Facts, Values, Opinions and Morality.

So, Jerry Coyne is talking about what he considers to be disturbing about naturalism:

One thing that disturbs me about naturalism is the increasingly frequent contention that there are objective moral “facts” or “truths,” which can somehow be discerned scientifically. I don’t agree with that, since at bottom I think that what one sees as “right” or “wrong” ultimately rests on a set of subjective preferences that can’t be adjudicated scientifically.

This latest post is in response to an article by Justin P. McBrayer, lamenting how grade schools are teaching that all moral and/or value claims are actually opinions, and not facts. However, they define facts as things that are true, and so the implication is that value or moral claims are not, in fact, true … or, rather that there is no truth of the matter about moral claims. This implication essentially reduces moral statements to statements of personal preference, and nothing more. This … would have rather bad consequences for even Coyne’s general view of morality, because when he argues for positions that certain things that he considers bad be eliminated his arguments will have no force if he’s just presenting it as personal opinion. Even his views on punishment that are based on his hard determinism become shaky if all he can do is say that we ought to try to “correct” things that he thinks need to be corrected based on what can only be a personal preference, and not a fact. This is the underlying contention in Coyne’s view here, and an underlying tension in any view that posits a relativistic idea: on the one hand, they want to deny that morality is objective because they can’t justify their moral values, but on the other hand they still want to insist that we can still meaningfully criticize the moral values of others, even to the extent of imposing punishments and conditions on those who don’t agree with ours. Essentially, this is like saying that music taste is only a matter of personal preference and so implying that no one’s musical taste is objectively any better than anyone else’s, but then insisting that classical music is superior to rock and roll and so no radio stations should be allowed to play rock and roll. You simply cannot accept both reasonably, as the former implies that musical taste is subjective while the latter implies that it is objective. You can’t hold views that imply that morality is both subjective and objective at the same time.

Actually, in a sense you can, as long as you avoid equivocation. It is perfectly reasonable to say that there are moral facts and so moral truths, but that those moral truths rely on subjective impressions like, say, ideas of well-being. Let’s take a look at one of Coyne’s examples to see how this can work:

…instead of subjective judgments like “my opinion is that pie is better than cake” …

It is an objective fact by pretty much all definitions whether someones likes pie better than cake. So if I say “I like pie better than cake”, I am stating an objective fact. But it is an objective fact whose truth value depends on subjective facts … subjective facts about my experiences when I eat pie or eat cake, and my own personal tastes and preferences. So if we implied — as Sam Harris might — that objective morality boils down to an analysis of the subjective experiences of conscious beings — meaning, the things that impact our subjective sense of well-being — then we’d have an objective fact about what it means to be moral but one that is still based on at least certain subjective impressions. So we’d need to figure out what morality means, which Coyne talks about:

But at bottom all discussions of right or wrong come down to what result one prefers—what you think moralty is supposed to achieve.

To translate that last part, rather we should say that all discussions of morality come down to what morality actually is … what it means for something to be moral or immoral. But since morality is a conceptual term, there are in fact objective facts about what it would mean for something to be moral. Even relativist positions insist that there is an objective fact about what it means to be moral: that morality is relativist itself. This would need to be justified just as much as a claim that morality is objective.

Even if you’re a consequentialist like I am and on those grounds am pro-choice, what do you say to someone who feels otherwise, either because they have the religious notion that embryos have souls or the consequentialist notion that it’s worse for society to allow abortions than if it prohibited them? How can you decide? Even the notion “don’t kill innocent people,” won’t resonate with a Muslim extremist if those innocents are apostates.

The interesting thing is that for a lot of the things he talks about here, he can at least discuss this on the basis of shared values. Presumably, Coyne’s consequentialism includes — and may be just about — what is better or worse for society as a while. Presumably we can come to some kind of objective determination of what is better or worse for society, and Coyne’s hard deterministic views on punishment insist that that’s true. So in that case, the debate would be over what is better for society, and so there can be a discussion that will end in an objective answer. Additionally, we can see that the debate between the Muslim extremist and Coyne is not over whether it is wrong to kill innocent people, but over whether apostates count as innocents or not … the same sort of debate that we can have over, say, self-defense (where it is generally and rightly concluded that someone attacking you is not innocent).

What we can see from this is that we can have objective debates when there are at least some shared values. Relativist positions generally would agree with this, but would argue that there is no objective way to determine what those values are; that, essentially, the values are just as personal and subjective as preferring salty or sweet snacks. This, though, cycles them back to the original tension: in any area where values differ, you can’t criticize their values or impose yours on them with any more justification than you can impose your preference of salty versus sweet snacks or pie versus cake on anyone.

And in the list of things that are considered opinions in McBrayer’s posts, there is one that highlights this issue for Coyne:

— Copying homework assignments is wrong.

Presumably, this is a rule that Coyne would impose on any class he teaches: you cannot copy assignments. But if there isn’t a moral value backing to the rule, then all Coyne would be saying is that the rules say that you can’t copy assignments, not that it is a bad thing to do, even if he tries to argue reasons for it. So someone who copies assignments has merely broken a conventional rule of the class, one that is only imposed on the class by the overwhelming authority of the professor. Essentially, this reduces all of the rules that we consider moral to be merely conventional … and as we’ve seen, the main way that psychopaths differ from others is that they consider all moral rules to be merely conventional.

At this point, McBrayer seems to have a point. Reducing morality to personal opinion means reducing moral rules to conventional rules, rules that are only followed because of the punishments applied if we don’t follow them. Given what I just noted about psychopaths, this risks turning our children into psychopaths, which is not what Coyne or anyone wants. Thus, McBrayer may have a point that this approach is dangerous, and so the only way that relativists can argue against him is to demonstrate that morality is, in fact, relative … or, in other words, they must demonstrate that it is a fact that morality is relativistic. So you cannot escape fact claims here, no matter how many relativists wish to.


2 Responses to “Facts, Values, Opinions and Morality.”

  1. Peter Moss Says:

    I don’t know what the worry is about collapsing moral rules to conventional rules. We already do this selectively. If killing is morally wrong, it must always be morally wrong, independent of authority. But this is not how it works out in real life.

    When cops kill people it is considered not to be morally wrong. Rather, it becomes a conventional act as part of their professional work, nothing personal, just doing their job. Killing becomes conventionalized. Whereas for everyone else who kills someone, it is a horrible moral crime. We don’t seem to worry about this, or fear cops are all psychopaths. (whether their is even such thing as a psychopath, a dubious category to begin with).

    • verbosestoic Says:

      The thing is that we don’t think that it’s okay for cops to kill someone because some authority says it is. When we allow it and claim that it is morally acceptable for them to do so, we do that based on an analysis of the morality of the situation, and it turns out that those principles are pretty standard and applied to people who aren’t cops as well: protecting yourself or others from someone who is a threat. But we wouldn’t accept — no matter what authority said it — the idea that cops can kill people just because they feel like it. In fact, even in the cases where we allow it we DO, generally, question whether that was their only option. We don’t even allow them to do it because it’s more convenient for them.

      So, as protecting others is, in theory, their job, part of their job will be sometimes or potentially killing people to protect others. But they are allowed to do that, we think, when it is morally right to do so, not based on simple conventions defined by some kind of authority.

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