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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Some thoughts on the concepts of "objective" and "subjective" that are in play

Moving on

I'll return, maybe tomorrow, to some loose ends about the Sam Harris debate. Meanwhile, I note the info from one commenter that Harris has now apologised to Sean Carroll. I'm not sure exactly what he said (though I'll check), but it sounds like a very positive move; hopefully Sean will be able accept the apology, and that will help us all move on constructively.

Meanwhile, this post is a slightly re-edited and slightly enlarged version of a long comment that I just made over at RD.net, where I began by saying that those of us who say there is a subjective element in morality are really saying that morality has something to do with the psychology of individual human beings, which may, indeed, be similar amongst all (or almost all) human beings. Hume would have been fascinated by recent psychological research, but he'd probably think it confirmed his views (morality is based on human nature) rather than undermining them. It was important to Hume that we all share fundamental sympathies as part of our psychological makeup. We have a natural empathy, at least for other humans (and probably beyond), a natural unwillingness to cause suffering.

For now, I'll stick with this rather than trying to sort out where I agree and disagree, line by line, with the reply to critics by Harris. The latter would be incredibly time-consuming and would lead to a book-length post.

Objective, subjective - oh my!

What sophisticated subjectivists are saying is not that morality cannot be studied objectively. We are saying that it does not come from a supernatural or metaphysical source or from some kind of pure reasoning that leaves out contingent facts about human psychology. The classic "objectivist" positions, such as those of Plato, Kant, and Divine Command theory deny this. Modern Kant-like theories such as those of Thomas Nagel, Christine Korsgaard, and Alan Gewirth appear to do likewise, though we could get into some very interesting debates about the subtleties of those theories. By contrast, such classic theories as those of Hobbes and Hume relied on claims about actual human nature, in all its contingency.

I'm with Hobbes and Hume. Although it's a very large claim to make, and I can't defend it here, I think that modern psychological research should incline us to take the side of Hobbes and Hume, rather than the side of Plato, or Kant, or Divine Command theory.

As I've said elsewhere on this blog, part of the problem seems to be that various conceptions of "objective"/"objectivist" and "subjective"/"subjectivist" are in play. Sam Harris' position could be described as a subjectivist one insofar as he avoids such things as Kantian pure practical reasoning (which is supposed to apply to all rational creatures, irrespective of their psychological makeup), Platonic metaphysical ideas, the will of God, and so on. He wants to ground morality in human psychology (just as the arch-subjectivist, Hume, did).

Moral naturalism

However, his response is to adopt a position known as moral naturalism. I.e. he seems to want to define "morally right", "morally wrong", etc., in terms of facts about the natural world, basically facts about well-being. Leaving aside whether we have a non-moralised conception of well-being for humans, this is, of course, remote from the classic "objectivist" positions with their supernatural, metaphysical, etc., claims.

Part of the problem is that Harris simply didn't express this very well when he said something like "values are facts about the welfare of conscious creatures". That caused a lot of confusion. If he is advocating moral naturalism, he should say, "moral facts are facts about the welfare of conscious creatures". It sounded as if he was trying to say something much more direct than he apparently was about the fact/value distinction.

The trouble with moral naturalism, is that it seems to leave open whether you actually ought to act morally! Since morality is no longer defined in terms of what you ought to do, but in terms of facts about the natural world, moral claims translate in a way that does not immediately give you a reason to act on them.

To try to explain this, a non-naturalist says:

"It is morally good to avoid torturing babies."

This translates as:

"Torturing babies is something you ought to avoid doing."

I.e. the sentence is making a claim about what you ought to do and not do. The claim may be true or it may be false, but there's no doubt that such a claim is being made.

But the naturalist translates the sentence as, for example:

"Torturing babies causes pain to conscious creatures."

This sentence makes no claim as to whether we ought to do it or not. For most people, that is surprising. We take it that moral claims are supposed to be action-guiding, telling us what we ought or ought not to do, rather than just providing facts about the world. (This is the kind of thing that is at stake in the confusing debates about "internalism", "externalism", etc.)

I could be told by a naturalist, "It is morally good to avoid torturing babies." I then translate it using the naturalist's definition of "morally good". And I am then entitled to complain, "But you still haven't told me whether I ought to do it!"

So the naturalist still needs some kind of story about what I ought to do. And again, that story is likely to involve things about human psychology - I want to avoid causing pain and so on - rather than things about the will of God or the existence of metaphysical properties or whatever. The total story about how I should act is still going to involve those sorts of elements.

Human psychology again

I don't think Sam Harris necessarily wants to deny any of this, but when he uses language such as "objective" he opens this entire can of worms. That's (partly) why I keep saying that it would be better to abandon the traditional language which has all this baggage and instead say, with some kind of rhetorical flourish that we know he is capable of: "Morality is not arbitrary. It is based on human needs and human values. Those values (typically?) relate to the welfare of conscious creatures."

Again, the arch-subjectivist, David Hume, would agree with this. As far as I can see, the arch "moral sceptic", JL Mackie, would also agree with it. Mackie's vaunted scepticism amounts to this: he thinks that anything like the classic objectivist positions is wrong; but he also thinks that something like this pervades everyday moral thinking; therefore he concludes that an element of error pervades everyday moral thinking. I tend to agree. But most people have not read the second half of Mackie's book (Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong). He certainly doesn't think that this error is fatal to our ability to engage in moral reasoning. Again, I agree.

And, to labour the point, those of us like me, Hume, and Mackie, who say that morality has a subjective element, are not simply saying (unless we have been hit by the stupidity stick and have become very unsophisticated) that "It's all relative, man," or "Dude, it's all subjective". We are saying that morality can be studied objectively, that many objectively-true statements will result, but that many of the important ones will be about the psychology of human beings. Thus, we are denying the classic "objectivist" positions that ruled this out, at least at the base of morality, and found the basis of morality in something outside human nature, and in that sense "objective": say, a Platonic form or the will of God or objectively-binding pure practical reasoning.

My point about psychopaths related to this. It was that we can easily imagine rational beings (not necessarily, as I pointed out, like real psychopaths ... we might have to imagine a Martian human-eating monster) who do not share our psychological makeup, and act differently from us, even in ways we'd consider immoral, without making any mistake of reason. We can imagine that these beings are not mistaken about any matter of fact and are not reasoning poorly. The point was directed at such positions as Kantianism, and Harris should actually agree with it.

David Hume can out-consume ...

We don't even (necessarily) need to say that there is an unbridgeable "is"/"ought" gap. Even Hume didn't say that when you look up the famous passage in the Treatise on Human Nature. Rather, he complained that many philosophers go from sentences containing "is" to sentences containing "ought" with no explanation of how they did it. Read it closely. Then, when you read the passage in the larger context of the Treatise he appears to be saying that the explanation will always have to involve such things as human desires. In other words, Hume thought that the way we bridge the "is"/"ought" gap is via human psychology.

I don't think that Harris really disagrees with this, either, but maybe he'll turn up and correct me. In any event, he's very hard on Hume in his response to his critics ... but the reason to go back to Hume isn't to argue from authority, as he seems to think his critics are doing. It's to look at the original arguments that are actually more powerful and subtle than the parodies and drastically abbreviated versions that are thrown around freely in much of the discussion today. Admittedly, they have never obtained universal acceptance from philosophers, but nor have they ever been decisively refuted. Going back to what Hume actually said is a good way to get our bearings.

18 comments:

J.J.E. said...

This appears to my uneducated eye to be well-reasoned and persuasive. As a result, I suspect it will get less attention than it deserves because you aren't poking someone in the eye or expressing a fundamental disagreement in the "you're completely wrong!" sense.

Anyway, I hope I'm wrong as I think your attempt at arriving at consensus is rather a rather productive read.

Michael said...

For what it's worth, I did 3 blog posts defending a very similar position a few weeks before the Harris talk. The discussion has gone to a stage where people who see things more like Harris just seem to be talking a completely different language...

If anyone's interested, post 1, post 2, post 3.

I'm basically in alignment with this blog and think that whilst science certainly can tell us what maximises things like human happiness it does not build a moral system from the ground up. But for me, this just suggests that metaethics has been a red herring -- I'd rather we got onto using science to maximise human welfare since non-sociopaths do in fact agree that this is something worth pursuing, rather than having arguments about whether our own intuitions can be derived from "is" statements...

josef said...

Russell, I think there are many cases where people say "subjective" when all they really meant was "not objective". They aren't trying to indicate anything positive by saying subjective so much as they are trying to say that whatever morality is, it isn't found in any set of third person facts to be met with in experience.

Sean Carroll, for instance, said that what counts as moral "depends on the person", and by that he didn't mean that it depends on facts about their psychology. He meant that they choose to refer to different things when they used the concept "moral", and that the subject dependency had everything to do with what the person chose to denote as the moral. He doesn't deny that the psychological facts exist but he does deny that there is any such thing as "data" that can tell us what is and isn't moral.

I didn't introduce the word stupidity stick into this discussion, but that seems to be exactly the position Carroll is putting forward, as well as thousands of others who Harris was responding to who aren't philosophers and probably millions more throughout society.

So I think this problem is not unlike the problem that christian apologists typically have with affirmative atheists (to use John Wilkins' term). Yes, there are fundamentalist christians, but there are also many thoughtful scholars who far more sophisticated and the objection is affirmative atheists paid no attention to them. The easy (and quite correct) reply is that their case against the tens of millions (hundreds of millions) of people for whom their case does hold true. As such, it is still an exceptionally important problem.

And I think Harris' response to you might be exactly the same. Yes, lots of people really do believe in this brand of naive moral subjectivity. And not just laypeople, but very educated people, Harris gives an example in his response to criticism. Which means his book addresses a serious problem and a widespread misconception just the same.

That is probably an unsatisfying response though. But I think there is even a more material point to make- that naive moral subjectivity ("it's all relative man") blends indistinguishably into a non-naive version. And from one side of the spectrum, this makes people who come from the naive-subjectivity think they have a more compelling case than they really do, because they can deny that there are any facts of the matter, and when you make clear that there are facts about psychology that are directly material to human well being, they can say "yeah, well that's grounded in the subject" without understanding how big a concession that is (I've had several conversations where people made this pivot). And then in future conversations they can deny all over again that there are any moral facts, when they might otherwise have been inspired to do some soul searching.

And on the other side of the spectrum, there are those who can't simply accept that there is a difference in well being between Micheal Phelps and the Besotho child who will die of starvation by the time you get to the end of this sentence, without first cautioning us that the word "moral" is used differently in different cultural contexts.

There are enough clear cut cases that we ought to be able to form a baseline of agreement, and importantly, a baseline that concedes the fundamental point being put forward by Harris. Yet this doesn't happen. In practice, people ignore this obvious baseline and skip right to the difficult questions, which is kind of like postponing judgment on whether a forest exists because you don't know how to classify a tree you found in it.

Brian said...

but the reason to go back to Hume isn't to argue from authority, as he seems to think his critics are doing. It's to look at the original arguments that are actually more powerful and subtle than the parodies and drastically abbreviated versions that are thrown around freely in much of the discussion today.

I think that applies to just about all of Hume's philosophy. He was a canny Scot that Davie.

I was gonna disagree with you when you started talking about naturalistic morality as not including the strong feeling that we ought not do what we feel is wrong. But then you included it under the psychology. I think the Treatise is part cognitive psychology, part philosophy in any case.

Russell Blackford said...

Just be careful, though, not to confuse "naturalistic morality" with "moral naturalism". Anything you hear from me will be naturalistic, in the sense that nothing supernatural is involved. Moral naturalism is something more specific.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, Josef, there are also vulgar atheists, vulgar objectivists, etc. In fact, the vulgar objectivists, many of whom are Divine Command theorists, are people from whom one should especially dissociate oneself. For one, their theory is incoherent. For another, they are often unpleasant in various ways.

Unfortunately, we always have vulgar thises and thats with us. Btw, I'm not agreeing that Sean is a vulgar subjectivist - I think most of what he has written can be translated quite easily into language that I'd defend. However, it's true that he hasn't delved deeply into Hume in the way that I suggested. But neither has Sam.

When all this blows over, what will be left behind is that Sam appears to be defending a form of moral naturalism, but that moral naturalism has its own problems. Also, some things could have been worded better even as an exposition of moral naturalism (assuming I'm right that that's his position).

Still, he's making an important point that morality is, if not actually "objective" as this was meant in many of the classic objectivist theories, at least not just arbitrary; and that we have a non-arbitrary basis for attacking, say, the Taliban's moral system. I certainly agree with this, and perhaps it's the really important political point. I did say from Day 1 that I thought what he said was well-presented and approximately true.

But there are problems with the metaethical stuff, and we might as well identify them, especially when he's asking for intelligent feedback. I still (fondly?) think that some of our points should be helpful to him once he digests them.

Brian said...

Anything you hear from me will be naturalistic, in the sense that nothing supernatural is involved.

Yeah, I gathered that after a bit. It was the use of natural that confused me. Never a more misused word I reckon. I hold that there is only the natural (as opposed to supernatural) world, until there's some objective (or intersubjective) evidence. So like you, any moral explanation of theory has to be natural.

Russell Blackford said...

Btw, I've now looked at Michael's links above. His discussions, and the ensuing threads, are well worth looking at.

Blake Stacey said...

By contrast, such classic theories as those of Hobbes and Hume relied on claims about actual human nature, in all its contingency.

This is where science fiction and its ability to stimulate the imagination could be quite useful. What would be the desires and thus the moral principles of, say, sentient jellyfish? Of the Splinter-dwellers or the Amalgam citizens in Greg Egan's Incandescence? Of V'Ger?

DEEN said...

I took Sam Harris' message to be that morality should be about how people experience the effects of a moral system, which to a certain degree can be objectively argued. But I don't think he denied that it also has a subjective element, in that it depends on our own desires - including our desire to be moral.

But I think Sam Harris' point here was that these desires themselves are facts about the world, and thus can be studied by science. We could find out how common they are. Or what part of the brain causes them. Whether they are genetic or cultural. This information could definitely be useful in shaping our moral system.

Sam Harris probably shouldn't have called such a system "objective" though, given the historic usage of the word. While to a certain extent it may make morality more quantifiable, there will always be an element of choice in there. How do we weigh the data? How do we apply it? Do we even want to think about morality this way at all? And what if we don't like the conclusions?

My personal thoughts on moral systems are that we should give up our desire for a single, universal, pure, logical, complete and consistent morality. I simply don't think it's going to work. I'd compare it to how we have given up our search for the perfectly consistent and complete mathematics, ever since Gödel should us that this goal could never be reached. But that doesn't mean mathematics is dead or useless. In the same way, realizing that morality is always going to be incomplete or inconsistent isn't going to kill moral reasoning either.

Instead, I think we should focus on how to incrementally improve the moral system as it works in practice. Sam Harris' proposal of including the scientific method should fit very well with this.

DEEN said...

"...ever since Gödel showed us..."

Why do I always see these things only after I push "submit"?

March Hare said...

Having posted on this topic a few times now since Sam's talk (sometimes you might end up contradicting yourself, but there is no better way to clarify your own thoughts than to engage with other people) I have come to a conclusion on why I disagree with Sam on such a visceral level.

A moral decision, or position, is made up of several, sometimes hundreds of, individual components. Different people weigh each of these components differently, e.g I give zero weight to whether it agrees with the bible or not but others have that weighted strongly. Virtually all of these components can be objectively tested and scored. What cannot be objectively said is what weight we should attach to each of these components.

What Sam has done is to somehow aggregate all these individual components, and their subjective weightings, into one catch-all called "well-being of conscious creatures".

This gross caricature doesn't even work with animals that have different personalities, let alone humans with their belief systems, both religious and political, that massively change the weightings on the various components that Sam has rolled up into one.

DEEN said...

@March Hare:
"I give zero weight to whether it agrees with the bible or not but others have that weighted strongly... What cannot be objectively said is what weight we should attach to each of these components."
Not entirely true. I think you are over-generalizing in the other direction. Take your example about agreeing with the Bible. There is some pretty objective evidence that the Bible should not be regarded as a reliable source of divine revelation. It is also self-contradictory and has content that is generally morally rejected (such as the endorsement of slavery). This means that the weight factor assigned to "does it agree with the Bible" should be very low or zero.

That other people might want to assign a higher weight factor doesn't make assigning weight factors subjective. It can also mean that those other people are simply wrong to rely on the Bible so much - wrong in a quite objective way.

March Hare said...

@DEEN,

This means that the weight factor assigned to "does it agree with the Bible" should be very low or zero.

Unless they're right!

I take your point that if there is some way to objectively or logically rule out a component of someone's morality then we can remove that from their preferences, ideally with their agreement. I just don't see how that's possible for most things, especially since religious belief is, by its very nature, illogical.

Plus, removing a component from someone's moral toolbox, even for a perfect reason, means that you will never get a moral consensus, even if you get the morally right decision.

e.g. If someone had a belief that rocks mattered more than humans because they contained the souls of a higher race of creatures and every time we damaged a rock we hurt them, then how do you convince them that their preferences shouldn't be weighted towards the effect on rocks? I couldn't just remove it from their moral preference/component list, and would struggle to use logic against someone with such a belief. Their preferences are their preferences and that's that.

Although there is a pragmatic argument that all moral positions have to be backed up by a reason and that reason has to be backed up by evidence, but that's a practical consideration.

has content that is generally morally rejected

Which is irrelevant. What the majority have considered and rejected morally doesn't count in this discussion. Any internal conflicts or 'morally abhorrent*' ideas in the bible simply lead to many people weighting it low, but doesn't mean a believer would, or even ought to.

*to the prevailing popular opinion of today

DEEN said...

@March Hare:
"Plus, removing a component from someone's moral toolbox, even for a perfect reason, means that you will never get a moral consensus, even if you get the morally right decision."

That is correct, you'll never get a full consensus. I think we'll just have to learn to live with this, just like we'll have to learn to live with the fact that there is no such thing as a full consensus in science.

But it's important to note that not all moral toolboxes are equal.

"e.g. If someone had a belief that rocks mattered more than humans because they contained the souls of a higher race of creatures and every time we damaged a rock we hurt them, then how do you convince them that their preferences shouldn't be weighted towards the effect on rocks?"

But this is again a moral reasoning based on a factual claim ("rocks contain souls and can feel pain"). Whether we should give this any moral weight completely depends on whether this claim is true or not. So the question of assigning weights has a lot to do with finding out how the world really is.

"Although there is a pragmatic argument that all moral positions have to be backed up by a reason and that reason has to be backed up by evidence, but that's a practical consideration."
No, I'd say that too is to a large degree a moral decision, not just a practical one: do we even have the moral imperative to base our moral decisions on reliable knowledge about the world? If so, then we also have the moral imperative to use the most reliable methods for gathering and testing our knowledge.

And that's where the trouble is. Religious people claim that religion provides a reliable way of knowing. Atheists (well, most of them, anyway) claim it doesn't. One of these claims must be wrong, it's not just about personal preferences.

RichardW said...

Russell wrote:
>>However, his response is to adopt a position known as moral naturalism. I.e. he seems to want to define "morally right", "morally wrong", etc., in terms of facts about the natural world, basically facts about well-being.<<

I don't see much evidence that he's taking that position. I think it's unwise to attribute any one position to him, since he seems unaware of what the alternative positions are, and seems to slide between several. Sometimes he seems to think he can derive an "ought" from an "is". (If not, it's hard to understand the vehemence of his response to Carroll's assertion that one can't.) Other times he seems to accept that moral facts must be based on unjustifiable axioms (which would presumably supply the initial "ought" from which others could be derived). On another occasion he seems to make moral facts relative to goals:

>>Everyone also has an intuitive “morality,” but much intuitive morality is wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective wellbeing) and only genuine moral experts would have a deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal wellbeing.<<

By the way, I've only just listened to the original talk, and to be fair it isn't nearly as bad as the follow-up article.

G Felis said...

RichardW: I'd say you're correct about the difficulty in interpreting Harris' position on many of these issues - and that in fact you're probably being a little too kind to him. Sam Harris has simply not done the hard work needed to understand the historical and ongoing arguments in ethical theory and metaethics - the context in which the argument he wishes to make must be situated. Perhaps these arguments have not settled very much, but they have at least established some shared terminology and made important distinctions: Without knowing the terminology and understanding the important distinctions (and the reasons for them), Harris cannot help but be confused - and to introduce still more confusion when he attempts to engage with his critics.

Philosophy may be where all the unanswered questions live, and may not get a lot of respect thereby, but at least we try to avoid these kinds of messes. Or, as Sydney Morgenbesser famously described our collective work: "You make a few distinctions. You clarify a few concepts. It’s a living."

Robert Oerter said...

A distinction that seems to keep getting missed in all this is between the personal and the political. Harris seems to be primarily addressing politics: What are the governing structures that most effectively lead to ______, where the blank should be filled in (according to Harris) by "maximizing the well-being of conscious beings." On the other hand there is the personal dimension: What rules should I live by in order to _________, where the blank is filled in according to one's favorite definition of moral behavior. I suppose Harris would fill in the blank in the same way here. But I'm not at all sure the two answers need be the same.