Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Non-thinking things can't see subjective attributes

Is morality objective or subjective (relative)?

To answer this we have to be specific about what the question means. When I perceive a property of a thing, that property could be in the thing itself, or it could be an attribute that is "painted on the thing" by my mind.

For example, I might say that a particular building has many properties including these two: it is 100 feet in height, and it is tall. If I were from rural Kansas, any building over 50 feet in height would be tall to me. However, if I were from the city of Chicago, a building would have to be over 500 feet in height for me to consider it to be tall. So it is quite obvious that my personal history determines what is tall, whereas height is unambiguous, no matter where I come from. Height is objective, but tallness is a property my mind subjectively paints onto objects with height.

Now, there are two ways I can establish the objective/subjective nature of an attribute. I can positively show that an attribute is objective by finding evidence that the attribute is independent of subjectivity, or I can positively show that the attribute is a subjective property generated when a mind sees objective attributes of other things.

In the case of tallness, we certainly have positive evidence that tallness depends on where you come from and what experiences you have had. We can predict that anyone who has not seen a building more than one story tall will think that the Empire State Building is very tall.

But what would be considered positive evidence of objectivity?

I realized last night that subjective attributes are invisible to non-thinking entities.

Suppose I hold a conical projectile in my hand. The projectile is 10 centimeters long and has a mass of 1 kilogram. I fire it at a metal plate, and the way the plate behaves upon impact depends upon the mass. Yet the plate has no subjectivities of its own because it cannot think. If the mass were a subjective attribute painted on the projectile by my mind (e.g., say, if all 10cm conical objects subjectively feel like they are 1 kilo masses), then why should an inanimate target care about my subjectivities?

One might suggest that the apparent attributes of the debris are also subjective inventions, and that is why they appear correlated. However, this would be rather a coincidence. And we can establish increasingly complicated experiments that will force us to argue for increasingly bizarre coincidences should we stick to the idea that mass is subjective. Thus, we have to give up the idea that mass is a subjective quantity.

Furthermore, we can devise ways to hide from us every attribute of a projectile except for its mass. In that case, it cannot be that mass is some subjective mental decoration we apply to objects with other objective attributes (like size, shape or color).

Yet, with morality, there is no similar evidence of objectivity.

There is no way to create a curtain through which only 'evil' passes. If we could do so, we would have strong positive evidence that evil was objective and not some invention of our minds.

Also, there's no evidence that good and evil affect the environment. If an evil act occurs, it leaves no trace on non-thinking entities. A barrel of oil that was stolen burns as long and as brightly as a barrel of oil that was fairly obtained.

While there may be theories of morality (e.g., the Golden Rule), these theories predict nothing but our own subjective feelings and tendencies. They are not like objective physical theories that predict the behavior of non-mental entities. Rather, moral theories predict the behavior of mental entities that have subjectivities.

In addition to this lack of evidence for the objectivity of morality, there is a growing mountain of positive evidence for the psychological and evolutionary nature of moral perception.


DCAg said...

I really enjoyed your post as I essentially agree with much that you wrote. I might add that I wrestle with the idea that objective morals even if they existed may be inaccesable.

What I am curious is why you consider morality a property of an object. Could we agree that material objects have no intrinsic morality because morality is immaterial? Category error perhaps?

I hope that I have not misunderstood your posting. I know that you did not limit your analysis to just objects, but it seemed as though you at least referenced it.

Doctor Logic said...

Thanks, DCAg.

I guess I don't so much see morality as a property of an object, but as a property of a situation with physical elements to it. A crime is committed by individuals at an individual location in reference to material things. If the morality of such acts had predictable effects on non-sentient things, then morality would have been proven objective. That doesn't happen, so there's no positive proof that morality is objective.

That might leave us agnostic about the question of morality's objectivity. So I agree that it is possible that morality is objective, but its objectivity is inaccessible - we cannot have knowledge of its objectivity because subjective minds are required to detect it. It's possible that morality is objective but is experientially indistinguishable from subjective things like aesthetics.

However, there is another approach to the problem: we might be able to objectively show that morality is subjective. If we can explain in detail why we feel what we feel (for physical reasons, say), we can objectively prove that morality is subjective. I think a lot of progress has been made on that front, e.g., in studying the morality of other primates.

Let me know if you think there holes in this analysis.

DCAg said...

I don't know if replacing objects for situations that produce physical properties helps. Can they be seperated: what exactly would produce these properties?

It would be interesting to see if there are contextual properties that are objective and are in some ways not present, dormant, divisible, etc in the object themselves that form the situation. Can you think of anything that is objective that results from the interaction of objects that was not already present in some form?

What if someone proposed a sort of chemistry of morality if you will.

What would you say if these contextual properties are catalysed in people and that is why non-sentinent objects can't be used to detect it. Suppose we are looking for fire, but all we find is gasoline and a match. Striking the match is something we do; but fire would not be detectable if you looked for things like heat and smoke without intergrating the person. Would my human component render it subjective?

Probably impossible to test and I am not sure if it is coherent, but fun to play "what if" games.