Saturday, February 11, 2006

Moral Persuasion (or when to be convinced by a moral argument)

Crazy Talk
The deeper I get into debates over metaphysics, the more abundant the arguments from universal morality. They go something like this: "Since science and logic are unable to establish a universal morality, we must hold that there is more than science and logic, otherwise we are doomed to live in an amoral/immoral world."

This is the aforementioned crazy talk.

This argument doesn't work because it betrays a lack of understanding about how morality works in practice, and because it confuses a moral codes with the imperative to follow a moral code.

To expose the bankruptcy of the universal morality argument, I'll explain why subjective morality doesn't lead to immoral doom. Then I'll describe the impossibility and amorality of universal moral law. Finally, I'll say a few words about humanity's apparent moral progress, and how we might continue to make moral progress.

Subjective Morality
Suppose there is no universal morality, and morality is just a matter of personal taste. In that case, when Mary does what she thinks is right, Paul may see her actions as wrong or evil. The question is, what does this say about Paul's ability to hold Mary accountable for her actions? If Paul is a physicalist, then he knows that his moral preference has no more universal significance that Mary's moral preference. Does that imply that he should allow Mary to do whatever she wants? Plainly it does not. This is a contest of wills, not a contest of oughts. Paul must decide whether he is willing to act to stop Mary from taking her actions or not. Likewise, Mary must decide whether to forego her actions in light of Paul's disapproval and potential retribution.

Now imagine the same scenario with many more people in the mix. What emerges is a social contract. The greater the commonality of the moral preference, the greater its reflection in the contract and the greater its enforcement. The social contract may contain clauses that Mary disagrees with, but Mary benefits overall from being a signatory. For example, Mary is protected from car theft by the social contract, and that may be more important to her than the loss of her right to smoke on an airplane.

Then again, Mary might not be inclined to obey certain clauses in the contract, nor submit to the penalties for bypassing those clauses. If the overall contract is good, but Mary finds clause 1.2.56(a) objectionable, she may opt to act surreptitiously in violation of that clause. If caught, Mary may be more likely to flee social justice because it lacks personal justice in her eyes. However, Mary must weigh the consequences that Paul may similarly violate clauses that Mary holds dear. Mary may have to compromise.

This is how subjective morality works to create a social morality that appears to have some form of universality.

History teaches us that social morality changes. Slavery was once good. Racism was once good. Homophobia was once good. These things are now evils. What happened?

Two things. First, humans became less fearful and more empathic. I think that the more we saw blacks as human, the less tolerable it was for us to accept that they should be enslaved. Discrimination against homosexuals is fading as men become better educated and more secure in their sexuality, and as homosexuals are viewed as fully human.

But ratchet up the fear another level, and our morality goes out the window. Spying on Americans without safeguards? “Gee, I’m terrified by the terrorists, let’s do that.” Racial profiling? “They scare me!” Torturing people? “They might be terrorists, so I’m sure our boys and girls were justified.” Invasion of another nation without cause? “There might be terrorists there! Better safe than sorry.” Holding the families of suspects in an effort to bring in wanted men? “Well, I won’t kick up a fuss about that, because the wanted men fill me with terror.” And on it goes.

Osama is winning this thing as long as our morality crumbles in the face of his terror.

The second reason that bad "-isms" are fading is that democracy has displaced dictatorship, making the common man's choices more politically important.

I conclude that, given only subjective morality, the world would look much as it actually does, and that moral progress is possible.

Universal Morality
Keen positivists in the audience (if I have an audience that has read this far through my post) will recognize this discussion of universal morality is moot. The concept of universal morality is literally meaningless. How would you determine whether an action was universally moral?

If there is no way to know an absolute morality when you see one, then the term must be meaningless. The age-old principle applies: if you cannot devise a recipe for assigning widgets to category X, then category X is meaningless (as in, undefined).

Suppose there were some way to know that a moral code was universal. Such a recipe would still rely upon subjective moral appeal!

Imagine that there is a Federal Institute for Moral Research, and that this agency discovered that all pleasurable food consumption was universally wrong. Not that there were any universal penalties for consuming tasty food, but simply that it was wrong. All tasty food would have to be made bitter and distasteful for its consumption to be moral. Would you choose to follow such a moral code? In other words, what use are moralities if they have nothing to do with outcomes?

We have no reason to expect that universal moral laws would be appealing to humans - or so the universal moralists will gladly inform us when we object to their claimed universal code!

If moral considerations had to be blind to outcomes then few would choose to be moral for morality's sake. A moral code is nothing without an imperative to follow it.

Thus, it would seem that a universal moral law is nothing without a universal regime for compliance. Of course, moral universalists are willing to posit the idea that we are each individually punished (infinitely and disproportionately) for our transgressions - the ultimate compliance scheme. Unfortunately, the cost of inventing Heaven and Hell is an acknowledgement that morality is a function of nothing more than subjective taste and a sense of consequence. That's why Hell is exactly what we don't want, no matter what our personal tastes.

And, this brings us back full circle. Advocates of universal moral law like to argue that we must accept the existence of universal moral truths, or else the things we regard as subjectively immoral would be acceptable. This claim is contradictory because the claim acknowledges the value of subjective morality, and wrong because subjective morality leads to social contract.

Ironically, it is authoritarianism that poses the greatest threat to our subjective moral good (unless you're the authority, that is).

When to be convinced by a moral argument
Having dispelled the concept of universal morality (until such time as the dissenters voice comment), I want to say something about moral progress.

We think of the elimination of slavery, racism, sexism, torture, illiteracy, etc., as forms of moral progress. Yet, if morality is subjective, how was this progress made, and how can we continue to make moral progress?

Our social contract changed for the better when we became less fearful and more empathic. Once we became secure enough that we weren't going to lose our prosperity by losing our whites-only, aristocratic, patriarchal way of life, we let go of our bad habits.

History has a few lessons for us about moral progress. When considering whether to grant or revoke a right:
  • Purge yourself of irrational fears,

  • Empathize with those who favor and oppose the new legislation,

  • Maintain perspective by studying the scope and scale of the consequences.


Ken Brown said...

This debate just isn't going away is it? :)

Good post, very well thought out, but I have a few objections.

Your depiction of social contract is cogent, but I think you're mistaken in claiming it can be the whole picture:

You claim that moral progress is possible even if morality is subjective, and that it occurs by the reduction of fear and the increase of empathy. But then, are you not simply assuming that "greater empathy" is an absolute good? If empathy is not inherently good, an increase in empathy would not be progress but simply change.

This is vital because "empathy" is really just a watered down version of love, and if you are implicitly accepting empathy as an ultimate good, then you are assuming the absolute morality of Christianity ("love your neighbor as yourself") in order to argue that absolute morality is unnecessary!

You state "slavery was once good..." This can be taken in two ways: either you are being sarcastic, or serious. If the former (i.e. slavery has always been evil, even when most social contracts accepted it) then again, you are simply assuming an absolute morality in order to refute it. If the latter (i.e. slavery really can be good in one place and time and evil in another) then morality is a meaningless concept and we are left with power politics.

Which leads to your thought experiment. I see two major flaws:

1. It assumes that any universal morality that might exist would be arbitrary, whereas those who argue for such a thing do so on the grounds that we ourselves (the ones being asked to follow the morality) owe our existence to the One who determines the contents of that morality. Thus morality is not arbitrary in reference to our nature, but our nature is only fully expressed when we live according to that morality (and I would suggest that your acceptance of empathy as a good confirms this).

2. It assumes that the only basis for determining whether to follow a moral code is whether it benefits me. But the whole point of morality (if such exists) is that the benefits of others are at least as important as my own.

Thus, to be accurate, your thought experiment would have to be modified as follows: The Federal Institute of Moral Research would have to find that the eating of tasty foods was actually a direct cause of immense suffering among a people group who have no possibility of inflicting any sort of "retribution" upon we who enjoy the tasty food.

If giving up tasty food would be a net disadvantage to we-the-moral-choosers, should we still do so in order to save such people from the suffering our actions cause them?

If so, then you have already accepted a universal morality. If not, then moral progress is a meaningless concept, and "empathy" is Orwellian Double-speak.

Cheers! And sorry for the long response!

exploded-planet-god said...

Excellent summary of subjective morality.

I would have added something about the illusion (whether actual or not is moot) of free-will is the ONE absolute morality we CAN agree on as a society. That's not to say the Husseins of the world decide to chuck that philosophy for personal aggrandizement (sp?).

Additionally, I would have pointed out that there are NO RATIONAL fears (in your bullet points at the bottom).


Doctor Logic said...


Thank you for your detailed comment.

I would agree that it would be illogical to hold that there can be absolute moral progress if morality is subjective. But I'm not arguing that our moral progress is absolute. Rather, I would argue that moral progress is subjective. For example, some will disagree that granting certain rights to women and homosexuals was a step in the right direction. Indeed, there are many people who feel that our morality has been in regress since the 1950's, 1850's or whenever.

By analyzing the objective causes of subjective moral progress, one can devise a strategy that will continue subjective progress in the same direction. Of course, this works in reverse. Those who have witnessed what they see as moral decay might reverse that decay by reversing the causative trends, i.e., by encouraging fear, and discouraging empathy (through de-humanization).

You had two objections to my discussion of universal morality.

The first was that there might be a dependence of subjective morality on universal morality. This suggests that we were constructed to behave according to a certain moral code, or at least, to be predisposed to accept that particular code. You went on to say that:

Thus morality is not arbitrary in reference to our nature, but our nature is only fully expressed when we live according to that morality

How do you define "our nature" and what it means to fully express that nature? Is it a question of behaving according to design specifications?

If it is a question of design specifications, then aren't you assuming some sort of meta-axiom which says that all designed entities should behave as their designer intended? Personally, I would reject such and axiom on moral grounds. If I create an intelligent, emotional, living creature, I would not blame that creature for assigning value to its own interests at least equal to my own. That is, the creature does not have a moral imperative to follow my arbitrary commands just because it was designed to do so. (I should note that my same argument applies even in a materialist world where we evolved our morality, i.e., we would need a meta-axiom declaring that we should behave as we were evolved to.)

You also provided an alternative thought experiment (which I thought was a good one, BTW). It reminded me of Peter Singer's book Practical Ethics in which Singer argues that animals should be granted human rights. Singer agrees with you that there should be some ultimate moral principle that fixes morality. After dispelling unacceptable criteria for moral agency, he leads us to a scenario similar to your thought experiment. The conclusion must be that we should not eat animals for food.

Yet, Christianity is not noted for its vegetarianism. Why aren't more Christians vegetarian? Giving up meat will be unpleasant, but it will result in our not inflicting pain and suffering on animals. Of course, animals may still suffer, but we would not be the cause of that suffering.

It is a powerful argument, and Singer's book was the subject of a recent discussion group I attend because it had been effective in converting people to vegetarianism. (BTW, as a carnivore, I think many vegetarians are quite delicious! :) )

So, why aren't we all vegetarians? One escape route is to rule animals out of the class of moral agents. Yet, as Singer points out, some animals have more apparent agency than some humans. Christians would probably point to scripture (written in an era when eating animals was necessary) that says that animals lack something magical that humans have (if deployed, this would seem like dubious escape plan).

Personally, I would say that no escape is needed because there is no universal morality that would create the trap in the first place. Most people are happy to sign the social contract even if the contract says animals can be eaten, experimented upon, or hunted for pleasure. This can all be explained by our fear of disease, and our lack of empathy for our non-human friends.

Okay, now I'm rambling. I'll just end by saying that just because morality is descriptive (as opposed to normative), that doesn't mean it is meaningless. For if the subjectivity of morality renders morality meaningless, couldn't the same be said for art and food appreciation?

Ken Brown said...

Doctor Logic,

You seem to be arguing that since people disagree on morality, therefore morality is subjective.

This doesn't follow. People disagree on many issues which admit objective verification, but their disagreement does not change the facts. Nor does it matter whether the facts in dispute are open to empirical verification - we may never know what occurred before 10^-43 seconds after the Big Bang, but the facts of the matter are not contingent upon our knowledge. Thus in deciding whether morality is subjective or objective, it doesn't matter whether people disagree in their moral principles, it only matters whether there is an objective fact at issue here, and whether humanity has access to that fact - through intuition or revelation or some other means. The objective fact being whether humanity exists for a purpose or not (and if so, what that purpose is).

You object that even if humanity was "designed" (a crude, mechanistic term), it wouldn't matter anyway because, as intelligent agents, our interests should carry at least as much weight as the "arbitrary" commands of our creator.

But you are missing the point of my two objections:
1. If we do exist for a purpose, that purpose is not arbitrary with respect to our nature. For instance, the Bible claims that humanity is made for community ("it is not good for man to be alone"), but this is not an arbitrary command, it is reflected in our very DNA. Sexuality is an expression of this - two people become one in the person of their child, who is an other and must be loved for her own sake. Rejecting that - e.g. by reducing sex to pleasure - holds significance beyond aesthetics, and if all people did so, humanity itself would cease to exist.
2. If we (not just I) exist for a purpose, then I have an obligation to consider the interests of others even when they don’t directly impact me. You say you wouldn't blame one of your creations for pursuing its own interests, but would you say it wouldn't matter if one of your creations decided to enslave the rest?

Which brings me back to the thought experiment. Your conclusion of vegetarianism is a red herring, but interesting nonetheless. In fact, even the Bible claims vegetarianism is the ideal (Gen. 1:29) and only allows the eating of meat later, seemingly on pragmatic grounds. For this reason, I have known a number of Christian vegetarians and I'm not so sure their wrong. (Though your dismissal of the Judeo-Christian claim that humans are ontologically distinct from other animals is inadequate. It is not agency that distinguishes humanity, it is the "image of God," part of which is our moral awareness itself (which I assume you wouldn't call "magical"). Thus to kill an animal unnecessarily should be treated seriously, but it is not the same as killing a human being unnecessarily. The former is to disrespect the creator, the latter is to spit in his face and destroy the moral freedom of another.)

But that is a digression. The application to vegetarianism does not disarm my thought experiment: if the creatures harmed by our eating were human and have 0% chance of harming us in return, would it be acceptable to continue eating tasty food anyway? If not, please explain why without appealing to any morally loaded terms like empathy.

Doctor Logic said...


I agree that the frequency or commonality of a moral view is not necessarily evidence of its objective truth - either way.

There are no moral codes, and no views on moral progress that are universally held.

Getting back to your objections:

1. If we do exist for a purpose, that purpose is not arbitrary with respect to our nature.

I don't think that this statement is always true (e.g., we could have been re-purposed), but I'm willing to grant that, if we were constructed for a purpose, that our biology might be conducive to that purpose. I don't see how that changes my argument.

[Aside: I think religion is actually working in reverse, i.e., assuming first that a god must have made us for a purpose, then trying to identify what purpose seems natural in humanity.]

You gave an example about love and sex. The example argues that failing to live by a particular code leads to extinction, or emotionally dissatisfying lives. However, you cannot rely upon survival and emotional well-being (the measures of subjective good) as the basis for your argument that there is some universal morality.

Indeed, you cannot rely on any subjective measures to argue for the existence of a universal morality. You can try to persuade someone to follow your claimed universal code on the grounds that it has subjective appeal to that person, but that isn't the same thing as an argument for the universality of the code itself. Besides, you could be just as persuasive in arguing for a commonly-held subjective morality.

2. If we (not just I) exist for a purpose, then I have an obligation to consider the interests of others even when they don’t directly impact me.


You have not established any reason why the needs of the creator weigh greater than my own needs and greater than the needs of others around me.

If a creator created us to suffer, do we have an obligation to suffer?

You say you wouldn't blame one of your creations for pursuing its own interests, but would you say it wouldn't matter if one of your creations decided to enslave the rest?

Sure, it would matter to me, and I would intervene to prevent that enslavement.

However, I don't see how that makes my morality universal.

Suppose I create some intelligent agents to perform some function, e.g., to transport materiel between point A and point B. These creatures are biologically well-suited to this task. Once they are sentient, they may detect that their transportation task has value to me. Yet, why are their obligations to themselves not greater than or equal to their obligations to me? Why do I count as more than one of them?

Furthermore, I would think that their obligations to me should be proportional to my need for them to carry out their original programming. If I can click my fingers and transport my materiel without the assistance of my toy people, it would seem that they owe me even less consideration.

if the creatures harmed by our eating were human and have 0% chance of harming us in return, would it be acceptable to continue eating tasty food anyway? If not, please explain why without appealing to any morally loaded terms like empathy.

You asked me to explain without reference to empathy which you consider to be morally-loaded. Why do you say this term is morally-loaded?

If I see you in some situation, my empathy enables me to put myself in your shoes and I feel what I would feel if I were in your situation. This seems like a completely amoral description of empathy, not a morally-loaded one.

There's no guarantee that the emotions I would feel in your situation are the same as yours, but it is what it is. Still, empathy is as scientifically objective as nuclear fission.

So, I think you have unreasonably asked me to exclude the primary reason why I would regard your thought experiment to be immoral, i.e., whatever benefit I obtain from eating tasty food would not generally offset the consequent empathic pain I would suffer.

Your argument appears to be phrased as "you accept X, but have no subjective reason to do so, therefore your acceptance is due to some universal imperative."

Yet, as I stated earlier, I don't see how you can argue for a universal morality based on subjective considerations. Even if we could ignore empathy, you would only have established that I have yet to explain how a subjective morality explains my actions. That is, the universal morality argument appears a lot like the intelligent design argument, namely, "if materialism has not yet found an explanation for some aspect of the world, then my alternative claim must be true by default."

rob said...

Good discussion!

I'd like to add to it that morality begins in the home. As such there will be a difference between my kids here in the states and kids raised in Iran or Pakistan who go to school to learn how to be terrorists so that my kids can either fear them or kill them. So much for progress and the universal morality front. What gives, universal morality giveth and UM taketh away?

Ken Brown said...

Doctor Logic,

I fear we are talking past each other. You are coming at this question from the perspective that if it cannot be established logically from a set of undeniable axioms, then it is either not true or not worth considering. This "bottom-up" approach is useful because it can provide secure knowledge (if the axioms are good), but it possesses the distinct danger of leaving things out.

I on the other hand, accept the possibility that there is more to reality than what can be deduced logically. Thus, instead of building up from a set of axioms, I am beginning with an overarching theory, then carrying it back to reality and asking "does this fit better than the alternatives?" To me the question is not whether I can build up to the full theory from scratch, but whether the theory fits and explains reality as I see it.

You reject this approach because you fear that it could be used to prove anything, and is therefore non-predictive. This is a danger, but so long as there are other theories to compare against, this danger is less important. But your approach (as far as I can tell) has no such check. If a thing were true that could not be deduced from your axioms, you could never discover it at all.

So while I begin each statement with "if" ("if we do exist for a purpose..." etc), you respond "but you haven't proven that!" You're right, but that doesn't matter to me; I want to know is it true, and if metaphysics is something that can never be deduced logically from physics (I don't know that it can't, but I'm accepting your claim that this is so, for argument's sake) then this is the only way we could consider such possibilities.

So when I talk about sex and love contributing to survival and well-being, you assume I am trying to use these to form a deduction to a universal morality, find no such deduction, and conclude I am confused or making "an emotional appeal." What I am actually doing is suggesting a possibility ("what if...") and asking you to consider whether reality as we experience it makes better sense under this possibility than it does under your positivistic system.

I am not asking you to accept that we exist for a purpose because sex is necessary to survival or well-being. Rather, I am saying that if humanity does exist for the purpose of living in community, sex and empathy make more sense than they seem to within your system (where they are nothing more than convenient evolutionary mechanisms that luckily turn out to be pleasant). The latter explanation is logical and empirically verifiable, but is that really all there is to love and sex? That seems to me like trying to argue that the ceiling of the Sistine chapel is "nothing more" than plaster and paint. It explains, but in doing so it leaves out what most needs explaining.

The same thing applies to our use of the term "empathy":

You claim that "empathy is as scientifically objective as nuclear fission," but I get the feeling that your actual understanding of empathy is much broader than this implies. The fact that we are capable of experiencing what others experience (i.e. through "mirror neurons") is scientific, but I challenge your claim that this is "all" empathy is.

If I were to take you at your word, it would mean that the only reason I "should" (in the very loosest sense of the term) help someone else is because my brain happens to be wired to make me feel good about doing so, or because the person helped might perhaps help me in the future. But what if someone found a way to reverse the effects of our mirror neurons such that hurting people felt good and helping people felt bad, and secretly did so? Would it then become right to hurt people in order to increase my own subjective good? If my subjective good is the only measure of "morality" then it would seem that this is the case, but clearly that's absurd.

Thus when you and I speak of "increasing empathy" as a good, it seems that we must mean more than just "good for me." Empathy is more than mirror neurons, it is about recognizing that the good of another is valuable in its own right, and while you may be correct that this state of affairs does not logically prove that we exist for the purpose of living in community, it does fit with that theory a lot better than it fits with the "scientific" view you claim to maintain.

Doctor Logic said...


I think I know what you are trying to say, but I also think that science has all the bases covered.

First, a word about deduction vs. induction.

In deduction, we start with axioms (the stated rules of the system), and derive theorems. In deductive proofs, we can always do perfectly controlled experiments because we know the axioms. It's a bit like knowing all of the natural laws (axioms) and then asking what possible worlds (theorems) are consistent with those laws.

Induction has to be used when we don't know the natural laws. We seek out systems where one law dominates the rest, create theories about that law, and make experimental predictions. There's no guarantee that we will be able to identify all of the laws of physics, although we seem to be on the right track.

You suggest that there are theories that are true but which cannot be "deduced". However, we don't deduce our theories from some set of axioms, we inductively discover the axioms of the universe. The only axioms we are assuming are those necessary for the perception of natural laws. In effect, science is a search for axiomatic systems that explain experience. Science is already open to any consistent set of rules that can explain what we see. So, if something is not scientific, then either it is inconsistent or else it doesn't follow any rules.

I think that most theologians would be willing to give up neither consistency nor the existence of laws.

Your suggestion was that we assume some set of rules, and then see if they fit better than alternatives. However, this is precisely the scientific method, and whether something fits better is a function of how well it makes predictions. (If we're trying to identify universal laws, we must be careful to avoid saying that something fits better on personal, emotional grounds.)

I find your mirror-neuron thought experiment interesting, but your line of reasoning to be curious. If someone did reverse the material function of empathy (by tweaking mirror neurons or whatever), then I agree that we would consider harming others (without suffering personally negative consequences) to be a moral good. From here, your conclusion is that such a world would be absurd, therefore morality must be more than subjective.

But I don't understand this claim. Absurd has several meanings. One meaning of the word is inconsistent or incongruous. I don't see why the hypothetical world is inconsistent, even if it is peculiar. I just looked up the word in the dictionary, and one of the definitions is:

The condition or state in which humans exist in a meaningless, irrational universe wherein people's lives have no purpose or meaning.

However, this definition seems to be the opposite of your thesis, and objecting to my claim on the grounds that it leads away from your conclusion isn't a valid counterargument.

If there is no objective purpose to human life, then the only purpose available to us would be subjective. I just don't see why that is necessarily so terrible a situation in which to find ourselves.