Thursday, November 09, 2006

How the public thinks

One Steve Rose writes to Metro regarding Tony Blair's comments about capital punishment. (Roughly speaking, he's against it, but would rather not say so just now because his friend George is so looking forward to the lynching party, or 'Blair Forced To Admit: I Wouldn't Hang Saddam' as our friends in cloud-cuckoo land rendered it.)

'What right has Blair got to say that Britain is against capital punishment when we have not had a referendum on the matter. Those are his personal thoughts, not the countries.'

This is strikingly similar to a remark sent to the Daily Mail's website on the subject of flogging people.

'Why should it be that a handful of mindless MP's have the vote and not the general public on whether or not we introduce severe punishment of this sort? That is not democracy.'

This is an interesting way of thinking .If 'democracy' equates to 'referenda'; then since Britain doesn't have referenda and never has done, Britain isn't and never has been a democracy. The writers imagine a thing called 'Britain' or 'The General Public' which is separate from and opposed to a thing called 'the government' or 'a handful of mindless MPs' (bad). (There are currently 649 MPs so 'John from Surrey' must have unusually large hands.)

This is a very unhealthy way of thinking. It says that democracy is the only legitimate form of government; but it defines 'democracy' as doing 'the exact thing which the General Public in all areas and under all circumstances.' But any elected government on earth sometimes has to enact unpopular legislation. (Even if you decided that your guiding light was 'What the Majority wants' rather than 'What is right', you couldn't follow it, because The Majority frequently wants contradictory things.) So the only only legitimate form of government turns out to be a form of government which, in principle, can't ever exist. Which means, in short, that no government is ever legitimate, that you are free to say 'Who the hell does Tony Blair think he is, running my country just because he happens to be Prime Minister', or 'Why do we say that something is a law just because parliament happens to say that it is.' Start thinking like that, and you will end up saying 'Since 98% of Britain want Jews to be banned from wearing skull-caps; and since an arbitrary special interest group called the Government still permit them to do so, if I go up to a Rabbi, violently take his hat off, and stuff a prawn sandwich in his face for good measure, then I am acting Democratically, which is, by definition, right.'

It is not in itself very significant that two different green-inkers -- or more likely, two different sub-editors in a hurry -- came up with the same idea. It is interesting that both of them chose to use it as an argument for increasing the amount of brutality in the penal system. As we've seen, Tony Blair justifies repressive theories about crime and punishment on the grounds that he is expressing the opinions of The Public. He really should be careful of listening too carefully to the voice of the people: at lot of the time, it is calling for mob-rule and lynch-law.

38 comments:

Mike Taylor said...

'Who the hell does Tony Blair think he is, running my country just because he happens to be Prime Minister'

:-)

While I very much enjoyed that parody of a certain mindset, I do think there is a real problem here. Because we vote for governments rather than on individual issues, we can never get very close to voting in a way that expresses what we really think. For example, suppose that I support both the National Health Service and corporal punishment. Under parliamentary democracy, my only way to express support for the former is by voting for the Labour party which is supposed to support the NHS (I know, I know, but just suspend disbelief for the moment). And that entails opposing the very same corporal punishment that I could only support by voting conservative.

I don't have any solution, but I certainly admire the problem.

In other news, I thought the third Torchwood (the one with the ghost machine) was very good, and boded well for the rest of the series; but that the Cyberwoman episode was a terribly lame waste of a very interesting premise. I also thought that both episodes, like the first two, would have been much better if they'd had the Doctor in.

Jez said...

The dangerous step, to me, is when you decide that you know exactly what public opinion is. From that step its inevitable that public opinion will match exactly what think should be done.

Instead of just being a demagogue, you've declared you have the moral authority to act exactly as you please.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Yes. I think that it is interesting that Blair's 'religion' appears to involve a conviction that he will be judged by God, but no specific precepts about what God does or doesn't like. His current justification for the Iraq adventure is that 'I just happen to think' that the world is better off without Saddam, and 'I have a deep inner conviction' that I did the right thing; and his definition of leadership is to do what you feel is right, without thinking about it, and without listening to critics.' And as I attempted to argue last week, he's effectively insulated his lunatic penal policy from criticism by saying that it represents the will of the Public as against that of the Political and Legal Establishment. (If the Political and Legal Establishment are wrong and Public Opinion is right, then anyone who suggests that you ought to have a fair trial before being hanged or tortured is by definition part of the Political and Legal Establishment and therefore automatically wrong.)

At risk of raising a painful subject: C.S Lewis argues in "Abolition" that if you could cut yourself free from conventional morality and inherited social ideas, then the only basis on which you could act would be "Whatever I happen to feel like doing at that particular moment." I am not going to argue that Tony Blair is the Un-Man, but....

Phil Masters said...

At risk of raising a painful subject: C.S Lewis argues in "Abolition" that if you could cut yourself free from conventional morality and inherited social ideas, then the only basis on which you could act would be "Whatever I happen to feel like doing at that particular moment."

Umm, seriously, did he actually say that? Because I haven't read the piece in question, but it just sounds obviously nonsense to me. It's perfectly logically plausible that one could construct a coherent moral system ab initio, and act on the basis of that, even when you didn't especially like the things it made you do.

I'm not saying that it'd be easy, or that it's ever quite been done successfully, or that "new moral systems" throughout history haven't all actually been stuffed full of inherited or received ideas - but saying that the choice is conservative traditionalism or rampant selfishness sounds like the dear old fallacy of the excluded middle.

Mike Taylor said...

Yes, Phil, that is indeed (a simplified version of) what Lewis says. More specifically, he argues that either your moral code has an absolute foundation (i.e. God) or it doesn't and that if it doesn't then there is no ultimate reason why you should follow it. As an example, he cites atheists who believe that they should behave in the way that will best ensure the survival of the human species; to which Lewis asks "But what is your reason for thinking that the survival of the species is a good thing?" It's an interesting argument - at least, it is when Lewis makes it: this super-brief summary is not much better than a parody. I urge you to go back to the source material. "Abolition" is always worth a read, anyway (though it's not the easiest of his books by any means).

David Hogg said...

Phil

Why, if this is “obviously nonsense”, do you give so many provisos? I think what Lewis was trying to say is that there is a strong argument for natural law based on similar patterns of ethics found in most cultures. We seem to have a code of conduct that is difficult (and Lewis would argue), potentially dangerous to refute. Is it only conservative traditionalists that try to do unto others etc?

Phil Masters said...

More specifically, he argues that either your moral code has an absolute foundation (i.e. God) or it doesn't and that if it doesn't then there is no ultimate reason why you should follow it.

Which is not, however, what Andrew precis'd him as saying.

Why, if this is “obviously nonsense”, do you give so many provisos?

Perhaps because saying that something is difficult isn't the same as saying that it's logically impossible? And because the conclusions deriving from either are completely different?

(Difficult things are often worth doing, and may deserve the allocation of a lot of effort. Completely impossible things aren't worth attempting, because it's a waste of time and effort.)

I think what Lewis was trying to say is that there is a strong argument for natural law based on similar patterns of ethics found in most cultures. We seem to have a code of conduct that is difficult (and Lewis would argue), potentially dangerous to refute.

Umm, well, yes. Very likely. If the point is that most ethical systems are based on previous ethical systems - it's probably an interesting debating point in philosophy, and I suspect that it's right, despite the best efforts of the likes of Nietzsche and Crowley. If someone goes on from this to argue that that there's some underlying, fundamental moral absolutes outside human consciousness, it's a slightly more contentious point, but arguable at the very least.

Arguing from this that moral decisions should always refer back to what's previously been thought by a lot of people is fine, provided that you don't slip into the belief that age and widespread popular assumptions don't automatically make something "right" (ref. slavery, shoving small children up chimneys, use of red hot pokers in the judicial system, not eating shellfish, et cetera, yadda yadda). Going on to argue from this that the only thing that will make people behave morally is terror of a big beardy guy in the sky strikes me as a weird leap of logic, and a bit offensive.

Phil Masters said...

(Sorry for the double negative there. Strike the second "don't" in the final paragraph.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Going on to argue from this that the only thing that will make people behave morally is terror of a big beardy guy in the sky strikes me as a weird leap of logic, and a bit offensive.

In "Abolition of Man", Lewis goes several miles out of his way to avoid saying that the belief in non-subjective morality implies the belief in a personal god. He uses the term "Tao" (in its literal sense, "The Way" -- I very much doubt he knew anything about taoism as a religion) to describe "the moral law", because he wanted to make it clear that he wasn't talking specifically about Christian morality or Christian ethics.

"In order to avoid any possible misunderstanding, I may add that though I myself am a Theist, and indeed a Christian, I am not here attempting an indirect argument for Theism. I am simply arguing that if we are to have values at all we must accept the platitudes of Practical Reason as having absolute validity: that any attempt, having become skeptical about these, to reintroduce value lower down on some supposedly more "realistic" basis is doomed. Whether this position implies a supernatural origin for the Tao is a question I am not here concerned with."

The book applies a reductio absurdium to various works of popular philosophy, which (according to Lewis) were trying to debunk the idea of morality; saying that all statements about value were subjective and therefore meaningless; and implying that there could be a new morality based on rationality alone. He had found a couple of English text books which claimed that when you made any value judgement "We appear to be saying something very important about something; we are only saying something about our own feelings." (It is certainly a pity that, having spotted that Logical Positivism was trickling down into school books, that Lewis didn't go back to the source and critique "Language Truth and Logic" rather than "The Green Book".)

In the last chapter of the book, Lewis engages in a flight of fancy in which he shows what he thinks would happen if that kind of thinking were ever actually implied in practice. It might be theoretically possible to create a "new" morality, and it might be possible to indoctrinate subsequent generations to believe in that morality: but what possible basis could you have for deciding what the content of that morality could be? Ideas like "the greatest happiness to the greatest number"; "the preservation of the species"; "the preservation of society"; only work if you already know that happiness, the species, and society are Good Things, and "Good" is one of the moral ideas that you have just debunked. He doesn't say that, in this condition, you would act out of "rampant selfishness". He was more inclined to think that you would act randomly, or irrationally. "If you will not obey the Tao, or else commit suicide, obedience to impulse (and therefore, in the long run, to mere 'nature') is the only course left open." I don't know that Lewis actually thinks that a world ruled by "Conditioners" is a possibility, though he uses the idea in a science fiction story called "That Hideous Strength"; I think he is primarily using the idea to illustrate what he sees as the internal contradictions in the position.

Anthropomorphicism was condemend as a heresy by the Christian church about one thousand six hundred years ago. There is a fairly obviously symbolic passage in the book of Daniel in which a figure called "The Ancient of Days" interacts with a figure called "The Son of Man". The former figure is said to have white hair. Since it was the Romans who introduced the fashion of shaving, we might assume that he has a beard as well: I am not sure, however, why you choose to focus on such an obscure passage. Neither me nor C.S Lewis, nor the Archdrid, nor St. Anselm, nor no-body else has concieved of God as living in the sky. I understand that you are annoyed by the whole idea of religion; and I can only assume that on September 12th Dick Dawkins sent post cards to all his friends saying "This gives us the perfect opportunity to be rude to all those god botherers for a change." But since your real reasons for objecting to the deontological theory of ethics has nothing to do with God's facial hair, I'm not sure why you think it's helpful to write in this vain.

Andrew Stevens said...

Point of order here. Phil Masters referred to "the dear old fallacy of the excluded middle." I am nearly certain, from context, that he meant to say "the dear old fallacy of the false dilemma." The false dilemma presents two choices when it has not been demonstrated that there are only two choices. The law of the excluded middle (that a proposition is either true or false) is certainly not a fallacy, despite some rather funny attempts by modern philosophers to claim that it is. (Nevertheless, they always assume it is true while they're making their argument that it's false.) And, in fact, I believe Phil is right. I think Lewis was falling into a false dilemma.

Having said that, Lewis was still mostly right. For a moral system to be anything but arbitrary (and thus being "whatever I happen to feel like doing" though Phil rightly pointed out that "at that particular moment" doesn't necessarily follow), it must be based on something. My view is a foundationalist one - a valid first-order ethical theory must be based on a small number of bedrock moral certainties (and building up from there).

But if these bedrock moral certainties exist (and I believe that they do), they must appear certain to pretty much everyone (and I believe that they are). If they've been obvious to pretty much everyone, we'd expect that they'd be more or less agreed to by pretty much every culture. So, if a moral philosophy is actually valid, then it does indeed seem to follow that "conventional morality" will loom large within it.

Lewis's argument against utilitarianism (relayed by Mike Taylor with "what is your reason for thinking that the survival of the species is a good thing") is a form of G.E. Moore's so-called "open question argument." Moore asserted that "the good" is indefinably simple and cannot be equated with anything else. I believe that Moore was correct. Moreover, I believe it also knocks down theological morality as well. I can ask Lewis "what is your reason for thinking the will of God is a good thing?" In the end, I believe he will have to agree with me that "the good" is actually different from God. All his arguments for the goodness of God assume that it is, if you think about it. If the two were identical, one could not even ask the question "Is God good?" Since we can, they're not. (I'm not actually claiming this problem can't be resolved, by the way. It does not necessarily follow, for example, that the good precedes God or you could say that God is "the good" in one sense, but he is also more than that. I suppose one could also argue that God is indeed identical with "the good" and nothing more, but that could very well be history's most pointless religion.)

I agree with Lewis in that I believe the existence of moral objectivity (that there are fundamental moral absolutes outside human consciousness) is so obvious that I'm always a little surprised when anyone actually argues against it. I believe that when people do so, it is usually due to a relentlessly materialistic viewpoint I think of as "scientism," which is an exaggerated respect for science and a corresponding disparagement of all other intellectual endeavors. I have an enormous respect for science. As Peter van Inwagen said on this very issue, "To deny that Caesar is due divine honors is not to belittle his generalship." I do not accept that science is the only method we have of reaching truth, though. Indeed, if it were, we wouldn't even have science since science rests on rational and reasonable, but ultimately unscientific, premises.

By the by, as Phil pointed out, it does not follow that we must accept all conventional morality. I am of the opinion that most moral debates are not actually debates about morals, but debates about facts. For example, I think we can all agree on the moral premise that "it is wrong to slaughter and eat Grandma." (I'm not saying that's a bedrock moral certainty, by the way, but rather that it can be deduced from bedrock moral certainties via a relatively easy process.) The Hindus argue from this that since Grandma might now be in the form of a cow, it is wrong to slaughter and eat cows. If we agree with this factual premise ("Grandma might now be in the form of a cow"), then we would all be inclined to agree with them. Since we don't all agree with this factual premise, we don't then agree on the moral conclusion. (By the way, I stole that particular example from someone, but can't remember who. My apologies to the author.)

Also, Phil is correct that the argument that only fear of God will make people act morally is indeed a silly and offensive one, but I'm fairly sure Lewis never actually made it. (You Lewis scholars should correct me if I'm wrong.) Indeed, if I remember Abolition correctly, it is practically an argument for my own second-order moral philosophy, common sense moral intuitionism, and I manage to believe it and remain an atheist.

Andrew Stevens said...

I should point out that my prior comment was written and posted before I saw Andrew Rilstone's above response, thus there was some unintentional repetition in our respective responses.

Giving a quick skim through Abolition, the only thing I have to object to now is that Lewis seemed to agree with the emotivists that what I call "moral intuitions" are emotional in nature (thus "men without chests"). I certainly believe these intuitions often provoke emotional responses (outrage, love, etc.), but they themselves are not emotional in nature. I believe that morality is rational and moral intuitions are an exercise of reason, in the same way that mathematical intuitions like "the shortest path between two points is a straight line" are rational. I do not believe these intuitions are like a "sixth sense" or a kind of feeling. Otherwise, Lewis's argument is essentially the one I make all the time. (And I believe I may have been misled about Lewis falling into a false dilemma. It is not clear to me that he ever did so. My apologies to Mr. Lewis.)

Andrew Stevens said...

At the risk of simply babbling to myself, I apparently owe Mr. Masters an apology. According to Wikipedia, the fallacy of the false dilemma is sometimes known as the fallacy of the excluded middle. This is a horrifyingly inaccurate label (it should be the fallacy of misuse of the excluded middle), but it must have some acceptance somewhere. Mea culpa.

Phil Masters said...

In "Abolition of Man", Lewis goes several miles out of his way to avoid saying that the belief in non-subjective morality implies the belief in a personal god.

Thanks for clarifying this at such length. As someone else had summarised Lewis as saying that moral codes need "an absolute foundation (i.e. God)", I would plead that there was a reason for my misunderstanding.

The only thing I would say here about Lewis's logic, as quoted, is that the idea that the ideas one might use as a basis for an arbitrary moral code "only work if you already know that happiness, the species, and society are Good Things" seems to be confusing two different meanings of "work". They might not "work" in some philosophical-moral sense, and yes, there's a huge problem there if you're worried about the moral philosophy of your actions; but they might still "work" in the sense that you can build a functioning moral system out of them, and then build a functioning human society on the basis of that system. Which might well be the goal of some hypothetical amoral Orwellian-Hari Seldonish social manipulator.

The reference to beards was gratuitous, and I apologise for that. (Insofar as it had a basis, it would have been the likes of Michelangelo rather than any particular biblical passage.)

No postcards from Richard Dawkins yet, I'm afraid. Mine must have been lost in the post.

For Andrew Stephens: The phrase "the fallacy of the excluded middle" is just something I picked up in passing (okay, okay, it was from a Mike Carey graphic novel, o tempora o whatever), and which seemed descriptive enough. I don't actually have any qualifications in philosophy, so I'm afraid that I may misuse the jargon from time to time. Sorry about that.

Finding examples of societies which did, in fact, enjoin the slaughtering and eating of grandmothers from time to time, is left as something for another day. I have a nasty feeling that there have been some (or at least, some that came pretty close), and that the kernel of universally agreed moral precepts is pretty unpleasantly small when one gets down to it...

Andrew Rilstone said...

I provide this linke purely to bring home to readers the full horror of copyright infringement, and I leave it you own conscience about whether you can click on it in the full knowledge that you are supporting drug-runners and terrorists.

http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/lewis/abolition1.htm

Andrew Stevens said...

Phil: It turns out calling it the fallacy of the excluded middle must be popular somewhere, but it's awfully confusing since there are some people who believe the Law of the Excluded Middle is itself false.

There is a great variety, of course, in human societies. Bees are pretty much the same wherever you go and this is also true of almost all other animals. Humans are fascinating because of their endless variety. It is easy to concentrate on that and then come to conclude that there is no such thing as "human nature." There is an excellent book on the subject (though I do not endorse everything or even most things in the book), written by Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, called The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. In the book, he compiled a list of all sorts of behaviors which have been found to hold in every known human society. It is, in fact, quite a lengthy list. It should be pointed out that one of those commonalities is that all people favor kin over strangers. Many, perhaps most, cultures do not view members of "out-groups" as being worthy of the same code that applies within the culture. For example, the Aztecs only very occasionally sacrificed their own citizens (there was one Aztec a year who was sacrificed to Tezcatlipoca); most sacrifices were of captured warriors. I mention this because sometimes cultures are viewed as savage or barbaric based on how they treat other cultures, but this does not show they have no moral sense.

I think the closest you'll come to finding a culture which thought it was okay to kill Grandma is the Inuit who occasionally committed senilicide (the killing of their own old people). However, even this practice wasn't as heartless as it seems. It only occurred during famines, never during times of plenty, and the old were usually just abandoned. Even this was fairly rare; a much more common practice was when elders would ask to be killed (granting there might have been cases when the elderly were pressured to so ask), in which case the person asked was honor-bound to comply.

In any event, my own argument for an objective morality does not actually rest on how much human societies all have in common in their moral beliefs. Because I believe humans do have a moral intuition, I would be surprised if you could find a society that didn't seem to have it, but ultimately my argument rests on much more solid philosophical grounds. It is not the case that moral intuitionism predicts that all humans will agree on morals. (The faculty is fallible, for one thing, like all human faculties.) I do believe the amount of moral disagreement between cultures is greatly exaggerated by most people, often on the basis of slanders about little-known cultures which turn out to be false upon close examination. I have found very few cultural practices anywhere which I find entirely unjustifiable provided I accept their factual premises. (One of those premises would often be "people who aren't members of our tribe aren't really people and we should not feel bound to treat them as such.")

Phil Masters said...

Andrew R: That link seems to give me a "Not Found" when I cut and paste it. Is it incomplete?

Andrew S: The Pinker book sounds interesting; I should try and find time to chase it up some time. I listened to an abridged version of his The Language Instinct while I was down wit eye trouble a few months ago, and found that fascinating.

I'll believe that there are some more or less universally-agreed moral constants, but no, of themselves, they won't be evidence for any sort of abstract objective morality. At the risk of sounding scientistic, if they happen to represent good survival strategies for the genes of communities of omnivorous troop-living primates (e.g. the classical willingness to sacrifice oneself for three brothers or nine cousins), there's at least one other solid-looking explanation on offer.

Andrew Rilstone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Rilstone said...

http://www.columbia.edu/cu/
augustine/arch/lewis/
abolition1.htm

Andrew Stevens said...

Phil: That's Pinker's view of where morality comes from; I disagree. I have tremendous sympathy for that mindset, though. The problem with this view is that, as Lewis would point out, we now no longer have any good reason to believe in morality. In other words, it turns out that moral propositions are in fact all false.

Pinker tries to demolish three myths in his book: the Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine. He does a fantastic job on the first two (though anyone who has observed children really shouldn't believe the blank slate anyway). He was very disappointing on the third one. He essentially just assumed there is nothing immaterial about humans and proceeded from that assumption, offering no arguments and no evidence for it. I found this unfortunate because I have no solution for the mind/body problem either and I was hoping (though not especially) that Pinker did. At the very least, it doesn't seem that Pinker is an elimininative materialist. That insane opinion believes that consciousness is just an illusion. I'm not sure whether that's better or worse than the opposite insane opinion of Bishop Berkeley who said that all matter is an illusion and only consciousness exists. Oh, I found the list of human universals online at http://condor.depaul.edu/~mfiddler/hyphen/humunivers.htm (http://condor.depaul.edu/~mfiddler/hyphen/humunivers.htm) so you can give it a look without reading The Blank Slate.

My argument for objective morality is actually quite a simple one. I think it's entailed by the law of the excluded middle, the correspondence theory of truth, and a few simple observations.

1) There are moral propositions. (Uncontroversial)
2) They are each either true or false. (Law of the Excluded Middle, which is only mildly controversial.)
3) They're not all false, e.g. surely it is true that it's wrong to kill people just for the fun of it. (This is the premise that the moral evolutionists are forced to deny, though they usually try to weasel around it.)
4) So some moral judgments correspond to reality. (From 2 and 3 and the correspondence theory of truth.)
5) So moral values are part of reality.

As I said, 3 is the crux of the argument. If you produce an argument purporting to show that all moral propositions are false (i.e. they have no basis in reality), then I have to weigh the plausibility of your argument against the plausibility of the most certain of moral propositions. There is one such proposition, in particular, that I believe no argument can discharge that burden against. That proposition is "On the subject of the existence of moral values, we ought to believe only what is true." You will find that the most resolute moral subjectivist or skeptic has smuggled in this premise, i.e. he believes it too. And, moreover, he cannot stop believing it. So which is more plausible, our materialist prejudice that moral values are not a part of reality or that "on the subject of the existence of moral values, we ought to believe only what is true." Clearly the latter. That latter premise is self-evident and is a prerequisite for any rational thought. If this ends up giving aid and comfort to the theists, that's not my problem. I am interested in what is true, not what helps one side or another. (If I believed the existence of God was true, I'd convert to theism in an instant.)

I am not as convinced that Pinker is wrong about the "Ghost in the Machine." On some days, I'm a Cartesian dualist. On others, I believe, as Pinker does, that mental phenomena are, surprisingly, just a subset of material phenomena (the mind/brain identity theory). If I ever end up solving the mind/body problem, I'll let everyone know, but don't hold your breath. (It is, in my view, the greatest unsolved problem in philosophy. I am hopeful that science might eventually solve the problem. Pinker, unfortunately, clearly doesn't thoroughly understand the problem, meaning no offense to Mr. Pinker. There are a ton of scientists who believe they are qualified to speak authoritatively on philosophy. The fact that they are wrong is an insult only to their presumption, not to their skill or intelligence. Philosophy isn't easy and I don't know why scientists seem to think it is. Especially when one considers the mess that is the philosophy of science.)

Andrew Stevens said...

Width restrictions are giving me a problem on that link. Let me try again.

It's condor.depaul.edu/
~mfiddler/
hyphen/
humunivers.htm

Jez said...

Here's my own view on the matter...

1) There is uncertainty as to whether there is an absolute moral position.

2) People at different times have argued for a range of moral propositions, and many of these produce conflicting recommendations.

3) If there is a reality in which moral laws exist, but no-one in that reality knows for certain that those moral laws are absolute, or knows exactly what those moral laws are, that reality is functionally the same thing as a reality in which there are no absolute moral laws.

4) As such, there may or may not be absolute moral laws, but for all intents and purposes reality operates as if there weren’t. If parliament passes a law, but doesn’t tell anyone it just did so…


However, at the end of the day, I’m not sure if believing the above means a great deal, or if believing in moral absolutes means a great deal. People desire to see themselves as doing the right thing, or at least to be morally acceptable. That’s different from people being basically good. People are sometimes willing to rationalize their actions to justify doing the wrong thing. The lie to themselves about the effect of their actions, lie to themselves about their own circumstances justifying the theft, lie to themselves about the morality of the victim, or about the morality of the rest of society. They seem perfectly willing to do this whether or not they believe in moral absolutes.



So the point then becomes about the honesty and rigor of the process of determining the right thing, not in deciding whether or not the right thing is based on an absolute moral law.

Andrew Stevens said...

Jez: Yours is probably the most common reaction I encounter. Most people don't seem to really care whether moral realism is true or not. This is fine as far as it goes. I don't expect people to suddenly act more morally if I convince them with my argument. As you say, people will rationalize anyway. Whenever we have a case where A) the right thing to do is hard and B) the wrong thing to do is easy, even the best of us will often do the wrong thing. The best I hope for is that people will stop saying nonsensical things. However, I am going to straightforwardly deny your point #1 (and therefore also deny point 4; point 3 is probably false as well, but not relevant any more). My argument for moral realism is, I believe, true beyond a reasonable doubt. (I have yet to hear any reasonable argument against it.) If you're saying that I don't know it beyond all possible doubt (because there is an argument against it that nobody has thought of yet), then you're probably right, but now we have an epistemological conflict over whether that is, in fact, a reasonable standard of justification. (I believe it is not.) All of this essentially comes down to the error of skepticism, the idea that we cannot claim to know anything unless we know it infallibly. This is a self-refuting argument since no reasonable person can claim to know that infallibly. (I'm pretty sure it's false, for one thing.)

Jez said...

Andrew, my first point wasn't that clear, sorry. I was talking about uncertainty in society at large, not in individuals. You're quite right that individuals can be very certain as to absolute moral principles.

For the record, I'd say the only problem I have with your own set of propositions is that I'm really not sure what you're getting at. What exactly is the process of identifying which moral values correspond with reality? I don't want to speculate without knowing any more about it, but it does seem circular.

Andrew Stevens said...

Jez: Now that's an excellent question. I do not claim that the theory of moral intuitionism will answer moral questions for you or tell you exactly what the right thing to do is in every situation (or even any situation). What I'm saying is that we have a small number of bedrock certainties about which we have no (reasonable) doubts. The one that I use to knock down most moral relativists is "on the subject of the existence of moral values, we ought to believe only what is true." You believe this; I believe this; virtually everyone believes this (indeed, because we believe this is the reason why we're trying to get to the truth of whether moral values exist or not - so we can believe what we ought to believe). Most of us believe it without ever consciously realizing that we believe it. Since it is an ought statement, it is a moral proposition. I believe there are plenty of other such propositions about which we have no reasonable doubts. Most of these are banal (for obvious reasons) - things like "we ought not to kill people just for the fun of it," "honesty is a virtue (barring perhaps polite white lies)," etc. I'm sure one could find psychopaths, whose moral intuition is impaired, who wouldn't agree with these statements (though I'll bet almost all sadists and liars know what they're doing is wrong), but most of us have an intuitive sense that those propositions are true, not dissimilar to the intuitive sense that "the shortest distance between two points is a straight line." The only people who ever really think to doubt such statements do so, I believe, not because they really believe they're false, but for some other reason (like a dogmatic belief in radical materialism or a dislike of moral judgments or because they think the existence of these moral values is "mysterious" - on that last point, I think most theists agree with them, but I have never been able to follow the reasoning).

Note that I'm saying there are very few such self-evident propositions. There are plenty of controversial moral propositions, e.g. "abortion is wrong," "Tony Blair is an evil man," etc. None of these are intuitive. You may believe one or the other (or both) very strongly, but you have come to this belief through a process of reasoning, almost always with doubtful (usually factual) premises. Anybody who claims there is no reasonable doubt about propositions like that is either lying or mistaken. For example, the argument that abortion is wrong goes like this:

1) Killing an innocent person simply for your own convenience is wrong.
2) A fetus is an innocent person.
3) Therefore, abortion for convenience (i.e. as a form of birth control) is wrong.

Most pro-choice people deny factual premise 2 (usually with some form of "it is only a potential person and an actual person's convenience takes precedence"). Almost nobody denies premise 1. And almost nobody claims that 3 does not follow from 1 and 2. I have no answer for you on premise 2. I might have an opinion on the issue, but I'm not going to claim that I have no reasonable doubts about the opinion, because I do.

I can think of one moral proposition off the top of my head about which people seem to differ. That would be "the ends justify the means." Many people seem to have an intuitive sense that this is true; many other people seem to have an intuitive sense that it is false. As I said, the intuitive faculty (assuming it exists) is fallible. This is no reason to throw up our hands and say "Well, then, we can't know anything." It's just a reason to be careful about such judgments - to reflect carefully, to consider thoroughly, and to check your reasoning as well as your intuitions.

So moral intuitionism doesn't actually answer any difficult questions for you. Moral judgments, in controversial cases, are hard. That's why they're controversial. But moral intuitionism has the advantage of being true. When people disagree about morality, we observe that they argue with each other. People who are good at this will find some lower level on which there is not any disagreement and then argue up from there to what they believe, hoping to convince the other person. He might try to show his opponent that his opponent's position, if consistently maintained, leads to a counter-intuitive result. All of this agrees with moral intuitionism. I will even go so far as to argue that any (first-order) ethical theory assumes intuitionism is true and builds on it. (This was Lewis's argument in Abolition of Man, though he did not use the phrase "moral intuitionism.") The reason why almost all of them fail is because they pick and choose which intuitions they favor and disregard what they don't favor. Eventually, this leads them to a counter-intuitive result. (Utilitarianism, "the greatest good for the greatest number," famously leads to slicing up some number of innocent people against their will in order to harvest their organs to save the life of a brilliant doctor who will go on to save even more lives. Utilitarianism has ignored our intuition that individuals have value in and of themselves, and not just as a means to be used for the good of society. We may agree that "the greatest good for the greatest number" is a high value, but it is not the only value.)

Why is this important? The moral subjectivist (one who believes there is no moral reality outside of human consciousness) is stuck in quite a dilemma. If we assume that the moral sense evolved simply in order to preserve the species and has nothing whatsoever to do with any actual values in reality, we are left with no good reason to believe that preservation of the species is actually a good thing and therefore no good reason to act morally. So the moral subjectivist, to be consistent, cannot make any moral judgments at all. He can never say "we ought to do this" or "we ought not to do that" because he has admitted that he has no idea what we ought to do. Now, of course, he does say such things; he says them all the time. But it is clear that he has lost the right to make any such assertions. It would be very much like my saying, "It is impossible to know if the sun revolves around the earth, but the sun revolves around the earth." This is not a logical contradiction, but the first part of the assertion undermines the second part of the assertion.

By the by, I should be clear about what I mean by the "objectivity" of moral values. I mean that these values do not depend on the beliefs, feelings, opinions, etc. of the people who observe them. I believe that moral values inhere in states of affairs and different states of affairs have different values. Some people think that if one believes in "absolute morality," that means you are asserting things like "killing is always wrong under all circumstances for ever and ever, amen." I'm not sure anyone has ever believed this caricature. I hope it's clear that I certainly do not. Pointless killing is always wrong; killing with a point may or may not be, depending on the reason. So, while I say that morality is objective and call myself a moral realist, I try to avoid saying that morality is "absolute" since it seems to have misleading connotations.

I realize that my philosophy may ultimately be unsatisfying to some people. My answer to "what is good?" is "I can't define it, but you and I both know what it means." I suppose this is frustrating unless you realize that you really do know what "good" is. It's like color (or lots of other things) in that respect. I can't possibly define what "yellow" means to someone who's always been blind, but we sighted people know yellow when we see it. Analogously, it is possible that some people might exist who are "ethics-blind" (psychopaths, for example). The fact that they don't agree with self-evident moral propositions doesn't make them any less self-evident any more than it follows that the existence of blindness means colors don't exist.

By the way, I should point out that many of my arguments rely on the great minds who have gone before me - particularly H.A. Prichard and W.D. Ross and especially the great G.E. Moore and his monumental Principia Ethica. Robert Audi and Michael Huemer are probably the most vocal modern proponents of the theory. I do not claim personally to be anything but an amateur at philosophy, albeit someone with an unusual interest in the subject.

ts said...

1) There are moral propositions. (Uncontroversial)
2) They are each either true or false. (Law of the Excluded Middle, which is only mildly controversial.)


There are preferential propositions (e.g., chocolate tastes better than vanilla).

They are each either true of false.

Therefore Andrew Stevens is an idiot.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Mr T.S has started insulting contrubitors to my blog.

Therefore, I have switched "no anonymous messages" back on.

If Mr T.S insults anyone else, then all of Mr T.S's message will be deleted.

Please do not feed the troll.

Andrew Stevens said...

Take whatever action you feel is appropriate, Mr. Rilstone, but I have a very thick skin. I agree with you that politeness is a virtue. By the way, should anybody feel at any time that I am being rude to them on this blog (or anywhere else), please point it out to me immediately so I can apologize. I can, on occasion, be thoughtlessly rude myself (perhaps not on Mr. T.S.'s scale) or abrupt in my arguments. This is rarely, if ever, intentional. I do not make the mistake of thinking that people who disagree with me must be either stupid or evil.

Mr. T.S. apparently believes that moral propositions express nothing more than preferential propositions and also apparently believes that I have never considered such a view. He is mistaken on the latter point and, I believe, also on the first point.

Preferential propositions like "I like vanilla" are indeed either true or false. The statement "chocolate is better than vanilla" is more difficult (though still either true or false). Often this is used as a sloppy way of saying "I like chocolate better than I like vanilla" in which case it might be true. If one genuinely means "chocolate is better than vanilla," I have little difficulty in accepting that such a statement is false (perhaps only because I prefer vanilla). Again, Mr. T.S.'s argument, such as it is, rests on a denial of point 3. He believes all moral propositions are false in the same way that I accept that "chocolate is better than vanilla" is a false statement.

Presumably, Mr. T.S. believes moral propositions are equivalent to such preferential statements. E.g. when I say "x is good" what I'm really saying is "I like x." This appears to be false, though. It makes sense to say, "I like it, but is it really good?" but it does not make sense to say "I like it, but do I like it?" nor "It's good, but is it really good?" While I often like something because I think it's good, I do not think it's good simply because I like it. (Although perhaps the very egotistical might. I can think of lots of things which I like, but which, if pressed, I'll admit aren't good.) Thus, what we have here is a straightforward example of the naturalistic fallacy, the equation of "good" with "something I like." This is not what we mean by good and so it fails analytically.

Phil Masters said...

http://www.columbia.edu/cu/
augustine/arch/lewis/
abolition1.htm


Thanks for that - bookmarked. Just for reference, the way round the maximum width problem is probably to construct a proper hyperlink, like so.

Phil Masters said...

The problem with this view is that, as Lewis would point out, we now no longer have any good reason to believe in morality.

As I understand it, in science, the fact that a conclusion is distasteful or worrying isn't supposed to be a good enough reason to reject it. Isn't philosophy the same on that?

He essentially just assumed there is nothing immaterial about humans and proceeded from that assumption, offering no arguments and no evidence for it.

The question there would be why he should feel obliged to offer any such arguments. The idea that there is something immaterial about humans has a lot of history and some intuitive appeal, to be sure, but there's really no obvious reason why it should be adopted.

You say that the materialist position is "surprising", and perhaps I'd once have felt the same way. But since then, I've seen far too many complex, unpredictable behaviours emerging out of very simple systems to be surprised by the idea that something as incredibly complex as the human brain could generate something like consciousness.

At the very least, it doesn't seem that Pinker is an elimininative materialist. That insane opinion believes that consciousness is just an illusion.

I'd hesitate to call that "insane". Not very useful, perhaps. Whether consciousness is quite what it usually thinks itself to be might be a harder question.

Oh, I found the list of human universals online...

Thanks for that, too; interesting reading. (A working link would be something like this.)

I have to say, though, that an awful lot of these didn't look much like cultural or moral constants to me; many were either physical facts or necessities of human biology (pain, gestures, "socialization includes toilet training", "snakes, wariness around") or moderately interesting technical points about linguistic universals (face (word for), grammar, logical notion of "and"). There's also a lot of duplication ("emotions" and "fear", "incest, prevention or avoidance" and "sexual regulation includes incest prevention").

There is one such proposition, in particular, that I believe no argument can discharge that burden against. That proposition is "On the subject of the existence of moral values, we ought to believe only what is true."

Umm, well, I guess. It sounds awfully fine-sliced to me. Almost as much a matter of practical semantics as a moral proposition.

If we assume that the moral sense evolved simply in order to preserve the species and has nothing whatsoever to do with any actual values in reality, we are left with no good reason to believe that preservation of the species is actually a good thing and therefore no good reason to act morally.

That depends on what you call a "good" reason. Is some combination of aesthetics and personal pragmatism really so "bad"?

Andrew Stevens said...

Phil: Those are some good objections. Let me see if I can answer them for you.

As I understand it, in science, the fact that a conclusion is distasteful or worrying isn't supposed to be a good enough reason to reject it. Isn't philosophy the same on that?

Absolutely. As Lewis says in Abolition of Man, it may very well be the case that the true philosophy is one which leads to mass suicide. The problem is that we must reject what we all think of as common sense moral beliefs. These beliefs, things like "we ought to believe only what is true" seem to be about as certain as anything is. If you say to me, "But your position is inconsistent with my theories about how evolution and the natural world works," I have to ask myself which is more plausible - that it is false that "we ought to believe only what is true" or that your theories about how evolution and the natural world works are false. This is a pretty easy choice, especially when I consider that there isn't, in fact, even a particularly good argument in those theories the way they are normally presented to me. The argument boils down to "I don't know how to solve the problem of moral values. Therefore, they don't exist." Or "I think moral judgments have done a lot of harm. Therefore, all of them are false." (By the way, it's probably true that moral judgments have done a lot of harm, but they're the only thing in the world that has ever done anybody any good.)

G.E. Moore had a terrific argument to demolish the idea of external world skepticism. He would make a gesture with one hand and say, "Here is a hand." Then, he'd gesture with another and say, "Here is another." Then he'd say, "What are you going to say to me that is more certain than that I have two hands?" This, by the way, is an absolutely valid philosophical argument even though it appears to be a rhetorical trick. For a properly constructed argument, the following must be true: A) the premises must be more plausible than the conclusion and B) the premises must be more plausible than the denial of the conclusion. A is obvious. If the conclusion was more certain than your premises, you'd forget about your argument and just assert your conclusion. Why drag in an extraneous argument to support it? B is less clear at first, but is still true. If you argue from plausible premises to a conclusion which contradicts something more plausible than your premises, then it's clear that we must reject the premise which led to that conclusion, not accept the argument. For example, skepticism rests on some fairly plausible premises. For example, "In order to know something, you need a good reason to believe it." We're all inclined to accept that premise almost automatically. Eventually, it can be shown that it leads to a skeptical conclusion, i.e. "we can't know anything." Once you are led to this conclusion, it's obvious what the problem is. What reason do we have to believe "In order to know something, you need a good reason to believe it"?

The question there would be why he should feel obliged to offer any such arguments. The idea that there is something immaterial about humans has a lot of history and some intuitive appeal, to be sure, but there's really no obvious reason why it should be adopted.

You say that the materialist position is "surprising", and perhaps I'd once have felt the same way. But since then, I've seen far too many complex, unpredictable behaviours emerging out of very simple systems to be surprised by the idea that something as incredibly complex as the human brain could generate something like consciousness.


There are a couple of reasons. The most obvious is introspection. It doesn't appear that there is anything material going on in consciousness. This is the reason why people assumed for so long that it was something immaterial. Moreover, there is a real philosophical problem with how universals, which can be held in the mind, can be replicated by any material pattern. I'd refer you to St. Thomas Aquinas's proof of the immateriality of the soul. Forget the theology; it's a strong argument for why the mind is immaterial. This led to the philosophy of nominalism, the denial of universals, but my opinion is that nominalism just does not stand up to scrutiny.

As for the idea of emergent properties from complex systems, I believe it has a lot to offer and I wouldn't be at all surprised if that turns out to be the solution or else something roughly like it. This is why I was hoping Pinker could shed some light on the issue, but was so disappointed. If that does turn out to be the case, we still have to figure out exactly how the purely material brain is able to generate universals. However, it certainly seems to me that this is a soluble problem and it's just that I'm not clever enough to solve it. So far, nobody else has been either, as far as I know - perhaps someone will one day invent an abstract thinking machine and then we'll know. By the way, if anyone ever does, that will absolutely refute the idea that there has to be something immaterial about consciousness.

(By the way, I mentioned that I'm an amateur at philosophy, though I did study it some at university. My actual degree was in mathematics and computer science. I'm sometimes hard on scientists not because I don't understand and sympathize with them, but because I am sometimes appalled by the lack of rigor in their thought, filled with lazy philosophical assumptions they have not bothered to think through. This is probably because my natural sympathies are with the pure mathematicians and with the analytical philosophers where intellectual rigor is de rigeur.)

I'd hesitate to call that "insane". Not very useful, perhaps. Whether consciousness is quite what it usually thinks itself to be might be a harder question.

Eliminative materialism is a distinct opinion from the mind/brain identity theory. It states simply that common sense mental notions do not exist in any way, not that they can be reduced in some way to neurological states of the brain. Only a few people have ever claimed it. I believe it is an idea so stupid only an intellectual could believe it.

I have to say, though, that an awful lot of these didn't look much like cultural or moral constants to me; many were either physical facts or necessities of human biology (pain, gestures, "socialization includes toilet training", "snakes, wariness around") or moderately interesting technical points about linguistic universals (face (word for), grammar, logical notion of "and"). There's also a lot of duplication ("emotions" and "fear", "incest, prevention or avoidance" and "sexual regulation includes incest prevention").

You are correct. Pinker wasn't trying to argue for a universal morality, after all, just a universal human nature. Nevertheless, you'll see a number of constants. Rape is proscribed, murder is proscribed, sexual intercourse is usually carried out in private (i.e. in all cultures, sex is usually private, but some cultures have exceptions like fertility rituals), certain types of violence are proscribed, etc. (One of them is simply "moral sentiments.") It also has things like "consultation to deal with conflict" and "mediation of conflict" and others. Remember that Pinker is fighting against "neck-down Darwinism," the idea that evolution has everything to do with our physical appearance, but had no impact whatsoever on our brains (thus, the blank slate). Similarly, I'm fighting against the idea that there are no moral universals. I really only need to show one. Pinker's list gives me at least a dozen.

Umm, well, I guess. It sounds awfully fine-sliced to me. Almost as much a matter of practical semantics as a moral proposition.

Here I must strenuously disagree and this is fairly crucial to my argument. We have an idea of ethics and morality that it should always have something to do with sex or violence or whatever, i.e. "the big issues." But any time you say "you should do this" or "you ought to do this" or whatever, you are making a prescriptive statement, i.e. an ethical proposition. This is the nature of the whole "is/ought gap" and all of that. For the purposes of my argument, any prescriptive statement will do to justify it. In this case, I could rephrase it and talk about how "good" truth is instead, but the intuition isn't as compelling when stated that way. By the way, if you are a hard determinist who denies free will, you must also deny "we ought to believe only what is true" on the grounds that, since we have no choice in our beliefs, it makes no sense to talk about what we "ought to believe."

That depends on what you call a "good" reason. Is some combination of aesthetics and personal pragmatism really so "bad"?

Well, aesthetic judgments would all be false as well (though, of course, they could be true as purely descriptive propositions about psychological states). Pragmatism would also be false as a philosophy. (What goal should we pragmatically strive for? It's not even the case that "survival is good" or "we ought to survive." All of these statements are false.) All moral systems of any sort would be false. The reason why you do, in fact, act as if some moral system is true is because these common sense moral beliefs are so powerful and so compelling that you can't actually act in any way consistent with the belief that they're all false. In and of itself, this does not constitute an argument for my position since it's certainly possible we could have been programmed that way by evolution, but it does serve to show just how powerful the plausibility of moral beliefs really is.

Let us imagine, for the sake of argument, that everything scientism says is true. We are all just mindless automata, pre-programmed by evolution and our own genes with no free will and no moral reality. If it is true, why should we believe it? Why does anyone bother to argue for its truth? There is no moral reality so it is false to say "we ought to believe it because it's true." There are no values so it's false to say "we ought to survive and knowing facts about the world could help us to do that." Why do these people continue to take political positions and try to improve the world around them? Why do anything at all? And, in the end, their only answer can be, "I can't help myself because I'm a mindless automaton with no free will in a world without values, and I also am a particularly inconsistent and illogical automaton as well."

As I said, I believe my position is true beyond a reasonable doubt. Unreasonable doubts remain. If we reject reason as simply an illusion (without free will, for example, it certainly does seem to be the case that it's just an illusion), then I agree that we can reject moral realism as well. I am unconvinced that the rejection of reason will lead to a better world (not that that means anything anyway). But you can't reject reason, as I believe many scientists are doing, and then claim that you're the reasonable one. That I will not let stand.

I hope I haven't offended you with my argument, Phil. There is no doubt in my mind that you're a quite intelligent man with a strong regard for intellectual consistency, intellectual rigor, reason, truth, and, yes, moral values, even though you may not believe in them. I very much dislike the stigmatization of intellectual error, the idea that when people are mistaken on an issue, they must be "dim-witted" or an "idiot" or there's something morally wrong with them and I hope you don't take away from this discussion that I think that of you or anybody else who disagrees with me.

Phil Masters said...

Once you are led to this conclusion, it's obvious what the problem is. What reason do we have to believe "In order to know something, you need a good reason to believe it"?

Well, it's always conceivable that there's a knot of irreconcilable paradox at the kernel of reality...

It doesn't appear that there is anything material going on in consciousness.

It may not appear so to consciousness - but I'm hesitant to assume anything about the hardware from the behaviour of the software...

perhaps someone will one day invent an abstract thinking machine and then we'll know.

If someone built a comprehensive software model of a working human brain (to whatever level of precision you might demand), would you expect it to be conscious?

But any time you say "you should do this" or "you ought to do this" or whatever, you are making a prescriptive statement, i.e. an ethical proposition.

Well, if you're using "ought" sufficiently correctly. Replacing "ought" with "must, perforce, if you are to achieve any useful, satisfactory, or coherent results" might be interesting.

By the way, if you are a hard determinist who denies free will, you must also deny "we ought to believe only what is true" on the grounds that, since we have no choice in our beliefs, it makes no sense to talk about what we "ought to believe."

My feeling is that the idea of emergent properties from complex systems cuts the Gordian knot of free will vs. determinism. If you can't predict what a system will do by any method other than running the system, the system has the essence of free will. What does free will mean? That we can't predict what someone will do without being them, or at all, really, because they might change their mind. That the only way of determining the output of the system is to run it.

(Which is not to say free will is mere mathematical chaos. There's nothing mere about it.)

I hope I haven't offended you with my argument, Phil.

Course not. It's not like it's going to change very much that I'm going to be doing in the near future...

Andrew Stevens said...

Well, it's always conceivable that there's a knot of irreconcilable paradox at the kernel of reality...

Actually, that is literally inconceivable, but we'll leave that aside. "You must have a good reason to be justified in believing anything" is simply a self-refuting statement since there is no good reason to believe it. This apparent paradox is easily resolved by accepting that there are some self-evident foundational beliefs which do not rely on any other reason to be justified. This isn't that big a stretch since we assume it to be true when we first start to reason. The Law of Non-Contradiction and other basic laws of logic, for example, are just obvious. I agree that there have certainly been cases in history when people have accepted beliefs because "it's just obvious" and been wrong. But reasoning from that to the conclusion that it's never justified to do this is simply a hysterical overreaction to the fact that people make mistakes. Most of the great errors in thought in modern philosophy are because of similar hysterical overreactions. (We must not believe anything or else we may turn out to be, gasp, wrong. Well, maybe so. But I guarantee you'll be wrong thinking that way.)

It may not appear so to consciousness - but I'm hesitant to assume anything about the hardware from the behaviour of the software...

Certainly. I hope I'm not making too strong an argument for the immateriality of mental states. I believe it's an open question. I think it's deeply unscientific to simply assume it's false, however. Scientists have no evidence of any sort for their materialist philosophy. They certainly haven't proven the non-existence or logical impossibility of immaterial things or anything remotely like that; it's simply a prejudice. It may very well turn out to be true though, and frankly it's the way I tend to lean (because I share the prejudice). Because consciousness appears to be immaterial, we are prima facie justified in believing it to be immaterial. This is a defeasible justification, however, and I think neuroscience has provided us with reasons to think it might be defeated eventually.

If someone built a comprehensive software model of a working human brain (to whatever level of precision you might demand), would you expect it to be conscious?

I don't know. I honestly have no idea. If it was conscious, I would regard that as very close to proof of materialism. If it wasn't conscious, I would regard that as excellent evidence (but short of proof) for dualism.

Well, if you're using "ought" sufficiently correctly. Replacing "ought" with "must, perforce, if you are to achieve any useful, satisfactory, or coherent results" might be interesting.

I suppose that's fine as far as it goes. We still have to deal with "we ought to achieve useful, satisfactory, or coherent results." You're going to be stuck in an infinite regression like that until you grant a foundational moral premise which is true.

As for free will/determinism, I'm not tremendously interested in the issue since I'm a compatibilist. I believe that determinism and the kind of free will that matters to me (philosophically speaking) are compatible with each other. So my only disagreement is with the "hard determinists" who believe free will is impossible.

By the way, I should point out that there is a view which accepts the truth of at least some moral judgments, but denies the realist ontology. This is the so-called "quasi-realist" position, so named by Cambridge professor Simon Blackburn (an eminently sensible man from what I know of him), which is currently supplanting the anti-realist position. (It's not just me, after all, who thinks moral anti-realism is untenable and undermines rationality.) I think it has real problems (it seems to me you have to give up the correspondence theory of truth), but there are lots of philosophers working on trying to solve them. Perhaps they will one day. I am not nearly so bothered by the ontological commitments of moral realism as other people seem to be, any more than I am by the existence of beauty or gravity.

Andrew Stevens said...

At the risk of sounding scientistic, if they happen to represent good survival strategies for the genes of communities of omnivorous troop-living primates (e.g. the classical willingness to sacrifice oneself for three brothers or nine cousins), there's at least one other solid-looking explanation on offer.

This comment got me thinking. I have seen comments on both sides of the debate (though not on this blog) that if you believe in evolution, you must believe in moral anti-realism. I see this all the time and both sides seem to think it's a knock-down argument. Because a lot of people have attacked Darwinism ignorantly and unfairly, the Darwinians (and I am one) have become almost immune to criticism. So, at the risk of being accused of being some sort of fundamentalist Christian, let's deal with whether evolution actually does provide a sufficient account of human morality. Please keep in mind that I haven't actually given the issue a ton of thought before and so this is just a sort of rough draft of my thoughts.

Darwinism has, I hope we can acknowledge, a real problem in explaining altruism. This is not to say that no explanation is forthcoming. Phil's quote above is how the explanation usually goes and it's not a bad one. Basically, and I'm trying to be fair to it here so forgive me if I fail, they say that no one should be prepared to sacrifice his life for any single person, but everyone should be prepared to sacrifice it for more than two brothers (or offspring), or four half-brothers, or eight first-cousins, etc. It also seems to predict that altruism (or apparent altruism) towards siblings would be just as strong as the altruism (or apparent altruism) of parents toward offspring. (That's almost a direct quote from W.D. Hamilton.) It also predicts that every organism, including humans, will strive to maximize their numbers.

What problem do I have with this? None of these things appear to be actually true, at least not in the case of humans. Humans do not, as individuals, strive to maximize their numbers; it has been true in almost every civilization that wealthier people have had fewer children than poor people, despite their ability to support more of them. (The Emperor Augustus had to exhort Rome's upper classes into producing more children among countless other examples.) Darwinism should predict the reverse. (I freely grant that restraint in child-bearing can help maximize numbers, but it must seem strange that the economically successful always seem to produce fewer children than the people who can't afford to support more.) People do not have as much altruism towards their siblings as they do towards their children (and neither do most other social animals). We do not observe the genetic calculus predicted in actual reality. Do wolves actually sacrifice themselves for two brothers, but not for two first-cousins? I doubt it (and to be fair so did W.D. Hamilton - he was just giving a very good account of why altruism might have evolved at all).

I believe we did indeed evolve this moral sense because it helped us to survive (survival being a value), but it does not follow therefore that moral values don't exist. Our ability to judge distances was evolved to aid our survival. This does not imply that distances do not exist. We have lots of abilities which do not aid our survival (the capacity for complex mathematics, for one) which are extensions of abilities which did aid our survival. If evolutionary theory was sufficient to explain morality, it seems to me that nobody should see any value in sacrificing oneself for a stranger's child. I'd hesitate to say we all see the value in that, but I think most people do.

So that's my theory. Natural selection appears to be inadequate for a complete explanation of morality (though it probably is a complete explanation for immorality) and moral realism helps solve the problem. Of course, I do not claim that moral realism is needed to perfect evolutionary theory, just that the two are not incompatible. I seriously doubt I've convinced anyone here, but I am in a very small minority of moral realists who are also atheists, so perhaps I have done some good to bridge the divide by explaining to other atheists the case for moral realism without dragging in any theology or religious language and explaining to any religious people that atheism does not necessarily entail an "anything goes" morality.

Phil Masters said...

Basically, and I'm trying to be fair to it here so forgive me if I fail, they say that no one should be prepared to sacrifice his life for any single person, but everyone should be prepared to sacrifice it for more than two brothers (or offspring), or four half-brothers, or eight first-cousins, etc.

Sort of. But not quite.

The problem is that genes can't micromanage behaviour in every situation, even in simple animals, let alone in us. Actually, all genes can do is code for proteins (pace Dawkins, who's a wee bit prone to over-simplification on this sort of thing.) The rest is emergent behaviour arising from where those proteins end up.

Now, the statistical optimum behaviour from the genes' point of view is to get us sacrificing ourselves for small numbers of close relatives or large numbers of distant relatives. But how, say, do we recognise relatives, for a certainty? How do we deal with sneaky genes that make their carriers look like our relatives? And how do we assess relative risks, which should be another concern here?

That stuff is too complex and circumstantial for even very complex neurological genetics. So we get, in effect, rules of thumb ("blood relatives are things like the things with which we were brought up") and tendencies ("if it's screaming loud enough, it's probably in serious danger and we should react"). The behaviour that follows reduces fairly closely to sacrificing ourselves for two or three brothers or eight or nine cousins, but it's not some precise cause-and-effect mechanism.

It also seems to predict that altruism (or apparent altruism) towards siblings would be just as strong as the altruism (or apparent altruism) of parents toward offspring.

First, parents can be more certain that offspring have 50% of their genes than siblings can. (Well, mothers can be, anyway. Males have to develop behaviours to reduce this problem.) Adultery happens, in pretty much every species. (The "faithful mating for life" species turn out to have their share of sneaky lotharios whenever any naturalist looks closely enough.) And second, offspring usually have longer lives in front of them than siblings, with more mating opportunities. Hence, protecting offspring is a better strategy than protecting siblings. Though protecting siblings is a pretty good bet when possible.

It also predicts that every organism, including humans, will strive to maximize their numbers.

Nope. Not really. This is the whole point that Dawkins was making with the Selfish Gene stuff (though it got slightly obscured by a slightly unfortunate choice of adjective and the whole what-a-gene-does problem). Natural selection chooses those genes which survive, but there are a lot of ways of surviving.

There are two basic ways of doing this. Codfish and the bloody dandelions and sycamores in my back garden choose one; shunt all your energy into producing the maximum number of offspring, spread them far and wide, and assume that some will make it through. We take the opposite strategy to something of an extreme; produce a few offspring, at huge individual energy costs, and then bust a gut to make sure that they make it through to their own breeding phase. We even invented culture (in the biological definition) to ensure this. And the associated instincts even allowed for individuals who, for some reason, failed to breed; they can assist their relatives in ensuring the survival of their genes, propagate that culture, and so on. Failing to reproduce altogether when the option is present probably means that the genes have overdone things a bit, giving us such a strong drive for comfort and safety that we neglect the thing that's supposed to be the point of the exercise from the genes' point of view - but accidents happen. Genes aren't sapient, after all; they can only create tendencies which survive or fail to survive in the context of the moment.

Aside from The Selfish Gene, I'd recommend Robert Axelrod's The Evolution of Co-operation here, if you haven't already seen it. The tidbits of social history alone make it worth a look. One chapter is actually written in collaboration with W.D.Hamilton, funnily enough. (Axelrod is a political scientist; Dawkins apparently pointed him at Hamilton.)

Andrew Stevens said...

Phil,

An excellent and extremely thought-provoking response. I have read The Selfish Gene, of course, but not Axelrod's book. Of course I agree that genes can't micromanage such complex behavior. It still seems to me that any gene prone to sacrifice would exterminate itself pretty quickly out of the gene pool except perhaps for social insects. Don't get me wrong. As I said in my post, I don't believe I've shown (or anything approaching it) that evolution requires moral realism. The reason such a gene might have survived is because a sacrificial gene might do good for itself without actually being called to sacrifice, especially when one considers a different gene (or the same gene) for "reciprocity." I.e. since he risked his life for me, I now think he's a good person and will be more inclined to risk my life for him. (What we have here is an iterated prisoner's dilemma. Unlike a single prisoner's dilemma, where the best strategy is "always betray," an iterated prisoner's dilemma's best strategy is "tit for tat.")

Nope. Not really. This is the whole point that Dawkins was making with the Selfish Gene stuff (though it got slightly obscured by a slightly unfortunate choice of adjective and the whole what-a-gene-does problem). Natural selection chooses those genes which survive, but there are a lot of ways of surviving.

You missed the point of my statement. I remarked that every species, including humans, will strive to maximize its numbers. The examples you gave are just different strategies to maximize numbers, including restraint in breeding. It's still a number-maximization strategy. And I'm not sure your thesis actually explains the tendency of humans to produce more offspring in worse circumstances. We could, however, theorize that we adopt two different strategies - in comfort, few children and attempts to preserve them, in distress, many children in the hopes at least one or two survive. I know this doesn't make sense in a modern context, but perhaps it did in the context for which it evolved. I do think it's interesting to note how difficult accounting for human behavior is for evolution (e.g. the accidents of humans who won't breed at all), especially when you compare it to how easily it can explain the behavior of other species.

I concede the point on offspring and siblings, particularly in a species like ours with such a long childhood.

I still suspect that evolution would have a hard time accounting for all of our moral senses (and an impossible time accounting for all our moral conclusions, such as the value in sacrificing oneself for a stranger's child, but I grant the possibility that that's just an accident - however, I think moral realism explains that accident). But it doesn't particularly matter if it can. My main thesis here is simply that evolution is not in conflict with the existence of morality. As a mathematician, I see strong parallels between the laws of morality and the laws of mathematics. Try as you might, you'd have an awfully hard time convincing me that just because the skill to do mathematics evolved because it was useful to us, it therefore follows that mathematics is not actually true. The existence of mathematics is what convinced me that the "truth relativists" (people who believe all truth is relative) are, in fact, wrong. (I was one myself until about 15 years ago.) Mathematics is deeply embarrassing to them and they tend to just ignore it. I do not claim there are perfect parallels between mathematics and morality. For one thing, mathematics is easy. It wouldn't take me all that long to convince even the staunchest doubter that the fundamental theorem of calculus is true. Morality is much harder. Mathematical realism is just as "weird" as moral realism. (What the hell are these "numbers" any way?) As far as I know, only the truth relativists deny mathematical realism and they only do so out of willful ignorance. I've never been sure why scientists are willing to grant mathematical realism (although perhaps not all of them do) and then balk at moral realism just because the latter is more difficult. (This was the contradiction in the brilliant David Hume's thought. His empiricist philosophy is fine as far as it goes, but even he made an exception for mathematics, a curious exception with no motivation other than that it's obviously true.)

It's been great having this conversation with you. You've done a great deal to help me clarify my argument for myself. My belief in moral realism, I freely grant, comes from a deep instinct for reason. I really do believe that the arguments against moral realism (or something like it - I do not wish to rule out such new theories as quasi-realism) reduce to a reductio ad absurdum for reason. I.e. they lead to a contradiction and we must therefore conclude that reason itself is false. (In which case, I can no longer rely on mathematical realism as an analogy since it has no support other than reason.) This is unacceptable to me, but most people seem to have no trouble swallowing it and then continuing to reason as they have always done. I always try to insist that my worldview is genuinely free of such contradictions (that I'm aware of) so one doesn't have to accept that conclusion, but I know most people don't believe me (and I do not claim to know that with any level of certainty). I think they usually suspect that my philosophy, and all other philosophies, have a contradiction hidden in them somewhere as well if only they could find it. I do not believe this is true, but I understand that my worship of the Goddess Reason and Her Handmaiden Logic does not have universal appeal.

By the way, when I used to debate with fundamentalist Christians about evolution, I realized that they had a large psychological barrier to accepting the thesis. They believe that anyone who believes in evolution must approve of evolution. They look with horror at "Nature red in tooth and claw" and are appalled by the idea of "survival of the fittest." (I agree with them. Evolution by natural selection is brutal and unjust. This is why the eugenics people were just wrong.) It is, when you think about it, passing strange, though certainly not a contradiction, that evolution selected for creatures who would be morally repulsed by the mechanism that produced them.

Andrew Stevens said...

Here's a link making the religious case for preferring public morality over intellectual honesty. I believe the argument is unanswerable by, for example, Richard Dawkins. (He would be forced to argue, I think, that we can maintain public morality, but his answer has to rest on allowing some group of people to dictate our morality from on high, since there are no objective standards. Forgive me if I think this answer is worse than the religious one.) I believe my argument both A) rescues atheism from this argument and B) has the advantage of being true and therefore allows us to salvage intellectual integrity and public morality simultaneously.

Phil Masters said...

What we have here is an iterated prisoner's dilemma.

The Axelrod book is all about that subject, including the computerised contests which tested various strategies and kept being won by the simplest. It's worth a look.

We could, however, theorize that we adopt two different strategies - in comfort, few children and attempts to preserve them, in distress, many children in the hopes at least one or two survive. I know this doesn't make sense in a modern context, but perhaps it did in the context for which it evolved.

The nearest thing to a solution to this sort of question usually seems to involve applying game theory, which is one of those branches of mathematics that does sometimes (often) seem to throw up counter-intuitive results. I think it's various of Dawkins books that have discussions of some quite weird animal behaviours and features (peacock tails, antelopes jumping as high as possible vertically when pursued by predators) in terms of "advertising health" - an idea that turns out to hold up under mathematical analysis, despite sounding a bit barmy. (Or it may be a Stephen Jay Gould book or two...)

I do think it's interesting to note how difficult accounting for human behavior is for evolution (e.g. the accidents of humans who won't breed at all), especially when you compare it to how easily it can explain the behavior of other species.

Instinct interacting with self-awareness... does produce some odd results, doesn't it? Of course, whether self-awareness is much of a long-term species survival trait remains to be seen. It's just if it isn't, there's a problem about who gets to do the seeing.

Here's a link making the religious case for preferring public morality over intellectual honesty. I believe the argument is unanswerable by, for example, Richard Dawkins.

I have to admit, looking at it, that I keep wondering if it's a parody, or at least a reductio ad absurdam. When the religious case against evolution boils down to "It's probably true, but we can't be havin' with it", the fight is surely over.

But in any case, I suspect that Dawkins would simply reject three or four of the essential postulates.

(a) "Without such a guide, people naturally fall into depravity" - Oh, do they? Has this been properly tested? And even if they do, do they fall into worse depravity than some religious people manage?

(I suspect that Dawkins has a more optimistic view of human nature than me, by the way.)

(b) "Mark that, for the purposes of securing public morality, it does not matter whether the religion is true or not, but only that people believe and accept it." - But in the longer term, it does matter. A system built on recognised lies will collapse sooner or later (and the collapse will cause damage in itself). And evolution is out of the bottle now; creationists are notoriously willing to use the products of modern biological science, especially medicine, which really do often end up depending on basic Darwinian analyses. So you're going to have a society built on something which a lot of intelligent people know is a lie.

(c) "Let us further accept the maintenance of public morality as a necessity, one that has higher priority than the determination of truth." - Hmm. Good religious thinking, maybe, but not very Christian. So much for "The Truth will set you free".

(d) "The funadmental objection to evolution is to a concept underlying it, the notion that it is permissable to use rational thought to study life and that, where rational thought and religion come into conflict, rational thought takes precedence." - I thought that the last clause got nailed back in the Middle Ages somewhere, by some devoutly religious thinkers. But anyway, if you can't use rational thought to study life... Well, thanks for freeing up that hospital bed, because I may be needing it some time, and you can't in conscience use it.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phil,

I actually find the "advertising health" theory to be compelling on its face. I've never seen the mathematics you describe, but I have no reason to doubt them. Certainly, human standards of beauty are clearly health-driven.

I think you did rather miss the point of the article I linked to. The point is that, without objective morality, you have no reason to prefer truth and integrity. It's nothing but an irrational preference. You can, of course, continue to maintain it and nobody can gainsay you. But without objective morals, you have no argument whatsoever to convince people that they too should share your preference. And your own preference becomes highly questionable. Why settle for an uncomfortable truth when you can have a comfortable lie? Your desire for truth and intellectual honesty is, after all, nothing more than preferring chocolate to vanilla. I don't know about you, but I have never bothered to construct an argument for why one should prefer vanilla. This is, of course, the crucial point in my own argument. Lack of moral objectivity completely undermines reason. You continue to insist on using reason, but moral anti-realism has undercut its theoretical underpinnings. If you get rid of objective morality, you are no longer entitled to assume that the best argument is the true one.

By the way, I obviously agree that the hypothesis that people fall into depravity without religion is highly questionable. You might note that the author didn't even argue for the thesis. He admitted that he was just assuming it was true for the purpose of his argument. But it doesn't matter if it's true or not. Once we abandon objective morality, truth no longer has a compelling value, certainly not one we can argue for, and Dawkins no longer has any response.