Thursday, December 31, 2015

Pigden's Moral Nihilism

Charles R. Pigden holds a particularly strong view of moral nihilism.

I think (as a first approximation) that moral judgments, specifically moral judgments concerning the thin moral concepts (“good”, “right”, “ought”, “wrong”, etc.) are propositions, that they are (in the current jargon) truth-apt. And I think they are all false. For there are no such properties as goodness, badness, wrongness or obligatoriness. You can’t do genuinely good deeds since there is no such property as goodness for your deeds to instantiate: at best they can be good in some watered down or ersatz sense. Pigden, Charles. “Nihilism, Nietzche, and the Doppleganger Problem,” in A World Without Values: Essays on John Mackie’s Moral Error Theory, Richard Joyce and Simon Kirchin (eds.)
I agree that moral propositions are truth-apt.

I think that some moral claims are true.

That is to say, there are propterites properly called “goodness”, “badness”, “wrongness” or “obligatoriness” that are real. Consequently, a person can do genuinely good deeds since there is a property of goodness that those deeds can instantiate.

To be clear . . . what Pigden calls “goodness” – that does not exist. 

Imagine a person claiming, “I am an oxygen nihilist. By “oxygen”, I mean atoms whose nuclei have 8.5 protons. Atoms whose nuclei have 8.5 protons do not exist. Therefore, there is no such thing as oxygen.”

The argument is valid. The premises, as written, are true. The conclusion, therefore, is true. However, it would be a mistake to claim that the oxygen nihilist is denying the existence of the same thing everybody else is talking about when they talk about oxygen.

My claim is that the “goodness” that everybody else is talking about (that exists) is not the same “goodness” that Pigden is talking about (that does not exist).

If Pigden took his nihilism too far, then one would wonder how he could ever make a decision. Why not stick his hand in a hot fire unless there is some reason for him not to do so? Pain – or, more precisely, the aversion to pain - provides an effective reason.

The propositions, “Sticking my hand in the fire will cause me to have an experience of pain,” and “I have an aversion to having the experience of pain” are both truth-apt statements. And, in fact, they are sometimes true. Pigden should have no trouble with this.

The propositions, “For Pigden, sticking his hand in a fire will cause him to experience pain,” and “Pigden has an aversion to having the experience of pain” are also truth-apt and, under at least some real-world circumstances, they would be true.

Which means Pigden has a reason not to stick his own hand in a fire.

Still, it is not necessarily the case that I have a reason to put Pigden’s hand in a fire. If I had an aversion to Pigden experiencing pain, then I would have a reason not to put Pigden’s hand in a fire (or, actually, a reason to refrain from anything that would bring about a state in which Pigden experiences pain. In the absence of such an aversion on my part, I have no such reason.

Still, it is the case that Pigden has a reason to cause me to have an aversion to him being in a state of pain. This is a truth-apt statement that happens to be true. It is also true that, through the use of rewards and punishments, Pigden has the power to cause others to have an aversion to things that could result to Pigden being in pain. Therefore, Pigden has a reason to use rewards and punishments to bring about those aversions.

I am going to add that praise serves as a type of reward and condemnation serves as a type of punishment when it comes to creating desires and aversions in others. Consequently, the reasons to reward and punish are also reasons to praise and condemn.

I would bet that there are a lot of people who have reason to use rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation to promote in others aversions to that which would result in them being in pain. This, too, is a truth-apt proposition that happens to be true.

So, let us take, “X is wrong” to mean, “People generally have many and strong reasons to use rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation to create an aversion to doing X”.

Or, “X is obligatory” to mean, “People generally have many and strong reasons to use rewards and punishment to promote an aversion to not doing X”.

Now, for the sake of efficiency, we are going to add the praise and condemnation into these statements as an extra bit of flavor. So, the person who says, “X is wrong” not only reports that people generally have many and strong reasons to use rewards and punishments to promote an aversion to doing X,” but also to deliver the condemnation that the statement calls for.

Now, we have a truth-apt statement that at least can be true.

The statement can also be false. People may believe that they have reasons to condemn an action when, in fact, they do not. They may believe that an angry god will punish them if they do not condemn an action when, in fact, no such god exists. They may think that they have reason to promote total obedience to the king in order to have a peaceful and well-ordered society when, in fact, it promotes a type of exploitation that people generally actually have reason to avoid.

When people say, “Lying is wrong” in this sense, they are not saying that everybody has a reason not to lie, or even that lying as an intrinsic “ought not to be doneness”. They are saying that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to lying while, at the same time, condemning those who lie as a way of promoting that aversion.

These statements are still truth-bearing. If there is an objection to be made, it cannot be made on the basis that these claims are false. The only objection that can be made is that these truths do not deserve to be called moral claims.

Why use this as an account of what people mean when they make moral claims rather than Pigden’s account?

The short argument is that it obeys the Principle of Charity. The Principle of Charity says that the presumption favors the interpretation that maximizes the truth value of that which is being interpreted. On this measure, an error theory (every moral claim that anybody has ever made is false) utterly fails when compared to this alternative.

The second argument is an extremely long argument. This argument says that the interpretation offered above can make sense of a huge amount of morality. It makes sense of having three moral categories for action (obligation, non-obligatory permission, and prohibition), the concept of “excuse”, the concept of supererogatory action, “ought” implies “can”, the dominant use of rewards/praise and condemnation/punishment in morality, the truth-bearing aspect of moral statements as well as the emotive aspect.

Of course, it would take a huge amount of space to prove this – which is why I won’t do it here. However, this would be how such an argument would go.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Anethicism and Moral Nihilism

Anethicism is the view that morality does not exist. Beliefs about morality exist, but all of those beliefs are false – at least those beliefs that treat morality itself as existing.

Moral nihilism is a similar view – if not another word for the same thing – in that it holds that nothing is moral or immoral. Again, it is because morality and immorality are fictions.

I am currently reading through an anthology of articles discussing the works of J.L. Mackie: A World Without Value: Essays on J.L. Mackie’s Moral Error Theory.

John Burgess wrote the first article in this book, “Against Ethics”, at about the same time that Mackie published his book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong – near 1977. Because Mackie beat him to the press, Burgess did not publish his article, but it had been informally circulating for 30 years.

Charles Pigden wrote his article, “Nihilism, Nietzsche, and the Doppelganger Problem,” in defense of moral nihilism and begins with, “Let me start with two claims: (1) I am a moral nihilist, (2) so was Nietzsche.”

Technically, on their account, I would be an anethicist and a moral nihilist – on their definitions of the terms. That is, if we take morality to be about intrinsically prescriptive properties, I hold that morality does not exist, since intrinsically prescriptive properties do not exist.

However, I reject their terms. I accuse Burgess and Pigden of inventing a private language. Shared by a very small percentage of the population. Within that private language, their claims might be true. However, if we were to speak common English – the English of the common person.

When the vast majority of the speakers when they deny the existence of morality mean by it, “uninhibited murder, rape, and theft,” and they communicate accurately with the vast majority of the people who hear the term, then it is a mistake to say that they all fail to understand the meaning of the term – that denying the existence of morality does not in any way imply uninhibited murder, rape, and theft when almost everybody (who is not an academic philosopher) knows that this is exactly what it means.

People may have a working theory that says that the reason rape, murder, and theft should be inhibited is because it has an intrinsic “ought to be inhibitedness” built into it. However, this does not imply that they have built this theory into the meaning of their terms. People may have a working theory that the tides are caused to rise and fall because of the will of Poseidon, yet this does not imply that they have built “by the will of Poseidon” into the meaning of the term “tide”.

Or even if they have built it into the meaning of the term ‘tide’ that it plays such a crucial role that it they find it necessary to drop the term ‘tide’ simply because they come to suspect that its rise and fall has more to do with the moon than with Poseidon.

Ultimately, I suspect that people realize that the reasons for inhibiting murder, rape, and theft has something to do with what they imagine a society to be like that had uninhibited murder, rape, and theft. Their dislike – their absolute terror – over the thought of living in such a society rests at the heart of their objection to any “anethicist” or “moral nihilist” philosophy.

So, even though I qualify as an anethicist and a moral nihilist given the ways in which Pigden and Burgess use their terms, I actually count myself as a moral realist. This is because I am an inhibited murder, rape, and theft realist. Inhibitions against these types of actions can exist, and people have many and strong reasons to make sure they do exist.

Eliminating these inhibitions would be nonsense.

Against Intrinsic Prescriptivity

In a comment, Jeffrey Jay Lowder provided an interpretation of Mackie's argument against "objectivevalues" that does seem to be taken straight out of Mackie's text.

I will admit, I have not looked at Mackie's arguments against "objective values" in detail - mostly because I agree with his conclusion, though for my own reasons.

Also, I think that Mackie’s use of the term “objective values” tends to lead to confusion. Mackie is actually denying the existence of “intrinsic prescriptivity”. By calling it "objective values" he risks creating confusion between this sense and another sense of "objective values" - this being “objectively true value claims”. Mackie denies the existence of both of these. I agree with Mackie on the former, but I disagree with Mackie on the latter. To explain this disagreement, I find it necessary to keep the two types of "objective value" distinct.

My argument against intrinsic prescriptivity is that, in everything we have learned so far to explain the motion of objects through space, nowhere does “intrinsic prescriptivity” play a role.

When it comes to intentional action, entities such as beliefs, desires, and habits all seem to have roles to play. “Intrinsic prescriptivity” does nothing. Consequently, I am more than happy to take Ocham's Razor and cut these entities out of my ontology.

Somebody may object that, in looking for something that explains and predicts the motion of matter through space, I am confusing “what is” from “what ought to be”. The realm of explanations and predictions is the realm of what is. It is the realm of matter and force. The realm of “what ought to be” is a different type of thing entirely – separate and distinct from “what is”.

However, if “ought” has no influence in the real world . . . if we can never use them to explain why a person told the truth or repaid a debt . . . if we cannot even use them to explain how a person acquired a brain state (a particular configuration of physical brain matter) called a “belief that X is wrong”, then there is no sense in talking about them at all. We can learn nothing about them since they cannot, on this account, have any effect on our very material senses or brain. We can safely cut them out of our ontology and lose none of our ability to understand and predict events in the world around us.

Mackie went further than I do. According to Mackie, not only is it the case that we have not discovered intrinsic prescriptivity, it is unlikely that we will ever find such an entity. In order to search for intrinsic prescriptivity, we would have to know something about what it is and how it works. However, Mackie argued, when we take a serious look at what intrinsic prescriptivity must be like we quickly reach the conclusion that we are never going to find anything like that in the real world. It would have to be something that, by its very nature, commands evolved creatures to behave a particular way. How would that work? How would we even know about them?

I do have one positive argument against intrinsic prescriptivity. It is an argument that I also found in a post by Coel Hellier which I had commented on recently.

Hellier wrote the argument as follows:
[E]volution doesn’t operate according to what “is moral”, it operates according to what helps someone to have more descendants. Thus, even if there were an “absolute” morality, there is no reason to suppose that it would have any connection to our own human sense of morality. Anyone arguing for objective morality by starting with human morality and intuition — which of course is how it is always done — is thus basing their case on a non sequitur.
None of our senses present us with the world as it is. They present us with impressions of the world that are useful for survival. If there was an “intrinsic prescriptivity” in the world, we would not automatically be motivated to realize that which is intrinsically good and prevent the realization of that which is intrinsically bad. Instead, assuming we even evolved a faculty for perceiving this particular property, its ties to motivation would be according to what served human evolutionary purposes. If a twisted and distorted sense of intrinsic precriptivity aided human replication, (or rode along with other changes that aided replication, or at least did not hinder replication), then we would have - at best - a distorted sense of intrinsic prescriptivity. More importantly, we would have no way to determine in what ways our sense of intrinsic prescriptivity was distorted.

Besides, there is the fact that no biologist has ever found evidence for such a faculty. We know how our senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, and even our sense of direction works. We have found no sense of intrinsic prescriptivity - which is perhaps best explained by the fact that there is no intrinsic prescriptivity to perceive.

Intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist.

Relationships between states of affairs and desires exist. And it is when value claims refer to these relationships that objectively true value statements can also exist. But intrinsic prescriptivity is a fiction.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

There Is No Moral Sense

In raising objections to objective morality, Coen Hellier makes a claim that, simply put, is false.

Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, said Dobzhansky, and morality certainly makes no sense except as the product of our evolutionary heritage. Our moral sense is one of a number of systems developed by evolution to do a job: the immune systems counters infection, the visual system gives us information about the world, and our moral feelings are there as a social glue to enable us to cooperate with other humans.
There is no moral sense. It does not exist.

A Moral Sense Is Unnecessary

Apparently, this “moral sense” is supposed to “enable us to cooperate with other humans.”

The first thing to note about this so-called “moral sense” is that nature has had no difficulty promoting cooperation among creatures without a moral sense. We would have to go pretty far away from the mainstream to suggest that ants that bring food back to the colony are acting on a sense of duty, or that the bee that gives her life defending the hive has even a crude sense of acting on a moral obligation.

When it comes to cooperating, nature has a far easier way to promote cooperation than to generate a “moral sense”. It can simply cause us to like cooperation, just as it has caused us to like other things that promote our survival as a species – such as eating and having sex.

Eating and sex are simply two examples among many where nature caused in humans certain behavioral dispositions without bringing a “moral sense” into the picture. I know of nobody who requires a sense of duty in order to engage in masturbation or intercourse. Similarly, a sense of duty seldom motivates a person to take another slice of chocolate cake or to pick up some Chinese take-out on the way home.

In fact, we often engage in cooperation without a sense of duty as well. I would argue that most of the time that a parent spends with a child comes, not from a sense of duty, but from a genuine interest in spending time with their child. If my wife were to tell me that the reason that she is visiting me in the hospital is because she senses that it is the right thing to do – as opposed to being there because she wants to comfort and help me – I would worry that our marriage was coming to an end.

So, why bring “moral sense” into the picture in order to promote cooperation? Why not simply cause us to like cooperation and dislike conflict the way that we like to stay snuggled in a warm bed or dislike being very cold or very hot?

Moral Sense and Cooperation

Another question we need to have answered is whether this connection between our “moral sense” is a necessary connection, or merely contingent.

I remember a conversation that I had with a person who sensed that interracial relationships were wrong. Any person who engaged in interracial relationships should be punished. I have known others who felt the same about homosexual relationships. Their moral sense told them that this was wrong as well, and they were willing to put a great deal of effort to thwart homosexual relationships.

These are cases where a moral sense has nothing to do with cooperation.

We can also ask about the huge number of cases in which our moral sense failed to condemn non-cooperation.

For thousands of years – and probably for tens of thousands of years – people accept the moral legitimacy of slavery without question. No society of any size condemned slavery. Even the slaves saw slavery itself as legitimate, though they might have questioned the legitimacy of making them slaves. Historical records give us no examples of anybody raising a moral objection against slavery until the beginning of the enlightenment era in the 1600s.

So, where was our moral sense – our evolved sense of cooperation – during all that time.

The Pace of Change

The history of slavery gives us yet another reason to question the existence of a moral sense.

Once people began to question slavery, it took just a couple of centuries for slavery to be abolished everywhere. This change happened far too quickly to be explained by appeal to evolutionary forces. It clearly was not the case that some genetic mutation in the “moral sense” of somebody in Canterbury which then spread across the whole human race, causing all humans to sense the wrongness of slavery within two centuries. Evolutionary change does not happened that quickly.

What happened is that the aversion to slavery was learned. It did not come to us through our genes. It came to us through our environment. Granted, our genes gave us the biological foundation that allowed us to learn this moral principle. It also gave us a biological foundation that allowed us to ignore the wrongness of slavery for thousands of years. But the disapproval of slavery did not come to us through a moral sense. It came to us from our environment.

If there is one moral principle that can be learned quickly from the environment, then it is almost certainly the case that there are others. In fact, now we need to ask whether there is even one example of a case where a person learned a moral principle through their genes. I would argue that they are all learned through the environment, and that there is no such thing as an evolved moral sense.

The Relation Between an Evolved Sense and Morality

What is this relationship between an evolved sense and morality anyway? Let us assume that we have an evolved sense. What makes it the case that what we sense to be right is right in fact, and what we sense to be wrong is wrong in fact?

I would wager that Hellier would balk at the very idea of something being “right in fact” or “wrong in fact” After all, there is no objective morality.

But, if there is no “right in fact” or “wrong in fact”, then it seems that we are forced into the position that our moral sense can make no error. The very possibility of error requires the existence of an objective morality that does not exist.

So, the people who sensed wrongness in interracial and homosexual relationships could not have been in error. Those who sensed no wrongness in slavery could not have been in error. If our moral sense tells males to murder their step children so that the family’s resources are spent raising only the father’s biological children (as is the case with lions), then the murder of step children would be permissible – even obligatory. If, instead, it gives males a sense of the rightness of mating with their stepdaughters, then this would be right as well, and stepdaughters would have an obligation to submit.

The Euthyphro of Evolved Moral Sense

Actually, what I am using here is the same argument that atheists like to use against divine-command theories of ethics. They refer back to Socrates, who once reportedly asked Euthyphro whether something was good because it was loved by the gods, or if it was loved by the gods because is it good.

I am asking, if we have an evolved moral sense, is something good because we sense it to be good, or do we sense it to be good because it is good?

Well, on an evolutionary account, it cannot be the latter. Our senses are tuned by evolutionary fitness, not a “good” property in the world – unless there is a huge coincidence between goodness in the world and evolutionary survival. Given that many of the factors of evolutionary survival are contingent and not necessary – such as the killing of step children or mating with step daughters – there simply cannot be a coincidence between what is good and what promotes survival.

Hellier actually sees this point and admits to it.
[E]volution doesn’t operate according to what “is moral”, it operates according to what helps someone to have more descendants. Thus, even if there were an “absolute” morality, there is no reason to suppose that it would have any connection to our own human sense of morality. Anyone arguing for objective morality by starting with human morality and intuition — which of course is how it is always done — is thus basing their case on a non sequitur. 
Hellier doesn’t recognize that this fact prevents him from choosing that we evolved a disposition to sense something as moral because it is good, and leaves him stuck with the first option – that whatever we sense to be good is good in fact merely because we sense it to be do. 

If our moral sense cannot be in error - if things become moral simply in virtue of the fact that we sense it to be moral – then anything can be moral. If we sense goodness in conquering our neighbors, taking their property, and enslaving them, then this would be good in fact. If we sensed badness in interracial and homosexual relationships, then they would be bad in fact. If we sensed no disapproval in rounding up all of the Jews, Muslims, Native Americans, Japanese, Christians, and throwing them into concentration camps, then this would be good in fact.

If there is no external standard that we can use to determine if our moral sense is accurate or not, then it cannot be wrong, no matter what it tells us to do.

Parasites and Predators

Hellier proposed that our evolved moral sense gives us the benefits of cooperation.

I remind Hellier that every predator and parasite that came into existence was also a product of evolution. The lion, that I already mention, that kills its step children, evolved. The lion that attacks, kills, and eats the antelope evolved – and evolved to do a very good job of attacking, killing, and eating antelope. The spider wasp that lays its eggs inside of a living spider that the offspring will then consume evolved. The mosquito – and the malaria that the mosquito transmits from one being to another – evolved.

There is a huge mountain of evidence that evolution implies cooperation. Evolution also implies parasitical and predatory behavior. In fact, all of the parasitical and predatory behavior that we find among humans are just as firmly rooted in our evolved nature as our cooperation.

Now, why are we taking the cooperative elements and calling that “morality,” but not the parasitical or predatory aspects? Why not take the parasitical and predatory aspect and call that “morality”, but not the cooperative aspects?

Ghengis Khan is just as much a product of evolution as Ghandi.

The Evil That Can Be Prevented

In fact, this brings us to the heart of the matter.

Nobody has any reason to be concerned about evils that humans cannot do because they evolved to be incapable of performing those evils. We simply have no reason to get all worked up over harms that humans cannot inflict on others due to evolutionary history.

People are worried about the evils that humans show themselves daily to be very much capable of inflicting on each other.

Answering the question, “What about morality?” by saying “Evolution” amounts to saying, “Oh, don’t worry. Your child will not be raped. You will not be killed or robbed. Nobody is going to try to cheat you out of your money. People are not going to burn down your house out of anger. Your spouse is not going to cheat on you, and your lover will not put you at risk of catching a sexually transmitted disease. Nobody is going to enslave you. Nobody is going to round you up with others of your kind and send you to the gas chambers. Nobody is going to fly an airplane into a building that you happen to be working in, or set off an explosive vest in the market where you are shopping. Nobody is going to invade your city and slay every man, woman, and child. Humans evolved to be cooperative. Humans don’t do these things.”

Evolution has failed – in a big way – to make us cooperative.

If evolution had succeeded then, rather than having a moral sense, we would have no need for morality at all. We would go along happily cooperating with each other without a thought to 'duty' or 'obligation' or 'prohibition' or 'punishment'. We would have no need for those things.

But evolution failed. All of the items I mentioned above can and do happen and, because of this, we have reason to try to find some way to prevent it.

One of the tools we invented - that we created - is 'morality'.

To answer the question, “What about morality?” by saying “Evolution” transmits one fact loud and clear.

You really don’t understand the question.

Coel Hellier's Objections to Objective Morality

My browsing around the internet recently brought be to a post on “Six Reasons Why Objective Morality Is Nonsense.”

Objective vs. Objective

If, by “objective morality”, one means “intrinsically prescriptive moral properties”, I agree, these do not exist. Technically, the claim is not “nonsense” because it does make sense. However, all claims of this type are false.

But, It would serve Coel Hellier well to be a bit more precise in how he uses some terms.

For example, even though objective, intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist, objectively true value statements do exist. They are statements that relate objects of evaluation to desires (or, more precisely, malleable desires to other desires), and they are objectively true or false. To say, "This present is such that it would fulfill the desires of the person it will be given to" is an objectively true or false statement, as objectively true or false as, "This present has a mass of 32.8 kilograms."

Belief Subjective versus Desire Subjective

Another distinction that Hellier ignores is the distinction between belief and desire. He says that morality is grounded on subjective states, but he does not state clearly whether the relevant subjective states are beliefs or desires.

At one point, he wrote:
“If morality were objective, it would have to be conceivable that the statement “George’s actions were wrong and he deserves to be punished” would be true even if every human in the world were of the opinion, “George’s actions seem fine to me, perhaps even laudable”
This relates moral evaluation to beliefs. If the agent, or the community, or a sufficiently large and well defined subculture within a community believes “X is immoral” then (for them), “X is immoral” is true. All that is required is the belief. If the belief changes, then the immorality of the act changes.

The fact that a sufficiently large portion of the population of South Carolina believed that slavery was morally permissible in South Carolina in 1855 means that slavery was permissible. This would imply that, as a matter of fact, anybody who stated that slavery was immoral was mistaken. On a belief model, "slavery is wrong" can only mean "the dominant belief in this culture is that slavery is wrong", which, in South Carolina in 1855, was false.

Elsewhere, he relates morality to desires, as when he wrote:

Thus, a subjective morality is strongly preferable to an objective one! That’s because, by definition, it is about what we humans want. Would we prefer to be told by some third party what we should do, even if it is directly contrary to our own deeply held sense of morality?
Note: He says here that morality is about what people want (desire), not about what they believe.

This relates to the question of objectivity above because relations between objects of evaluation and desires are objective with respect to beliefs. There is a fact of the matter as to whether a certain state of affairs is such as to fulfill some set of desires. It is a fact that exists in the world, independent of beliefs. No matter how many people believe that apricot pits will help people realize a state in which their cancer is cured, this will not make it true.
So if, instead of relating moral judgment to belief, we relate it to desire, then we get moral claims that are objective with respect to belief. An objective morality exists – but morality turns out to be concerned with the question of how best to fulfill desires.

I would, of course, go a lot further and say that morality is about evaluating malleable desires and molding them using rewards such as moral praise and punishments such as moral condemnation, but we do not need to go that far to make the points relevant to this discussion.

Evaluating States Relative to Standards vs. Evaluating Standards

Finally, Hellier fails to distinguish between evaluating a state of affairs relative to some standards, and evaluating the standards themselves.
We humans have a lot to be proud of: by thinking it through and arguing amongst ourselves, we have advanced morality hugely, with Western society today giving vastly better treatment to individuals, to women, children, religious minorities, foreigners, those of other races, the disabled and mentally ill, criminals, etc, than any previous society.

We need an account of how morality can "advance" without there being an objective standard against which we can evaluate it. This would have to be a standard that allows us to compare one moral system (the old moral system) against another (the new moral system) and judge the latter to be "better" then the former.

Subjective morality allows us to make non-arbitrary judgments about states of affairs relative to some standards. However, it has difficulty evaluating different standards. We may just as well adopt a set of standards within that excludes women, children, religious minorities, foreigners, those other races, and promotes exclusively the interests of white males. If this is what people believed . . . if this is what people valued . . . then this is what would be true . . . on a subjectivist sense. If these are the values, then the changes that Hellier says we should be proud of are, in fact, things to be ashamed of.

You could evaluate standards according to some (subjective) meta-standard. But, then, how do you evaluate meta-standards? We could bring in a meta-meta standard, but how is that to be evaluated? Either this chain never ends, or it ends at a standard that cannot be evaluated - a standard that is, ultimately, arbitrary.


There are, then, three distinctions that Hellier should pay more attention to if he is going to continue to condemn objective value and defend subjective value.

The first distinction is the distinction between "objective value" in the sense of “intrinsically prescriptive value properties” versus “propositions whose truth is independent of whether people believe them to be true.” The denial of objective value in the first sense does not imply the denial of objective value in the second sense.

The second distinction is a distinction between grounding morality on belief versus grounding morality on desires. If morality is grounded on our desires, then the truth-value of moral claims are independent of belief. They are, in fact, "objective" in the sense that scientists use when scientists say that science is objective. A great deal of science is concerned with discovering relationships between things in the world.

The third distinction is evaluating states of affairs with respect to standards, and evaluating the standards themselves. Hellier is correct to say that morality is non-arbitrary where it concerns evaluating states of affairs with respect to standards. However, when Hellier goes on to say that some standards are better than others, he needs to provide an account of how we can compare different sets of standards - how we can possibly hold two different moral systems up to the same measure and determine one is superior to the other.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Debating Moral Objectivity

I have been asked if I wish to participate in a debate on morality at the blog “Truth Interrupted”.

I am deciding whether or not to participate in the debate. However, following a chain of links brought me to a post where the challenger attempted to defend the proposition that there are objective moral values and duties.

He defined “objective moral values and duties” as “moral values and duties that are valid and binding independent of human opinion.”

I believe that many of these debates are fruitless because of the ambiguity of terms such as “objective values”.

I deny the existence of objective, intrinsic prescriptivity – a moral value built into the very fabric of certain actions, character traits, or states of affairs. However, I assert that there are (or can be) objectively true moral claims that are substantially independent of the beliefs and desires of any given agent. I assert that values (including moral values, but also other types of values) exist as relationships between states of affairs and desires. Some people call this a subjectivist theory because “desires” are essential to value. However, these relationships exist as matters of fact in the real world, and are substantially independent of anybody’s belief in or about those relationships. They are as much a part of the real world as planets and atoms.


What would it mean to say that moral values and duties are “valid”?

I am being pedantic here. In logic, the terms “valid” and “invalid” apply to arguments. An argument is valid when, if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. A valid argument can still have a false conclusion, but only if one of its premises are false as well.

I hold that at least some moral propositions – propositions of the form, “It is wrong to respond to mere words or communicative acts with violence or threats of violence” – are, or can be, objectively true. I would not speak about a moral value being “valid”. The proposition either points to something that is true in the world, or it does not.


Moral values are “binding”?

I hear this phrase a lot in discussion. I do not know what this means. I don’t even have a good guess.

I think it has something to do with the relationship between moral facts and motivation. Therefore, let me explain what I think to be true about the relationship between moral facts and motivation, and let others decide what this implies about moral values being “binding”.

I hold that “It is wrong to respond to mere words or communicative acts with violence or threats of violence.”

I do not mean by this that everybody has a reason not to respond to mere words or communicative acts with violence or threats of violence. In fact, some people may have no reason to refrain.

However, I hold that people generally have many and strong reasons to give people generally an aversion to responding to mere words or communicative acts with violence or threats of violence. They might not have such an aversion, but they “ought to have” such an aversion, meaning that people generally have many and strong reasons to cause them to have such an aversion. The way that people generally can cause others to have such an aversion is by rewarding (praising) those who display such an aversion and punishing (condemning) those who appear to lack such an aversion. So, people generally have reason to reward/praise those who refrain from responding to words and communicative actions with violence or threats of violence, and to punish/condemn those who respond with violence or threats of violence.

What does this imply about a moral value being “binding”? Somebody is going to have to tell me.

Human Opinion

This term “opinion” is ambiguous.

In a strict sense, the term refers only to beliefs. If Bernadette believes that Carlos’ car is red, then Bernadette is of the opinion that Carlos’ car is red.

Using this definition, the truth of a moral proposition is independent of human opinion because it has nothing to do with beliefs. Moral claims are claims about the relationships between malleable desires and other desires. These relationships exist as a matter of fact – regardless of any person’s beliefs about those relationships.

Now, let’s take a statement of the form, “Jim prefers chocolate over butterscotch”. According to our first definition of “opinion”, this is independent of opinion. It is as much a fact of the world that Jim prefers chocolate over butterscotch as Jim’s age, height, weight, and any number of other perfectly objective facts. That is to say, if somebody else were to report, “Jim prefers butterscotch over chocolate”, that person would be wrong as a matter of fact. It is simply not true. If Jim himself were to say that he prefers butterscotch over chocolate he would be guilty of lying.

Yet, we sometimes call preferences “opinions”. So, here we have a set of things that are both referred to as “opinion” and, at the same time, reports a fact about the world.

I think this is where a lot of the discussion on the objectivity of moral values gets confused. People treat “opinion” as a clear and unambiguous term distinct from “fact”. However, this is not the case. We sometimes use the term “opinion” to refer to things that are, at the same time, “facts”. Relationships between states of affairs and desires – the type of facts reported in value claims including moral claims – are precisely the set of facts that are also, at the same time, called “opinions”.

Anyway, moral values are independent of human opinion in the narrow sense because relationships between states of affairs and desires are independent of beliefs. Moral values are not independent of desires since they actually describe relationships between objects of evaluation and desires. Yet, these relationships exist as a matter of fact. Whole societies can believe that a particular relationship exists between an object of evaluation and desires and be wrong. They would determine the truth or falsity of these propositions the same way they would investigate any objective, scientific claim about the world.


So, I would say: Moral claims sometimes report facts that are independent of beliefs and are independent of whether the speaker or people generally want the claim to be true. They are not independent of all desires because, when they are true, they report relationships between malleable desires and other desires. However, these relationships exist and are as objectively real as anything that any scientist may wish to study. 

J.L. Mackie's Error Theory Interpreted

In my return to academic philosophy, I have discovered that there is a new anthology of writings on J.L. Mackie’s “error theory”.

Joyce, Richard and Kirchin, Simon (eds.), A World Without Values: Essays on John Mackie's Moral Error Theory (Philosophical Studies Series, Book 114), 2009.

I find it interesting to note that people are still misinterpreting Mackie.

The standard interpretation of Mackie has him saying the following:

(P1) All moral claims attribute a property of objective, intrinsic prescriptivity to its objects of evaluation.
(P2) Objective intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist.
(C) Therefore, all moral claims are false.

All moral claims. “Rape is wrong”, “Slavery is wrong”, “You shouldn’t round up a whole group of people and kill them off”, “You should not kidnap a child and skin it alive while soaking it in a tub of salt water.” All of these statements are false.

This is exactly what Mackie says in the first three chapters of his book, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong.

I have some objections to premise (P1) in this argument. However, I will allow that if (P1) is true, then the rest follows. Furthermore, I would argue that whether or not P1 is true is not particularly important. There is no reason to pour a lot of effort into deciding that particular issue.

This is what one gets if one reads the first three chapters of Mackie’s book. And, ironically, the editors of this new anthology actually comment that “few readers explore beyond Chapter 3”.

Yet, it is beyond Chapter 3 where Mackie wrote:
The fact that the word 'atom', as used in nineteenth-century physics, had as a part of its meaning 'indivisible particle of matter' did not in itself, even in the nineteenth century, compel anyone to believe that there are indivisible material particles. One could either refrain from using the term 'atom' in affirmative statement or, as physicists have subsequently done, use the term with other parts of its meaning only, dropping the requirement of indivisibility. (Mackie: p. 100).
 These claims invite us to draw the following analogy.

(P1) All claims in physics attribute to the smallest bits of gold, oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and any other element that it is without parts.
(P2) The smallest bits of an element has parts – they are made up of neutrons, protons, and electrons.
(C) Therefore, all physics claims about the smallest pieces of an element are false.

Why is this the case?

It is because the word “atom” literally means – or literally meant – “without parts”. “A-tom” meant “without parts” the same way that “a-theist” meant “without religion”.

By calling the smallest bits of gold, oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen “atoms”, physicists were saying that they were “without parts”. But they did have parts. Therefore, all claims about atoms were false.

Yet, this did not end all talk of atoms.

So, the argument seems to be, “Why can’t we do the same with respect to morality? Why can’t we just drop this claim of intrinsic prescriptivity – the same way that physicists dropped the claim of ‘without parts’ – and go from there?

My interpretation of Mackie is that this is exactly what he did. He dropped the claim of intrinsic prescriptivity from moral terms and went on to show that morality would look like if it did not include this error.

What it would look like is a lot like the morality that I discuss in this blog. I assert that there is no such thing as “objective, intrinsic prescriptivity,” but that there are moral facts. Those moral facts relate malleable desires to other desires.

I do not think that “objective, intrinsic prescriptivity” is built into the meaning of moral terms. I believe that many people falsely believe that some morality is to be understood in terms of intrinsic prescriptivity – but they have not built it into the meaning of the terms.

In other words, I hold that Mackie’s (P1) is false.

But here is where I say that this is not important. We can hold that Mackie’s (P1) is true, then drop intrinsic prescriptivity from the meaning of moral terms, and end up evaluating desires according to the strength and number of their connections to other desires. Or we can hold that morality is about the strength and number of connections between malleable desires and other desire to start with. Both options will get us to the same place. Both options will allow us to dismiss as false any claim that tries attributes intrinsic prescriptivity to objects of evaluation. Either way, Mackie’s (P1) becomes little more than an academic curiosity.

I am going to be reading through this anthology to see what they say about Mackie’s ethics. However, at first glance, this interpretation does not yet seem to be a part of the popular discussion. Possibly because, as the editors of this anthology report, few people explore beyond Chapter 3. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Future Generations

What are our obligations towards generations?

If you do not mind, I would like to set aside the concepts of morality for a moment and look at the material facts.

An important material fact is that future desires have no ability to reach back through time. Future generations have no capacity to alter our interests - to make us into the type of people who will consider their welfare.

If our interests are not already in harmony with the interests of future generations, then the only people who can alter our current interests are those living at this time with us. The only way they can be motivated to bring our interests into alignment with future generations is if they already have a reason to do so.

The interests in the well-being of future generations has to be found in the present if they are going to have any effect at all on behavior.

If it is the case that, among humans, nobody has an interest in future generations, and nobody has a reason to promote an interest in future generations, then future generations are simply out of luck. That population will necessarily just shrug when the question of future generations comes up, and then change the subject to something they actually care about.

The only question that makes any practical sense is the question of whether we have an interest, or whether we have reason to create an interest, in the well-being of future generations.

Another material fact is that we do - many of us - have an interest in the well-being of future generations. Nature has given it to us in the form of an interest in the welfare of our children. Our interest in our children implies an interest in the well-being of their children - at the very least because it will be important to our children. Our interest in our friends implies an interest in the welfare of their children and grand children.

People with an interest in the well-being of future generations have reason to promote compatible interests in others. That is to say, they have reason to use rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation to promote interests in others that will serve the interests of future generations.

Furthermore, even without a regard for the interests of future generations, we have reason to promote in others a set of concern that will serve the interests of future generations. This is because we have reason to promote kindness and compassion in others towards people in the present - people such as ourselves, our friends and family, and our existing children. We have reason to make others averse to causing pain - an aversion that will make them reluctant to cause us pain, to cause pain to our friends and family, and to existing children. These desires and aversions will almost certainly impact people as they consider the effects of their actions on people not yet born.

We can get into a long discussion as to the degree to which we currently have reasons to promote interests in others compatible with the well-being of future generations.

However, if we were to claim that the interests of future generations have a built in ought-to-be-consideredness that compels us to consider those interests no matter what, we would be making a mistake. This claim simply is not true. There is no "ought to be consideredness" built into any desire - past, present, or future.

If a person wants others to act in a way that is compatible with the interests of future generations, here is one way to do this. (1) Give others an interest in doing that which is intrinsically right and an aversion to that which is intrinsically wrong, then (2) convince them that that it is intrinsically right to consider the interests of future generations and intrinsically wrong to fail to do so.

Similarly, one can (1) Give others a desire to serve God and an aversion to not doing so, and (2) convince them that God demands that they consider the interests of future generations.

Both of these courses of action will motivate people to act in ways that consider the interests of future generations. However, the usefulness of particular stories in molding the behavior of others does not make the stories true. No intrinsic value, and no divine value, exists as a matter of fact. The only thing that exists are current desires. Even future desires do not exist - at least not yet.

All of this leads to one simple and relevant facts. The interests in making current behavior compatible with the interests of future generations have to be found in the present. If they do not exist in the present, future generations are simply out of luck.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Value-Based Reasons

I have cause, recently, to return to reading more academic philosophy on the issues that interest me.

In that reading, I have come across the following:

Heathwood, Chris, Desire-Based Theories of Reasons, Pleasure, and Welfare Oxford Studies in Metaethics 6 (2011): 79–106.

I hold that value-based reasons do not exist. Desires provide the only end-reasons for intentional action.

This article concerns "normative reasons" - the types of reasons that justify an action. One can admit that a desire to inflict harm on another is a motivating reason, but it is not a normative reason. That is to say, it is not the type of reason that makes inflicting harm on another person a good thing to do. One could argue that normative reasons require value-based reasons.

Chris Heathwood provides two arguments in favor of value-based reasons in this article.

The first argument is the "Argument from Arbitrariness".

It goes as follows:

[D]esires can provide reasons. But if some desire is the ultimate basis for some reason, then there can be no reason for having this desire. If there were, then the desire wouldn’t be the ultimate basis for the reason. Whatever supplied the reason for having the desire would be more fundamental. But if there is no reason for having the desire, then the desire is arbitrary. . . . But, the argument claims, it can’t work that way. Arbitrariness is anathema to reasons. If a “reason” is based ultimately on an arbitrary state – a state we have no reason to be in – it can’t be a real reason after all. Why should we follow the direction of some desire, when that desire is itself without any justification? How could such a desire have any legitimate authority?
I would argue that you can't prove that something exists by arguing that we have built a claim of its existence into the meanings of our terms.

Our fundamental desires - from our basic desire for pleasure and aversion to pain to the desire for sex to our tastes for food - are all molded by evolution. They are determined by the way our brains have evolved, and the way our brains have evolved is determined in part by random chance (genetic mutation) and contingent facts (the environment in which those random variations occurred). They are, in an important way, arbitrary. That is simply the fact of the matter.

Heathwood expresses his argument another way:
Here is a way to illustrate the point. A says to B, “What reason is there for you to do X?” B replies, “Doing X will lead to Y, and I want Y to occur.” A inquires further, “Why do you want Y to occur?” B continues in the same vein: “Because Y will lead to Z, and I want Z to occur.” A won’t let it go: “What reason is there to want Z to occur?” B’s chain of desire must eventually stop of course, presumably in some intrinsic desire, or desire for something for its own sake rather than for what it leads to. Let’s suppose that B intrinsically desires that Z occur. In response to A’s question, “What reason is there to want Z to occur?”, B thus replies, “Well, Z won’t lead to anything else I want; I just want Z to occur, for its own sake.” But A can reasonably ask, “Ok, but why? Why want Z to occur for its own sake?”
The answer to "Why want Z to occur of its own sake" is "because evolutionary and environmental influence have made me such that I want Z to occur for its own sake. I have evolved to have a desire for pleasure, and an aversion to pain, a desire for sex, a preference for certain food types, an environment with a preferred temperature, the company of others, and the like."

We can still see the force of the argument that this certainly cannot justify behavior. If we evolved a disposition to murder neighboring and competing tribes and take their resources, or to commit rape, that would not justify those actions.

However, we do not need to introduce value-based reasons to bring in the subject of justification.

Epistemologists have faced a similar problem. When it comes to justifying a belief, it can be justified by showing that it follows logically from one or more premises. Those premises, in turn, can be justified only by appeal to prior premises. At some point, we are either going to have to reach some self-justified premises, or this chain will go on forever.

In epistemology, some thinkers have adopted a position called "coherentism". On this view, a belief is justified in virtue of the strength and number of its connections to other beliefs, which are justified in terms of the strength and number of their connections. There are no fundamental self-justifying beliefs.

Similarly, desires can be justified in virtue of the strength and number of their connections to other desires. We would look at the tendency of a desire to fulfill or thwart other desires, and use the strength and number of those connections to determine the merit of each individual desire. Desires that tend to fulfill other desires would be "justified" in the normative sense - they would count as providing reasons that people have (desire-based) reasons to endorse. Desires that tend to thwart other desires would be desires that others have reason to condemn (such as the desires contributing to tribal warfare and rape mentioned above).

But, the main problem with value-based reasons is that you can't prove their existence by writing an assumption that they exist into the meanings of our terms - any more than you can prove the existence of God by saying that it is a part of the meaning of the term "God" that it must exist. One needs a different type of argument to prove existence, and there is no evidence that value-based reasons exist.

Friday, December 25, 2015

How "All Lives Matter" Can Be Racist

In response to the "mistreatment" of black suspects by the police, some protesters and their allies adopted the slogan "Black Lives Matter".

Others then responded with the counter slogan, "All Lives Matter".

On the surface, it seems absolutely absurd to suggest that this response is racist. The counter slogan, in fact, explicitly states that all lives are to be considered equal regardless of race. Nothing could be less racist.

Yet, an argument can be made that it is, indeed, a racist response.

This argument pays attention to the fact that all communication takes place in a context, and the context can contain information that the words themselves do not contain.

Let me illustrate with an analogy.

Assume I were to say, "Amy's car is red."

Then somebody else answers, "There are lots of red cars."

The statement is true, so far as it goes. However, the question I want to ask is, "Why would somebody respond this way to the statement, 'Amy's car is red?'"

The most likely reason for this response is that the responder believes (or fears) that, in saying "Amy's car is red," what I am actually saying is "Only Amy's car is red - no other car is red." In this case, the responder would have reason to offer a correction - or at least a clarification. However, if there is no basis for this type of confusion, then there would be no motivation to offer this type of correction.

For example, if my sister were to ask me, "What color is Amy's new car?" and I were to answer, "Amy's car is red," it would be odd at best for somebody to say, "Well, there are other red cars, you know. Amy's car is not the only red car."

In fact, an impatient response of the form, "Did I SAY that Amy had the only red car?" would be in order.

Note that I am not questioning the fact that "Amy does not own the only red car" is true. This is not about the meaning of propositions. The is about motivation - about reasons for action.

Similarly, we can ask, "Why would somebody respond to the slogan 'Black Lives Matter' with 'All Lives Matter'." The first and best response is because they believe (fear) that those who are saying, 'Black Lives Matter' are really saying 'Only Black Lives Matter' and, as with the red car, one feels compelled to offer a correction or, at least, a clarification.

Now, we can ask, "From where comes the belief (fear) that those who are saying 'Black Lives Matter' mean by this 'Only Black Lives Matter'? As opposed to, "Black Lives Matter As Much As White Lives"?

More to the point: What is going on in the brain of a person who, when he hears, "Black Lives Matter" hears the person as saying, "Only Black Lives Matter" and thinks that some sort of correction is needed?

It is not at all unreasonable to suspect that there are some racist assumptions and attitudes behind this misinterpretation.

Now, let's go back to the initial example where I were to say, "Amy's car is red."

There is something else that can be said about the response, "There are other red cars."

It changes the subject.

A rational response in this case would be to say, "Look, the subject of the conversation is Amy's car. Amy's car is red. Yes, I know there are other red cars out there. We're not talking about them. We're talking about Amy's car. Amy's car is red. Try to keep up."

Similarly, a rational response to "All Lives Matter" would be, "Look, the subject of the conversation is the disregard for black lives, as is illustrated by the death and mistreatment of black subjects and, in some cases, by the very fact that the cop suspects the black person. I am well aware of the fact that other lives matter. We're not talking about them. We're talking about black lives. Black lives matter. Try to keep up."

This is, in fact, the case. The subject under discussion is the systematic devaluing of the lives of black individuals and that black people continue to face.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Destruction of the Nation of Kiribati

Imagine being the President of a country that is about to be utterly destroyed.

Imagine being President under circumstances where one of your programs is to get people trained and educated so that, as refugees, they can find a place for themselves in some other country. Imagine having the dream that, some day, a descendant of one of your citizens might find himself in a position of authority and respect - in some other country.

It is not a Hollywood movie. It's the situation that President Anote Tong of Kiribati faces as climate change threatens to eliminate his country.

In the podcast linked to below, he describes what it is like to be the President of a country that will likely be destroyed.

He speaks of a newly built hospital being destroyed by sea level rise.

He speaks of crop lands lost - crop lands that feed the people of his country.

There is a moral dimension to this. His country is being destroyed by the actions of people in other countries - people who refuse to provide help or compensation for harms done. He speaks of the hope that others will realize and respect the immorality of destroying his country. What they are doing "is like an act of war".

There are those who argue that we must not have a carbon tax because of the harm it will do to the economy.

But what does it say when a country "protects its economy" by destroying another country - utterly, completely, wiping it off the face of the earth?

What type of country - what type of people - would do such a thing?

The Basics of Morality

A friend was recently asked to defend his account of morality in 15 statements or less.

I thought of it as an interesting challenge.

So, there's the view of morality that I defend:

(1) All intentional action is grounded on beliefs and desires.

(2) Some desires are malleable - they are altered through interaction with the environment.

(3) A mechanism through which desires are modified is through reward and punishment where reward reinforces behavior that generates the reward and punishment creates aversions to those act-types that resulted in punishment.

(NOTE: "Reward" and "Punishment" here are being used in their biological and psychological sense, not their moral or legal sense, though the concepts overlap.)

(4) Praise effects the brain as a type of reward and condemnation effects the brain as a type of punishment.

(5) Each of us is a part of each other's environment.

(6) Consequently, each of us has the capacity (the means, the ability) to use rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation to alter the desires of others.

(7) Intentional actions (grounded on beliefs and desires as described in (1)) can fulfill or thwart other desires.

(8) This capacity to fulfill or thwart other desires gives others desire-based motives or reasons to promote desires (through reward/praise) and aversions (through punishment/condemnation) that tend to fulfill other desires or, at least, prevent the thwarting of other desires.

(9) If we designed a social institution for the efficient use of reward/praise and punishment/condemnation to mold desires, it would contain the elements we find in moral institutions. Such as:

(a) The institution, like morality, would focus heavily on where to direct rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation.

(b) It would identify some actions as those that people generally have reason to praise and to condemn their absence (moral obligation).

(c) It would identify some actions as those that people generally have reason to condemn and to praise their absence (moral prohibition).

(d) It would identify some actions as those that people generally have little reason to praise or to condemn (non-obligatory permission).

(e) It would identify some actions as those that people have reason to praise – but not to condemn their absence (supererogatory).

(f) It would recognize a set of statements that would block an inference from an action to the desires of the agent to deny that people generally have reason to condemn the agent (excuses).

(10) A system that can make sense of so many of the elements of morality can legitimately claim itself to be a moral system.

The idea in Step 10 is to apply the principle that if something walks like a duck, has feathers like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck.

In step 9, I listed only six of the ways in which this perspective on morality deals with the elements that we find in the institution called morality. There are more, but I was limited to 15 statements, if you recall. So, I listed, "walks like a duck", "flies like a duck", "has feathers like a duck", "lays eggs like a duck", "quacks like a duck", and "swims like a duck", but these are not the only features that are relevant. 

We have to take Step 9 as a promise of things to come. One cannot fit the whole defense into 15 statements - and it is not an objection against the theory that it cannot. Just as it is no objection against evolution or human-caused climate change that their full defense requires multiple volumes of material. However, this does identify where one would look for evidence, and, I hope, gives at least a hint as to what the evidence will look like and how it might succeed.

This promise to defend the items listed in number (9), and many items excluded because of limitations in space, is one of the main subjects for the rest of this blog.

One of . . . . because I also hold that morality must be practical and applicable to the day-to-day lives of ordinary people.