Sunday, July 22, 2007

Unsound Moral Reasoning: 4 Examples

As should be obvious to anybody who has followed this blog for any extended period of time, I am somebody who believes that there are true and false moral statements. There is a fact of the matter concerning the rightness or wrongness of particular acts, and we can discover these facts like we can discover the chemical composition of a substance or the facts about an ecosystem that existed hundreds of millions of years ago.

A more important (though, certainly, related) question is not whether moral statements can be true or false, but whether moral arguments can be sound rather than unsound, or at least strong rather than weak.

What follows is largely a summary post, meant to put a number of different issues I have written about into a larger context.

Logicians have their own particular vocabulary for talking about arguments. A sound argument is an argument where the conclusion logically follows from the premises (the ‘reasons for believing’ the conclusion), and all of the premises are true. A strong argument is one in which the premises render the conclusion to be almost certainly true, but does not guarantee that truth.

For example, the major problem with religious arguments is not that their conclusions are false. The problem is that their arguments are unsound, because many of the premises are false.

One of the important facts about logic is that, even though an argument is unsound, its conclusion can still be true. For example, I could wake up in the morning, see a bright red sunrise, and conclude that an airplane crashed last night. My argument would not be sound. It would not even be a strong argument. Yet, this does not prove that no airplane crashed last night. It only proves that no rational person, presented solely with evidence that the sunrise is red, would have any reason to conclude that a plane crashed last night.

So, take the moral prohibition against bearing false witness against others – a prohibition that I have defended as being more important than a prohibition on lying. It is a prohibition that, of course, covers lying (lying is one way to bear false witness against others). Yet, a prohibition against bearing false witness also prohibits rumor-mongering and making intellectually reckless accusations and associations – because of the risk of bearing false witness.

Divine Command

If a person bases a conclusion of the form, “It is wrong to bear false witness,” on premises that say there is a God and that this God frowns upon bearing false witness, then that argument is unsound. The premises are false. It is like basing a belief that an airplane crashed during the night on a red sunrise in the morning, when the morning was, in fact, covered with a thick fog.

However, once again, claiming that the argument is unsound is not the same as saying that the conclusion is false. This is where some theists make a significant mistake. They assert that, “Because you criticize my premises, you must be arguing that it is not wrong to bear false witness against others. It certainly is true that it is wrong to bear false witness against others, so my premises that there exists a God and this God disapproves of such things must be true.”

Of course, this defense fails. This would be like having a person argue, on a gray and foggy morning, “There must have been a bright red sunlight this morning because the news reported that a plane crashed last night.” It is a clearly flawed and question-begging form of argument.

Even though false premises do not guarantee a false conclusion, they certainly do not guarantee a true conclusion. Many theists are convinced through religious argument to do things that are actually wrong. They were not believed to be wrong by the tribesmen who created the holy scripture – but those were largely ignorant people with a limited understanding of the real world. Their moral science, as it turns out, was little better than their physical science.

Intrinsic Value

Another form of argument commonly used rests their moral conclusions on fundamental, basic ‘ought’ statements that cannot be further reduced to anything in the real world. Here, I am also going to argue that these propositions do not exist. All premises of the form, “There is a basic, irreducible ‘ought’ that says ‘people ought to do X’ are false.

One of the most common arguments in favor of the existence of these fundamental, irreducible ‘oughts’ is that one cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Here is where I insert my view that there is no distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’. There is only a distinction between ‘is’ and ‘is not’ – and if ‘ought’ cannot fit in with what ‘is’, then the only place left for it is in the realm of what ‘is not’.

Surprisingly, it does not matter which category a person chooses. Regardless of whether ‘ought’ is put into the category of ‘is’ or ‘is not’, desires still exist. Relationships between states of affairs and desires are still real, and desires continue to provide agents with reasons for action in the real world. We may have to come up with a different name for these aspects of nature, but we have no basis on which to question their existence or the reasons for action embedded within them.

Common Subjectivism

Another form of argument that is very popular, and also entirely unsound, is the argument from personal preference. It is an argument that states, “I desire that everybody do X; therefore, everybody has an obligation to do X.” In other words, a person makes a statement such as, “People should not bear false witness against others.” Then, when asked to defend it, the speaker merely asserts, “I have come to adopt the attitude towards bearing false witness that it is something that should not be done. If I had been raised differently then I would not now be a person who holds that this is something that ought not to be done. Similarly, somebody who was raised differently might not hold the attitude that this should not be done. Nonetheless, I have come to hold the attitude that it should not be done; therefore, it should not be done.”

This is much like adopting the attitude that God exists; then, when asked to defend this claim, asserting something like, “I have come to adopt the attitude towards God that He exists. If I had been raised differently, then I would not now be a person who holds that God exists. Similarly, somebody who was raised differently might not hold the attitude that God exists. Nonetheless, I have come to hold the attitude that God exists; therefore, God exists.”

This is clearly a very poor defense. Yet, it is extremely common among those who are trying to defend a moral conclusion. It effectively states, “If I have come to a completely unsupported and indefensible attitude that something is the case, then I am completely justified in asserting that something is the case, even though somebody else who acquires the attitude that something is not the case would be justified in asserting that something is not the case. In fact, if I were to acquire the attitude that something is not the case, then I would be totally justified in asserting that.

It is a nonsense position – and one of my main exhibits in defending my claim that religion is not the only source of absurdity in the world, and eliminating religion is no guarantee against eliminating absurdity.

Genetic/Biological Morality

I have discussed this option repeatedly over the past week. I add it here only to fit it into context. This is the view, “It is wrong to bear false witness because I have been programmed by evolution to adopt the attitude that it is wrong to bear false witness.”

So, what of the person who has not evolved a disposition to view bearing false witness as wrong. Or, what of the person who views the establishment of ‘in group’ loyalty and ‘out group’ hostility, manifesting an urge to attack out-groups and destroy them, taking their resources from them? What of the person who evolved a disposition to rape? If we (or to the degree that we) did not evolve altruistic dispositions, then is it the case that to that degree we are not good? Or does that imply that altruism is not good?

If we look at nature, we do not find an environment filled with cooperation and love. We see an environment that is a blend of cooperation and competition – with forms of cruelty by one creature against others that many people simply hope to ignore. Those people who argue that morality comes from evolution would have to have some place in the horrendous brutality and cruelty we also find in nature, and explain how, if morality comes from nature, that nature (and thus morality) does not and cannot command horrendous brutality.

Summary

None of these arguments actually have much merit. Yet, people appeal to them time and time again. They do so in defending conclusions that are as serious as deciding who to kill and who to let live, who to harm to who to help. There is a lot of talk given recently about how religion, with its false premises and invalid arguments, is used to ‘justify’ support for policies that bring death and suffering to millions. Yet, religion is not the only argument that can work this way. Religious people are not the only people who base moral conclusions on some very shaky arguments.

Here are three examples that fit beside religious-based ethics in terms of shakiness. Some of them are very popular, even among those who are the first to ridicule those who base moral conclusions on shaky premises.

13 comments:

Jonathan said...

I'm not sure I follow your critique on the genetic/evolutionary basis of morality. I read studies by... a man with a long Indian name, who is a doctor of neuroscience and whose name I can't remember... that there is a region in the brain that handles empahetic feelings. This must be an evolved trait, and, as such, it probably is a feeling that is distributed unevenly amoung populations. While I wouldn't say, "It is wrong to bear false witness because I have been programmed by evolution to adopt the attitude that it is wrong to bear false witness," I would say that I have evolved empathy for my fellow man. My personal prohiibition against "bearing false witness" is an extention of that impluse. What about those who have a lower empathetic threshold? It doesn't matter how sound your reasoning, they'll not understand why they should be moral. What to do with these people is the $64,000.00 question.

It seems to me that moral impuses evolved, but the application of these impulses is culturally determined -- somewhat like language. The main difference with language, however, is that with morality, we can use our shared moral impluses to talk rationally about better and worse cultral applications of morality, while it would be hard to argue that one language is "better" than another.

Sheldon said...

"This must be an evolved trait, and, as such, it probably is a feeling that is distributed unevenly amoung populations."

I am glad you have brought this up, for I have taken the same line of argument with Alonzo, that is capacities for morality, like empathy, can be an evolved trait, differentially expressed in human populations. Yet, this is not a mutually exclusive position that allows us to escape human reasoning on the specifics of what are moral or immoral actions.

I am anxious to hear his reply.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Jonathan

I believe that you are talking about mirror neurons - which generate a sensation when witnessing something that happened to another another person as if it has happened to you. So, if you poke somebody with a pin, another person observing that will have a brain reaction that mirrors the reaction of the person actually poked.

Let's say that you have this trait.

What makes this moral?

You have described that you have a particular trait, but now you have to explain to me why it is a good thing (or a bad thing) that you have this trait.

Morality requires more than saying, "I have an evolved disposition to do X." If this was sufficient, then an evolved disposition to rape would make rape moral, and an evolved disposition to slaughter members of 'out group' tribes would be moral.

You have to say, "I have an evolved disposition to do X and having an evolved disposition to do X is a good thing.

Not only is it a 'good thing', but it is a particular type of good thing. Color sight is a good thing but saying that one has an evolved tendency to perceive color hardly counts as a moral claim.

So, now you need to say, "I have an evolved disposition to do X, it is a good thing that I have evolved this disposition, and it is a particular type of 'good thing' known as a 'morally' good thing."

So, an evolutionary biologist has done an experiment to show that we have an evolved capacity for X. Now, he says, "I am going to conduct a test to prove that we not only have an evolved capacity for X, but that X contains the property of 'moral goodness'.?

What does that test for moral goodness look like? How do we determine if it is successful?

This is the problem I allude to when I say that genetic morality has exactly the same problem as religious morality.

Religious morality cannot answer the question, "Is it loved by God because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by God?"

Genetic morality cannot answer the question, "Is it loved by our genes because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by our genes?"

Atheist Observer said...

Here is where I insert my view that there is no distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’. There is only a distinction between ‘is’ and ‘is not’ – and if ‘ought’ cannot fit in with what ‘is’, then the only place left for it is in the realm of what ‘is not’.

This is equivalent to the statement “There is no distinction between "vertical" and "light." There is only a distinction between light and darkness. If vertical isn't light, it must be darkness.”

We can state it is desirable for someone to act so as to fulfill the desires of others irrespective of whether that person ultimately acts in that manner. We can also say one ought not to torture children even if no torturing of children is taking place.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer

We know that there are things other than light and darkness that things can be.

The claim that there are alternatives other than 'is' and 'is not' is more difficult to support.

If somebody can demonstrate to me that there is a third option other than 'is' and 'is not' - indeed, if somebody can show me how it can even make sense to say that there is a sensible option other than is - then they have bought themselves room to maneuver.

People who say that there are options other than light and darkness have room to maneuver, because they are right.

People who say that there are options other than 'is' and 'is not' have not successfully completed this step yet.

Anonymous said...

"Another form of argument that is very popular, and also entirely unsound, is the argument from personal preference. It is an argument that states, “I desire that everybody do X; therefore, everybody has an obligation to do X.”"

Do you have any examples of this "very popular" argument you could cite?

Atheist Observer said...

Alonzo,

Sometimes your reasoning is clear and compelling. Other times it seems more like you are playing semantic games. Yes everything either exists, or it doesn’t exist. Since the concept of ought is a thing, it either exists or it doesn’t exist. But to follow that with the statement that there is no distinction between is and ought is fallacious. You could make the same case that there is no distinction between wombat and is.
You address my understanding of the usual philosophical issue between ought and is elsewhere in your post, basically saying the is of an evolved feeling does not translate into an ought of moral justification for acting on that feeling..
I believe most people define “ought” as a statement about the moral desirability of a state of affairs, which is distinctly different concept than the concept of whether that state of affairs exists or does not exist at a given point in time.
Didn’t this issue originate from the attitude common among the fortunate that “This is the way things are, so this is how they ought to be?” While this argument is incorrect, it isn’t necessarily circular.

Jonathan said...

Yes, mirror neurons is what I was refering to.

I'm still not sure I'm following you. In other posts, I recall that you regard 'desires' as a matter of fact. I agree with this proposition. That we desire, I think, is an evolved trait. Morality can be thought of as a type of desire -- the desire to do good.

I'm not saying that just because a trait evolved it's right. I think that the reason we can talk sensibly about morality is because, by and large, we all share the empathetic and cooperative tendencies that make morality possible.

G-man said...

"There is only a distinction between ‘is’ and ‘is not’ – and if ‘ought’ cannot fit in with what ‘is’, then the only place left for it is in the realm of what ‘is not’.

This is equivalent to the statement “There is no distinction between "vertical" and "light." There is only a distinction between light and darkness. If vertical isn't light, it must be darkness.”
"

_If this isn't a textbook example of begging the question, I'm not quite sure what is. It automatically jumps to the conclusion that "is" and "ought" are as different as "vertical" and "light."

Jonathan-

"That we desire, I think, is an evolved trait. Morality can be thought of as a type of desire -- the desire to do good.

_Of course, I agree that the fact that we desire is an evolved trait - and one shared by numerous other members of the animal kingdom. However, I'm not quite sure I follow the second part. Morality is basically the idea there there is right and wrong behavior. That reduces your basic argument to 'Good behavior = the desire to behave in a good way.'

That's quite obvious, under the assumption of BDI theory. Yet it seems a bit tautological and doesn't give us much... for instance, you say that good moral behavior is doing good. Without further elaboration, this is a bit hazy in its failure to actually describe what is 'good.'

"I think that the reason we can talk sensibly about morality is because, by and large, we all share the empathetic and cooperative tendencies that make morality possible."
_Again, I agree insofar as that humans share a basic genetic structure and set of values. Still, you're describing cooperative and empathetic tendencies - which is a description, rather than a prescription. In a moral theory, we're looking for the latter.

So we're made to assume that cooperation and empathy are 'good.' We know they're good because... oh, I don't know. You tell me. What I think Mr. Fyfe is describing is a set of behaviors that objectively have the tendency to fulfill or to thwart the desires of other human beings.

'Good' = those that fulfill; 'bad' = those that thwart. This set of desires are phenomena that exist objectively, regardless of how you choose to use the term 'morality.' I hope I haven't missed anything or trodden on too many toes...

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer

The position that I am objecting to is one that holds that 'ought' do not describe things in the world.

I hold that the relationship between 'ought' statements and 'is' statements is like the relationship between 'square' and 'rectangle' or between 'lion' and 'cat'.

Clearly, in this type of relationship, it does not follow from 'X is a rectangle' that 'X is a square'. Similarly, 'X is an is statement' does not imply 'X is an ought statement'. There are a great many 'is' statements that are not 'ought' statements, just as there are a great many rectangles that are not squares.

Also, in this type of relationship, 'X is a square' does not imply 'X is not a rectangle'. However, the view that I am raising objections to is the view that 'X is an ought statement' does imply 'X is not an is statement'. These are two distinct and separate kinds of things. Or, as David Hume asserted (according to the most popular interpretation of his writings), 'ought' statements describe a different sort of relationship from 'is' statements so that it is impossible for the former to be derived from the latter.

The issue originated in a set of arguments that attempted an invalid inference from 'is' to 'ought'. For example, those who argued 'God created man; therefore, man has an obligation to obey God'. Hume said more than this type of statement is an invalid inference. Hume argued that 'obligations' refer to a type of entity that cannot be talked about in terms of what 'is' the case.

So, it is not 'word games' to assert that people sever the concept of 'ought' so completely from the world of 'is'. The 'is' vs 'ought' distinction says that there is, in fact, no way for an 'ought' statement to fit inside the 'is' universe.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Jonathan; G-Man

Yes, the fact that we desire is an evolved trait, and our desires have been molded through evolution to include desires that tend to promote survival of the gene (desire for sex, desire for high calorie food, preferences for a particular temperature range). All of this is true.

G-man described one problem with defining morality as 'the desire to do good' is that it still leaves the question unanswered, "What is 'doing good'?" How do we determine when we are doing good and when we are not doing good?

Another problem is that morality seems to apply to any number of desires. If you are in the hospital, and somebody comes to visit you, what would you rather hear him say? "I came to see you because I felt it was my duty to do so." or "I came to see you because I am worried about you and I wanted to cheer you up, or see if I can help in some way."

In fact, most good deeds are not motivated by a desire to do good at all.

Now, clearly, I think that sound or strong moral arguments are possible. So, this is not a post that says that we cannot speak sensibly about right and wrong. It is a post that states that these are four examples of failure to speak sensibly about right and wrong.

I hold that the only thing we need to speak sensibly about morality are desires that are NOT genetically determined, but that can be molded through social forces. As soon as a desire is shown to be genetically determined, it has been taken outside the realm of morality, because it makes no sense to apply social forces (praise, condemnation, reward, punishment) to things that social forces cannot affect.

Indeed, this is another question that the genetic moralist cannot answer.

If morality is genetically determined, then how does it make sense to 'praise' somebody for doing good or to 'condemn' him for doing evil? Does it make sense to condemn a person for failure to have a particular gene?

Praise and condemnation, which are central to moral institutions, make sense because they have an affect on our desires - because they can promote desires we have reason to promote and inhibit desires we have reason to inhibit. This is possible - morality itself is possible - precisely because genes do not completely control our behavior.

Anonymous said...

“I desire that everybody do X; therefore, everybody has an obligation to do X.”

So I guess the answer is, "no I don't have any examples of this pathetic strawman, because I just made it up."

Alonzo Fyfe said...

anonymous

Actually, my answer to the question is that I do not see the question as leading to any substantive conclusion.

I think that a vast majority of readers will have hard the argument often enough to know what I was talking about.

And, if I am wrong, that this particular horse is already dead, then beating a dead horse may be a waste of time, but certainly does not wrong the horse.

Anyway, use your favorite search engine and search on moral subjectivism and you will find examples of the view that I am referring to.

Such as: in wikipedia, which says that all ethical sentences reduce to factual statements about the attitudes of individuals.

I have seen a number of attempts to defend moral subjectivism. I have also seen a lot of attempts to defend the idea that God can be 1 person and 3 people at the same time. I have not seen one that even comes close to working.