Didn't intend to write this.

Intended to write about Christopher Robin.

Wrote this instead.

If you want to read the beginning of the argument, which I wouldn't recommend, it is in the comment section beneath my piece about coups and referenda.

S.K is arguing that if you are not going to obey a referendum there is no point in having one; and that indeed going against a referendum involves a patronizing disregard for the opinions of ordinary people.

I invoked a famous play by Ibsen as a counter example.

The play is set in a beach resort. In Norway. At the beginning of the play, a pretty girl is eaten by a shark. The chief of police, having consulted with all the top shark experts, decides to close the beach, because the shark is bound to strike again. But the people of the town, who make their living selling ice cream and running hotels, have a meeting, and the democratic will of the people determines that the pretty girl probably wasn't eaten by a shark, or that if she was, there is no reason to think that the shark will come back, and that if it does, it is almost certainly a vegan shark. The police chief obeys the will of the people and the next morning a little boy becomes the shark's dinner.

This leads the police child to his famous conclusion:

“The majority never has right on its side. Never, I say! Who is it that constitute the majority of the population in a country? Is it the clever folk, or the stupid? I don't imagine you will dispute the fact that at present the stupid people are in an absolutely overwhelming majority all the world over. But, good lord! — you can never pretend that it is right that the stupid folk should govern the clever ones.”

There is also syphilis. And an excellent score by John Williams. Or possibly Edvard Grieg.

Now read on:

The proposition is "we must always obey the voice of the people". Once you have had a plebiscite you have to obey it otherwise there was no point in having a plebiscite in the first place and democracy falls.

This is currently the only argument being made for Brexit. No-one any longer pretends that there is any practical case for Brexit. The only argument anyone is making for Brexit is the democratic principal

Ibsen's story about the shark is an example of a trolley problem—a concrete ethical dilemma intended to interrogate a supposed moral principal.

Lots of people say that they believe in "the greatest happiness to the greatest number". We have to act like the sailor who found that both his remaining ships' biscuits had been nibbled by disgusting insects, and chose the lessor of two weevils.

But it turns out that if you give them a concrete example, a lot of people no longer chose the utilitarian path. Suppose you are the signalman on a railway and suppose that a train-full of children is hurtling towards a cliff edge. As signalman, you can move the points and divert the train onto a different track. But unfortunately a pretty lady has been chained to the other track by her wicked uncle, the Hooded Claw, who wants to steal her inheritance.

Do you pull the lever?

Most people answer "no". They think that if they were actually in that position they would rather do nothing and let the kids die than do something and directly cause the death of the pretty lady.

This doesn't prove that utilitarianism is wrong, exactly but it does prove that at some deeper level most people are deontologists.

"Oh, but as a matter of fact, a German officer is not in the process of raping my grandmother."

"But as a matter of fact I am not the acting Captain of a Star Fleet vessel, and my best friend has not been taken over by the Borg collective, so the question doesn't arise.

"No, you are mistaken, I have never been down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and even if I have I certainly have never seen an injured man lying by the wayside, so it's a silly question".

"I have never stolen a loaf of bread in my life, and so far as I know there is no-one living who is my exact double and even if there is they are certainly not in any danger of being sent to the galleys in my place. It seems like a very unlikely set of circumstances, if you ask me."

Well, quite. But hypothetical questions are interesting precisely because they are hypothetical.

In Ibsen’s scenario Roy Schieder has to decide between acting on his own convictions and on the advise of experts and closing the shark-invested beach or following the democratically expressed will of the people and allowing it to remain open. I asked SK what they would have done in the police chief's situation and they wouldn't answer.

I deemed that "not answering the question" was the same as "not pulling the lever". The beach is left open. A small boy is eaten by a shark. 

What follows from this?

Should we say "The policeman did a bad thing by obeying the will of the people: he should have ignored it and done what the experts told him and what he personally believed was right."

Or should we rather say "The policeman did a good thing by obeying the will of the people because the will of the people is always to be obeyed without question. It is better that one child be eaten than that the will of the whole people be circumvented."

Do we say "We should obey the will of the people even though it is clearly stark raving mad. The law which says 'obey referenda' overrides the one which says 'prevent children from being eaten by sharks'."

Or do we say "We should obey the will of the people because as a matter of fact, the people can never be wrong or mistaken. The fact that the people want a thing is sufficient evidence that the thing is right, and if the facts say otherwise than the facts are undemocratic."

SPOILER: Everyone knows that we will in practice go with the last option. The people voted to let the little boy go swimming. The people are always right. It follows that there was no shark. It follows that no child was killed. Richard Dreyfuss was engaged in project fear. The dead boy is Fake News. The body you saw being pulled out of the water was a crisis actor. This is literally what would happen and what is already happening. That is the world we are now living in. That is the inevitable result of blind allegiance to the people's will.

Of course, Ibsen's conclusion that majorities are always wrong is not literally true. If it were then you could infallibly arrive at the right decision in all cases by having a vote and going along with the minority view. I don't think that is workable. In a multiple choice question, would you go with the second most popular option, or would you go with the option which had least votes? Or do you look at what the majority votes for and do the opposite? And anyway, pretty soon, people would be smart enough to work the system and refrain from voting for the position they agreed with. Like when Miles Morales deliberately got 0% in a test and the teacher realized that the only way of doing that was by knowing all the correct answers.

Anyway, the claim is not that the majority is always wrong, only that it is never right.

So: the example of the shark establishes that it is morally justifiable to disobey the will of the people when the will of the people is fucking stupid. (This would also apply in the case of, say, a health spa where the water was infected with tuberculosis. Just saying.) That is: there is at least one circumstance in which the will of the people should not be obeyed. So the proposition "the will of the people must always be obeyed" falls: the most we can say is that the will of the people must usually be obeyed, or that it must be obeyed except in the most exceptional circumstances, or in short that the will of the people must sometimes be obeyed and sometimes not.

So, very boringly, the question becomes "how do we find out that if this is one those cases where the will of the people should be disregarded?". And the boring answer is "By looking at the evidence; by asking hard questions of the experts; by applying our innate moral judgement and whatever moral authorities we believe in; by discussing it in great forensic detail in a committee or a court room."

A long time ago, about last Tuesday, none of this would have been necessary. We would not have had to introduce sharks and TB infested water and out of control trolley cars into the question. We would merely have pointed out that referenda would not have approved the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the extension of the franchise to women, or the abolition of hanging. In those far off days, no-one would have dreamed of saying that we should have carried on locking up gay people on general democratic principles. At least, no one worth paying any attention to. Nowadays populism is all the rage and it is only a matter of time before someone says that it was undemocratic of Wilberforce to abolish the slave trade until this drastic step had been approved by the will of the people as expressed in a referendum.

Interestingly enough, SK says that the hyper emotive question of capital punishment is one which it would be sensible and reasonable to put to a referendum. And indeed, people who like strangling people have been saying for sixty years, very probably correctly, that a referendum on the subject would result in a pro-strangling majority.

It seems to me that this is a desperately bad augment and demonstrates the exact problem why referenda are never a good idea.

Capital punishment, simply as such, does not exist. What exists are particular laws and constitutions which allow people to strangle other people under certain specific circumstances. If you repealed the 2001 Human Rights act and restored the death penalty for high treason, piracy, naval sabotage and impersonating a Chelsea pensioner, then you would have "brought back" capital punishment. If you repealed the 1963 murder act and restored the death penalty for five specific and rare categories of murder, you would have "brought back capital punishment". The state of California has capital punishment: it asphyxiates serial killers at the rate of about one a decade. China has the death penalty: it thinks nothing of shooting several hundred people for tax evasion and corruption every Monday before breakfast. A certain vocal minority of Boris Johnson's supporters thinks that Remain voters should be hanged, specifically from lampposts. (Which seems a little impractical. They ought to watch that film with Timothy Spall.)

So: you can't simply have a referendum on "capital punishment". So far as I can see you have two options. Either your referendum says "the next time the government reconsiders the criminal justice laws, do you give them permission to consider strangulation as one possible criminal penalty for certain crimes?" The government would then go away and look at all the arguments in favour of capital punishment, of which there are none, and say "We've had a very good look at this, but we've decided that the present system of life without parole being the worst possible punishment is working just fine."

The other option is for the government to have the long, boring discussion first, and to come up with a parliamentary bill which includes strangulation as one of the options. They could then ask the public to approve or disapprove of that specific law. So the question is not "in a general way, would you be okay with us occasionally strangling someone?". It would be more like "do you endorse section 53 of the criminal justice (strangulation) bill?".

I understand that this is how the Irish system works. They don't take a popularity poll. ("Gay marriage—love it or hate it?") They say "Here is a new law that the government has written, which changes the definition of marriage in the following way, with lots of dull small print about divorce and adoption and inheritance. Do you endorse or reject this new law?"

Now, the Irish system has the advantage of not being obviously insane. But legislation is by definition long, boring and difficult to understand: so you are asking Seamus Public to endorse or reject something he has probably not read. The MPs have spent hours and weeks and months in committees listening to evidence from lawyers and psychologists and people who have been murdered, and gone through the law with a fine-tooth comb to make sure that every single word makes legal sense. How is it sensible to give people who were not at the meetings the final say?

And then what happens next? Suppose the motion put before the Popular Will is, in effect, "go through Criminal Justice laws; delete 'life imprisonment'; replace with 'death sentence'." Does this bind all judges for the rest of time to hand down death sentences where they would previously have sent people to jail? If a judge hands down a lessor sentence, or accepts a plea of mitigation, or if the Queen or the Home Secretary commute a sentence, is the Daily Hate within its rights to say "Traitor! Enemy of the People! Hanging Means Hanging!" And what about five or ten years down the line? After the tenth or twentieth innocent person has been strangled? Is the government of the day entitled to say "we've looked at the evidence, this isn't working, we are going back to how we were before and sending murderers to prison"? Is the Daily Hate not allowed to say "the people gave you a one off irrevocable instruction to start strangling people: if you go against it you are an enemy of the people!"

Enemy of the People is the title of the play about the shark, incidentally, although most experts now think "a public enemy" is a better translation. There's also one with a duck in it.

There is more.

SK says that the question of capital punishment could reasonably be put to a public vote because it is a question without a correct answer. It depends on fundamental moral values, apparently. 

This is of course exactly what people who are on the losing side of an argument always say. No-one ever says "Oh, I am afraid I just have a gut feeling that the world is round and there is no way you can convince me otherwise, nor should you want to. We will just have to agree to differ." It is Tony Blair, when his positive case for invading Iraq falls apart, who says "I just happen to kinda feel sincerely that killing Saddam is the right thing to do, and only God can judge me." It is David Cameron when he has exhausted the sensible arguments in favour of first-past-the-post elections who says "This is not the kind of question that you can answer rationally. I just know deep in my heart that single transferable vote is unBritish".

I reject the idea that one's support for or opposition to capital punishment necessarily rest on unarguable moral assumptions. I think that one can demonstrate that capital punishment is wrong in principal and useless in practice by the use of logic, evidence, moral principles, and common sense. Hanging enthusiasts would doubtless wish to point out flaws in my logic, challenge my evidence, and cast doubt on my moral principles: this precisely proves the point that it is the sort of question about which you can have an argument. (It was Prof Lewis's go-to example of "a question on which good people can disagree", a thing which is "not certainly right, but not certainly wrong either".)

It may perhaps be true that some people maintain their support for or opposition to capital punishment regardless of the arguments one way or the other. This may be what SK means by "fundamental moral values". One guy says "I know that capital punishment has no tendency to reduce the murder rate; is more expensive than prison to administer; and will certainly result in the killing of many innocent people; but I don't really care, I just kinda like the idea of bad people getting strangled." The other guy says "I know that natural justice and retribution are sound moral principles; I accept that some people are so wicked that they will never reform and I concede that killing someone is hardly less cruel than incarcerating them for life, but I don't really care, the idea of the state employing someone to ritually strangle other people disgusts and appalls me." If anything, these are aesthetic premises rather than moral ones. I think that killing someone in cold blood is ugly; you think that the suffering of a bad person is beautiful.

You might, I suppose, go a stage further and say that all of our so-called-arguments are really only ever post-hoc justifications for our aesthetic preferences. You say that you are concerned with deterring crime, but really, you just have a gut level liking for hanging people. I say I am concerned with the possibility of killing an innocent person, but really, I am just squicked out by the idea of executions. It might even be that all arguments are like that. We just as well abandon all that pesky evidence and logic and vote with our guts.

That's another reason why referenda are so dangerous. In order to justify them we have to reduce complicated questions to gut feelings and then say that gut feeling are the only feelings which matter.

I think this country has had quite enough of experts.

I agree with A. J Ayer that moral questions can't be answered in a vacuum. The question "Is capital punishment right or wrong?" is literally meaningless: you have to ask "Is capital punishment right or wrong according to Christian morality?" or "according to the universal declaration of human rights?" or "according to the principle of the greatest good to the greatest number?" So it might be that after carefully weighing up all the pros and cons we find that I am opposed to capital punishment because I am a Christian, and you support capital punishment because you are a utilitarian. But it doesn't follow that no communication is possible and we might just as well have a straw poll and find out whether my lot outnumber your lot. We could have a grown-up discussion about whether our present constitution requires us to base our decisions on Christian or Utilitarian principles; and if that fails; about how we decide which set of principles should be enshrined in the constitution; and whether that is itself an ethical question, and so on "back to the original and highly controversial creation of the universe".

But perhaps there are "beliefs" which are even deeper and holier and more axiomatic than "I am a Christian", "I am an humanitarian", "I am a Tottenham Hotspur supporter." Perhaps we are looking for a unified field theory of morals. If you say "Anyone who has killed anyone else must be killed", I can say "And why do you think that?" If I say "No-one should kill anyone else under any circumstances", you can say "And what would happen if everyone agreed with you?" Perfectly good questions with perfectly good answers. As long as you can carry on asking questions, you haven't got to a first principle. Why is the sky blue? Because of the way the atmosphere refracts the visible spectrum. Why does the atmosphere refract the visible spectrum in that way? Because of the chemical properties of the gases which it is composed of. Why is the atmosphere composed of those gasses...

But if we keep digging for long enough, perhaps we will discover some fundamental bottom level gut
level archetypal irreducible heartfelt foundational beliefs that can never change or be questioned. Maybe it is like, I don't know, gender, or your True Name: a thing which is part of you on the inside and which no one else can know or challenge. The Bishop of Woolworths talked about The Ground of Our Being and said that these irreducible heartfelt foundation beliefs are what we are really talking about when we talk about God. And perhaps your fundamental bottom level gut level archetypal irreducible heartfelt foundational beliefs are different from my fundamental bottom level gut level archetypal irreducible heartfelt foundational beliefs. Perhaps my FBLGLAIHFB says that what is ultimately of value is Freedom. And perhaps your FBLGLAIHFB says that what is ultimately of value are Extensive Collections of Different Varieties of Rare and Exotic Newts.

Newts versus freedom.

Freedom versus newts.

Across such a chasm there can be no further communication.

Whereof we cannot speak thereof we should be silent.

I'm done.

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)


Stephen said...

"This would also apply in the case of, say, a health spa where the water was infected with tuberculosis. Just saying."


Andrew Rilstone said...

Thanks. I am pleased at least one person understands my nonsense.

James Lynn said...

In, the shark example, there are a number of technocratic questions: is there a shark? will it return? will it eat people? would closing the beach keep people out of the sea? are there other things we could do that would mitigate the risk? These should be decided by the experts: in this case the shark experts and the police chief, acting together, seem best placed to decide. But there is also an overriding political question: Should we allow a risk to the lives of poor people to prevent rich people from taking actions which will make them money? It seems to me that this should be decided democratically (and ideally in the affirmative). Given the assumptions of the film^H^H^H^Hplay the answer to this political question will determine whether the beach should be closed. But, noting that I am not an historian, I think that it was well into the 19th century before the UK started giving answers to this question that I agree with. It may be that limitations on who had the vote meant that the early decisions were not made democratically: again I'm not an historian. But, you reference the US gun control debate in your piece, where the democratic answer to the analogous question still appears to be no. Although democracy in the US gets this wrong, I can't think of a better way to answer the question, other than delegating all such questions to me: and I suspect that many Americans would object to that.

I can't see any reasons to answer the democratically relevant question at the town level rather than the national level, so none of the relevant questions can be decided by the will of the townspeople. Therefore we shouldn't hold a referendum: S.K. is right that you shouldn't hold referenda that you are going to ignore.

On the question of direct versus representative democracy. I agree that it's generally better for decisions to be made by people who've been briefed by experts and thought about the effects of their decision. However, there's another major difference between direct and representative democracy that you don't seem to have considered. Because representative democracies end up with voters picking a party, a minority that really cares about a subject can effectively outvote a majority that doesn't care about it very much. In that situation it makes sense for a party to endorse the minorities views. They can then pick up more voters from the minority that really cares about it than they lose from the majority for whom it's a minor concern. When they get elected the minority gets its way. I don't know which of these effects resulted in the progressive victories from representative democracy that you describe.

Returning to the Brexit referendum, the decision to hold the referendum was one of those where a minority captured a political party to get its will enacted. In 2015 something like 10% of the population thought that the relationship with the EU was one of the most important issues facing the country. If we'd had a referendum to decide which topics were worth devoting this much attention to then we wouldn't be in this mess. But the 10% that cared captured the Tories, and here we are.

Finally, the results of a leave vote in the referendum were entirely foreseeable, although not, to the best of my knowledge, foreseen. No competent government would have held the referendum we had, because of the high risk that, if leave won, we would end up where we are, unable to find a way to leave that parliament can support, but unwilling to defy the referendum and remain. If we were going to hold a referendum, we should have required the leave side to pick a specific way of leaving first. Note that none of our representatives seem to have made this point at the relevant time, which rather weakens the 'its better to have well informed people make the decisions' argument for representative democracy.

Andrew Stevens said...

When I say, "Torturing a small child just for the fun of it is wrong," I do not mean to refer to any system of morality. I am not saying it is wrong within Christianity - though it might be - or that it is wrong in Utilitarianism - though again, it might be. I am saying that it is wrong, full stop.

Ultimately you do in any discussion hit a FBLGLAIHFB, but this ought to be something that nobody and no major moral system seriously dissents from (except perhaps psychopaths) such as "courage is a virtue" or "we ought to believe what is true." It certainly isn't anything as complex as "Anyone who has killed anyone else must be killed" or "No-one should kill anyone else under any circumstances." You will find, in most discussions, that you rarely have to go as far back as first principles. Most moral disagreements are actually disagreements about facts and only rarely about moral principles.

Anyway, Ayer was wrong and Lewis was right. It is not the case that asking "is capital punishment right or wrong" is literally meaningless. It is plainly meaningful. I think your view basically boils down to Error Theory. I.e. we mean to be referencing an objective morality with our moral statements (and again, at least sometimes contra Ayer, we obviously are), but there is no objective morality so it's all an error and a mistake. Error Theory is not obviously wrong, though I believe it is.

Andrew Stevens said...

To give an example, "If you make a promise, then you ought to try to keep it." This is a self-evidently true moral proposition. As W.D. Ross says, "the nature of the self-evident is not to be evident to every mind however undeveloped, but to be apprehended directly by minds which have reached a certain degree of maturity, and for minds to reach the necessary degree of maturity the development that takes place from generation to generation is as much needed as that which takes place from infancy to adult life."

I am arguing that "if you make a promise, you ought to try to keep it" would be true in any society or, indeed, in any possible society. It is both self-evident and necessarily true in any society or indeed any universe which contains moral actors. It is possible to imagine a society in which no promises are ever made, but I maintain it is impossible to imagine a society where promises are made but the society believes that the promise-maker is under no obligation to try to fulfill his promise.

I liken moral propositions to epistemological propositions or mathematical propositions and deny that they are any more mysterious than those. For what it's worth, we know through surveys that the majority of professional philosophers agree with me on the broad strokes (if not the details). Moral philosophers are particularly inclined to agree with me. I believe this is mostly because all philosophers and all laymen can see that the "problems" of moral philosophy also apply to epistemology, but virtually no one denies that there is such a thing as epistemological truth. I attribute the popularity of moral nihilism to an unconscious double standard. People wish to make moral judgments on other people (so they then apply their moral realist principles), but also wish to evade moral responsibility themselves (so they then back into moral skepticism or moral nihilism in that case).

Andrew Rilstone said...

Well, until well into the 20th century, school children were routinely subject to punishments which would certainly be regarded as "torture" if they were inflicted on criminals today. And a fairly large number of people seem to think that this was quite a good idea and only stopped because of health and safety gone mad, etc etc.

Contributors to the British press were very specific about what they thought ought to be done with Robert Thomspon and Jon Venables.

I believe that children have been subjected to the more tortuous forms of the death penalty in the United States in living memory.

A lot of people think that if there was a ticking bomb hidden somewhere in New York, it would be okay to torture the person who knew the location, and his family, and his children in order to ascertain the location of the bomb.

And clearly not everyone who says or does these things is a sadist or a psychopath: so evidently the insight that torturing children is wrong "full stop" is one that has been vouchsafed to you but not to the whole human race. (Unless, of course, it is simply a tautology. If we define torture as "that form of treatment to which no child should be subjected" then it is trivially true that no child should be subjected to torture.)

I suppose in fact you must have a series of incontestable intuitions -- hurting people is bad; it is sometimes okay to do bad things for good reasons; the badder the bad thing is the gooder the good reason must be; doing bad things to children is worse than doing bad things to grown ups. But the places where the lines are drawn is highly contestable.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Indeed, Socrates. And suppose I have taken an oath to always obey my commanding officer, and my commanding officer tells me to start killing civilians.

When you took the oath, there was an implicit reservation that it would not apply if your commanding officer told you do things which were against the traditions of the British army.

And suppose I have made a promise to remain faithful to my husband for my whole life, and he has started to beat me and spend time with other women.

It is bad thing to break your wedding vows; but a circumstance can occur in which keeping them would be a greater evil than breaking them. Everyone who enter into marriage knows that there is in practice a legal process through which they can be released from their vows.

Suppose I met a stranger on a train and frivolously promised to help him murder his mother.

Murder is a much greater sin than oath-breaking; and because you are honourable man, the stranger knew that the promise was not intended seriously.

It seems to me that you are saying that you can break a promise if it would require you to do something dishonourable or illegal; and that a promise to do something wicked or dishonourable does not count; and that you can break a promise if the results of keeping it would be very bad indeed, or if the external circumstances have changed. That is to say, you should keep your promise so long as there is not a very good reason why you shouldn't; or in short, that you should sometimes keep promises but sometimes not. And since presumably you would obey your commanding officer automatically if he commanded you to do something sensible and honourable; I do not understand what this thing called "keeping a promise" amounts to.

Also: Machiavelli.

Andrew Stevens said...

W.D. Ross's hierarchy of duties resolves all of these things. Ultimately, you can also convert it to a kind of utilitarianism, in which you are trying to maximize the good properly defined, and it can probably be converted to a kind of virtue ethics as well. At least, that's my general theory on how to reconcile deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics so that all three are actually aiming at the same goals.

All of your examples are simply appealing to higher orders of morality and with no reference to Christianity (you are not quoting the Bible) or utilitarianism (I see no evidence that you've been doing utility calculations), not denying morality at all. In other words, I suspect that you actually agree with me and just don't know it.

Andrew Stevens said...

I deliberately said "torturing children just for the fun of it." You may suspect that that was the motivation for corporal punishment, but I would be willing to bet 9 times out of 10 that the stated purpose (instilling discipline) was actually the real reason for it and that is not at all clearly wrong. As for those cases where it was done just for the fun of it, that is clearly wrong. As I said before, I expect only a sociopath, incapable of making the moral/conventional distinction (and believing all morality is simply a matter of convention), would dissent from that.

And, yes, I believe there is no algorithm to solve moral dilemmas and that's why there is as much disagreement as there is. Some people are better than others at it - some perhaps purely out of instinct, others out of logic and reason. But I do believe determining the correct morality in all cases is extremely difficult and requires a great deal of wisdom and judgment.

Andrew Stevens said...

There is a common belief that the existence of moral disagreement means there is no fact of the matter. But of course people differ in their ability to do mathematics and come to different conclusions and nobody thinks this means there is no fact of the matter. It has always seemed to me that the "argument from disagreement" can be used against virtually all knowledge, not just moral knowledge. In fact, it can even be used against itself. (I disagree with it, for example.)

Andrew Stevens said...

So that there is no misunderstanding, I know that you said in the above post that you don't make the moral/conventional distinction, I know for a fact that you can and have. I certainly don't think you're a sociopath.

Andrew Stevens said...

"He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes."

"Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die."

It seems to me that a man who only recognized morality because he was a Christian could not be so opposed to corporal punishment.

Andrew Stevens said...

I adore Freddy Ayer, by the way. One of my heroes. How many people have the intellectual integrity to admit in their old age that virtually everything which brought them honor and fame as a young man had been wrong? Ayer may be the only one I can think of. Maybe Wittgenstein as well?

Andrew Rilstone said...

Point 1
"Christian Ethics" is not the same as "wot the Bible sez". Perhaps it ought to be, but it isn't. Saying "It's in the Bible, so Christians must believe it" is a Dawkensian fallacy.

Point 2
Solomon was in favour of whacking kids, but look how Solomon's kids turned out.

Point 3
"Rod" presumably means "measuring rod" from which we get the word "canon" (and, indeed "cannon"). So the message of Proverbs is not "hit your child with a stick" but "keep testing him against the canonical texts of scripture." (This may possibly be considered a bit of a stretch.)

Point 4
I said that I tend to agree that a question like "Is euthanasia ethical or unethical" considered in a vacuum is unanswerable. You have to say "Is euthanasia ethical or unethical according to Christian ethics, or utilitarian ethics, or humanist ethics, or some other kind of ethics." This isn't the same as saying it is meaningless. "Is an Ace a good card or a bad card?" is not a meaningless question, but it does beg the answer "It depends if you are playing poker or rummy." But I think you slide too quickly from my "you have to judge morality within a particular ethical system" to "people only recognize morality because they are Christians." That certainly isn't the point I was making.

Point 95
I am not sure that I am particularly vehemently against corporal punishment. It's better than some things and worse than others. I think the quasi-judicial whackings that were still going on in English comprehensive schools in the 1980s were rather creepy, although I certainly don't think that all the teachers were sadists. Merely all the PE teachers. I am sure it is one of the things Boris will bring back after Brexit, along with hyper-inflation and rickets.

Andrew Rilstone said...

You know quite well that I have no formal philosophical training, so if you try to overwhelm me with lots of technical terms, one or other of us is going to take umbrage and leave.

Gareth McCaughan said...

Andrew S, is it possible that you are confusing A J Ayer with Anthony Flew? I don't recall that Ayer admitted that he'd been wrong about almost everything, whereas Flew sort of did. (Though it's at least arguable that when Flew changed his mind he was going senile and his intellectual decline was cynically exploited by the people who persuaded him to change his mind.)

Gareth McCaughan said...

Andrew S, I think it is unseemly to make arguments of the form "someone who sincerely disagreed with X would be a sociopath. I'm sure you're not a sociopath, are you?".

Sociopathy is a psychological condition consistent with any set of beliefs. Moral non-realism is a metaphysical position consistent with any set of personality traits. It is perfectly possible to be a moral nonrealist without being a sociopath. (Anyone who disagreed with that would be an idiot, and I'm sure you're not an idiot, are you?)

Gareth McCaughan said...

Andrew S, I agree (I think) that any plausible moral system disapproves (all else being equal) of making promises and not trying to keep them. And of torturing small children for fun. And I agree (I'm sure) that pretty much everyone has some sort of moral intuition that delivers approvals and disapprovals of things, and that pretty much everyone's moral intuition disapproves of those things. None of that has much bearing on the question of just what if anything those near-unanimous disapprovals tell us. There are some smells (say, that of methyl mercaptan) that almost everyone finds extremely unpleasant. Does that compel us to conclude that good-smelling-ness and bad-smelling-ness are fundamental aspects of the machinery of the universe? I don't think so, and it's similarly not obvious to me that we can or should go from "almost everyone feels disapproval at X" to "X's wrongness is an objective fact independent of our disapproval of it".

Perhaps something stronger is true about promising: that it's actually incoherent to postulate an institution of promising that isn't regarded as morally binding. Perfectly plausible, but it tells us nothing about e.g. how credible moral nonrealism is. (I claim I can easily imagine a society with the following properties: its people make moral judgements; they universally hold that these judgements are subjective evaluations rather than perceptions of objective fact; they make promises; everyone disapproves of breaking promises; promise-breakers are the objects of universal moral disapproval; no one thinks this disapproval reflects the fundamental structure of the universe. So far as I can see, the institution of promising would work just fine in such a society.)

Andrew Stevens said...

Not my intent by any means. If I lapse into jargon, it's mostly because jargon serves a purpose - it gives a quick way of expressing a complicated thought - and I generally assume with the modern internet that people can pretty quickly figure out what I'm saying. I.e. I am leaning on the internet as a crutch to explain the terms that I am using, but that does unfortunately demand a lot from the reader. It is unfortunate that jargon also constitutes a barrier to entry. Philosophy is really quite fascinating, but in order to discuss it with any facility takes a lot of research.

Andrew Stevens said...

Oh, he most certainly did. See the Wikipedia link on Language, Truth, and Logic. Quote from it: "However, Ayer himself later rejected much of his own work. Fifty years after he wrote his book, he said: 'Logical positivism died a long time ago. I don't think much of Language, Truth and Logic is true ... it is full of mistakes.'" He also gave an absolutely charming interview on Bryan Magee's program in the mid-80s where Magee asked him what the main defects of logical positivism were. He responded, "Well, the main defect is that nearly all of it was false." And then he laughed.

Andrew Stevens said...

I take as the distinctive mark of a sociopath the inability to make the moral/conventional distinction. They aren't just pretending that they can't make the distinction; they really can't make it. A moral nonrealist is almost never a sociopath; he's just pretending he is. But in fact he can make the moral/conventional distinction and does all the time. He knows that laws against, say, public nudity are matters of convention while laws against murder are matters of morality. If someone is a sociopath, then of course he would be a moral nonrealist and I couldn't possibly convince him otherwise. He really can't see the difference. But I'm betting every single person reading this comments section does see the difference between what is wrong by morality and what is unacceptable by the conventions of one society.

Andrew Stevens said...

If morality is determined entirely by convention and the rules of one's society, is it even coherent to argue that the laws of one's society are wrong? I totally believe Mr. Rilstone's argument is true for a number of different things. When I am arguing that an action by the President of the United States is unconstitutional, all I am saying is that he is acting against the existing legal framework. I'm not saying he is wrong, full stop.

But when I am saying, for example, that American methods of policing are wrong and recklessly dangerous, I am not appealing to the laws of my society or any outside moral framework for my opinion. I am saying I have weighed the moral premises and the empirical evidence and have decided it is objectively wrong.

I believe there are indeed foundational moral principles which are self-evidently true. All I have to do in order to see their truth is think about them. We also have intuitions, perhaps natural or perhaps put there by society, which seem very strong, but are not self-evidently true. It is not self-evident that urinating on one's mother's grave is wrong, though I imagine that everyone (including myself!) would feel a deep revulsion for anyone who did that. But it is possible to imagine a society with customs or conventions in which this was a sign of the deepest respect. It is not self-evident that killing someone is wrong! You have to work your way up from more foundational principles to reach that point, though most people do this pretty automatically (probably as a result of social conditioning). And, in fact, killing someone isn't always wrong (but then there are very few things which are always wrong).

I am not talking here about aesthetics (good-smelling-ness). We also make a moral/aesthetic distinction. I don't think everybody should like early Doctor Who just because I do nor do I believe that the people who don't like it have any deficiency. If you said you hated the smell of honey, I would note it as an interesting biographical detail and move on with my day.

Moral self-evidence is available to us, as developed moral beings, by considering the proposition in question. It is not a matter of an unreasoned reaction (such as liking a smell) or a visceral emotional reaction (such as disgust - see my earlier example). This is why most philosophers accept moral realism. The propositions of epistemology (how we know what we know) are no more verifiable than the propositions of morality, but no one rejects them (and, if they do, then this whole conversation is impossible).

Andrew Stevens said...

The problem with the evolutionary view (that moral propositions appear self-evident to us because we evolved to have them) is that all immorality was instilled in us by evolution as well. Why and how do we approve of those instincts which we label "good" and disapprove of those instincts which we label "bad"? The evolutionary view tells me that my instinct to run into a raging river and save a child from drowning is a result of pro-social "inclusive fitness." But surely my cowardly instinct not to run into the river in order to preserve my own life is also a result of evolution? Why do we think one good and one bad? If it's all a matter of "inclusive fitness" of genes, why do I think the person who runs into the raging river and saves a complete stranger has done a good act? Shouldn't I think he's a sucker because he risked his life and isn't even benefiting his own genes since the child was unrelated to him? (I think Richard Dawkins may actually believe this.)

Andrew Stevens said...

More simply, what I am saying is that the moral nonrealist position is tantamount to saying that sociopaths are right. If the moral nonrealist position is true, sociopaths are the ones who are seeing reality correctly and it's all the rest of us who are blinkered and unable to see that the moral/conventional distinction is all hogwash.

Andrew Stevens said...

I have no interest in whether euthanasia is ethical or unethical by Christian ethics, utilitarian ethics, or humanist ethics. I want to know whether euthanasia is ethical. So I think about the matter. I consider the moral premises involved, the empirical evidence, and so forth, and then I reach a conclusion. When I do so, I might then argue for my conclusion in the hopes that whatever convinced me, one way or the other, might also convince other people. I think this is what most people do, "WWJD" notwithstanding.

Andrew Stevens said...

You mention Antony Flew so I should probably mention (in case it isn't obvious) that I am an atheist. I agree with this Lewis quote: "The Tao, which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or…ideologies…all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they posses." I believe, for example, that this is a perfect description of utilitarianism.

Where I disagree with Lewis is that his argument for the existence of God from the existence of morality (the "argument from morality") does not go through. If it does, then one doesn't need morality. Mathematics will do, the laws of physics will do, etc. (To be fair to Lewis, he probably did think those things work as well, but knew they don't convince people while the existence of objective morality seems to do so.) I don't actually find the existence of objective morality any more mysterious than why there is something (including God if he existed) instead of nothing.

Andrew Stevens said...

Perhaps something stronger is true about promising: that it's actually incoherent to postulate an institution of promising that isn't regarded as morally binding. Perfectly plausible, but it tells us nothing about e.g. how credible moral nonrealism is.

Here I disagree. I believe it tells us that moral nonrealism is false. A moral nonrealist is required to deny the proposition "If you make a promise, then you ought to try to keep it." I maintain that denying it is incoherent and therefore any theory which requires a person to deny it is false.

Andrew Stevens said...

A moral nonrealist has to say that even if you make a promise, you have absolutely no moral obligation to keep it (though also no moral obligation to break it). Morality doesn't exist! That's the whole premise of moral nonrealism.

Andrew Stevens said...

Oh, another reason why I adore Ayer. From his Wikipedia article:

"From 1959 to his retirement in 1978, Sir Alfred held the Wykeham Chair, Professor of Logic at Oxford. He was knighted in 1970. After his retirement, Ayer taught or lectured several times in the United States, including serving as a visiting professor at Bard College in the fall of 1987. At a party that same year held by fashion designer Fernando Sanchez, Ayer, then 77, confronted Mike Tyson who was forcing himself upon the (then) little-known model Naomi Campbell. When Ayer demanded that Tyson stop, the boxer reportedly asked, 'Do you know who the fuck I am? I'm the heavyweight champion of the world,' to which Ayer replied, 'And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.' Ayer and Tyson then began to talk, allowing Campbell to slip out."

Moral and physical courage and intellectual integrity and a great writer. What's not to like? So he got his philosophy all wrong when he was in his mid-twenties. If I had written a book of philosophy at that age, I would be required to say that I had gotten a great many things wrong as well.

Andrew Rilstone said...

You may argue as you choose, but when I feel I am being gish-galloped I may choose not to respond.

Andrew Stevens said...

To answer a potential objection, one could say, "Well, yes, I agree one should keep promises within the established institution of promise-keeping." We'll leave aside that I believe a moral nonrealist must even deny that, so we will assume that my interlocutor is not quite a moral nonrealist, but a moral subjectivist instead. (This may be Mr. Rilstone's stated philosophy in the post above.) I.e. he believes that morality is subjective, but within the subjective moral system one adopts, one ought to adhere to its moral requirements. I've never been quite sure what to make of this theory (an obvious question arises - "which subjective moral system ought one to adopt?" and "isn't the proposition that one ought to adhere to a system's moral requirements if one adopts it outside of the system?"), but we'll take it as a coherent position.

Now I would ask you to imagine a thought experiment. There is no established institution of promise-keeping. You live in a primitive society where no promises are ever made and there is no expectation that one will keep promises. However, you are a great creative genius and make the very first promise in your society. You manage to explain to the person to whom you make the promise what it is you are doing so she thoroughly understands that you are saying that you will do whatever you are saying you will do. Are you under any moral obligation to keep that promise?

Andrew Rilstone said...

Surely this a circular argument. "Promise" means "A thing you are morally obliged to keep." You are not morally obliged to keep things which you are morally obliged to keep is a contradiction. So what?

Gareth McCaughan said...

Aha, OK. My apologies for suggesting you might have been confused, then :-). (I too love the Ayer/Tyson story.)

Gareth McCaughan said...

Moral nonrealists are not pretending to be sociopaths, or at least they needn't be. The following is a perfectly reasonable position for one to hold: "We all make moral judgements, including me. The fact that they don't amount to objective perceptions of the fundamental structure of the universe doesn't change that. I approve of honesty, kindness, and generosity; I disapprove of cruelty, treachery, and extortion; I will, at least so far as I manage to act in accordance with my principles, promote the former and oppose the latter."

For that matter, the following is a coherent position too: "There are objective moral facts, such as that torturing small children just for fun is wrong. It just happens that I don't care." So a sociopath needn't be a moral nonrealist.

I think sociopathy and moral nonrealism have basically nothing to do with one another.

As to your statement about seeing the difference: cards on the table, I am a moral nonrealist and not so far as I know a sociopath. I do indeed distinguish between "immoral" and "against societal convention", but that distinction is not at all the same as the distinction between "objectively real" and "not objectively real".

Here is St Paul, a couple of thousand years ago, writing about that distinction and pointing out one nice clear example of something that's objectively real and not merely a matter of societal convention. "Does not nature itself teach us that it is shameful for a man to have long hair?" (Oops.)

To be more explicit: "X is morally wrong" and "X is Just Not Done" are (at least for me) different judgements; they feel different to make; the former is easier to see as a matter of observing objective reality (although I think in fact it isn't). But the difference isn't (so it seems to me) a matter of one of them actually being a matter of observing objective reality and the other not; and the inference you're encouraging us to make, from "these things seem entirely different to me" to "the first of these really is a matter of observing objective reality, even though the second isn't", should seem like a less reasonable inference when we notice that other people, not obviously much stupider or well informed than ourselves, have placed things in the "morality" bucket that to most of us seem obviously a matter of social convention. Would St Paul have been wrong to infer from his (apparently widely shared) confidence that long hair is obviously, as we are taught by nature itself shameful, that its shamefulness is a fundamental fact about the universe? If so, I wouldn't be too confident about similar inferences we might be more inclined to make.

Gareth McCaughan said...

(Comment split up because of the 4096-character limit. Andrew R, do let me know if you'd rather we responded to that limit by being much briefer rather than by splitting things up.)

Yes, a moral nonrealist can coherently argue that the laws of the society they're in are wrong, for at least two (related) reasons. First, there's no need for their moral judgements to be identical to their society's. Second, they could argue that their society's moral judgements are inconsistent with one another, and urge their fellow-citizens to pick one particular subset of them rather than another.

It certainly feels as if certain moral principles are self-evidently true. But the moral principles that different otherwise-reasonable people feel to be self-evidently true frequently disagree with one another. Of course this doesn't prove that any particular one of them is wrong; but it does prove that some of them are wrong, and hence that this feeling of self-evident truth is not actually very strong evidence of actual truth.

I'm not sure what you call "the evolutionary view" is a definite enough position to have much interest on its own, but I don't find your argument against it persuasive. It seems as if you're objecting to the idea that we might have evolved psychological characteristics that pull us in different directions at different times, but I don't see why. Suppose someone says (1) that we've evolved to desire one another sexually and (2) that we've evolved to be cautious about getting sexually involved with people who might turn out to be dangerous or to be terrible parents. They might turn out to be wrong; some things along these lines that one could say are certainly over-simplistic; but you surely can't say there's any inconsistency between #1 and #2 just because these two different allegedly-evolved tendencies sometimes clash. And if not, why is it any worse to suggest that we've evolved to save children from drowning and also to keep ourselves safe? (A cynic might suggest that actually we've mostly evolved to express approval of saving children from drowning, and that most people given the option of doing so at the likely cost of their own life wouldn't actually do it. I don't know whether they'd be right, but I'm pretty sure they wouldn't be 100% wrong, and that distinction further blunts the force of your objection.) Incidentally, I am very sure that you're wrong about Richard Dawkins, who e.g. wrote "We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators" referring to exactly this sort of issue.

I am not sure I've understood your argument from promising against moral nonrealism (it's possible that what you've said here is merely a summary of what you would argue given time to develop the case in more detail), but what you've said above seems to me to be simply wrong, for a few reasons.

1. A moral nonrealist does not have to be a moral nihilist; that is, a moral nonrealist can coherently make moral judgements, just as you can make aesthetic judgements without (I'm guessing) believing that your standards of beauty are written into the fabric of the universe. So a moral realist is not required to deny "If you make a promise then you ought to try to keep it". They have only to deny one particular interpretation of that "ought".

[... continues ...]

Gareth McCaughan said...

[... continuing ...]

2. Even a moral nonrealist who is a moral nihilist, who regards statements of the form "X is wrong" as flatly incorrect and refuses to utter any, is so far as I can see in no logical trouble here even if it's true that any institution of promising requires it to be regarded as morally binding. Such a moral nihilist would have to avoid making promises, or to adorn them with qualifications along the lines of "of course by saying this I am not claiming that the obligation I'm incurring has any objective reality". That might be inconvenient; it would probably make others less inclined to trust them; but I don't see any incoherence in their position. (And they could still say things like "It is my intention to do X, and if I don't do X then I urge everyone here to regard me as someone who fails to do what I've said I will and not trust such statements in the future", which I think would actually serve most of the purposes that promising does even for moral realists.)

I hold no brief for "moral subjectivism" as I understand you to be using the term, but let me try to address your final thought experiment from my perspective (which I consider a nonrealist one, though I suspect you may prefer to see it as a kind of subjectivism -- though it differs from what I understand you to be taking subjectivism to mean). If I were in that position, I think I would regard myself as having an obligation to do what I had said, and I would expect others to think so too. I would also (this is a separate proposition, but a related one) consider it highly advisable to do it for fear of having others in future decline to take my promises as evidence of my future behaviour. But if someone else didn't see any such obligation as having been incurred -- if, say, they said "so why the hell shouldn't you break your promise, if somehow no one would ever know?" -- I wouldn't see any prospect of changing their mind by getting them to contemplate reality more deeply. Whereas -- to clarify the contrast with some other kinds of proposition -- if they said "why not believe whatever feels good to believe?", I would think there was such a prospect. Though there might be borderline cases with some analogy to the moral one; if they advocated believing whatever feels good only when nothing can possibly be inferred from the belief that affects anything practical I might not fancy my chances of getting them to change their mind.)

Andrew Stevens said...

In any universe that could possibly exist which contains countable objects, 2+2=4. In any universe that could possibly exist which contains promise-makers, the promise-maker has a pro tanto duty to keep his promise. The idea of a universe without moral value is like the idea of a universe without mathematics - it is incoherent.

I am indeed saying that some moral propositions are tautological and therefore true by definition and the opposite belief - that no moral propositions are true - is incoherent and false.

Andrew Stevens said...

See this link. You seem to be under the impression that I am using the term psychopath/sociopath to equal "bad person." Actually, I think many of them are not at all bad people. Some of them rise to prominent positions and do good work. Some of them do as you describe (somewhere in your recent comments) where they decide to be good people even though they don't believe in morality at all, simply because they find that makes it easier to fit in. This is particularly true the more intelligent (and therefore the more able she is to get what she wants) the person is. E.g. there is virtually no overlap between real serial killers and fictional serial killers. I think it's fair to say that all fictional serial killers are more organized than all real serial killers without any exception I can think of. Why? Smart people don't become serial killers, even if they don't believe in morality, even if they get their kicks sadistically (the latter is not a necessary trait of a psychopath/sociopath, by the way).

Now that the digression is over with, I am saying that it is a characteristic trait of the sociopath/psychopath that he does not (and probably cannot) make the moral/conventional distinction. I think you will find that sociopaths/psychopaths are, for that reason, very tolerant of norm-breaking in others (though still likely to get angry if it is aimed at them) as well as in themselves (a fault we are, unfortunately, all rather prone to).

The average moral nonrealist is perfectly capable of making the moral/conventional distinction; he simply denies that the distinction has any reality to it.

I think that your argument here is the real stumbling block for many people who deny moral realism. I certainly believe it is Mr. Rilstone's stumbling block. "We know that people have claimed self-evidence and been mistaken. Therefore, there must be no such thing as a self-evident proposition." But the conclusion simply does not follow from the premise. To put it another way, sure, St. Paul was wrong. I think he was wrong about a huge number of things. That doesn't mean there is no fact of the matter. Of course, you believe St. Paul was wrong about long hair on men (so do I - I once had hair down to my waist 30-odd years ago), but you also believe he was wrong about murder. I happen to think he got that one right. (Murder is also a tautology, by the way, since the word "murder" implies a wrongful death. We generally do not refer to killings which we think were justified as murders.)

Andrew Stevens said...

It certainly feels as if certain moral principles are self-evidently true. But the moral principles that different otherwise-reasonable people feel to be self-evidently true frequently disagree with one another.

Yes, yes, a lot of people are dumb and claim self-evidence for positions that are very obviously not self-evident (see both "abortion is wrong" and "abortion is not wrong"). So what? Also, people make mistakes about moral reasoning all the time. Very few people actually sit down and carefully consider their moral beliefs, testing them against empirical evidence, trying to avoid confirmation bias, and so on. Moreover, I believe moral reasoning is just difficult, period. To be sure of a moral judgment, one must know all the circumstances. Moral values inhere in total states of affairs. Or as W.D. Ross says, "This sense of our particular duty in particular circumstances, preceded and informed by the fullest reflection we can bestow on the act in all its bearings, is highly fallible, but it is the only guide we have to our duty."

I think your description of your own reasoning is revealing. You say, "If I were in that position, I think I would regard myself as having an obligation to do what I had said, and I would expect others to think so too." I think that you would behave in this fashion because you know, no matter what you might think you think, that breaking promises is wrong. I don't believe your personal code of morality is just some bunch of arbitrary rules you've thrown together at random or that you've adopted somebody else's system with no thought or judgment of your own. I believe you are trying to determine what is actually right and what is actually wrong, because you know there is such a thing (or at least cannot help acting as if you believe it, even though you think you don't). I think you engage in all the same reasoning about morality that I do - starting with self-evident moral premises, adding facts about reality, and reaching moral conclusions by combining the two.

I strongly recommend Sir David Ross's The Right and the Good, by the way. It isn't some foolish attempt to reason out morality entirely from the ground up like utilitarianism or whatever the fad of the day might be. He is attentive to how people actually do morality, with particular attention to the opinions of the wise throughout history. Quoting from Philip Stratton-Lake's introduction to the edition I own: "But although Ross held that the principles of prima facie duty are self-evident, he did not think that we know the stringency of those duties. We only have a probable opinion about the degree of their prima facie obligatoriness. Furthermore, Ross was sceptical about our ability to know what our actual duty is in some situations."

Andrew Stevens said...

At least St. Paul claims to have derived his belief from facts about nature and didn't claim it was self-evident. That's a plus for him.

Gareth McCaughan said...

I can see how something like "if you make a promise you are obliged to keep it" might turn out to be a tautology. But to me it looks as if the great majority of things generally regarded as moral truths are simply not the sort of things that could be tautologies. "Killing people is (pro tanto) wrong", for instance.

-- Unless, of course, you pick some specific-and-therefore-controversial definition of "wrong". If you define "wrong" as "failing to maximize net utility" or "contrary to the will of God as found in the Christian scriptures" or something of the sort, then of course all sorts of things will be wrong by definition. But you've indicated above that you aren't understanding "wrong" in that sort of way, and that your intention is more along the lines of "no society can have such-and-such an institution without regarding such-and-such as wrong", and that is what I don't see any prospect of generalizing far enough to account for more than a small fraction of the things usually regarded as in the domain of morality.

Andrew Stevens said...

No worries. I love the story of the logical positivists. It illustrates the difference between science and philosophy. Newton revolutionized science before he turned 20, Einstein wrote his three greatest papers at 25 or so. The logical positivists were a bunch of young Turks who were going to storm in, take philosophy by its ear, and throw it around. They got chopped up into tiny little pieces by the graybeards. "Come back when you've learned some things, sons."

Andrew Stevens said...

Scientists loved it though because the logical positivists said that they were the important people. Scratch a modern scientist and you'll still usually find a logical positivist philosophically, even though the philosophy has been extinct for 70 years and has had no living defenders for the last 40.

Gareth McCaughan said...

I am not at all suggesting that you think "sociopath" = "bad person". So far as I know, no one thinks that; what on earth have I said that gives such a strange impression?

Your third paragraph seems to me to be retracting your earlier claim that to be a moral realist is (more or less) to pretend to be a sociopath and that to be a sociopath is to embrace moral realism, since you're now saying that sociopathy is about not not seeing a particular distinction whereas moral nonrealism is about having an idea that differs from yours about its nature.

That thing you put in quotation marks and called "my argument" is not my argument, as I'd already made clear in another comment. (In fairness, I said quite a lot and perhaps you replied to some of it before reading the rest.) My point isn't that if people often wrongly claim that things are self-evident then nothing can be self-evident. It's that if people often claim that things are self-evident then appealing to self-evidence is a bad argument unless it's accompanied by some sort of explanation of why the particular instance of self-evidence you're appealing to is real rather than (as self-evidence so often is) illusory.

For the avoidance of doubt, I wasn't suggesting that you either do or should hold St Paul in particularly high regard. His only role here is as an example of someone who seems to have given a fair bit of thought to right and wrong, standing in a moral tradition closely related to ours, who thought a moral judgement that we now reject was an obvious matter of objective fact.

(I agree that "murder is wrong" is tautologously true, if "murder" is defined in such terms as "wrongful killing". But of course as a tautology it doesn't tell us anything useful. If I am contemplating killing someone and not sure whether it's justified, it's no use appealing to the principle that murder is wrong, which -- at least with this sort of definition of murder -- will only deter me once I have already decided I ought not to do it.)

Gareth McCaughan said...

"So what?" So -- especially given that the people I'm talking about are frequently not "dumb" in any useful sense -- it's a mistake to say "we can all just see that X is wrong" as if that is compelling evidence that X is wrong.

Obviously it's easy to "win" arguments by declaring that the people taking a different view really agree with you deep down and are merely pretending to themselves that they don't. I don't think such rudeness deserves any more response than this paragraph. (Perhaps it might if you bothered to offer any actual evidence rather than just saying "I think X, I think Y, I think Z".)

Utilitarianism has been around for well over a century and is still widely held; it may be right or wrong or nonsensical but it certainly isn't a "fad of the day". I haven't read Ross (I've read Moore, many years ago, and wasn't terribly impressed, but I see it's widely held that Ross's case for intuitionism is better than Moore's) and will take a look, but it may be some time before I get to doing so since my to-read pile is, well, not so much a pile as hundreds of books scattered across my shelves :-).

Andrew Stevens said...

A couple more tautologies: "pleasure is good" and "pain is bad." (Tautological because of the respective definitions of pleasure and pain.) The "wrongness" is usually going to be a conclusion built on tautologies like that. So "pain is bad," "whipping a person is painful," therefore "whipping a person is (pro tanto) wrong." We might still agree that some person can morally be whipped, but that will be because we think he deserves pain (the duty of justice) or because his pain serves some higher good.

Let's go down W.D. Ross's list of pro tanto (he actually uses prima facie, but he knew and said that this was wrong, because he did not mean that a duty could be found to be merely apparent - someone, I forget who, recommended the use of pro tanto instead). You can tell me which ones you don't think are self-evident.

"(1) Some duties rest on previous acts of my own. These duties seem to include two kinds, (a) those resting on a promise or what may fairly be called an implicit promise, such as the implicit undertaking not to tell lies which seems to be implied in the act of entering into conversation (at any rate by civilized men), or of writing books that purport to be history and not fiction. These may be called the duties of fidelity. (b) Those resting on a previous wrongful act. These may be called the duties of reparation. (2) Some rest on previous acts of other men, i.e. services done by them to me. These may loosely be described as the duties of gratitude. (3) Some rest on the fact or possibility of a distribution of pleasure or happiness (or of the means thereto) which is not in accordance with the merit of the persons concerned; in such cases there arises a duty to upset or prevent such a distribution. These are the duties of justice. (4) Some rest on the mere fact that there are other beings in the world whose condition we can make better in respect of virtue, or of intelligence, or of pleasure. These are the duties of beneficence. (5) Some rest on the fact that we can improve our own condition in respect of virtue or of intelligence. These are the duties of self-improvement. (6) I think that we should distinguish from (4) the duties that may be summed up under the title of 'not injuring others.' No doubt to injure others is incidentally to fail to do them good; but it seems to me clear that non-maleficence is apprehended as a duty distinct from beneficence, and as a duty of a more stringent character. . . . The recognition of this duty of non-maleficence is the first step on the way to the recognition of the duty of beneficence; and that accounts for the prominence of the commands 'thou shalt not kill,' 'thou shalt not commit adultery,' 'thou shalt not steal,' 'thou shalt not bear false witness,' in so early a code as the Decalogue. But even when we have come to recognize the duty of beneficence, it appears to me that the duty of non-maleficence is recognized as a distinct one, and as prima facie more binding. We should not in general consider it justifiable to kill one person in order to keep another alive, or to steal from one in order to give alms to the other."

A digression: I have a special duty (fidelity) to my daughter. Imagine my daughter was sickening and dying and the only way to get a cure was that I had to murder ten people. I love my daughter more than anything, but I would be forced to let her go. On the other hand, suppose I had a cure and I could either give it to my daughter or give it to ten other people. Her life or theirs. With my deepest regrets, all ten of them are going to die. The flaw of utilitarianism is to take the genuine duty of beneficence and pretend it is the only duty we have.

Andrew Stevens said...

I am informed by the internet that some people derive more pleasure than pain from being whipped. If such a person asks you to whip him and you do so, I absolve you of all guilt.

Andrew Stevens said...

I do think you can deny these tautologies, by the way. I think you have to say, "There is no such thing as a promise since it is not possible to incur a moral obligation" and "there is no such thing as pain or pleasure because physical sensations cannot be good or bad."

Andrew Stevens said...

This particular conversation seems to be non-productive. We probably differ much less than it appears. Since you thought it was unseemly to bring up sociopathy in this discussion, I assumed you take it to be a bad thing. Apologies if I read you wrong. I do actually believe that sociopaths must be moral non-realists, but of course not all moral non-realists are sociopaths.

On the subject of "unseemly" though, I have always been amused by a quote from David Stove:

"A similar proposition, but of intermediate generality, somewhere between politics and philosophy, is the universal permission in the field of morals.

"Morally, everything is permissible.

"There are some questions about this which we can properly discuss. (For example, whether it is a logical consequence, as many have thought, of atheism.) But the question whether it is true is not among these questions. On the contrary, if you so much as hear others discussing whether it is true — and they are not just “doing philosophy”, but are in earnest — then if you are intelligent, prudent, and not yourself a danger to the public, you will simply contact the police. Accordingly, I do not intend to discuss, here or anywhere else, whether that proposition is true."

Andrew Stevens said...

The hedonistic value theory of Classical Utilitarianism is pretty much dead in philosophical circles. There are still people who hold something kind of like it, but they tend to just call themselves Consequentialists now. I wasn't say it is the fad of the day, I'm saying it was the fad of its day.

Andrew Stevens said...

Obviously it's easy to "win" arguments by declaring that the people taking a different view really agree with you deep down and are merely pretending to themselves that they don't.

That's Churchland's proof that p: Certain of my opponents claim to think that not-p; but it is precisely my thesis that they do not. Therefore p.

My favorite is David Lewis's proof that p: Most people find the claim that not-p completely obvious and when I assert p they give me an incredulous stare. But the fact that they find not- p obvious is no argument that it is true; and I do not know how to refute an incredulous stare. Therefore, p.

Andrew Stevens said...

I should amend that earlier statement though. I can certainly imagine someone who was, unfortunately, born with an inability to distinguish between the moral and the conventional and who starts out thinking that all matters of morality are merely matters of convention. However, through time and study, he becomes convinced that other people can distinguish such a difference, takes them at their word, and becomes a moral realist. So, yes, I do agree with you that such a person can exist (and therefore such people probably do).

Andrew Stevens said...

I don't think such rudeness deserves any more response than this paragraph.

This seems like a cultural gap. The English seem to be rude primarily by telling veiled jokes about people. Americans are rude by forthrightly saying what they believe is true. No rudeness intended.

Andrew Stevens said...

I say that because I think you took it to be much more rude than a fellow American would.

Andrew Stevens said...

I've read Moore, many years ago, and wasn't terribly impressed, but I see it's widely held that Ross's case for intuitionism is better than Moore's

Moore is a "philosopher's philosopher." Deeply thoughtful, right (or nearly right) about almost everything, but boy is he tough to read. I wish we had had Moore's ideas with Russell's prose style.

Andrew Stevens said...

Obviously it's easy to "win" arguments

By the way, what is up with this? Is this projection or what? I remember our gracious host made some such claims after a disagreement we had, like what I was really interested in was "winning" rather than the truth.

I started this conversation because I was doing my duty of beneficence. I think people should believe true things; if they believe false things, I think they are entitled to better information and better arguments so they can believe true things. I am not ultimately very good at the duty of beneficence (it's one I struggle with), so ultimately I don't really give a damn if I convince anybody.

False moral philosophy is harmful. David Stove, like J.L. Mackie, was taught by a (I am taking their word for this) great Australian philosopher John Anderson.

Stove on Anderson, after praising the irresistible force of his intellect and describing him as the smartest person he had ever known:

"Anderson’s influence was bad in some other ways too, I now think. The accusations against him of 'corrupting the youth' were an unfailing cause for derision from him and from us when we were the youth concerned. I now think that these accusations were true in some cases. To give an example: as undergraduates and even later, some of my circle, who would not have done so but for the influence of Anderson’s philosophy of morals, took up shoplifting, or the obtaining of money on false pretences. This was not very terrible; but it was not very trivial either. Anderson knew nothing of these goings-on, and I think he would have been horrified if he had known. Nor do I suppose that he would have admitted for one moment that he was in any degree responsible for them. But as to that, the people I am speaking of were in a far better position to judge than he was."

Andrew Stevens said...

It seems as if you're objecting to the idea that we might have evolved psychological characteristics that pull us in different directions at different times, but I don't see why.

No, I am saying we have an impulse (saving the child) which we think is good and an impulse (the cowardly impulse not to risk our own life) which we think is bad. Given that good and bad don't even exist, how and why do we distinguish between good and bad impulses? How do we even arrive at such beliefs about them?

Andrew Stevens said...

Whoops. Continuation of the quote by Stove:

"It may be advisable, in order to prevent misunderstanding, for me to say that I believe that any philosophy of morals whatever is more or less likely to have some bad effects on the behaviour of those who accept it; especially if they are young. As Samuel Butler said in his Notebooks, the foundations of morality are like any other foundations: if you dig around them, you are likely to bring the building down. But it is perfectly obvious that Anderson’s philosophy of morals was far more likely than most others to have bad effects on the conduct of those who accepted it. If you convince the intelligent young that the very notions of 'wrong' and 'right' are 'confused' and 'illogical' — well, what would you expect?"

Andrew Rilstone said...

the marquis de Sade met Sacher-Masoch. Please, please whip me and beat me said Masoch. No, said de Sade...in ecstasy.

Andrew Stevens said...

Ah, it's so nice to speak to educated people. I work now primarily with the younger generation. One of my proteges neither knew whom de Sade or Sacher-Masoch were, but also did not understand the terms "sadism" and "masochism."

Gavin Burrows said...

Were they both characters in ‘Vengeance on Varos’? That’s it, isn’t it? I’ve got it, haven’t I?

Gareth McCaughan said...

Oh, I didn't take it to be rude. I perceived its self-evident objective rudeness. More seriously: you are telling me, with what seems to be total indifference to my own opinions on the matter, that I am deeply deceived about what I know and believe. Of course you could be right (though I think you aren't), but there's no question that it's rude to make such an accusation, not least because it amounts to not taking the other guy seriously, even if you are simply stating things you sincerely believe. (If I tell someone "I think you are the stupidest person I have ever met", it is rude even if true.) I chose the specific word "rude" partly because this is an instance of what Peter Suber calls logical rudeness.

As to why it seems to me a sign of aiming at "winning" rather than mutual truth-seeking: because if you're aiming at a productive discussion then treating the other party as a moron is not helpful. (I am exaggerating for vividity, but the difference between "you may think you know what you believe, but I know better" and "you are a moron" is of degree rather than of kind.)

It's a long time since I read the Principia Ethica, but my recollection isn't of finding it difficult to read but of thinking Moore was wrong about a lot of things.

I'm still not sure exactly what evolutionary view it is you're arguing against, but I'm fairly sure it isn't one I hold or find credible (maybe something like "what is good is, by definition, what evolution produces"?). Perhaps someone who recognizes their position in what you say may care to defend it.

Gareth McCaughan said...

"Self-evident" is a slippery term, as we have already seen.
If you ask for which of Ross's list I feel intuitively that
failing to act in accordance with his alleged duties would
be wrong, that would be #1,3,4,6; as for #2, I wouldn't
generally consider A's generous actions towards B to create
an obligation on B's part, though they would make me
less charitably disposed when considering subsequent bad
treatment of A by B; as for #5, I don't find it helpful to
think of improving oneself as a duty. To #3 I would
have to add the caveats (a) that I'm not convinced that
who should have what advantages should be determined by
"merit" unless you take "merit" to mean something like
"degree of deserving such advantages", which I consider
a most eccentric meaning.
If you ask instead for which there seems any prospect of
the sort of logical justification we've discussed
above for #1a, I think it's only that one. Perhaps some
variant of #5, focusing specifically on moral self-improvement,
might have something of the kind too.
If you ask instead which of them I think self-evidently
a matter of objective fact: none of them.

I don't find it easy to say with confidence what I would
do in such awful situations as you hypothesize (I too have
a daughter), but for what it's worth my moral sense differs
from yours; I am not at all sure I would find it right
to give the curative medicine to my daughter if it doomed
ten others to the same horrible death.

Ross's list of duties has the following feature: so far as
I can see, it entirely fails to imply any concrete
propositions about what anyone ever should, or must, or may,
do. Of course one should not expect a single isolated paragraph
to answer all questions; perhaps other parts of his theory
make it more definite. It also seems (though again I may be
extrapolating too far from minimal information) that the most
natural ways of making it more definite will do so at the cost
of implying that we may never indulge ourselves beyond the
point at which doing so starts to make things worse for others
in any respect.

Gareth McCaughan said...

(Oh, I hadn't realised line breaks would turn into line breaks. My apologies for the slightly goofy formatting.)

Gareth McCaughan said...

I don't think "pleasure is good" and "pain is bad" are tautologies if "good" and "bad" are taken in a moral sense, or any sense that implies that they give reasons for (in)action to anyone other than the one feeling pleasure or pain. (Of course "X is not tautologously good/bad" is a different proposition from "X is not good/bad", and in fact all else being equal I do consider that I ought to increase others' pleasure-minus-pain.)

Andrew Stevens said...

I do think gratitude is a duty, though the level of self-evidence here is admittedly very advanced (my daughter, at age ten, certainly doesn't feel the force of the proposition yet). It doesn't necessarily make any actions incumbent on a person, but I think one should at least show grateful behavior to someone who does one a good turn.

He does restrict his duty of self-improvement to "virtue" and "intelligence." I do believe virtue is the primary duty of self-improvement which exists. It seems clear to me that a bad person who is failing to even try to improve himself is acting wrongly (though perhaps we can have some sympathy in cases of mental incapacity or certain mental health conditions).

We seem to be mostly hung up on epistemology. You seem to be accepting as true certain highly questionable or even outright false (in my view) epistemological premises, premises which are far less certain than the moral propositions I am proposing you should accept as true. E.g. what is your epistemological threshold for accepting a proposition? Absolute certainty? Is the premise that "accepting a proposition requires absolute certainty" itself absolutely certain? Or indeed even very probable, given's man's inherent (though not inveterate) fallibility? This ultimately was the failure of the verification criteria of meaning for the logical positivists. It either ends up rejecting nearly everything (including itself) or, if you make it loose enough, allows in virtually anything and therefore has no real purpose.

Andrew Stevens said...

Ross's list of duties has the following feature: so far as I can see, it entirely fails to imply any concrete propositions about what anyone ever should, or must, or may, do.

Absolutely true. Ross believes (and I agree) that the total circumstances of all your pro tanto duties must be weighed and then you come to a probable opinion (and it is never anything more than that) about what your duty sans phrase is. But it is importantly distinct from consequentialism (which, in its original form, stated that the duty of beneficence was the only duty), virtue ethics (which raises the duty of self-improvement to the sole duty), or Kantian deontological ethics (which claims that it is always wrong to disobey a duty, even if one is doing so to meet a higher duty). Ross believed that the pluralism of deontological ethics was fundamentally irreducible. Sometimes the duty of fidelity will prevail, sometimes the duty of beneficence, etc.

It is true that, as an ethical theory, it does not give you an algorithm which will allow you to always know what is right. But unlike the previous theories I mentioned, I believe it has the virtue of being true and therefore will also never steer you disastrously wrong. I submit that expecting an ethical theory to resolve all moral dilemmas is asking too much. I don't believe humanity has come close to producing such a theory in over 2500 years of trying.

Andrew Stevens said...

As I said earlier in the thread, I think it is possible to rescue consequentialism and virtue ethics and make them roughly equivalent to Ross's pluralist deontology.

The consequentialist theory would be along the lines of G.E. Moore's "ideal utilitarianism," which was an attempt to maximize the good. If we consider the breaking of a duty as a net loss to the amount of good in the world, then it seems like we might be able to make that theory equivalent to Ross's.

The virtue ethics would have to put a high priority on a specific virtue - particularly the virtue of knowing what duty one should be following at any given time. In this way, it may be possible to rescue both consequentialism and virtue ethics as workable theories of morality which actually accord with the way we do think ethics should be done.

Andrew Stevens said...

I don't think "pleasure is good" and "pain is bad" are tautologies if "good" and "bad" are taken in a moral sense, or any sense that implies that they give reasons for (in)action to anyone other than the one feeling pleasure or pain.

Agreed. You get to that level from adding empirical facts and engaging in moral reasoning. Children begin life entirely (literally 100%) concerned only with their own pleasure and pain. As we reach adulthood, we realize that other creatures also feel pleasure and pain. As history advanced, we started universalizing this reasoning. The great moral advance of recorded history was discovering that other tribes, other races, other religions, etc. should also be considered in our ethics.

Andrew Stevens said...

There are moral realists, by the way, who reject the metaphysical thesis (at least I take that to be Simon Blackburn's "quasi-realist" perspective). I think this is an unnecessary rejection. The materialist assumption which underlies this rejection is, at the very least, dubious. Even Quine didn't completely deny the reality of abstract objects (he granted them for numbers since our best scientific theories assume their existence). To the extent that Blackburn is also a non-cognitivist, I believe he is plainly mistaken, but I don't have any particular issue with a cognitivist moral realist position which suspends judgment on the metaphysical thesis.

Andrew Stevens said...

As to why it seems to me a sign of aiming at "winning" rather than mutual truth-seeking: because if you're aiming at a productive discussion then treating the other party as a moron is not helpful.

Relative lack of education and introspection is very, very different from stupidity. I've been reading, thinking, and considering about meta-ethics for 25 years. I constantly meet people who have extremely strong convictions on the subject who have obviously thought about it for approximately 25 minutes. I'm not saying you're one of those people (far from it, actually), but my point is that all people are moral realists at heart (this is why non-cognitivism is simply a non-starter). To escape from the charge of Bulverism, I have, I think, adequately demonstrated why I think the opposite position is wrong before I delved into the psychology of why I think people deny it. (I don't believe that you, for example, hold the usual motivation - the desire to maintain double standards - one for me, another for thee - which I absolutely believe is the typical subconscious motivation for most moral anti-realists. If there are no true or false moral propositions, then one can literally say anything one likes - e.g. go into a high moral dudgeon over one person's behavior while completely excusing someone else's far worse behavior.

Andrew Stevens said...

The evolutionary theory is that all our moral beliefs/behavior are adaptations. I do believe that (virtually) all our immoral behavior is adaptation. However, I believe the large majority of our moral beliefs are not adaptive and are what are called "spandrels." (I also believe this of our mathematical abilities. The ability to discover and do calculus is not an evolutionary adaptation, but a byproduct.)

Andrew Stevens said...

Also, accusing someone who is engaging in mutual truth-seeking of engaging in rhetorical maneuvers in order to illegitimately "win" an argument (for what purpose, I honestly cannot even imagine) is, I think, much ruder than what I said to you. In my opinion anyway.

Andrew Stevens said...

No actual offense taken though. I was more bemused by it than anything.

Gareth McCaughan said...

I don't think you have "adequately demonstrated why I think the opposite position is wrong". It seems to me that you have merely repeated several times that you think the opposite position is wrong, and indeed that it is self-evident. (It seems as if you think that that counts as an adequate demonstration, which I find surprising.) As for lack of education and introspection, it's certainly possible that I'm less well-educated philosophically than you are, or less introspective, or both (just as it's possible that I'm less intelligent) but I am curious what grounds you have for thinking so, other than that I disagree with you on a controversial point of metaphysics. If you think it will be helpful, then I suppose we can try to measure our knowledge and introspectivity and compare, but prima facie it doesn't seem to me like a very useful exercise. Incidentally, this isn't strictly a case of bulverism because you aren't purporting to explain why I disagree with you, merely asserting that deep down I agree with you.

I think it's entirely plausible that whatever evolutionary origin human morality has is (at least in part) non-adaptive. I say "at least in part" because there's some evidence that some other animals have e.g. something resembling a sense of fairness, the further back a given thing goes the more likely I think it is to be adaptive rather than spandrellish.

I accept your assurance that you're here only for the sake of mutual truth-seeking rather than trying to win arguments, and if you were in fact more offended than you're letting on then I regret that. (But ... if you really truly "cannot even imagine" why anyone might value winning arguments for its own sake, then I don't think much of your knowledge of human nature.)

Gareth McCaughan said...

I don't have an epistemological threshold for accepting a proposition; acceptance comes in degrees, and the stronger the evidence and arguments for a proposition the more accepting I am. (Ideally; of course I may err. And there may be relevant factors that don't fit neatly into the boxes labelled "evidence" and "arguments", though I think many people are too ready to take "it just feels that way" as such a factor, usually implicitly.)

I guess (but am open to correction) you're thinking that the reason I don't agree with you about moral realism is that I think the inference from "it's self-evident to almost everyone that moral right and wrong are matters of objective fact" to "moral right and wrong are, indeed, matters of objective fact" is less than absolutely certain and therefore reject it. That's not how things stand. Rather, I think (1) the antecedent is quite likely false and (2) the antecedent provides very little evidence for the consequent.

1a. If we take "almost everyone" to mean, literally, almost everyone, then I suggest that in fact what's self-evident to a lot of people is (not any metaphysical proposition about the nature of right and wrong, but) a bunch of individual moral claims: it's good to be generous, we have a duty to fight and kill for our country, lying is unvirtuous, etc., etc.

2a. Now, (1) about some of those moral claims there's a lot of disagreement, which shows that it is common for this sort of proposition to be "self-evident" to a lot of people but still wrong, or more precisely still not universally and objectively right, and (2) while I'm sure most people do treat their moral judgements in much the same way as they treat propositions that are straightforwardly matters of fact, I don't think it's self-evident to them that moral judgements are matters of fact -- I think most people don't think about that question at all, and the way they express those judgements is largely a matter of habit. I remark (as I have earlier in this discussion) that many people do the same with aesthetic judgements of a sort that I'm guessing you aren't realist about.

1b. So perhaps "almost everyone" isn't really the point, and we should restrict attention to intelligent, well informed, thoughtful people. Professional philosophers, perhaps. Well, in the PhilPapers survey of 2009, 56% "accept or lean towards moral realism" (28% "accept or lean toward moral anti-realism" and 16% are "other"); 66% "accept or lean toward" cognitivism" (17% "non-cognitivism", 17% "other"). That's a long way from "almost everyone" finding it self-evidently true that moral judgements are a matter of objective reality. These figures vary a bit by discipline (e.g., unsurprisingly, people in "normative ethics" are more likely to be realists and cognitivists, which I suggest is best explained by observing that a non-realist and/or non-cognitivist is less likely to go into that field) but in no field that I looked at was there anything like universal agreement on either question.

2b. If there were near-total agreement on this among professional philosophers, I would take that as substantial evidence (albeit a rather unsatisfactory sort, since it wouldn't tell us why the thing was true, though we could always go read their papers) -- but there is no such thing. A small majority are moral realists (which is not the same as finding moral realism self-evident) and a larger but still not overwhelming majority are moral cognitivists (which is not the same as finding cognitivism self-evident). I would guess, though I could be wrong, that in fact a substantial minority of professional philosophers find either of those positions not merely true but self-evident.

Gareth McCaughan said...

I don't think a (meta-)ethical theory is required to "give you an algorithm that will allow you to always know what is right", nor do I "expect[] an ethical theory to resolve all moral dilemmas". But I do think it is a substantial defect in a theory if it never tells you anything concrete about what is right and resolves no moral dilemmas.

(Again, perhaps if I had all Ross's writing before me rather than merely the brief extract we're discussing, I'd see that it does give concrete answers in some cases. Perhaps, at a minimum, it says that when any of the listed duties are applicable one is obliged to act so as to fulfil at least one of them. I worry, as I mentioned above, that the latter is already enough to make the theory as impossibly over-demanding as e.g. some versions of utilitarianism are.)

If I were convinced that Ross's theory is basically correct then I might be interested in the prospects of making a version of consequentialism or virtue ethics that's largely equivalent to Ross's theory. Since as yet I see no reason to accept Ross's theory, this isn't really a concern I have :-).

I am not convinced it's actually possible to be a cognitivist and a realist without endorsing some version of what you call "the metaphysical thesis". I guess maybe you could do it by claiming that all correct moral judgements are tautologies, but (as we discussed a bit above) it seems to me as if only a tiny minority of moral judgements have any prospect of being defended that way.

Gareth McCaughan said...

On reflection, I retract the first sentence of my last paragraph. One could say "I'm sure moral judgements express factual claims and that many of them are factually correct, but I confess I have no idea exactly what sort of facts they are stating." That would be an unsatisfactory situation to be in, but alas it is the human condition to be in unsatisfactory epistemic situations much of the time.

Andrew Stevens said...

If it seems to you that p, then you are prima facie justified in believing p. (The justification is, of course, only prima facie and is therefore defeasible, but you still have to defeat it.) If you reject this epistemological proposition, you are actually using it to reject it.

We only need one self-evident moral proposition to accept moral realism. My contention, at least, is that very few moral propositions are self-evident. I would argue that everyone implicitly accepts "we ought to believe what is true," even if they don't realize they are doing so. In fact, I believe the force of this proposition is so strong that almost nobody rejects it.

I regard the Frege-Geach problem as conclusive against moral non-cognitivism. I.e. we absolutely do mean moral propositions to be actual propositions, not simply emotivisms. If we are wrong and no moral proposition is true, then that's fine and we are left with error theory. But moral non-cognitivism is a non-starter. One can argue (emotively) that we ought to be non-cognitivists, but we are not.

Sorry about the long delay in responding. Sometimes I can go weeks without checking in online.

Andrew Stevens said...

I'll change that to "absolutely nobody consistently rejects it."

Andrew Stevens said...

More importantly only 28% are moral non-realists. I don't know what the 16% in "Other" are. It actually is binary so I suspect most of them are moral realists, but do not wish to admit it explicitly.

Andrew Stevens said...

It occurred to me that PE teachers are not sadists. They are masochists who are applying the Golden Rule.

Andrew Stevens said...

While I do not believe J.L. Mackie's "argument from queerness" goes through (I don't see how moral values are any more "mysterious" than quarks or epistemological propositions which Mackie accepts without question), I do admire his intellectual integrity. He concedes that the burden of proof is on him since moral realism certainly does seem to be the case, prior to philosophy.

Andrew Stevens said...

But ... if you really truly "cannot even imagine" why anyone might value winning arguments for its own sake, then I don't think much of your knowledge of human nature.

Oh, I've certainly seen people do this. It just appears to be lacking in me and I'm not sure why people have it. Self-esteem, I assume? I.e. wishing to prove one's own intelligence, if only to oneself? I completely dominated intellectually in both high school and college in every single subject, captain of the math team, captain of High School and College Bowl teams, summa cum laude while working full-time and going to school full-time simultaneously, acing standardized tests, etc., etc. Winning an argument is a trivial demonstration for me, if it is a demonstration at all. I don't mean this to brag, simply to explain my psychology. Of course, I do not believe that because I am smarter than my interlocutor (nearly invariably the case for statistical reasons), that this means I'm right about everything, of course. I make mistakes all the time.

I am struck that the problem with Suber's examples of "logical rudeness" all seem to have the psychology of "wanting to win the argument" in common. We have all had arguments where people simply refuse to acknowledge perfectly obvious facts, whether these are self-evident propositions or a wealth of data. Humanity is perverse enough that there are always people who will simply insist on just about any proposition, no matter how obviously false. I don't know how to respond to such people except, in Suber's view, to be "logically rude." On the converse, his position seems to be "but you didn't let me win." So this is probably why I don't perceive the rudeness in such positions. Certainly I've been on the other side as well. E.g. people who sense the presence of God and insist that I must as well. I don't consider their responses "logically rude." I even take them at their word that they do feel like they have such a sense. And I agree with them, therefore, that we don't have anything more to discuss if they cannot tell me how to sense this for myself.

Andrew Stevens said...

I don't think you have "adequately demonstrated why I think the opposite position is wrong".

The hinge of my argument is that the epistemological suppositions that people (you, me, or anyone else) are using to deny things like "torturing children for the fun of it is wrong" are much less certain than the simple statement "torturing children for the fun of it is wrong." At heart, your epistemological position relies on premises which you believe are self-evident, but which I would argue are false. In other words, we need to get to the heart of the arguments against and evaluate them. If there are no defeaters, then we are perfectly justified in believing "torturing children for the fun of it is wrong."

I think you have mostly used two arguments: the argument from queerness and the argument from disagreement. But both arguments are quite weak and rely on premises which are far less certain than "torturing children for the fun of it is wrong."

Andrew Stevens said...

That would be an unsatisfactory situation to be in, but alas it is the human condition to be in unsatisfactory epistemic situations much of the time.

I think that's the situation we are in. I am willing to bite on the metaphysical thesis because it seems to be the best solution and I just don't seem to have the intuition that you and many other people seem to have of its problematic nature. I.e. there are laws of physics and mathematics in the universe which we can discover, despite their immateriality. (I do not believe fictionalist accounts work or have any hope of working.) What convinced me of the metaphysical thesis for morality is that I am forced to accept the metaphysical thesis for mathematics, physics, and epistemology as well. Accepting the metaphysical thesis for morality is, therefore, not much of a problem for me. It seems to be a very severe problem for other people though. I have some sympathy, but the existence of immaterial things in the Universe strikes me as no more of a problem than the existence of material things. It's not scientific of course. The problems of the physical Universe were (mostly) solved by philosophy and "natural philosophy" was spun off to become science to study purely material phenomena. Scientists forget that the whole premise of science still relies on philosophical suppositions however. When they attack philosophy, they are also cutting down the ladder they're standing on.

Andrew Stevens said...

I hadn't actually seen this post until today.

I don't believe I have ever once asked you to respond to anything, so that's fine obviously. I hadn't ever heard that particular expression myself until you used it. Having researched the matter, it seems to me to be little more than an insult. It certainly isn't a logical fallacy to have a lot of facts and arguments at one's disposal.

Duane Gish was an enormously well-educated man, steeped in evolutionary and creationist theories. My assumptions are 1) Gish knew quite a lot more about his subject than the people he was typically debating with - this is nearly invariably true of people bucking conventional wisdom - I know an awful lot about evolution and the Kennedy assassination, but my knowledge pales before a dedicated creationist or a dedicated conspiracy theorist, 2) Gish was frustrating to evolution proponents, the large majority of whom are firmly committed, but don't actually know very much about the subject, because they couldn't refute him or successfully debate him, and 3) they decided to make fun of him instead.

Gish was wrong, of course, but I would be very reluctant to debate him on that particular subject. I once had a series of debates with a creationist and I had to bone up seriously on evolution before I could begin to discuss it with him. Like most believers in evolution, my belief basically just rested on authority and cultural assumptions. I am now confident that I can answer the objections, etc., but I certainly couldn't have prior to that encounter.

Andrew Rilstone said...

"I regard the Frege-Geach problem as conclusive against moral non-cognitivism."

I have literally no idea what you are talking about.

Andrew Rilstone said...

If you were trying to teach me Chess, you could say "No: look closely, if you put your Prawn there, can you see what your opponent will do with his Castle next move?" Or you can say "No, no, no: never try to use Bellhanger's Fork in the middle-game, unless the opponent has already offered Mobius's Exchange, in which you can try the Bevin Gambit." The former helps me understand: the latter makes you look very clever.

The Gish Gallop is not a fallacy as such. It is generally used to describe a rhetorical technique in which you seek to overwhelm an opponent with multiple arguments, some of which may be valid and some of which may not. I am sure I could go to the library and look up each of the philosophers you quote and see if you quote them fairly and if there are good critiques of them. But I have folk music to listen to and a day job to do and a card game to design.

Gareth McCaughan said...

The thing about the Gish gallop is that you can generally make claims much more quickly than you can refute them, and it's an unfortunate quirk of human psychology that if one person says, sounding confident and authoritative, "p!" and another responds only with "not-p!", then the former will likely be more convincing than the latter. So in order to respond to "p!" you actually need to say "X says p, but actually not-p, because of Subtle Argument 1 and Little-Known Evidence 2", and you don't have time to do that for the dozens of different instances of "p!" that X has thrown at you. Also, if you care about intellectual honesty and X doesn't, then you may need to look up the details of those dozens of instances of "p!", while X can just blithely state them without checking the facts.

(I don't think saying "Frege-Geach" is an instance of Gish-galloping, but in this sort of context I think it's reasonable to anticipate that not everyone will already know about it and to say a few words of explanation, or at least link to something like Wikipedia both as a courtesy and to show that you aren't just making things up.)

Gareth McCaughan said...

On "winning the argument": I think you should consider the possibility that you aren't in fact immune to the desire to do it, you're just not very aware of it. I'm not saying that that is the case, but it seems like one of the more plausible explanations for what would otherwise be a near-100%-gratuitous paragraph about how very clever you are. (One can say "I don't find that winning arguments makes any difference to my self-esteem" or something of the sort, without such a paragraph.)

On torturing small children for fun: I think you are failing to distinguish seeming obvious from being certain. Lots of things seem obvious that turn out to be false; the "argument from disagreement", while it is not at all a strong reason to conclude that moral realism is false, is in my view a conclusive refutation of the idea that moral realism is a safe inference from the fact that some moral propositions seem obvious. (Because, whatever the facts, we know that it's possible for a moral proposition to seem obvious to a reasonable person but not in fact be objectively correct.)

Gareth McCaughan said...

I don't think Frege-Geach is anywhere near as conclusive as you suggest, at least against my position (which is only kinda-sorta noncognitivist). So, the idea is that if you don't think that saying "eating people is wrong" is expressing a proposition that can be true or false, then it's hard to say what you mean by, e.g., "if eating people is wrong, then kidnapping people in order to eat them is wrong". Maybe (though I have my doubts) this is a good argument against Ayer-style noncognitivism that basically says that saying "X is wrong" is like writing down X and then setting fire to the paper as a mark of disapproval. But my suggestion is that "X is wrong" is more like "X is sexy" or "X is beautiful". And we can make some sort of sense of, e.g., "If the Vitruvian Man is beautiful then the Mona Lisa is beautiful", though we probably feel -- I certainly do -- that there's something a little iffy about such propositions and that trying to build delicate logical structures on them is probably ill-advised. That's roughly how I feel about "X is wrong".

On the PhilPapers survey: Yes, more are cognitivists than are non-cognitivists. I am not claiming that survey as evidence that non-cognitivism is right. I am claiming it as evidence that it isn't anything like obviously wrong, which you appear to be saying it is.

On queerness: I would not make exactly Mackie's argument (if I remember it correctly, which I might not). What I would say that's a little like it is: it is very far from obvious what moral propositions, if (objectively valid) propositions they be, actually mean, and if you are going to assert them then eventually you owe us an account of what that meaning is, and so far I haven't seen any good account of it.

On other sorts of abstracta: As per my previous paragraph, I think that if you're going to treat (say) numbers as real and propositions about numbers as having truth values, then you need to give some account of what you mean by those things. One way to do it is to propose some sort of Platonist reality, but you can also do it purely formally and I think that works fine. (Both approaches run into difficulty in the face of questions undecidable according to our usual axioms, but I don't think the difficulties are sufficient to reject either.) I am not convinced that we need a "metaphysical thesis" for mathematics, the laws of physics, etc. In any case, I don't claim that moral realism is absurd or anything like that; only that I don't see a strong case for it. It might turn out that the arguments for mathematical realism are overwhelming, but the arguments for moral realism are different ones and not necessarily as strong.

Gareth McCaughan said...

If it seems to you that p, then that is evidence for p. How much evidence depends on the nature of the seeming and of what reasons there are for thinking that such seeming correlates with truth. Pretheoretically, probably the best we can do is to accept (at least tentatively) whatever seems to us to be so, but as we learn more we can do better.

Everyone implicitly accepts something like "we ought to believe what is true", as we can see from the fact that everyone kinda-sorta tries to believe what is true. But note that this implicit acceptance doesn't carry any of the freight that distinguishes moral realism from other positions. "Accepting" that proposition, in this implicit sense, doesn't imply any particular opinion about what other people "ought to" do, or about whether this ought-ness might go away in weirdly different circumstances, or about whether it's somehow built into the structure of the universe.

(Sorry, the foregoing was intended to be part of my previous comment; in fact, it was meant to be before the rest of it :-).)

Andrew Stevens said...

On "winning the argument": I think you should consider the possibility that you aren't in fact immune to the desire to do it, you're just not very aware of it. I'm not saying that that is the case, but it seems like one of the more plausible explanations for what would otherwise be a near-100%-gratuitous paragraph about how very clever you are.

I certainly have considered it. We are, all of us, biological beings who are influenced by our own subconsciouses. I think you are sort of correct and sort of wrong. Yes, I have all the same desires for intellectual self-esteem that all reasonably clever people have. Of course I do. But I can lose an argument (and have!) without its particularly shaking my belief in my own cleverness. When I was twenty or so, I was probably even more convinced by my own cleverness than I am now. I used to have titanic debates with my philosophy professor, who was himself an Aquinas scholar. I now acknowledge that I was wrong in virtually all of these debates (except the existence of God) and I regret that I did not have the humility to listen more closely to a man who was obviously wiser and more learned (at least on philosophy) than I was. Many people seem to think that I have difficulty saying "I was wrong" or "I don't know," but I actually find these things very easy to say. I would be happy to give you a very large list of things I now believe I was wrong about and things that I don't know. Of course, I cannot give you a list of things that I am still wrong about. If I could do so, I would change my mind about these things.

On torturing small children for fun: I think you are failing to distinguish seeming obvious from being certain. Lots of things seem obvious that turn out to be false; the "argument from disagreement", while it is not at all a strong reason to conclude that moral realism is false, is in my view a conclusive refutation of the idea that moral realism is a safe inference from the fact that some moral propositions seem obvious. (Because, whatever the facts, we know that it's possible for a moral proposition to seem obvious to a reasonable person but not in fact be objectively correct.)

I do agree with a lot of this. The paradigmatic example would be the Copernican Revolution. We all look down our noses at those stupid ancients who weren't as clever as all of us are now to realize that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around. But they weren't stupid. It seems obvious that the sun revolves around the earth. We can see it doing so! The Copernican hypothesis - that the earth was revolving around the sun, but that the earth was also spinning without throwing all matter clinging to its surface into space - was a fantastic proposition (first advanced by Aristarchus 2000 years before Copernicus). It happened to be true. This does not mean that we should conclude that everyone except Aristarchus was an idiot. They considered Aristarchus's hypothesis, observed no stellar parallax (which Aristarchus could explain, but the distances that sustained his hypothesis were unimaginably gigantic), and dismissed his theory. This remained true until the data for this hypothesis became conclusive due to astronomical observations made with much better equipment than the ancients had.

Andrew Stevens said...

So what does this tell us? As you say, that just because it "seems obvious" does not make it absolutely certain. I concur. I am arguing for the proposition that if something seems obvious, we should accept it, unless we are presented with sufficient evidence or good arguments to show that it is not true. But we should not be misled by the Copernican example or others like it. Most things that seem obvious are in fact true and the evidence required to overturn a proposition that seems obvious ought to be very large. I am not arguing that my belief that "torturing children for the fun of it is wrong" is absolutely certain. I am arguing that it has not yet seen an argument which discharges that burden and so we should accept it. I also believe that all the arguments against it also rely on things that "seem obvious," but in my view should be rejected (e.g. the argument from disagreement) or at least are much less obvious-seeming than my moral proposition (e.g. "if moral values would exist, that would be very queer").

It seems obvious to a great many people that nothing other than material things can exist (and I believe is the central reason why people reject "torturing children of the fun of it is wrong"), but surely this shouldn't seem obvious. It's only modern people who have ever believed it and I am at a loss to explain why they are so convinced of it. It appears to be due to a widespread belief in what we could describe as the "scientific worldview" which assumes, for the purposes of science, that nothing immaterial exists. But this is not a proposition which has been proven by science; I know of no even hypothetical experiment which could possibly scientifically prove it (though of course there is a possibility that it is true). It is a methodological assumption so that we can first exhaust all possible material theories before science throws up its hands and gives up on a question. I honestly believe that the widespread confidence that no immaterial things exist is entirely based on this confusion - a confusion between the assumptions of science with the conclusions of science. For the record, I too accept the scientific worldview (mostly) and believe this methodological assumption is entirely appropriate for the purpose of scientific investigation. But I also agree with Quine that our best scientific theories "smuggle in" abstract objects (numbers) after all. If you scratch a scientist hard enough, I believe you usually find a Platonic realist or an immanent realist (which is what I am, for the record - I believe our inference to best explanation should be that moral values inhere in states of affairs and have no independent existence absent states of affairs). Ask a scientist/mathematician if he believes, absent human life, if three would still be a prime number.

Andrew Stevens said...

I also have a genuine question for you, which you might be able to answer, but which I have never been able to do. We all know the scientific explanation for how we see colors - reflection of light on certain wavelengths so we only see the reflected colors. My question is whether this is an explanation for how we see color or is the scientific claim that colors don't exist?

Andrew Stevens said...

It occurs to me, by the way, that part of the issue we had here was my own imprecision in language. I said "much less certain," but "much less obvious-seeming" would have been closer to the mark. Mea culpa. My disagreements with the argument from disagreement, the argument from queerness, and the argument from materialism actually have little, if anything, to do with moral realism. I too feel the initial plausibility of their premises, but ultimately I have to reject them and would have to do so even if I remained a moral anti-realist.

Andrew Stevens said...

I'm going to have to delay my response to this for a little longer, but let's discuss Frege-Geach. So here is a paradigmatic example:

It is wrong to tell lies.
If it is wrong to tell lies, then it is wrong to get your little brother to tell lies.
Therefore, it is wrong to get your little brother to tell lies.

This seems to make a lot of sense to me. I have no difficulty asserting this whole thing, with only minor caveats on the first premise (granting that there are some cases in which it is all right to tell lies). Your aesthetics example would go like this:

The Vitruvian Man is beautiful.
If the Vitruvian Man is beautiful, the Mona Lisa is beautiful.
Therefore, the Mona Lisa is beautiful.

I don't believe anybody seriously ever makes assertions like the second proposition. "If it is wrong to tell lies, then it is wrong to tell your little brother lies" seems completely unproblematic to me. However, your aesthetic example seems extremely problematic to me, such that I would ask anyone who uttered it why the hell they believed it. (Just because they were made by the same artist?) Are you saying that you find the moral part of the earlier syllogism just as problematic?

Andrew Stevens said...

I suppose I might say something like, "If you like the Vitruvian Man, then I think you will really like the Mona Lisa," but it would hardly surprise me much if I was mistaken.

Andrew Stevens said...

What I am saying is that if you are a prescriptivist non-cognitivist, it seems like part of the prescription would be refraining from saying things like "If it is wrong to tell lies, then it is wrong to tell your little brother lies." In a non-cognitivist view, this appears to be just meaningless noise.

I would also agree with this from the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy:

"Non-cognitivist success in handling the embedding problem and related worries about reasoning would put non-cognitivists in a stronger argumentative position. But some commentators have suggested that success at this endeavor might be a mixed blessing. Success may indicate not that non-cognitivism is the right account of moral judgments, but instead that the contrast with cognitivism is not stark enough to make out a real distinction. Perhaps the distinction between cognitivism and non-cognitivism collapses as non-cognitivist theories are modified to capture all of the phenomena that cognitivists challenge them to explain. While both its advocates and those who argued strenuously against it would likely find themselves somewhat disoriented if this were correct, it does seem that non-cognitivists would be most upset by this result. For their position was defined by denying key components of standard realist positions. If the cognitivist/non-cognitivist dichotomy does not hold up, it would seem to show either that the standard positions were not after all committed to those components, or that those commitments could not be avoided by plausible theories."

Andrew Stevens said...

Actually, let me strengthen your argument. Why don't we use "If all the works of Leonardo DaVinci are beautiful, then the Mona Lisa is beautiful" instead? This doesn't suffer from my objection and seems unproblematic to me. But aesthetics is cognitivist! (Albeit subjective.)

Actually, if you think that "X is wrong" is more like "X is sexy" or "X is beautiful" then you don't have to answer the Frege-Geach Problem anyway. That would make you an ethical subjectivist, which is a cognitivist view. You are saying that ethical sentences do express propositions about people's attitudes or opinions and that those propositions are truth-apt. You are correct that Frege-Geach does not apply to such a view because it is not a non-cognitivist view at all. Sigh. I do go on, don't I?

Andrew Stevens said...

and it's an unfortunate quirk of human psychology that if one person says, sounding confident and authoritative, "p!" and another responds only with "not-p!", then the former will likely be more convincing than the latter

That's the crux of it, I think. When I'm talking to you (Gareth McCaughan) on a thread on Mr. Rilstone's blog, I literally do not care what anyone but you (Gareth McCaughan) thinks about what I am saying or whether I am convincing the audience or you are convincing the audience or whatever. I am interested in objections to my arguments which I have never heard before (this is rare since I don't often debate things which I haven't thoroughly researched) and in explaining to my interlocutor why I believe what I believe, so they too can have access to the facts and arguments that have persuaded me to the position I have now. I think most people find it hard to wrap their heads around this part of my psychology which is why I went all autobiographical above - to explain why it is that I do not care. If you were secretly the quite brilliant J.L. Mackie and your knowledge of the literature was even more extensive than mine, you could match me point for point, and even make arguments which I had never heard before and which were devastating to my position, I would simply thank you afterwards for the education and giving me points to mull over while I reconsidered my position. I would not go away hating myself for how stupid I am. And if it turns out that you did convince me and I was wrong, then I was wrong. I've been wrong before (you can't imagine how disappointed I am in myself for not being more alive to the possibility that my problem was diabetes - it is scorchingly obvious in retrospect and I could have saved myself months of misery - to quote the musical Chess, "Don't forget the best will go wrong"). I'll be wrong again.

Andrew Stevens said...

One way to do it is to propose some sort of Platonist reality, but you can also do it purely formally and I think that works fine.

On both numbers and moral values, I am an immanent or Aristotelian or moderate realist (they all mean the same thing). I believe moral values inhere in states of affairs just as numbers inhere in countable objects, or colors inhere in colored objects, or species inhere in biological objects.

Let me explain what I mean when I say that I believe the laws of mathematics do really exist. They work. No matter what type of countable object we find, we find that 2+2 always equals four. Moreover, this isn't purely empirical. Upon reflection, we can satisfy ourselves that 2+2 will always equal four and would even in some completely separate universe. This is very different from discovering that every swan we observe is white. No matter how many white swans we discover, it is always possible to imagine a black swan and our opinion that "all swans are white" can only ever be a probable opinion. (Excepting if the color was simply part of the definition. So if our concept was "whiteswan," then a black swan would be a "blackswan," not a whiteswan. But we would still quickly realize that the whiteswans and blackswans were the same except for color.)

I conclude that the laws of mathematics exist in some rather strange (in our materialist viewpoint, but the Pythagoreans and everybody else throughout history did not find it strange) way. That they operate universally is quite surprising, when you think about it from a purely materialistic viewpoint. It is every bit as surprising as my claim about moral values and Quine was quite surprised when he was forced to admit the existence of numbers.

But my claim about moral values has similar sort of empirical evidence, in my opinion. In all cultures, the opinions of the wise seem to converge on particular views. There are a great many things which are (roughly) the same in Confucius as in Aristotle as in the Torah. I grew up with a pop culture which rather took for granted the wickedness of Voodoo (which seems to have started with the Haitian Revolution). But then I investigated the actual tenets of Voodoo and found them quite reasonable. Oh, not the ritual and superstitious stuff (which exists though not in the wildly inaccurate Hollywood form), but the basic morality preached and practiced by the practicioners of Voodoo.

Moreover, I can reflect (similarly to mathematics) and see what morality inheres in states of affairs. E.g. Mr. Rilstone thinks slavery and corporal and capital punishment are always wrong. In a Kantian way, I would say he is right. We can see the "wrongness" of compelling labor from someone or hitting or killing a defenseless person. I agree that those things are wrong in the abstract (the Platonic realm, if you will), but I am a Rossian deontological pluralist and think morality inheres in the complete circumstances or state of affairs. Slavery, in a very real way, was a moral advance on the usual root-and-branch slaughter of one's enemies (i.e. the ones who are competing with you for resources) and civilization would never have evolved without it. If you have a defeated enemy and you know (or at least believe) that you have three choice - kill them, enslave them, or have them come back to slaughter you in your sleep - it is no longer so obvious that this particular slavery is wrong. I am opposed to most capital punishment nowadays, in large part because we now have the alternative of life in prison, but I am not convinced it was wrong for the United States to execute Timothy McVeigh, even though I too am repelled by the idea of execution via lethal injection. I am similarly repelled by the idea of euthanasia, but the entirety of the circumstances can overcome my repulsion.

Andrew Stevens said...

If it seems to you that p, then that is evidence for p.

I think it's stronger than that. I think it's prima facie justification for believing it. Of course, that justification could be defeated by more evidence. But it seems to me there is a black box on the table in front of me. I think I am justified in believing that there really is a black box on the table in front of me and, on reflection, I have no reasons that I know of to believe I am deceived. I can convince myself pretty easily that I'm not dreaming (dreams can be confused with reality, but reality is too forceful to be confused with a dream) and I have no reason to think I'm hallucinating or being fooled by a Cartesian demon or that I'm a brain in a vat. Sure, that doesn't absolutely prove it, but I think that's an inappropriate criteria for justified beliefs. By that standard, virtually no beliefs can be justified. It also seems to me that all causes are local and that there is no action from a distance, but the best science I know of tells me this is actually a false seeming. Integrating this into my worldview did not, in the end, disturb my other common sense opinions or disturb much the opinions of the wise (other than Einstein). So perhaps I was just misled by the scientific worldview of our times. (After all, it doesn't appear to have seemed to most people through history that there was no action from a distance. They could probably have easily believed it.)

Andrew Stevens said...

To circle back to my evidence, if, in fact, there are no moral values, then it seems odd to me that these opinions on the core of morality should converge. In other words, I am using an "argument from agreement." Why did all these wise people, who could not possibly have influenced each other, come to such similar opinions? Why do my own reflections seem to agree with theirs? When they did make errors (they all justified slavery), we can see why they might have done so due to the totality of their circumstances. From a modern analogy, the environmentalists may be right in their doomsday-saying, but none of them actually act as if they believe what they say. It is just too hard to give up the internal combustion engine and electrification in our current society just as it was too hard to give up slavery or other forms of compulsory labor in ancient/medieval societies. Almost all our labor is done that way. Once we have economically feasible alternatives to fossil fuels, we all (including the environmentalists) may look incredibly wicked to our descendants.

Andrew Stevens said...

By the way, since I grant the justice of your critique of my not producing links: This article is an excellent one giving the arguments for and against mathematical fictionalism. If I were committed to the view that there is no such thing as abstract objects, this is the argument I would want to maintain. Since I am not committed to such a view (in large part because I do not believe mathematical fictionalism or other nominalist positions can explain mathematics), the existence of moral values is unproblematic to me.

Andrew Stevens said...

I do, of course, concede the possibility that in the future, some philosopher/mathematician far cleverer than I am will be able to answer all my objections and explain exactly how mathematics appears to work in a universe which actually contains no mathematics. But I do not believe that day has yet come.

Andrew Stevens said...

It's been so long that I had forgotten that you have denied ethical subjectivism. I'm not sure I can quite classify your view then. For what it's worth, I think ethical subjectivism is wrong as a descriptive matter. When somebody (really anybody) says, "The Beatles are great and anyone who disagrees with me is wrong!" they are almost invariably joking. They don't really mean that. In other words, people do generally subscribe to aesthetic subjectivism (I am more of an objectivist about aesthetics than most people since I do believe that the craftsmanship of artificial works of art can be objectively judged even though there are obviously subjective components as well, i.e. "taste"). However, when people say, "Racism is bad!" they do indeed mean and believe that the people who disagree with them are wrong. So, descriptively, humans are not ethical subjectivists. One can be a prescriptivist ethical subjectivist and say, "Well, yes, we aren't ethical subjectivists by nature, but we ought to be." I would reply, "Yes, but that's just your opinion" and he would have no response to that.

Gareth McCaughan said...

I'm afraid I can't accept even "that if something seems obvious, we should accept it, unless we are presented with sufficient evidence or good arguments to show that it is not true".

Suppose you go to a magic show. The magician takes a card and hands it to a volunteer who shuffles it into the pack while the magician's back is turned. He takes the pack back and shuffles it himself. At this point you get an urgent message and have to leave. It likely "seems obvious" to you at this point that the magician doesn't know where in the pack that card is, and you've left too early in the trick to have any actual evidence or arguments to show that it's not true -- but I wouldn't recommend accepting it. (It might be true; the trick might work a different way. Maybe he has another three copies of the same card in his pockets.)

The general point here: while obviousness is certainly prima facie (and pro tanto) evidence for a thing, there are plenty of situations where its evidential force is greatly weakened by means other than having evidence against the thing itself. I think this is so in the case of moral obviousness. The fact that it's obvious to person A that thing X is right is evidence, as you say, that there are objective moral values, that we can perceieve them, and that thing X is right. And the fact that it's obvious to person B that thing X is wrong is evidence that there are objective moral values, that we can perceive themm, and that thing X is wrong. Put them together, though, and the collision greatly weakens their value as evidence not only for the specific propositions about X (which are weakened in the "usual" way by the presentation of counter-evidence) but also as evidence for the generalities about moral values. Just as seeing a video of a politician saying in an interview "You know, I really hate black people" and a video of him saying at the same point in the same interview "You know, I really hate white people" fails to be good evidence even for the proposition (on which both videos agree) that he said he hated some ethnic group.

This isn't the only reason for suspicion about intuitions of obviousness for moral propositions; another is that so far as I know no one has given a convincing account of what moral judgements, if they are factual propositions, actually mean or what the causal connection is between their truth and their obviousness to us.

(A couple of your comments seem to imply that I'm saying, or assuming, something like "if a thing isn't absolutely certain then we shouldn't believe it"; I don't believe that, and unless I've screwed up it isn't either a premise or a conclusion of anything I'm saying.)

Gareth McCaughan said...

A few words on my own position. I'm not sure it fits perfectly into any of the usual pigeonholes. I called it "kinda-sorta noncognitivist", which I think is right. You describe it as subjectivist, but again I think that's only kinda-sorta correct.

Specifically, you say "You are saying that ethical sentences do express propositions about people's attitudes or opinions and that those propositions are truth-apt", but that isn't quite right. When I say "torturing small children for fun is wrong", I am not saying the same as when I say "I feel that torturing small children for fun is wrong", although of course there is a close relationship between those utterances. Suppose I learn that tomorrow I will abruptly become some sort of weird sadist and stop finding it wrong to torture children for fun. Then I could rightly say "Next week I will not feel that torturing small children for fun is wrong", but not "Next week torturing small children for fun will not be wrong." I would regard "Next week, 'torturing small children for fun is wrong' will be true" as more true than false. And when I say "torturing small children for fun is wrong" I am not talking about my beliefs, feelings, opinions, etc.; if I suffered some sort of brain damage that made me oblivious to my own personhood and ability to believe and feel, I might well (at least so far as I know; I am no neurologist) continue to make much the same moral judgements and mean much the same by them as I do now.

So if you want to express my position in terms of some sort of translation that refers to my attitudes or opinions, the translation has to be applied to whole sentences or larger units, not to individual moral judgements contained therein even if those have propositional form; and you have to be content with only existensional equivalence between my utterances and your translation. On my view, "Torturing children for fun is wrong" considered as an isolated proposition doesn't strictly speaking have truth conditions, not even ones involving my own mental machinery, but if you take a complete utterance I make that includes such statements you probably can find a proposition that's true iff my utterance is in some sense "right". But I think that last thing is true of anyone who uses moral language at all, on any theory at all of what they're doing when they do, and doesn't suffice to make me a cognitivist.

I realise that most of what I've said about my position is negative. A brief more-positive (but still admittedly vague) sketch: Moral judgements are things our brains generate in the same sort of way as they do judgements about beauty, comfort, redness, trustworthiness, sexiness, and so forth. They tend to feel to us like perceptions. We build moral systems out of them, aiming for various kinds of coherence, we speak of them propositionally because that's just how language works, and we reason about them with the same mental machinery as we do for reasoning about other things because that's what we've got. That usually works OK because there is some degree of coherence to our moral systems (by explicit design, and because we get those systems by reasoning about morals, and I think because moral judgements are about things in the world that behave in ways our reasoning is designed to handle) but not perfectly.

Gareth McCaughan said...

I have definitely heard people say things that amount to "if X is beautiful then Y is beautiful". Usually what they mean is something like "X and Y are sufficiently the same sort of thing that X's merits are Y's too, and Y is done better than X". I think some such statements are pretty reasonable and some aren't. I feel much the same way about parallel moral statements.

Of course "trivial" examples like "if telling lies is always wrong then some speech acts are wrong" are less problematic, but I don't think those offer much ground for objecting to non-cognitivist theories. (Arguably "If eggs are both sadfndsalf and awleriajeai, then eggs are sadfndsalf" is "true" even if those gibberish pseudowords have no actual meaning at all; trivial combinations of moral judgements could be like that.)

"If telling lies is wrong then getting your little brother to tell lies is wrong", though, isn't a trivial example. It's more like the Vitruvian Man example, and indeed I think it's highly debatable (quite aside from debates about moral realism; i.e., I think moral realists should not necessarily believe it and moral non-realists should not necessarily endorse it). It seems to rely on a peculiar combination of deontological ("it is wrong to do X") and consequentialist ("if you get your brother to do X then X will happen, and X happening is a bad state of affairs") thinking. I am a consequentialist, and I would say that telling lies is usually wrong; usually it does more harm than good. The same is true (for approximately the same reasons) of getting your little brother to lie. But this falls short of whole-hearted endorsement of the proposition that "telling lies is wrong". On the other hand, a deontologist might endorse that proposition whole-heartedly -- but there's no particular reason why they should say the same of "gettting your brother to tell lies is wrong"; lying and inducing lying are different things. (Though I expect most deontologists would evaluate the two in about the same way.)

Of course none of that makes your example a bad one for Frege-Geach; the Frege-Geach argument doesn't depend on any particular proposition or argument being correct, only on their being meaningful and possible to argue about. And in the paragraph above, I've been arguing about them. Have I refuted my own position? No, I haven't; my argument, as you will see, is about whether a given person should endorse P if they endorse Q. Arguing about that is a lot like arguing about whether Q logically entails P, but it isn't quite the same, and I think the differences are good ones: e.g., it does feel as if there would be something incoherent about opposing lying but not opposing inducing-to-lie, even though in purely logical terms those are independent things; and, contrariwise, while logically "if it is wrong to tell lies then it is wrong to tell lies when the alternative is having your family tortured to death" is impeccable most of us would be disinclined to endorse it.

(As discussed above, my position is only kinda-sorta non-cognitivist, and is also kinda-sorta subjectivist, so it isn't necessarily a big surprise if Frege-Geach doesn't sink it.)

Gareth McCaughan said...

I think you overstate the quality of the matchup between the laws of mathematics and the physical world. For instance, if we allow two things and two other things to come into close proximity, we may very well find that we have some number of things other than four. So we have to retreat to statements like "if we have two things and two other things, and they don't interact but we merely contemplate them, then we find that what we are contemplating is four things". Which means that we aren't actually confirming 2+2=4 by repeated observation, we're decreeing disconfirmations irrelevant.

I don't think the convergence (such as it is) of the moral opinions of the wise is very startling. We all have more or less the same brain hardware. Not so very many generations back, we all have the same ancestors. Our societies differ but the problems they are trying to solve have a lot in common. Nonrealist accounts of the origin of moral judgements will involve evolutionary ideas: societies in which X and Y are met with condemnation survive better because Z; individuals who react to X and Y with condemnation will prosper more because Z; individuals who refrain from doing X and Y will prosper more because Z (in this last case, Z may be "... others around them react to X and Y with condemnation"). And sociological ideas: those with influence will tend to teach others to condemn X and Y because Z; if everyone else is condemning X and Y, others will learn to do the same. Etc. And a lot of the specific just-so stories of these sorts that one can tell, it seems to me, work just the same in any society and/or take place among our distant common ancestors. So I would expect a great deal of similarity between moral systems, even in different societies.

Gareth McCaughan said...

I don't think I can answer your question about colours because I'm not sure what it really means. I don't think "do such-and-such things really exist?" is necessarily a question with a definite answer. For instance: within the system of pure mathematics, all sorts of remarkable abstract things "exist". Many of them, so far as we know, don't correspond directly to any object or phenomenon in the physical world. So do they "really" exist? I don't think there's a fact of the matter about that. As for colours, colour and colour perception are really complicated and almost everyone (myself certainly included) understands it very imperfectly, but there certainly are facts about how various materials absorb and transmit and scatter and reflect light, and for some purposes those facts are resaonably well summarized by our usual talk of colours even though the summarizing throws away some information and distorts some. Whether you choose to describe that state of affairs by saying "colours don't exist" is really just a matter of language, I think.

Gareth McCaughan said...

(I've put all my replies in one place, further down.)

Andrew Stevens said...

I am still fully considering all your replies. In order to preserve our host's sensibilities, I am going to move this discussion to email, however. I sent an email to the email address I was able to find for you.