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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Currently reading: Atheism, Morality, and Meaning by Michael Martin

I'm a third of the way through this book, which attempts to establish the superiority of an atheist worldview to a Christian worldview when it comes to providing an objective morality and a meaningful life. So far, the author has been trying to establish a non-religious basis for moral objectivism. He's going to go on and try to show that there's no good religious basis for it.

If I were reviewing the book at length, I'd have many of the same objections to it as I have to The Moral Landscape. Once more, that doesn't mean it's a bad book; it simply means that (in many cases) the most interesting things that a moral philosopher can say about a book of moral philosophy relate to possible objections.

So at this stage, let me just say once again that the ordinary conception of morality is like the proverbial carpet with a bump in it. Morality can't be all the things that it normally looks like it is. If you try to remove the bump, you'll shift it somewhere else. In this case, Martin offers a system that he claims gives us an "objective" morality. It gives us moral properties that are out there in the world. Fine, it's a complicated sort of moral naturalism (based on Objective Observer theory). But he accomplishes this at the expense of throwing away motivational internalism and, more importantly, objective prescriptivity. He explicitly disclaims these.

The result is that the "objective moral properties" don't actually bind anyone to do anything. Somebody who is not mistaken about any of the non-moral facts, or indeed about any of the moral facts that Martin offers, and who makes no mistakes of reasoning, may, depending on her desire set, go ahead and do whatever she wants, perhaps muttering, "What is that to me?"

So, yes, you can have your objective moral properties if you're prepared to accept that there's no objective prescriptivity (and you can abandon motivational internalism for good measure). But in doing so you merely move the bump in the carpet. It's objective prescriptivity that really matters - without this, morality is not rationally binding on anybody. When error theorists claim that first-order moral judgments (or at least thin first-order moral judgments) are tainted with error, it's because they see these claims as being or including claims about objective prescriptivity.

So, again, yes, you can a system with objective moral properties but no objective prescriptivity. You might think that objective prescriptivity is so metaphysically peculiar that it can't be what is meant in ordinary moral discourse, so you're prepared to give it up or to say that it was never part of our moral discourse all along. I beg to differ - it looks to me as if it's right there at the centre of everyday moral thinking, and that everyday moral thinking is, to that extent, philosophically problematic. A system such as Martin's offers only an ersatz moral objectivity: it may have objectively existing natural properties, even though they're rather contrived ones, but morality does not end up being objectively binding on anybody.

But of course, religion can't provide objective prescriptivity either. It can also provide only an ersatz version of moral objectivity. One of the (possibly) disconcerting truths that we just have to live with is that objective prescriptivity is not a feature of the universe - and in fact when you push hard enough on the idea it doesn't even seem to be coherent.

And yes, I'm quite happy to say this in the public square on occasions when it's possible to explain it properly. I do agree with Jean Kazez that it's not the sort of thing that you can necessarily describe in a brief newspaper article - unlike the things you can say about science/religion (in)compatibility. Even this blog post (which will be read by a few hundred people at the most) is going to be rather cryptic for those who are not familiar with the terms I've been throwing around. But it's still worth making the point when the opportunity arises, for those who are prepared to think about it.

11 comments:

Eric said...

What would you recommend as a good reference to learn more about these "cryptic" terms of yours?

Havok said...

Nice post Russell.
I agree with your point regarding objective prescriptivity and is relevant to some discussions I've recently had.
Your remarks just helped to clarify my own thoughts - thanks! :-)

But of course, religion can't provide objective prescriptivity either. It can also provide only an ersatz version of moral objectivity.
Could you (briefly) elaborate on what you mean here?

thephilosophicalprimate said...

If only we could pin down some agreement about what we want or expect out of an ethical theory, we might have a better handle on whether moral realism is plausible or not. But with so many people speaking at such cross purposes, with a proliferation of technical vocabulary that (however necessary it may be for particular purposes) often obscures as much as it clarifies, I often wonder if there's any point to thinking and writing about metaethics at all.

But then I dive back into the fray anyway. That's what it is to be a philosopher, I suppose.
*shrug*

Russell Blackford said...

Damn good point, Dr Primate. Glad to hear it, Havok. Eric, your question, along with Havok's question at the end, deserves some response, however brief. Looks like I need to write a supplementary post.

Havok said...

Thanks in advance for the response :-)
(Though Eric's reading list will probably be the more valuable part)

Brian said...

"So, again, yes, you can a system with objective moral properties but no objective prescriptivity. You might think that objective prescriptivity is so metaphysically peculiar that it can't be what is meant in ordinary moral discourse, so you're prepared to give it up or to say that it was never part of our moral discourse all along. I beg to differ - it looks to me as if it's right there at the centre of everyday moral thinking, and that everyday moral thinking is, to that extent, philosophically problematic."

That sentence was really disappointing. Until after the dash, I had honestly been expecting you would provide substantial evidence rather than an assertion of what you believe your intuition is. Am I really supposed to be convinced by that?

"One of the (possibly) disconcerting truths that we just have to live with is that objective prescriptivity is not a feature of the universe - and in fact when you push hard enough on the idea it doesn't even seem to be coherent."

I think it is equivalent to a view that is coherent, which I lay out below. It's still obviously false, and not what people mean when they talk about objective morality, and still less what people mean to be entailed when they talk about objective morality. To illustrate with an analogy: baseball lineup talk in the National League is almost never about a designated hitter, and even in the American League, people who mention designated hitters do not believe that without them baseball would not be baseball.

"A system such as Martin's offers only an ersatz moral objectivity: it may have objectively existing natural properties, even though they're rather contrived ones, but morality does not end up being objectively binding on anybody."

Each argument is binding on each person in a particular way. They cannot help but be influenced by it as they are. Every argument would bind each possible mind in some way or other, and some arguments bind some possible minds to agree with the conclusions of those arguments.

There's more to the world than arguments, though. You can whack the brains of minds to change them, and with sufficient nanotechnology, energy, spare parts, intelligence, precision, etc. you could use your dog's brain's molecules as the basis for a large number of minds. A simpler way would be to grind it up and feed it to a child, while using cultish tactics to implant in a child's mind whatever thought you were going for...

"Objective prescriptivity" seems to me to be equivalent to the idea that for every sufficiently intelligent, unbiased possible mind, one can give it the idea that it should do X , solely by argumentation alone, with no more direct barbiturate, electric, nanotech, blunt object, fusion of additional processors and hard drives, etc. That is, one X for each of untold trillions of possible minds, most of which probably need to be introduced to the concept of "should", will be amenable to views usually assumed approximately consistent with the aggregate evolved sensibilities of apes, when one administers the merely the crudest tickle to them.

According to some hosts of this blog, not to name names, those who say otherwise have ceded any argument about meta-morality to the error theorists. Why not concoct other supposed consequences? "Those who don't believe in objective prescriptivity not only submit to error theory, they admit the intellectual and moral superiority of Russell Blackford," "Those who don't believe in objective prescriptivity become contractually obligated to wash Russell's car every week, on penalty of crucifixion!"

Russell Blackford said...

Brian, if you don't think that people make a claim of objective requirement, in the sense of objective prescriptivity, when they say "Xing is morally obligatory", that's fine. Likewise if you don't think "Xing is morally wrong" means or includes "Xing is objectively forbidden."

Maybe you're right after all on the semantics of this, though I find a lot of your comment confusing. In any event, it may, in the end have to be settled empirically, and I'd actually glad if I were wrong about this point. It would deflate the claims of morality considerably, but also make them easier to defend.

But at the moment it appears to me as if people involved in moral argument typically talk as if such claims have binding force, as if they think their judgments about things being forbidden or required are not open to some legitimate disagreement based on underlying differences of values (as we tend to think with non-moral evaluations), and as if someone who does not accept that they are bound is just plain wrong, even if she is fully informed about all the relevant natural facts.

I can't, for example, imagine someone making a serious claim that "Kicking puppies is morally wrong" while also saying or thinking, "But if you engage in kicking puppies you may not be making my mistake about anything. You simply don't accept the standard that forbids it." Maybe there are philosophers who seriously think this - committed moral naturalists, perhaps - but I can't imagine ordinary people thinking that way, many philosophers have resisted it, and many still resist it. Any threat to objective prescriptivity causes a lot of angst. I don't think moral naturalists take this seriously enough, although Singer does take it pretty seriously to his credit.

However, I don't claim to be able to prove the above, and certainly not in the space of a blog post, much less a blog comment, so in that sense I do have to rely on intuition ... and on an appeal to the intuitions of others. But it's not an intuition about bizarre non-natural facts, just an intuition about how language is used - the very sort of intuition that can be pretty reliable coming from a competent language user. That's an innocuous use of appeal to intuition, even if it's not the last word on the subject.

Brian said...

"I find a lot of your comment confusing."

The first two steps down the rabbit hole are reductionism and determinism.

Eventually, one begins to see all ways of changing a mind into another mind as having important similarities. Here are a few:

1) Empathically listening to earnest concerns of mind1, and emitting sound waves, inevitably transforming mind1 into mind2. (The Blackford method).
2) Waterboarding a prisoner, the owner of mind3, and waking him up whenever he collapses into sleep over the course of a month, transforming his mind into mind4. (The Rumsfeld).
3) Restraining the owner of mind5 and augmenting his brain with computers, turning him into mind6. (The Robocop).
4) Using the brain of mind7 to feed mind8. (The Lecter).
5) Fusing a ball of hydrogen (mind9) into progressively heavier elements and assembling them into a human (mind10). (The Obama, explaining the mystery of his birth).

Objective prescriptivism seems to be an error regarding the relationship of minds, such that they believe a very narrow set of transformative processes (persuasion) can transform all mindXes (a set of minds that are minimally intelligent, minimally honest, etc.) into mindYs (which are not identical, but believe the same set of propositions true).

That looks less like incoherence than incorrectness to me.

Russell Blackford said...

So you're agreeing that there's no objective prescriptivity? You're saying that such a thing could exist but doesn't exist?

Brian said...

Yeah, it's a false hypothesis.

Above should probably read: feed brains of mind7 to person with mind8, making mind11.

Although when Lecter makes someone eat their own brains, it's specifically take brains from person with mind7, making him mind8, feed person with mind8 the brains, making them have mind11 when their brain gets those yummy nutrients.

Brian said...

Yeah, objective prescriptivity is a false hypothesis. The number and scope of possible mindXes are far greater than some people realize, and persuasion has less power than some people realize.

Because it is coherent, the notion is of a kind with similar hypotheses involving smaller numbers of minds and more permissible actions, such as those about only omniscient mindXes, for which any action person P could do if person P wished to is permissible. We can then ask if the sum of such minds' actions under certain restrictions resembles any English concept; I think if the constraint is acting to satisfy desires fairly, what we get is morality.

So a moral action is what an omniscient mindO would choose to do if mindO were to replace puny mindP of a person for one action, where mindO only desires to satisfy all desires fairly.

Many arguments not objectively persuasive to all mindXes are subjectively persuasive, that is, objectively persuasive to some. To persuade mindO an argument need only be persuasive to one mind, mindO.

So it seems to me; a weaknesses is that the duration and extent of hypothetical replacement of mindX with mindO is arbitrary, and that the sum of such things might not actually correspond to what people mean by "morality".

I think it does, though.



If written better, my previous post should probably read: feed brains of person with mind7 to some person with mind8, making mind11 out of mind7 and mind12 out of mind8.

Although when Lecter makes someone eat their own brains, it's specifically take brains from person with mind7, making him mind8, feed person with mind8 the brains, making them have mind11 when their brain gets those yummy nutrients.