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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Metaethics makes slow progress

Metaethics is one of those fields where the wheels grind very, very slowly. I do think it's making glacial progess. But just as there has been huge resistance, over the centuries, to the idea that God does not exist, so there has been huge resistance to the idea that there are no objective moral oughts, in the strong sense of "objective" that ordinary folk and many philosphers seem to want. Then again, philosophy only ever makes progress in the face of strong resistance from people who are committed to saving the appearances/and or the traditional picture of the world.

The interesting question at the cutting edge of metaethics is what follows if we accept that morality is not objective. I.e., if we accept that the answers given to moral questions do not genuinely have the absolute bindingness and irresistible practical oomph that is usually assumed in moral debate. Richard Joyce captures the idea with two propositions:

1. Moral discourse presupposes non-institutional desire-transcendent reasons and non-institutional categorical imperatives. BUT

2. All genuine desire-transcendent reasons are institutional and all genuine categorical imperatives are institutional.

That's a technical way to put it, but I think it's pretty much a correct statement of the problem. There are reasons for action based on desires (or fears or wants or other such psychological phenomena), and there are imperatives contained in positive moral systems, systems of law, etc. But when we try to give a further reason to abide by the imperatives in positive moral systems, we'll end up appealing to psychological phenomena, not to something that is both (a) built into the external fabric of the universe and (b) itself imperative-delivering. There is nothing like that (and, I submit, even God could not be like that).

So how should we respond to this horrible suspicion - nay, truth - about morality? E.g. should we stop using moral language entirely (in a similar way to the way that many of us have stopped using theological language relating to "sin")? If so, how should (tricky word) we talk when we want to discuss what people ought to do? We seem to need some concept like that, and it needs to go beyond the idea of practical rationality (acting in the way that will achieve your own desires, etc). No one denies that there are oughts of practical rationality, but these are, in an important sense for this debate, subjective.

The guy to watch in metaethics is the above-mentioned Richard Joyce, who now teaches at the University of Sydney, and is embroiled in these debates. He's young, he's on the ball, and he's a much better philosopher than Sam Harris, at least when it comes to metaethical issues. Unfortunately, his new book is not likely to be a best-seller. (It's not even affordable to individual people; meaning that he and his co-editor couldn't find a publisher that was prepared to order a print run large enough to bring down the unit cost.)

I'm giving a paper on some of this in July, at the next AAP (Australasian Association of Philosophy) conference, but after thinking about it hard for the past several days, I'm now uncertain what I want to say. Though I'm not very impressed by the metaethical end of what Sam Harris is doing lately, and I think it's far behind the cutting edge of metaethics, I sympathise with him to an extent. This stuff is difficult. We've managed to adapt to the idea that there is no God and therefore no "sin". But it may be more difficult to adapt, psychologically, to the idea that there are no objective moral oughts built into the fabric of the universe or the nature of reason.

I'm now not sure what I think should be said about how we ought (that word again!) to use moral language ... given that morality can't deliver all the things that the folk naively assume it can. Some metaethicists argue for an eliminativist approach to moral language - such as we've adopted with "sin" language - but they will still need to use some kind of language to oppose (forcibly) such horrors as torturing babies or conducting extermination campaigns against despised minorities.

Even I balk at concluding that all positive moral claims are just false (like positive claims about "sin"). Strictly speaking, if we buy fully into moral error theory, that radical proposition might be correct, but it would sure be a misleading thing to say outside a philosophy seminar room!

I think, though, that the picture is a bit more complicated than this, and we need to tease it out, and probably to include some focused empirical study of what people think they are doing when they use moral language of various kinds. If any of y'all out there are working on this and interested in collaborating, let me know what you have in mind.


Gerald said...

But it may be more difficult to adapt, psychologically, to the idea that there are no objective moral oughts built into the fabric of the universe or the nature of reason.

I don't feel any difficulty with this... Does it mean I didn't understand your point, or I'm just outside the norm?

Russell Blackford said...

No, I think it's an empirical question whether people tend to find it difficult to adapt psychologically to this. Which suggests that philosophers really need to develop some skills in doing well-conducted research on it ... or to work with people (such as psychologists) who might already have those skills.

Meanwhile, I assume that you don't use "sin" language. Do you still use traditional moral language, or do you think your language has changed as a result of the realisation that "there are no objective moral oughts [etc.]"? E.g. do you find yourself more inclined to use thick moral language ("that act was cowardly") rather than thin moral language ("that act was wrong")?

PNRJ said...

I think you're completely off-base on this.

There is nothing wrong with moral language, and there never was anything wrong with moral language.

"The Holocaust was bad" doesn't require any kind of "queer" facts about the universe; the facts it appeals to are all perfectly ordinary natural facts, like "Jews are human" and "death is an aversive experience".

I think Sam Harris is right on the money here: We've deluded ourselves into thinking that there is something problematic about moral language, but there isn't. In fact there is more epistemic merit in the proposition "The Holocaust was bad" than there is in the proposition "The Earth revolves around the Sun". The wrongness of genocide is as directly apprehensible as the painfulness of a burn or the blueness of the sky.

Indeed, it puzzles me that moral anti-realists see no contradiction in their position that 1) "we should believe X because X is in fact true" but 2) "there is no such thing as a categorical normative demand". YOU JUST MADE a categorical normative demand! If you think that "X is true" is sufficient reason for any rational being to believe X, then you think that there are certain categorical normative demands that universally apply to all rational beings.

(And if you don't, why should we listen to you?)

Michael said...

I heartily recommend the metaethics sequence of LessWrong which I'm currently trawling through and which will hopefully put Harrisgate in a clearer light for me: http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Metaethics_sequence

It's very long but Eliezer Yudkowski has a way of framing stuff that often exceeds the ability of actual academics.

It seems his approach to this is similar to the approach about free will. The traditional concept of free will also requires something that's incoherent "out there" in the universe. However, it would be a mistake to say that therefore we aren't free, as per the view of free will by people like Dennett.

I think the landscape of moral actions is very similar.

Russell Blackford said...

Hey, you're entitled to your opinion PNRJ. Nothing wrong with someone setting out what they think.

But I don't see how you've defended it. In particular, the analogy you make in your last para holds. This seems a totally different situation. In the normal case, once we accept that a proposition is true we don't (at least normally) seem to have any choice about whether we also believe it. In ordinary cases, if X convinces Y that a statement is true she doesn't need to make some further claim of a moral kind that Y ought therefore believe it. That would be a really odd thing to do.

Of course, you might say that Y is being irrational if she simultaneously accepts that P is true without believing P. She's doing something self-contradictory (in at least some sense). Assuming that that's correct, you'd have an analogy if you could claim that moral norms are grounded in pure reason and that refusing to act on them is therefore irrational ... irrespective of your own values, desires, etc..

But no one has ever shown such a thing, despite the attempts of Kant, Nagel, Gewirth, etc. Sam Harris certainly hasn't.

Jean Kazez said...

You say Richard Joyce is a much better philosopher than Sam Harris, but Sam Harris is not a philosopher at all. No insult to him--he has lots of other skills and qualifications. I think I'd rather see his forthcoming book on bestseller lists, not Richard Joyce's books. The last thing we need is atheists telling the public that all moral pronouncements are false. "Torturing babies for fun is wrong"...false, but here's why we should take it seriously anyway. This is the sort of super-subtle stuff that just doesn't work in the public square and would surely make people think atheists are diabolical.

Friend of Icelos said...

After reading much of the fallout from Sam Harris's recent comments on morality, I can't help but think that a long casual conversation with some philosophers who are mostly fighting the same fight--such as AC Grayling, Dan Dennett, or yourself--would help us all move beyond this issue. I think his prime argument, that a scientific approach to morality can facilitate human flourishing, does not depend on the outcome of this debate; and it's unfortunate that he's recently been encumbered with this.

As you said on Sean Carroll's blog, I hope his interpretation of "aught/is" isn't a major theme of his book. Personally, I feel he begins to lose some of his distinctive clarity here.

Michael said...

Russell, looks like you've really made it in the atheoblogosphere if DM has graced your blog with his presence!

I.Strange said...

Hm, I've been thinking about morality this way. The goal is Moral Appraisal Management. 'Oughts' are akin to protocols.

Eamon Knight said...

PNRJ writes: The wrongness of genocide is as directly apprehensible as the painfulness of a burn or the blueness of the sky.

Unfortunately, to some people the wrongness of homosexuality or inter-racial marriage seems as "directly apprehensible" as genocide does to you and me. For that reason, I don't trust human moral intuitions to yield moral truths.

Ophelia Benson said...

"But it may be more difficult to adapt, psychologically, to the idea that there are no objective moral oughts built into the fabric of the universe or the nature of reason."

How about if we ease the path by adapting to a slightly more modest claim? Say, that there are aspects of human nature that support reasons for some moral oughts. Full of hedging, but not a complete peer into the abyss.

Ophelia Benson said...

"But it may be more difficult to adapt, psychologically, to the idea that there are no objective moral oughts built into the fabric of the universe or the nature of reason."

How about if we ease the path by adapting to a slightly more modest claim? Say, that there are aspects of human nature that support reasons for some moral oughts. Full of hedging, but not a complete peer into the abyss.

Ophelia Benson said...

"But it may be more difficult to adapt, psychologically, to the idea that there are no objective moral oughts built into the fabric of the universe or the nature of reason."

How about if we ease the path by adapting to a slightly more modest claim? Say, that there are aspects of human nature that support reasons for some moral oughts. Full of hedging, but not a complete peer into the abyss.

Ray said...

I would argue that statements describing actions as "right" and "wrong", like statements containing any other adjective, can be considered true provided that most native speakers of the language use the terms to describe similar sets of actions. Color terms are similar in this regard: you don't need to study photometry to know that a stop sign is red.

Now there is also the intuition that convincing a hearer that a certain action would be wrong will make the hearer less likely to do it. This too is mostly true, provided the hearer is not a sociopath.

So why are moral terms considered more problematic than color terms?

1)The fact that many moral statements are conditional makes it a matter of some difficulty to determine whether moral terms are being used consistently, even by a single speaker. While this does make moral decision making harder, one may take this as a good thing, since it opens up the possibility of resolving moral disagreements through discussion.

2) This is the big one: Most people do not consider widespread agreement to be sufficient grounds for accepting a moral proposition. I think this inexorably leads to the conclusion that moral statements are statements of personal preference. While some would argue that this makes "killing is wrong" no more objectively true than "chocolate tastes better than vanilla", I would argue that this is a bad comparison. The former's widespread acceptance makes it more analogous to the statement "chocolate truffles taste better than human feces."

In the end, whether moral statements are "objectively true" or not, they are useful and I think you will find there is more widespread agreement about the truth or falsity of any given moral statement than there is about the definitions of the moral terms themselves. I think the reason why people want a more precise definition of moral terms is that this would allow the methods of science to be brought to bear in increasing the scope and reliability of moral judgments, but doing so would also rob the terms of a great deal of their power: when we make an unqualified statement about whether something is right or wrong, we are implicitly suggesting that this is true for any sensible definition of the terms. Moral terms like much in natural language are used in subtly different ways depending on context,and while this makes them unsuitable first order terms in philosophical or scientific discourse, it does not make them unsuitable for practical decision making, nor does it render moral judgment independent of the results of science.

John R. Vokey said...

I agree with Russell's position here, but, as with Dennett, wonder whether it may be counterproductive (i.e., the ``stop that crow'' gambit). I don't, at the moment have any reason to believe it is, but one has to allow that it could be.

That said, there are all sorts of what I would call ethical behaviours *for my purposes*, some that I still need convincing about, and many that I find ethically abhorrent. But these are for my purposes as I currently reason about them. I use people like Russell and Dennett (and many others) to help me clarify both my reasoning and my current purposes (are they really mine, do I really desire them?)

And, I think, that is all there is. To presuppose a consensus on reasons is just silly, and to then think that one can have just one set of fixed, unchangeable ethical principles borders on insanity.

Richard Wein said...

@Jean Kazez

Those are fair points. But at the same time, surely you don't want to see Sam Harris making fallacious arguments. That doesn't look good coming from someone who is preaching the importance of rationality. The best option would be for him to avoid the subject of metaethics altogether. If he were (a) more vague about the source of his most basic moral claims, and (b) didn't make fallacious criticisms of people who understand the subject much better than he does, I doubt he would have attracted much of the criticism that he has.

Anonymous said...

Russel... you are going to be CRUCIFIED...

We'll get that *atheism* out of your head...

One more time:







you little liars do nothing but antagonize…

and you try to eliminate all the dreams and hopes of humanity…

but you LOST…



Einstein puts the final nail in the coffin of atheism…




atheists deny their own life element…



That Guy Montag said...

Russell, there's a particular point I'm interested in getting your response to. I notice you haven't replied to Sam's response to your psychopath example.

As I understand it with the psychopath you're trying to show how it is possible for someone to reasonably aim at ends that most people would consider immoral and that therefore reason along can't derive morals. I'll admit that Sam's response can seem a little silly, that psychopath's wrong conclusions are actually caused by failures of reason; it looks as if he's throwing an empirical claim against a metaphysical claim so it's basically the wrong kind of argument.

This leads me to Davidson. As I understand it he argues that there can be no such thing as an untranslatable language and by extension no such thing as a truly alien way of thinking. Wouldn't something like this be able to show that there is in fact no way for someone like the psychopath to be said to be reasoning correctly? Furthermore, if it applies to alien languages, it would also suggest that we could argue the evil alien would in fact be committing a failure of reason. Read like this Sam's response becomes quite a lot stronger: he is in fact making a metaphysical claim about the relationship between reason, consciousness and morality. It would certainly make his metaethics a lot more interesting in that it really does mean that particular moral principles become a fundamental aspect of consciousness as he says quite explicitly. Now I'll admit I'm be reading quite a lot into his argument here and stretching my knowledge to its limits, but do you think there might be something there?

Jean Kazez said...

Richard W, I personally think Sam Harris is by and large on the right track. I think morality is an objective, fact-stating affair. What bothers me about his TED talk is just that he seems to think for ethics to be objective, it must be rooted in either science or religion. I think that's a false dichotomy. I think he would have done better not to have taken such a reductive position.

What I was saying above is that it would be a disaster to promote an error theory, even if were correct, given Harris's purposes. Ultimately, I imagine Harris is really interested in undermining the public perception that we need religion for ethics. You simply can't undermine that by telling the public that all moral assertions are really false. That will send them running back into the arms of religion faster than anything else! If he'd really believed an error theory was the way to go, the best thing for him would probably have been to avoid the depths of metaethics in his book. The truth is, it's probably possible to argue against the idea that ethics depends on religion without going into great depth about the ultimate nature of morality.

Mark Sloan said...

Russell B

I agree that “moral questions do not genuinely have … absolute bindingness and irresistible practical oomph …” but do not see that this necessarily leads to Richard Joyce’s position.

It seems to me that this idea could still be consistent with the existence of both 1) an objective, science based, definition of moral behavior and 2) rational reasons for accepting the burdens of such a morality even when the individual expects accepting those burdens will be against their self interest.

First, the easy part: An objective, science based, definition of moral behavior would simply be what moral behavior ‘is’ as a matter of science, not what it ‘ought’ to be. For example something similar to: Moral behaviors are behaviors that increase, on average, the synergistic benefits of cooperation and are unselfish at least in the short term.

But if rational reasons help us select acts that best meet our needs and preferences, how can they motivate us to accept the burdens of such a morality? One way this could happen is if people commonly make poor predictions of the true effect on their needs and preferences of accepting the burdens of acting morally.

People might make poor predictions of what will be in their best interest due to 1) the common impossibility of accurately predicting the results of actions regardless of the amount of time spent in the attempt due to both lack of knowledge and lack of computing power, 2) the common circumstance of having to choose actions in split seconds without time for rational consideration, 3) the common human failing of weighing more heavily immediate penalties rather than longer term material and emotional penalties from social condemnation and emotional penalties from their own conscience.

There are two critical elements here. First is our poor ability to predict what will be in our best interests (in most cases) and second are the recognized benefits, based on thousands of years of experience, of behaving morally. It seems to me much more rational to go with the moral wisdom of the ages than my own confused perceptions of the moment as to what is in my best interest. Of course, there would always be an ‘escape clause’ since no claim is made for the absolute bindingness of accepting moral burdens.

Good luck with your paper in July.

March Hare said...

Morality is like architecture - there is no objective architecture but there is architecture that works when applied to the real world and architecture that doesn't.

The similarity between them is deeper, Sam Harris says that there is an objective moral low point, this would be akin to a building that instantly falls down, it still doesn't make any of the other metrics objective. e.g. Should a building have high ceilings or more floors, should it have lots of open spaces or small rooms? These are metrics that define how fit for purpose the building is and depend entirely on the intended building. Sam Harris tries to come away with a single metric of 'well-being of conscious creatures', but this is too broad a brush - intrusive police presence would increase the well-being of someone worried about crime but would seriously damage the well-being of someone who valued privacy.

What we get from that is that ethics are an applied science and as such should be used carefully - making grandiose claims about objective truths is not only doomed to failure but doomed to be misused.

Mark Sloan said...

March Hare, I’ll assume you were addressing my comments as containing ‘grandiose claims'.

From the standpoint of science, whether there are objective truths about moral behavior is an empirical question to be resolved the same way other questions in science are resolved. For instance, science has answered in the affirmative concerning objective truths about lust, fear, aversion to inbreeding, and favoritism for close kin. Hypotheses concerning moral behaviors can be evaluated for objective truth by the same methods.

Specifically, a hypothesis concerning moral behaviors would be provisionally ‘true’ if, compared to all competing hypothesis it showed 1) superior explanatory power for diverse and contradictory moral behaviors and cultural moral standards, 2) superior explanatory power for puzzles about morality, 3) superior predictive power for moral intuitions, 4) cross species universality, 5) no contradiction to known facts, and so forth.

The hypothesis “Moral behaviors increase, on average, the synergistic benefits of cooperation and are unselfish at least in the short term” is not yet generally accepted. However, based on peer reviewed publications such as Biology and Philosophy it would an uncontroversial observation by the people working in the field. Further, it provides astonishing explanatory power for the diversities and contradictions of moral cultural standards.

Would you seriously have no interest in a hypothesis that explains altruism to strangers, why in some societies homosexuals are accepted and in others they are criminals, why circumcision can be a moral requirement, why ‘pagan’ virtues appear to be almost the opposite of ‘Christian’ virtues, how the moral intuitions of members of the Nazi party could assure them it was moral to commit horrible crimes, why the Golden Rule is the most common short expression of morality in the world, and so forth? What do you have that is even remotely close to providing such understanding?

When I first heard Sam Harris had a lecture at TED and new book about the science of morality, I assumed the above is what he was talking about. I was disappointed. But I was very impressed by the quality of Russell Blackford’s comments on the subject and thought it might be worthwhile to post here.

Ben said...

Perhaps part of the problem is trying to exactly identify something that is not identifiable in that way. If we are agreeing that morality is not like a chemical element with an exact composition here, there and everywhere and at all times, but is more nebulous, more like a behaviour, then trying to precisely define rules for it will be as difficult as trying to say how I should feel on a warm summers day – philosophically or scientifically.

I think that it is at this point we can see the powers and weaknesses of each approach. Science can tell how my skin works to measure temperature and how my body reacts, how my mind is connected to this and how my various senses and neurological features work together to make me experience warmth as ‘better’ than cold, perhaps even as ‘happier’ than cold if we can show a link between the brain states and the sensory inputs. Science cannot say how I am likely to feel if I was attacked and brutally beaten on a previous summer’s day though. Well, it can say a little, but the point is that morality is more like the expression of all of these factors; our culture, memory, experiences, biology etc. How we personally feel about any particular event, be it a sunny day, swatting a fly, eating meat, eating vegetables, using a car, fighting in a war will depend on all of these working in us individually and, importantly, as a group. Morality becomes democratic; perhaps emotionally and subconsciously democratic, but more like an emergent group behaviour (though fair enough- with relationships to survival under whatever situations it faces and has to survive both in times of physical/mental hardship and more relaxed times of fun and pleasure – and in public and private).

We can write rules on paper about how this group might behave and what they would pick as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, but the reality is the behaviour emerges from the fact (if it is right) that it is not underwritten by exact discoverable rules and the edges end up blurring.

Does alcohol cause harm? Yes, especially in regular excess. Is it immoral? Perhaps. It might be immoral to cause harm to yourself, but you will not live forever and do not expect to. Is it immoral to trade 5 days, or 50 days off of the end of your life to enjoy the rest a little more? What about if you enjoy pain? Ever bitten a loved one during love making, or been bitten, or worse?

Morality blurs at the edges. I think it does this because individually we differ, not because we haven’t got it right yet or haven’t discovered the rules.

If morality does not exist then we are free to make it. It becomes natural that we would unwittingly base it on our biological, environmental, emotional (etc) environment; especially given our evolutionary heritage and group societies and cultures.

If you could create an equation with enough freedom to include all of these variables in individuals but primarily extending in feedbacks across populations then I think you would have written morality down. Philosophical afterthoughts are then like philosophising about the chemical elements – which one is my favourite and why? Or which is the nicest colour?

Richard Morgan said...

"If any of y'all out there are working on this and interested in collaborating, let me know what you have in mind. "

I am currently working on an "Oughticide Spray" - effective for 24 hours under normal climatic conditions.
There are, however some unwelcome (though not life-threatening) side-effects that need to be dealt with before my spray gets FDA approval.
Can I invite you to guess what they are?
You ought to be able to do that fairly easily.

Richard Morgan said...

Let us spray.

March Hare said...

Is it a cure for oughtism?

March Hare said...

If morality is concerned with 'total well-being' then it is immoral for good looking people to refuse to sleep with relatively ugly people - the decrease in well-being of the good looking person is minuscule compared to the increase in well-being of the ugly person.

Not sure it works as a chat up line, but it's got to be worth a try :)