Monday, May 22, 2006

Objective Morality: What's it really good for?

Today, I had occasion to wonder, what is objective morality supposed to do for us?

Is it supposed to tell you when to ignore your moral feelings, and act against them? Just like an attitude indicator tells the pilot when he is disoriented?

This seems like an impossibility. Your subjective morality is what you think you should do. Your subjective morality cannot assert that you ought not do what you ought to do. Therefore, if you think you ought to follow an objective/algorithmic moral code, then your subjective morality is already in concurrence, rendering the objective moral code redundant.

In other words, what grounds do we have to determine that we ought to follow a certain code, apart from our ability to determine that we ought to prefer the consequences of following that code?

This is the zone in which theistic arguments about morality collapse. These arguments desire to tie morality with God. One style of argument claims that God must exist in order to give force to morality, and that without this force, we have no reason to be moral. It's corollary is that atheists are morally challenged. But calling this argument circular is an insult to circular arguments everywhere. To start with, if we didn't care to lend our own force to moral behavior, we wouldn't have been motivated to accept the argument's premises, making the conclusion redundant. To finish with, the conclusions don't even follow from the premises.

13 comments:

Holopupenko said...

DL:
     Could you please indulge me in either a defense or criticism (your choice) of infanticide as expounded by Peter Singer? Once you’ve presented your position, please then explain why you believe it’s “persuasive” (to use your words) and what objective basis you have for claiming that at all times, in all places, and in all circumstances infanticide is either a moral good or evil. If, on the other hand as you seem to believe, there is no objective basis, then please explain on what basis anyone should accept to your arguments for or against infanticide—or, better, why your view ought to be imposed upon anyone or any group.
     (Please do not bring any issues of faith, God, deism, or dualism into your presentation. I’m not interested in your personal views of these.)
     To borrow from Jonathan Dolhenty, if you are truly sincere in your beliefs, then you will not be able to permit yourself to condemn the following practices objectively and would have to admit (per your own formulations over the past few posts):
+ Sexually torturing and then slowly murdering children is permitted if the majority vote of a society decides in favor of such actions. [the latter part of this sentence is exactly your position as presented at http://www.thinkingchristian.net/C228303755/E20060510133710/index.html on 05.13.06 at 11:13 am, 7th paragraph]
   + Cannibalism is permitted if you think it is morally correct.
   + Raping two-year olds is acceptable if that is part of your cultural tradition.
   + Brutalizing your wife is understandable if that is part of your ethical system.
   + Castrating young boys is permitted for the sake of your cultural heritage.
   + Torture is a morally accepted part of your criminal justice system.
   + Human sacrifice is allowed as part of your religious system.
   + Certain groups defined as unwanted by your society can be destroyed.
   + There is no such thing as a war crime; it’s in the eye of the beholder.
   + Adolf Hitler should not be judged as morally reprehensible since he was acting lawfully.
   + Josef Stalin was not acting immorally when he killed millions of innocent people.
   + The suicide bombers of September 11, 2001 were acting properly in their own interests.
     Such concrete examples are always good to bring abstract thinking back to existential reality, don’t you agree?

Doctor Logic said...

if you are truly sincere in your beliefs, then you will not be able to permit yourself to condemn the following practices objectively and would have to admit

Your claim is not logically coherent, Holopupenko.

Your claim goes like this:
(1) Relativists believe that people cannot always agree on what is right or wrong because there is no truly objective basis for doing so (a statistical basis does not count as objective).
(2) Doctor Logic is a relativist.
--
(3) Therefore, Doctor Logic must consent to the acts of others he regards as wrong.

Do you see the flaw? (1) and (2) are true, but (3) does not follow from the premises. Why can I not object or fight instead of consent?

Once you’ve presented your position, please then explain why you believe it’s “persuasive”

Sure. Holopupenko, will you join me in condemning the acts you listed? Will you join me in supporting government action to coerce others to follow broadly accepted human rights principles (for they will not agree that we are right on objective grounds)?

Here's a link to a petition to close Guantanamo Bay. That facility violates our own human rights principles and renders American moral arguments less persuasive while failing to impede terrorist operations. I know you'll want to sign it. Thanks!

See? Moral persuasion is easy when most other people already believe the same thing as you do. Most people agree on what constitutes an egregious moral violation, and they're willing to settle the argument with those who disagree using force if necessary.

Take your own argument. Here's how moral persuasion works:

(1) Relativists must consent to ghastly abuses.
(2) Doctor Logic opposes these ghastly abuses.
---
(3) Doctor Logic must oppose relativism.

You attempt to use the fact (2) that we already agree that the listed acts are wrong to persuade me that (3) is the case. And it would have worked, too, if (1) were true. Alas, for you, (1) isn't true, so your argument fails.

Thanks for providing us with such a clear demonstration of the point I was making in my blog post. Objectivism buys you nothing.

Holopupenko said...

DL:
     Thanks for your response. There's no need for me to comment since you didn't present a well-argued philosophical case for or against infanticide as I requested.
     I will publically commit to signing your Guantanamo Bay petition if, in your blog, you openly commit to argue against the taking of the lives of unborn children (abortion) as a moral evil. That should be easy: the child is completely innocent. For me, it's more difficult: I'll need to swallow the fact that the prisoners held in Guantanamo have had the chance to grow up... and are anything but innocent. I'll also need to swallow the fact that I'll be playing by your rules which hold (absolutely and objectively!) that the very existence of Guantanamo is evil. Nevertheless, I'll commit if you reciprocate.
     If that one is not to your liking, how about homosexual acts, or pedophilia as promoted by NAMBLA, or pornography?
     If you argue cogently in your blog against any one of these acts as being morally evil, I'll gladly sign your petition.

Doctor Logic said...

Holopupenko,

There's no need for me to comment since you didn't present a well-argued philosophical case for or against infanticide as I requested.

Bollocks. There's nothing wrong with my case. You just got thrashed.

It's a shame you didn't find my appeal very persuasive. I guess I incorrectly assumed we had certain moral principles in common. For example, I didn't realize that you felt that it was okay to torture detainees, let alone those who have yet to have a trial. I know the Catholic Church used to get a kick out of that, but even the Vatican sides with me on this issue.

For the record, I consider child abuse, sexual or otherwise, to be evil. I do not consider embryos to be persons, and I think that abortion is less evil than some alternatives. I think safe, consenting, homosexual acts are good, if you enjoy that sort of thing. And pornography (featuring consenting adults) doesn't bother me.

If you want to let my moral views stop you from condemning torture, that's unfortunate, more so for the victims than for me.

And, hey, since you bring up the subject of child sexual abuse, why don't you remind me again, what is the largest, best-funded organization in recent history to have tolerated and covered up for rampant child sexual abuse?

Okay. You can go back to your glass house, now.

Holopupenko said...

DL:
     Interesting straw men: you have my leave to keep shooting at them for whatever pleasure you hope to gain.
     Interesting also that you consider child abuse in any form to be evil IN ABSOLUTE TERMS, and yet you claim moral relativism is the only valid approach to moral issues. How do you reconcile taking a morally absolute stance on torture and child abuse, while at the same time claiming to be a moral relativist?
     Maybe you could clarify this particular point for us without descending into ad hominem and strawmen arguments: is child abuse ALWAYS, IN EVERY CIRCUMSTANCE, and IN ANY MANNER evil? If so, that's great... but on what objective basis do you make this claim—and again, how does that square with your moral relativism (which you promulgate in absolutist terms)? If not, then please explain (per your moral relativism) when premeditated and intentional child abuse could be justified.
     The questions are simple... but not simple-minded. Please try to stay on track... you seem so bent on avoiding addressing the questions that one could not be faulted for thinking you're hiding something. Maybe Lawrence Gage's assessment was correct on 5/09/2006 09:33:56 AM(http://realphysics.blogspot.com/2006/05/stepping-back-from-immigration.html#114718163675880235)
     Please also feel free to continue to remove comments that make you uncomfortable by forcing you to look at what you've become: (1) I've got ten hours lead time on you, so at least some people will notice this, and (2) it will only serve to support the notion that you are hiding something, (3) I will nevertheless make the text available to others under separate cover.

Doctor Logic said...

Holopupenko, why would I want to delete this particular post? Your commentary just reinforces my argument.

You think that if:
(1) I declare that I consider a certain behavior to be subjectively immoral, and
(2) I express a desire to act to stop such behavior, and
(3) I try to recruit others to my cause,
(4) Then I am stating that the behavior is objectively immoral.

How does that work exactly? Do matters of opinion become statements of objective fact when the opinionated take up arms? Or perhaps when enough other people happen to agree?

So the premise of your question is either illogical, or else it relies on a bizarre definition of objective fact.

Colin Caret said...

I'm not clear on the confusion here. Let me attempt to disambiguate a few things. Suppose there is such a thing as 'subjective morality' and the role that it plays is to guide our actions. This seems to be the way that you are using the term, Doc. Correct me if I am mistaken.

So, my subjective morality is the set of beliefs I have about how to act morally and the conviction I have in following through on those beliefs. Now, let me postulate another faculty: let's call it perception. My perception lets me detect how the world is and, if I am functioning correctly it tells me truly how the world is. I use perception to detect colors, shapes, sounds, all sorts of cool things about the world.

Someone who believes in objective morality has to understand moral properties as the kinds of things I can perceive somehow. Assuming that they are real, mind-independent, objective properties of acts or persons, then the only way I can know they are there is if I perceive them somehow. The objectivist must understand my subjective morality to be like my subjective physics. I have certain beliefs about the nature of physical reality and I act on those beliefs accordingly, but I can be proven wrong. How?

Well, this is where the independence of my cognitive faculties comes in. Some of them have priority in determining the structure of my beliefs with respect to a certain topic. When I test a hypothesis of physics in the lab I expect certain results, but if I perceive something other than the expected results I might have to revise my beliefs. Since morality is, according to the objectivist, analogous to physics in this way I might have the same thing happen. Perhaps I used to believe that torture was morally permissible, but at some point I 'discovered' that it wasn't and that forced me to change my beliefs.

The problem is not with the role that objective morality is supposed to play, that much is clear. Objective morality is supposed to ground our moral beliefs in the same way that objective physical reality is supposed to ground our beliefs about physics. The problem is that the analogy is not very good because it is really unclear how we are supposed to 'know' about these objective moral properties. After all, I don't seem to perceive them the same way I perceive color, shape, sound, etc...

Doctor Logic said...

bloggerforcedmetosignup,

I think my version of subjective morality is not exactly belief. It is a combination of gut checks and beliefs about observed regularities in those gut checks. My gut might tell me that a particular action in a particular context is evil, even if I have never before formulated a moral rule for that scenario.

My subjective moral opinion might change if I obtain more information about the context, or if I become (de)sensitized. For example, if I see person A attack person B, I may feel that A's actions were evil, but I may revise those views upon reviewing the larger picture/context in which B attacked A first (information change). Also, if I have been the victim of a past attack from A, I may be more sensitive to his attacks on others (sensitization).

You are right to ask what might constitute objective morality under these definitions. I would expect that objective morality would mean that when you and I disagree in our moral perceptions, that one of us is actually correct.

Since I can change my views when I get more information or when my sensitivities change, I might be led to think that I can define an objective morality based on increased information and increased sensitivity. However, for two people to have the same sensitivities and information, they would have to be the same person, which doesn't really help to resolve anything in a world full of individuals.

Colin Caret said...

I would expect that objective morality would mean that when you and I disagree in our moral perceptions, that one of us is actually correct.

Yes, I would think that this is exactly what objective morality entails. So you seem to understand the notion quite well. Why, then, are you acting as though you are confused about it? Isn't it obvious what objective morality is good for: its good for settling who is right or wrong about a moral dispute. At least, that is, according to someone who believes in objective morality.

However, some of the things you say confuse me...

Since I can change my views when I get more information or when my sensitivities change, I might be led to think that I can define an objective morality based on increased information and increased sensitivity. However, for two people to have the same sensitivities and information, they would have to be the same person, which doesn't really help to resolve anything in a world full of individuals.

First of all, since you seem to understand the conceptual role that objective morality plays in moral theory, why explain your point this way? We don't define objective morality into existence any more than we define objective physical reality into existence. They are just out there (again, that is, according to the believer in objective morality). What we do is just try our best to understand them as they are independent of our fallible beliefs.

Second of all, the last claim just seems false. Surely two distinct individuals could possess the same subjective morality. It is unlikely to happen, of course, but it is possible. It doesn't follow from the fact that A and B possess the same subjective morality that they are the same person.

Doctor Logic said...

Colin,

So you seem to understand the notion quite well. Why, then, are you acting as though you are confused about it? Isn't it obvious what objective morality is good for: its good for settling who is right or wrong about a moral dispute.

Yes, in theory that's what it would do. However, as you said, the analogy with physics is broken.

We can agree that looking in a box will settle a dispute over its supposed contents. Each side of the dispute makes a prediction about the contents of the box, and the prediction is tested by opening the box.

But what predictions are made by parties in a moral dispute?

We'll there are utilitarian recipes, and then there are deontological recipes.

The deontological recipes make no predictions, so they're the result of totally subjective choices.

The utilitarians make predictions, but even they don't succeed in making morality objective. This is because predicting the outcome of an action isn't enough to establish its goodness. The question always arises whether we ought to adopt one of these utilitarian predictive schemes as a guide to action. Yet, this subjective decision is prior to the application of the utilitarian scheme.

No scheme for determining what we ought to do is strong enough to dictate that we ought to adopt it. A prior subjective decision has to be made before this can happen.

Second of all, the last claim just seems false. Surely two distinct individuals could possess the same subjective morality. It is unlikely to happen, of course, but it is possible. It doesn't follow from the fact that A and B possess the same subjective morality that they are the same person.

It's one thing to say that two people will have concordant subjective moralities on a given issue. It's quite another to propose that two individuals will agree on any moral dilemma while still being distinct individuals. Surely, individual sensitivities are the result of past experiences that two individuals could not completely share, not even if they could read eachother's minds after the fact.

Besides this, like any other morality scheme, my recipe (maximizing information and sensitivity) also requires a subjective decision that one ought to adopt it in the first place. Case in point, many people (millions) feel that it would be wrong to promote sensitivity, and prefer instead to promote detachment.

Marc_Geddes said...

Emotions (or more accurately 'Feelings') could play the role of *moral perceptions*, analogous to the way that sensations play the role of *physical perceptions*.

Of course, feelings are not neccesserily accurate perceptions of what is or is not moral, but then, sensations are not neccesserily accurate perceptions of physical reality either (think of optical illusions).

--

As to the argument that moral codes don't predict anything and therefore can't be scientific, the rebuttal is simply that science doesn't neccesserily have to be reducible to mere prediction.

In the most general sense science is simply the ability to form accurate causal models of reality. It's true that moral codes don't predict, but this doesn't show that moral codes can't be scientific, since morality may simply involve a different kind of causal model.

And indeed, one can ask: Which courses of action help one to achieve goals with optimal efficiency? This form of question applies on the level of volitional agents, has clear true/false answers and involves the formation of causal models. So it could be a scientific question. But it's not prediction.

---

At the end of the day, moral judgements probably all come from direct conscious experience - since only a conscious mind can assign 'value' to things - only a conscious mind can decide which goals are worth pursuing.

This may rule out 'Objective Morality' in the strong sense of the existence of a morality which is mind independent, but it doesn't rule out the weaker idea of 'Universal Morality' - which would be a morality that all sentient agents could *in principle* agree on and is subject to scientific investigation.

Doctor Logic said...

Hi Marc,

Of course, feelings are not neccesserily accurate perceptions of what is or is not moral, but then, sensations are not neccesserily accurate perceptions of physical reality either (think of optical illusions).

In the sciences, it is agreed that prediction should be the arbiter of reality. So we have some basis for identifying the optical illusions. Scientists have made a moral decision that one should pay heed to prediction.

In the case of morality, there seems to be no standard that should be used to settle such controversies because "should" questions are moral ones. It takes a moral decision to determine how to resolve moral questions.

In the most general sense science is simply the ability to form accurate causal models of reality.

How can one have a causal model that's not predictive? We can always view history as a one-time sequence of events, but I would think that a causal model is a set of rules that explain why history had to happen the way it did. Those rules cannot help but predict new events. If the rules don't make predictions, then they are just restatements of one-time sequences of events, and the events remain unexplained. In other words, there's no difference between not understanding why things happen, and not being able to predict why things happen.

This may rule out 'Objective Morality' in the strong sense of the existence of a morality which is mind independent, but it doesn't rule out the weaker idea of 'Universal Morality' - which would be a morality that all sentient agents could *in principle* agree on and is subject to scientific investigation.

I wrote about this possibility in my previous post. I think we can find an objective description of morality, and be able to predict why a person feels the way they do about a certain moral issue.

What you are suggesting is that, with sufficient knowledge and reflection, we would all agree on what is right and wrong. This isn't obvious to me. It seems to suggest that with enough knowledge and reflection, our personal histories become irrelevant to moral decision-making. Even if our knowledge extended to eachothers' experiences, I'm still not sure that our collective history would be irrelevant.

Marc_Geddes said...

Hi Doctor Logic,

Whether all science is all about prediction is highly debatable! There are, of course, many on-going debates about which principles should form the basis of science, though I think it's clear that prediction is at least *part* of the scientific method.

Personally, I think trying to reduce all of science to prediction is too simplistic.

There are many different levels of description for looking at reality and what is appropriate as scientific method for one level is not neccesserily appropriate for another level.

I said that in the most general sense I thought that science was about the formation of causal models of reality. But this is not exactly the same as prediction. For instance science can be used to explain why something happened in the past. The formation of causal models of past events is not prediction, it's retrodiction. So I hope you can see from this example that the ability to form causal models is more than just prediction.

I don't agree with you when you say:

"If the rules don't make predictions, then they are just restatements of one-time sequences of events, and the events remain unexplained."

In other words, there's no difference between not understanding why things happen, and not being able to predict why things happen."

In fact, if a causal model enables us to *compress* or *simplify* past events, then the causal model *has* explained the past event - that's what explanation is I think - the ability to *compress* descriptions of events. But this doesn't have to involve prediction.

You probably won't be able to get an objective/universal morality from predicition alone, since as you point, morality is about what you should do, not about simple prediction.

On the level of explanation involving teleological agents (which is the moral level of reality), we can pragmatically ask which actions would help agents achieve their goals with optimal efficientcy. Once goals are defined, the question of which actions optimize goal fulfillment is amenable to scientific analysis.

I think emotions ground morality analogous to the way that physical sensations ground physics.

Science might abe able to infer moral concepts from emotions in a manner analogous to how science infers physical reality from empirical sense data. So 'feelings' might be the 'empirical data' for the science of morality.