Posts Tagged ‘objective morality’

Discussion of Objective Morality: Moral Criticism

February 17, 2017

Carrier does attempt in his post to address moral criticism. He starts by trying to go after the facts/value distinction, but I don’t want to focus on that right now. What I want to focus on first is the idea that we can criticize someone’s values:

It can be objectively true that you ought to value certain things, when your valuing other things instead is self-defeating—because valuing things causes you to pursue them, and pursuing them might undermine things you value more. You may not know or believe that you ought to value those things, yet it remains true that you should—because you just haven’t realized how your valuing other things instead leads you to destroy the things you value even more, rather than upholding them. And once you realized that, you would agree your values were wrong, even by your own standards. So that you ought to value certain things is also an objectively true fact about you. It follows from what you value most, and how your other values either serve or thwart what you value most.

So, of course, no one in the debate — at least no one informed — disputes that. Given some kind of objective or base value or desire, we can determine what desires one ought to have if one wants to achieve that, and if someone doesn’t have those values or desires we can say that they ought to have those values or desires. The problem is that we need some kind of objective value here, and particularly one that can be said to be uniquely moral. We don’t want to appeal to a non-moral value — pragmatics, for example — to justify moral values, because then we’d have the question of why it is that those non-moral values can justify a moral claim or value. Aren’t we really just valuing that non-moral value, and using morality as an instrumental value to achieve that one? What’s particularly moral, then, about doing that? Thus, it is reasonable to suggest that morality in and of itself, to be meaningful, has to be an intrinsic value, one that we value not because it will allow us to achieve something that we value more than it, but because it is desirable in and of itself for its own sake. Given Carrier’s penchant for defining morality as trying to satisfy that which we value most above all — which then has to be an intrinsic value by definition — I can argue that being properly moral is to, in fact, value the intrinsic value of being moral more than anything else. If Carrier’s definition is correct, then, that would mean that if I value that most above all then there’s a vicious and unresolvable circle: I value being moral most, which means that morality is about trying to be moral, as that’s what I value most. At that point, I’d be stuck. But it’s hard to argue that someone could value something else more than being moral and yet be a more moral person than someone who didn’t. This suggests to me that simply judging what is moral by what someone most wants — as Carrier does in the post — is not a good way to go.

But there are other issues with values in Carrier’s post. Take his example:

Suppose you prioritize making money, and do so because you value money above all else. That you should do that, and value that, can still be false. Because even if you say it, even if you believe it, it isn’t actually true about you that you value money above all else. Because that’s impossible. If you thought about it, money actually has no value to you, except in respect to what you get with it. In other words, you only value money because you value something else more. If you could get all those things, the things you actually value most, without money—or worse, if money actually caused you to lose them, and thus not gain those things—then you would no longer value money.

Carrier isn’t clear whether he means that in that specific case it would be but that it’s not impossible for anyone anywhere to have a consistent value system where they value money above all else, or that he really thinks it’s just impossible for anyone to do that, so I’m going to argue that it’s possible for someone to have that as what they value most above all else. Carrier here is arguing that money is just an instrumental value; people only value it for what it can get them, but it is possible for someone to value making money or having money above all else and not, in fact, be willing to sacrifice money to get those things, or put making money ahead of getting some of those things. Now, most people would then try to argue that they have to value some things above money — their lives, for example — because they spend money to get them. The problem is that they can reply that what they really value is making more money, and they can’t do that if they’re not alive and don’t have shelter. So they spend as little money as possible, and all of the money they spend is calculated to provide the things they need to make more money. This might even include status symbols because it is easier for them to make more money if they present an image of someone who makes and is good at making money. So it is in fact possible for them to have a consistent view where the thing they value most is money.

Now, we’d generally try to argue that they’re wrong about that. The problem is that we may not have grounds to do so. Carrier himself advocates for the idea that we can only criticize them by appealing to what they actually value:

And yet, the question of whether money gets you the things you want most, or actually in fact gets you less of those things than other approaches to them, is an empirical question that can be answered scientifically. Thus, science can in fact tell you it is empirically false that you should value money above all else. And it would do so by simply pointing you to actual empirical facts about you (and, of course, the world) that reveal the pursuit of money is harming rather than helping you gain the things you actually value. And indeed, this is often what goes on in cognitive therapy: a scientist empirically ascertains what you actually value most, and then shows you, empirically, that your priorities are undermining your own values, and helps you adjust your priorities so that they align with your actual values.

So, first, the scientific approach works by criticizing your values, and not by arguing that, for example, money is indeed something that does not have intrinsic value but instead only has instrumental value. The scientist can only argue that you don’t really value that most, not that you ought not value that the most. And Carrier carries on with this when it comes to morality:

What you actually value most at any given moment is an objective fact of the universe in exactly the same sense that your brain and its structure is an objective fact of the universe—because the one is entirely reducible to the latter without remainder. But moral facts do not follow from what you just happen to value most at any moment, because you could be wrong about what you should value at that moment. And I don’t mean wrong by some objective standard external to you. I mean wrong even by your own subjective internal standard. Because there is also an objective fact of the world about what you would value most when fully informed and reasoning without fallacy.

For example, a fully informed and rational observer would have to agree that the moral facts that are true for you really are the moral facts that are true for you, even if they aren’t the moral facts that are true for them. In other words, the observer would have no basis for criticizing your morality based on what was true for them, as long as you were following the morality that was indeed true for you. But they could criticize your morality based on what’s true for you. And that is indeed where most people go wrong—for instance, they might fully agree the Golden Rule is true, then invent a moral system that routinely violates it (like condemning abortion or homosexuality). Even if the Golden Rule were only true for you, an outside observer (like some sociopathic space alien who had no reason to value the Golden Rule) could still validly criticize your condemnation of homosexuality as violating your own objectively true moral values.

And that’s how all actual moral criticism operates. We always criticize either of those two things: we either argue that a moral agent has the wrong idea about what the consequences of an action are (“permitting homosexuality will destroy society”), which is a straightforward matter of fact accessed empirically, or we argue that a moral agent is acting against their own values (“the Golden Rule entails treating homosexuals the same as heterosexuals”).

But this is not, in general, what moral criticism is about. We generally don’t start by appealing to their values and limiting it to what’s true for their internal moral viewpoint, but instead by appealing to what we presume are the moral absolutes. It’s only when we discover that they don’t hold those moral absolutes and are going to stick to them that we fall back on things like pragmatism and appeal to the beliefs and values that they clearly have to try to get them to stop doing the things that we think are immoral. But we wouldn’t normally conclude that if they accept this reasoning that that makes them a moral person. If someone wanted to kill someone for fun, for example, and they dismissed any suggestion that killing someone for fun is immoral, but were convinced that if they do that they’ll go to jail which would be bad for them, we wouldn’t conclude that they are now moral paragons or even made a moral choice there. We’d still consider them to have a badly flawed sense of morality that we’re trying to work around to avoid people getting hurt by it. As in this Order of the Stick comic, where Belkar saves Hinjo’s life because he isn’t sure that he can get his Mark of Justice removed without Hinjo, and the Mark of Justice stops him from killing other people. The second shoulder devil even comments that saving one life is a small price to pay for a lifetime of unfettered killing. No one would conclude that Belkar’s choice was, in fact, moral … and, in fact, the title of the strip is “Amoral Dilemma”. But Carrier’s view of what moral criticism is really about seems to argue that that’s really what we’d conclude.

And we can see why. Belkar’s moral system is roughly consistent — especially since he subordinates killing others to keeping himself alive — and yet is totally heinous. Arguably, it’s more consistent than the heroes in the strip because he just likes killing, whether they are evil or not, but the other heroes think it more justified to kill evil people than good people. There is no way to argue Belkar out of his heinous viewpoints by arguing that they are inconsistent, since they aren’t. Belkar can only be controlled by appealing to those heinously immoral viewpoints … and Carrier’s view insists that that is all we do and can ever do.

There’s a second issue, which is that proving an inconsistency may, in fact, not get you the results you wanted. Take the “Golden Rule” example. Let’s imagine that someone considers, say, abortion immoral and yet is convinced by Carrier that doing so is inconsistent with the Golden Rule, which they hold as their standard for morality. Clearly, Carrier wants them to thus re-evaluate their view on abortion and conclude that it therefore isn’t immoral. Unfortunately, there’s another option: they could decide that this therefore means that the Golden Rule does not reflect what is properly moral and abandon it in favour of a moral system that does consider abortion immoral. Without an objective standard, there’s nothing for Carrier to appeal to to stop them from doing that, which is where the worries about people simply making up what is moral come from.

So, without an objective standard, we can’t call Belkar evil and we can’t stop someone from abandoning the Golden Rule to preserve their idea that abortion is morally wrong. If this is all moral criticism is, then it hardly seems worth doing, as we have no way to justify the stronger criticisms that we want to make and really need to make at times. Carrier here seems to be making the mistake that so many make by arguing that morals are relative and yet subconsciously assuming that people will roughly hold the moral values that they think are the right or reasonable ones regardless, and from there assuming that they will be able to criticize people in some way — here, Carrier seems to want to be able to call them “irrational” for holding inconsistent beliefs — if they disagree with them. But there is no reason to think that Carrier’s views are more consistent than anyone else’s, and it might even be the case that people who disagree with him have a more consistent position than he does. This would leave him floundering to justify the moral facts that he wants them to accept, rendering either his own views as flawed if not more so than theirs or making moral criticism as pointless as criticizing someone for preferring rock to jazz. It does not seem reasonable to conclude that someone who, say, wants to kill people has just as valid a position as anyone else as long they are consistent and rational about killing other people, but that is where subjectivism and relativism — and the rejection of objective morality — always lead.

Discussion of Objective Morality: Objective vs Relative

February 10, 2017

Having argued that the “objective vs subjective” distinction isn’t useful, Carrier moves on to the “objective vs relative” distinction:

Defenders of objective moral truth will rail against “cultural relativism,” for example, which they imagine is the belief that morals are only true within specific cultures, such that one culture cannot criticize the morality of another culture (and there are fools and loons who actually believe that, so it’s not simply a straw man; it becomes a straw man, though, when it is assumed most relativists think that way). Or they rail against some kind of biogenic relativism (“speciesism” they call it: Sense and Goodness without God, index). Or individual relativism (whereby every individual has their own moral truth, so what’s morally true is relative to them). Or situational relativism (what’s morally true is relative to and thus changes with the circumstances). Or whatever.

This is actually a false distinction. Even if every one of those “relativisms” is true, morality is still an objective fact. If biogenic relativism is true, then it is an objective fact of the world that certain morals are true for one species and not another. And if there are moral facts for humans that aren’t true for other animals like sharks or apes, it is no argument to say we should act like sharks or apes, when in fact we should act like humans, a specific kind of animal. It remains objectively true in that case that certain moral facts are true for us, that aren’t true for sharks or apes.

But, again, Carrier misses the point of the objection. No one argues that if we discovered that morality was really relativistic — ie defined solely by reference to what a particular group thinks is moral, even if that’s a group of one — that that wouldn’t be an objective fact about morality. But it would make moral claims like “Slavery is morally wrong” not an objective fact, in the sense that, as I said in the introduction they would not be required to justify that to anyone outside that group, even if they actually might be able to. Sure, it might be true that for humans the morally right thing to do is to end slavery, but that might not be true for sharks. Or, to put it better, imagine that we run into sentient sharks, who are capable of moral reasoning. It might be reasonable, given their species, for them to consider anything as food, even other sentient beings and moral agents. Now, it seems reasonable that we wouldn’t accept that; while there might be some debate over whether it is moral to use animals for food, surely we’d all at least tend to agree that eating other sentient beings, at least without permission, is morally wrong. But it is possible that under speciesism that that would be true for humans but not for sharks. And thus the sharks would be morally right to eat us.

This … is not a conclusion that most will accept.

Also, as stated in the post on objective vs subjective morality, it’s not really relativism to say that morality changes wrt the circumstances. Non-relativistic moralities can, in fact, do so. For example, returning to species, imagine that we have a vegetarian species, an omnivorous species, and a carnivorous species. We are debating the moral question “Is it immoral to use non-sentient animals as food?”. For the vegetarian species, this isn’t a moral question at all; they have no interest in it, and so that they abstain from it is not morally praiseworthy, although any of their species that did eat non-sentient animals would have to be seen as doing so for reasons that almost certainly had to be immoral. On the other end of the spectrum, since ought implies can it would be seen as unreasonable to claim that the carnivorous species is immoral for doing so if they can’t survive any other way. It’s only in the omnivorous species where it is a moral question, as they would both have a desire to and get a biological benefit from doing it, but likely could do without it. Of course, they’d need a moral reason to argue that it is immoral or them to eat animals, but the moral status here depends critically on the specific circumstances and details of the species involved.

Thus, I have to conclude that if “situational relativism” is really relativistic, then it has to go further than this, likely arguing that the details of the situation are so integral to that determination that you can’t have anything like a moral principle — even “Maximize utility” — without appealing to the specific circumstances. But this seems like something that would be massively difficult to pull off, and so is either, to my mind, a rather implausible view or, more likely, is confused over very strong objectivist moralities that deny that the circumstances matter, taking it as saying that circumstances never matter as opposed to the more common answer that the circumstances that opponents think matter really don’t. (For example, Kant’s rejection of lying isn’t that lying just has to be morally wrong no matter the circumstances, but is more that no possible circumstances can make lying not self-defeating. This hasn’t stopped many opponents from asserting that Kant can’t possibly consider circumstances ever, which is not correct).

Again, Carrier somewhat grasps what people are concerned about but then stops worrying about it almost immediately:

For example, traffic laws are obviously culturally relative. Like fictional stories, they are completely invented by each culture however they want. And yet there is an objective fact of the matter that they realize. There are better and worse traffic systems, when measured by the standard they were invented for. And this remains so regardless of your opinions, feelings, or beliefs. For example, a system in which there was no enforced rule as to which side of multi-lane roads to drive on would produce far more traffic collisions, and the universally recognized (and universally needed) goal of traffic laws is to facilitate transportation while minimizing collisions. Thus, in some cultures vehicles are expected to drive on the right; in others, the left. Which it is is completely arbitrary. And in consequence completely relative to which culture you are in at the time. Yet it is an objectively true fact that everyone ought to drive on the same side of the road—whichever side that happens culturally to be—if they want to avoid traffic collisions.

Thus, cultural relativism does not allow just any rules or morals willy nilly. There is no objectively true fact that cars must drive on the right rather than the left to reduce collisions. There is, however, an objectively true fact that cars must all drive on the right or on the left to reduce collisions. Moreover, even though it is culturally relative whether you drive on the right or the left, when you are in a culture that drives on the right, you ought to drive on the right. Which side you ought to drive on is an objective fact of which cultural system you are traversing at the time. Relativism thus has no bearing on whether objective morals exist. Objective morals might exist—and be relative, to the individual, culture, situation, or species.

Which leads into the problem: if morals are relative, then there is no right answer, and so you don’t have to justify them to anyone who disagrees if they are not part of the relevant group (and maybe not even then). So I can’t go to Britain and argue that they should drive on the right-hand side of the road, and demand that they justify why their solution is better. They are free to answer that that’s just what they do, and that has to settle the question. If I press the argument, I’m invalidly trying to impose my view on them, which I have no right to do.

Which works out reasonably well for traffic laws. It doesn’t work very well for morals. Take the standard “Slavery is morally wrong” example. Do we really want to say that if a culture was convinced that slavery was morally right or even morally mandatory and say “That’s just what we believe” that that’d be all that could be said on the matter? Likely not. So we don’t think that morality works like traffic laws, and so we don’t think that morality is relative in that way. Thus, Carrier’s defense of their objectivity is not a defense at all.

Strangely, Carrier accepts that later:

But some people want to be able to truthfully say that everyone should agree on what’s morally true—and that when they don’t, someone is wrong. They want to be able to say that the Nazis and slaveowning Southerners and the biblical Israelites were immoral—indeed, that this should be an indisputable fact. They want to be able to say that there has been moral progress in human history—which requires there to be some true morality we are getting closer to. This is what most people actually mean, and want, when they say there has to be an objectively true morality. It’s not enough to just say we don’t like the Nazis and slaveowning Southerners and the biblical Israelites. Because anyone who wanted to be like them can just say “So what?” Just like someone who disagreed with us about what kind of music to like, our saying they were immoral would be a meaningless and useless gesture—and wholly ineffectual to any purpose. We could no more call them wrong for acting like that, than we could call them wrong for liking different music.

But then he moves on to admonish people arguing for subjective or relativistic moralities:

But this means it’s a derailing tactic to answer someone who says there are objective moral facts with “but values are subjective.” That in no way entails there is no objectively true fact of the matter as to which values we all do or should have. It is likewise impertinent to insist that morality is all just relative. Because that is only true if it is objectively true that different moralities obtain for different people. Which obligates you to check. Is it actually the case that different cultures ought to behave in different ways? Is it actually the case that every moral system is entirely the equal of any other and there can never be any grounds to criticize any? Is it actually the case that there is no moral system that, implemented anywhere by anyone, would make the world a better place even by their own standards?

Which, again, staggeringly misses the point. The argument is that people are arguing for subjective and relativistic moralities and giving reasons why morality really is that way, and the objectivists are saying that that means that there is no right answer to moral questions which seems to make morality useless and pointless, and doesn’t align with what we think is moral. You’d be just as reasonable to conclude that objectivists are derailing or being impertinent for arguing those consequences as if they mattered to the underlying argument for subjective or relativistic moralities. But in reality neither are. A big problem for subjectivists and relativists is the consequence that those moralities mean that we can’t really say if a moral proposition is true or false, and it is an issue for objectivists that they can’t justify any moral claim universally. And the main evidence for these tactics not being bad ones is the number of people who accept that there is no right answer to moral questions as a consequence of their views. In short, they respond to the objectivist by saying that there are no objective moral facts at all — or at least not relevant ones — and so there are no right answers, and that objectivists are wrong because they assume there should be. Objectivists, unknowingly, are like people arguing that there should be one style of music that everyone ought to like, but musical tastes don’t work that way … and moral “tastes” don’t work that way either.

So the distinctions and tactics are useful, as they define the positions. In the next post, I’ll look at how Carrier tries to deal with moral criticism and the validity — or invalidity — of it.

Discussion of Objective Morality: Objective vs Subjective

February 3, 2017

So, in his post on objective morality, the first distinction Carrier takes on is objective vs subjective morality. Remember that in my introduction I said that subjectivity tends to be associated more with whether it is possible to justify one’s moral conclusions to someone else. Carrier starts, however, by talking about subjective experiences themselves, and trying to argue that even the most subjective of them — colour experiences — are really objective because they reduce to physical brain states and/or properties of physical systems. Thus, he argues:

There is at least one objective fact about colors, which is that wherever a certain physical system exists, the experience of colors will exist, as an inalienable property of that system. And even if that weren’t the case, even if physicalism or epiphenomenalism are false, it would still be the case that “colors exist” is an objectively true fact of the world—because our experience of them is a part of the world; therefore, this world does contain color experience, whatever it consists of. Whether we know that or believe it or not, it remains true. So even something as radically subjective as the existence of the color red is still an objective fact. So what exactly do we mean when we want to know if morals are objective facts? Are they like colors? Or are they like photons? Or are they like something else? Is there any way they could be, and not be an objective fact of the world?

The problem is that no one arguing that morality is or ought to be an objective fact rather than a subjective fact are denying that there is a fact of the matter about whether or not a particular subject is having particular experiences. That’s not what’s at stake here. But just because someone is having an internal experience doesn’t mean that that fact can be used to justify the conclusion one makes from those experiences. After all, just because you see a pink elephant doesn’t mean that you’re justified in concluding that there really is a pink elephant there, and that anyone else who is not having that specific experience ought to accept that there really is a pink elephant there just because you are having that experience. Thus, cycling back to justification, the personal experiences of one person cannot be used to justify the truth of a proposition to someone who is not having those experiences, no matter how certain someone is that the other person really is having those experiences. Now, of course, there are exceptions for testimony, where someone says that they are having a certain experience and it is presumed that the other person would, in fact, have that experience as well if they were in the same circumstances, but the worry over subjectivity is that the other person wouldn’t necessarily have the same experience in the exact same circumstances, and if that is accepted as possible and perhaps even likely then the testimony of those experiences can’t be used to justify anything more than the simple “I had this experience” proposition.

We want more than that to conclude that a proposition like “X is morally right” is true.

Carrier later talks about moralities being based on subjective feelings and experiences:

Likewise, pain and suffering are entirely subjective feelings. They are just like our opinions about music. What causes you pain may be different from what causes someone else pain. They might have PTSD, or a body in a different condition, or a different past history that makes some things more painful than others, or just genetically have a different pain tolerance than you. Yet that anyone’s pain and suffering are 100% subjective, all “just a feeling,” and different from person to person, there is still an objectively true fact that something is causing them pain. Even full-on divine-command-style Christians must agree: that pain is purely and only a “feeling” does not make it irrelevant to a third party’s moral judgment. To the contrary, moral judgment is always 100% dependent on whether that’s true, whether something you do will cause any pain or suffering.

But, again, that’s not what the debate is about. Utilitarianism is based on those sorts of hedonistic considerations, and yet it’s definitely considered a contender for being an objective morality. This is because it has a clear, set, universal criteria for what is or isn’t moral, even though that criteria is subjective. The objection that these sorts of subjective criteria usually get in formal philosophical circles is not that it makes morality subjective in an interesting way, but that as pain and pleasure are internal subjective feelings we don’t have access to them in order to make our determinations. I don’t have direct access to your internal subjective feelings, so only you know what they are. But I need to be able to know them in order to conclude what the action with the most hedonistic utility actually is … and I need to know them for everyone who might be involved. That would make Utilitarian views too difficult to implement. And Carrier’s move to specific brain states doesn’t help because it’s still too difficult if not impossible to bring everyone in and read their brain states to figure out what they are really feeling.

But note that Utilitarianism has this issue for, well, pretty much everything. You have to calculate future utility as well, and it’s impossible to predict the future with certainty. You also have to calculate it for anyone that might be involved, which is a daunting task to say the least. Fortunately, Utilitarianism can survive this sort of challenge by appealing to “as much as reasonable”; as Carrier himself notes later, all we can do is the best we can, and more importantly that’s all that we are required to do. The best that we can given our resources is not some kind of inferior situation that we just muddle through with, but is in fact what morality requires we do.

But, at any rate, the issue is not that it relies on subjective feelings and therefore it is entirely subjective. No one claims that appealing to the pain or emotions of someone in order to determine what is morally right makes that moral view necessarily subjective. Moreover — and this will come up again when we talk about relativism — simply because what is morally right might vary as per conditions or circumstances doesn’t do that either, or else, again, Utilitarianism isn’t an objective morality. Moreover, pretty much all objective moralities allow for differences depending on circumstances. So the fight isn’t over that.

Carrier, oddly, does indeed get what the fight is over, but then uses lots of other concepts to bury that so that he can come to his conclusion that the distinction of objective vs subjective isn’t useful:

Typically the objective/subjective distinction is made between “opinions/feelings/emotions” (subjective facts) and “that which can be independently observed or measured” or “that which exists regardless of what we think or feel” (objective facts). …

The distinction people want to make, then, is between our having an opinion, and that opinion being true. When opinions make assertions of fact (“in my opinion, no one will buy this product”), they can be false. Then they are really just less-informed beliefs about the world, rather than pure opinions. They differ from what people want to call “objective facts” only in how well informed the conclusion is from what we can all observe or measure. But what about opinions that can’t be false? For example, “in my opinion, this music sucks” could be making a claim to objective fact (it could be making an assertion that the music fails to satisfy some mutually accepted standard), but often it’s simply stating how the subject feels. That the music at that moment sucks to them is an undeniably true fact of how they feel about the music. And that it sucks, in that case, cannot even be false (for them). It is in that case like the color red.

And yet there is still an objectively true fact of the world here: their feeling that way about the music will manifest in a physical arrangement and state of their brain that can in principle be observed by a suitably informed third party, without ever having to ask them what they thought of the music.

Yes, but clearly that objectively true fact is irrelevant to whether or not the statement is, in fact, true. As Carrier himself notes, the option “This music sucks” can’t be false. Well, of course, he’s wrong about that; someone has direct access to their own experiences, but that doesn’t mean that the statement “This music sucks to me at the moment” can’t be false. Of course it can be false if they are, in fact, actually enjoying that music at that point in time. What he means here is that as long as they are actually having that experience, then there is no way to prove that statement false, no matter what objective evidence one brings to bear. No one can argue in any credible way that that person really ought to like that music based on things like the objective qualities of the notes or even their past history with similar music. They don’t like it, and that’s all that can be said about that.

So if we accept that a subjective morality claim puts the claim in areas like, say, appreciation of music, then we can ask if it seems reasonable to say that “Slavery is wrong” is in the same category of opinions. Let’s presume that someone says that slavery is not morally wrong based on some sort of internal feeling; they just feel that it is. With music, in general if they justify “For me, this music sucks” with “I’m not enjoying it”, there’s nothing more to be said. Would we consider this to be the case for “slavery is not morally wrong”? Moreover, opinions about things like music can easily justify taking actions, like going to see that band, buying their CDs, dictating to others what music can be allowed at a party, and so on. But we cannot challenge their view that they love that band (and so should go to their concert) or hate that band (and so won’t have them at their party). Sure, we might be able to use other arguments to try to sway them — they can’t afford the tickets, others really like that band and so the party will be more of a success — but none of those are arguments that go towards their musical views. By the same token, if morality is subjective then if someone chooses to buy a slave because it is at least not morally wrong to do so we would be unable to argue that they are wrong and that slavery is really immoral. Instead, again, we could appeal to non-moral arguments, like the law or the expense or whatever. But all of these would be considering that their moral judgement was, at least, not open to judgement. We would stop arguing on the basis of morality and start arguing on the basis of practicality or something else. At that point, what’s morality doing?

Now, the same concerns will come up in relativism, so I’ll address some other specific objections there. But the real worry about subjective morality is precisely the idea that moral claims will turn out like musical claims: true if that person feels that way, and false if they don’t, which means that we cannot claim that they are wrong about their moral assessments. But if they can’t be wrong about their moral assessments, then moral criticism is mostly meaningless, either idle chatter or acting like morality is objective when it really isn’t just as it is now for musical assessments. Ironically, Carrier identifies the problem only to equivocate on “objective” to try to avoid it.

Discussion of Objective Morality: Introduction

January 27, 2017

So, I’m going to start looking at Richard Carrier’s relatively recent post on objective morality here. Carrier’s first lament is this:

Is there an objectively true morality?

The question usually goes astray where those who ask or answer it never stop to clarify what they even mean by “objectively true.” In fact, people who ask or answer this question almost never define what they mean by that. And even when they do, they never establish that their definition is the pertinent one. Someone asking the question might mean objective in the sense of not made up, “true” whether we know or think or believe it’s true. Then someone who answers them might act as though “objective” meant based on an external authority, or not accessed through subjective experience. When in fact that’s not at all what the questioner was asking. Sometimes people confuse “objective” as the opposite of “relative,” when in fact many relative truths are also objectively true; or they confuse “objective” with “absolute, devoid of exceptions,” when in fact exceptions can be just as objectively true as the rule.

In reading the post, though, Carrier inserts a couple of other definitions of objective and seems to be equivocating a number of times, and it’s clear that in general there’s a bit of confusion over what the debate over objective morality is really about. One of the reasons for this is that there are different concerns that often get lumped into “objective morality”, with people then often using the differing senses of “objective” interchangeably because, in general, objective moralities avoid the problems with morality not being objective for all of the relevant senses, and so any claim that morality is not objective will run afoul of objective morality in general, no matter what one means by objective morality. So let me start, not by defining objective, but by outlining what I think are the two major concerns that drive philosophers to argue that morality must be objective. This is best described by two common questions:

1) Can moral claims be justified to anyone who is not the moral agent in question?
2) Are moral agents required to justify their moral claims to anyone who is not themselves?

Now, these may not seem that interesting or even that related to the morality debates, but they become very important when we look at moral disagreement. What happens when you say that taking action X is morally right, and someone else says that, no, taking action Y is what’s morally right, and in fact if you took action X you’d be acting immorally? It is at this point that justification becomes extremely important.

Note that if the answer to the first question is “No”, then the answer to the second question is also “No”, by the moral principle of “Ought implies can”. If moral claims cannot, by definition, be justified to anyone but the specific relevant moral agent, then we can’t require moral agents to justify them to other moral agents. But it is possible for the answer to the first question to be “Yes” and the answer to the second question to be “No”; someone might be able to justify their moral claims, but by definition morality does not require them to, and their determination is still morally correct even if they decline to.

It seems to me that the first question relates to questions around subjectivity: if moral claims can only be justified to the specific subject, then they can’t be justified — and thus can’t be required to be justified — to anyone else. The second question relates more to questions around relativism: is a moral agent inside the relevant grouping required to justify their moral claims to those outside of that group? There are consequences to each position, and I’ll examine them more in the next posts, but this hopefully makes more clear what the main concern of objective morality is: how are moral claims to be justified, particularly in cases of moral disagreement? Thus, my comments on the rest of Carrier’s post will focus on justification, and the consequences of the justification schemes that Carrier allows for.

Discussion of Objective Morality: Cross Examined on Objective Morality

January 20, 2017

So, I’m planning on writing on a post by Richard Carrier discussing objective morality, and as a kind of preamble to the post I’d like to examine this post by Cross Examined’s Bob Seidensticker attempting to show that objective morality doesn’t exist. Maybe. Well, at least it is aimed at showing that a specific argument for objective morality is wrong, which makes it worth looking at at a bit.

Seidensticker starts with this claim in response to Tim Keller’s argument that we think that the extermination of the Jews was in fact utterly immoral, no matter what the Nazis or anyone else thought of it:

There’s a difference between a widely believed or strongly felt moral opinion and objective morality. Don’t make the remarkable claim of objective morality (Keller’s “moral standards exist, outside of us”) without evidence.

So, parsing this, it looks like he’s arguing that the claim that there is an objective morality is a remarkable claim. But on what grounds does he assert that? Keller’s argument is that for the most part when we think of morality we think of these clear cases, and think that morality implies that these are, in fact, morally true regardless of how anyone thinks of it. This implies that we think that moral standards exist and apply independently of what people think they are. How is it that the predominant characterization of morality, based on our moral intuitions, is the remarkable claim? Especially considering that those moral intuitions are, in fact, pretty much the only evidence we have to say that anything like morality exists and is worth talking about. Sure, we could be wrong in our moral intuitions, but you need more than the idea that we could be wrong to call the objective morality claim remarkable but the non-objective morality claim not.

Moreover, this reply is utterly pointless, because the question is: Does Seidensticker believe that the extermination of the Nazis was immoral regardless of how they, or anyone else, thought of it, or does he reject that? If he accepts it, then he accepts objective morality. If he rejects it, then he has to accept some consequences, not the least of which is that he would have a very hard time justifying being able to argue against those who held that it was okay. Either he goes full-on relativistic and so can’t argue on any basis except for that person’s own beliefs, or he divides up his relativism but then has a hard time drawing the line of relativism and saying that relativism only applies this far and no further. And none of that would allow him to declare certain propositions objectively moral and claim that others aren’t, because if he does that then he accepts that there are objectively true moral propositions as per those who support objective morality, and is just quibbling over what those moral propositions are.

Which leads in to his reply to J. Warner Wallace. Wallace argues that there are exceptions to rules like “Don’t kill people” and “Don’t lie”, but that this doesn’t prove that objective morality is false. If we alter the rules to be “Don’t kill people just for fun” and “Don’t like just for fun”, then like the Holocaust example we can see that everyone agrees that these are, in fact, just objectively true, no matter what anyone else things about it. Seidensticker replies:

So we shouldn’t kill or lie just for fun. I confess that I’m unimpressed. Do we now have a useful moral roadmap where we didn’t before? Does this rule illuminate issues that frustrate society like abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and capital punishment so that the correct path is now clear to all?

Nope. We’re no wiser than we were before. And note that the Nazis didn’t kill Jews just for fun, so this rule does nothing to help Keller’s example.

The point of this exercise is only to spit out yet another example that we can all agree to. Keller pointed out that exterminating Jews was bad, and Wallace points out that killing or lying without justification is bad. I’m sure we all agree with these claims, but this isn’t news. Nothing has been illuminated.

Well, except that, as stated above, if Seidensticker agrees that these are, in fact, moral truths independent of us, then he has conceded that those who think that morality is objective are, in fact, correct. It doesn’t matter that these specific moral principles won’t necessarily help us solve all of those other related questions, because they weren’t really meant to. Obviously, if there are obvious answers to those moral questions, we’ll then discover equally “unimpressive” objective moral principles that answer those questions. Or we’ll find a more general objective principle that has as its consequence all of those. At any rate, that’s all irrelevant. If Seidensticker agrees that that this is, in fact, always morally wrong — or “bad” — then that’s an objective moral principle that is independent of what we believe is moral. And that’s all these arguments are trying to establish.

Seidensticker tries to argue for a more plausible view of morality than objective morality:

The problem, of course, is the remarkable claim of moral truth grounded outside humanity—“moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not” as William Lane Craig defines it. Why would you pick this explanation? A far more plausible explanation is morality as a combination of

a fixed part (moral programming that we all pretty much share since we’re the same species) and
a variable part (social mores).

This explains morality completely without an appeal to the supernatural.

Question: what makes those things “moral” in any way? If he wants to appeal to our moral intuitions about morality — ie what we think is moral — then he has to accept that we think that there are some things that are moral regardless of our species or social mores. Out own intuitions, then, don’t make his account any more plausible. He can lean on that “supernatural” part but a) that would only work for naturalists and b) there are a number of philosophers who have perfectly naturalistic ideas of objective morality. So why does he think his is more plausible when his account might not be any kind of morality whatsoever?

Seidensticker then tries to address Wallace’s defense of moral disagreement, the challenge to objective morality that says that because people do not and have not ever agreed on what is moral, then that must mean that morality is not objective (or, at least, strongly implies it). Wallace first starts with the argument that on what basis do “moral reformers” have to argue for moral reform if not by appealing to the idea that there is an objective morality and that what people think is morally right is actually morally wrong? To tie it back to Seidensticker’s “plausible explanation” above, they are not appealing to the fixed part since as we are all the same species we’d already have that, and not to the variable part because the social mores are, in fact, saying that what that reformer says is morally wrong is really morally right. So, under Seidensticker’s explanation, there is no rational or logical basis for them to make that argument.

Seidensticker first wants to claim that it can’t be to objective morality:

Obviously not through an appeal to an objective moral truth. If such a truth were accessible to all of us, how could we be in disagreement? Or does Wallace imagine that objective moral truth is not reliably inaccessible? But if it’s inaccessible, what good is it?

Seidensticker assumes here that if a truth is objective, then it must be self-evidently so, and so everyone must immediately and always see it as being the case. Otherwise, it is inaccessible and useless. But a truth can be accessible and yet not evidently so, and not without reasoning and theorizing and argumentation and experimentation to find out what the truth really is. For example, it is not self-evidently true that the Sun does not rotate around the Earth, and given the fact that we see that the Sun moves and don’t see that the Earth moves it is even the case that the Sun moving around the Earth is intuitively obvious. The same could be said about the rotation of the Earth; it may seem ridiculous to suggest that the Earth rotates since, well, we don’t feel it moving. The entire history of science has been taking this naively intuitive claims and proving that they are, in fact, actually false, with claims that are accessible yet not always intuitively obvious. Is Seidensticker going to claim that all of those truths then were “inaccessible”? Why should our naive intuitions about morality be given more weight than our naive intuitions about reality?

Wallace puzzles over how MLK could’ve caused change, but where’s the difficulty? History tells how it happened. America is not a simple democracy where the majority rules. We have a Bill of Rights that protects the minority against the tyranny of the majority. We have a free press. And we have a long history of (slowly) changing our minds on moral issues.

The majority opinion is that and nothing more. The moral claim “Jim Crow laws are wrong” is grounded only by everyone who agrees with the statement. It’s not objective moral truth.

So, if someone doesn’t agree with that statement, then, they are not, in fact, immoral or violating morality in any way. This means that Seidensticker has no grounds on which to claim that someone who disagrees is, in fact, wrong about what is or isn’t moral. Thus, the Nazis did not do anything morally wrong. Nor would someone who killed someone just for fun. You know, the obvious examples that Seidensticker claimed were too obvious and that everyone accepted, and thus were being used as an invalid bridge to objective morality?

Seidensticker closes off all avenues here if he wants the idea that something is morally wrong to have any weight whatsoever. If it’s all personal, then what someone says about anyone else’s morality is meaningless. And if he retreats to majority opinion to argue for why we should take the claim that Jim Crow laws or the Holocaust are meaningfully morally wrong, then MLK was wrong — and all reformers are wrong — to try to encourage that transition through argument, because the answer to what is morally right is just what the majority says it is.

Seidensticker can’t oppose morality this way without both contradicting his own explanation and making morality meaningless. It’s a double-whammy for him here. And at the end of the day, his objections to morality only end up making morality meaningless and contradicting the idea that there’s any kind of objective truth at all, undercutting science. This means that his arguments walk him into the very problems that philosophers use objective morality to solve, while refusing to concede that he’s willing to live with those problems. His “plausible explanation” isn’t one, and his appeal to history ignores the underlying philosophical arguments and the reasons why the appeals to morality were … appealing in order to support his own personal view, which he then makes meaningless and contradicts while doing so.

My contention is this: if morality is not objective in at least some very interesting senses, it is meaningless. Seidensticker’s take is one of the ones that makes it meaningless.