CPBD 068: Matt Jordan – A Defense of Theistic Ethics

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 26, 2010 in Ethics,Podcast

(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

Today I interview philosopher Matt Jordan. Among other things, we discuss:

  • The criteria for a “robust” moral theory
  • Theism’s advantages over naturalism when it comes to morality

Download CPBD episode 068 with Matt Jordan. Total time is 58:08.

Matt Jordan links:

Links for things we discussed:

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Martin September 26, 2010 at 7:18 am

What the…??!!

What happened to the old CPBD theme song?!!

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Steve Maitzen September 26, 2010 at 7:57 am

The closing discussion of non-naturalistic moral realism — including Luke’s complaints about it and including Matt Jordan’s reference to Mackie — struck me as awfully familiar! The long comment thread way back at CPBD 038 covered this ground. Although that thread got a bit sidetracked (my fault) over whether duties to oneself make any sense, no ontological difference emerged between ought-statements in ethics and ought-statements in logic. One side in the dispute said that any objectively true ought-statement (including in logic) is really a descriptive statement in disguise; the other side said that some genuine ought-statements are objectively true in ethics but only as hypothetical imperatives. In neither case, however, did non-naturalistic realism about ethics come off looking worse than non-naturalistic realism about logic. Luke’s complaints in this interview seemed to take no account of that discussion.

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lukeprog September 26, 2010 at 8:14 am

Steve,

There’s only so much I can cover in one interview.

Personally, I’m not persuaded by non-naturalistic normative realism about logic or ethics, so yeah – for me they’re on a par.

To me, a hypothetical imperative is fully natural. It consists of a desire and a prediction. Science can handle both.

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Steve Maitzen September 26, 2010 at 10:24 am

Personally, I’m not persuaded by non-naturalistic normative realism about logic or ethics, so yeah – for me they’re on a par.

Let me press you a bit, Luke. Is it the realism or the non-naturalism? Are you inclined to deny that there are objective obligations in ethics and logic, or are you inclined to a naturalistic explanation of the objective obligations in ethics and logic? I don’t see how a naturalistic explanation of rational obligations (obligations in logic) could even go, since any explanation presupposes that some kinds of reasoning are bad and ought to be rejected.

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lukeprog September 26, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Steve,

Please do press all you like, Steve. I benefit a great deal by being pressed by people who know more than I do.

Certainly, the non-naturalism bothers me, because I haven’t been shown any good evidence for the truth of non-naturalistic claims.

Does the realism bother me? Depends what you mean by realism. If by “realism” you mean something like intrinsic value (value possessed by something apart from its being valued by an agent) or categorical imperatives, then I have the same problem with that kind of realism: no good evidence that I can see.

The only source of normativity I can personally justify so far is the hypothetical imperative. But really, I don’t need anything else to make sense of normative epistemology, normative logic, and normative ethics. All of these, to me, are systems of hypothetical imperatives. If other sources of normativity can be justified, I’ll be happy to add them to my ontology, but for now they are sacrificed to Occam’s razor.

What does this look like in logic? Logic is its own language of consistency and evaluating arguments. The hypothetical imperatives here are things such as “If you want to preserve truth through to your conclusion, you ought to ______” and “If you want your statements to be logically consistent, you ought to ______.” But clearly there are many people who do not care much about preserving truth through to a conclusion. Nor do they care about making their claims logically consistent. In such cases, those of us who do care about such things can reply, “Well, then I don’t have much interest in your arguments. Go play in fantasy land with the others.”

If instead the logician wants to say there is normative force written into the nature of logic itself, I would like to see some evidence of this. I will be happy to accept that for which good evidence is provided – unless the normativity of logic is an analytic truth, in which case it would again seem to be confined to the institution of logic, and not apply to those who do not care about the institution of logic.

Thoughts?

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Steve Maitzen September 26, 2010 at 1:44 pm

Thanks, Luke, for your reply. Of course, I can’t give you empirical evidence for the claim

(L) The demands of logic are categorical rather than hypothetical.

But I think there’s a transcendental argument for L. I think we’re committed to L even when we try to deny L. You say that the demands of logic are only hypothetical, only of the form

(H) If you want your inferences to preserve truth, don’t reason using X,

(where X is some fallacy), and suchlike. But why should I follow H? What makes H good advice? You might answer with another hypothetical imperative,

(H*) If you care about logic, then follow H.

But that explanation would fail. H is good advice regardless of whether anyone cares about logic. We need to regard the demands of logic as categorical even to entertain the idea that they’re not categorical.

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Godlesscitizen September 26, 2010 at 6:21 pm

A big problem with “theistic ethics” or any moral/ethical system based upon religious concepts, is that they’re contigent on the supernatural.Not only are they contingent on a broad conceptualization of the supernatural but much rather on specific or near-specific claims. (The christian god exists and wants you to do X..etc.)
Such values and the moral and ethical codes of behavior which can be derived from them, fall like a stack of cards when it can be shown there is no evidence for the very things in which these moral/ethical codes are based upon. (As opposed to a secular moral code which can apply to everyone provided they agree on the same initial basic set of values and want similar things for society)
There is also the big problem of telling other people what to do and how societies should be organized if someone is using religious ethics, which are completely predicated on their theological and metaphysical claims about human nature, our place in the world, etc., since they are just “what ifs” and not based on undeniable facts.

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lukeprog September 26, 2010 at 6:31 pm

Steve,

Sorry, I wasn’t able to trace how you arrived at your last sentence, “We need to regard the demands of logic as categorical even to entertain the idea that they’re not categorical.” I don’t think H need be supported by H*. If somebody asks, “But why should I follow H?” then the answer would be “Well, like I said, I’m only recommending that you not reason using X if you want inferences to preserve truth. This is because X doesn’t preserve truth. But if you don’t care about your inferences preserving truth, for example if you’re writing your ‘arguments’ as an art work, then I can’t think of a reason you should not reason using X.”

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Steve Maitzen September 26, 2010 at 6:56 pm

Luke,

I’m arguing that logical imperatives can’t be hypothetical all the way down. H is a hypothetical imperative, a conditional with an imperative as its consequent. Since imperatives (unlike assertions) aren’t truth-valued, H can’t be true. H can be at best good advice, and it is. But the fact that H is good advice, that H ought to be followed, is independent of anyone’s interests or desires. The fact that H is good advice doesn’t depend on whether anyone wants his/her inferences to preserve truth.

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lukeprog September 26, 2010 at 7:11 pm

Steve,

But that’s just what a hypothetical imperative is. It’s good advice (or can be), but only because it’s hypothetical. Hypothetical imperatives from all other domains work the same way. Consider:

(H1) If you want to boil water, heat the water to 100 degrees Celsius.

H1 is good advice because it can be transformed into a successful prediction about the real world:

(P1) If you heat water to 100 degrees Celsius, the water will boil.

But consider:

(H2) If you want to boil water, dance around it and pray to Tikalik.

H2 is bad advice because its transformation is a failed prediction:

(P2) If you dance around water and pray to Tikalik, the water will boil.

Thoughts?

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Steve Maitzen September 27, 2010 at 4:39 am

But that’s just what a hypothetical imperative is. It’s good advice (or can be), but only because it’s hypothetical.

Even if H can be good advice only because H is hypothetical, H needs something more in order to be, in fact, good advice, and that something more isn’t hypothetical, i.e., doesn’t depend on anyone’s interests or desires.

You say that hypothetical imperatives can be “transformed into” successful predictions in the indicative mood. That’s the line Josh took in the thread at CPBD 038, and I think it loses the imperatival character — the oughtness, the demandingness — of hypothetical imperatives by reducing them to indicative conditionals. On this line, there isn’t really any oughtness at all in the world, just indicative conditionals we treat as if they had imperatival force. Oughtness doesn’t exist, maybe because it would be spooky. Is that your view, or do you say that there’s irreducible oughtness in the world but all of it is hypothetical?

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lukeprog September 27, 2010 at 4:58 am

Steve,

Right, I think hypothetical imperatives supply all the oughtness there is in the world, and that this ‘ought’ is reducible to ‘is.’ I reject the is-ought gap, Moore’s open question argument, etc.

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Steve Maitzen September 27, 2010 at 7:34 am

Luke, thanks for being patient while I grope my way through this issue. It comes up a lot (including on this blog), so it’s worth some effort. As I understand your view, the moral judgment

(T) It’s wrong to torture children for fun

reduces to the indicative conditional

(T*) If you want to avoid wrongdoing, then torturing children for fun won’t get you what you want.

And the logical judgment

(W) It’s wrong to reason by affirming the consequent

reduces to the indicative conditional

(W*) If you want to reason well, then affirming the consequent won’t get you what you want.

On your view, then, T and W are objectively true iff T* and W* are. But T* and W* are objectively true (and I take it you think both are) only if there’s objective moral wrongness and objectively bad reasoning. Ethics and logic are still in the same boat. A naturalistic explanation of logical truths looks impossible, because logical truths are presupposed by (logically prior to) any explanation at all. If ethics and logic are in the same boat, then only a non-naturalistic explanation will work for objectivity in ethics. If we need a “magical Platonic realm” (53:27) for logic, why not one for ethics?

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Bill Snedden September 27, 2010 at 7:55 am

Steve Maitzen:

A naturalistic explanation of logical truths looks impossible, because logical truths are presupposed by (logically prior to) any explanation at all.

Steve, I think you’re correct to argue that logical truths are categorical, rather than hypothetical and I would also agree that there’s a transcendental approach (retorsion) that can demonstrate this in that any attempt to deny logic involves a self-contradiction. E.g., any attempt to argue that the Law of Non-contradiction is false necessarily involves a distinction between “true” and “false” that can only exist if the Law of Non-contradiction is true.

However, don’t see how it follows that a “naturalistic explanation of logical truths looks impossible”. Perhaps this turns on the meaning of “logical truths”. By this, do you mean truth bearers, or truth makers? Because as I see it, logical truths are propositions (truth bearers) that reflect the way reality is (the truth maker). So I can’t see any reason why there should be a problem for a naturalistic explanation for logical truths and unless someone can provide a non-question-begging argument for why the truth maker need be non-naturalistic, I don’t see why anyone else should, either.

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Steve Maitzen September 27, 2010 at 8:32 am

Bill,
Thanks for your comment. Poor Matt Jordan, seeing his interview thread diverted to a discussion of the semantics of logic! But here goes. I can’t see how propositions (truth-bearers) about what-logically-implies-what could have truth-makers from outside the domain of logic itself, that is, natural-world (physical, biological, psychological, etc.) truth-makers. That’s what I meant by ruling out “naturalistic” explanations. Now, if by “the natural world” we mean simply “everything that exists, whether metaphysically concrete or abstract,” or “everything that’s not an immaterial spirit,” then I don’t rule out naturalistic explanations of logical truths. But I take it that most self-styled naturalists would reject that looser meaning of “the natural world”; they’d say there aren’t any abstract objects, for starters.

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Bill Snedden September 27, 2010 at 10:05 am

Steve:

I can’t see how propositions (truth-bearers) about what-logically-implies-what could have truth-makers from outside the domain of logic itself, that is, natural-world (physical, biological, psychological, etc.) truth-makers.

Hmmm.. at first I thought you were speaking of logical truths like the Law of Non-contradiction, but it seems here that you’re referring more to rules of inference (modus ponens, modus tollens, etc), right? However, I’m not sure I see any relevant difference. If we can naturalistically ground a “first-order” logical truth like the LoNC, then it seems to me that we should be able to naturalistically ground “second-order” truths like rules of inference as their existence depends entirely on the existence of “first-order” truths. Perhaps that’s because the following:

But I take it that most self-styled naturalists would reject that looser meaning of “the natural world”; they’d say there aren’t any abstract objects, for starters.

seems to me to depend upon an equivocation (not a deliberate one, mind you) on what we mean by “abstract objects”. I know of NO naturalists who deny the existence qua existence of abstract objects, but I know of many who deny the objective existence of abstract objects. But if we posit that abstractions exist, albeit subjectively, and that this existence is grounded as being conceptualizations of objectively existing objects, then why should we have difficulty seeing “second-order” logical truths, like rules of inference, as abstractions of abstractions? Sort of like the following:

The validity of modus tonens as a truth-preserving structure is demonstrated via a truth-table, the efficacy of which is predicated on the veracity of the Law of Non-contradiction, the existence of which is grounded in the objective nature of reality. It seems to me that this implies that the validity of modus tonens is a necessary implication of the LoNC and thus is grounded in objective reality in the same manner as the LoNC. In other words, just as with the LoNC, any attempt to argue against modus tonens will necessarily assume its truth.

And I don’t think this is necessarily completely off-topic as I believe that any valid meta-ethical theory is going to have to demonstrate some sort of similar connection between the subjective and the objective (e.g.., while moral values are necessarily subjective, they are grounded in objective reality in much the same way as logical truths.).

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Steve Maitzen September 27, 2010 at 10:31 am

Bill:
Because the topic was truth-bearers and their truth-makers, I was referring to propositions throughout, rather than to rules of inference, since strictly speaking rules can’t be true. But you’re right that this doesn’t seem to make a big difference here. We can “translate” the rule of modus ponens (for example) into the true proposition “The conjunction of a conditional and its antecedent always implies the conditional’s consequent.”

I didn’t quite follow the rest. You seem to allow for the “subjective” existence of abstractions, which I take it are entities (?) that depend for their existence on being conceived by a mind (?), but not the existence of abstract objects. So the number 2, say, exists as my mind’s abstraction from objectively existing pairs of material objects, but there’s no further sense in which the number 2 exists. Have I got you right?

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lukeprog September 27, 2010 at 11:03 am

Steve,

I’d rather stick to logical imperatives, since for me moral terms could have many possible meanings and that’s a long discussion – one I’d rather begin by way of the podcast Alonzo Fyfe and I are producing. I do not endorse the reduction from (T) to (T*).

I don’t think we need non-naturalistic foundations for logic. W* doesn’t finish the reduction, because W* still contains a value term: “reason well.” So I would rather say something like the following:

(V) Within the conventional institution of logic, it’s wrong to reason by affirming the consequent.

(V*) If you want to reason from true premises to a true conclusion (one that will work when applied in the real world under the right conditions), then don’t reason by affirming the consequent.

(V**) If you reason by affirming the consequent when trying to reason from true premises to a conclusion, your conclusion won’t necessarily be true (it may not work when applied in the real world under the right conditions).

Hopefully I’m gradually becoming more clear… :)

So far, I don’t see why we need anything more than hypothetical imperatives to explain the normativity of logic, epistemology, and so on.

Also, I wonder what the motivation is to make logical normativity categorical. Is this because we want to be able to have something to say to the illogical person so that he will be converted to being logical upon hearing it? Or is it because we want to categorically condemn people who are illogical, even if they don’t care about being logical? Or is it because some people feel that logical imperatives are categorical or intrinsic or something? What’s the motivation?

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Bill Snedden September 27, 2010 at 1:01 pm

Steve:

You seem to allow for the “subjective” existence of abstractions, which I take it are entities (?) that depend for their existence on being conceived by a mind (?), but not the existence of abstract objects.

A more concise way of putting it than my rather verbose previous post. I suppose I should have simply stated that it seems to me that the term “abstract object” is in reality a contradiction in terms.

So the number 2, say, exists as my mind’s abstraction from objectively existing pairs of material objects, but there’s no further sense in which the number 2 exists. Have I got you right?

Yes. I guess my ontological position could be described as “conceptualism, or something nearly like it”…

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Steve Maitzen September 27, 2010 at 5:39 pm

@Luke: My motivation is the suspicion — encouraged by (among other things) Thomas Nagel’s book The Last Word — that conventionalism about logic and ethics is incoherent, and so is trying to ground logic and ethics entirely in the physical world via psychology, biology, physics, and the like. Your proposition V mentions “the conventional institution of logic,” as if logical truths might be true only by convention. (Do I misread you?) Were there no logical truths before the relevant conventions arose? Even considering that question requires a negative answer to it, contrary to conventionalism.

@Bill: I’m no expert on the philosophy of math, but I find myself persuaded by Quine’s indispensability argument for the existence of at least some abstract objects, such as sets or maybe integers. But my point in talking about abstract objects was to explain how I was construing the term “naturalistic”: I took it that no naturalistic explanation invokes abstract objects.

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lukeprog September 27, 2010 at 7:26 pm

Steve,

I would like to think more about this – both about whether I am correct and about how to express my view.

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Steve Maitzen September 28, 2010 at 5:16 am

I would like to think more about this – both about whether I am correct and about how to express my view.

Thanks, Luke. I’ll look forward to hearing more. I’m not at all sure my own view is correct, but I am sure I didn’t express it well in my last comment. I should have said, “Were there any logical truths before the relevant conventions arose? Even considering that question requires the answer ‘yes’, contrary to conventionalism.” I didn’t need to complicate things with a double negative!

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