Alex · @SelfExamineLife

31st Jan 2015 from TwitLonger

Response to Liam

@liamk @NoflyBird Hi Liam. This will be a bit rough, but I'll attempt to make it thorough. I apologise if any of these seems terse (I'm a bit rushed today).

Based on the first few paragraphs, it seems to me that your conception of moral values is something like J L Mackie's 'queer fact'. These would indeed be either supernatural or non-natural entities of some kind, if they existed. As a naturalist I see no reason to include such things in my ontology, nor do I feel poorer for not having them around.

You write:
"Human reason is absolutely unable to inform us of how we should live because of the gap between merely describing a condition of the universe and the jump that would presume to prescribe how we might like it to be."

'Absolutely unable' would seem to me to be a misreading of what Hume is trying to convey. Observe:

Hume writes:
"for how this new relation can be—inconceivably—a deduction from others that are entirely different from it."

A *deduction*. This is Hume's main point here, at least to my eye. One cannot use facts as premises and deduce an ought from them, for all deduction does is lay bear what is already within the premises. By definition, if there is no ought buried in the premises, there cannot be an ought in the conclusion.

However, Hume does not rail against using induction or abduction to draw normative conclusions. Just as we use induction to derive universal laws of motion from a finite observation of physical movements, we can derive universal (or context dependent universal) moral codes/principles from a finite observation of the kinds of things that animals like us (and others) need to value for their survival and flourishing. The notion of 'good' standing a part from any valuer is pretty much meaningless until it is good 'for' someone or something. This is a necessarily subjective component of any normative system: we have to feed value into it to get prescriptions out.

You write:
"just because we can observe that humans dislike suffering there is no reason why human suffering would be objectively bad."

As the words 'subjective' and 'objective' carry several loaded meanings, I try my best to avoid them. In the above example, we can try to fit the various meanings in to see what it is exactly you're trying to convey.
- The first meaning is 'exists independently', as in the sense of being something akin to a physical object that could be apprehended or measured. This is the Mackie queer fact view of moral wrongness/rightness. Let's call this Object-Like.
- The second meaning is 'without bias', in the sense of a correct judgement that isn't untowardly influenced by one's own personal stake in the matter. Let's call this Impartiality.
- Similar to the second, a third notion of it is 'without error', as in judging something to be exactly as it is, or true. Also in the sense that an 'objective or goal' could be judged accurately. Let's call this Accurate Goal Judgement.

In my experience, all of these usages get unintentionally swapped in and out (often within the same sentence), and they severely cloud the issue.

Usage 1: "just because we can observe that humans dislike suffering there is no reason why human suffering would be [object-like] bad [in the sense that a rock objectively has mass]."

I have no quarrel with this. Looks true to me. Object-like moral facts would be super/non-natural and unnecessary to explain moral language, moral psychology, or moral reasoning.

Usage 2: "just because we can observe that humans dislike suffering there is no reason why human suffering would be [judged bad in an unbiased sense]."

I see no contradiction in judging that an organism which suffers without commensurate gain is worse off than it would otherwise be. That I share goals with this other creature, such as not wanting to suffer, should not bar me from being able to make an impartial judgement of whether it is bad for that organism to be suffering gratuitously. So this looks pretty false to me, especially once we apply the inductive approach I outlined above.

Usage 3: "just because we can observe that humans dislike suffering there is no reason why human suffering would be [accurately judged as bad without error]."

This is the easy one. If humans dislike gratuitous suffering, then recognising that suffering as a net-loss to their situation is judging the situation to be bad *for them*. And judging accurately, given that not suffering gratuitously is their sincere goal. Seems to me this is the most obviously false reading.

You write:
"Our dislike of suffering is merely subjective and cannot inform real moral claims."

Words like 'just' and 'merely' have an interesting character. Being inherently deflationary, their presence minimises whatever comes after them. I'll also flag the word 'subjective' here as I did with objective above. Without giving it the same thorough treatment, let's just call it's various meanings ‘Error-Ridden Judgement’, 'Relativistically Valued’, and ‘Originating From A Subject’. I know of no other words that enjoy so much abuse due to unintentional equivocation by atheist and theist alike as these two. The worry seems to be that if the judgement Originates From A Subject (ontological subjectivity; not Object-like) then it is by definition ‘tainted’ by that perspective to be a (possibly, but likely) Error-Ridden Judgement, based on the Relativistically Valued ideals of the person making it. There’s more than a whiff about this view of judgement being hopelessly incapable of grasping the state of things As They Are.

Hume writes:
“Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger… The rules of morality are not the conclusion of our reason.”

This is Hume being grandiose in his exposition of how he views Reason – and rather effectively I might add. To be Humean about Reason is to only *have* a reason if one first values the thing the reason is imploring us to act for. If I value my own life, then I have a reason to preserve it. If I do not, then I do not – unless Reason can appeal to something else I value, such as people who will miss me if I die. But suppose I don’t care what they think? Then I do not have a reason to sustain my life. In the extreme, one can only care to trade in reasons *if one values Reason in the first place*, so a certain amount of boot-strapping has to be done here to get us into the valuing and reasoning game at all. Kurt Godel is wagging his finger here: no logical system is self-justifying, and that includes moral systems too (including theistic ones).

You write:
“Most humans feel somehow intuitively that some actions… are truly and actually wrong [presumably, independently existing Object-Like wrongness].”

Most people don’t have the education we’ve had, either formally or informally. They act on a pure emotivism where their moral reasoning (if we even call it that) is informed only by their unexamined moralising emotions - primarily the negatively valenced ones like disgust and unfairness. Any reasoning they claim to be making is an after-the-fact confabulation to justify their emotion. The concept of a ‘squick’ reaction is informative here. These people don’t live examined lives. As such, I don’t find their unexamined judgements on these matters to be worth much weight.

You write:
“The Is-Ought problem demands that morals come from an outside rubric (a supernatural force outside the observable universe) or they do not exist at all.”

This is only true if by ‘morals’ you mean the Object-Like queer fact. If we adopted a different view of moral value, such as a concept that when assented to as good promotes a positive behaviour of a particular type, then it becomes a false dichotomy. Words like ‘real’ and ‘exist’ do a lot more work here than they ought to. The problem here, at least it seems to me, is reification of concepts. We don’t need to reify moral goodness to use the concept to effectively navigate our social and physical worlds (I’ll bracket the spectre of relativism for later).
As with objective-subjective, I find the moral realism/anti-realism labelling to be unhelpful here, as a highly restrictive definition of realism (Object-like) begs the question against the realist that wants to continue to use moral language, but use it to describe natural facts instead of non-natural or supernatural entities. The theist tends to object here to what they see as co-opting of moral language. Yet the other side of the debate sees it as clearly away prior confusion on the issue, and eliminating unnecessary objects from our ontology. We (well, some of us) still use the language of design to explain the mechanistic functions of natural objects, even though the word ‘design’ has a tinge of intentionality to it, of which evolution has exactly none. Many atheists object to the use of design-language on practical grounds. Others, on conceptual grounds. It’s my view that they are unnecessarily impoverishing their vocabularies. The same is true – I think – in the value arena.

You quote:
“Much as he rages against the pious Christians, he himself has nevertheless as thoroughly remained a Christian – to wit, a moral Christian.”

There’s a *lot* of baggage here. To begin, it identifies Christian values as being the right values (which ones? Liberal Christianity, or Conservative Christianity?) I don’t have time to refute this, so I’ll just register my objection and move on. Second, it seems to suggest that people who we could have considered moral individuals before the advent of Christianity were in fact Christians before Christianity existed, which is to beg the question against these being not-Christian-before-they-became-Christian values. The rest of the quote insinuates that any person who would give him or herself a moral law to live by (your vegan example) is in some sense religious. We’re playing equivocation games again, this time on the word ‘religious’ being both a byword for ‘unwavering adherence to a particular practice or ritual’ (the oft-used ‘I watch Family Guy religiously’) and the more recognisable sense of assenting to the existence of the supernatural. I can affirm the former and deny the latter.

You write:
“However, the Atheist does so without a foundational logic other than their own individualist desire and perhaps a subsequent subjective framework preference. They may sometimes act morally and can indeed be congratulated for doing so but a reason to base this on apart from the whims of Egoism is inconsistent with their premises and unsound.”

Careful now; this is no less true of theistic moral systems.
Why should I obey God’s commands? Because he is an object worthy of worship and obedience.
Why should I care about acting appropriately towards an object of worship? Because this is how a respectful and obedient person acts towards such things.
Why should I care about being respectful? Because there are negative consequences for being disrespectful and disobedient.
Why should I care about negative consequences? Because suffering isn’t pleasant.
Why should I care if suffering isn’t pleasant?

This is where we hit philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question; the same foundational premise of ‘the individualist desire and subsequent subjective framework’ as the non-believer.

You write:
“For Atheists, humans are merely animals, their entire composition material, and their thoughts and emotions merely chemical reactions.”

There’s that word again: merely. Take that word out (twice) and read the sentence again. Not so bad now, but it’s still only half the story. The mechanistic explanation of a mental phenomenon isn't exhaustive of the content of that phenomenon. What love is made of (molecules), and how love feels (the experience), is a very real and pertinent distinction. This is true *because* ontological subjectivity exists, not in spite of it.

You write (on Twitter):
"if indeed both are inventions of humans, why should one adopt/internalise Greek/Stoic virtue ethics over Christian/Pauline/Protestant virtue ethics?"

I can think of two reasons: lack of metaphysical promiscuity, and the value of believing that which is true. Stocisim and virtue ethics don't implore me to believe anything more about the world other than the effects they have in and on my life. If these ethics tell me I will live a flourishing life if I follow them, and they seem to, then they are true in the only sense that matters for such prescriptions: they reliably lead to the same result. They don't enjoin me to posit other realms of existence, or other ontological substances. In short, they don't multiply entities beyond necessity to explain the data. They also avoid the epistemological problem of divine revelation, and all the thorny issues of skeptical theism and it's various self-defeating replies.

You write (on Twitter):
“but I doubt many others, like Camus or Sartre, would have been satisfied with subjective meaning only, you know?”

To which I say, Camus and Satre, if you’re reading them correctly (I have not read either) have an overly inflated view of these things. It’s little wonder they’re (by your estimation) disappointed. Their view of human experience in the grand scheme of the cosmos was too large to begin with. There’s a great essay by Nagel on this called 'The Absurd'. I highly recommend it. I’ll leave you with Nagel’s closing lines, since I’ve already committed 2000 words to this and am now 2 hours late for moving house :)

Nagel writes:
“If sub specie aeternitatis [from the perspective of eternity] there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that doesn't matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.”

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