The Wrong Test for Ethical Theories

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 30, 2009 in Ethics

When a believer loses his faith and becomes a nonbeliever, one of the first questions he must ask himself is: “What is my moral code?

For some newly deconverted atheists, the question never arises. They just continue to follow the same system most people do: be kind and generous, try not to hurt people, etc. Perhaps they are more accepting of gays and less judgmental of people, but otherwise their moral code remains the same.

I didn’t feel that way. As a Christian, my entire ethical system was bound up in what I thought God had said was good. If God didn’t exist, that meant I had no idea what was right and wrong.

I had already spent 21 years following a false ethical system. Perhaps I had even made a net negative impact on the world because of it! Had I made the world a worse place because I’d been following a false ethical system, or had I gotten lucky and not caused too much harm?

In any case, I quickly felt the urgency of finding the correct ethical theory if there was one. I didn’t want to die leaving the world a worse place than if I’d never been born, just because I was unlucky enough to be raised in a barbaric ancient super-cult! I had to find an ethical theory that corresponded to what existed in the real universe, and fast.

How do we know what is good?

I immediately ran into a big problem. Moral values don’t seem to be measurable or discoverable the same way physical facts are. Every theory I came across merely asserted that certain things had intrinsic moral value: happiness, pleasure, complexity, a particular list of virtues, a particular list of duties, living organisms, whatever. But philosophers never explained how they knew that their pet moral system had true moral value. Did they have some kind of advanced “moral radiation detector” they used to measure morality? Had they frozen certain actions in time, cracked them open, and found something called “moral value” inside? I was deeply confused by their arguments.

Actually, the most common test of an ethical theory seemed to be: Does this ethical theory give answers that fit with our moral intuitions?

Moral philosophers seemed to spend most of their time showing how other theories led to absurd results – for example, that Preference Satisfaction Utilitarianism would require that an angry mob kill an innocent man if that satisfied the preferences of the mob. Then they’d argue that their own theory led to results that were more palatable.

The wrong test

That struck me as a bizarre test for an ethical theory. It would be like lining up scientific theories about cosmology or genetics or neuroscience and asking the public: “Which theory fits best with your feelings on the matter?”

What a strange way to go after the truth about morality!

The defenders of this approach seemed to assume that humans had evolved a sixth sense (“the conscience”) to detect moral values out there in the universe, and that this sense could be trusted.

Morality-detectors

But I could see no reason to think humans had evolved morality-detectors, and even if we had, I saw no reason to think this sense could be trusted.

Let’s say we have evolved a “sixth sense” that can directly detect moral values. Can it be trusted? I think not.

First, because different people’s consciences give wildly different answers to moral questions. Even rape, killing, and incest are morally permitted (or encouraged, in some circumstances) in a many societies.

Second, because the “collective answer” given by humanity’s consciences to common moral questions has changed so rapidly throughout history. A few centuries ago most consciences agreed that sexism and racism were morally good. A few centuries further back, and slaughtering your neighbors for their land was considered good, especially if God said so. A few centuries from now we should also expect worldwise morality to be much different. Have moral values in the universe been changing, or are our consciences going haywire?

If morality-detectors exist, they don’t seem reliable at all.

But I don’t think there are any good reasons to think we have evolved morality-detectors in the first place. We certainly haven’t found them in the brain. There isn’t a clear adaptive advantage to being able to detect moral values. Sure, we have evolved to feel that certain things are good or bad, but let us not mistake that feeling for a mental faculty that accurately detects “intrinsic moral value.”

How to test ethical theories

It is a simple consequence of the fact that we have not evolved reliable morality detectors that we must choose an ethical theory just as we would a scientific theory: based not on our feelings, but on what we actually find out there in the universe, and what conforms to logic.

Those are the correct tests for an ethical theory.

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 111 comments… read them below or add one }

evil_bender March 30, 2009 at 8:02 pm

I think this raises some interesting questions, but I don't know how to apply it. Applying logical systems requires confidence in one's assumptions, and finding “true” assumptions is precisely the problem you've demonstrated here.

What assumptions would you use to evaluate the logic of an ethical theory?

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 30, 2009 at 8:15 pm

I said we'd need to evaluate ethical theories based on logic and evidence. Are you asking something else?

  (Quote)

Jeffrey March 30, 2009 at 8:24 pm

I don't think that your answer gets around the problem of unreliable morality detectors. For logic to do anything, it needs some premises to get started.

I don't see how logic can do more than check for internal consistency and if particular actions succeed in serving your overall goals. But you still need overall goals, like promoting happiness and reducing suffering. No matter what your overall goals are – but why? To get overall goals, you still need some kind of a morality/value detector.

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 30, 2009 at 9:04 pm

Yes, evidence brings us information and logic checks for internal consistency.

Of course to get moral goals you need a way to detect them, but I propose that the way to detect them is with the tools of science, since it appears we do not have an internal morality detector. It would be easier if we did, but it is a fact of the matter that we do not.

  (Quote)

Ben March 31, 2009 at 1:52 am

You seem to be framing an inquiry that can't find useful results. At some level whatever objective moral facts we discover need to be amicable to our moral intuitions or else there's really no reason to follow them. Let's say we do discover a rigid intrinsic set of moral values and it's so disconnected from our impulses that we can never feel right about ever engaging in it. Maybe following it makes us feel constantly guilty or something else that is incredibly dysfunctional to the human condition. If you start turning your ship of “evidence and logic” away from the facts of human psychology you will run into all kinds of disasters, never settle on anything and reject a whole lot of obvious things most people will take for granted. It seems you're already well on your way there to no where.

You make too much of the differences between cultures and not enough about the similarities. I suggest looking into scientific studies on the similarities before you toss up your hands and say there's no common ground. These are noob mistakes, in my opinion. Common sense says you will fail and unless you want to embrace the magic of Platonism, you'll come back to your senses. Good luck, regardless.

Ben

  (Quote)

Richard March 31, 2009 at 2:51 am

Hello Luke. I've really been enjoying our discussions here, and there's a great deal that I'd still like to respond to in various threads, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to bow out, as it's taking up too much of my time. Unfortunately, a large part of that time has been wasted struggling against your blog comment software, which I find awkward to use, often fails to post my comments, and often doesn't show me all the comments in a thread. It now seems to have deleted all my comments in the “Questions about 'What is Morality?'” thread.

I long for the good old days when people used to hold discussions on well-designed forum boards. These days most discussions seem to take place in the comments sections of blogs, which are generally far less adequate for the purpose.

To answer your question in another thread (where I'm currently unable to post), you can find Nick Bostrom's chapters here:
http://www.anthropic-principle.com/book/excerpt…

I would have sent you this by email, rather than make this off-topic comment, but I couldn't find your email address. If you would like to reply by email, you can find my address here:
http://web.ukonline.co.uk/rwein/toppy.htm

My thanks to you, Anselm and everyone else here for the interesting discussions. They've given me a lot of food for thought.

  (Quote)

Richard_tich March 31, 2009 at 2:57 am

Testing. (Sorry)

  (Quote)

Evil Bender March 31, 2009 at 5:29 am

I'm asking what premises we can accept as true and so allow us to evaluate any ethical theory. I completely agree that logic and evidence are essential, but I think in terms or morality there are large problems in finding correct assumptions on which to base one's logic.

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 31, 2009 at 7:17 am

There is some common ground, but even that is no indication that we have an accurate morality detector in our heads. No, it is an indication that our species evolved to have feelings about certain things one way or another. Ben, when we are able to deconstruct the entire brain and find that there is indeed no “sixth sense” for the direct observation of moral values, then what will you say?

To say that we “need” an intuitive moral sense to test moral theories is like saying we “need” an intuitive astronomical sense to test astronomical theories.

You seem to be interested in moral theories that are workable – that people cannot actually follow. That's fine. We are then talking about two different things. You are talking about a moral theory that is workable. I am talking about a moral theory that happens to be true. I'm after truth.

Smilansky has argued something similar to your thinking with regard to free will. He says that it's becoming clear that we do not have free will, but such a discovery is not workable in human society. Human society will degenerate if philosophers and nueroscientists tell the common people that they do not have free will. So, we have to lie to the people and tell them that “Everything's okay, we found free will. It exists. You have it. Be good, now.”

I don't think society will fall apart with the knowledge that free will does not exist. But let's say I'm wrong. Perhaps we SHOULD lie to people about free will, just because that's more workable. That's a debate worth having.

But, back to morality, that is not the debate I'm having here. I'm arguing about a test for what's true, not about what's workable. Indeed, testing moral theories against our moral intuitions is a decent test for workability. All I said above is that it is not a decent test for truth.

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 31, 2009 at 7:29 am

Oh, sure. This is all explained in my very short ebook on ethical theory.

BTW, even if we didn't yet have good premises, etc. to start with, that doesn't mean we should turn to really bad tools. Just like when we had no way to know that lightning was caused by electric charges, that didn't mean “Zeus” was a good answer.

There are two big tasks for someone who wishes to build a moral theory that is true:

1) If it is to be a theory about morality, it must capture what we typically mean when we use moral terms. This is the semantic challenge.

2) The theory must make claims that are actually true about the world, based on good evidence and reason.

If condition (2) is satisfied but not condition (1), then we have a good theory that is true but it just so happens to not be about morality. For example, it might be a true theory about aesthetics, even though we started out trying to build a moral theory.

If condition (1) is satisfied but not condition (2) – which is usually the case – then we have a moral theory but no good reason to think it is true.

As for how desire utilitarianism is semantically true, see here. As for how desire utilitarianism is factually true, see my book.

  (Quote)

anselm March 31, 2009 at 9:44 am

“Let’s say we have evolved a “sixth sense” that can directly detect moral values. Can it be trusted? I think not…It is a simple consequence of the fact that we have not evolved reliable morality detectors that we must choose an ethical theory just as we would a scientific theory: based not on our feelings, but on what we actually find out there in the universe, and what conforms to logic.

What is your basis for saying our evolved “logical sense” is reliable, since its application varies widely across cultures (e.g., in Eastern philosophy where even the law of non-contradiction is denied) and also appears to be unnecessary for survival (witness the countless well-adapted species with no such sense)?

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 31, 2009 at 11:59 am

We have NOT evolved a logical sense that is reliable. Rather, we have found that the particularly consistent rules of logic/math are found to be incredibly reliable. That was not an evolved sense, but a discovered set of necessary truths. If we lived in a universe where strict logic did not lead toward truth, we would not use it. It just so happens that the application of logic does lead to truth. And it seems you know this, since you use logic in persuasion and you accept the work of analytic philosophers, etc.

  (Quote)

anselm March 31, 2009 at 12:56 pm

How do you know that your application of logic leads to truth? Because the result of your reasoning feels true?

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 31, 2009 at 1:54 pm

No, because it works. When we apply mathematics we get answers that work. Try to build a car using bad logic or bad math. Try to fly a plane. Try to design software. Try to build roads. Try to draw a triangle. Logic and math work. We don't know why our universe obeys the laws of logic and math 100% of the time but it does. It could very well be that our universe did not obeys the laws of logic and math, but it just so happens that it does. That's just an observation about how the world works. I do not presume it. If I presumed logic in a universe that had no logic, I would be wrong.

  (Quote)

kevinbbg March 31, 2009 at 2:43 pm

You are seeing things all wrong here, you are still looking for some kind of absolute morality that can be relied on and that is just Christian thinking. Even a light look through history shows that there is no set morality, it does not exist outside of us but is created by us.

In ancient Japan a samurai could kill a commoner any time he wanted, we'd call that murder. In what way were the samurai wrong? There is no way to make that claim unless you first make an assumption; that all life is precious or that we must treat other's as we expect to be treated, etc. But those are a priory moral assumptions based on your Western Christian upbringing.

What would be the logical reasons why a samurai killing a peasant who offended him be wrong? That he destroyed his shogun's property without permission? Is that really moral?

Face it, you would find logical reasons why what those ancient samurai's did was wrong based on the feelings you have from your upbringing.

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 31, 2009 at 3:19 pm

This is exactly the bias that I strive against by suggesting that moral values – if they exist – cannot be discovered by consulting our feelings. We must use evidence and reason, as in science. If it turns out that moral values do not exist – that they were nothing but feelings all along – then moral values do not exist. But if it turns out that moral values do exist when we investigate our universe with the tools of logic and evidence, then they do exist, and exist totally apart from how we feel about them.

> In ancient Japan a samurai could kill a commoner any time he wanted, we'd call that murder. In what way were the samurai wrong? There is no way to make that claim unless you first make an assumption; that all life is precious or that we must treat other's as we expect to be treated, etc. <

No, that's not the only way to claim the samurai is wrong. For example, desire utilitarianism would argue that the samurai's action was morally wrong, but desire utilitarianism does not claim that life is precious or that treating others as we want to be treated is a principle with intrinsic value.

It seems we probably agree that moral theories must be evaluated on grounds of evidence and logic, but you just happen to think there are no such things as moral values. I think that is a respectable position. At the moment I am persuaded otherwise, but I could easily be wrong.

  (Quote)

akakiwibear March 31, 2009 at 3:34 pm

I agree with kevinbbg. I think this is a case of the wrong tool for the job. Logic and morality have little to contribute to each other.

Let me explain. Given a situation that requires a decision (why label any decisions as moral?) if we are logical we will evaluate the outcomes and rank them according to criteria. But the criteria we choose pre-selects the outcome as preferred. So we need to step back to the criteria which we will apply.

Logically those criteria should be for our greatest benefit – anything else is irrational. If I skip a few steps in the reasoning you will fill them in and … so by and large we get to ‘to might is right’.

This is the basis of our survival as an evolutionary species and is the rational end point of logic based morality.

Any morality which dilutes our ability to procreate is contra to evolutionary need. There is evidence that sociopathic tendencies are dominant rather than recessive in the gene pool – for this very reason? The concept that we are all better off if society is better off is a demonstrable nonsense. Small group survival to the exclusion of other groups is the best guarantee of access to resources. Lots of consumers for the global corporates is a short term win for the “personality” of the corporates – they know that they are depleting resources (not theirs – that of others initially). (As an aside – Interesting to view corporate behaviour as that of “persons”, it then makes a lot of sense = Organisational Dynamics as a behaviour science)

It is the common thread of the worlds’ major religions' teachings (include the apparently non-theist ones too … they provide for some form of life after) that provides the only input to the moral debate that is not entirely self serving. The ‘do to others … love your neighbour’ style golden rule is setting oneself up to be vulnerable – one could argue that it is the logical teaching of those who have no intention of following it.

If you want morality you have to look to the spiritual dimension – sorry about that.

Sala kahle -peace

  (Quote)

Jeff H March 31, 2009 at 4:11 pm

Hi there! I recently followed a link on over from the Debunking Christianity blog, so I've only been here for a little while, but I also recently read your eBook on desire utilitarianism. I found it very thought-provoking (in fact, I even downloaded it to my computer for future reference!), but I have a couple points of contention about it.

First off, in some cases it seems to contradict what one's feelings might say about morality. That may be okay, but wouldn't these feelings at least give us a general guide of what we could consider right and wrong? Perhaps it's a bit too vague. But desire utilitarianism would seem to say that if we lived in a world where everyone desired to be raped or stolen from, then it would be right to do so. I know that logically that might be the case, but something about it still offends my moral feelings about the matter. A visitor to the hypothetical world from this one would view everyone there as insane. Indeed, if a person desired that in this world, we would probably say they needed a good psychiatrist. So why is it wrong to murder a person who wants to be murdered when it is just one individual, but right to murder them when the entire population feels that way? And at what point along that continuum does it go from being wrong to right?

Another point to make – and this might just be a case of misunderstanding – is the idea of evaluating desires. At one point you say that “The desire to torture children tends to thwart more and greater desires than it fulfills, so it is a bad desire. A person with good desires would not torture children, so torturing children is a wrong action to perform.” My question is what more and greater desires are you considering here? We have 20 sadists who desire to torture a child, versus one child who desires not to be tortured. How does one evaluate which desires take precedence over others, especially when we cannot use our moral intuitions on the matter? And such a calculation seems as impossible as a good utilitarian “hedonic calculus” problem – how do we evaluate a complex moral problem when we must take into consideration everyone's desires, possible desires (because we can't know for sure what they want), etc.? Perhaps such a moral framework is not practical.

At any rate, perhaps what I've said is based on a misunderstanding of your eBook, so maybe you could clarify if I went wrong somewhere? Let me say once again that I certainly enjoyed it, and I recognize the problem with finding “goodness” and “badness” in the physical world. Cheers!

  (Quote)

Jeff H March 31, 2009 at 4:12 pm

My apologies. I didn't mean to reply to akakiwibear – I just clicked the wrong link. Sorry for the confusion (and the length!).

  (Quote)

anselm March 31, 2009 at 4:49 pm

I'm not clear on your intended meaning of the word “works” in your proposed definition of truth. What is the criterion for determining whether a proposition “works” or not? (I don't believe the criterion is “must be empirically verified” since you earlier said you reject verficationism and logical positivism).

For example, Eastern philosophy rejects the law of noncontradiction, yet it provides Eastern philosophers with the metaphysics that they want–it “works” for them; so is it true for that reason?

  (Quote)

Ben March 31, 2009 at 4:49 pm

What you call “the wrong test” I would call “one test among others” and then all of the sudden our moral intuitions have a reasonable role to play. You even validate this with you own impulse, “Perhaps I had even made a net negative impact on the world because of it! Had I made the world a worse place because I’d been following a false ethical system, or had I gotten lucky and not caused too much harm?” How can even this question be valid or worthwhile if the so called human “morality detectors” are complete crap? You are wasting your brain power on unnecessary extremes and are sabotaging your pursuit of moral truth in the process.

Are you to the part in Sense and Goodness where Carrier lays out his moral theory? Why don't you read that and get back to me. Or you can watch the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dce8mE0q4zA

Ben

  (Quote)

anselm March 31, 2009 at 5:01 pm

As a follow-up, I note in your reply to Ben above you say:

“You are talking about a moral theory that is workable. I am talking about a moral theory that happens to be true. I'm after truth.”

Doesn't this contradict your definition of truth as what “works”?

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 31, 2009 at 5:09 pm

akakiwibear, I have no idea what you're talking about. Of course we can't pick a criteria arbitrarily and then apply logic and evidence. We don't do that in science, either.

The reason I recommend logic and evidence is that we already know they are our best methods for gaining reliable knowledge. If moral facts do not exist, well then no method can find them. If moral facts do exist, we should use our most trusted knowledge-gathering tools to discover them.

On what grounds would you recommend a spiritual question for morality? Spiritual methods have an awful track record of uncovering facts.

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 31, 2009 at 5:24 pm

Jeff,

Thanks for your interest.

Yes, desire utilitarianism goes against one's feelings. I don't think that's a problem. Many scientific facts have contradicted our feelings. But do we trust our feelings, or the facts? If there are moral facts, it should not be surprising at all that they contradict our feelings.

{ So why is it wrong to murder a person who wants to be murdered when it is just one individual, but right to murder them when the entire population feels that way? And at what point along that continuum does it go from being wrong to right? }

Excellent question.

First, I did not say that it is wrong to kill a person who wants to be killed. We must consider all desires. Would this thwart the desires of this person's family and friends? Would it thwart other desires? In general, would the decision to kill those who want to be killed tend to thwart more desires than it fulfills? These are tough questions to answer, but those would be things to look into. I don't think I know the answer to that question, but the question can (in theory) be answered if we do enough research.

{ My question is what more and greater desires are you considering here? We have 20 sadists who desire to torture a child, versus one child who desires not to be tortured. How does one evaluate which desires take precedence over others, especially when we cannot use our moral intuitions on the matter? }

I explain this in that same chapter of my book. Think of the analogy of the knobs.

{ Perhaps such a moral framework is not practical. }

It's difficult to measure desires across the whole world, obviously. That doesn't make the claims of the theory incorrect at all. It merely makes the theory difficult to apply. This is true of many scientific theories.

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 31, 2009 at 5:27 pm

Ask the Eastern philosopher to build a working car without assuming the principle of noncontradiction (and everything that follows from it). Ask him to correctly predict where Jupiter will be in 9 years without the math and logic. Almost nothing works in our universe if you do not assume the law of noncontradiction.

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 31, 2009 at 5:30 pm

> How can even this question be valid or worthwhile if the so called human “morality detectors” are complete crap? <

The question is valid because I don't trust my magical morality detectors. Do you really think we evolved to have a special mental faculty for detecting moral facts? Richard Carrier doesn't think so, either.

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 31, 2009 at 5:36 pm

No, let me clarify. Truth is what corresponds to reality. A very handy tool to find out what is true is to test a theory (or an epistemic method) and see if it works in our universe.

“works” is a vague word and I'm using it in two different senses. Let's say we decided that we wanted to know the exact average height of everyone on the planet at 2:32:00pm PST on May 13, 2011. We know certain methods of measuring height that “work”, and in measuring we would be making lots of assumptions about what exists in the universe because those assumptions “work.” But this plan to apply all these bits of knowledge to measure the exact average height humanity is unworkable, even though it depends on real knowledge (that “works”) about things like height and sight and human anatomy and measurement and maths.

  (Quote)

anselm March 31, 2009 at 6:20 pm

Sorry, the “reply” button disappeared on the thin thread above, so I have placed my follow-up comment down here. Two thoughts:

1) In all of your examples of what “works,” I'm not clear on why there is a distinction between that and “what is useful to human beings” (predicting physical events, building machines, etc.). Are you saying you consider “what is useful” to be equivalent to “what is true?” In that case, believing that 2 + 2 = 4 is true because it is useful in performing engineering tasks, and believing “free will exists” is true because it is useful in preventing society from degenerating (assuming that would occur if the concept of free will was rejected).

2) Perhaps you could explain the difference between your view and logical positivism, because thus far they appear identical (based on my reading regarding logical positivism, which I admit is not tremendously extensive). Thanks.

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 31, 2009 at 7:42 pm

1) Don't confuse descriptive usefulness and normative usefulness. An atomic bomb “works” quite well for degenerating society.

2) I am influenced by logical positivism, but have never adhered to verificationism, and am quite aware of the criticisms of logical positivism. I have not yet settled on a comprehensive theory of knowledge.

  (Quote)

anselm March 31, 2009 at 8:03 pm

Fair enough. But I really don't see how “normative usefulness” can avoid degenerating into verificationism (as the examples you give of what passes muster as “true” would indicate–i.e, scientific predictions, science as applied to feats of engineering, etc.). And as I'm sure you're aware, such a criterion of truthfulness is self-refuting because the criterion itself is not subject to empirical verification. But perhaps you can flesh out why your concept of normative usefulness avoids that problem in future posts.

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 31, 2009 at 8:43 pm

Sorry, I'm using non-standard terms and I'm sure that is confusing. Normative usefulness, as I meant it, has nothing to do with verificationism. Normativity is not about factual knowledge, but about goal-directed recommendations. “If you want to blow up a million people, you should use an atom bomb.”

Let me use standard terms instead. I'm suggesting a pragmatic theory of truth. But again, I haven't settled on a theory of knowledge yet, so I'm not prepared to defend that very well! But I don't see any reason to think we have a sensus divinitatus, or to think that claims about moral facts can be justified without any reasons given.

  (Quote)

toweltowel April 1, 2009 at 4:18 am

If we employ only empirical observation and logic, I don't think we will ever arrive at any moral views at all.

After all, I know of nothing observable by empirical means or required by logic that recommends happiness as superior to misery. Or the satisfaction of desires as superior to the frustration of desires. Or kindness as superior to cruelty.

To put it another way, I would think that every ethical theory—no matter how implausible (e.g., the anti-utilitarian one that says to maximize overall misery)—would pass these tests. Which means these tests couldn't actually function as tests.

  (Quote)

anselm April 1, 2009 at 6:03 am

Thanks, that is helpful. Pragmatism would definitely be in line with your earlier statements denying the existence of either a “moral sense” or a “logical sense” in our cognitive faculties, and would be consistent with atheistic view of how we evolved. Since under atheistic naturalism we are essentially “DNA-replicating machines”, all we could say is that our belief-forming mechanisms have been adapted to “what works” for our survival–i.e., getting our bodies and body parts in the right place so that the species continues on to the next generation. As atheist philosopher Patricia Churchland as said:

“Boiled down to essentials, a nervous system enables the organism to succeed in the four F's: feeding, fleeing, fighting and reproducing. The principal chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive … . Improvements in sensorimotor control confer an evolutionary advantage: a fancier style of representing is advantageous so long as it is geared to the organism's way of life and enhances the organism's chances of survival. Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost.”

In that case, “truth” could best be redefined as “what serves the purpose of our survival” (as opposed to “what reflects fundamental reality”). I think pragmatists like Richard Rorty have grasped the implications of this in a profound way, we caused him to reject “objective truth” in favor of “intersubjective truth” (see http://tinyurl.com/4u6cz).

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 1, 2009 at 6:28 am

No, they WOULD function as tests. Just because something doesn't pass the tests doesn't make them bad tests. Pseudoscience and magic don't pass these tests, either.

To see why I think one ethical theory passes these tests but not any others, see my ethics book linked in the sidebar.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 1, 2009 at 6:30 am

No, I mean nothing like that truth is “what works for survival.” The mechnisms inside an atomic bomb work because they are true, but they are terrible for survival.

  (Quote)

anselm April 1, 2009 at 7:45 am

“No, I mean nothing like that truth is “what works for survival.” The mechnisms inside an atomic bomb work because they are true, but they are terrible for survival.”

The same mechanisms support the operation of medical CT scans, so in that sense they do “work” for our survival, since our survival-adapted cognitive faculties found them useful. If those faculties ultimately lead to our destruction, then they were maladaptive. But having a brain that “knows” whether the ultimate principles behind those mechanisms are ontologically “true” is irrelevant on evolutionary naturalism.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 1, 2009 at 9:27 am

What I'm saying is that I have never argued that “true” = what works for survival. If you want to argue for that, fine. If you want to argue against that, I will argue you against it beside you.

  (Quote)

anselm April 1, 2009 at 9:35 am

Ok, then could you be more specific as to what is meant by “works”; what criteria determines “works” vs. “does not work” and how is it determined whether the criteria have been met?

(Maybe you haven't resolved this yet, since you said you haven't settled on a theory of knowledge. But it seems to me you need to work these issues out before you can go on to how we can “know” right from wrong).

  (Quote)

kevinbbg April 1, 2009 at 10:02 am

I'm saying we do have moral values, they are simply created by us and will continue to change as our societies change, and no matter how much logic is applied to it our emotions will still take charge.

In the samurai example above both you and I immediately and without question, took the position that the samurai was wrong to kill peasants like that, then we looked for logical reasons why it was wrong. We would have to start out in neutral then use logic and reason to discover if he was right or wrong.

I will admit that the very idea of possibly condoning that kind of behavior upsets me.

However, I don't disagree with what you are trying to do. Reason and logic do need to be applied to moral and ethical standards otherwise we are just blinding following what our culture taught us.

But we also have to admit that we start from a biased position and can't do anything else.

  (Quote)

Jeff H April 1, 2009 at 12:26 pm

“I explain this in that same chapter of my book. Think of the analogy of the knobs.”

I suppose this is the one point where perhaps I'm not clear about it. I understand the whole knobs analogy – increasing or decreasing the desire to torture children throughout society – but you conclude that the best place to set the knob is at zero. But I suppose I'm a little unclear as to how you decided this. Let's use the example of the population of 20 sadists and one child that you give. For simplicity's sake, let's just say that these people are the only ones in the world. So we have 20 people who strongly desire to torture a child and only one child who desires not to be tortured. You conclude that “The desire to torture children tends to thwart more and greater
desires than it fulfills, so it is a bad desire.” But what that says to me is that IF the desire to torture children was strong enough (let's give it a really high value of 10,000), it could outweigh all of the child's desires to not be tortured (100), to grow up (15), to sleep properly (25), etc. These are arbitrary numbers, but if I'm understanding the theory correctly, these values would mean that the desire to torture children is a GOOD desire because it tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts. In this case, the torturers are right to torture the child, and indeed the moral thing for the child to do is to accept the torture. We should set the knob at 100%.

Am I misunderstanding the theory, or is that how the “calculation” would really work?

  (Quote)

Ben April 1, 2009 at 2:51 pm

No. You keep framing the question in a ridiculous way and I wonder what the point of that is. My point is that basic moral intuitions ultimately need to plug into any worthwhile moral theory and that they are a necessary part of a good system of checks and balances. It doesn't mean they are the only standard or that they are always right. It just means they shouldn't be ignored wholesale in favor of some moral theory that can't ever get along with them. If you do agree with this (as you conceded humanity has some common moral ground even though we'd never know that from reading your post), then you should probably have said something like, “Our natural moral intuitions are important, but can also be mistaken, and we need to make sure we've gotten things right with other means like logic and reason.” There goes your entire post. Simple, obvious, effective and doesn't take the inquiry careening into all sorts of worthless directions and causing all sorts of unnecessary problems.

“…based not on our feelings, but on what we actually find out there in the universe, and what conforms to logic.”

It is simply absurd and obtuse to “go looking” for morality somewhere out there in the universe. What in the world could you possibly be talking about? A morality that is all logic is just as worthless as one that is all feeling, since there is ultimately no reason to be moral or care about anything. So if you are looking for a logic only morality, I'll save you the trouble. There isn't one nor can there be. Feelings have to factor in or it's pointless and you *will* factor them in regardless of whether you claim not to be doing so. I thought I'd save you that cliche' bit of self-deception, but as is you're either going to come up with something that is just as refutable as what you dismiss on your own terms, you'll end in some kind of stupid Dr. Manhattanesque nihilism, or you'll just be really confused and wandering through various ethical theories for a really long time. All this because you can't bring yourself to accept a straight forward balance of emotion and logic where either one can check the other as needed.

If this isn't a helpful heads up, then pretend like I didn't say anything. ;)

Ben

  (Quote)

toweltowel April 1, 2009 at 3:47 pm

I think there's a misunderstanding. I wasn't complaining that certain ethical theories wouldn't pass the tests. My complaint was that EVERY ethical theory WOULD pass the test, because mere empirical observation and logic aren't capable of evaluating ethical theories pro or con.

Surely if I'm right about this (it's an old Humean view), then the tests are not actually tests.

  (Quote)

toweltowel April 1, 2009 at 3:57 pm

Oh, and after a quick glance at the book, I think I can focus the Humean challenge as follows.

How can empirical observation and logic rule out ethical theories which say that human desires do not count as reasons for action, that the satisfaction of desires is not a good thing, and that what is desired need not be valuable at all? This appears to be a logically consistent and empirically unproblematic way of mapping the normative realm of reasons and value onto the descriptive realm of desires and actions. So I don't see how empirical observation and logic could have anything to say about it.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 1, 2009 at 7:05 pm

We're in the same position with regard to all knowledge, including scientific knowledge. We must admit our biases, and then do our best to eliminate them and seek the truth with our best methods for truth-gathering that we have.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 1, 2009 at 7:09 pm

There probably is a possible world in which some types of sadism are morally good, but the world of 20 super-sadists and one child is not it. If we turn the knob on sadism all the way up, then we have lots of desire-fulfilled sadists and one extremely desire-thwarted child. In contrast, if we turn down the knob all the way, nobody's desires are being thwarted, and all have the opportunity to be fulfilled. So, we have reasons for action to turn down the knob on sadism through the use of social forces. Why? Keep the analogies you work with very small and think of the parable told in A Harmony of Desires.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 1, 2009 at 7:12 pm

Oh, gotcha. As it happens, I think every theory of moral realism except for desire utilitarianism would fail the test. For example, theories of ethical non-naturalism have no evidence going for them.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 1, 2009 at 7:21 pm

Empirical observation can “rule out” (provisionally, of course) ethical theories that say desires are not reasons for action because the most empirically successful model of intentional action says that desires are the only reasons for action that people have.

Re: “How can empirical observation and logic rule out ethical theories which say… that the satisfaction of desires is not a good thing…?” Well, “good” means we have objective reasons for action to do something – so either there are objective reasons for action that exist or there are not. That's an empirical question, as noted above.

And how can reason and evidence weigh on the question of what is desired having value? We can, for example, search the world for intrinsic value. Not finding any, we know that desires create no “intrinsic value.” We can also note that, for example, when something is desired, it has value at least to the person who desires it.

As for the rest, are you talking about the is-ought gap? If so, I suggest you read this recent article.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 1, 2009 at 7:30 pm

> It just means they shouldn't be ignored wholesale in favor of some moral theory that can't ever get along with them. <

Why should our moral feelings not be ignored? Do they have something of value to contribute to the question of what exists and what does not? If so, why do you think so? Do our feelings have anything to contribute to our investigation of whether or not germs cause disease, or whether or not the sun in 93 million miles away, or whether or not virtual particles pop into existence uncaused, or whether or not humans are descended from apes, or whether or not water is H2O?

> It is simply absurd and obtuse to “go looking” for morality somewhere out there in the universe. <

Why? Because you concluded a priori that moral values do not exist?

> What in the world could you possibly be talking about? <

Morality talks about objective reasons for action that exist. Perhaps there are some such things that exist, or perhaps there are not. I've come to think there are, but I could be wrong.

> Feelings have to factor in or it's pointless and you *will* factor them in regardless of whether you claim not to be doing so. <

Feelings do not have to factor in to the facts about morality, just as they do not have to factor into the facts about chemistry. They will, of course – until we can make robot scientists – but that doesn't mean they should, if we are looking for truth.

> All this because you can't bring yourself to accept a straight forward balance of emotion and logic where either one can check the other as needed. <

Is this how you treat all other domains of fact, too? Emotions must check the facts about planet formation, or neutrinos, or cosmic expansion? We should test these things against our feelings about them?

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 1, 2009 at 7:35 pm

A proposition works if the predictions entailed by the proposition turn out to be true when tested, moreso than the predictions of competing propositions about the same subject.

But you're right that I can't defend any theory of knowledge very well right now. I simply observe that science and logic are by far our most reliable methods for truth-gathering, and I can't see any reason to accept thousands of moral propositions as properly basic, nor of course belief in various gods as properly basic.

  (Quote)

anselm April 1, 2009 at 8:31 pm

It seems the term “tested” in your criterion needs to be fleshed out. Does it mean “empirically verified”? (then you have fallen into verificationism). Does it mean “confirmed by the scientific method”? (then you have fallen into scientism).

After posting my question, I did some further reading and realized I had stumbled into a very old issue in philosophy of knowledge, namely “the problem of the criterion.” So I'm sure we are sort of reinventing the wheel here from perspective of the professional philosopher–but that's ok, since that is conducive to our learning.

Apparently the two primary solutions to the “problem of the criterion” are “methodism” (not the Christian denomination!), under which one starts the enterprise of knowing with a criterion for what does and does not count as knowledge. The problem is it is subject to a “vicious infinite regress', because how do you know that the criterion itself counts as knowledge?

The other solution is “particularism,” under which some types of knowledge are properly basic and are known directly and simply without having to have criteria for how one knows them (e.g., “murder is wrong,” “other minds exist”, etc.). Of course, I know you reject this.

But until you resolve the issues presented by the criterion of knowledge you present above, I don't see how you can move forward to construct and defend an ethical theory–if you are unsure how knowledge can be attained, then how can you determine whether you have knowledge of what is right and wrong?

(This might be a good question for the “atheist ethicist”–maybe I should post it in the comments on your most recent blog post?)

  (Quote)

toweltowel April 1, 2009 at 9:54 pm

I'll reply to both comments here, since this is the only place 'Reply' is showing up.

1. Consider a thoroughgoing antirealism about normativity (what might be called 'nihilism'). Moral properties don't exist, value doesn't exist, reasons for action don't exist, no 'oughts', no 'shoulds'. A normative antirealist could presumably give an entirely empirically successful account of human psychology (including intentional action), invoking beliefs and desires and other psychological states, but never invoking mysterious 'reasons' that ought to be followed or taken into account. Thus I don't see any empirical gain in accepting normative reasons, much less identifying them with desires, since all the empirical work can be done by non-normative psychology.

2. Nothing normative, I think, follows from the fact that something 'has value' for those who desire it. That means only that those who desire x have a certain attitude towards x—a positively evaluating, desiring sort of attitude. And these psychological facts are acceptable to any normative antirealist, to any nihilist.

3. You draw a contrast between desire utilitarianism with ethical non-naturalism. But I think the two views are perfectly compatible, and that their compatibility reveals something important.

An ethical non-naturalist will think that reasons for action are non-natural properties (or perhaps relations) that supervene upon natural properties. But which natural properties constitute the supervenience base, i.e. what is it that gives reasons for action? Well, a non-naturalist is free to say that desires are what constitute the supervenience base, i.e. that desires are what give reasons for actions. And a non-naturalist is similarly free to say that the overall tendency of a desire to fulfill desires is what makes it instantiate the non-natural property of goodness, and that an action's being an action which a person with good desires would perform is what makes it instantiate the non-natural property of rightness.

So, in general, the ethical theory of desire utilitarianism can be easily accommodated by a non-naturalist metaethic. Of course, a metaethical naturalist could also accept desire utiltiarianism, supplementing the supervenience relations with identity (or constitution or whatever) relations. Indeed, it seems that any metaethical view could accept the ethical theory of desire utilitarianism.

What I think this reveals is that a focus on reasons for action does nothing to dispel the classic metaethical questions. It's just that now the questions are about the nature of reasons for action—are reasons for action non-natural, are they natural, are they nonexistent, or are they the artifact of superficially-descriptive-but-really-expressivist language?

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 2, 2009 at 10:48 am

By testing I just mean that we are trying to figure out the truth about moral facts, if there are any moral facts. So far it turns out that philosophical logic and scientific evidence are our best methods for discerning truth. These criteria are, obviously, always subject to revision – what you call a “vicious infinite regress – because we only trust these criteria because they have given us more reliable knowledge than other methods so far.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 2, 2009 at 11:04 am

“For Lisa to not be poisoned, she SHOULD not drink poison.” This is a true statement that is not well explained without reference to normative facts. That is different that moral facts, to be sure, but it is a defeater to your point #1.

> Nothing normative, I think, follows from the fact that something 'has value' for those who desire it. <

What else would “normative” mean?

Re: desire utilitarianism and ethical non-naturalism. Desire utilitarianism refers to reasons for action that exist in the natural world: desires. Ethical non-naturalists refer to reasons for action that do not exist in the natural world. (As it happens, ethical non-naturalists also refer to reasons for action that do not exist at all.)

  (Quote)

anselm April 2, 2009 at 11:13 am

But since the proposition “philosophical logic and scientific evidence are our best methods for discerning truth” is not arrived at through philosophical logic and scientific evidence, how do you know that proposition is true?

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 2, 2009 at 11:21 am

Again, only by observation. I'm not saying this is a metaphysical proposition written into the fabric of the universe. I'm just saying this is an observation of how our universe seems to work, drawing on billions of human experiences throughout history.

  (Quote)

anselm April 2, 2009 at 11:43 am

Since “scientific evidence” is just a systematized version of “observation and experience,” aren't you saying that “I know observation and experience is the test for truth because of observation and experience”? Why isn't that circular?

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 2, 2009 at 12:32 pm

Experience is all we have, inner or outer. You might say that your inner experience (for example, that you talk to God) is validated because you inner experience says it is validated. That's just as circular. There is no non-circular theory of knowledge. Richard Carrier has some thoughts on that here. Carrier thinks that the safest way to end the infinite regress is to end it only with things that literally cannot be untrue: immediate, uninterpreted experience. Perhaps instead you think the infinite regress should end at an arbitrarily chosen set of thousands of basic beliefs about God and moral values and other minds and perhaps other things?

  (Quote)

anselm April 2, 2009 at 2:24 pm

Your link did not work, but that's ok. It seems you are in a classic “pot-kettle” situation when you criticize proper basicality for not having sufficient justification, yet your own criterion for truth is tautological. Or are you now saying your criterion is “properly basic” and withdrawing your previous objections to that concept? And thus that knowledge we apprehend noninferentially and psychologically directly does, indeed, qualify as “knowledge”?

And as a follow-up, what is the source of your confidence that your noetic equipment is trustworthy in translating your immediate experience into truth about fundamental reality?

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 2, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Oops, here is the link.

Here's what I'm saying. There is no theory of knowledge that can escape an infinite regress. Any principle you lay down for justifying your knowledge must itself be justified, which must itself be justified, which must itself be justified…

Here, let's look at it using the language of foundationalism: that the termination of this infinite regress ends in one or more properly basic beliefs, which are used to justify everything else. What I'm saying is that we shouldn't just allow ourselves a whole bunch of properly basic beliefs that may or may not be true (for example, that Shiva exists and lying is always wrong and all kinds of uncertain things). That's pretty reckless to do that.

I'm saying that we should only consider things to be properly basic if it is literally true that they cannot be false. What things cannot be false? Not much. It could be that the hand I hold in front of my face is not really there. It could be that I'm in the Matrix. It could even be that I don't even exist, but that my continuous stream of inner perceptions are continuously created by a Cartesian demon – I could be nothing but a stream of perceptions that is aware of its perceptions.

Wow. So, what is literally undeniable? Descartes tried to say, “I think, therefore I am.” Even that was too ambitious. He should have said, “There is a thought, so a thinking thing thinks.”

And these are the safest basic beliefs to admit: uninterpreted experience. From there, we build up probabilistic models of reality.

If instead we build our models of reality on a long list of (seemingly arbitrarily chosen) basic beliefs – including belief in other minds, belief in various souls and spirits and such, belief in certain moral values but not other ones – where do we stop? Why the heck should we admit such a long list of beliefs as properly basic, and how would you argue against someone who admits belief in Shiva or belief in murder's moral goodness as properly basic? I don't think you could.

Basically, I think your theory of knowledge is terribly reckless with the truth.

  (Quote)

anselm April 2, 2009 at 4:40 pm

“Basically, I think your theory of knowledge is terribly reckless with the truth.”

Ok, and I am saying that your theory of knowledge, which acknowledges it is caught in an infinite regress, has no basis for saying that anything is true, including “uninterpreted experience,” and so ends in epistemological nihilism. But since this is your blog, that will be my last salvo on this issue, so feel free to have the last word :)

Sincerely, I appreciate the opportunity for dialog; I know you put a tremendous amount of work into making this forum available and you are doing an excellent job.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 2, 2009 at 5:46 pm

I'd rather not have the last word. How is your view any less subject to the infinite regress? And why do you think it's wise to admit hundreds and hundreds of propositions as “properly basic”, without any grounds for this?

  (Quote)

toweltowel April 2, 2009 at 7:04 pm

1. “'For Lisa to not be poisoned, she SHOULD not drink poison.' This is a true statement that is not well explained without reference to normative facts.”

That may or may not be a true statement, but it certainly does not appear to be a statement fit for empirical investigation. Are you perhaps thinking of the causal claim, “Lisa cannot avoid being poisoned if she drinks poison”? This latter claim is indeed empirical, but it is quite different from the above 'should' claim. So there still seems to be no empirical gain in positing normative facts.

2. “What else would 'normative' mean?” Well, something more than a nihilist would accept. And even a nihilist could accept that human animals have attitudes. Normativity is supposed to be something more, about what is appropriate.

3. On “desire utilitarianism”, perhaps we are talking past each other. Consider the following two distinct claims:

A: Reasons for actions are grounded entirely in desires, goodness is grounded entirely in a desire's overall tendency to fulfill desires, rightness is grounded entirely in an action's being that which a person with good desires would perform.

B: Reasons for action, goodness, and rightness are to be identified with their naturalistic supervenience base.

I thought “desire utilitarianism” referred only to the ethical theory A. And A does not entail the metaethical theory B, and as such is clearly compatible with metaethical non-naturalism.

But I now gather that you use “desire utilitarianism” to refer to the combination of A and B:

C: Reasons for actions are identical with desires, goodness is identical with a desire's overall tendency to fulfill desires, rightness is identical with an action's being that which a person with good desires would perform.

That's fine, I suppose, so long as it is recognized that C is a combination of two distinct theories, one ethical and one metaethical. And so the point remains that a desire-based account of reasons of action has no special advantage when it comes to all the old metaethical questions.

P. S. Sorry for posting this reply in a funny place, I'm just clicking the most appropriate 'Reply' I can find.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 2, 2009 at 7:32 pm

Yeah, DISQUS is being ridiculous. I'm trying to find a way out without losing all the comments.

About desire utilitarianism, the way I like to say it is that much of the theory is semantic and much of it is ontological. Many parts of the theory are about what people seem to mean when they use moral terms. Other parts of the theory are about what happens if we look for referents to what people mean in the real universe.

For example, when people talk about morality, they seem to be talking about objectively existing reasons for action. That's a semantic issue. Now, what kinds of things are found in the set “reasons for action”? God's will? Categorical imperatives? Intrinsic values? As it happens, the only things in the set that actually exists are desires. That's an ontological claim.

Anyway, I haven't addressed your criticisms very well here, but I will touch on them more thoroughly in later posts. I can't spend all my time responding to comments, or else I won't have any time to write new posts! But I do appreciate you pursuing this discussion as I far as I was able in this thread.

I suppose it feels like I'm running away from your questions, but I'd really like to address these very important objections in full, more carefully prepared blog posts, and that takes some time.

I have a vested interest in answering these questions not so much because I want “my theory” to succeed, but because if I am wrong I don't want to keep wasting my time on desire utilitarianism. So if I keep writing out the answers to these questions and I find a legitimate flaw that cannot be fixed, then I will let go of desire utilitarianism and give a big thanks to everyone who helped point out its flaws.

  (Quote)

Anselm April 2, 2009 at 6:42 pm

I know it may have appeared otherwise recently, but I actually have quite a few life responsibilities that conflict with frequent and lengthy commenting on this blog :) (as enjoyable as that is!) So I will need to lateral to a source right now:

On this issue, I can say I have read Craig and Moreland’s discussion of “methodism” vs. “particularism” (which deals with the ‘infinite regress’ and ‘problem of the criterion’ issues) and agree with it entirely (in its endorsement of ‘particularism’). Fortunately the relevant pages, 98-108, are available for free here:

http://tinyurl.com/ckjjl6

I would be interested in reading your reaction to their discussion in a separate major blog post, since this topic is really deserving of one. Thanks.

  (Quote)

anselm April 3, 2009 at 2:44 am

I know it may have appeared otherwise recently, but I actually have quite a few life responsibilities that conflict with frequent and lengthy commenting on this blog :) (as enjoyable as that is!) So I will need to lateral to a source right now:

On this issue, I can say I have read Craig and Moreland's discussion of "methodism" vs. "particularism" (which deals with the 'infinite regress' and 'problem of the criterion' issues) and agree with it entirely (in its endorsement of 'particularism'). Fortunately the relevant pages, 98-108, are available for free here:

http://tinyurl.com/ckjjl6

I would be interested in reading your reaction to their discussion in a separate major blog post, since this topic is really deserving of one. Thanks.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 3, 2009 at 3:00 am

Cool, I appreciate that.

By the way, "Sorry, I don't have time to respond to that" is always an acceptable answer here.

  (Quote)

akakiwibear April 3, 2009 at 3:49 am

Hi Luke – to restate my point – there is no place for logic in establishing morals. You imply that a moral code should provide a “be nice to others” frame of reference.

You imply that you are looking for an objective moral code and that logic can provide it – I say nonsense. As an evolutionary species our objective is to procreate. If you use logic to establish morals then that is perhaps the only solid starting point you have – any other is subjective.

You say If moral facts do exist, we should use our most trusted knowledge-gathering tools to discover them. – I say that (for those who see science and logic as the quintessential solution to everything) evolutionary biology has provided you with the logical foundation for morality = might is right.

If you develop your morality from a maximum procreation starting point you will end with ‘might is right’ (try it). Those that submit to a moral code of being “nice to others” are the weak in the community who obey the rules (being “nice to others”) set by the strong – the strong themselves have no reason to conform (= might is right) and we know they don’t.

Only once a community becomes large enough for the weak to gang up and defeat the strong and their supporters does a “nice to other” code become mutually beneficial for the weak as protection against the strong – however here one should note that all that has happened is that the weak and strong have reversed roles and ‘might is still right’.

I therefore propose that any “be nice” moral code – that is one in which one makes sacrifices for the good of the community – is contrary to our evolutionary objective – it is illogical. It is contrary to our nature and must therefore be from a better nature than ours.

You say “Spiritual methods have an awful track record” have they? Or have you confused spiritual teaching (basically a “love your neighbour” ethic) with the misuse of religious institutions by the powerful, greedy and unethical?

Do you really find fault with:
** From the Buddhist text Samyutta Nikaya, “… a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?”
** From the Analects of Confucious 15:23, “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.”
** The Hindu faith’s Mahabharata 5:1517 says “This is the sum of duty: Do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.”
** From Islam, the sayings of Muhammad, “None of you (truly) believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” … oops I missed out a Christian quote.

Now this is the spiritual teaching you say has a poor track record! I ask you; Are these acceptable to you as the basis for a moral code? You prefer logic … yeah right!

Sala kahle – peace

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 3, 2009 at 4:05 am

akakiwibear,

1. Evolution cannot ground moral values for the exact same reason God cannot ground moral values: the Euthyphro dilemma (see here.

2. Spiritual methods have an awful track record for truth-seeking. They lead to an infinity of untested and contradictory claims. There is almost nothing a spiritual method cannot confirm for the true believer.

  (Quote)

anselm April 3, 2009 at 12:31 pm

Thanks

  (Quote)

Ben April 4, 2009 at 12:35 am

"Do our feelings have anything to contribute to our investigation of whether or not germs cause disease, or whether or not the sun in 93 million miles away, or whether or not virtual particles pop into existence uncaused, or whether or not humans are descended from apes, or whether or not water is H2O?"

If any of those scientific pursuits had to do with human feelings, then yes, I would strongly recommend investigating the nature of human feelings. For instance, you could blast the same red herring argument against the entire field of psychology and yet what would psychology be if it didn't have anything to do with understanding human feelings? It'd be a big empty book wouldn't it?

"Morality talks about objective reasons for action that exist. Perhaps there are some such things that exist, or perhaps there are not. I've come to think there are, but I could be wrong."

And yet the only *reason* you will ever find to be moral is because of your *feelings*. You *care* about doing more good than not or you would not even be *looking* for desire utilitarianism. It's inescapable.

Ben

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 4, 2009 at 12:46 am

Moral facts are different than moral motivation. For example, it could be moral to send all your money to those starving in Nigeria, but you could have no motivation to do so. If moral facts are facts about feelings, then yes consulting our feelings is a valid part of the empirical inquiry. But objective moral facts, if they exist, are by definition wholly apart from how we feel about them.

  (Quote)

toweltowel April 4, 2009 at 3:08 am

Fair enough, and I appreciate your taking the time to write replies. These are big issues and also my own hobby horses.

And if I'm right, then the merits of desire utilitarianism (which might be considerable) are independent of the metaethical worries I'm pressing, so everyone could end up being a winner!

  (Quote)

Richard_tich April 4, 2009 at 9:41 am

(Hi, Luke. Thanks for switching to a new comment system. I'll give it a try.)

"For Lisa to not be poisoned, she SHOULD not drink poison."

This is simply a statement of fact, of cause and effect. It means the same as "drinking poison would thwart the desire that Lisa not be poisoned".

  (Quote)

Richard_tich April 4, 2009 at 10:09 am

Hello again, Anselm.

Any rational belief system is bound to have a kernel which is not itself rationally justified (unless you can think of a circular system of justification). For example, we depend on the unjustifiable belief that past experiences are a guide to future experiences. We accept this belief because it's worked for us in the past. But that's an explanation, not a justification.

Since we accept certain core beliefs without justification, does that mean we should accept other beliefs without justification? No. Those core beliefs are a sine qua non for rational discourse. The same is not true of the other beliefs which you have (I think) proposed as "basic": belief in God and in objective morality.

  (Quote)

anselm April 4, 2009 at 5:06 pm

Richard–welcome back. Actually, it seems you are agreeing with me, not Luke, on the concept of proper basicality. As you note, our belief in the reality of the past constitutes knowledge even without justification. Now, once that principle is accepted, you are right that there can be an "in-house" discussion among adherents to the concept of proper basicality as to which belief fall under that rubric. But as I understand it (Luke can correct me if I am wrong about his view–but if I am he and I wasted a lot of time discussing this!) he does not accept the concept of "properly basic" beliefs.

  (Quote)

Richard_tich April 4, 2009 at 6:06 pm

I'm wary of the word "knowledge". We certainly form beliefs without rational justification, based on subconscious processes, and that's often very effective. But we've also learned to verify those beliefs through rational thinking. In the case of the core beliefs of our rational thinking process, we don't have that latter option. But this is a special case. I can't see any possibility of other beliefs having the same status. But who knows?

  (Quote)

Richard_tich April 4, 2009 at 6:21 pm

Actually, I don't think we have to accept the beliefs on which rational thinking logically depends. All we have to accept without justification is that rational thinking works.

  (Quote)

anselm April 4, 2009 at 10:41 pm

But isn't "rational thinking works" one of the beliefs upon which rational thinking logically depends?

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 5, 2009 at 12:58 am

Here is an email discussion between Richard and I, which I am moving to this blog. This is Richard's first email:

Hello again, Luke. I couldn't resist making one more reply to you on the
subject of moraility. I've been saving much of this up for the last couple
of days, while I waited for you to clarify your meaning. Now that you've
done that by linking to a post by Alonzo, I'd like to respond. (Feel free to
post this in your blog if you wish.)

To remind you of where we were at, I asked you to clarify what you mean by
moral statements such as "murder is wrong". You responded that:

> The statement "Murder is wrong" means "There are reasons for action that
> exist to not murder."

Later you wrote in response to someone else:

> "Should" = "there are reasons for action that exist such that…" What
> else would "should" mean?

I asked you to clarify what you meant by "there are reasons for action"
because I felt it was unclear whether this was an explanatory or a
prescriptive statement:

> What does "there are reasons for action that exist such that…" actually
> mean?

> 1. There are reasons why people do act such that… 2. There are reasons
> why people should act such that… 3. Something else. Please explain.

> 1 is just describing people's mental states, which makes this
> subjectivism. 2 makes the definition circular. Is there a 3?

As far as I can make out, Alonzo is accepting my interpretation 1, but
arguing that this is not subjectivism. Yes, I was wrong to describe this as
subjectivism. But it still leaves you in trouble. It makes moral statements
into mere explanations of why people behave the way they do, not
prescriptions for how they should behave. It also fails to distinguish
between "murder is wrong" and "murder is right" since people can have
reasons for acting act either way! This can't be what you mean.

You could have another try at defining what objective moral statements mean.
But I hope this failure will lead you to question whether they can mean
anything at all.

Let me explain where I think you've gone wrong. You've come up with a
particular moral calculus, desire utilitarianism. This moral calculus may
capture some basic moral sense that most people have. But that does not make
it objective or universal.

The fact that it measures morality in terms of objective matters of fact
about people's desires, etc, does not make it an objective system of
morality in the sense that is generally meant. What people mean by an
objective system of morality is one with an objective justification. To
illustrate the difference, I propose a moral calculus which measures the
morality of an action according to how much money the action puts in my bank
account. That's a totally objective method of measurement, but it has no
objective justification.

To give an objective justification for a system of morality is to get an
"ought" from an "is". It can't be done. I suspect that in an attempt to get
around this problem you unwittingly came up with an equivocal definition of
morality which fudged the difference between "ought" and "is". Your "reasons
for action" expression was ambiguous, because it could refer to either
explanatory reasons or prescriptive reasons, "is" or "ought". Resolving the
ambiguity made the position untenable.

If only you would drop the insistence on trying to give the mantle of
"objective morality" to your moral calculus, it would make your life so much
simpler. ;)

Best wishes,
Richard.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 5, 2009 at 12:59 am

I wrote back to Richard:

I appreciate your careful thoughts and recommendations. Alonzo has responded to your objections here:
http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2009/04/descr…

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 5, 2009 at 1:03 am

Richard wrote back:

Hi Luke,

>> I'm a little disappointed that you've apparently given up on defending
>> your position on morality
>
> I'm spending lots of time defending it on my blog! It should not surprise
> you that I occasionally pass off questions to someone who has spent 20
> years
> rather than 3 months working on the theory, if he is willing.

I'm sorry for my unkind comment above.

>> I hope you'll give this some more thought.

> Indeed. I'd be quite happy to return to being an error theorist again –
> it's
> much less taxing on the brain. Much less to defend! In a way, I'm putting
> desire utilitarianism out there as publicly as I can so that it will
> attract
> knowledgeable criticisms like your own. If this kills the theory, then so
> much the better. Alonzo himself, who has dedicated his adult life to this
> theory, actually expressed this same sentiment to me. Of course he would
> be
> sad, but he is committed to truth.

I'm certainly not very knowledgeable on this subject. But I have tried hard
to think carefully about the meanings of words, and not jump to any
conclusions about what they mean.

>> if you don't want to be poisoned you ought not to drink poison. But
>> that's very different from a moral "ought". <<

> Agreed. But this is how prescription enters the picture. "If Lisa doesn't
> want to be poisoned, she ought not to drink poison." That's not
> controversial. You're wondering how we get from such hypothetical "oughts"
> to moral "oughts." Obviously, if desire utilitarianism fails to account
> for
> the latter, then it may be a good theory but it is not a theory of
> morality.

Please be wary about assuming that the two types of "ought" have anything in
common apart from the fact that they are both uses of the same English word.
Perhaps they have something in common, but you need to be careful to
establish what that is if you want to make any connection between them.

> So let's break this down. Why ought Lisa not drink poison? Only because
> she
> desires not to be poisoned. Desires are, as far as we know, the only
> reasons
> for intentional action that exist. They are the only reasons we do things.
> Because Lisa desires to not be poisoned, she has a reason for action to
> not
> drink poison. But if, for example, she desired to be poisoned, she would
> have a reason for action to drink poison. So the statement "If Lisa
> doesn't
> want to be poisoned, she has reasons for action to [aka she "ought to"]
> not
> drink point" is both descriptive and prescriptive.

If that's how you want to use the word "prescriptive", fine. But then I
doubt the word will be of any further use in this discussion, and I for one
will try to avoid it.

> But there's nothing moral about this kind of "ought." As Alonzo writes:

> ————–

> My desires are reasons that exist for my actions. Your desires are reasons
> that exist for your actions. My desires are not reasons that exist for
> your
> actions, nor are your desires reasons that exist for my actions.
> As it turns out, if everybody's desire was a reason for everybody else's
> action, we would have no need for (criminal) law or morality. Everybody
> would automatically consider everybody else's interests. It is because
> reasons for action cannot cross personal boundaries that we have a need
> for
> (criminal) law and morality.

————–

> Before I proceed, I guess I should ask what you think it would mean for
> something to have moral value, or for something to be a moral ought. This
> is
> a semantic question. We may have many statements that are both
> descriptively
> and prescriptively true, but if they have nothing to do with what we mean
> by
> "morality", then they are not moral claims. So what do you think it would
> mean for something to have moral value, or for something to be a moral
> ought?

Please excuse me if I have a good-humoured laugh at this point. ;) I've been
saying from the start that I find moral claims to be meaningless (unless
they're interpreted as descriptions of mental states), and I've been
challenging you to say what _you_ mean by them, while expecting you to be
unable to do so. So it's no use asking me what I think they mean.

Best wishes,
Richard.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 5, 2009 at 1:03 am

I wrote back:

Richard,
> I've been
> saying from the start that I find moral claims to be meaningless (unless
> they're interpreted as descriptions of mental states), and I've been
> challenging you to say what _you_ mean by them, while expecting you to be
> unable to do so. So it's no use asking me what I think they mean.
>

Ah, fair enough. Then I have quite a challenge. If you believed moral terms meant something but just had no referent, than my task would be to demonstrate that they do indeed have a referent.

But my task with you is much harder. I must argue that moral terms actually mean something, and then also that they have a referent.

You think a moral claim is meaningless, or perhaps just that it does not express a proposition. I'll hazard you're a non-cognitivist, then?

Here are some reasons to think that moral utterances at least express propositions, whether or not those propositions are true and have referents in the real world (taken from Joyce, The Myth of Morality, p. 13):

1. Moral utterances are expressed in the indicative mood.
2. They can be transformed into interrogative sentences.
3. They appear embedded in propositional attitude contexts.
4. They are considered true or false, correct or mistaken.
5. They are considered to have an impersonal, objective character.
6. The putative moral predicates can be transformed into abstract singular terms (e.g., “goodness”), suggesting they are intended to pick out properties.
7. They are subject to debate which bears all the hallmarks of factual disagreement.
8. They appear in logically complex contexts (e.g., as the antecedents of conditionals).
9. They appear as premises in arguments considered valid.

For these reasons, I think it's pretty likely that moral utterances at least mean something. Not only that, but they express propositions, such as "Murder is wrong." [The act of murder has a property of wrongness.]

Now, moral utterances may be untrue propositions, like "Vishnu is god." [Vishnu has the property of godness.] But they are at least propositions, and not meaningless.

>From here, we must tease out just what the heck moral language assumes itself to be talking about. What does "wrong" or "right" or "good" or "bad" or "moral" mean? If we can figure out what these terms seem to be used to make reference to, then we can look and see if those things actually exist in the universe. For example, we seem to have some idea what "god" refers to: a powerful magical being that transcends spacetime. That's not meaningless, either. I just gave you its meaning. It's just that no such thing with those properties actually exists.

So, the next step is figure out what people seem to be trying to refer to with moral terms. Only then can we consider whether or not the things they refer to actually exist.

But, what are your thought so far?

Seeking truth,

Luke

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 5, 2009 at 1:04 am

Richard wrote back:

Luke,

> Ah, fair enough. Then I have quite a challenge. If you believed moral
> terms meant something but just had no referent, than my task would be to
> demonstrate that they do indeed have a referent.
>
> But my task with you is much harder. I must argue that moral terms
> actually mean something, and then also that they have a referent.
>
> You think a moral claim is meaningless, or perhaps just that it does not
> express a proposition. I'll hazard you're a non-cognitivist, then?

At the moment I'm undecided between several moral anti-realist positions:
non-cognitivism, subjectivisim and error theory. I think the differences
involve some very difficult and perhaps insoluble issues of semantics.

> Here are some reasons to think that moral utterances at least express
> propositions, whether or not those propositions are true and have
> referents in the real world (taken from Joyce, The Myth of Morality, p.
> 13):
>
> 1. Moral utterances are expressed in the indicative mood.
> 2. They can be transformed into interrogative sentences.
> 3. They appear embedded in propositional attitude contexts.
> 4. They are considered true or false, correct or mistaken.
> 5. They are considered to have an impersonal, objective character.
> 6. The putative moral predicates can be transformed into abstract singular
> terms (e.g., "goodness"), suggesting they are intended to pick out
> properties.
> 7. They are subject to debate which bears all the hallmarks of factual
> disagreement.
> 8. They appear in logically complex contexts (e.g., as the antecedents of
> conditionals).
> 9. They appear as premises in arguments considered valid.
>
> For these reasons, I think it's pretty likely that moral utterances at
> least mean something. Not only that, but they express propositions, such
> as "Murder is wrong." [The act of murder has a property of wrongness.]
>
> Now, moral utterances may be untrue propositions, like "Vishnu is god."
> [Vishnu has the property of godness.] But they are at least propositions,
> and not meaningless.

Well, I would say that a proposition can be meaningless. Take Noam Chomsky's
famous example: "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously". It tries to apply
properties to concepts to which they are not applicable, e.g. applying
colour to an abstract noun. If moral wrongness has no meaning, then it
cannot apply to anything. If I wrote "murder is gnorw", you would probably
agree that that's meaningless, because "gnorw" is undefined. If I wrote
"redrum si gnorw" is that even a proposition?

These are difficult semantic/philosophical questions. I prefer to avoid them
by simply challenging you to explain what a moral claim means. If no one can
explain what it means, then I think I'm entitled to treat it as meaningless,
and then I'm not too concerned with whether it's a proposition.

> From here, we must tease out just what the heck moral language assumes
> itself to be talking about. What does "wrong" or "right" or "good" or
> "bad" or "moral" mean? If we can figure out what these terms seem to be
> used to make reference to, then we can look and see if those things
> actually exist in the universe. For example, we seem to have some idea
> what "god" refers to: a powerful magical being that transcends spacetime.
> That's not meaningless, either. I just gave you its meaning. It's just
> that no such thing with those properties actually exists.
>
> So, the next step is figure out what people seem to be trying to refer to
> with moral terms. Only then can we consider whether or not the things they
> refer to actually exist.
>
> But, what are your thought so far?

Well, I'm of the opinion that this plan is doomed to failure. But feel free
to continue thinking out loud, and I'll chime in if I have anything to
contribute.

An alternative line of enquiry occurs to me. I get the impression that you
only gave up being an error theorist because Alonzo showed you a way to
derive a moral calculus logically from non-moral facts. If I convinced you
that this derivation was invalid, by showing you where some unstated moral
values have been unwittingly smuggled in, do you think this would leave you
with no reason to believe in objective morality?

Best wishes,
Richard.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 5, 2009 at 1:04 am

I wrote back to Richard:

>> Well, I would say that a proposition can be meaningless. Take Noam Chomsky's
famous example: "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously". <<

That isn't meaningless to me at all! All terms are clearly defined, and they are presented in a grammatically meaningful way. It's not meaningless, it's simply false. For example, it contains a contradiction: "colorless green." And it has the subject perform an action that is not logically impossible but is physically impossible in our universe: ideas do not sleep. Also, ideas are not colored. There is an unusual density of falsehoods in that proposition, but it's meaning is clear to me – so clear that I can reject it as false immediately without struggling to understand the meaning it communicates.

"Murder is gnorw" on the other hand is meaningless, unless you stipulate a definition for "gnorw."

So, what do moral terms mean? This is a bit tricky because different cultures use them in slightly different ways, but there does seem to be something common about how they are used such that we could provide a definition for certain moral terms. Moral terms are perhaps more precisely used than terms like "love" or "art", but less precisely used than terms like "tree" or "mother."

> I get the impression that you
only gave up being an error theorist because Alonzo showed you a way to
derive a moral calculus logically from non-moral facts. If I convinced you
that this derivation was invalid, by showing you where some unstated moral
values have been unwittingly smuggled in, do you think this would leave you
with no reason to believe in objective morality? <

Yup! I would still spend some time to see if desire utilitarianism could mount a defense, or be modified to mount a defense – mostly because so many of my objections to desire utilitarianism have turned out to be misunderstandings of it – but yes of course I would abandon desire utilitarianism if it were clearly demonstrated to me that it was false or incoherent. Besides, error theory is so much less taxing on the brain, and much easier to defend. :)

Before we continue, I see that you're posting on the website again. I think this substantive discussion would be useful to others. If I post it as a comment to the blog, would you respond there?

Luke

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 5, 2009 at 1:05 am

And finally, Richard wrote back to me:

>>> Well, I would say that a proposition can be meaningless. Take Noam
>>> Chomsky's
> famous example: "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously". <<
>
> That isn't meaningless to me at all! All terms are clearly defined, and
> they are presented in a grammatically meaningful way. It's not
> meaningless, it's simply false. For example, it contains a contradiction:
> "colorless green." And it has the subject perform an action that is not
> logically impossible but is physically impossible in our universe: ideas
> do not sleep. Also, ideas are not colored. There is an unusual density of
> falsehoods in that proposition, but it's meaning is clear to me – so clear
> that I can reject it as false immediately without struggling to understand
> the meaning it communicates.
>
> "Murder is gnorw" on the other hand is meaningless, unless you stipulate a
> definition for "gnorw."

OK, but then I say "murder is wrong" is meaningless because no one has yet
defined "wrong". (Let's set aside for now the question of whether it's a
proposition.)

> So, what do moral terms mean? This is a bit tricky because different
> cultures use them in slightly different ways, but there does seem to be
> something common about how they are used such that we could provide a
> definition for certain moral terms. Moral terms are perhaps more precisely
> used than terms like "love" or "art", but less precisely used than terms
> like "tree" or "mother."

>> I get the impression that you
> only gave up being an error theorist because Alonzo showed you a way to
> derive a moral calculus logically from non-moral facts. If I convinced you
> that this derivation was invalid, by showing you where some unstated moral
> values have been unwittingly smuggled in, do you think this would leave
> you
> with no reason to believe in objective morality? <
>
> Yup! I would still spend some time to see if desire utilitarianism could
> mount a defense, or be modified to mount a defense – mostly because so
> many of my objections to desire utilitarianism have turned out to be
> misunderstandings of it – but yes of course I would abandon desire
> utilitarianism if it were clearly demonstrated to me that it was false or
> incoherent. Besides, error theory is so much less taxing on the brain, and
> much easier to defend. :)
>
> Before we continue, I see that you're posting on the website again. I
> think this substantive discussion would be useful to others. If I post it
> as a comment to the blog, would you respond there?

Yes, please go ahead.

Richard.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 5, 2009 at 1:08 am

I don't know whether foundationalism is better than coherentism or other views. But if foundationalism is best, I certainly wouldn't be willy-nilly about what is allowed in as "properly basic." Certainly, "God exists" or "murder is wrong" wouldn't be "properly basic." Maybe only bare, uninterpreted experience would be allowed in as "properly basic."

  (Quote)

anselm April 5, 2009 at 2:15 am

Ok, then it appears your view would be: Only propositions based on bare, uninterpreted experience are properly basic. But is the proposition "only propositions based on bare, uninterpreted experience are properly basic" itself properly basic? Apparently not, since it is not based on bare, uninterpreted experience–so we would need evidence that it is true. But there is no such evidence–it is just arbitrary. So on what basis can you exclude the possibility that "God exists" is properly basic?

  (Quote)

Richard_tich April 5, 2009 at 7:01 am

I suppose once we say what rational thinking is (including learning from past experience), "rational thinking works" probably amounts to the same thing as those beliefs.

  (Quote)

Richard_tich April 5, 2009 at 7:14 am

On what basis can you exclude _anything_ from being true? Only by using rational thinking. Oh, but rational thinking isn't rationally justified. So you can't exclude _anything_. That seems to be the consequence of accepting your argument.

  (Quote)

Richard_tich April 5, 2009 at 7:26 am

P.S. Unless you're seriously suggesting that we abandon rational thinking, what's the point of this argument?

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 5, 2009 at 7:35 am

Bare, uninterpreted experiences are properly basic because they are the only things that literally cannot be wrong.

Also, I\\'m not asserting any of this a priori. What I\\'m saying is that when we put logic and evidence to work, it turns out they do a pretty good job of revealing truth in our universe. When we put feelings to work in that task, they do a pretty horrible job. When we trust other unverified testimony, it also turns out to be pretty bad at reliably revealing truth. Etc. None of this is built on a priori assumptions, it\\'s just an observation of how our universe seems to work as we live in it.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 5, 2009 at 1:02 am

Richard wrote back to me:

Hello, Luke. Thanks for your email. I'm a little disappointed that you've apparently given up on defending your position on morality and passed the job off to Alonzo, though I appreciate you have lots of other claims on your time.

I have to say that Alonzo's post just dances around the issue without facing it squarely. He failed to answer how "people have reasons why they do not commit murder" is a prescription or imprecation against committing murder, which is what people normally understand the statement "murder is wrong" to be. You are either committing the fallacy of equivocation (switching between two meanings) or else changing what is normally meant by "murder is wrong", contrary to your stated aim of respecting what people actually mean by their moral statements.

I hope you'll give this some more thought.

Best wishes,
Richard.

Hi Luke, after taking another look at Alonzo's blog post, I feel that the introduction of the word "prescription" into the discussion has only confused matters, and it would have been better if I'd avoided that term.

What is a prescription in this context? If it's a command ("do X"), then the position that moral statements are prescriptions is actually prescriptivism, a form of non-cognitivism.

Alonzo seems to take it as a statement about cause and effect: the way to achieve a desire not to be poisoned is not to drink poison. Of course, I agree that such statements can be logically derived from our knowledge of the world. But how does that help explain morality? It occurs to me that Alonzo's statement can be rephrased using the word "ought": if you don't want to be poisoned you ought not to drink poison. But that's very different from a moral "ought". It's simply a way of expressing how to achieve an aim. Language is slippery!

Anyway, I think the way to avoid confusion is to be clear at all times whether we're talking about a _moral_ statement or something else.

Best wishes,
Richard.

  (Quote)

anselm April 5, 2009 at 5:33 pm

But a properly basic belief is a belief that is accepted a priori, so how can you assert that "bare, uninterpreted experience is properly basic" but deny that you are asserting anything a priori?

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 5, 2009 at 9:52 am

anselm: But a properly basic belief is a belief that is accepted a priori, so how can you assert that “bare, uninterpreted experience is properly basic” but deny that you are asserting anything a priori?

What I’m saying is that the only things we should accept as properly basic are those things that cannot be false. This is an a posteriori consideration. Why? Because I observe that in our universe when we permit beliefs as properly basic because they feel true to us, or because we have an (interpreted) inner experience of their veracity, then we end up with all kinds of properly basic beliefs that are false – the vast majority, in fact, because most of them contradict all the others (exclusive moral claims, exclusive religious claims, etc.) In contrast, if we only accept things that cannot be false as properly basic, we are on much safer ground. We can still screw up what we infer from them, but we are not flawed from the start, as with a more lax system for admitting beliefs as properly basic.

  (Quote)

Anselm April 5, 2009 at 10:36 am

lukeprog: What I’m saying is that the only things we should accept as properly basic are those things that cannot be false. This is an a posteriori consideration. Why? Because I observe that in our universe when we permit beliefs as properly basic because they feel true to us, or because we have an (interpreted) inner experience of their veracity, then we end up with all kinds of properly basic beliefs that are false – the vast majority, in fact, because most of them contradict all the others (exclusive moral claims, exclusive religious claims, etc.) In contrast, if we only accept things that cannot be false as properly basic, we are on much safer ground. We can still screw up what we infer from them, but we are not flawed from the start, as with a more lax system for admitting beliefs as properly basic.

Ok, that is helpful in clarifying your view.  But I still see a problem: assuming that an amalgam of bare, uninterpreted experience cannot be “false”, it is not also the case that it cannot be “true,” since if propositions are to be derived from it, it must be interpreted.  At which point you can ask:  why should propositions formulated from our interpreted experience be trusted as providing true beliefs?

  (Quote)

Anselm April 5, 2009 at 11:17 am

Richard_tich: On what basis can you exclude _anything_ from being true? Only by using rational thinking. Oh, but rational thinking isn’t rationally justified. So you can’t exclude _anything_. That seems to be the consequence of accepting your argument.

No, certain types of beliefs must be justified based on evidence in order to constitute knowledge (e.g., the earth revolves around the sun).  Other types of beliefs are known noninferentially and psychologically directly without need for evidence to be justified in calling them “knowledge”–e.g., past experience really happened, other minds exist, 7 + 5 = 12, rape is morally wrong, etc.   Of course, the ability for our beliefs to constitute knowledge requires us to have confidence that our cognitive faculties are designed for the formation of true beliefs, i.e., that they are properly functioning according to a design plan.  I can see how the theist can have such confidence.  I fail to see how the atheist can, since on atheism our cognitive faculties are adapted for survival only–any overlap with truth-attainment would be coincidental.  This helps explain how atheist epistemology tends to degenerate into a vicious infinite regress as it attempts to address “the problem of the criterion.”  But perhaps you have a good explanation for why atheists need not fall into epistemological nihilism when all the implications of atheism are fully played out?

  (Quote)

Anselm April 5, 2009 at 8:05 pm

Anselm: Ok, that is helpful in clarifying your view.  But I still see a problem: assuming that an amalgam of bare, uninterpreted experience cannot be “false”, it is not also the case that it cannot be “true,” since if propositions are to be derived from it, it must be interpreted.  At which point you can ask:  why should propositions formulated from our interpreted experience be trusted as providing true beliefs?

Oops:  the second sentence in my above response was meant to read as a question: “assuming that an amalgam of bare, uninterpreted experience cannot be “false”, is it not also the case that it cannot be “true,” since if propositions are to be derived from it, it must be interpreted?”

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 5, 2009 at 8:43 pm

The bare, uninterpreted mental experiences are the basic beliefs. Once we start inferring things from them, our knowledge of everything after that is fallible.

  (Quote)

Richard April 6, 2009 at 12:14 am

(I can’t see the post I want to respond to, so I’m posting my reply at the end of the thread.)

Anselm wrote:

No, certain types of knowledge must be based on evidence (e.g., the earth revolves around the sun, etc.). But other types are not based on evidence–that are arrived at noninferentially and psychologically directly. For example: past experience really happened, minds other than my own exist, sense experience is valid, rape is wrong, God exists. Now it is true that such beliefs constitute knowledge only if I can trust that my cognitive faculties are functioning properly. As Plantinga has pointed out, I can only have confidence that my cognitive faculties are functioning properly if they are functioning in an appropriate environment as God designed them to. Since he is the ultimate knower, and created us in his image, we can have confidence that our faculties make true knowledge possible.
The atheist, on the other hand, can have no such confidence, since on atheism, our cognitive faculties are adapted for survival only, not pursuant to a design plan, and any overlap with truth-attainment would be coincidental. This helps explain why atheist epistemology tends to degenerate into a vicious infinite regress when it tries to address “the problem of the criterion.”

Of the examples you give, the only ones where I accept that we must rely purely on intuition are the ones in which our rational thinking is rooted: “past experience really happened” and “sense experience is valid”. (And aren’t those two basically the same?) “Minds other than my own exist” can be inferred by analogy: other people appear the same as me in all significant respects that I can observe, so they are probably the same in having minds too. On “God exists”, haven’t you argued that the existence of God can be inferred? I say we can infer he doesn’t exist. Either way, we seem to agree that his existence can be a matter of rational inference. And I am arguing elsewhere in this thread that “rape is wrong” is meaningless as an objective statement of fact. It is an expression of a subjective attitude.
Your belief in God doesn’t get you out of the “infinite regress”. If your confidence in your cognitive faculties is based on your belief in God, then what is your belief in God based on? If it’s based on your cognitive faculties, then you’re still in the infinite regress. If it’s based on something else, how can you have confidence in that something else? Ultimately you must come to the point where you just believe something without any basis.
Of course, you may give God as an _explanation_ for the effectiveness of our cognitive faculties, just as I give natural selection as the explanation. (And I think my explanation is better.) But those explanations are made using those same cognitive faculties. So they cannot be an ultimate justification for accepting the effectiveness of the cognitive faculties.

  (Quote)

Richard April 6, 2009 at 12:33 am

I wrote:
(I can’t see the post I want to respond to, so I’m posting my reply at the end of the thrad.)

I can now see Anselm’s post. I think he must have been in the middle of editing it when I looked at it, since it is now a bit different from what I saw.

  (Quote)

Richard April 6, 2009 at 12:34 am

lukeprog:
The bare, uninterpreted mental experiences are the basic beliefs. Once we start inferring things from them, our knowledge of everything after that is fallible.

  (Quote)

Richard April 6, 2009 at 1:17 am

(Sorry for that last post that just consisted of a quote and nothing else. I pressed the Submit button by accident.)

A question to Anselm, to clarify your position,  how do you decide which beliefs are “properly basic”? How do you know that “Santa Claus exists” is not properly basic?

  (Quote)

Anselm April 7, 2009 at 5:15 am

Richard: (I can’t see the post I want to respond to, so I’m posting my reply at the end of the thread.) Of the examples you give, the only ones where I accept that we must rely purely on intuition are the ones in which our rational thinking is rooted: “past experience really happened” and “sense experience is valid”. (And aren’t those two basically the same?) “Minds other than my own exist” can be inferred by analogy: other people appear the same as me in all significant respects that I can observe, so they are probably the same in having minds too. On “God exists”, haven’t you argued that the existence of God can be inferred? I say we can infer he doesn’t exist. Either way, we seem to agree that his existence can be a matter of rational inference. And I am arguing elsewhere in this thread that “rape is wrong” is meaningless as an objective statement of fact. It is an expression of a subjective attitude. Your belief in God doesn’t get you out of the “infinite regress”. If your confidence in your cognitive faculties is based on your belief in God, then what is your belief in God based on? If it’s based on your cognitive faculties, then you’re still in the infinite regress. If it’s based on something else, how can you have confidence in that something else? Ultimately you must come to the point where you just believe something without any basis. Of course, you may give God as an _explanation_ for the effectiveness of our cognitive faculties, just as I give natural selection as the explanation. (And I think my explanation is better.) But those explanations are made using those same cognitive faculties. So they cannot be an ultimate justification for accepting the effectiveness of the cognitive faculties.

The difference is that God and evolutionary naturalism serve as both the explanation of and the foundation for trust in our cognitive faculties–but on evolutionary naturalism, that trust is undermined in self-refuting way, since evolutionary naturalism itself claims only that our cognitive faculties are aimed at survival, not truth–so even the claim that “evolutionary naturalism is true” is undermined.  On theism, our cognitive faculties are designed with truth-attainment in mind by our Creator, who as the ultimate knower creates us in his image with the ability to attain warranted knowledge of himself and our world.  Thus, the theist’s epistemology is self-consistent and reinforcing.  The naturalistic epistemology is self-refuting and inherently undermining of confidence in our cognitive faculties.

  (Quote)

Anselm April 7, 2009 at 5:20 am

lukeprog: The bare, uninterpreted mental experiences are the basic beliefs. Once we start inferring things from them, our knowledge of everything after that is fallible.

And that is why “bare, uninterpreted mental experience” cannot serve as an adequate foundation for knowledge, since (without God to vouchsafe the reliability of our cognitive faculties) it leaves us with no confidence in the connection of any propositions based upon that experience with truth.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 7, 2009 at 7:04 am

Anselm: And that is why “bare, uninterpreted mental experience” cannot serve as an adequate foundation for knowledge, since (without God to vouchsafe the reliability of our cognitive faculties) it leaves us with no confidence in the connection of any propositions based upon that experience with truth.

Anselm, I might just as well say that without the aliens from Vega who seeded our planet and benevolently assured the reliability of our cognitive faculties, we can have no confidence that our faculties give us anything similar to the truth.

I will deal with the EEAN in future posts, but for now I really do recommend you listen to this. It’s excellent.

  (Quote)

Anselm April 7, 2009 at 7:39 am

lukeprog: Anselm, I might just as well say that without the aliens from Vega who seeded our planet and benevolently assured the reliability of our cognitive faculties, we can have no confidence that our faculties give us anything similar to the truth.I will deal with the EEAN in future posts, but for now I really do recommend you listen to this. It’s excellent.

Thanks, I will listen to that when I get a chance (though I have already read “Naturalism Defeated?” where a dozen or so philosophers present their objections to EAAN and Plantinga responds, so I doubt I will hear anything new).  Regarding your comment on aliens, if you could demonstrate that the “Vegans” (? that makes them sound like vegetarians!) were by definition the ground of all truth and knowing (which would be hard, since they would also have evolved under evolutionary naturalism), you would at least save your epistemology from self-refutation.  The EAAN obviously is not directed at proving Christian theism in all its fullness–it is directed at demonstrating that evolutionary naturalism cannot be rationally affirmed.

  (Quote)

Anselm April 9, 2009 at 6:26 am

Richard: (Sorry for that last post that just consisted of a quote and nothing else. I pressed the Submit button by accident.)A question to Anselm, to clarify your position,  how do you decide which beliefs are “properly basic”? How do you know that “Santa Claus exists” is not properly basic?

Sorry for the delay–once this post got bumped off the first page I neglected it.  Alvin Plantinga takes about 11 pages to respond to your question; fortunately, the book is available for free in the “Christian Classics Ethereal Library.”  Here is a link to page 342, the first of the 11 pages I referred to:  http://tinyurl.com/chmaxs

  (Quote)

Richard April 9, 2009 at 8:36 am

(I’ve been away for a few days. Hence the delay replying.)
<blockquote cite=”comment-1854″><strong><a href=”#comment-1854″>Anselm</a></strong>:
<p>The difference is that God and evolutionary naturalism serve as both the explanation of and the foundation for trust in our cognitive faculties–but on evolutionary naturalism, that trust is undermined in self-refuting way, since evolutionary naturalism itself claims only that our cognitive faculties are aimed at survival, not truth–so even the claim that “evolutionary naturalism is true” is undermined. On theism, our cognitive faculties are designed with truth-attainment in mind by our Creator, who as the ultimate knower creates us in his image with the ability to attain warranted knowledge of himself and our world. Thus, the theist’s epistemology is self-consistent and reinforcing. The naturalistic epistemology is self-refuting and inherently undermining of confidence in our cognitive faculties.</p>
</blockquote>
Anselm, you’ve missed my point. Please read it again.

  (Quote)

Anselm April 9, 2009 at 8:47 am

Richard: evolutionary

I think after you read this (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/plantinga/warrant3.html) our discussion will be more fruitful

  (Quote)

Reginald Selkirk June 18, 2009 at 6:38 am

 

lukeprog: 1. Evolution cannot ground moral values for the exact same reason God cannot ground moral values: the Euthyphro dilemma (see here.

That link brings me right back to this post. Was it supposed to go elsewhere?
I can see how evolution might be unable to ground objective, absolute moral values, but suppose I don’t insist on objective morals? Suppose I also acknowledge that evolution does not get me clear of is vs. ought, but it has obviously shaped our ideas about what is moral?
Have you done a treatment of the Euthyphro dilemma? What do you think of this? Convincing philosophy or empty apologetics?

  (Quote)

lukeprog June 18, 2009 at 7:11 pm

Evolution has obviously shaped our ideas about what is moral, yes.

I think I meant to link here: http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2009/02/euthyphro-and-evolutionary-ethics.html

The Euthyphro dilemma is not so simple as atheists claim. I’ll do some posts on it later.

  (Quote)

Leave a Comment