Moral Reductionism and Moore’s Open Question Argument

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 25, 2011 in Ethics

Consider Sam Harris’ reduction of moral terms to natural terms concerning the well-being of conscious creatures. And let’s assume we can reduce ‘well-being’ and ‘conscious’ into brain states, or something.

Harris says that Good = the well-being of conscious creatures.

G.E. Moore argued that any claim of the type “Good = X” can be defeated because the question “Such and such is X, but is it good?” still seems like an open question. Moore would ask Harris: “Sure, the polio vaccine contributes to the well-being of conscious creatures, but is it Good?” This question, says Moore, is an ‘open’ question, unlike a ‘closed’ question like “He’s an unmarried man, but is he a bachelor?” In this way, Moore resists the identification of ‘morally good’ with any natural kind. This is Moore’s Open Question Argument (OQA).

How can the moral reductionist respond?

A moral reductionist who claims to discern a synthetic reduction of moral terms (like Peter Railton) rather than an analytic one can say that (one interpretation of) Moore’s argument commits the masked man fallacy:

Imagine that you live in a community where the news recently has been filled with accounts of a masked man who robbing people on the highways outside of town at night. Somebody comes to you and says, “Your brother is the masked man.”

You respond, “That’s not possible. Last night I was wondering myself who the masked man was, but I was not wondering who my brother was. So, they cannot be the same person.”

Obviously, your wonderings have nothing at all to do with whether the masked man in your brother. That you did not know that your brother was the masked man is a property of you, not a property of your brother or the masked man. As such, it does not provide proof that the two are not one and the same person.

Similarly, G.E. Moore’s wonderings about “Object is X, but is it good?” has nothing to do with whether goodness is ultimately understandable in terms of X. To answer whether good is X, we need to perform the same type of investigation that we would perform in determining if your brother is the masked man.1

However, we can interpret Moore more charitably and suggest that he is only arguing against the analytic identification of ‘morally good’ with natural properties. In this case, Moore’s OQA just doesn’t apply to synthetic moral reductionism.

How can an analytic moral reductionist respond to Moore’s OQA?

First, Moore’s argument begs the question against the moral reductionist. We can appeal to the intuition that the question “…but is X good?” is an open question only if moral reductionism is false. If it is true, we cannot appeal to that intuition.

Second is the ‘no interesting analyses’ objection:

The open-question argument assumes that it is impossible for a conceptual analysis to be true but informative and interesting. Take any concept P and suppose that it can be analysed in terms of someother concept P*. If the analysis is to be informative and interesting, it must be significant to question whether something which is P* is P. According to Moore, the analysis of P in terms of P* can be correct only if it is not significant to ask whether something which is P* is P. So Moore’s argument implies that the analysis of P in terms of P* can be correct only if it is completely uninformative and uninteresting. However, this implication is false: analyses patently can be informative and interesting. For example, mathematics and logic are arguably full of unobvious a priori and analytic truths, and there are also many candidates for interesting and informative philosophical analyses… So there is something amiss with Moore’s argument.2

Thus, Moore’s OQA fails to defeat even analytic moral reductionism.

 

  1. This is also called the sense-reference objection to Moore’s OQA. []
  2. Miller, An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics, p. 16. []

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{ 67 comments… read them below or add one }

Kevin April 25, 2011 at 10:01 am

“Sure, the polio vaccine contributes to the well-being of conscious creatures, but is it Good?” This question, says Moore, is an ‘open’ question, unlike a ‘closed’ question like “He’s an unmarried man, but is he a bachelor?”

I get what he is trying to say, but I don’t see the difference. The only distinction I see is that some people disagree with the definition of “Good” or what it comprises of, whereas people don’t object to the definition of a “bachelor”? Suppose someone thinks that a bachelor is simply someone who is single or available? To them, the ‘closed’ question above would be considered an ‘open’ question, since knowing someone is unmarried wouldn’t necessarily make one a bachelor. Given this, it seems like the open/closed distinction has to do with the map instead of the territory, so this objection seems misplaced.

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Garren April 25, 2011 at 10:43 am

The intuitive allure of the open question argument comes, in my estimation, from the variety of ways a thing can be ‘good.’

Good[1] is identical to property P. ‘But is P good[2,3,etc..]?’

This should hint that the essential meaning of ‘good’ is at a level more abstract than any of these particular meanings which don’t seem to cover the whole concept of ‘good’ individually.

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Martin April 25, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Thanks for these, señor Luke. I myself have been slowly trying to learn meta-ethics, and reading different versions of this have helped me understand it. I think I understood “Frege Sense-Reference Distinction”, but translate it to “masked man fallacy” and it’s so much easier. Duh. Why didn’t they just say that in the first place?

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cl April 25, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Echoing Kevin…

Moore would ask Harris: “Sure, the polio vaccine contributes to the well-being of conscious creatures, but is it Good?” This question, says Moore, is an ‘open’ question, unlike a ‘closed’ question like “He’s an unmarried man, but is he a bachelor?”

Isn’t that just semantic sleight-of-hand, though? I mean, why is the second question closed? Because “by definition,” all unmarried men are bachelors. Well, if “good” is “that which increases the well-being of sentient creatures,” couldn’t I just as easily say that “by definition,” polio vaccines are good?

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antiplastic April 25, 2011 at 5:19 pm

This is another one of those cases in the history of philosophy where the fundamental insight made is correct, but the philosopher making it lacked the technical apparatus to express the insight formally.

Here’s another way of putting it which annihilates any attempt to reduce moral properties to natural properties: 1) take any predicate with a prescriptive and a descriptive component [brave, generous, polite] 2) construct a predicate whose extension is identical, but flip the positive or negative attitude to its opposite 3) notice that there is no contradiction, incoherence, or error of observational prediction in using the new predicate.

Think of it as an application process that any proposed reduction of moral properties must pass. Rather than attempting a formal, universal disproof, simply reject naturalistic proposals one at a time.

Is someone who describes with approval an act which will decrease others’ “well-being” at the expense of a small increase of his own uttering a contradiction? Is he necessarily mistaken about what future observations will ensue? Of course not. Note how this works just as well as an argument against DCT.

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Jake April 25, 2011 at 7:06 pm

I agree with antiplastic, along with Frank Snare and others who see the OQA as a sort of test to be passed by analytic reductions. Seeing it in this way avoids the charge of question-begging in exchange for being defeasible. This is also related to how I see the Horgan and Timmons’ Moral Twin Earth scenario when discussing synthetic naturalisms. I think Miller is far too quick in his discussion of this latter case, especially since H&T frame their argument in a way that is meant to be defeasible anyway. Defeat of an entire class of positions is hard to come by in philosophy, but there’s plenty to be salvaged here which poses challenges to naturalisms of many stripes.

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Garren April 25, 2011 at 11:16 pm

@antiplastic,

..”1) take any predicate with a prescriptive and a descriptive component [brave, generous, polite] 2) construct a predicate whose extension is identical, but flip the positive or negative attitude to its opposite 3) notice that there is no contradiction, incoherence, or error of observational prediction in using the new predicate.”

Wouldn’t this be a problem for reductive ethics in combination with motivational internalism, but not in combination with motivational externalism? It’s similar to the amoralist problem, except with a negative rather than apathetic attitude toward what is usually regarded positively, e.g. ‘brave’, ‘good’, etc.

I think ‘good’ is conceptually identical to ‘conducive to the implied end.’ This is a reduction that’s pretty flagrantly externalist, because our attitude toward the extension of a given ‘good’ will depend on our attitude toward the end involved.

Do you see a problem with this kind of reduction?

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antiplastic April 26, 2011 at 12:13 am

@antiplastic,

Wouldn’t this be a problem for reductive ethics in combination with motivational internalism, but not in combination with motivational externalism? It’s similar to the amoralist problem, except with a negative rather than apathetic attitude toward what is usually regarded positively, e.g. ‘brave’, ‘good’, etc.

I think ‘good’ is conceptually identical to ‘conducive to the implied end.’ This is a reduction that’s pretty flagrantly externalist, because our attitude toward the extension of a given ‘good’ will depend on our attitude toward the end involved.

Do you see a problem with this kind of reduction?

The number one problem is that moral externalism is mind-blowingly, gobsmackingly false. One might as well be an externalist about Love.

The number two problem is that there is no “implied end” to categorical imperatives — that’s definitionally what distinguishes them from hypothetical ones.

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Garren April 26, 2011 at 12:31 am

Since I hold to externalism and consider morality to be a system of hypothetical imperatives, can you recommend any particularly persuasive explanations of why these are infeasible positions? I want to give opposing ideas a fair shot at changing my mind on this.

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fancypants April 26, 2011 at 1:09 am

1) take any predicate with a prescriptive and a descriptive component [brave, generous, polite] 2) construct a predicate whose extension is identical, but flip the positive or negative attitude to its opposite 3) notice that there is no contradiction, incoherence, or error of observational prediction in using the new predicate.

I’m having trouble constructing a concrete instance using the above steps. Would someone be kind enough to provide one?

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cl April 26, 2011 at 8:10 am

fancypants,

I’m having trouble constructing a concrete instance using the above steps. Would someone be kind enough to provide one?

Ditto.

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Garren April 26, 2011 at 8:44 am

An example.

1. We’ll use ‘brave’ as a predicate with a prescriptive and descriptive component.

2. The descriptive component of ‘brave’ would be something like: an action or the quality of character which deliberately goes on in the face of great personal risk. Let’s suppose there’s a term ‘foolrisky’ which points to all the same actions and quality of characters, but is used when people are expressing a negative attitude.

3. Notice how those using the term ‘foolrisky’ are not making any kind of factual mistake.

Now, presumably, antiplastic’s point is that any moral theory which allows similar treatment for moral predicates is fundamentally mistaken about morality. I.e. if it’s possible to fully reduce moral predicates to descriptions, then it seems possible for people to take a negative attitude toward the corresponding acts and character qualities. I’m ok with admitting this possibility, but antiplastic takes the position that this is unacceptable.

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Sammy April 26, 2011 at 9:39 am

Hi Luke,

The way you present Moore’s argument has him engaging in moral ontology. However, this doesn’t appear to be what he’s doing. Rather, it seems that Moore is engaged in moral semantics. In other words, Moore’s OQA is not arguing that moral properties cannot be reduced to non-moral properties. Instead, it appears that he’s arguing that the meaning of moral terms cannot be expressed in non-moral terms.

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antiplastic April 26, 2011 at 12:58 pm

@fancypants looks like Garren elaborated on this:

2. The descriptive component of ‘brave’ would be something like: an action or the quality of character which deliberately goes on in the face of great personal risk. Let’s suppose there’s a term ‘foolrisky’ which points to all the same actions and quality of characters, but is used when people are expressing a negative attitude.

3. Notice how those using the term ‘foolrisky’ are not making any kind of factual mistake.

@fancypants looks like Garren elaborated on this:

2. The descriptive component of ‘brave’ would be something like: an action or the quality of character which deliberately goes on in the face of great personal risk. Let’s suppose there’s a term ‘foolrisky’ which points to all the same actions and quality of characters, but is used when people are expressing a negative attitude.

It is crucial to notice here that ‘foolrisky’ does not mean the same thing as ‘brave’. If your cousin from The Old Country is visiting and you hand him a phrase book that says the two are synonyms, he is going to end up getting his ass kicked in a pub somewhere, pronto.

Therefore the meaning of ‘brave’ is not identical to its descriptive components.

3. Notice how those using the term ‘foolrisky’ are not making any kind of factual mistake.

I think most people would agree that giving bravery short shrift is a kind of mistake, and speaking loosely (i.e. outside of philosophy) there’s no problem in saying that it’s a “factual” mistake. It’s just that the mistake does not lie in any empirical, natural fact. They have the wrong attitude.

Someone who describes the 9/11 firefighters as ‘foolrisky’ is wrong to do so, but convincing them to change their minds will not consist in informing them of empirical facts about burning buildings of which they were previously unaware.

Now, presumably, antiplastic’s point is that any moral theory which allows similar treatment for moral predicates is fundamentally mistaken about morality. I.e. if it’s possible to fully reduce moral predicates to descriptions, then it seems possible for people to take a negative attitude toward the corresponding acts and character qualities. I’m ok with admitting this possibility, but antiplastic takes the position that this is unacceptable.

But ‘bravery’ is a moral term, and as your example shows it is not identical to its extension. And as these thick, world-guided moral concepts (Charitable, Abstemious) begin to thin out into more rarified pure moral concepts (the Good, the Right) the descriptive component gradually drops out entirely, until you’re left with nothing but a particular kind of emotive attitude. Flip the attitude, flip the meaning.

I will accept an identification or reduction of moral properties to descriptive properties only when someone supplies one where adopting the opposite conative state towards it is conceptually or nomologically impossible.

Jake’s right, definitely check out some papers from Horgan & Timmons on this. I think their ‘Cognitivist Expressivism’ is a good starting place.

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antiplastic April 26, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Since I hold to externalism and consider morality to be a system of hypothetical imperatives, can you recommend any particularly persuasive explanations of why these are infeasible positions? I want to give opposing ideas a fair shot at changing my mind on this.

I doubt that you hold externalism in any pragmatically relevant sense. (This isn’t a dig on you personally! Trust me.) There are no externalists in practice. No one actually patterns their voting, parenting, charitable giving etc. in ways random with respect to their moral values. No one actually attempts to effect a moral conversion on his cultural enemies with no expectation that a succesful conversion will alter their behavior. Externalism is the paradigm case of a theory in philosophy utterly unmotivated by anything other than the need to rescue an adjacent theory (realism).

For an absolutely fantastic takedown, see this wonderful passage from the SEP

Re: hypotheticals, you could start with Foot’s own recantation of her earlier paper printed in Dawrall, Gibbard & Railton’s _Moral Discourse and Practice_, or her more extended treatment in _Natural Goodness_. If “conduciveness to the implied end” were a good description of moral language, you should be able to either 1) present and defend what the “implied end” is that every person in every culture implicitly agrees on when they discuss morality if you want to preserve univocality (which, good luck with that!) or 2) concede relativism, where moral communities are balkanized to their respective “implied ends”.

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Kevin April 26, 2011 at 2:35 pm

” 2. The descriptive component of ‘brave’ would be something like: an action or the quality of character which deliberately goes on in the face of great personal risk. Let’s suppose there’s a term ‘foolrisky’ which points to all the same actions and quality of characters, but is used when people are expressing a negative attitude.

It is crucial to notice here that ‘foolrisky’ does not mean the same thing as ‘brave’. If your cousin from The Old Country is visiting and you hand him a phrase book that says the two are synonyms, he is going to end up getting his ass kicked in a pub somewhere, pronto.

Therefore the meaning of ‘brave’ is not identical to its descriptive components.”

I don’t follow. Sure, brave doesn’t mean the same thing as foolrisky, but they can both apply to the same individual. Suppose someone, upon watching someone being swept away in a tsunami, jumps into the water in order to save them. Consequently, they are swept away also, and adds one more to the death toll. The individual, by the above definition, was brave, yet also foolrisky since others would caution others not to be “brave” in such circumstances (express a negative attitude towards his actions). This only shows that being foolrisky depends on a cost-benefit analysis and if the analysis turns out negative, then they are deemed foolrisky (i.e. they were stupid to think their actions would have a positive effect), but they are always considered brave. This shows that brave and foolrisky have different meanings but not that brave does not reduce to a description.

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antiplastic April 26, 2011 at 3:10 pm

@Kevin if the meaning of X is identical to its descriptive component D and the meaning of Y is identical to its descriptive component D and both descriptive components are identical then the meaning of X is identical to the meaning of Y. That’s what the identity relation means.

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Kevin April 26, 2011 at 4:25 pm

I understand what an identity relationship is. However, I don’t see how “brave” and “foolrisky” are identical. Are you saying that the term “brave” has a positive connotation whenever it is used, whereas the term “foolrisky” has a negative connotation and someone could use the term “foolrisky” to describe the same situations that the term “brave” refers to without being factually incorrect and someone could use the term “brave” to describe the same situations that the term “foolrisky” refers to without being factually incorrect?

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antiplastic April 26, 2011 at 5:04 pm

Precisely. The terms are not identical. But if their moral content reduces to their descriptive content, then they would be. By modus ponens, then, the meaning of moral terms does not reduce to their descriptive content.

If we restrict factual correctness to correctness about empirical descriptions, then yes, neither person is factually incorrect in their conflicting moral evaluation. What this shows is that what the one guy is wrong about isn’t any kind of fact, but rather about what sort of person to be.

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Kevin April 26, 2011 at 5:35 pm

So, lets go back to the person jumping into the tsunami to try to help someone in the water and see how this applies. It is fairly easy to see how this is negative, performing the action doesn’t fulfill the states of affairs the person wants to fulfill and actively brings states of affairs that the person doesn’t want fulfilled. Would it then follow that someone saying that the action is positive means the opposite, that the action fulfills states of affairs that the person wants to fulfill? If so, then they would be factually incorrect. Wouldn’t this mean that the descriptive content of the two terms is not identical?

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antiplastic April 26, 2011 at 6:18 pm

You’ve lost me on the antecedents. Does “the person” mean in each case the jumper, and not the evaluator? I’m assuming it does.

“Whether or not it fulfills the person’s goals”, you’ll recall, was not part of the stipulated descriptive content of bravery or its antonym. If bravery in combat were contingent on whether your country ultimately wins at some indefinite point in the future, then no soldier who ever fought for a country that eventually lost is “brave”.

But you can add that to the desctiptive content if you like — provided you add it to both predicates equally. (remember, that’s the point of the expressivist version of the open question challenge: to find a description where contrary attitudes are impossible). If fulfilling the jumper’s goals is part of the descriptive content of both terms, then everyone would agree that the act was neither brave nor foolrisky.

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Gettier Parody April 26, 2011 at 6:57 pm

Here’s a parody of Luke’s claim that Moore’s argument is question-begging:

Luke claims (suppose) that knowledge is to be defined as justified true belief. Gettier presents one of his famous counterexamples. Luke responds that Gettier has begged the question. Since knowledge was just defined as justified true belief, clearly Smith has knowledge.

How weak.

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Kevin April 26, 2011 at 7:22 pm

“Whether or not it fulfills the person’s goals”, you’ll recall, was not part of the stipulated descriptive content of bravery or its antonym.”

We stipulated that “brave” is a positive description for a certain situation, right? And “foolrisky” is a negative description of the same situation, right? If so, what do the terms “positive” and “negative” mean in this context? Do they refer to how the actions/situation relate to the desires of the parties involved? If not, then I don’t know what you mean by those terms.

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antiplastic April 26, 2011 at 8:17 pm

We stipulated that “brave” is a positive description for a certain situation, right?And “foolrisky” is a negative description of the same situation, right?If so, what do the terms “positive” and “negative” mean in this context?Do they refer to how the actions/situation relate to the desires of the parties involved?If not, then I don’t know what you mean by those terms.

Positive means the person who is describing the situation has a positive attitude about the facts he is describing. He likes it. He wishes more people would be like that. He would feel proud if he were like that.

Negative means the person who is describing the situation has a negative attitude about the facts he is describing. He doesn’t like it. He wishes less people would be like that. He would feel bad if he were like that.

Two words. Two different attitudes. Same facts.

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Kevin April 26, 2011 at 9:37 pm

“Positive means the person who is describing the situation has a positive attitude about the facts he is describing. He likes it. He wishes more people would be like that. He would feel proud if he were like that.”

So this person is saying that if he were substituted with the person in the hypothetical, it would be positive. Had the same thing happened to him, it would be positive. Had the same thing happened to him and someone evaluated it as negative for him, then they would be factually incorrect. As it appears, this person isn’t actually evaluating whether the actual hypothetical is positive or negative.

“Negative means the person who is describing the situation has a negative attitude about the facts he is describing. He doesn’t like it. He wishes less people would be like that. He would feel bad if he were like that.”

So this person is saying that if he were substituted with the person in the hypothetical, it would be negative. Had the same thing happened to him, it would be negative. Had the same thing happened to him and someone evaluated it as positive for him, then they would be factually incorrect. As it appears, this person isn’t actually evaluating whether the actual hypothetical is positive or negative.

“Two words. Two different attitudes. Same facts.”

They aren’t describing the same facts. They may be describing the same environmental factors, but they are not describing the same mental states, the same individual in the hypothetical, since they are saying whether they themselves would like it, not whether those involved would. The difference in facts would be between the person who says its positive and the person who says its negative since they are talking about themselves and not evaluating the actual hypothetical person. Had they actually been evaluating the scenario, then one of them would actually be factually incorrect.

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Garren April 26, 2011 at 10:28 pm

@antiplastic

So the idea is that anyone judging something to be ‘good’ is necessarily and only expressing a positive attitude toward it? And if any ‘good’ judgments are wrong it’s because the speaker has the ‘wrong attitude’?

I can see part of the appeal of this view because people use ‘helpful’ or ‘effective’ rather than ‘good’ when they don’t want to be mistakenly thought to have a positive attitude, e.g. “Hitler was an effective leader” rather than “Hitler was a good leader.” However, I would argue that all three of these words have similar descriptive content: ‘conducive to an implied end.’ A good anchor, a good buoy, a good chair, etc. In the moral case, conducive to a moral end. I would therefore argue ‘good’ has more to it than pro-attitude.

You also mentioned the possibility of having a ‘wrong attitude.’ I have a hard time understanding what this could mean besides either (1) an unpopular attitude, or (2) an attitude toward an action which is contrary to one’s attitude toward ends promoted by that action. But if moral goodness has no descriptive content, it seems we’re stuck with ‘wrong attitude’ meaning ‘unpopular attitude.’

Thanks for the further reading. I’m still working on some of that.

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cl April 27, 2011 at 9:21 am

Can’t we play this game with anything though? Take beauty, as one example: “She’s hot!” says person A. “No way, she’s a dog!” retorts person B. Or, take intelligence: “That guy’s amazingly smart,” says person A. “Hell no, he’s a dumbass!” exclaims person B. I guess I just don’t see how the ability to see things differently has any bearing on reduction.

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Garren April 27, 2011 at 11:59 am

@antiplastic,

I’ve now read ‘Non-Descriptivist Cognitivism’ by Horgan and Timmons. My short response is: ‘is-commitments’ and ‘ought-commitments’ are not separate base cases for a belief. Rather, an ought-commitment is a type of is-commitment as explained by end-relational semantics:

http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/2010/12/on-oughts-and-ends.html

Might post on this paper and elaborate on the short response. If so, I’ll mention it here when complete.

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Josh April 27, 2011 at 7:38 pm

Can’t we play this game with anything though? Take beauty, as one example: “She’s hot!” says person A. “No way, she’s a dog!” retorts person B. Or, take intelligence: “That guy’s amazingly smart,” says person A. “Hell no, he’s a dumbass!” exclaims person B. I guess I just don’t see how the ability to see things differently has any bearing on reduction.

I must be losing my freaking mind, because I completely agree with cl…

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fancypants April 28, 2011 at 1:47 am

My first confusion here is that [brave, generous, polite] don’t seem to be terms. Is the noun implied? [brave person, generous person, polite person].

Next, you mention ‘extension’. I assume when you say ‘extension is identical’, you mean the terms denote exactly the same class members. (Later, others mention connotation). I understand the relation between intention and extention, but it is not a necessary relation. Does the “prescriptive/descriptive component’ relate to intention and extension?

To borrow a non-moral example from the book, in regard to intensional meaning, not all terms connote the same attributes to all people. For example, the term ‘spider’ connotes the attribute of being disgusting to some people, while it connotes the attribute of being likable to other people. Yet the extension (class members) remains the same (spiders).

Are you saying more or less the same thing in relation to moral terms? For example, ‘genital mutilation’ might connote different attributes to different people, yet the extension remains the same. Or must there be two different predicate terms with the same extension? I’m still confused. Is there a more ideal example that the brave/foolrisky example?

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Garren April 28, 2011 at 2:16 am

My post on ‘Non-descriptivist Cognitivism’ is up, which I read on a tip from the above comments.

http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/2011/04/on-non-descriptivist-cognitivism.html

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Luke Muehlhauser April 28, 2011 at 7:38 am

Yes, cool.

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cl April 28, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Josh,

I must be losing my freaking mind, because I completely agree with cl…

No, you’re actually just now finding it. Stick with me and watch the wonders we can work! ;)

Still though, I don’t see how we can get from, “people can see things differently,” to, “moral properties can’t reduce to natural properties.”

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Kevin April 28, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Maybe its supposed to be an objection to “objective” natural morality. If someone finds a certain set of facts to be positive and someone else finds the same set of facts to be negative, then it is not “objective”? Its like someone saying that X food is healthy for them, so its positive for them, someone else is allergic to X food, so it is negative for them, therefore nutrition does not reduce to empirical facts. Maybe in an “objective” sense, X food is not “objectively” good or bad, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t reduce to empirical facts and that we can’t investigate those empirical facts using science (in an objective manner).

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cl April 28, 2011 at 1:32 pm

Its like someone saying that X food is healthy for them, so its positive for them, someone else is allergic to X food, so it is negative for them, therefore nutrition does not reduce to empirical facts.

Wouldn’t that actually reduce to an empirical fact, though? That the “good” food is the one the optimizes nutrition, i.e., well-being? Or, to take it in another direction: why can’t I just posit that I’m allergic to honesty?

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Kevin April 28, 2011 at 2:00 pm

“Wouldn’t that actually reduce to an empirical fact, though? That the “good” food is the one the optimizes nutrition, i.e., well-being?”

Yes, but there would be no “objectively” good food. Food is good subject to the individual ingesting it. I am just saying that maybe the argument could be salvaged as an objection to “objective” natural morality. However, I doubt many people take such a view, so then it wouldn’t be very relevant.

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cl April 28, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Even then I’m not sure it works. For example, I believe in “objective” morality, and yet–in the same way I know we can’t say an onion is ALWAYS good–I know that we can’t say killing is ALWAYS bad.

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Kevin April 28, 2011 at 9:28 pm

“Even then I’m not sure it works. For example, I believe in “objective” morality, and yet–in the same way I know we can’t say an onion is ALWAYS good–I know that we can’t say killing is ALWAYS bad.”

Look at the debate with Craig and Harris. Craig used certain objections to say that “objective” morality could not exist on atheism. Those objections, intrinsic value (X food is nutritious, even if you are allergic to it?), duties that are binding regardless of the persons values (i.e. you should eat X, even if you don’t want to be nutritious, or “what argument can you give someone to convince them to eat more nutritiously without appealing to their values?”), ought implies can (if you ought to eat X, i.e. eating X would be nutritious for you, then you must have that choice) and a knockdown argument where people can’t do bad things on the peak (i.e. in the most nutritious possible world, there will not be someone having a donut).

This means that to someone like Craig, “objective” morality includes these concepts, and if you don’t successfully satisfy these objections, then you don’t have an “objective” morality. This is not just Craig, several people mentioned some of these concerns in the post-debate discussion and in response to the Moral Landscape. As Harris continually says, this sets the bar far higher than any other science, which is kind of ironic since science is when we speak with utmost objectivity. I know, I find it silly myself and I have no clue why people use the term “objective” in such a way.

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Zeb April 29, 2011 at 5:21 am

Kevin and cl, you guys are both acknowledging that moral terms such as brave/foolrisky describe both the object and the subject. In that sense it is an objective face that person A risked his life and person B valued that. But there are two problems – 1)moral terms are meant and understood to be referring to the thing described, not to the thing and some valuer; and 2) where is the prescriptivity? So you’ve found a case where one person has a quality and another person values that quality, so what? The question is, is it possible that person A really is brave; or, should people risk their lives as person A did?

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Kevin April 29, 2011 at 10:20 am

“1)moral terms are meant and understood to be referring to the thing described, not to the thing and some valuer”

What happens if the moral terms are referring to a described thing that includes some valuer? Wouldn’t that mean that moral terms refer to the thing and some valuer? For example, lets say helping someone is a virtue. So, the moral term, helpfulness, does not refer to someone who values being helped? This seems odd, for that is exactly the reason why helpfulness is seen as positive. Had everyone valued individuality and self-reliance, then perhaps helpfulness would be seen as an insult, a message that they had failed to be self-reliant. In such a case, then helping someone would not be good, because the moral term refers to some valuer.

The values of the people involved in the scenario deeply impact what is the moral route to take. The valuer being described is not some third party evaluating the situation, but they are the people involved in the situation. In the example above, the valuers would be the person giving help and the person receiving it.

“2) where is the prescriptivity? So you’ve found a case where one person has a quality and another person values that quality, so what? The question is, is it possible that person A really is brave; or, should people risk their lives as person A did?”

Incoherent concept. If someone doesn’t value being moral, if someone does not care about the well-being of conscious creatures, then the conversation is over. I don’t know what you mean when you say “person A really is brave.” Should people risk their lives as person A did? It depends on the people. If they are biologically similar, then they will share a lot of values and the same reasons that A acted would be present for the other people.

Do you think that (universal) prescriptions are required for objectivity? Or do you think that morality must have (universal) prescriptions in order to be considered morality? Explain. FYI, I would answer no to both questions.

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cl April 29, 2011 at 1:27 pm

Zeb,

Kevin and cl, you guys are both acknowledging that moral terms such as brave/foolrisky describe both the object and the subject.

I’m not sure I was. I was speaking in the context of the person who fulfills the prescription in question, i.e., the agent.

The question is, is it possible that person A really is brave; or, should people risk their lives as person A did?

I agree. The first question seems semantic. Given a clear definition–for example, that “honest” means telling the truth–then, whenever somebody tells the truth, that person really is honest. Same with brave.

As to whether or not one “should” be honest, I think that cuts to the heart of the issue. I answer “yes,” one should be honest. If somebody were to ask why, I’d be at a loss to give a persuasive reply. I could say something like, “Because I believe God created us such that honesty maximizes well-being,” but at the same time, the Bible considered Rahab “righteous” while she straight-up LIED as to the whereabouts of the Hebrew spies [J0shua 2]. To me, this points to something necessarily outside obedience to prescription as the ultimate criterion of morality. Or, to put it another way, the spirit of the law can trump the letter of the law.

Someone might ask, “Why was Rahab’s dishonesty ‘righteous’ while garden-variety dishonesty is sinful?” Again, I don’t have a canned answer, but I would suggest that motive is a necessary consideration in any moral evaluation. Motive is why we praise the person who falsely answers the Nazi question, “Are there any Jews in this house?” — even though they lied.

Kevin,

Craig used certain objections to say that “objective” morality could not exist on atheism.

I understand, and I think he’s correct.

…you should eat X, even if you don’t want to be nutritious…

As an example, I would say that all people should refrain from the unjustified taking of human life, even if they don’t want to be a “good” person. I think that morality must be binding for all people, else we’re right back to the problem of subjectivity.

As Harris continually says, this sets the bar far higher than any other science, which is kind of ironic since science is when we speak with utmost objectivity.

Can you elaborate on that, or possibly point me to something Harris wrote?

I know, I find it silly myself and I have no clue why people use the term “objective” in such a way.

When I use the phrase “objective morality,” I mean that a moral prescription is true or false regardless of whether or not individuals agree–that the prescription is binding, as you said. I have yet to hear a solid explanation of how this is possible on atheism.

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Kevin April 29, 2011 at 3:13 pm

“As an example, I would say that all people should refrain from the unjustified taking of human life, even if they don’t want to be a “good” person. I think that morality must be binding for all people, else we’re right back to the problem of subjectivity.”

Then you have the is-ought problem. To go to the nutrition analogy again, its like telling someone that they should be nutritious without appealing to any of their values. Why should they? Because you want them to be nutritious? Because you would prefer a world with people that are more nutritious? If so, those are not reasons for them to be nutritious, those are reasons for why you think they should be more nutritious and in that case you would be projecting your own preferences onto all of humanity. Does this make nutrition subjective if some people don’t want to eat nutritiously? I don’t know what this “problem” of subjectivity is, but it seems contrived to me.

“Can you elaborate on that, or possibly point me to something Harris wrote?”

He mentions it at the end of the Craig debate, The Great Debate by ASU Origins Project, etc.

His analogy to the science of medicine is relevant here. “Medicine cannot justify not wanting to die early, but once you admit you don’t want to die early, then you can have a science of medicine.” In response to Peter Singer from the Origins Debate concerning is-ought, “Why can’t you attack the philosophical underpinnings of medicine in the same way? If you are continually vomiting, you should go to the doctor and get X, Y, and Z, but that only assumes you don’t want to continually vomit. But what about the person who wants to continually vomit…If we can find one person who says ‘listen, I like vomiting, I like continuous pain, and I’d like to die tomorrow’, he’s not offering an alternate medical health based worldview that we have to take seriously. He just doesn’t get invited back to the conference about medicine and so it could be with a conference on morality.”

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cl April 29, 2011 at 5:49 pm

Kevin,

Then you have the is-ought problem. To go to the nutrition analogy again, its like telling someone that they should be nutritious without appealing to any of their values. Why should they? Because you want them to be nutritious? Because you would prefer a world with people that are more nutritious? If so, those are not reasons for them to be nutritious, those are reasons for why you think they should be more nutritious and in that case you would be projecting your own preferences onto all of humanity.

This is exactly the problem with morality, under atheism. Those questions don’t apply to me. They apply to atheists who proffer “objective” morality.

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Kevin April 29, 2011 at 6:01 pm

But they do apply to the statement you made:

“I would say that all people should refrain from the unjustified taking of human life, even if they don’t want to be a “good” person.”

In this statement, how do you cross the is-ought gap?

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cl April 29, 2011 at 6:13 pm

By saying that God created / designed / hardwired us to be “good” people, in the same way God created everything else. Sure, there are always those who buck the norm, but under my view, I have something that does not reduce to “because I prefer” for an answer.

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Zeb April 30, 2011 at 6:11 am

Kevin,

The valuer being described is not some third party evaluating the situation, but they are the people involved in the situation. In the example above, the valuers would be the person giving help and the person receiving it.

That’s not really the standard usage though. If I read about a lady giving a bum a dollar, I might call the lady “helpful” or “enabling” depending on my valuation of her act. Both words refer to 3 objective facts: 1) Person A wanted help 2) Person B gave help 3) Person C, the person making the statement, either valued or disvalued person B’s act. It is precisely facts about a 3rd person which determine whether the positive or negative moral descriptor will be used. I’d say that’s the case in a sense even if the moral descriptor is used by person A or B. For example, I generally believe that giving a bum a dollar is enabling rather than helpful (and so I give money to professional homelessness agencies who can do a better job), and yet I do have the desire to give the bum a dollar and he desires me to give him a dollar. I just think that fulfilling those desires would be wrong. The point is, when one describes some thing in moral terms, it is hard to see how the moral aspect is found in the thing being described rather than in the describer.

As to prescriptivity, I do think that some form of it is required for morality, but I don’t know that it has to be universal. But I really don’t see how any non-subjective (that is, not residing in and dependent on the speaker of the moral description) prescription comes out of the sort of situation described above.

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Zeb April 30, 2011 at 6:24 am

cl, I guess I don’t understand what you objection to antiplastic’s comment was. If honest or brave or helpful are construed as value-neutral, and so completely interchangeable with negatively-honest(hard time coming up with an exact value-negative correlary) or fool-risky or enabling, then I agree they are reducible to objective natural facts. But antiplastic acknowledged that in his comment. It’s the supposition that those terms are not interchangeably applicable to the same situations because of their evaluative or prescriptive aspect that the Open Question Argument challenges. At least, that’s how I understand antiplastic’s comment, which is what made the Argument make sense to me.

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Kevin April 30, 2011 at 9:53 am

“If I read about a lady giving a bum a dollar, I might call the lady “helpful” or “enabling” depending on my valuation of her act. Both words refer to 3 objective facts: 1) Person A wanted help 2) Person B gave help 3) Person C, the person making the statement, either valued or disvalued person B’s act.”

This is not how I view it. If someone says that they are enabling someone, they are making an empirical statement. They are saying that doing X (i.e. giving money) will prolong certain feature in person Y (i.e. homelessness, alcoholism, etc.), which in the long run is less desirable to that person than not having that feature. Helping would be actions that reduce that certain feature. If you enable them, then you are not helping them and vice avers.

If we assume that someone is homeless (and wants to change that state of affairs) and that giving them money will not change that fact (presumably they will spend it on things that won’t help their situation), while bringing them to a homeless shelter will, then it should be obvious which is the better option. In this case someone who gives money* would not be helping and would be enabling (and if they claim otherwise, they would be factually incorrect), and someone who brings them to the homeless shelter would be helping and not enabling.

What does it mean for person C to value or disvalue a situation that they themselves are not involved in? Does it mean that had they been involved, they are stating their preference for what they would like to have happened? If so, then they are not evaluating the hypothetical. Are they projecting their preferences onto the people involved in the hypothetical? If so, they are making assumptions that may or may not be true based on empirical facts. What other possible meaning is there?

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cl April 30, 2011 at 11:58 am

cl, I guess I don’t understand what you objection to antiplastic’s comment was.

I didn’t really have one, and I usually find myself agreeing with antiplastic. However, this time around, I don’t see the logic in antiplastic’s argument, which seems to be something along the lines of [and I am partly paraphrasing here], “the fact that people can define things differently annihilates any attempt to reduce moral properties to natural properties.” That doesn’t make sense to me.

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Zeb April 30, 2011 at 3:26 pm

They are saying that doing X (i.e. giving money) will prolong certain feature in person Y (i.e. homelessness, alcoholism, etc.), which in the long run is less desirable to that person than not having that feature.

By “that person” do you mean the bum? Because the bum’s desires have nothing necessarily to do with whether a third person views assistance in fulfilling those desires as good or bad, helpful or enabling. I have known homeless people who consciously and explicitly preferred to stay drunk and homeless. I disvalue that state of affairs, so I call acts of assistance to achieve them “enabling.” Other people I knew, who worked at the same shelter as me, valued the state of affairs (on grounds of autonomy and immediate pleasure, I think) and so they called acts such as giving a dollar to be “helpful.” You say:

then it should be obvious which is the better option.

How so? Better based on what? Which act fulfills the homeless persons’ desires, or real deep down desires, or the desires he would have if he knew better, or the desires he should have, or the desires I want him to have, or what? You say approximately that “enabling” is assisting a person to fulfill a desire that thwarts his long term desires. I don’t want to quibble over definitions, so I’ll grant that for the sake of argument. But then allow me to make up another word, nega-helping, which is assisting someone to fulfill a desire that contributes to fulfilling his long term desires, when the fulfillment of either the immediate or long term desires are bad. Posi-helping is when the immediate or long term desires are good. No need to go through the exercise of making examples of people whose long term and immediate desires some deem to be bad and others deem to be good (ok, Nazis and suicide cults for two classic examples); where I would have called someone who assists them “enabling,” now I will call them “nega-helpful”. And yet others would call one who assists them “helpful.” Where is our empirical disagreement?

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Kevin April 30, 2011 at 5:06 pm

It is still not clear to me what the purpose of this 3rd perspective is supposed to contribute to or what they are saying. I feel like I have either already answered your questions or I have misunderstood what you mean. I felt this might be happening which is why I asked clarifying questions (re-posted below), of which I received no answer.

“What does it mean for person C to value or disvalue a situation that they themselves are not involved in? Does it mean that had they been involved, they are stating their preference for what they would like to have happened? If so, then they are not evaluating the hypothetical. Are they projecting their preferences onto the people involved in the hypothetical? If so, they are making assumptions that may or may not be true based on empirical facts. What other possible meaning is there?”

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Zeb April 30, 2011 at 9:20 pm

What does it mean for person C to value or disvalue a situation that they themselves are not involved in?

It means person C has desires (or values) related to the situation. For example, I disvalue the action of helping an abortion doctor get to work on time because I desire a state of affairs where fewer abortions occur, and therefor call that action nega-helping. I call a-doctor-performing-abortions “bad.”Even in all alternate universes in which I am in no way involved. No accounting for taste, I guess.

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Zeb April 30, 2011 at 9:32 pm

cl,

“the fact that people can define things differently annihilates any attempt to reduce moral properties to natural properties.” That doesn’t make sense to me.

You can define red any way you want, but when you reduce it to electromagnetic waves of length 400 – 700 nanometers (nm), no one is going to disagree that the right light is “red” by that definition. That is not so with value terms. In one of your comments you used “beautiful” and “smart” as test cases. I think “beautiful” fails the Open Question Argument as posed by antiplastic but “smart” passes it. “Smart” contains no evaluative aspect. It’s just a measurement of certain abilities relative to human average. “Beautiful” though does have an evaluative aspect. When you call someone beautiful you are saying, “He has X and Y and Z traits, and I like that in this case.” Someone else may acknowledge X and Y and Z traits, but not like it in this case and so call the person “ugly.” But that doesn’t apply to every word just because definitions are malleable. “Symmetrically faced” is an empirical and objective trait. Whether a symmetrically faced person is beautiful is an open question.

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Kevin April 30, 2011 at 10:39 pm

“For example, I disvalue the action of helping an abortion doctor get to work on time because I desire a state of affairs where fewer abortions occur, and therefor call that action nega-helping. I call a-doctor-performing-abortions ‘bad.’”

Why is it “bad”? What does it mean when you say that it is “bad”? Is it “bad” because you disvalue the action? Is it “bad” because you consider it to be “bad”? It seems like you are saying that said actions are “bad” because you have a negative feeling when you think of them. Surely, this can’t be correct, for that would entail a fairly myopic and narcissistic view of morality and natural morality need not be confined to such limited constraints.

Are you stating an emotion (fact about yourself), or are you evaluating the action of the doctor and how that action relates to the preferences of those involved in the situation? If you are doing the former, then you are not evaluating whether the action was/is moral (red herring), if the latter, then you are not showing your reasoning for how you determined it to be “bad.” Once you show your reasoning, then we can see if it conforms to empirical fact, you just need to be more clear. Please be more explicit in your explanation.

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cl May 1, 2011 at 8:54 am

Zeb,

You can define red any way you want, but when you reduce it to electromagnetic waves of length 400 – 700 nanometers (nm), no one is going to disagree that the right light is “red” by that definition.

Similarly, you can define “brave” any way you want, but when you reduce it to “facing a daunting challenge that entails great risk,” no one is going to disagree that a daunting challenge faced was an instance of bravery. Right?

“Symmetrically faced” is an empirical and objective trait. Whether a symmetrically faced person is beautiful is an open question.

“Facing a daunting challenge that entails great risk” also seems an empirical and objective trait, and whether a person who faces daunting challenges is brave seems to be a closed question–whether we call them “foolhardy” or not.

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Zeb May 1, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Similarly, you can define “brave” any way you want, but when you reduce it to “facing a daunting challenge that entails great risk,” no one is going to disagree that a daunting challenge faced was an instance of bravery. Right?

Right, but you’ve failed criteria 1 of anitplastic’s comment. There is no prescriptive component. It is no longer a moral term. For “brave” to be a moral term, it would have to be defined as “facing a daunting challenge that entails great risk, as one should do” or “…in a good way.”

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Zeb May 1, 2011 at 6:09 pm

Kevin, you’ve turned the tables on me. I have been arguing all along that moral terms such as “bad” are not reducible to natural properties. Honestly I’m not committed to that belief, but I think antiplastic and Garren did a good job making an argument for it. If it is true that moral terms cannot be reduced to natural properties, then a couple possibilities remain. The simplest non-natural, non-reductionist would be that there just is a property of “goodness” which is it’s own thing and cannot be expressed in other terms. Or maybe the non-cognitivists are right and “helpful” means “assisting another to meet his goal, yea this time!” while “enabling” means “assisting another to meet his goal, boo this time!.” Maybe error-theorists are right and moral terms refer to things that don’t exist. But if you think natural reduction is viable, then how do you rebut the open question argument?

Frankly I have a hard time articulating what I think “bad” really means when I say “abortion is bad.” Maybe I just mean, “boo for abortion in all possible worlds.” I don’t think that’s what I mean; I think abortion really is bad, regardless of my feelings or my existence at all. But I realize that for now my moral statements are just as vulnerable to the OQA as an natural-reductionist’s.

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Kevin May 2, 2011 at 2:31 am

“But if you think natural reduction is viable, then how do you rebut the open question argument?”

I think it attacks a view that is not necessary to hold. When you get down to it, when you define the terms, you either get something that is incoherent or something that reduces to empirical facts. Adding the prescriptive element (in general) puts morality into the incoherent category, which is not necessary for a naturalistic morality.

“Right, but you’ve failed criteria 1 of anitplastic’s comment. There is no prescriptive component. It is no longer a moral term. For “brave” to be a moral term, it would have to be defined as “facing a daunting challenge that entails great risk, as one should do” or “…in a good way.””

I don’t think morality needs a prescriptive element, especially not for it to be reducible to natural facts. It would be similar to the topic of logic or science. There is no law that says that you should be logical, we simply describe those who aren’t as illogical. Similarly, there is no law that says that you should be moral, we simply describe those who aren’t as immoral. We don’t need an argument that says that one should accept the laws of logic or the theory of evolution for them to relate to empirical facts. Similarly, we don’t need an argument that says one should be moral in order for “good” or “bad” to relate to empirical facts. The reason why it might appear that “good” or “bad” does not relate to empirical facts or that they were no misstatement of fact is that the person contemplating the question has not sufficiently defined “good” and “bad” or have defined them in a contradictory/incoherent manner.

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cl May 2, 2011 at 10:01 am

Zeb,

Where’s the prescriptive component for red? Perhaps you can rerun your example with a term that has a prescriptive component? I’m not trying to refute what you say here, I’m trying to understand this argument so I don’t give it short thrift.

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cl May 2, 2011 at 10:02 am

Also, Zeb, wasn’t “brave” the original example antiplastic used?

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cl May 2, 2011 at 10:10 am

Kevin,

I don’t think morality needs a prescriptive element, especially not for it to be reducible to natural facts. It would be similar to the topic of logic or science.

That confuses me because neither logic nor science proffer statements about what other people should or should not do. Doesn’t morality require a prescriptive element? If not, then what kind of claim is “thou shalt not steal?” Does it become the same kind of claim as “thou shalt not wear orange trousers?”

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Kevin May 2, 2011 at 11:23 am

“Doesn’t morality require a prescriptive element? If not, then what kind of claim is “thou shalt not steal?” Does it become the same kind of claim as “thou shalt not wear orange trousers?””

Universal prescriptions make as much sense as when they are applied in any other realm. If we want to make “thou shall not steal” to be coherent, we could interpret it as saying, “If you want to be moral, that is, if you care about the well-being of others, you should not take the possessions of others without their consent, except in situations where the well-being of others outweighs the cost of breaking consent.” This is what I can make sense out of the phrase “thou shall not steal.”

Suppose it is true that “thou shall not steal” is true. Why should someone should follow this without appealing to his own values? The reasons typically given fall into two categories; they are reasons for why the person saying it thinks other people should follow it, in which case they are not giving a reason why the other person should follow it or the person saying it are projecting their values onto the other person, in which case they are making a misstatement of fact.

Naturalistic morality doesn’t need to follow the form of religions (not that religious morality is itself coherent). Its similar to PZ’s reflections of the Harris-Craig debate: “I’m going to have to find some time to re-read Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape. It bugged me the first time; I kept trying to make, I think, a judgment based on whether we can declare an absolute morality based on rational, objective criteria. I was basically making the same sort of internal argument that William Lane Craig was making in his debate at Notre Dame, and it’s fundamentally wrong — it’s getting all twisted up in philosophical head-games based on misconceptions derived from the constant hammering of theological presuppositions in our culture.”

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cl May 3, 2011 at 10:03 am

Kevin,

I agree with you that sans factual basis, “projecting our values” onto others is a misstatement of fact. I think desirism’s whole “people generally” schtick is guilty in this regard. I’m not saying he does it consciously, but Alonzo uses “people generally” as a disguise to project his own values about things like smoking and trash TV onto others, and declares them immoral. So I agree that such is a misstatement of fact. However, when you say…

Universal prescriptions make as much sense as when they are applied in any other realm. If we want to make “thou shall not steal” to be coherent, we could interpret it as saying, “If you want to be moral, that is, if you care about the well-being of others, you should not take the possessions of others without their consent, except in situations where the well-being of others outweighs the cost of breaking consent.” This is what I can make sense out of the phrase “thou shall not steal.”

1) I still see a prescriptive element there, so I’m still unsure why you said morality doesn’t require prescriptive elements;

2) So then, is it moral for me to steal cigarettes from all my family and friends? Would their well-being outweigh the cost of breaking consent?

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Zeb May 3, 2011 at 10:09 am

cl,

Brave was the original example, and it was meant to be prescriptive. I’m reading into the context here, but “brave” is meant to describe approvingly of acts of intentional self endangerment, such that we would say “it is good to be brave” or “one should be brave”. “Fool-risky” describes similar acts disapprovingly. But if you set “brave” to be purely descriptive with no value or prescription component, then it is not a moral term. In that case the OQA does not apply, but it remains victorious because morality has not been reduced to natural properties.

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Zeb May 3, 2011 at 10:16 am

“If you want to be moral, that is, if you care about the well-being of others, you should not take the possessions of others without their consent, except in situations where the well-being of others outweighs the cost of breaking consent.”

What does “should” mean in that sentence? How do you find out that what is moral is the [promotion of] well-being of others? What constitutes well-being?

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Kevin May 3, 2011 at 3:03 pm

“I agree with you that sans factual basis, “projecting our values” onto others is a misstatement of fact. I think desirism’s whole “people generally” schtick is guilty in this regard. I’m not saying he does it consciously, but Alonzo uses “people generally” as a disguise to project his own values about things like smoking and trash TV onto others, and declares them immoral. So I agree that such is a misstatement of fact.“

I don’t think desirism goes that far in general, although maybe on some of his applications, Alonzo makes that mistake. When he does, someone can always correct him on it and if I recall correctly he was taken to task for his TV and video games post. When someone says “people generally,” I think it tends to mean that what is about to be said applies to many or the vast majority of people. For example, people generally shouldn’t smoke cigarettes because people generally want to live long lives. If there is a habit that gives as much pleasure with fewer health side effects, then that habit would be preferable over smoking. Since people are biologically similar, people generally have the same preferences with respect to many things: disease, hunger, pain, etc. For this reason, people say “people generally” so someone doesn’t object, “what about the person who likes pain?” or “what about the person who wants to die tomorrow?”

“1) I still see a prescriptive element there, so I’m still unsure why you said morality doesn’t require prescriptive elements”

It would not be prescriptive for every single person. I read “thou shall not steal” as giving a universal command to every person, regardless of their values. In that sense, morality is not prescriptive. Do you think that science and logic are prescriptive? If so, then morality would be as well.

“2) So then, is it moral for me to steal cigarettes from all my family and friends? Would their well-being outweigh the cost of breaking consent?”

Perhaps they don’t want to quit, there are plenty of activities that decrease our lifespan, but make our lives more enjoyable than they otherwise would have been. Any high risk activity does so. We would live longer on average if we never went sky diving, bunjee jumping, or rock climbing, but that does not mean that they decrease our well-being. Well-being is not synonymous with lifespan although lifespan is one component of it. All things considered, living longer is more preferable than not. All things considered, living an enjoyable life is more preferable than living a life of boredom. These two preferences sometimes clash, whether someone chooses one over the other will depend on them. If they prefer the latter, then stealing their cigarettes will decrease their well-being. Suppose they want to quit, but are physically unable to on their own, would it be ethical then? Sure.

The easiest example of where it is permissible to take something without permission is if the person would have given consent if they had been present. It would still be taking their possessions without their permission, but there is no cost since they would have consented anyway, so it would be permissible. Medical emergencies also come to mind; taking a water bottle to treat heat stroke, cloth to stop bleeding, a blanket to treat hypothermia, etc.

“I’m reading into the context here, but “brave” is meant to describe approvingly of acts of intentional self endangerment, such that we would say “it is good to be brave” or “one should be brave”. “Fool-risky” describes similar acts disapprovingly.”

What does “one should be” mean? Does it mean that everyone should be brave, regardless of their values? If so, this is the type of prescription that I was referring to earlier that morality does not need. If not and we are talking about a specific scenario of someone being brave or foolrisky, then the people describing the scenario will be talking about empirical facts. They may not be facts that we are able to ascertain, they may be unknowable, which will leave much to be said about whether it was brave or foolrisky, but we will be speculating about empirical facts.

“What does “should” mean in that sentence? How do you find out that what is moral is the [promotion of] well-being of others? What constitutes well-being?”

In the same sense as any other hypothetical imperative; it would mean that there are reasons for why taking those actions would fulfill the antecedent. It appears as though the second question is asking about semantics, somewhat like “how do we find out that red is a color?” This poses it in an awkward way, red was first a phenomena and then we labeled it; we don’t go from the label and then ask how do we find out which phenomena fits this word. What constitutes well-being is unique for each person, with some strong overlaps. The examples above, not being hungry, not being in pain, etc. would contribute to well-being. Examples specific to some individuals would include science, art, traveling, etc.

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cl May 3, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Zeb,

I just went back to Garren’s example:

1. We’ll use ‘brave’ as a predicate with a prescriptive and descriptive component.

2. The descriptive component of ‘brave’ would be something like: an action or the quality of character which deliberately goes on in the face of great personal risk. Let’s suppose there’s a term ‘foolrisky’ which points to all the same actions and quality of characters, but is used when people are expressing a negative attitude.

3. Notice how those using the term ‘foolrisky’ are not making any kind of factual mistake.

Is the argument that there must be something more to a “moral” act than the sum of it’s physical components, because the same physical components can be viewed as non-moral in a different context? Does that make sense? Is that what’s being argued here??

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