“The Moral Argument” by Mark Linville (Part 3)

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 15, 2009 in Ethics,Reviews

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Previously, I argued against Mark Linville’s moral argument against evolutionary naturalism, and also against his argument from personal dignity.

Luckily, I have not had to engage each page of detailed argument in Linville’s two-part article because I agree with most of what he says. Most of his moral argument against evolutionary naturalism is spent showing that, on naturalism, we have no reason to trust our moral feelings. I agree with that, so I don’t have to respond to all those pages.

In his argument from personal dignity, Linville spends most of his time showing that egoism, virtue ethics, and utilitarianism have no means to ascribe humans intrinsic value (“personal dignity”). Since I agree that these theories don’t successfully ascribe humans intrinsic value, I don’t have to respond to all those pages, either.

Linville also spends some time arguing that on naturalism, there is no such thing as a “person”, and therefore no naturalist can defend the idea that persons have intrinsic value, since persons don’t exist given naturalism. I may disagree depending on how “personhood” is defined, but this is irrelevant to me since I agree with Linville that, given naturalism, persons don’t have intrinsic value.

Indeed, I think that whether naturalism or theism is true, humans don’t have intrinsic value. And Linville never argued that humans have intrinsic value; he merely asserted it and said, in effect, “…and I think we all know it.” (This is Linville’s favorite argument strategy.)

Well, we don’t all know it. Specifically, I deny it. So do many of the philosophers Linville surveyed in his article. And since Linville is making the positive claim, he has the burden of proof. I await an argument.

Both of Linville’s arguments depend on trusting our moral feelings to give us moral knowledge - that humans have intrinsic value, for example. So now, I’d like to spend a bit of time talking about why I don’t think our moral feelings give us moral knowledge, regardless of whether or not theism is true.

Aliens and moral knowledge

In his article, Linville explained why the naturalist cannot trust his moral feelings to give him moral knowledge. On naturalism, evolution is the only explanation we have for our moral feelings, and there is no reason to think we have evolved moral feelings that correspond to moral facts. So if naturalism is true, our moral feelings cannot be trusted. Linville and I agree on this.

But this only defeats moral sense theories which depend on evolution for the formation of our moral beliefs. What if our moral beliefs have come from another source, such that they do accurately reflect moral facts?

aliensFor example, what if intelligent aliens programmed our brains to recognize moral facts by way of our moral feelings? This may seem far-fetched, but it’s much less far-fetched than the idea that God programmed us to know moral facts by way of our moral feelings. After all, aliens are (supposedly) physical beings that exist in space and time and adhere to all the natural laws for which we have so much evidence. God, on the other hand, is timeless (!!??), spaceless (!!??), all-knowing (!!??), all-powerful (!!??), all-good (!!??) and so on. Talk about multiplying unnecessary hypotheses! The God hypothesis fails Occam’s razor far worse than the theory of intelligent aliens who programmed our brains with moral knowledge. I’m not even sure the concept of a ‘spaceless person’ or a ‘timeless memory’ is coherent. Try to think of a ‘spaceless skyscraper’, for example, or a windmill that operates without the passage of time.1

Even if God exists, there is little reason to think he is especially moral, given all the innocent suffering in the world. So if God exists, he would seem to be an evil or indifferent God, and perhaps our inner moral knowledge comes from a different supernatural force that is itself the embodiment of moral value, but not the supreme (and evil or morally indifferent) creator God.

Obviously, I don’t actually think we’ve been programmed with moral knowledge by aliens or God. My point is that if our moral feelings are not justified as true by way of a story about aliens, they are even less capable of justification by way of a story about a timeless, spaceless, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good magical superbeing.

  1. But this is another topic, to be discussed later. []

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{ 58 comments… read them below or add one }

Naug July 15, 2009 at 6:56 am

Not that I expect you to defend the Alien Theory of Morality but I just wanted to point out that it starts to slip into infinite regress the instant the theists ask where the aliens moral sense came from. After all, they have to have one if they program us with it.

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mikespeir July 15, 2009 at 7:43 am

What is a “moral fact,” and how can we tell?

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lukeprog July 15, 2009 at 8:00 am

Naug,

But that is just as much a problem for the theist. Where did God get his moral sense? After all, he must have one if he programs us with it.

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lukeprog July 15, 2009 at 8:01 am

mikespeir: What is a “moral fact,” and how can we tell?

See my book.

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Paul July 15, 2009 at 8:03 am

mikespeir: What is a “moral fact,” and how can we tell?

+1
 

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Paul July 15, 2009 at 8:21 am

Luke -
I haven’t read your eBook but I have seen you talk about desire utilitarianism.  Is the term “moral fact” and “morally objective” (if I may word it as such) are equivalent?   I understand the term objectivein this context to mean it is w/o bias (or non-relative).  It doesn’t,  to me, necessarily follow that it cannot be wrong.
Perhaps what I am trying to say, roughly, does not  a moral fact implies there is only one answer.  Assuming DU is valid and objective would it be possible for another moral theory (non-theistic) to also be objective and valid.  Even if perhaps no-one has *yet* come up with another.

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kb888 July 15, 2009 at 8:23 am

What I find interesting is the very idea we hold in our minds of an absolute morality in the first place, regardless of whether it exists or not. Either the idea is of something real, or it is an illusion. But if it is an illusion what is it an illusion of? I may think I’m seeing water when in fact I’m seeing a mirage on a hot day, but what am I “seeing” when I think of the idea of an absolute morality? Is “absolute morality” simply a meaningless term?
 
 
 

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jim July 15, 2009 at 11:27 am

The term ‘intrinsic value’ has never made any sense to me. Value is a relational term. I value people, and even objects, to the extent that they fulfill some aspect of my desires, uphold my beliefs, etc. Throwing God into the mix doesn’t impart any kind of intrinsic value to us; it merely says that we are valuable to Him.

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Kevin July 15, 2009 at 1:56 pm

kb888: Either the idea [of absolute morality] is of something real, or it is an illusion. But if it is an illusion what is it an illusion of? I may think I’m seeing water when in fact I’m seeing a mirage on a hot day, but what am I “seeing” when I think of the idea of an absolute morality? Is “absolute morality” simply a meaningless term?

Illusions need not be of something, at least not directly, as in your water example.  But I think the illusion here is as follows:  We each have various desires, evaluations, principles of action, etc., most of which overlap.  We feel the force of these so strongly that we mistakenly believe they are absolute moral facts compelling our ascent from above, rather than pushing us along from below (or from within).  We come to think that our own, or our tribe’s, values are absolute, eternal values.
It’s a bit like thinking the earth is stationary in the center of the universe.  This illusion arose, in part, because we could not escape the earth to see that it moves just as everything else does.  We took our personal vantage point as the absolute vantage point, and thus fell prey to this illusion.  I’m not arguing for relativism, though, since the next step in this analogy is to move on to the relativity of motion.   Similarly, we mistook our own personal feelings, or the values of our group, for ultimate values.  We extended these concepts beyond their proper limits.

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Jeff H July 15, 2009 at 2:24 pm

The argument that evolution doesn’t necessarily give us dependable moral intuitions seems a bit off to me. As far as I can tell, morality doesn’t really exist without the presence of society (if we never interact with others, how can we do right or wrong to them?). And we are social creatures – we have been shaped by evolution to be that way. Is it not at least plausible that evolution would provide us with reliable tools to live in society? Certainly a society with morality is going to last longer than a society without one.

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Dace July 15, 2009 at 3:52 pm

I’ll second you Jeff. How are we supposed to know whether evolution can give us reliable moral intuitions or not if we leave the nature of morality undecided? These arguments seem to beg the question.
Perhaps it might be argued that we should presume moral intuitions to be unreliable until we have evidence to the contrary.  But how can we even begin to investigate the nature of morality without some idea of what we are looking for? And where will we get that pre-theoretical idea except from our own moral intuitions, or from taking the intuitions of others seriously? Any verdict on the epistemology of morality presupposes a concept of what morality is.
Is that a problem for moral theory in general? I don’t think so. I agree with David Lewis that the purpose of philosophy is to systematize and extend our pre-philosophical intutions.  We therefore begin with a moral sense theory, but insofar as we try to make it self-consistent and derive universal principles from it to apply to new situations, we move away from a (naive) moral sense theory.

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Facilis July 15, 2009 at 5:29 pm

Umm Luke human dignity is basically the basis for our entire legal system and laws . Heck it is right in the declaration of independence and the UN statements on human rights .
I think if there was any truth about morality that was self-evident it would be human rights and dignity.
 

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Facilis July 15, 2009 at 5:34 pm

@Jeff H.
The argument says that evolution favors behaviours that preserve lives , but not that morals that are true.
For example , a mother taking care of her child and protecting it from predators and harm certainly helps evolution , but is it moral?? Naturalists can’t say whether it is moral or not.
One might say that over the course of human evolution killing babies for fun has become taboo and that behaviour was not favored in the course of evolution , but is killing babies really immoral.
@Luke
on a side note how did you feel about that passage when Richard Carrier said that certain animals have more moral worth than newborn babies?
I an’t see how we can aviod carrier’s conclusion if we do not appeal to some sort of human dignity.

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Facilis July 15, 2009 at 5:53 pm

“Certainly a society with morality is going to last longer than a society without one.”
Not necessarily. An action might have negative effects for a society but still be morally good.
Out of curiosity , do you believe in objective morality?

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lukeprog July 15, 2009 at 8:04 pm

jim, I couldn’t agree more.

Other guys… to avoid repeating myself ad nauseum, please see my book. It is very short and extremely readable.

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lukeprog July 15, 2009 at 8:06 pm

Jeff H: Is it not at least plausible that evolution would provide us with reliable tools to live in society?

In fact, I believe evolution did provide us with reliable tools to live in society. But how does this by itself that living in a society is identical to what is moral, or that evolution programmed us with a sense to intuit what is moral?

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lukeprog July 15, 2009 at 8:10 pm

Dace: Perhaps it might be argued that we should presume moral intuitions to be unreliable until we have evidence to the contrary. But how can we even begin to investigate the nature of morality without some idea of what we are looking for? And where will we get that pre-theoretical idea except from our own moral intuitions, or from taking the intuitions of others seriously? Any verdict on the epistemology of morality presupposes a concept of what morality is.

We seem to do subatomic physics alright without relying on our pre-theoretical intuitions. Why should we investigate morality any differently? Because we are lazy and want easy answers, I’ll bet. But I protest this. If moral values exist, then they should be studied by the tools that work well for investigating other types of things that exist. And if we have to invent unsubstantiated ‘other ways of knowing’ in order to show that moral values ‘exist’, then perhaps moral values are just as real as the gods.

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lukeprog July 15, 2009 at 8:10 pm

Facilis,

Yes, I reject the self-evident nature of human rights and dignity. Please give me an argument for them, not a bald assertion.

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Dace July 15, 2009 at 10:22 pm

lukeprog: We seem to do subatomic physics alright without relying on our pre-theoretical intuitions. Why should we investigate morality any differently? Because we are lazy and want easy answers, I’ll bet. But I protest this. If moral values exist, then they should be studied by the tools that work well for investigating other types of things that exist. And if we have to invent unsubstantiated ‘other ways of knowing’ in order to show that moral values ‘exist’, then perhaps moral values are just as real as the gods.

Well,  I notice that you haven’t addressed my argument, which is that we need to start somewhere, and if we throw moral intuition out of court then we have nowhere to begin. (You begin where?)
Still, I do agree that we can get on with our physics without unduly relying on pre-theoretical intuitions, and sometimes in spite of them. But you ignore the fact that it has taken us a very long time to get to this stage, and so we are far from the beginnings of this sort of inquiry. Some of our intuitions have fallen by the wayside (that colours inhere in their objects, for example), but others we have retained, to which we are most strongly committed (the law of non-contradiction, for example). The progress of this inquiry whittles away at our pre-theoretical assumptions until only a few are left.
So the parallel picture for moral theorizing is this: we begin with moral intuitions, and let these intutions prima facie designate what is particularly moral. We derive general principles from these intuitions, and generate thought experiments to test these intuitions, which then feedback into our theorizing. By this process we improve our theory, but also, because the best-fitting principles we derive may predict moral value where it is not intuited, or may sometimes predict against what is intuited, we leave behind naive moral intuitionism. We retain whatever pre-theoretical assumptions survive the process.
Now, is that ‘lazy’ or ‘easy’? Is it fundamentally different than our investigations in other areas? The only difference I can see is this: that we take a subset of experiences as the data peculiarly important to moral theorizing*. But this is necessary if our inquiry is to be particularly moral: the only criterion for a moral science would have to link it to the source of our moral notions, which are our intuitions. Leave the notion of morality completely undetermined, and you will find that no amount of research will allow you to designate your pet theory as one of morality.
 
* I’m not saying we’re restricted to taking moral intuitions as our data. I presume that in later stages of inquiry we will find correlates of moral intutions, and of course we can use these to predict moral value in turn. Desires are such a correlate, they are susceptible to our usual tools of investigation. In fact, finding correlates is unavoidable: any general principle we derive will have to be given in terms of them.

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Facilis July 15, 2009 at 10:28 pm

Let me construct an argument
1)If humans did not have moral rights and dignity then actions like slavery and genocide would not have violated human rights and dignity
2) When women are sold into sex slavery and raped in Asia and east Europe , or when children are enslaved in Africa it is the case that their human rights and dignity are violated
http://www.infoplease.com/spot/slavery1.html
3) Therefore human rights and dignity exist
 
Luke I really don’t know how to get started with you. Usually when people start dialogue about ethics they start with fundamental moral intuitions and work up from there to see what system best captures these. Mark Linville started with how it was wrong to kill babies for fun and then worked up to human dignity. I think many of us know on an intuitional level that premise 2 is true.
You reject all our moral intuitions so we don’t have any starting point to talk up from . As Linville said you can just say killing babies for fun isn’t objectively wrong and dismiss his argument, but what is the cost?

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lukeprog July 16, 2009 at 5:32 am

Dace: I notice that you haven’t addressed my argument, which is that we need to start somewhere, and if we throw moral intuition out of court then we have nowhere to begin. (You begin where?)

Lol, I might call that an ‘argument from desperation’. “If we don’t start with X, no matter how unfounded a source of knowledge X is, then we don’t know where to begin our investigations, so let’s start with X!”

Here’s how I think about morality. I ask: “What is morality about? What are we even trying to investigate?”

In the broadest sense, I think morality is a universal consideration of reasons for action that exist. If we’re not talking about that, then we’re not talking about morality: we’re talking about something else (institutional oughts, or aesthetics, or something).

Then I ask: “Okay, then, what reasons for action exist?”

It could be that categorical imperatives exist, or that intrinsic values exist, or that intrinsic virtues exist. But there is no evidence that any of these things exist, so I reject them. Empirically, I claim that the only reasons for action that exist are relations between desires and states of affairs (or, more briefly: desires).

Thus, morality is a universal consideration of desires.

And from that, my normative theory flows.

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lukeprog July 16, 2009 at 5:36 am

(1) Is necessary to your argument, since (2) presupposes (3).

I’m not sure what is meant by ‘human rights and dignity.’ If you mean ‘intrinsic human rights and dignity’, I’m pretty sure that does not exist. Please show me your evidence. But don’t just cite your pretheoretical moral intuitions – I dismiss them for all the reasons Linville so thoroughly documented in his article.

I have explained my starting point in my above comment.

Your final question, “What is the cost?” is a kind of argument-from-consequences, akin to saying “You can just dismiss that Allah exists, but what is the cost?” I’m not concerning myself with cost, in this case – only truth.

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Hylomorphic July 16, 2009 at 11:04 am

It could be that categorical imperatives exist, or that intrinsic values exist, or that intrinsic virtues exist. But there is no evidence that any of these things exist, so I reject them.

I’m not sure why they would have to be “intrinsic” in order to exist or have importance or relevance to moral considerations.  Even a cursory analysis of virtues reveals that they can’t be “intrinsic” in any robust sense. The virtue of justice is a cornerstone of Aristotelian ethics, but it’s necessarily social. Any practice of justice must be embedded in a particular social context that gives it its significance.

 
Empirically, I claim that the only reasons for action that exist are relations between desires and states of affairs (or, more briefly: desires).

I find it very peculiar to claim that there is a one-to-one relationship between desires and states of affairs. It’s certainly not my experience of desiring. Sometimes it’s the case, but certainly not always; frequently, a desire can be met by multiple states of affairs. Sometimes, it’s not clear even to me what it is that I desire. There seems to be a great deal of ambiguity as to what the relationship between desires and states of affairs is–and the relationship between desire and action.

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Jeff H July 16, 2009 at 1:34 pm

lukeprog: In fact, I believe evolution did provide us with reliable tools to live in society. But how does this by itself that living in a society is identical to what is moral, or that evolution programmed us with a sense to intuit what is moral?

Let me explain a bit. You say that morality is “a universal consideration of reasons for action that exist.” But my question is, if a person were living on an otherwise uninhabited island, and he desires food, is that a moral issue? Is his desire to have a shower, or to have a plane fly overhead, or whatever else – are any of these really moral issues? I don’t think that we can have morality in the absence of society. If you have TWO people on the island, then you can start talking about morality. One person may want to eat the other person to survive, but whether that’s right or wrong, I think we can at least say it’s an issue of morality now.
So I’m not saying that living in a society is moral and not living in one is immoral – I’m saying that because we are by nature social creatures (face it – without other people, our ancestors would have been pretty pathetic…we needed others to survive), natural selection should have provided us with a pretty good sense of what will help us survive in society and what won’t. Now that may be genetic, but is more likely a result of socialization. So in this sense I probably shouldn’t say “evolution”, but at any rate, our intuitions should give us a pretty good sense of what we should and shouldn’t do if we actually want to live peaceably in society. In this sense, I suppose you could consider morality the “social lubrication” that helps society to flourish. You may reject this definition, but I think it fits pretty well.

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Dace July 16, 2009 at 2:50 pm

 

lukeprog: Lol, I might call that an ‘argument from desperation’. “If we don’t start with X, no matter how unfounded a source of knowledge X is, then we don’t know where to begin our investigations, so let’s start with X!”

- It’s hardly an argument from desperation: I’m not arguing for naive moral intuitionism, and I hope to end up in the same place you do (DU). I just think that you cannot hope to arrive at DU as a moral theory if you ignore intuitions. And BTW, your exclamatory phrase again assumes that intuitions are unfounded – we just don’t know that at the beginning of our moral ruminations.

lukeprog:  Here’s how I think about morality. I ask: “What is morality about? What are we even trying to investigate?”In the broadest sense, I think morality is a universal consideration of reasons for action that exist.

- Stop right there. Why do you think that morality is a universal consideration of reasons for action that exist? Surely because you have a pre-theoretical idea of what the word ‘morality’ means. If you don’t have such a vague idea, then I see no way that you can match the word ‘morality’ to your favoured definition rather than any other. It would be like asking “what does X mean?”, a question which we cannot hope to answer correctly, since we haven’t the faintest clue what X is supposed to signify.

That established, we might ask what vague idea is out there which you pre-theoretically understand.

 

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lukeprog July 16, 2009 at 6:13 pm

Hylomorphic: Even a cursory analysis of virtues reveals that they can’t be “intrinsic” in any robust sense. The virtue of justice is a cornerstone of Aristotelian ethics, but it’s necessarily social.

Sure, that’s fine. But then I don’t think we’re talking about morality. Instead, we’re just talking about what’s pragmatically useful in certain types of societies. Now, maybe that’s all there is. But I actually think there is something even more than this, more universal. A universal consideration of all the reasons for action that exist.

Hylomorphic: I find it very peculiar to claim that there is a one-to-one relationship between desires and states of affairs.

I never made any such claim.

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lukeprog July 16, 2009 at 6:20 pm

Jeff,

Excellent questions. I would prefer to answer in a later post. You’re on my list!

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lukeprog July 16, 2009 at 6:24 pm

Dace: Stop right there. Why do you think that morality is a universal consideration of reasons for action that exist? Surely because you have a pre-theoretical idea of what the word ‘morality’ means.

No, this is done by an empirical study of what humans tend to mean when they use moral terms. For example, I think non-cognitivism fails these tests badly. Some moral theories, like those which depend on categorical imperatives, pass the test very well because Kant has been so influential – however, those theories are problematic because they refer to things that exist. I think ‘a universal consideration of reasons for action that exist’ best describes what people mean when they use moral terms without referring to something that does not exist.

If you want to promote a theory of gravity, you must first find out what people mean by the word ‘gravity’, and then see if any such thing exists, and if so, how it operates. People generally use ‘gravity’ to refer to things falling toward the earth. If you propose a theory of gravity that has nothing to do with things falling toward earth, then you might have a true theory, but it has nothing to do with gravity.

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Dace July 16, 2009 at 8:10 pm

Yes, we could begin with the empirical study you say – that is simply starting with a survey of everyone’s pre-theoretical ideas rather than a single person’s idea.  It is my contention that your empirical study would highlight the importance of moral intuitions in deciding what is moral.  What people would most likely say in response to being questioned is that they cannot really explain what they mean by ‘moral’, but that there are some things that they feel to be moral, and others they feel to be immoral. Even sophisticated thinkers with a theory would be likely to say that the believe theirs is a theory of morality because it generally matches their intuitions. This, after all, is why thought experiments are persuasive.
I suppose that the connection with action will come up too (though not the artificial phrase, ‘reasons for action’).  And objectivity, for that matter. Since all of these elements are likely to arise with frequency in a study of what people think moral terms mean, we can ignore none of them in forming a consensus definition for what we are investigating.
Finally, let me remind you of a passage in your ebook:  ”If you’re like most people, you make your moral decisions the same way they did. You close your eyes, shut out distractions, and ask your conscience. And then your conscience – your moral feeling - delivers you the answer”. Well, I’m simply presuming that this description is accurate: if this is the way most people make their moral decisions, if it determines what they choose to call ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’, then I am right that moral intuitions are the basis for most people’s application of moral terms. If so, then any prelimary definition of morality must honour this.

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Chuck July 16, 2009 at 9:07 pm

The yay/boo theory just a Good Trick. It doesn’t give you the right answer every single time. (Think of it like Newton’s Laws … )

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lukeprog July 17, 2009 at 3:24 am

Dace,

I’m not so sure. I think the epistemology of moral values and the meaning of moral terms are two different subjects. The latter tells us what it is that we’re talking about. The former’s strategy must be selected based on whatever actually works in giving us moral knowledge (if moral knowledge is possible at all). Let’s return to gravity. It’s easy to imagine a world in which most people think that their intuition gives them pretty good knowledge about how gravity works. But it turns out, much later, that gravity works very differently than everyone expected, and their intuitions were not trustworthy, and in fact gravity IS something different than they thought (it’s not a force at all, but merely a manifestation of wrinkles in spacetime). We’re still talking about “gravity” because we’re still talking about why things fall towards Earth, and this is what the term “gravity” was invented by humans to describe, but early human talk does not bind us to a particular epistemological or ontological theory about gravity – only the general subject matter, as a matter of semantics.

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Paul July 17, 2009 at 9:21 am

Some posts that I recall seeing yesterday are not longer available.  Is this accidental or on purpose?

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Hylomorphic July 17, 2009 at 10:44 am

Luke wrote:
Sure, that’s fine. But then I don’t think we’re talking about morality. Instead, we’re just talking about what’s pragmatically useful in certain types of societies.Now, maybe that’s all there is. But I actually think there is something even more than this, more universal. A universal consideration of all the reasons for action that exist.

This analysis of virtue ethics makes a fundamental (though common) mistake about how systems of virtue ethics are to be conceived of.
 
In Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle begins with the question of what the Good is for humans. In answering the question, he finds that he must first discover and outline what kind of thing humans are.  I believe we can generalize the logical relationship between the virtues and human nature to (nearly) all forms of virtue ethics.
 
Which is to say that there are three fundamental elements to any system of virtue ethics:
1) There are beliefs about human nature which may be more or less correct, which entail that a human life can best flourish and be most healthy if lived in a certain way.
 
2) There are personal characteristics called “virtues” that, if cultivated, enable such a life.
 
3) This all occurs within social context; both 1) and 2) must be both livable and practicable within the social context out of which this particular virtue ethic arises.
 
Thus, virtue ethics does indeed present us with the universality you claim to be so fundamental to a moral philosophy. It in fact requires something like a “universal consideration of all the reasons to act that exist,” though is not identical with it.
 
Now, Alonzo Fyfe has in fact allowed that desire utilitarianism is a kind of virtue theory. If this is so, then we can analyze it according to the terms laid out above and see whether or not it is an adequate theory:
 
1) Human beings are a multiplex of desires. The good life is one in which the fewest desires are stymied, and the most are fulfilled; hence, we should promote desires that help satisfy our other desires, and diminish those desires that work against our other desires.
 
2) The virtues are to be found in adopting the above-mentioned desires.
 
Neither you nor Fyfe have written much about how desire utilitarianism relates to society in any very specific way (aside from the advancement of atheism and critical thinking), but one might chalk this up to the current incompleteness of the theory rather than a fundamental weakness. (I do think there is a serious weakness here, but I’ll leave that alone for now.)
 
I think my fundamental criticism of desire utilitarianism should be fairly obvious; it is radically incomplete to base a system of ethics on “desire” alone. We are not only desiring creatures. The health and well-being of the human creature is not of philosophical and ethical interest only intermediately through desire, but directly. Furthermore, the account of desire given in desire utilitarianism is itself inadequate as an explication, description, or phenomenology of living through and acting on desire.

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lukeprog July 17, 2009 at 4:15 pm

Paul,

Definitely accidental if it’s true. Do you remember what they are called?

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Dace July 17, 2009 at 6:49 pm

@Lukeprog
I agree with you that the epistemology and semantics of morality are different subjects, and I also agree that the semantics are going to ultimately determine the epistemology. Nevertheless, I think the intuitionist epistemology is one of the few things people agree on when you ask them about morality. Even people who are split upon whether morality is a subjective or objective thing tend to agree that their moral thinking is guided by their moral intuitions. Pull out this common thread, and the whole cloth seems to fall apart (at least it does at this preliminary stage).
Now let’s look at your gravity example, which as set up, has the people trust their intuitions on how gravity works. But this is disanalogous with trusting moral intuitions, for the reason that our trust in moral intuitions is not supposed to reveal how morality works, but only to give us information about what is moral or immoral.
So let’s revise your example to suit: people in your example now only believe that their intuitions of gravity tell them that gravity is in effect.  And suppose that the people have greatly varying ideas about what gravity is, but at least all agree on the existence of an intuition of gravity. What, then, would you say ‘gravity’ meant to them? Replace ‘intuition’ with ‘visual perception’ and I think the point becomes quite clear – if we primarily use ‘gravity’ to describe certain visual experiences then ‘gravity’ at first describes a mode of presentation, and it is through this epistemological avenue that we must go through if we are to add to our knowledge of what gravity is, since only something which is connected with this original presentation can properly borrow the term ‘gravity’ from it. The visual experience serves as a constraint on the kind of thing gravity could be.
As you’re aware, the fact that we began with such experiences as defining ‘gravity’ did not require us to stick with the identity between these experiences and the concept of gravity. Similarly, I do not think that beginning with moral intuitions ties us into the view that moral intuitions are all that there is to morality, or even that they are the best epistemic source for moral knowledge. But again, it places a constraint upon what morality can be, for we are looking for those causes which are commonly responsible for the intuitions. I’ll add that finding the causes of our moral experience (e.g. those features of the environment which arrive through the senses and activate areas of the brain correlated with reports of moral experience) should also do away with the quasi-mystical term ‘intuition’ – we’ll have a real model of moral perception, however trustworthy it is.

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Paul July 17, 2009 at 9:01 pm

It is possible that maybe I have my threads confused but there we some posts from I believe a (I think) Mark to whom you replied a couple of times.  I also had a couple of posts.

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Paul July 17, 2009 at 9:06 pm

I also remember a post by a (sp?) Yair

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lukeprog July 18, 2009 at 6:58 am

Oh, you mean some comments are missing? I don’t delete comments unless they are duplicates. Also, I’ve had lots of problems with comment systems IntenseDebate and Disqus, but now I’m using the standard WordPress comments software. Can anyone here confirm that one of their comments is missing?

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lukeprog July 18, 2009 at 7:07 am

Jeff H, Dace, Hylomorphic: I don’t have time to respond to your excellent comments right now, but the three of you are on my to-do list. :)

Thanks.

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Jeff H July 18, 2009 at 11:58 am

Great, I look forward to it, and your (eventual) post on DU :)

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Yair July 18, 2009 at 1:19 pm

 

lukeprog: Instead, we’re just talking about what’s pragmatically useful in certain types of societies. Now, maybe that’s all there is. But I actually think there is something even more than this, more universal. A universal consideration of all the reasons for action that exist.

I’d just add my voice in asking for a demonstration of the existence of this mythological beast. I’ve failed to see it, despite visiting three blogs over it…

Hylomorphic: The health and well-being of the human creature is not of philosophical and ethical interest only intermediately through desire, but directly.

I do not understand this critique. Why cannot the ethical domain be defined to be desire, and only incorporate health and well-being as a consequence? Obviously, we can define words to mean what we want them to; why is this definition not reasonable, if it can be shown to connect back to the moral phenomena every moral theory should deal with? Why should “morality” be limited to deal only with well-being? [I likewise had a problem else-thread with people defining morality to only deal with inter-personal relations. As far as I am concerned, morality is about how to lead your own life, all aspects of it.]
 
[P.S I don't think I've posted in this thread before]

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Paul July 18, 2009 at 1:54 pm

Luke -
mY apologies it was definitely me who was confused.  I had clicked on the link to read your eBook and I thought I had navigated back to this thread/comments.  Turns out I did not and had actually posted on the comment section of the eBook page.  Sorry for the confusion.  though I should clear up,and own up, to my mistake.

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lukeprog July 18, 2009 at 2:22 pm

Yair: I’d just add my voice in asking for a demonstration of the existence of this mythological beast.

Which mythological beast?

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Yair July 18, 2009 at 10:20 pm

lukeprog: Which mythological beast?

‘A universal consideration of all the reasons for action that exist.’ Specifically, a reason-for-action for individuals that is universal, arising from a consideration of all the reasons for action that exist in a universal manner. This is in contrast froma universally valid analysis of desires on the one hand, which belongs in the social sciences, and on the other hand from a subjective consideration of deisres which includes all desires (reasons for action) as input in its analysis but depends on the idiosyncratic desires and evalutations of the subject making the consideration.

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Hylomorphic July 18, 2009 at 10:57 pm

I do not understand this critique. Why cannot the ethical domain be defined to be desire, and only incorporate health and well-being as a consequence? Obviously, we can define words to mean what we want them to; why is this definition not reasonable, if it can be shown to connect back to the moral phenomena every moral theory should deal with?

If (as I am convinced) some sort of virtue theory is the correct approach to ethics, it is necessarily the case that desire alone is an insufficient ground for ethics.
 
One of the fundamental aspects of every system of virtue ethics that I am familiar with is the recalibration of the desires. Most of the vices are simply having desires that do not lead toward human flourishing. The virtues of character are having desires that do lead toward human flourishing. Acting against one’s desires–acting as if one were virtuous even if one is actually vicious–still leads toward human flourishing, and is thus better than all-out vice. Thus, between the “vicious” man and the “virtuous” man, Aristotle sketches out the “continent” man who acts virtuously even against his strongest desires.
 
If ethics were grounded on desire alone, one could easily conceive of situations in which desires were met, but human flourishing was not obtained. Consider the hypothetical 900-pound man, happily stuffing his face without any desires other than filling his belly. One could even consider a hypothetical society of such people cared for by machines. Every desire would be fulfilled, so it’s not at all obvious to me that it could easily be ruled out as a potentially highly moral world under desire utilitarianism. However, I don’t believe that one could say that such a world has anything like human flourishing. Hence, it would not be a morally good world–to the contrary.
 

Why should “morality” be limited to deal only with well-being? [I likewise had a problem else-thread with people defining morality to only deal with inter-personal relations. As far as I am concerned, morality is about how to lead your own life, all aspects of it.]

I do not believe any account of human flourishing or well-being could be at all robust or even plausible without incorporating some account of human sociality. Justice, after all, is one of the classic virtues.

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lukeprog July 19, 2009 at 1:21 am

Yair, of course I will address this in my upcoming defense of desire utilitarianism. But it is a ways off. I have a lot more research to do.

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Yair July 19, 2009 at 10:52 am

 

Hylomorphic:
One of the fundamental aspects of every system of virtue ethics that I am familiar with is the recalibration of the desires. Most of the vices are simply having desires that do not lead toward human flourishing.

Why does this calibration need to be done against an external standard, rather than against desires? Your desire to act so as to bring about human flourishing is itself a desire – you’re just putting one desire you (believe you) have ahead of others, that is all.
 
I think sticking to “human flourishing” as something you seek to promote is dogmatic. Why promote that? You should look deep within yourself and find out what is it you want to promote. If this isn’t “human flourishing”, then what is a theory about maximizing human flourishing to you? If it is, then what you’re following is your desires.
 
A part of ethics is learning to cultivate virtues that will allow you to achieve your current desires despite adversities or setbacks or so on; part of it is changing your own structure of desires, in accordance with your overriding desires; and so on. Real ethics, the ethics of real human beings, is as complex and tangled up as humans themselves.
 
I don’t think that basing things on desires alone is not reasonable, at least not as a first approximation (humans are too complex for it to work too well; our desires aren’t well-defined or fixed enough).

If ethics were grounded on desire alone, one could easily conceive of situations in which desires were met, but human flourishing was not obtained.

Absolutely. Yet we don’t want these situations – we don’t desire them. Should such a situation come to pass, happiness and desire fulfillment would be maximized, yes, but our current desires won’t be.
 
Part of our desires is to maintain our autonomy and proper brain functions and evaluations. We don’t simply want to be happy, we want to attain just, well-earned, happiness – that’s why we disapprove of drugs, hedonistic neural-implants, and so on. Ethics that is based on desire fulfillment isn’t based on the feeling of fuflfillment, but rather on the fulfillment of the desire.

I do not believe any account of human flourishing or well-being could be at all robust or even plausible without incorporating some account of human sociality. Justice, after all, is one of the classic virtues.

Certainly. Incorporating doesn’t not imply reducible-to, however. My conception of morality is broad enough to incorporate social interactions as well as non-social acts and achievments.
 

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TK July 20, 2009 at 10:46 am

Luke,
 
You’ve denounced categorical imperatives, natural laws, etc. as things that do not “exist”. Are you similarly dismissive of scientific theories that rely on abstractions like “fitness landscapes” and “electric fields” and “wavefunctions” and “hybrid orbitals” and “species” and other things which do not exist?

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lukeprog July 20, 2009 at 6:19 pm

TK: You’ve denounced categorical imperatives, natural laws, etc. as things that do not “exist”. Are you similarly dismissive of scientific theories that rely on abstractions like “fitness landscapes” and “electric fields” and “wavefunctions” and “hybrid orbitals” and “species” and other things which do not exist?

Fitness landscapes, electric fields, wave functions, and species (I don’t know what hybrid orbitals are) are all grammatical shorthands for systems of things that do exist. Categorical imperatives, in contrast, do not point to anything at all that exists.

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TK July 21, 2009 at 1:20 am

lukeprog: Fitness landscapes, electric fields, wave functions, and species (I don’t know what hybrid orbitals are) are all grammatical shorthands for systems of things that do exist. Categorical imperatives, in contrast, do not point to anything at all that exists.

How sure are you about that? I know a lot of biologists who would absolutely crucify me for saying that a “fitness landscape” refers to something that actually exists. And what thing does the term “wavefunction” refer to which actually exists? “Electric field” may be a bad example–how about something like “gauge” or “vector potential”?
 
It seems pretty obvious to me that none of these things “exists”, and I’m not sure what at all you mean by “grammatical shorthands for systems of things that do exist”. Rather, what’s going on is that these are mere abstractions which, when the right operations are performed on them, yield propositions.
 
In this sense, they’re meaningful and useful, and no scientist in his right mind would ever say “well, a theory that depends on wavefunctions must be faulty, because wavefunctions don’t exist!” A non-desire-utilitarian ethicist might likewise argue that his pet ethical theory is, in fact, meaningful because even if categorical imperatives (or whatever) don’t exist, when the right operations are performed on them, they yield moral propositions, which deal with potential moral facts–which (presumably) do exist.

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Yair July 21, 2009 at 4:19 am

 

A non-desire-utilitarian ethicist might likewise argue that his pet ethical theory is, in fact, meaningful because even if categorical imperatives (or whatever) don’t exist, when the right operations are performed on them, they yield moral propositions, which deal with potential moral facts–which (presumably) do exist.

This way is indeed open for the non-desire utilitarian. I believe Kant argued for it rather explicitly. But the theorist still has to explain why these structures, his methods, are to be used. The problem with most moral theorists is that they forget their epistemic commitments, and speak of these principles without really justifying their use.

A few minor quibbles, however:

I know a lot of biologists who would absolutely crucify me for saying that a “fitness landscape” refers to something that actually exists.

Do these biologists dispute the existence of instances of natural selection? The ‘fitness landscape’ is a shorthand for real happenings in the world, or various possible scenarios about what may happen. It therefore refers to something that really exists – actual events and causal relations that are summed up by natural selection.

And what thing does the term “wavefunction” refer to which actually exists?

I suspect it refers to a part of existence, in the many-worlds interpretation. Others say various other things, but generally again it refers to real things that really exist, or possible scenarios of real things existing. The sole exception is the information interpretation, and even then it refers to real things, it is just that reality is only information…

“Electric field” may be a bad example–how about something like “gauge” or “vector potential”?

Are you familiar with the Aharanov-Bohm effect? It pretty much shows that the vector potential exists – it makes a real difference what the field is so it’s not just a calculation aid. A gauge doesn’t exist, but again it is a way of speaking of things that exist – just a looseness in the language, so that setting it changes the way you talk about existence.

It seems pretty obvious to me that none of these things “exists”

It seems to me they are all ways to speak about things that exist, about what will happen (exist) in certain imaginary scenarios, and so on.

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lukeprog July 21, 2009 at 6:51 am

TK,

A fitness landscape refers to a pattern of how certain biological systems work in certain environments. What does a ‘categorical imperative’ refer to? A wave function refers to a pattern of how certain quantum events occur. What does ‘intrinsic value’ refer to?

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TK July 22, 2009 at 12:30 am

 

Yair: This way is indeed open for the non-desire utilitarian. I believe Kant argued for it rather explicitly. But the theorist still has to explain why these structures, his methods, are to be used. The problem with most moral theorists is that they forget their epistemic commitments, and speak of these principles without really justifying their use.

Abs0lutely–but as soon as we admit that the principles upon which an ethical theory is based don’t have to “come from” anywhere or even “exist” in any other way besides as an abstraction, we’ve already moved past the moral-ontological objection Luke raises to most ethical theories. Presumably, a good ethicist should use some of the same criteria scientists use in evaluating the truth and validity of a theory, such as parsimony, predictive power, and agreement with established observations. But what on earth could possibly be admissible as a moral “observation”? Luke maintains (in my opinion, incorrectly) that moral intuitions and feelings don’t qualify as valid observations, since they aren’t good indicators about what’s morally right or wrong, and maintains that desires are the only relevant observations we have.
 
 

Yair: Do these biologists dispute the existence of instances of natural selection? The ‘fitness landscape’ is a shorthand for real happenings in the world, or various possible scenarios about what may happen. It therefore refers to something that really exists – actual events and causal relations that are summed up by natural selection.

This is pretty horribly nitpicky of me, but one such biologist happens to be the woman who runs my lab. The issue is that a fitness landscape always involves presenting fitness as a function of some continuous variable labeled “genotype”, but genotypes, since they are strings of DNA, are always discrete in nature. So a fitness landscape is always at least a few steps removed from reality. This doesn’t mean people shouldn’t use the concept, merely that they should admit that it’s a useful abstraction and not anything “real”.
 
 

Yair: I suspect it refers to a part of existence, in the many-worlds interpretation. Others say various other things, but generally again it refers to real things that really exist, or possible scenarios of real things existing. The sole exception is the information interpretation, and even then it refers to real things, it is just that reality is only information…

This doesn’t seem to help. In what meaningful sense does “possible scenarios of real things existing” describe or refer to something that actually exists? I think you’ve really got to contort quantum mechanics to get around the fact that I can’t point my finger somewhere in the universe and say “look! A wavefunction!”
 
 
I think many prominent physicists would agree with me (Feynman certainly would, and I think Hawking’s stated stuff to this effect, too) that a good physical theory doesn’t need to have any “meaning”, nor do its concepts have to “point to” anything; what’s important is that the concepts involved let you say things that agree with observation.
 

Yair: Are you familiar with the Aharanov-Bohm effect? It pretty much shows that the vector potential exists – it makes a real difference what the field is so it’s not just a calculation aid. A gauge doesn’t exist, but again it is a way of speaking of things that exist – just a looseness in the language, so that setting it changes the way you talk about existence.

 

It’s been a little while since I did college quantum mechanics, but if I recall correctly, you’ve got to fudge the definition of the momentum operator to get around the fact that the vector potential isn’t even specified until you nail down your gauge–and at that point, the momentum operator doesn’t refer to anything “real”, either (certainly not what you and I usually mean when we say “momentum”). In other words, something has to be abstracted away from reality. But likewise, no scientist would ever maintain that this account of the Aharonov-Bohm effect is somehow “wrong” just because it contains things that don’t refer to anything that “exists”. (The very phrase “a looseness in the language” seems eerily similar to “abstraction”, at least in spirit.)
 

Yair: It seems to me they are all ways to speak about things that exist, about what will happen (exist) in certain imaginary scenarios, and so on.

Sure. They are all ways to speak about things that exist. But these ways also require you to speak about some things that don’t seem to exist, at least not in the same way. Likewise, non-desire-utilitarian ethical theories are all ways to speak about things that (on moral realism) exist, like right and wrong actions, or good and bad states of mind. The fact that they require you to invoke things that don’t exist just can’t be taken as a point against them.

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TK July 22, 2009 at 1:03 am

lukeprog: TK,A fitness landscape refers to a pattern of how certain biological systems work in certain environments. What does a ‘categorical imperative’ refer to? A wave function refers to a pattern of how certain quantum events occur. What does ‘intrinsic value’ refer to?

‘Categorical imperatives’ and ‘intrinsic values’ refer to patterns about which things are right and which things are wrong. I just don’t see the unbridgeable conceptual gap here.
 
I have a sneaking feeling that what you really mean to ask me is “what natural thing does (a categorical imperative/intrinsic value) refer to?” Well, the answer is “none.” But since ethical theories make moral propositions, not propositions about the natural world, it’s not at all obvious why I should expect to find a rigorous basis for an ethical theory in terms of a non-ethical, natural thing. You need some “ethically loaded” terms to begin with.
 
If that’s unacceptable to you, I (almost) understand. Your ebook isn’t loading for me right now, for some reason, but as I recall, desire utilitarianism approves of actions which lead to the fulfillment of more and greater desires than they thwart. “Greater” certainly seems loaded to me.

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TK July 22, 2009 at 1:22 am

(oh Darwin plz forgive me for giant blocks of text)

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lukeprog July 22, 2009 at 5:06 am

TK,

So you think categorical imperatives and intrinsic values refer to non-natural entities? Many people agree with you, I just don’t think those non-natural entities exist. And that’s why they are different than fitness landscapes and species.

‘Greater’ just means ‘stronger.’ My desire to avoid being tortured is stronger than my desire for frozen yogurt. Nothing exotic there.

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TK July 22, 2009 at 7:47 am

My explanation was a bit jumbled, but I think categorical imperatives, etc., if they refer to anything at all, refer to “patterns about which things are right and which things are wrong”. I don’t think those qualify as “natural”. Maybe you do. Since even desire utilitarianism ultimately reaches sets of “right” and “wrong” actions as conclusions, I’m guessing you think such patterns are natural, considering that they must exist. :D

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Yair July 23, 2009 at 1:33 am

TK:   Abs0lutely–but as soon as we admit that the principles upon which an ethical theory is based don’t have to “come from” anywhere or even “exist” in any other way besides as an abstraction, we’ve already moved past the moral-ontological objection Luke raises to most ethical theories.

I don’t think we’re really at a disagreement. To the extent that people use non-existent constructions as thinking aids, they are fine. To the extent they use them as justifications, they are not.

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