Wednesday, August 16, 2006

There Are 12 Planets

Yes, this blog entry has a great deal to do with ethics. I have repeatedly used the example of astronomers struggling with the definition of 'planet' as a counter-example to an extremely common argument used in defense of claim that morality is subjective. Previous examples can be found in my blog entries titled, "Morality and the Subjectivity of Definitions" and "Desires and the Definition of ‘Good’".

Now, it appears that astronomers will be reaching a decision -- one that will give us at least 12 planets, with three contenders (waiting the results of future experiments), and perhaps dozens to hundreds of additional planets.

According to the resolution (which will get a thumbs-up or thumbs-down from astronomers in a few days):

(1) A planet is a celestial body that (a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape1, and (b) is in orbit around a star, and is neither a star nor a satellite of a planet.

So, the known planets, in order, are: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto/Charon (double-planet), and 2003 UB313 (temporary ID).

What does this have to do with ethics?

Here is the argument that I seek to refute.

(1) Whether something is good or bad depends on your definition of 'good' and 'bad'.

(2) No objective scientific experiment can be constructed to determine whether one definition is better than the next -- the definitions are a matter of (subjective) preference.

Therefore, there can be no objective morality.

Here is my disproof by counter-example

(1) Whether something is a planet or not depends on your definition of 'planet'.

(2) No objective, scientific experiment can be constructed to determine if one definition is better than the next -- definitions are a matter of (subjective) preference.

Therefore, there can be no objective astronomy.

The premises in both cases are true. Those who say whether something is good or bad depends on the meaning of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and that these definitions are arbitrarily made with no scientific test to prove one definition better than the other are totally correct.

Yet, this does not, in any way, prove that morality itself is subjective. If it did, then astronomy would have to be subjective.

Clearly, the number of planets that we have depends on the meaning of ‘planet’. There is no scientific test that will prove that one definition is ‘right’ and another definition is ‘wrong’. Yet, in spite of this fact, astronomy remains an objective field of study.

Once a person realizes how we can have objective astronomy with subjective definitions, one can start to realize how it is possible to have objective ethics with subjective definitions.

The Meaning of 'Planet'

An underappreciated fact in all of this concerns how astronomers came up with a definition of 'planet.' They did not get this definition by looking through telescopes, taking observations, and writing peer-reviewed journal articles saying, "Here, I have a set of observations that support the theory that the term 'planet' means 'X'."

They formed a committee. The committee negotiated and bargained and eventually formed a compromise that they unanimously agreed to. They are presenting this compromise to the members of the International Astronomical Union in the form of a resolution. The IAU will then vote on the resolution, approving or disapproving the definition. I am betting that they will approve it.

A vote?

A vote!

Imagine taking the Theory of Evolution and the Theory of Intelligent Design, putting them into the form of a resolution, submitting them to a vote, and deciding in this way which theory to accept and which to reject.

It is absurd.

However, in the case of the IAU resolution, we are not talking about theories, we are talking about definitions. There are no experiments or studies that we can use to decide on a correct definition of anything.

Here's another question (the likes of which I often see in ethics): Who gave the International Astronomical Union the authority to decide what a planet is? Were they elected? Did I get a vote? I can conceivably get a different group of people together, and we can come up with another definition. If I did, there is nothing objective that states that their definition is right and mine is wrong. There is only the perceived cultural fact that they have this 'authority' to determine the definition of a planet and me and my committee do not.

My point here is that all of these issues – all of these facts that subjectivists point to as ‘proof’ that ethics must be subjective – apply equally all fields of study, including the hardest of the objective sciences. This so-called ‘evidence of subjectivity’ is evidence of nothing of the kind.

The Objectivity of Astronomy

How can astronomy continue to be 'objective' in the face of all this arbitrary subjectivity?

Astronomy can remain objective because astronomers recognize that the size, shape, average temperature, orbital velocity, distance from the sun, and whatever of all of the bodies of the solar system are not affected by our decision of what the term 'planet' means.

The International Astronomical Union has no power to vote on the astronomical facts. It is only voting on the language that we use to express those facts. The choice of which language to speak is a subjective preference. We want a language that makes it easy to communicate on those topics that are important to us. However, the criteria that is truly important is not what any particular term means, but that we all agree to the same meaning. There may be some passion pulling definitions one way or the other. However, when all is said and done, the definitions we end up with are of little significance. Only their commonality matters.

Any theory that depends on a particular definition of ‘planet’ for its claims to be true or false is, by that fact alone, a bad theory that needs to be tossed. Changing from one definition to another does not affect any theory, it only affects the words that one chooses in expressing that theory. It affects the language that the person is speaking, but not what he says within that language.

The same is true in ethics. A group of ethicist should be able to walk into a room and decide on a definition of ‘good.’ Every moral theory that is materially affected by that definition – where it changes the substance of the claims made within that theory – needs to be thrown out. The only theories that are worth their salt are those where the author says, ‘Now that I have these definitions, all I need to do is to translate my theory into those words.’

The Meaning of 'Atheist'

A couple of days ago I posted an entry concerning "The Meaning of 'Atheist'". These claims are relevant to that dispute as well.

No astronomer would have thought it sensible to write a book defending a particular theory of the solar system by starting off with the claim that a given definition of planet is ‘the’ definition.

If he did, the book would say that the original Greek term meant, 'wanderer'. It referred to points of light in the sky that moved in relation to the background (fixed) stars. The term did not say anything about size and shape. This is because the ancient Greeks could not see size and shape – only points of light. If we were to extrapolate their definitions to the modern times, then every object that we see circling the sun and moving in relation to the background stars would have to be called a ‘planet’ (or a ‘wanderer’). Instead of 12 planets, we would be sitting at around 120,000 – with some modern findings suggesting that the number may get as high as 1,000,000,000,000 planets.

The International Astronomical Union did not even pretend to offer ‘the correct’ definition of planet. They sought to offer a definition that would be useful to astronomers – one whose distinction could be read off of the natural observed facts. As such, they proposed a new definition – a changed and more precise definition. Not, ‘the correct’ definition, because ‘the correct’ definition is nothing more than what a group of people decide that its definition will be.

The Meaning of 'Good'

I identify 'good' with 'is such as to fulfill the desires in question,' where 'the desires in question' are determined by the context in which the term 'good' is used. A desire is fulfilled in a state of affairs S if P which is the object of a 'desire that P' is true in S. A good desire, on this account, can only be a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. A desire that tends to thwart other desires is bad.

All of this is premised on the proposition that desires are the only reasons for intentional action that exist. No other reasons for intentional action – intrinsic values, categorical imperatives, natural rights, divine commands – actually exist.

If this is true, then when it comes to defining ‘good,’ we have three main options.

(1) We can identify ‘good’ in such a way that it describes relationships to desires. If we do this, then we define ‘good’ in a way that talks about reasons for intentional action that actually exist.

(2) We can identify ‘good’ in such a way that it references reasons for intentional action that does not exist. If we do this, then ‘good’ does not refer to anything in the real world. There is no ‘reason for intentional action’ to bring about that where the ‘reasons for intentional action’ do not exist.

(3) We can identify ‘good’ with something other than reasons for intentional action. If we do this, then ‘good’ becomes merely descriptive. We may call something good, but it is a separate and independent question of whether reasons for intentional action exist to pursue or to avoid what this definition calls ‘good.’

No definition is ‘the correct’ definition. The decision to choose one option over the other two is as subjective as the IAU’s decision regarding the definition of ‘planet.’ Yet, no matter what decision we make, the objective facts of the matter do not change.

Desires are still the only reasons for intentional action that actually exist, and any claim that there exist reasons for intentional action for bringing about a particular state must either refer to desires, or it must be false.


Here is what ethicists need to learn from astronomers:

Nothing of substance depends on what definitions we choose. It it appears as if definitions have the power to determine matters of substance, then somebody has already made a wrong turn. They need to go back and get to a position where changes in definition imply changes in the language in which items of substance are reported, but which the items of substance themselves do not change.

The next time you hear somebody say, “Morality depends on your definition of ‘good’ and no definition is objectively better than any other definition,” it is time to stop and backtrack.

If an ethicist cannot handle different definitions of ‘good’ the same way astronomers handle different definitions of ‘planet’, then mistakes have already been made. It is now necessary to go back and unmake those mistakes.

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