Massimo Pigliucci and Julia Galef have an interesting debate going – which I hope they continue – at Rationally Speaking. The interesting thing is that I’m not sure with whom I agree more.
Massimo defines morality “as that branch of philosophy that deals with the maximization of human welfare and flourishing.” And obviously, science can tell us a great deal about what does and does not maximize human welfare.
Julia agrees that if you start with such an axiom, then moral reasoning is possible. But she doesn’t see why we can begin with that axiom:
I can’t see any way in which a claim of the kind Massimo is making – “doing X increases human welfare, therefore X is the moral thing to do” – could logically hold, unless you’re simply defining the word “moral” to mean “that which increases human welfare,” in which case the statement is tautologically true. But I’m not sure what we gain by simply inventing a new word for a concept that already exists.
…[Luckily,] thanks to some combination of evolutionary biology and social conditioning, I do enjoy being kind, and I do want to reduce other people’s suffering – and I would want to do those things even without a rational justification for why that’s “moral.” And I believe most people would feel the same way.
But if someone didn’t care about other people’s welfare, I couldn’t accuse him of irrationality. He would be committing no fallacy in his reasoning…
As Hume wrote, it is “not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”
Is Moral Skepticism Possible?
Massimo’s first reply is to say that he doesn’t believe that anyone is a moral skeptic, not even Julia:
…moral skepticism is akin to skepticism about the existence of the world: it may be ultimately impossible to conclusively refute in an air-tight logical manner, but no one actually lives in this way, and no one really believes it.
As a one-time moral skeptic – and still a moral skeptic according to some definitions – I resist Massimo’s claim. Many people are moral skeptics. It might be nearly impossible to live as a skeptic of the external world – how do you interact with things you don’t think are real? – but it isn’t hard to be a moral skeptic.
In fact, it’s easy. The moral skeptic can act in ways that other people call “moral.” She can act with kindness and honesty and charity. She’ll just say she does these things because she wants to. She can even condemn those who kill and rape and lie and steal – but this won’t be because she believes robbers have violated some objective, universal standard of action. Rather, it will be because such actions are ones she disapproves of. In fact, the moral skeptic may even call such actions “evil” in everyday language, because such moral talk has more persuasive effect than merely saying “I disapprove of your actions.” But when you press her she’ll admit she doesn’t think anything is “morally good” or “morally evil” in the objective, universal sense of those terms. (In the same way, I say the “sun rises” though I know really the Earth is rotating, I talk about one object moving and the other “staying still” though I know all motion is relative, and I talk about “choice” though I don’t believe in contra-causal free will.)
So yes, one can live as a moral skeptic. Julia apparently does, and so do millions of other people. Moral skeptics lived even as far back as 600 B.C.
Facts and Axioms
Next, Massimo notes that moral skeptics often complain that the field of morality is not based on empirical facts. But neither is mathematics, says Massimo. Does that undermine mathematical truths? No.
Indeed, one might say the “foundations” of mathematics were undermined by Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, and yet no one says that mathematics is “an arbitrary castle built on clouds.”
Massimo’s central position is:
I define ethics/morality as concerned with exploring the sort of behaviors that augment human (and possibly beyond human) welfare and flourishing. Since this is a definition, it cannot be argued for, only either accepted or rejected. And yes, definitions are tautologies, but they are nonetheless very useful (all of math can be thought of as a tautology, and so is every single entry in a dictionary).
Massimo defends his definition by saying that moral systems purportedly about something else were really about human flourishing. For example, many religious believers seem to think we should obey God because that is best for human flourishing.
Is it moral?
It appears Massimo and Julia are arguing over definitions. Massimo thinks it’s okay to define ethics as the study of what maximizes human welfare. Julia thinks this definition is arbitrary, and rejects it.
Jules: That’s not art! The artist didn’t do anything, he just found that urinal and wrote his name on it.
Max: No, it is art, because it’s making a statement.
Here, Jules and Max agree on the properties of the urinal at the art show. They agree that somebody found a urinal, wrote his name on it, and put it in an art show. They agree this person is making a statement about art by submitting this piece to an art show. But they disagree about the definition of the word “art.”
How can we argue about definitions? Can we settle the matter by taking a poll or checking the dictionary? Or are we allowed to stipulate our own definitions for the sake of the conversation?
…when we are arguing about how to categorize something, it’s immensely clarifying to ask: Why does it matter? For instance (and this is my example, not Eliezer’s), is a 16-year-old an adult? Well, it depends why you’re asking. You might be asking whether a 16-year-old is capable of bearing children. Or you might be asking whether we should let a 16-year-old make life-changing decisions. In either case, the argument over whether to classify a 16-year old as an adult is beside the point once you recognize why you’re asking.
So when we ask “is this art?” we can get at the disguised query by following it up with, “Why does it matter?” As far as I can tell, the disguised query in this case is usually “does this deserve to be taken seriously?” which can be translated in practice into, “Is this the sort of thing that deserves to be exhibited in a gallery?” And that’s certainly a real, non-semantic debate. But we can have that debate without ever needing to decide whether to apply the label “art” to something – in fact, I think the debate would be much clearer if we left the word “art” out of it altogether.
That seems to make sense. Can we do the same thing with the definition of “morality”? Can we follow the question “Is this moral?” with the question “Why does it matter?” Will that help us get past the definitions debate, and on to something more useful?