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

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Unpalatable truths

I seem to spend a lot of time defending three propositions that many people find unpalatable. Put as innocuously as I can manage, they are that:

1. No gods exist.

2. We don't have free will - at least in the sense that's believed by many people (let's put a question mark over compatibilism, which is, well, compatible with what I'm saying here).

3. There's something about morality that is, as we say, not objective (even though the crude kinds of relativism and subjectivism don't hold up).

This view of the world runs up against a lot of what passes for common sense (though a lot of what passes for common sense is, I submit, probably not even coherent and certainly not well-evidenced).

I'd like to start a conversation about unpalatable truths. In particular, it's going to be difficult enough convincing people to give up their religious beliefs, let alone also asking them to become moral sceptics (or "skeptics", since most of my readers seem to be American). Atheism sounds scary to many, but moral scepticism sounds even worse. I'd like to see Richard Garner's Beyond Morality get more readers, since it shows how moral scepticism may not be as scary in its practical results as it sounds ... and the book is quite accessible to educated readers who don't necessarily have a background in philosophy. I don't agree with every single claim in Garner's book, but it's probably the best introduction Out There to sceptical thought in this area, where "best" takes into account accessibility.

I'm not going to stop defending these unpalatable truths (which is what they seem to me to be), because, well, that's kind of what I do as a philosopher: I try to get to the bottom of issues like this. But it really is going to be an unpalatable view of the world for most people, and it raises once again the question of what tactics we should adopt if we're trying to win hearts and minds and to change the world. Should we really be pushing our total view of the world, no matter how unpalatable, at any political cost? As I say, I intend to continue doing so, but it's at least not obvious that this is the best thing to do. (Relativise "best" to whatever values or goals you find salient here, as per earlier discussions.  I won't say this each time.)

39 comments:

Ray said...

I think the root of the problem here is that for each unpalatable truth, there is an abstract concept that is
1)widely considered important
2)widely understood to depend on some untenable belief.

The available approaches are to reject the concept entirely, or to see how much of the concept we can save. In the case of free will, the Compatibilists take this approach and are widely respected in philosophical circles. I think Sam is attempting to do the same thing for morality. Something similar can be done for God too, but the cost (either a very minimalist pantheism, or the admission that God only exists within the mind of the believer) seems far to high to make the pursuit worthwhile.

I think, whether Harris succeeds or not, morality can be saved in a usable and recognizable form. In any case, i support something like compatibilism as a public outreach strategy for all of these things except gods, which I think to be a rotten concept all the way to the core.

GTChristie said...

1. No gods exist.
In the absence of actual facts either way, the only properly logical position is agnostic. For that reason, I ignore god/religion in my work as much as possible, which makes it thoroughly and unremittingly secular.

2. We don't have free will
This presumes that "the will" is something real. Everyone seems to understand it, but nobody demonstrates that it exists. I say it's a convenient metaphor for conscious decision making, not a specific function or feature of mind or brain: ie, not an empirically observable thing. If it makes no sense to speak of "the will" (because it isn't real) it also makes no sense to debate its freedom. Freedom Is Radical

3. There's something about morality that is, as we say, not objective (even though the crude kinds of relativism and subjectivism don't hold up).
Agreed, as far as it goes. Not objective enough to be a science, certainly, though moral behavior can be studied as an anthropological phenomenon.

As for skepticism, my version is limited to the belief that "there are no moral facts." I am certainly not skeptical about ethics , since that is an observable behavior in human beings.

Unable to keep a straight face for two minutes back to back, my first reaction to this post was, "Oh, good, Russell wants to have an unpalatable conversation."

Axxyaan said...

Hello Russel,

I would like to ask, whether you have read something about "nonviolent communication" Marshall Rosenberg wrote about it, but Thomas Gordon wrote about something similar, and if you see a connection with moral skepticusm.

If I understand correctly, the idea is that if there is some kind of conflict, you don't approach the other with the attitude of how he is a bad person of how he behaves badly but from a perspective that you have needs that are difficult to satisfy in combination with certain kinds of behaviour of the other and so you tell the other about your needs and how his behaviour affects you and have a dialogue that leads to some kind of sol;ution.

Now these authors don't talk about moral skepticism but my impression is that with their approach they are trying to put in into praxis.

Richard Wein said...

It's a difficult question. I think that loss of belief in moral realism is liable to have some detrimental effect on behaviour, making people less committed to the sort of unselfish, pro-social behaviour which tends to be considered "moral" but which we may not otherwise feel so motivated to engage in.

On the other hand, moral realism can also motivate people to act on undesirable moral values, and undermining moral realism should makes it easier to dispel such values. But overall I feel that moral realism probably does more good than harm.

Fortunately, we can reject moral realism at an intellectual level while still feeling an attachment to it at a deeper, more intuitive level. Richard Joyce develops this thought further, with his concept of "moral fictionalism". But I think he would agree that moral fictionalism won't be as strongly motivating as moral realism.

I'm drawn to philosophical thought and discussion, and of course I'm going to argue for a rational position. But I can't help wondering whether it wouldn't be better to avoid the subject. I'm reassured by the knowledge that I'm unlikely to actually succeed in persuading anyone!

Similar considerations apply to the questions of free will and--to a lesser extent--belief in God.

Felix said...

Having recently been introduced to the ideas of moral relativism (and having found that they are convincing), perhaps I can shed some light on the view of the man in the street.

Previously, whenever I heard about MR, it would carry with it the implicit or explicit suggestion that if MR was 'true' or valid then I should accept that, for example, female genital mutilation was an acceptable practice (for those who wished to practice it).

Since these two thoughts went hand in hand then MR must obviously be false (since I didn't like the consequences).

My new understanding of MR (possibly equally naive) is that a person's morals will (in the detail at least) depend on their culture and upbringing. These morals do not conform to any objective absolute standard, since there is no naturalistic way for such a standard to exist.

Importantly, the fact that there is no absolute standard does not prevent me from saying (and I will), "You are wrong. Your behaviour is abhorrent. Clearly your idea of morality is deeply flawed."

The murder of Salmaan Taseer earlier this year serves a great example of how different morality can be in different cultures. Whereas previously we had to point at such thing as FGM (well in the US they practice MGM), or the treatment of women (well in the US there are movements which are almost as misogynistic), now we can say "Look in Pakistan there are millions of people who support the murder of a politician because he criticised a (human) law".

I think that on any talk show, you could present these two ideas and get people to take you seriously.

1. Different cultures have different standards of Morality.
2. Just because that is true is not going to stop me criticising them.

The long term goal thus becomes to develop a global understanding of morality. Which I guess is what Sam Harris is on about!

Russell Blackford said...

Axxyaan, to be honest I don't know the work you're referring to, but sophisticated relativists often seem to be saying something a bit like that, and I do too (though I consider myself more an error theorist than any sort of relativist).

If you get a chance do have a look at Neil Levy's book on moral relativism, because he has some discussion of how dialogue should be conducted across moral systems. I'm not sure of his metaethical position these days, but the book defends a sophisticated and moderate kind of moral relativism that I can almost agree with.

Keep the conversation going, everyone. Oh, and yes, even error theorists don't have to be moral abolitionists like Garner. There's moral fictionalism and revisionary moral realism as alternatives, though I'm not sure I properly understand either of them. To me, the cutting edge of metaethics at the moment is the discussion among different kinds of error theorists, with some sophisticated relativists thrown in.

godskesen said...

Hi Russell,

I'd like to add a few more unpalatable truths to your list and also challenge you a little bit on the question of free will.

Some of the more obvious ones are the reality of evolution and our decent from non-human ancestors, the non-divine origin of the world, the meaninglessness and coincidence of many events in our lives, and the non-existence of souls.

Closely related to (but perhaps less obvious and more contentious than) the non-existence of the soul is the non-existence of the self as the essential and more or less unchangeable nature of a particular person. In my field of psychology many assume that selves must exist and that the definitive feature of mental health is knowing, accepting and living a life that is in harmony with one's true self - so called self-realisation. I'm not denying that qualities like honesty and integrity are valuable. Instead, I'm saying that displaying those qualities does not presuppose the existence of a self to which one's actions must by definition correspond. There is a difference, for instance, between "being true to one's self" and "being true to oneself" and, to my mind, only the latter makes sense. For some reason this makes many psychologists and possibly other people quite uncomfortable. I think that psychology maintains an outward public illusion and an inward delusion when supposing that it has discovered important truths about this entity called a "self." Speaking about this mysterious entity establishes a seemingly scientific authority that really rests on no solid science whatsoever. What's more, many of the writings on how to achieve self-realisation even promote a lifestyle that's downright amoral. (I'm aware that I haven't substantiated my claims here but for the sake of brevity I'll stop here. I'd be happy to write more in response to specific questions.)

On the topic of free will, I would say that it is much more important to argue that we do have a kind free will that can support all the things (i.e. morality) that we want it to support - the kind of free will that's worth wanting as Daniel Dennett would say. In other words, it's more important to correct the category mistake that's commonly made when people ask whether they themselves can make freely willed choices - or - their behaviours really just happen when they are caused by some bundle of neurons. So far as I can tell, the belief that we don't have free will does more damage and is more mistaken because it assumes that there is only one (conceptually confused) definition of free will on the table.

Felix said...

@ GTChristie:

"No gods exist:
In the absence of actual facts either way, the only properly logical position is agnostic."

This position seems obviously wrong, unless you take my assertion that I am 99.9999% that there is no god as suggesting that I should call my self agnostic.

March Hare said...

The more I bend over backwards to accommodate other people's version of morality in order to make broader point the more I doubt the existence of morality.

Morality is a placeholder, it's a security blanket for people who refuse to look too deeply into why they think certain things are right and wrong.

Sam Harris, knowingly or not, creates a perfect metaphor when he brings health into the discussion. There is no such thing as health. There are healthy and unhealthy activities and lifestyles (and people), but we judge those on other metrics such as life expectancy, mobility, stamina, strength etc. Health itself is simply a shorthand for those metrics but since each person's weighting of each metric is personal and impossible to prove wrong the concept of health cannot exist. Similarly for morality.

1. No gods appear to exist.
2. As is.
3. Morality does not exist. If you think it does then define morality, explicitly.

BenSix said...

If one accepts these unpalatable "truths" - scare quotes indicating nothing more than that I don't - I think there's one unpalatable question one might need to answer: is life worth continuing at all? Why thrust people into such a cold, perplexing world? I don't like the sound of it - and, as I say, I don't accept the underlying presumptions - but it seems a worthwhile question (especially if one centres one's view of ethics on a notion of utility).

BenSix said...

(Which is not to say that I reject them, by the way. I'm just too ignorant to draw conclusions.)

GTChristie said...

@ Felix:
Your 99.9999% certainty there are no gods is fine with me, and I don't think that entails that you are/must be agnostic. I just think that makes you 44.9999 percentage points more certain than the 50/50 chance that you may be right.

GTChristie said...

@ March Hare:
Morality does not exist. If you think it does then define morality, explicitly.

I suppose you mean morality is not an objective or natural thing, such as a "natural law," but rather it's a construct or metaphor of some kind. I can understand that idea, but still there may be objective definitions of morality (even as a metaphor).

I don't see morality as a naturally occurring set of rules. I see it as a set of human behaviors that come along with our (primate) social nature. To make a very complex theory over-simple, what it comes down to is this: we are evolutionarily wired to assess other people's motives and the likelihood they will cooperate with us. Part of this assessment is whether they value the same things we do, behave the same way, believe the same things, etc. Morality, in that case, is a "thought-complex" that judges others on their conformity with group behavior. Practically all of this is coded into culture (which is not static, but a continuing work in progess), subject to re-evaluation in light of (historical) experience, and above all learned behavior. Thus: "morality is a constructed system of learned judgments about people's behavior, transmitted by cultural means." As well as can be said in a nutshell, anyway. Since I see it that way, I can't say morality does not exist, because to me it's "something that happens." It's more a bunch of events, not a thing.

Dave Ricks said...

Tonight I ordered a copy of Richard Garner's Beyond Morality from Amazon. I noticed a feature Amazon calls PayPhrase that would act as my unique personal shortcut to fill in my shipping and payment information. Their automated suggestion for my PayPhrase was "Dave's Unimportant Truths".

Is it just my imagination, or have the robots learned sarcasm?

Brian said...

1. No gods exist.
In the absence of actual facts either way, the only properly logical position is agnostic...Your 99.9999% certainty there are no gods is fine with me, and I don't think that entails that you are/must be agnostic. I just think that makes you 44.9999 percentage points more certain than the 50/50 chance that you may be right.


Your even distribution of probability between these possibilities prior to and in absence of evaluating relevant data is on the face of it probably wrong because of Occam's razor, but defensible.

The consequence of having to rationally divide even your assigned likelihood of 50% among thousands of actual theistic belief systems, much less the untold number of unbelieved ones, is to render the existence of any particular god basically wholly unanticipated and irrational.

However, this is far too generous to theism. Non-theistic beliefs and possible beliefs are practically endlessly diverse. For example, consider all dualistic beliefs positing a supernatural that deny gods exist. As it stands, you are implying that either that you know such beliefs are false or that the supernatural probably exists. (As all theistic systems require the supernatural, you would be forced to allocate any chance you assign to nontheistic supernatural models of reality from the chance you assign to nontheistic models in general.)

It is clear that unfalsifiable, confabulatory theism does not deserve such consideration.

2. We don't have free will
This presumes that "the will" is something real.


Not only does it does not presume that "the will" is real, it doesn't even imply that it is a coherent concept. True statement: we don't have adamantium skeletons, even though adamantium is not real. True statement: we don't have a president who is a Marxist Muslim liberation theology Christian progressive liberal fascist racist anti-Christ Mason communist socialist elitist Illuminati lizard person Democrat, even though that conjunctive description cannot describe anyone.

The available approaches are to reject the concept entirely, or to see how much of the concept we can save.

There are two approaches to the question of whether something exists.

One is to begin by talking about language, and (fail to) settle on a definition of what we are looking for. The next step is to test. Each definition will most likely be false simply because each possibility has so many parts. As in Clue (Cluedo), one wrong detail shows the definition dissonant with reality, and we are left with little, as we cannot amend reality to comport with our definition.

The other approach is to first ask what is true, then what the definitions are. When we measure our definitions against reality, most likely all will fail at least a bit, and we can then decide whether it is more reasonable to abandon a definition because it has failed, or adapt it based on how close it was to being true.

Even if disagreement arises here, it will only be about "morality", not morality. "Morality" is ultimately unimportant as it is just a word.

This places an extra burden on the skeptic, nihilist, non-cognitivist, error theorist, relativist etc. who claim to disagree with an assertion to understand that assertion precisely.

Marshall said...

No one over here would ask you not to defend your sincere best take. He who lives in truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl, but on its stand, and it gives light to all. This is said not in justification "because of this" but in illustration "what you said is like this". Also in encouragement.

#3, I thought we were going to give this a break.

#2, Results depend on definitions, but certainly we have a lot less control over our daily fortunes than psychological health demands we pretend.

#1, Results depend on definitions. The unsophisticated idea of an independently existing sentient thing "existing" in the same sense, in the same universe, as the continent of Australia, "who" animates the weather, etc.... OK. How about "God is what is worthy of worship." Do you want to say that nothing is worthy of worship? PZ said awhile back that our American Thanksgiving holiday is stupid because there is nobody to be Thankful towards. Eh? Spinoza said God was whatever is not dependent on anything else and which can't be denied. The usual atheist syllogism seems to go: God is really stupid; Spinoza, not a stupid man, didn't write stupid stuff; therefore Spinoza's isn't Really God.... but that isn't really logic. So please clarify...

...sometime.... I thought you were on break. Have you seen any Tennis??

Anonymous said...

GTChristie, please name the god(s) from any mythology, past or present, that you think have a 50/50 chance of actually existing, given the historical documents as the basis for analysis? Or makeup one of your own if you prefer.

All the god-ideas I am aware of have a vanishingly small chance of actual existence. Further though, there is a virtually overwhelming amount of consistent evidence pointing to natural causes for the universe and everything in it. Its certainly not like we are just choosing between two equal possibilities.

ockhamsbeard said...

Interesting you say this, Russell. I've been thinking a lot about persuasion recently - and how bad we philosophers generally are at it.

A rational argument is one thing. Making it stick is another. And emotions really determine what sticks, particularly amongst non-philosophers.

If you think about it, much of our philosophical training is to undermine our natural common sense responses and to think rationally instead. But many people are never coached in how to do that.

That's why I've been thinking about how to engage, motivate, and persuade people in ways other than laying down a dry rational argument and hoping they jump on board. Doesn't mean the point being pushed isn't justified - the rational argument would always be there in the wings - but reason is the foundation, not the cathedral.

And one device I think is underrated is appealing to perception and worldview. Before reason is even employed, people imbue the world around them with meaning - often without realising they're doing so.

So one of the faithful won't even entertain an argument against God because their faith is the lens through which they see the world. When we throw a rational argument at them, it's already too late.

Instead we need to target their lens, and encourage them to see the world through different eyes. Break the grip of their implicit worldview, and offer an alternative.

Now, that's not easy. But it has a better chance of working than just banging one's rational head against an irrational brick wall.

I'll have to write more about this some time on Ockham's.

Felix said...

@GTChristie

"In the absence of actual facts either way, the only properly logical position is agnostic."

But there are facts, such as the fact that we have been able to explain the entire history of the universe and the existence of life without reference to supernatural agenices.

Therefore anybody who is willing to bet at even odds that god exists is a sucker. (As long as there is a mechanism to get them to pay up).

Your position seems to me like intellectual cowardice or laziness.

March Hare said...

@GTChristie,
"I suppose you mean morality is not an objective or natural thing, such as a "natural law," but rather it's a construct or metaphor of some kind. I can understand that idea, but still there may be objective definitions of morality (even as a metaphor)."

I mean that morality is an ill-defined concept that encompasses enough actual concepts that have enough overlap between people for it to appear as if they are talking about the same thing. They are not!

If there is an objective definition of morality, never mind objective morality itself, I have yet to see it.

None of which means that we can't brand things immoral or weigh the relative moral outcomes of decisions and actions, but it must be realised that we are not even using a metaphor, we are using an aggregate of real and valid concepts that are of real and valid concern.

Felix and GTC, come to a compromise and call yourself an agnostic atheist.

Anonymous said...

You need to read Tom Wolfe's essay "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died" In his essay exploring the implications of recent neurological research, Tom Wolfe reviews Nietzsche's predictions for the 20th and 21st centuries:

"The story I have to tell," wrote Nietzsche, "is the history of the next two centuries." He predicted (in Ecce Homo ) that the twentieth century would be a century of "wars such as have never happened on earth," wars catastrophic beyond all imagining. And why? Because human beings would no longer have a god to turn to, to absolve them of their guilt; but they would still be racked by guilt, since guilt is an impulse instilled in children when they are very young, before the age of reason. As a result, people would loathe not only one another but themselves. The blind and reassuring faith they formerly poured into their belief in God, said Nietzsche, they would now pour into a belief in barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods: "If the doctrines...of the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal, doctrines I consider true but deadly"--he says in an allusion to Darwinism in Untimely Meditations --"are hurled into the people for another generation ... then nobody should be surprised when ...brotherhoods with the aim of the robbery and exploitation of the non-brothers...will appear in the arena of the future." ...

Barbaric does not begin to describe the murderous reigns of the atheistic totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. But I digress. Getting back to Wolfe's summary of Nietzsche's predictions:

Nietzsche said that mankind would limp on through the twentieth century "on the mere pittance" of the old decaying God-based moral codes. But then, in the twenty-first, would come a period more dreadful than the great wars, a time of "the total eclipse of all values" (in The Will to Power ). This would also be a frantic period of "revaluation," in which people would try to find new systems of values to replace the osteoporotic skeletons of the old. But you will fail, he warned, because you cannot believe in moral codes without simultaneously believing in a god who points at you with his fearsome forefinger and says "Thou shalt" or "Thou shalt not." Why should we bother ourselves with a dire prediction that seems so far-fetched as "the total eclipse of all values"? Because of man's track record, I should think. After all, in Europe, in the peaceful decade of the 1880s, it must have seemed even more far-fetched to predict the world wars of the twentieth century and the barbaric brotherhoods of Nazism and Communism. Ecce vates! Ecce vates! Behold the prophet! How much more proof can one demand of a man's powers of prediction?

The first half of Nietzsche's prophecy has come true. God help us if Nietzsche is right again. If he's right a second time the coming century will see horrors greater than those of the 20th century. The relative peace and prosperity of today will be seen by future historians (if there are any) as an era similar to that of Edwardian Europe before the first World War.

These "truths" of yours are not just unpalatable, they are poisonous and wil kill our civilization if they become widely believed.

Russell Blackford said...

I'm well aware of, and have read, the piece by Wolfe.

And I have deleted a comment. Accusations of dishonesty on my part (which was just about everything in the comment) don't cut ice here, especially from people who just call themselves "Anonymous". I have no interest in discussing my own bad character, as I've said before. We're here to discuss issues.

Russell Blackford said...

As for the attempt to blame war, genocide, etc., on atheism of all things, this is just idiotic. We've discussed it before. You'd be on much stronger ground comparing Nazism and Soviet Communism to Christianity ... and indeed tracing crucial aspects to Christianity.

steve oberski said...

@Anonymous said...

You need to read Tom Wolfe's essay

You might want to watch Steven Pinker's TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence.html

Steven Pinker charts the decline of violence from Biblical times to the present, and argues that, though it may seem illogical and even obscene, given Iraq and Darfur, we are living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence.

That Guy Montag said...

Right, a late entry over here but what the hey.

Godskesen:

I was a huge fan of the existentialists as a teenager. I found affirming our radical freedom rather liberating. I also experienced the vertigo that Sartre and Camus both saw arising from this state; still do.

So, my unpalatable truth might actually be that while there's a lot to dismiss,(read German Metaphysics) maybe Sartre and his ilk were right about some feature of the experience. I'm left thinking, contrary to more than a few, that an error theory, subjectivism or relativism about morals for instance, might simply be a more palatable alternative to the vertigo of moral realism. More palatable however clearly doesn't mean right.

verbosestoic said...

March Hare: "Morality is a placeholder, it's a security blanket for people who refuse to look too deeply into why they think certain things are right and wrong."

Well, since the original post talked about how to talk about these things ... this is, in fact, a very good example of how NOT to talk about these things.

See, a lot of people -- myself included -- who reject Russell's third truth really do think about why things are right and wrong. A lot. That, to us, is what morality actually is: thinking about and how to think about what's really right and wrong and why. Your claim here basically, to us, ignores all of the details of our positions and accuses us of simply not thinking about what we really think about. That's not likely to get a good response.

Ultimately, the right way to go about it is to first understand that if you have what you think is a truth that a lot of other people aren't acknowledging, it's probably not obvious -- no matter how obvious it is to you -- that you're right and they're wrong.

Second, for most of the ones that are important and so end up in these categories remember that there are almost certainly a lot of people who have done a lot of work and research and thinking on it. They know as much about the issues as you do, and may know more. So you can't just dismiss it as them not having the information. They might, but just might not agree on the details.

Ultimately, it all comes down to understanding that they don't disagree just to disagree, but because they have reasons to disagree. And at the end of the day, you have to address their reasons, not just their conclusion.

Note that I'm not accusing Russell of not doing that, because he generally does. This is just a response to the general question about tactics.

Russell Blackford said...

The "anonymous" person is displaying very much the same approach as another such person who once decided that his (probably male; women are seldom so obsessive) role in life was to subvert/take over this blog.

Perhaps it's a different person. Who knows? But they walk and quack the same way.

I am very unlikely to let someone post here after they have insulted me personally, as this person did in a deleted comment. This is my living room. That applies doubly if you are not going to establish any identity here.

If you want to turn up here basically to oppose the viewpoint of the blog, the very least that you should think about doing is establishing some sort of stable identity so the rest of us can at least keep track of you.

This raises a general point about anonymity. I do understand that there can be real-world repercussions for many people if they express unpopular ideas on the internet under their own names. Employers and potential employers can take a dim view of it. So, up to a point, I am sympathetic to people using pseudonyms. However, there is also such a thing as abuse of anonymity. That especially applies when no stable identity at all is established.

March Hare said...

verbosestoic, you appear to have missed my point, which was generally to say that people know what they consider right and wrong and the specific reasons why, but that by throwing an indistinct concept of morality round it you are obfuscating the very thing that you claim people have been thinking very deeply about.

I entirely agree that many people, more knowledgeable than I, have been discussing these issues for a long time but that they appear to constantly roll over about the term morality. When they say FGM is wrong they have dozens of physical, social, economic and psychiatric reasons for saying it's wrong, but simply calling it immoral lends itself to the perfectly equal challenge from the religionistas that it is moral according to their morality. You can't trump that without breaking down morality into its constituent parts. Which is kinda my point: why group up all these totally valid parts into a term like morality when each metric stands alone, valid in and of itself and even more so when accompanied by other metrics?

That Guy Montag said...

As a clarification to my earlier comment, by radical freedom I meant to say the idea that there is no self, no thing that is me, along with a good helping of Satre's argument against Bad Faith.

March Hare:

Nice point, and one I agree with to a point. It does seem to me that there are all sorts of factors that make up specifically moral problems and that it is in fact a mistake to think it all ties in to one grand moral theory, or is defined by some set of moral laws carved in the metaphysical stone. If we really do agree then you and I would both feel that the way to get to work on moral questions is then to just discuss all of the various bits and pieces that define that particular moral problem until we come to some kind of agreement.

A wrinkle of course is that this agreement would need to respect the fact that when we're dealing with moral types of questions there tends to be some sense of force behind the argument, that it motivates us, but presumably there are ways around it: Russell's Subjectivism here is one answer; I interpret Harris' Universal Well Being as another. Regardless, let's just assume this for the time being.

With my assumptions about the areas of agreement put in place, the question for me is when we've found the sete of considerations that properly explain a particular moral conundrum, that describes an outcome whose force we both agree on, I can't help but see that agreement as describing something real about the world.

Now, the objection here seems to me to be: okay, we've reached some kind of moral agreement, but do you really think it will stand against any moral argument? Can't people reasonably disagree about the result. My reply should be that well, we've done all the due dilligence and come up with a position that we can reasonably justify and I'm not entirely sure what more we could want from something's really existing. In fact, and this is actually an argument of Harris', that's pretty much the exact same standard we accept in science and none of us are ashamed to call the findings of science real; fallible yes, but certainly not an illusion.

March Hare said...

TGM,
The problem with viewing it [collection of values/morality] in a scientific sense is that there are scenarios (common, every-day ones) where all the outcomes are known, all the preferences are visible, yet there is still rational disagreement over which option is more moral. Which completely obfuscates the individual areas of agreement and disagreement.

For example:
There is a disease that has infected people, it is expected to kill 600 people. We have two treatment options: 1. will definitely lead to the deaths of 200 but save 400. 2. has a 67% chance to save all 600, but might not work at all.

Perfectly rational people could choose 1 or 2 depending on some metric that they consider more important than another perfectly rational person.

To have these two perfectly rational people call each other immoral means that they would become entrenched and not discuss which metrics they actually disagree on or what weighting they are putting on each.

I think using the term 'morality' hides much more important questions:
If morality is simply a weighted collection of values (as I believe) then which values should be included and what weighting should be given to each and why? I think that if we follow this line of questioning we get much better answers than the fool's errand of chasing the one true morality.

Marshall said...

VerboseStoic: "See, a lot of people -- myself included -- who reject Russell's third truth really do think about why things are right and wrong. A lot. That, to us, is what morality actually is: thinking about and how to think about what's really right and wrong and why."

So Zeno and those old guys were after "a good flow of life", "living in agreement with nature" (Stanford/Plato). "Thinking" is not seen as an end in itself, but as a means to achieving harmonious behavior: a consequentialist position (...hope I said it right...). Likewise emotionalism is to be avoided because it subverts reason. The modern stoics (such as VS) have made all but unbelievable progress in rationalizing the workings of the world, but sound rationalization seems to have got ahead of ethical behavior. (eg, "I can make a lot of money selling unsanitary eggs; no reason why I shouldn't because nobody can stop me. Yea for me!". This is a problem.

Mackie said (not quite what I was looking for, but it will do): "On a naturalist analysis, moral judgements can be practical, but their practicality is wholly relative to the desires or possible satisfactions of the person or persons whose actions are to be guided; but moral judgements seem to say more than this. This view leaves out the categorical quality of moral requirements. In fact both naturalist and non-cognitive analyses leave out the apparent authority of ethics...." (Ethics, p.33, my emphasis) I equate qualia with a kind of emotionalism, raw sensation.

I've been reading Polanyi, on Skills/Commitment: "We are faced here with the general principle by which our beliefs are anchored in ourselves....I am speaking not of the specific assertions which fill the textbooks, but of the suppositions which underlie these pre-suppositions which underlie the method by which these assertions are arrived at. We assimilate most of these pre-suppositions by learning to speak of things in a certain language, names by which objects can be classified, making such distinctions as between past and present, ...., healthy and sick, and thousands of others. ... The curious thing is that we have no clear knowledge of what our presuppositions are and when we try to formulate them they appear quite unconvincing. ... I suggest now that the supposed pre-suppositions of science are so futile because the actual foundations of our scientific beliefs cannot be asserted at all. When we accept a certain set of pre-suppositions and use them as our interpretative framework, we may be said to dwell in them as we do in our own body."

Polanyi is a scientist speaking about science. Kuhn makes somewhat the same point. So it goes: all our judgements are inseparable from the details of human psychology. Thinking is good, but it takes Believing to get the rubber out onto the road rolling. Commitment.

That Guy Montag said...

March Hare:

Well put, there's nothing there I can argue with. In fact, I often find that when we get down to brass tacks it often looks like there's surprising little disagreement on the character of moral talk. I recently finished reading and essay by Simon Blackburn on Quasi-Realism and found myself at the end thinking well, sure he's an Expressivist but by golly he's granted almost everything I could want to be a moral realist. In fact at the other end it almost felt as if the terms were largely interchangeable. Sure, the corollary is that I've given up quite a lot of what would we might consider as constituting realism but I'm not sure I'd want moral tables anyway. No, having good reason to argue robustly and being confident in the general human capacity to understand the world as it really is is more than enough for me.

Marshall:

There are various tactics for dealing with the motivational force of ethics. An interest of mine at the moment, while slightly peripheral, has a lot of overlap, particuarly with the kinds of things you're saying. There seems to me a strong intuition as the the nature of what belief commits us to being true about the world. The problem from there is what constitutes the content of belief and there are various problems that can cause. A standard view will be a kind of representationalism, but the argument from people like Ryle and Dennett will be that dualism is built into representationalism and dualism is clearly false, so representationalism is false. Their suggestion will be to instead look at action as grounding the content of belief. I'm still teasing my way through all of this though and have unfortunately been firmly sidetracked by having to read Frege.

GTChristie said...

@Felix:
But there are facts, such as the fact that we have been able to explain the entire history of the universe and the existence of life without reference to supernatural agencies.

@Brian:
Your even distribution of probability between these possibilities prior to and in absence of evaluating relevant data is on the face of it probably wrong because of Occam's razor, but defensible.

Now that is the same point twice, more or less, and it's a very good point: the statistical balance may not be 50/50. I could quibble and say scientific explanations for natural phenomena are uncertain (as Hume would mean it), or I could say that the Big Bang theory and many others remain inconclusive, or I could say that scientific explanations for natural phenomena do not, in themselves, preclude the existence of a rational deity.

But still these comments from Felix and Brian remain good points (especially Brian's formulation), even if I say any of these things.

There really are observations of nature that "explain" its operations with reasonable certainty (ie, within the limits of falsifiablility) without recourse to anything supernatural. The point both of you are making is that the distribution of (un)certainty may not be exactly 50/50. Fair enough.

In fact, that is the primary reason I keep my work thoroughly secular. I do not ground my moral philosophy or political theory in deism of any kind. I don't need deities in argument.

Call me an un-theist, then.

But I cannot logically be an atheist because there remains some [whatever calculation] possibility that some deity can exist, and I'm willing to keep the text open there.

(Incidentally I think that's what "atheists" should be doing -- arguing without God, not arguing about God. This theism debate is distracting and polarizing, while not solving the real problems we should be trying to solve.)

@Felix:
Therefore anybody who is willing to bet at even odds that god exists is a sucker.
Ummmm ... care to leave that tone out of things? There are at least 100 other ways to make the same point without insulting anyone. This is how wars start, by the way. LOL.

@MarchHare:
Felix and GTC, come to a compromise and call yourself an agnostic atheist.
Agnostic un-theist should be close enough. I do feel uncomfortable in the same bathtub with Sam Harris, however. LOL.

@Anonymous:
GTChristie, please name the god(s) from any mythology, past or present, that you think have a 50/50 chance of actually existing
My comment, miscontrued. You imply that I must have a deity in mind, and that it must match some deity the world has already defined. Non-sequitur question, then.

Since my position is one of doubt and I doubt both sides, please name any god or gods you think I am precluding from doubt?

I won't answer the question as you've raised it, in other words.

Finally, I want to apologize for my typo in first response to Felix ... it should read "49.9999 percentage points higher..." Everybody can now get their digs in about a philosophical anthropologist who can't do math!

Marshall said...

@That Guy Montag:
Yes, I think so. I find Rorty against representationalism completely convincing.

verbosestoic said...

March Hare,

I was fairly busy with other things, and so didn't reply, but I think that if we did away with the concept of morality a lot of the disagreements would become utterly confused. We'd be utterly unable to tell what the disagreement was actually about, even though it would still be there.

This is because, in some ways, it seems to me that the disagreements end up being particularly moral. When you try to understand, say, why someone thinks that all behaviour can be governed by "Reduce suffering" and I don't, it seems that you can't judge importance without appealing to the fact that they think that "Reduce suffering" covers the gamut of right and wrong actions and I don't. At some level, my view of morality may well consider reducing suffering important directly, only instrumentally, or only as a side effect. We may agree that being without suffering is better in some sense than having suffering, but I insist that there are cases where the right thing to do might even increase it, and they don't.

How do you encapsulate this in discussions of importance or specific values as opposed to a disagreement over what it means for an action to be right?

Again, there are reasons, and I have them. And any moral disagreement, to me, cries out for both sides to defend their view of the right. But I think that there's a fact of the matter, and so that one of us can be proven wrong. Without that, I wouldn't even care about differences in values and importance, let alone about morals.

If you call the other person immoral, to me that's a problem. But you can say that what they advocate is immoral, at least by your standards. And I don't really see how to understand what's at stake in at least some of the disagreements that are called "moral" without actually keeping and referencing the concept of morality.

verbosestoic said...

Marshall,

It appears that TGM understood your point better than I did [grin].

I don't see your eggs example as being indicative of a Stoic viewpoint. It's egoistic, and so can come from either a rationalist or emotionalist stance about morality.

There are always potential issues about how morals can motivate someone, and the Stoics have always had issues with motivation due to their unique viewpoint. For my part, I think that it is obvious that one can be motivated by a desire to be right, and that one can use reason to determine when one is right. If that motivation ends up being in some way emotional, so be it, as long as it doesn't override the rational judgement that you ought to be acting on.

In short, I have no issue with emotion being used to motivate as long as it is not the thing judging or justifying the action.

Felix said...

@GTChristie

I said: "Therefore anybody who is willing to bet at even odds that god exists is a sucker."

You replied: "Ummmm ... care to leave that tone out of things? There are at least 100 other ways to make the same point without insulting anyone."

It was not my intention to be insulting.
I believe that in the context of making a bad bet the term 'sucker' is widely used.

"The point ... you are making is that the distribution of (un)certainty may not be exactly 50/50. Fair enough."

The reason I jumped on you was because you let slip a common trope which even I felt able to dismiss.

I expect that you were already aware of the refutation and had a momentary lapse.

"But I cannot logically be an atheist because there remains some [whatever calculation] possibility that some deity can exist, and I'm willing to keep the text open there."

Whilst fully understanding your decision, in your daily life and work to choose not to become embroiled in these interminable arguments, I do not think that just "[whatever calculation] possibility" however small is sufficient to prevent one from moving from agnosticism to atheism.


"Incidentally I think that's what 'atheists' should be doing -- arguing without God, not arguing about God."

I'm not sure what 'we' ,specifically as atheists, should be arguing about if it is not society's general acceptance of theism. Sure, as scientists, philosophers, citizens we can argue on many side of numerous issues.
But arguing about, say, income tax, as an atheist doesn't seem to make sense!

Marshall said...

@verboseStoic:
I didn't mean to be personal... just making the rather trite observation that something is out of balance. This egg guy is a moral wingnut. The FDA has loads of documentation of anti-social practice, but he can't be stopped. Justified true belief has given him the ability to produce marginal eggs in quantity and a useful distribution system; moral restraint is lacking. I mean social restraints on his behavior; obviously it's unrealistic to rely on his own personal restraint.

That point is indeed different than the one you are making, which I take to be something like: emotional reaction and rational judgement should work together to motivate right behavior. I would agree.

GTChristie said...

@Felix:
But arguing about, say, income tax, as an atheist doesn't seem to make sense!

Until someone asserts their god-given right to the fruit of their labors. LOL.