that socio-psychological pressure. If not religion, then extremist ideologies.

    2. Coel yes, it’s subjective as well as descriptive. But, there are degrees of subjectivity. To the degree ev psych has legit things to say about human nature (setting aside the use of the word “programmed”), we can’t mathematically say “95 percent of humans” (or whatever significant factor you want, etc.) will hold to common moral chess rules, but, more informally, we can agree to something in that ballpark.

    3. Massimo on his note to Marko: If one doesn’t subscribe to any particular school of ethics, doesn’t that skew how meta-ethics comes into play?

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  23. Hi DanK, I should say the disagreement (if we have one) is small. My “challenges” to your and Massimo’s arguments/positions are really blowing up/zooming in on small differences (with the exception of maybe human nature).

    Perhaps I was giving Kantians and Theists more credit than they deserve? I agreed with your statement…

    What we mean by the normative force of a moral imperative is its capacity to compel. Kant, famously, believed that only moral imperatives have categorical force — that is, compel unconditionally. Theists believe that God given commands compel unconditionally.

    …with one exception, or rather I assumed that they would both allow for one exception: people who lack the desire to do what is right. With such a desire in place (which I would call a moral desire) then the revelation of the “true” rules, whether rationally proven or deistically revealed, would naturally compel one without any other conditions.

    I had reserved this one exception, perhaps in part because I feel (like you) that it all comes from inside and tried working to save their ideas using this perspective, but mainly because they would still have to account for people who defied the rules, even if they were explicitly true. Perhaps Kant would not believe anyone could deny his truths, but the Bible is filled with people (from the start) denying moral truths. The existence of evil and the concept of free will held by most theists seems to require this exception.

    At least this is the reasoning which led me to the position I have.

    I *think* that many moral realists are moral realists because *they* think that if one is a moral realist, one’s imperatives carry more normative force than if one is an anti-realist. The point I’ve been making is that I see no reason to think this is the case.

    I agree with the first sentence completely, and the second almost completely.

    Zooming in on the difference, the normative forces (as you guys broke them down) appeared limited to practical concerns. I was trying to argue that there is a third concern, which is “purely” moral. People can have a feeling that something is “right” or “wrong” to the point of following that feeling, regardless of how such actions are impacted by the practical concerns discussed.

    If that is indeed an additional dimension/component to the normative force a person might experience, then moral realists have an arguable point that if there are “true” rules, and they are known, imperatives might carry more force because that moral feeling/component has traction (meets truth conditions equal to the practical concerns). Otherwise it is just a feeling that can (and perhaps should) be ignored given the other concerns. Hopefully that distinction makes more sense? Granted, if the existence of “true” rules cannot be proven, then imperatives coming from that quarter (no matter how enthusiastic the theist’s declarations) don’t have added force.

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  24. Massimo and Dan K.,
    Interesting discussion, though I would have like to have heard more on the topic of ethical truth and how you each meet standard objections to your ethical non-realism.
    I’m probably one of the commenters Dan K. had in mind as having a history of “hammering” on moral realism on this forum. As such, by “moral realism,” I’ve meant the view that there’s a reality to ethics that is independent of human agreement. I see this position as implying moral objectivism.
    In fact, I take “moral realism” and “moral objectivism” to be roughly equivalent in that I find it difficult to think up a coherent position that would differentiate them. Could there be an ethical reality that doesn’t support true and objective claims about it? Conversely, could ethical claims be objectively true if there were no reality to ethics beyond human agreement?
    Note with regard to objectivity that ethics differs from chess in that while the objectivity of the latter rests on definitions that were once a matter of arbitrary stipulation, ethics would be pointless if its definitions were just a matter of arbitrary stipulation. The point here is that we can’t claim objectivity for ethics on a mere definitional basis as in the case of chess if ethics is to be meaningful; such objectivity would have to imply some kind of ethical reality.
    Returning to the notion ethical reality, while I take ethical reality to be independent of human agreement, I do not take it to be independent of language or minds. Language and minds are part of objective reality and they are part of ethical reality. The fact that mind- and language-dependent facts can be objective might be something missed by some opponents of moral realism. The notion that ethics somehow exists independently of minds is in my view too ridiculous to be part of the meaning of “moral realism.”
    The dependence of ethics on language is perhaps more interesting than its dependence on minds. We need a conceptual framework to be ethical players at all, and any such framework is inseparable from language. The essentialness of language to ethical reality is evident in the fact that whether an act is wrong may depend on intent, and the contents of intents are at least shaped by language.
    This relates to a kind of ethical relativism that I do subscribe to; this might be called “linguistic relativism.” To explain, I believe that our language frames our ethical outlook, in a basic way at least, and that different languages can ground different but equally valid ethical outlooks; that is, though conceptually different, different languages can equally instance ethical truth. It’s for this reason that I’m fond of the phrase “our ethical language.”
    As a final point, as Massimo noted, virtue ethics, though focusing on the ethical life, is not free of concern regarding moral realism and other meta-ethical issues. The way I understand this is that meta-ethics is focused on the predicate

    (word limit. the rest following)

    Liked by 1 person

  25. (continued)

    level of ethical language, which applies to ways of life as much as it applies to actions. Just as an action can be ethically wrong, so can a way of life. In seeking the ethically best way of life, the concern as to whether there’s any truth of the matter whether any life is ethically better than any other is as fundamental as that with regard to actions.
    To me it seems that if there is no truth of the matter (or reality of the matter) regarding which lives are more ethical, virtue ethics is nonsensical. This is an example of the kind of objection to moral non-realism that I alluded to at the beginning.

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  26. gwarner,

    “Let me first begin by making clear that there is much about which Harris and I agree. We are both moral realists … Here you say you are an antirealist about morality, which I’d understood to be your view before. Have you changed your view, and if so, why is that? Or is it a matter of using different senses of realism, or what?”

    I think it is partly that my ideas about morality have changed over the last few years, and partly that I’ve become more careful with the terminology. I take “Realism” to be an ontological (not just an epistemic) position, and just as I changed my mind about mathematical Platonism for similar reasons: I just can’t wrap my mind around what it means to say that moral and mathematical truths are “out there” or “mind independent” (which, as Dan/Aravis has pointed out, is a recent, post-Enlightenment concept). This issue, however, is quite independent of whether statements about ethics (and certainly about mathematics) are objective. I think they are, as long as one begins with a certain number of assumptions, assumptions that depend on one’s ethical framework.

    “you both use a definition of real objects as “mind independent”. Your usage seems to imply that no institutional object can be real; for instance money, political office, natural languages”

    Excellent question. Well, I don’t think that institutional objects are real in the sense of being mind independent: without human minds there would be no money, no political office, no language. But once these are in place, a number of characteristics are “evoked” (to use Smolin’s terminology that he applied to mathematical objects: https://goo.gl/d9dk0k) and we can discuss them in an objective fashion.

    Coel,

    “but would argue that if the rules of chess or of the “moral game” only exist by agreement amongst humans, then the rules are not mind-independent”

    That’s why, like all virtue ethics, I bring in human nature, which — unlike the rules of chess — is not arbitrary (though of course it is the contingent result of a natural evolutionary process, i.e., it isn’t logically necessary, or a universal law).

    “All of the above is descriptive. It is also subjective”

    That’s where we part ways. If human nature imposes constraints on ethical reasoning, then the latter is not subjective. Yes, some things that some cultures count as “moral” aren’t really. But the crucial ones (like, don’t murder people) are. As for the descriptive part, once one moves from natural moral instincts to motivated reasoning of the If…Then type one is into prescriptive territory. Of course this means that moral imperatives are conditional, not absolute, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t prescriptive.

    By analogy, think again of the rules of a game: they are prescriptive, not descriptive, even though they are entirely arbitrary (which moral rules aren’t, again).

    “the “normative force” element comes from how other humans will react. It comes down to whether other humans like or dislike your behaviour. This is the very epitome of a subjective scheme of morality.”

    Yes to the first part, no to the second one. Of course the normative force comes from other humans, morality is a way to regulate social human interactions. That’s why we have laws. But given the above, it should be clear that this isn’t just a matter of like or dislike.

    “The phrase “you should do X” is then a declaration by the speaker that “I would like it if you did X”. Or it means, given human nature, and how other humans will like or dislike your behaviour, and thus given how other humans will react, if you want a flourishing and harmonious society, then the course of action that will achieve that is”

    I see a *huge* difference between what comes before and after your “or.”

    “I would only disagree with Massimo over whether this can be labelled an “objective morality”. It is objective given the rules of the game, but the rules of the game derive from human feelings, values and emotions, and thus the scheme is subjective.”

    I thought I very clearly said that objectivity comes from the rules of the games, but, again, those rules are not subjective, they are contingent (on the specifics of human nature).

    Robin,

    “There are many, many people who are part of our community and benefiting from it who don’t care about it, unless the ice dealer, the loan shark, the money men getting rich off the misery of others can be considered to be caring for their community”

    True. I would call those people immoral. Certainly from a virtue ethical perspective they would be.

    “On the other hand there are people who do not do well from the community, the poverty stricken for example, who nevertheless care for their community.”

    Yes, sorry that was poor phrasing on my part. I meant to convey the idea that morality is an inherently social phenomenon, so it’s about people caring for a community, not just deriving benefits from it.

    “I think that most people would consider that we attach value to a thing because there are properties of the thing worth valuing.”

    I’m not sure we disagree on this, since we are still the ones deciding which properties are worth valuing. Gold, by itself, has no value. But once human beings decided that they like rare metals it does acquire value. Even a somewhat objective one, determined by market forces (once we agree on establishing markets with certain characteristics).

    holmes,

    “I was not wholly satisfied with the argument that “naturalism” would not constitute a form of realism. As long as the idea is that nature sets up conditions where there are moral facts for us (whether as living, conscious, or human beings) independent of what we might think or wish locally, then that seems like external rules or truths that are roughly equivalent to theistic based rules or truths”

    Good question. The reason I don’t think naturalism gets you realism is because the moral instinct, let’s call it, is only the beginning of a pre-reflexive type of morality (which we share with other primates). It then takes reasoned reflection to move from there and build on it. And that immediately means you are leaving any hope for realism behind.

    Let me give you an example: for the Stoics (with whose virtue ethical philosophy I am most acquainted, as you probably know) thought that we have a natural attachment to ourselves and to our immediate family (say, our children). They thought this is a good starting point to arrive at what they termed “cosmopolitanism,” or caring for the all of humanity. You get from natural attachment to cosmopolitanism by reason, not by natural instincts only.

    “A relativist can agree that given specific (well-defined) desired ends and existent conditions, certain choices will make more sense than others.”

    I guess it depends on what one mean by relativism. If you mean that given certain facts about human nature, and certain reasoned arguments, then it is objectively better to behave in one way or another, yes. But I doubt relativists would go for that sort of thing. My favorite example o relativism is etiquette, where there really is no rhyme or reason to any of the rules, they are entirely arbitrary. This is not the case, I argue, for ethics.

    “Massimo brings up Jesse’s scepticism regarding human nature. Massimo rejects this but then I would like to understand what Massimo means by human nature?”

    This is a a complex issue, which I have treated elsewhere (e.g., https://goo.gl/pqRRg3). But I just don’t get it when biologists, and especially philosophers these days, deny the existence of human nature. I hope it’s clear that nobody is suggesting some sort of essentialism here. But is there a set of physical and behavioral characteristics that are common to humanity and distinguish it from other primates, qua biological species? If one denies that one has no understanding of basic biology, seems to me. We can have a good and spirited discussion about human universals, the degree of variation within those universals, etc., but to deny their existence outright seems to me very strange.

    “you seemed to bypass what I consider moral force, replacing it with practical forces: physical (will it work to achieve X) and social (will I be allowed to do A and/or to achieve X)”

    That’s why I am not a realist about morality: there is no such force independent of biology and culture.

    “But it seems clear people can and do concern themselves with right and wrong (and are motivated to act on such feelings) regardless of practical concerns”

    But social forces aren’t always concerned with practical stuff. Indeed, we built an entire civilization over the past several millennia largely on things that aren’t “practical” in the sense of being directly related to our survival and reproduction. Like Scientia Salon, for instance.

    Socratic,

    “If one doesn’t subscribe to any particular school of ethics, doesn’t that skew how meta-ethics comes into play?”

    I don’t think that’s possible. People do have moral frameworks, whether they realize it or not. Some people naturally behave like utilitarians, other like deontologists (especially if they have been brought up within one of the Abrahamic religions), other like virtue ethicists. That’s why I think it’s important to study ethics: to make explicit to yourself how you implicitly think about it, and maybe modify your stance according to your own reflections.

    Paolini,

    “I take “moral realism” and “moral objectivism” to be roughly equivalent in that I find it difficult to think up a coherent position that would differentiate them”

    As it should be clear by now, I reject that position. The example of chess should make it clear how one cal have arbitrary (anti-real) rules which nonetheless, once agreed upon, evoke objective properties. (Again, the difference with ethics is that some of the rules are actually derived from the facts of human nature, so they are not entirely arbitrary.)

    “Note with regard to objectivity that ethics differs from chess in that while the objectivity of the latter rests on definitions that were once a matter of arbitrary stipulation, ethics would be pointless if its definitions were just a matter of arbitrary stipulation”

    Yes, which is why virtue ethicists bring in human nature.

    “The notion that ethics somehow exists independently of minds is in my view too ridiculous to be part of the meaning of “moral realism.””

    But I take that to be what a number of moral realist mean, in analogy with mathematical Platonism.

    “I believe that our language frames our ethical outlook, in a basic way at least, and that different languages can ground different but equally valid ethical outlooks”

    Interesting take, but I think it goes against the empirical evidence. Different cultures, with different languages, have developed very similar types of ethical framework (e.g., the “virtue ethical” character of Confucianism).

    “To me it seems that if there is no truth of the matter (or reality of the matter) regarding which lives are more ethical, virtue ethics is nonsensical”

    But it all depends on what you mean by “fact of the matter.” As I said, for me the pertinent facts concern biological/social human nature, on which we then elaborate and complexify things by way of critical reflection. But if by facts you mean something like the existence of a planet out there, no, there are no such facts to be had in ethics. And if you mean something like mathematical facts, then I remind you to my summary of Smolin’s take on the nature of mathematics, linked to above.

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  27. Well, this is turning into a really outstanding discussion, with some very good questions being posed.

    I should say that I found this the most difficult of all the dialogues Massimo and I have done thus far, partly because there are so many potentially plausible positions on the map and partly because of the difficulties of disambiguation.

    The comments have gotten complicated enough and are coming from several quarters, so I don’t think I can adequately respond, person by person, question by question, as Massimo has (incredibly) done. Instead, I will try to speak to a number of points that a number of people have raised:

    1. On objective/subjective. By ‘subjective’ is commonly meant “individual perceiver/thinker relative.” Thus, whether or not Cara Delevingne is beautiful is subjective, while the rules of chess are not.

    2. By ‘real’ is commonly understood perceiver/conceiver — i.e. mind — independent. Something is real, in this sense, if it is neither a human construct, nor something that only exists relative to a particular conceptual scheme or framework. Thus, for someone like Massimo, our currency, though objective, is not real, while the planet Mercury is both objective *and* real. *I* unlike Massimo — and like Nelson Goodman — am thoroughgoing anti-realist. I don’t think *anything* is real in this sense, because I believe that ontological claims, made independently of frames of reference, are essentially ill-formed. (One cannot ask “external questions,” as Carnap put it in “Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology.”) And I hope to do a future dialogue with him on the subject.

    3. I *do* think that that life is much harder for the person, for whom claims of objectivity and reality diverge, and I think that this is at the heart of some of the questions people are pressing and especially dbholmes, with his question about nature. Since I am, at heart, a lazy hedonist, I am happy that I am an antirealist and therefore, have no such problems. However, I will try to help friends like Massimo, when I can. 😉

    4. With regard to Massimo’s change, re: moral realism, it should be applauded. I am sick and tired of philosophers who behave like dogmatists. And given the trickiness of the objectivist/realist distinction, it takes time and a lot of thought to work out a position the way Massimo has. Clearly, his virtue ethicism (is that a word?) crystalized his thoughts on the matter, insofar as the virtues are some of the clearest examples of things that one might construe as objective, but not real.

    Liked by 3 people

  28. Dear Massimo,

    I think we are pretty much in agreement. We use the different words “subjective” and “objective”, but I suggest that we are doing so owing to labelling different parts of the scheme. In an attempt to clarify, here are some stages:

    (1) We have an extensive evolutionary heritage, based on historical contingency. This is objective.

    (2) As a result of (1) we are programmed with feelings. Some are aesthetic feelings, others are (essentially) aesthetic feelings about how humans interact with each other, and we call these “moral” feelings. None of these are arbitrary, they are “human nature”, which is substantially influenced by (1).

    These feelings (being mind states) are subjective, even though the reasons we have those feelings are non-arbitrary and objective.

    [For example, children usually prefer sweet (nutritious) foods over bitter (often poisonous) foods, and we like loyalty and comradeship and dislike stealing and treachery because evolution has programmed us for a cooperative ecological niche.]

    (3) We develop our feelings into an “ethical framework”. This framework derives from our moral feelings (2), but influenced by reason, experience, and society. This ethical framework is “subjective” since it is dependent on (2), the moral-feeling mind states.

    Saying it is “subjective” is not saying it is arbitrary; it derives substantially from human nature and our evolutionary heritage so will be anything but arbitrary.

    (4) Given human nature and the ethical-framework (3), certain consequences follow objectively. If you want to get on with your fellow humans, various prescriptions follow. If you want society to flourish, moral prescriptions follow. All of (4) follows objectively, given (3).

    (5) The “normative force” is opprobrium from fellow humans. If you violate moral norms, you’ll likely suffer social ostracisation or worse.

    The normative force is also ones own internal feelings, ones conscience [which is a protective mechanism programmed by evolution. If you walked on a cliff top your brain would be warning “this could get you killed”; if you walked up to a lion your brain would be warning “this could get you eaten”; and if you stole some money your brain would be warning “this is not what you should be doing, and could get you into trouble”].

    When you (Massimo) use the term “objective” about morality you are talking about stage (4): Given the ethical framework, moral prescriptions follow objectively.

    I concur, but when I use the term “subjective” I am applying it to stage (2), the mind states, from which the ethical framework (3) and thence (4) derive. Thus, perhaps, there is no actual difference between us.

    I call myself a moral “subjectivist” since, to me, moral judgements are, at root, emotions and feelings, akin to aesthetic judgements. Moral normativity comes from human values and preferences.

    This seems to me the clearest distinction with moral realism in which moral normativity is independent of human values and feelings. But, as I said, I don’t think we are disagreeing on anything except which parts of the overall scheme we are emphasizing.

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  29. Massimo, I’m with you on rejecting moral realism, especially in the way you frame it to pmpaolini. I agree that. First, if there’s a moral reality “out there” in a Platonic sense, we can’t apprehend Plato’s “Good” any more than Plato’s “Table,” so it’s irrelevant.

    And, I think even weaker forms, as in running Plato through a language filter, are also irrelevant, or not sensical.

    All we can do is, per your statement, and my “95 percent” reply to Coel, say is that, here’s what the great majority of humans, enough for us to at least informally and perhaps quasi-formally, call “human nature,” believe is moral about Situation X or Action Y and go from there.

    Agreed that the rules of the game, whether chess or other games, are prescriptive not descriptive, once parties involved agree to accept them and say, “We are playing Game X.” That includes any arbitrary games, as you note.

    On the meta-ethics, yes, generally people do have moral frameworks. However, I consider mine to be generally eclectic in terms of the three big schools. Something like “do not murder” is so much an ingrained stance that it’s quasi-Kantian. However, most stuff “below” that, I’m definitely not a deontologist.

    But, on more everyday things, I may sometimes, either consciously or not, approach them more from a virtue ethics stance, and at other times from a more utilitarian stance.

    That’s what I’m getting at. It’s not that we don’t generally have ethical lodestones we’ve developed within ourselves. Rather, it’s that I think they’re usually too eclectic to shoehorn into one or another ethical theory.

    So, I probably should say that I don’t reject meta-ethics, but rather, I think philosophers talking about meta-ethics should take what I just wrote into more consideration. In other words, meta-ethics probably should do more to took at ethics from a bottom-up, inductive approach.

    Like Hume would. ☺

    Liked by 1 person

  30. Folks, sorry for late response. There are way more comments than I am able to read at this point, so I’ll just respond to Aravis and Massimo…

    Aravis,

    At the end of the day, it seems to come down to whether the person in question cares, and I don’t see how invoking God is *inherently* more likely to cause people to care than otherwise.

    Invoking God certainly *is* more likely to cause people, or at least believers, to care — precisely due to their belief.

    Belief in God is not an intellectual exercise. It is an emotional, even visceral, commitment. It better should have the power to compel a person to behave in line with God-prescribed ethical rules (of course this assumes that the person has free will and a choice). Belief influences one’s judgement, one’s conscience and one’s emotions. If a person *isn’t* compelled to care, than that person is simply not a believer (despite the fact that they may claim they are).

    The fact that invoking God has influence on people’s behavior, and causes them to care, is the very reason why belief in God matters. Otherwise theism/atheism would be just a chocolate/vanilla issue.

    Massimo,

    “In such a situation, who’s to say that either group holds a moral high-ground?”

    Depends on which meta-ethics one subscribes to.

    This sounds like a cop-out answer, or I don’t understand what “meta-ethics” stands for. Are you saying that every person will judge the situation according to their own accepted ethics, and that there is no universal answer to the question who was right and who was wrong (say, in the Charlie Hebdo case)? One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter? If such a judgement is in the eye of the beholder, then any discussion of ethics becomes relativised beyond repair. And that is my point — there is no rational way to claim that ethical rules are non-random unless one claims that they are prescribed by some form of deity (which is also a non-rational statement).

    see the Euthyphro, which is why I think religion is a dead end in this context. Even if gods exist (Plato was no atheist).

    I think that the whole Euthyphro dialogue is overblown. If one believes in God, one also believes that God is free to choose any set of rules and define them as ethical, completely arbitrarily (I think this is called the “second horn”?). The Euthyphro dilemma is similar to the “proof” that God cannot be omnipotent because otherwise He would be able to create a mountain so heavy that even He cannot lift it (I think this is usually attributed to Nietzsche, but I’m not sure). The contradiction is based on the rules of human logic, which is known to be non-applicable to any serious concept of God. IMO, both the Euthyphro argument and Nietzsche argument have this logical hole (or a category error, if you will). I don’t perceive either as a serious argument, really. I’ve seen the Nietzsche argument fail under scrutiny over and over, and I think that Euthyphro argument would not fair any better, for the same reasons.

    Liked by 1 person

  31. Massimo

    In your latest comment you say, ‘We are both moral realists …’ and then further on, ‘That’s why I am not a realist about morality…’ .

    For this and other reasons I’m a little confused about where you stand. I would agree with almost everything you said and was nodding vigorously at some of your points, but to me you do not take full advantage of the idea of human nature and so leave your ethics floating free of any foundation. This would be my objection to Stoic ethics.

    Were you to extend your notion of human nature to include the ground of existence and origin of all relative phenomena then you would be able to properly connect ethics with ontology for a system that would look just like Stoic ethics but now with a philosophical foundation. Extend this nature to all sentient beings and one would have Buddhist ethics.

    “But if by facts you mean something like the existence of a planet out there, no, there are no such facts to be had in ethics. ”

    Unless you mean this trivially, in the sense that ethical facts cannot be seen through a telescope, this would not be a necessary view and it places a limit on human nature that may not in fact apply. In this case, it may be placing a limit on our theories of ethics that may not, in fact, need to be applied.

    You say of ethical force, ‘…there is no such force independent of biology and culture.’

    I would rather say that if ethics has any objective basis then it must be prior to biology, and that there can be no culture independent of moral force.

    This limited view of human nature would be my only objection.

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  32. Aravis said,
    I *do* agree that if moral realism is true — and certainly, if, say Christian theism is true — then there is only one true set of moral imperatives, but this has nothing to do with the question of the source of the *force* of those imperatives when deployed.

    Correct. The force of those imperatives derive from ancillary Christian beliefs and practices. I attend Mass at least two to three times per week. Every single Mass serves to restate, reinforce and encourage us to behave in a moral way. And we are given a compelling account of why we should behave in a moral way. Nevertheless our parish priest is kept busy in the confessional. Which just goes to show that moral behaviour is a fraught process where we constantly weigh what we desire against what we ought to do. Religion is a process of supporting and encouraging moral behaviour in this contest against temptation.

    I think the entire question of moral realism, though interesting, is misplaced. By and large we have a clear understanding of moral imperatives. It is not our understanding that is lacking but our will to behave accordingly that is lacking.

    Euthyphro has been waved around a few times as though this was some sort of conclusive argument. I have news for you, it is a very weak argument indeed. It is the lazy man’s argument that depends on a trivial understanding of God. Intelligent debate requires that we address the best argument and not a caricature of the argument.

    Which raises my main point. It is not at all obvious that the existence of God implies moral realism. It is easy to conceive of a God who is neutral about our moral behaviour and is watching us as though we were an interesting experiment. Or maybe just indifferent and uncaring. We might have been a failed experiment or just some side effect.

    On the other hand we cannot have an absolute, human independent moral law without a lawgiver, or can we? The strange thing is that we believe in the realism of the laws of nature. They clearly are mind independent and human independent. They will continue to function after our local supernova fries us to a crisp.

    But here’s the thing. If we believe there is no God and yet the laws of nature exist then we believe in the possibility of mind independent and absolute laws of nature that do not have their source in God. But in that case there equally well could be mind independent and absolute moral laws without a God as their source.

    Now that could go a long way towards explaining why we have such a well developed moral sense. We are the evidence of the existence of absolute moral laws.

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  33. Aravis, Massimo,

    To get back to the question of the clash of cultures that I left off with in my previous comment:

    So what do we do with the differing ethics of differing cultures? Meta-ethics can account for the differences – but not negotiate between them. In a pluralistc culture, boundaries for negotiation can be established legislatively, but they don’t apply to debates between them.

    Internationally, global economics demands of us a certain amount of relativism – some would say too much, to an extent that makes us hypocritical as a nation on important matters. On the other hand globalization has the benefit of introducing the possibility of change into cultures previously resistant to it. On the third hand, if I had one, I would note that some cultures have proven very resistant to change, and indeed have responded with some violence and conservative re-entrenchment of old beliefs. And if you would lend me a fourth hand, a broader question: What is a legitimate adjudication of differing ethcis of differing culture – at what do we say, ‘this is their culture,’ and let go; at what point do we add the judgment “- but it is wrong”? Or can we even do that?

    Problems to consider.

    On a different matter I would like to say that Kant seems not getting his due in this discussion. Kant’s de-ontology is not reducible to theism, and indeed I suggest can be read separate from religious beliefs. Kant seems to me to be actually trying to find its source in an inherent capacity of the human mind, contextualized to the culture in which he found himself. But this would require a much longer discussion than I can give it here; I simply offer it as a possible alternative reading for further consideration.

    Marko,

    “The contradiction is based on the rules of human logic, which is known to be non-applicable to any serious concept of God.”

    That’s one of the reasons I’m a non-believer. I always remember, in Mill’s reply to Dr, Whewell’s philosophy, his remark that a god that could not be submitted to the human understanding of good is not a god worth worshiping. That regenerates Euthyphro thus:
    The only good we humans know is the good we know; if god submits to that good he is worth worshiping; but if he does, then he is not superior to human reasoning; but if he does not, he is not worth worshiping. So believers have either a god that submits to human reasoning, or they have a god that is not worth worshiping. Either way, god pretty much loses out.

    Religion certainly does have a ‘moral force,’ but it is, as Socratic remarked, expanding on a previous remark of mine, a social-psychological force. Notably, it is the same sort of force for all religions regardless of sdiffering sacred texts or gods, all of which, remember, are in competitiuve contradiction with each other.

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  34. Wonderful discussion on morality — the best I’ve seen. Furthermore I can’t recall the commenting here to ever have been more intelligent than the above. But given all of this wonderful parsimony, I would still hope to spice things up just a bit if I’m able. It may be worth remembering that “morality” and “ethics” are not formally considered identical concepts (even though morality is effectively considered prominently enough in the field of ethics to generally imply this). Furthermore it’s also fitting that I would be the one to bring this up, given that my own ideas do not concern “morality,” or a socially defined conception of good/bad, but rather just “ethics,” or good/bad itself.

    Observe that virtually all of us here seem to be moral anti realists, though this obviously doesn’t mean that we deny that existence can be good/bad for us — it just means that we deny that our various social definitions do constitute that which is good/bad for us. But given this observation, wouldn’t it then be prudent to indeed figure out that which is ultimately good/bad for us? Pmpaolini appeared to imply this with a comment above (https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/07/23/moral-realism/comment-page-1/#comment-15372), though I most enjoyed the following part of PeterJ’s first comment:

    An ethical scheme cannot be secure and justifiable unless founded on an ontology. Science and scholastic philosophy currently have no ontological scheme so cannot have a metaphysically sound or justifiable ethical scheme.

    Oh Peter… I can’t tell you how deeply I desire there to be such an accepted theory! How does the psychologist effectively theorize the dynamics of human behavior, without a formal understanding of good/bad regarding its subject? Short answer: Poorly!

    I believe that until we have indeed achieved such an answer, that our mental and behavioral sciences will remain quite primitive. Thus I chose to develop my theory independently from what I perceive to be a very flawed establishment, and only began educating myself on the establishment a year and a half ago (presuming that it can’t now harm my reasonably developed theory).

    What I would like to know at the moment is, does anyone out there know of any prominent academicians who hold this view of mine? I have now developed a broad position from which to potentially found of our mental and behavioral sciences, as well as bring ethics (not morality) squarely under the realm of science. I would hope that there are indeed some prominent people out there who are attempting nothing less than this. Either way, I do know that I’ll require every bit of help that I can manage from Scientia Salon!

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  35. Massimo,

    ‘But it all depends on what you mean by “fact of the matter.”’

    We might treat ‘fact of the mater’ operationally; would you say the statement:

    ‘Some lives are ethically better than others.’

    is true? Objectively?

    Aravis,

    ‘By ‘real’ is commonly understood perceiver/conceiver — i.e. mind — independent. Something is real, in this sense, if it is neither a human construct, nor something that only exists relative to a particular conceptual scheme or framework.’

    I know this is a common definition, but I think it’s rather strange and unproductive. The definition seems to want a conception of reality wherein reality is everything except human thought and its products… If this is how we’re to use “real,” I’ll drop to distinctions of dependence relations; e.g. I’m an agreement-independentist about ethics, but not a language- or mind-independentist about such.

    Liked by 1 person

  36. Marko wrote:

    “Invoking God certainly *is* more likely to cause people, or at least believers, to care — precisely due to their belief.”
    ———————————————–

    I think you ignored the word “inherently” in my remarks.

    The point was this:

    If you *care* about being obedient to whatever the source of a moral imperative is that imperative is going to have “force.” This is true, regardless of what that source is. If the source is society, and you care about get along with society, then imperatives invoked in the name of society will have force. If not, not.

    Similarly, if the source is God, and you care about being right with God, then imperatives invoked in the name of God will have force. If not, not.

    Thus, there is nothing *inherently* more forceful about invoking God, as opposed to something else. And ditto for some Platonic, “moral reality.” The reason I brought this up in the dialgoue, is because it is my impression that a lot of people — like WLC — don’t realize this. They think that somehow, because a moral imperative is alleged to come from God or belong to “reality,” it will automatically have force; that somehow normative force is *intrinsic* to moral realism. But, as I think I have showed, that is not true.

    ———————————————————————————-

    Labnut: I happen to think Euthyphro is a devastating argument — indeed, a knock-down one — against any divine command theory. And I don’t see how it depends on any particular conception of God, whether crude or sophisticated. Either God has a basis on which to command certain activies and prohibit others or he does not. If he does, then good/bad can be determined, independently, on that basis. If not, then morality becomes arbitrary.

    ———————————————————————————————

    ejwinner: Neither Massimo nor I is a fan of Kant, but I’m not getting the sense in which we didn’t “give him his due.” Since you didn’t elaborate, it’s hard to address. But if the issue is normative force, then I think he has the same problem as every other realist. In Kant’s case, to fail to be moral is to fail to be a rational person, but if one doesn’t care about that — about being deemed a rational person — his imperatives fail to have force, regardless.

    With respect to other cultures that engage in practices we find appalling, I am quite dubious of the efficacy of moral discourse. If one wants a certain country to cease in the practice of female genital mutilation, moral discourse ain’t gonna’ cut it. *They* do it, because they think it is right, and I don’t see how a moral argument is going to help, regardless of whether one is a realist, anti-realist, relativist or anything else. The difficult ethical question is for *us*, namely, to what lengths are we willing to go to stop them? Economic sanctions? War?

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  37. Aravis,

    If you *care* about being obedient to whatever the source of a moral imperative is that imperative is going to have “force.” This is true, regardless of what that source is. If the source is society, and you care about get along with society, then imperatives invoked in the name of society will have force. If not, not.

    Similarly, if the source is God, and you care about being right with God, then imperatives invoked in the name of God will have force. If not, not.

    I fully agree with this, so I think it is a good starting point to explain my point — there is a difference between “belief in God” versus “belief in society” (or any other source). For an atheist, the latter may “inherently” make sense while the former does not. For a theist, the former is “inherently” much more powerful than the latter (in an emotional sense).

    That said, my argument is that neither of the two above is a rational decision — both theist and atheist make an emotional/visceral/irrational decision what to believe in. So depending who you talk to, you’ll get different responses about morality. Given that Craig is a theist, I am thus not at all surprised by his position.

    My main point was that one cannot reach any conclusion about morality in a rational way. One must instead make an emotional commitment — either to God, or to society, or to some other source. And if we look at human race throughout history, commitment to God is by far the strongest of all possible choices. That’s why I think it is *inherently* better than others. Namely, looking from an engineering perspective — if you were to construct a society and implement some moral rules, what would be your best bet as the most succesful source of morality (in terms of public acceptance)? God? Society? Something else? If history is to look at, God wins hands down.

    I happen to think Euthyphro is a devastating argument […] If not, then morality becomes arbitrary.

    Why is arbitrary morality a problem? IMO, it is equally arbitrary if one bases it on a non-God source. Why do you consider this to be unacceptable?

    The difficult ethical question is for *us*, namely, to what lengths are we willing to go to stop them? Economic sanctions? War?

    How about Prime Directive? 😉

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  38. Marko yes, that’s the second “horn” of the Euthyphro dilemma. Yahweh himself embraces it in the whirlwind in Job; Paul embraces it equally in Romans, when he rhetorically states “Who has known the mind of God?”

    Fundamentalists still embrace it today. And so do some others, such as the seriously “devout” process theology student I mentioned earlier.

    But, is that an intellectually viable position? Remember, fundamentalists reject the modern theory of evolution and many other things, so I think you and I both know the answer.

    I’ve actually blogged more than once about this. It’s related to the old “problem of evil.” Believing that a monotheistic, allegedly both omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity can do what he wants and not explain himself to sentient created beings? I call that a subset of the problem of evil, or theodicy to give it its technical name, as the “problem of psychological evil.” A double-omni god who has created beings sentient enough to know that he/she/it is an irrational actor is inflicting psychological pain of various sorts, and therefore NOT omnibenevolent.

    Therefore, in the actual intellectual world, no, that second horn is no more acceptable than the first.

    And, if you say it doesn’t apply to a “serious concept of god,” well such serious concepts of god as fundamentalists (and you speaking hypothetically) have in mind are “serious” only in an anti-rational world. And, again, per my earlier comment, this applies to process theology types and New Age types (who, at the risk of being a dogwhistle) have commented here on occasion, as well as fundamentalists.

    If you’re speaking seriously for yourself rather than hypothetically … well, see the comment of Aravis with whom I agree totally, for reasons just stated.

    And, I made my decision to leave theism, including abandoning a career-to-be as a minister that probably would have paid more than a journalist, QUITE rationally, thank you very much.

    Some of this gets to religion as a psychological force, too, as EJ noted picking up on me. Is it much wonder that, setting aside the Ethical Culture movement and the new British attempt at something similar, that getting secularists, especially full-blown atheists, into any sociological equivalent of a church is like herding cats? No, there’s not the same degree of “groupthink” on the secular side of the ledger, at least not as I see it.

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  39. Though I am not religious in any way, I used to be, and perhaps this is why I tend to find most philosophical discussions of ethics and morality somehow deficient and inadequate (in the way people with a religious outlook often do). (Dare I mention Wittgenstein here? He claimed (falsely, I think!) that he was not religious but admitted to seeing things from a religious point of view.)

    For example, I have same attitude to the Euthyphro argument as Labnut (though my beliefs are diametrically opposed to his).

    Aravis wrote: “Either God has a basis on which to command certain activities and prohibit others or he does not. If he does, then good/bad can be determined, independently, on that basis. If not, then morality becomes arbitrary.”

    This is utterly unconvincing to me. If I were a theist I would say that to speak of God having a basis for his actions or whatever misses the point (and betrays human arrogance that our minds can encompass reality). Surely on any plausible understanding of, say, the Christian God, God is the basis for his own actions, etc.

    Furthermore, I think the general opinion that traditional theism or even a Kantian view does not motivate good behaviour is false (perhaps wishful thinking?), and I have seen some empirical research which supports my (very strong) intuitions on this. (These intuitions are based on how differently I see things when I temporarily switch back to my old ways of seeing the world, and compare them with my current outlook.)

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  40. Aravis,

    With that brief clarification I can largely agree; I was just concerned that Kant was getting identified with theistic morality, and I think Kant’s relationship with theism is actually very complex.

    I think one problem here, and with other important philosophers, is that philosophy of religion may sounds like apologetics, when in fact it is really a psychological or sociological analysis of ‘the will to believe.’ (My teacher on Aristotle was adamant that Aristotle’s Metaphysics does not include a defense of the notion of god’s existence, but an analysis of what people might want from god. He could have been wrong, but the notion changed the way I think of many philosophic texts on the matter, especially from thinkers with histories evidencing difficulties with accepted religion.)

    On the issue of moral argument between differing cultures, I agree. However, I still think the questions worth considering when we have to deal with such issues within our own culture, and when we decide to address the question of ‘what to do in this case” with other cultures Female genital mutilation is a clear-cut case, since it violates so many of the values of the majority of our own culture; but consider the complexities and subtleties of the problem of recreational drug marketing, smuggling, use, and possible legalization. I suspect our government is still financing herbicide poisoning of marijuana plants in South American countries; but apparently not in Colorado anymore.

    (BTW, have set myself the task of going back to “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” per your suggestion; thanks.)

    Marko,

    I think you’re confusing motivation for what others are calling ‘moral force.’ As I understand it, ‘moral force’ is an impetus that has to be fought against to be denied; motivation is an attraction toward a given behavior, that may energize us toward that behavior (but is usually easily denied within a given context; otherwise we end up talking about the psychology of a ‘lack of impulse control’).

    I agree with Aravis, that there is no ethical theory that has an adequate or demonstrable accounting of undeniable, or even difficult deny, impetus to perform; this is not to deny that their are motivations for ethical performance. (However, I have suggested that there are social-psychological pressures that do impel us when we are not aware of them; and there may be inheritable forces as well, although I am, in contrast to some comments here, very pessimistic that such is the case. Who was it that said of nature, that it is “red in tooth and claw”?)

    However, notice that there is no reference to god or theism in this remark; simply – there is no need for any.

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  41. Let me first commend everyone on an excellent discussion! One of the best on SS in some time.

    Aravis:

    “What I never understand about Craig and others is what they think they are going to *get* out of God being involved. Ultimately, if what one is worried about is the *force* of the claimed obligation — by which I mean the extent to which the claim *compels* another person to do (or not do) something — then how does God change anything?”

    Call me crazy, but this reminds me a little of the Philosophical Investigations, where Wittgenstein’s imaginary interlocutor immediately pounces on the idea that rules are determined by agreements and charges Wittgenstein with relativism. The reply by Wittgenstein that the very notions of truth and falsity arise from within our agreements. In other words we are responsible for it all. This is part of what WLC and his ilk seem allergic to, in part.

    EJ:

    “Drawing on recent readings in Japanese philosophy, I suspect we in the West have concentrated so much on the question of ‘what the individual should do’ and why (and during an historic transformation of Western culture that emphasizes individual choice, and responsibility), that we have blind-sided ourselves to the social pressures that allow us to inherit, maintain, and pass on any culture at all. And in turning to those pressure, we parcel them out atomistically for specialized research in a way that loses the full flavor they can only have in their collective wholeness.”

    I think you are absolutely right to point this out. Part of the way we discuss ethics in terms of the individual reflects our idealized self-image, which social science (particularly social psychology) is dismantling. So much of our ethics seems a testament to our belief in the myth of the lone, solitary individual.

    Aravis:

    “Certainly the US currency has an *objective* existence, but does it exist independently of our conceptual schemes? Of course not. And what about something like an Aristotelian virtue? As I said in the discussion, once we establish certain features of a context — it is a just war, my enemy is villainous and dangerous, etc — rushing this group of people with a gun is clearly courageous. That would seem to be *objectively* true. But is courage, as a virtue, “real” in the sense of mind-independence or conceptual dependance? It would seem obviously not — how can it be real in that sense if it only obtains relative to various contexts (not to mention, to our activity of valuation)?”

    In line with this distinction, would I be correct in pegging Putnam’s Pragmatic Moral Realism as Objective rather than strictly Realist?

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  42. Aravis:

    “What I am asking is “in what sense do they compel unconditionally”? And my answer is — they don’t. One cannot compel another to act, although one could forcibly move someone’s limbs. Certainly, one cannot compel another to act, simply by way of uttering sentences.”

    Is part of the problem then a kind of category mistake insofar as the compulsion from the physics of the world is confused with a notion of moral compulsion which is altogether different?

    Massimo:

    “That’s where we part ways. If human nature imposes constraints on ethical reasoning, then the latter is not subjective.”

    Human nature doesn’t just seem to pose pose constraints. It seems to contain constitutive axiological features all the way down, from epistemic values in science to the basic level of social trust in terms of meaning that allows language to function at all. In this sense it seems maybe Murdoch was on to something re: the Sovereignty of Good.

    Aravis:

    “With respect to other cultures that engage in practices we find appalling, I am quite dubious of the efficacy of moral discourse. If one wants a certain country to cease in the practice of female genital mutilation, moral discourse ain’t gonna’ cut it. *They* do it, because they think it is right, and I don’t see how a moral argument is going to help, regardless of whether one is a realist, anti-realist, relativist or anything else. The difficult ethical question is for *us*, namely, to what lengths are we willing to go to stop them? Economic sanctions? War?”

    Exactly. To accept a certain moral framework is to see the world in a certain way and the question then becomes how much do I want you to see the world the way I do? I think in this sense Murdoch is right that the notion of vision and seeing is central to ethics.

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  43. To clarify ‘reality’, as I’ve been using it above, I mean essentially that ethical rightness and wrongness take place in the world whether or not anyone is theorizing about ethics and regardless of what people agree to. Some theories here seem to hold that ethical wrong comes into being only once an ethical theorist has defined ‘ethical wrongness’. The point of ethical (meta-)theory, on the contrarym is to parse a pre-existing reality of ethical right and wrong, not to bring it into being. So by ‘ethical reality’ I mean there is a reality to study out there that we can capture or fail to capture with ethical theory.

    I certainly do not mean anything to do with Platonism.

    Aravis,

    On the matter of normative force, I agree with thinkers like Kant that morality is grounded in rationality, and think you might be underestimating the force of a charge of being irrational. Supposing the imperative to be ethical comes down to the imperative to be rational, there are many prudential reasons for being seen as rational, and hence ethical; generally, if one is seen as irrational, one loses the trust and respect of others and all the things built on these. It might not be an exaggeration to say that to some extent one loses one’s personhood. So there seems to be a strong prudential motive to be seen as rational.

    Now what is wrong with prudence being the sole motive for being ethical? To me it would seem that if a person does nothing unethical, they are an ethical person, even if their motives for conforming to the ethical is prudential. In the end, it might be that the notion of a moral motive for being ethical is an incoherent religious relic, which is not to put down religion generally.

    Also, being irrational would go against a desire to be a good person, in the sense of quality, of having integrity. In my view, it would take very crass or mean person to say: “Yeah! So! I’m irrational! Live with it!” Probably a majority of people are sensitive to, and can be motivated by, charges of irrationality.

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  44. I cannot see how obeying a Divine imperative would constitute ethical behaviour. It would be merely following orders or responding to a fear of Hell and other punishment, or it may be expressing a love for God. God may be moral in issuing His imperatives (if this can make any sense) but I can’t see that obeying them makes us a moral agent. All this requires is a belief in God and obedience.

    I have seen Christian prayers that ask for the strength to act wisely and compassionately and that end by saying, ‘but not for Thy sake’. This would be the recognition that following orders or trying to please God is not the same as being a self-reliant moral agent.

    Mark English

    ” If I were a theist I would say that to speak of God having a basis for his actions or whatever misses the point (and betrays human arrogance that our minds can encompass reality).”

    Why would this be arrogant? Would it not be simply true or false as the case may be? I have wondered before and suggested as much in essays that part of the problem with academic philosophy is precisely a lack of arrogance, or a fear of being bold. I suppose one needs tenure before sticking ones neck out.

    That’s it for my comment limit. It’s an excellent discussion and I’m learning much from it so thanks to all.

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  45. A proponent of evolutionary morality may claim that evolution programmed us with moral feelings.

    But evolution also programmed us with the ability to do abstract computation (beyond that of other primates — those not extinct, anyway).

    What Makes a Human Brain Unique
    Experiment compares the way monkey and human brains respond to abstract information

    The idea that integrating abstract information drives many of the human brain’s unique abilities has been around for decades. But a paper published in Current Biology, which directly compares activity in human and macaque monkey brains as they listen to simple auditory patterns, provides the first physical evidence that a specific area for such integration may exist in humans. Other studies that compare monkeys and humans have revealed differences in the brain’s anatomy, for example, but not differences that could explain where humans’ abstract abilities come from, say neuroscientists.

    Our moral code could be both embodied in us and created by us, using our brains, uniquely (among other animals still here on Earth) capable of abstract computation.

    (side note: I have to thank Scientia Salon for its existence. Its articles and comments have led me to making my own ebook, (in progress.)

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  46. To Various, re Euthyphro:

    Surely on any plausible understanding of, say, the Christian God, God is the basis for his own actions, …

    This fails to deflect Euthyphro, because if God’s nature is what determines what is “morally good”, then if God were a sadistic monster who tortured children for the fun of it, then torturing children for the fun of it would be “morally good”.

    Now, if you’re William Lane Craig you reply: “Why yes, indeed so!” with a straight face. Sensible people, though, realise that something has gone wrong, since, at root, we all judge morality based on our own moral feelings, and most of us regard torturing children for the fun of it to be morally bad.

    This is what Massimo was saying in the video, about adjusting ethical frameworks to comply with prior ethical commitments, by which we mean how we feel about things.

    The straightforward idea that moral values and judgements are reports of human feelings about that matter, and hence that morality is subjective, solves all meta-ethical issues (it is also clearly correct, once considered from the evolutionary point of view, as Darwin first explained).

    The problem is that everyone has been trained to regard “subjective” as implying arbitrary or unimportant. Yet, human feelings are neither. Our feelings are not arbitrary (they’re human nature, constrained by evolution) and nor are they unimportant (indeed they’re the only thing important to us!).

    Yet, everyone feels they must make the system “objective” somehow. One tactic is to formalise the feelings into an “ethical framework” and then declare that given the framework then objective prescriptions follow. That is true, but it really only obscures the fact that these are subjective prescriptions, deriving from human desires, goals and feelings, but at one remove.

    And I fully agree with Socratic’s point that no codified “ethical framework” will ever capture the full complexity of human moral feelings (which we know will not be fully self-consistent, given the tensions of an Evolutionarily Stable Strategy), and thus trying to arrive at such a scheme is pointless (except as an inevitably simplified and partially correct description of human psychology).

    Personally I regard the intuition that moral judgements are “objective” as an illusion that is a trick by evolution to make them more effective. Just as when two kids square up to each other, one might invoke an imaginary older brother to intimidate his rival, so appealing to “objective” status to back up ones moral claims is really just a trick to intimidate another person (or oneself) into accepting them.

    Meta-ethics makes much more sense once one overcomes the hankering after “objective” status and the irrational desire to reject the label “subjective”. “Subjective” means rooted in our feelings and values and goals. That means rooted in what is most important to us. “Subjective” does not mean second rate, or unimportant or arbitrary or disposable. There is nothing second-rate or arbitrary about subjective morality.

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