Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Morality Test

In a recent posting, Jewish Atheist offered a ‘morality test’ that attempted to collect empirical data that no two people are in complete agreement on a range of moral statements. What Jewish Atheist meant to imply from this set of data is not entirely clear.

It is not clear, in part, because I can come up with a similar set of statements about things that are totally objective, where people are in disagreement about the facts of the matter. Yet, they are still facts.

Argument from Differences of Opinion

For example, assume I construct a test where I ask readers to rank the following statements according to whether or not they are likely to be true. A score of ‘0’ means that the statement is definitely false, while a ‘10’ means that it cannot possibly be false. I suspect that I can come up with a set of statements where no two people will be in complete agreement.

(1) At least one God exists.

(2) Humans are the product of a phenomena called ‘evolution’ in a universe designed by God in such a way that evolution would create humans.

(3) Jesus rose from the dead.

(4) Mohammed was a prophet of God.

(5) There is at least one planet with multi-cellular life within 1000 light years of Earth.

(6) Earth will be hit by an asteroid or comet at least 0.5 km in diameter within the next 100,000 years.

(7) There were dinosaurs on Noah’s Arc.

And so on.

Given enough questions (and the right questions) I can guarantee that no two people will entirely agree on the answer to these questions.

But what does that prove?

It proves that people disagree.

It does not prove that there are no right answers.

The argument being made, when this form of reasoning is applied to moral claims, is that disagreement over the answers to a set of moral questions proves something profound. It proves that there are no right answers to be had to moral questions – as if the claim “there are right answers to these questions” is somehow supposed to imply, “everybody is in agreement over what those right answers are” (such that denying the consequent proves that the antecedent is false.

The implication is invalid.

I find it, at best, odd to note that people who not only object to religious people using poor arguments in defense of their favorite religious beliefs, but make them objects of ridicule and derisive laughter, so easily accept such a poor argument in defense of the claim that there are no right answers to moral questions. One would expect that a group of people who express such contempt for poor reasoning would say, “That argument doesn’t work. Throw it out.”

Argument from Imagination

Another argument that does not work, that is no less popular, goes something like this. “I can imagine two people who are in perfect agreement over all of the facts of the matter, who still disagree over a moral claim such as whether abortion is wrong.”

Well, I can imagine spaceships traveling faster than the speed of light, traveling from star system to star system in the time that it takes to run a string of 30-second commercials. I can imagine dragons, and sorcerers casting spells. I can imagine Jesus walking on water and curing blindness with a touch of his hand. I can imagine traveling back in time and meeting Thomas Jefferson. I can imagine quite a few things . . . but are any of them true?

“I can imagine” is, itself, a very poor argument.

The question to be answered is whether it can happen in fact that two people can be in complete agreement on a set of facts and still disagree on a moral conclusion.

This “I can imagine” argument is, in fact, completely question-begging. It does not prove truth but, instead, stands as a substitute for the beliefs of the person making the claim. Instead of, “I can imagine X; therefore X”, what the person who uses this argument is really saying is, “I believe X; therefore, X”.


There is a third problem with this line of reasoning that deserves a look. I have noticed a tendency among those who try to prove that there are no right answers when it comes to moral questions that they tend to cite David Hume with admiration – particularly Hume’s claim that it is not possible to derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’. According to Hume, since ‘ought’ describes some new sort of relation from ‘is’, that the person giving the argument needs to explain his transition from ‘is’ premises, to an ‘ought’ conclusion.

Jewish Atheist, in part, defines morality as, an immoral act as an act that causes the individual committing the act any degree of guilt and/or an act that was done maliciously or selfishly that causes any degree of hurt or grief onto another living being.

For this part of the argument, I am going to focus on the first half of the argument – the claim that moral terms refers to that which is disposed to cause a sensation of guilt in the agent. Most moral subjectivists use a definition that is similar to this – that we call something right of wrong in virtue of whether it is something that tends to cause a sensation of approval or disapproval in the person making the claim.

However, it is often overlooked that the definition, “Is such as to cause in the agent a feeling of guilt” or ‘is such as to cause a feeling of approval or disapproval in the agent’ is an is statement. It is a description of a real-world state of affairs. It is a statement about a state of affairs that is either true or false.

From such an is premise, the subjectivist makes an immediate leap to providing us with an ‘ought’ conclusion. They tell us that, ‘If it is the case that forcing children to recite the Bible in school creates a sensation of approval in you,” then one is justified in inferring, “Then, the school system ought to institute mandatory school prayer.” At least, this inference is supposed to hold for those people of whom the antecedent is true.

What they fail to explain to us is how one can get from this ‘is’ premise to an ‘ought’ conclusion. What is it (if anything) that makes this inference valid? It is not sufficient to show that many people often make this inference – that it is second-nature to them and they do it without thinking. My question is, “Why is this inference not a mistake? What makes it valid?” I will assert, in this case, that no answer can be provided.

A Sense of Right and Wrong

The problem with this tendency to infer something like, “School systems ought to institute mandatory school prayer,” from “The thought of mandatory school prayer is such as to cause a sensation of approval within me,” can be illustrated in another way.

Speaking to my atheist readers, each of us probably knows of a lot of people who claim that they can look at a beautiful sunset, or at the face of their newborn child, and ‘see’ God. Their experience gives rise to certain sentiments, and they take those sentiments themselves as evidence of God’s existence.

The inference from “Being with my newborn daughter creates a particular sensation within me,” to “God exists,” is no less problematic than, “The thought of mandatory school prayer creates such a sensation within me,” to “School systems ought to institute mandatory prayer.” Yes, people are in the habit of making rash and unwarranted inferences from their private sensations. However, this does not prove that the inference is valid.

The person who uses this argument still needs to explain how it is that their sensation is a sensation that X is wrong.


So, here are four arguments that are often used to support subjectivism that do not work.

(1) The argument from differences of opinion

(2) The argument from imagination

(3) The argument from ‘is such as to cause guilt’ to ‘ought not to be done’

(4) The argument from sensing right and wrong.

These arguments do not support the conclusions that those who use them think they support. They are arguments that those with a devotion to reason should abandon.

This post does not prove that subjectivism is not true. It does, however, attempt to point out that those who use certain arguments in defense of subjectivism are ignoring basic rules of logic and reason in doing so. If there is an argument to offer in defense of subjectivism, it is not any of these


Baconeater said...

I wasn't looking to collect data, just compare answers.
My premise was, and still is, that the definition of morality is subjective.
When I speak of morality, I use the definition that you quoted me on.
I am more inline with Hellbound Alleee and Francois' idea that actual morality (using their definition) is not subjective....but my idea of morality is not exactly theirs.

Anonymous said...

Atheist Jew, "morality is subjective" is not your premise, it is your conclusion. This conclusion is based on a premise that people disagree about what is moral. As Alonzo pointed out, this is fallacious reasoning. It's like saying "people disagree that god exists, therefore god's existence is subjective".

Morality might be subjective, but the argument that you presented is useless in showing that it is so.

Most of this is moot, because of your explicit objective definition. We don't have enough information for any of your statements, but all we have to do is learn if a) there was any guilt, or b) the act was done maliciously or selfishly and led to harm. It all comes down to objective (but perhaps unreliable) measurements.

But what a naive definition of morality! If an intelligent criminal plays on my human emotions, and I feel guilt for taking away that criminal's freedoms, is this immoral? If I selfishly slam my body into a crowd of people while dodging an errant cyclist?

Your post doesn't show in the least that morality is subjecteve, but that it's an issue that many people have difficulty with.

Baconeater said...

Again, I didn't conclude that morality is subjective. I am concluding that the DEFINITION OF MORALITY is subjective.

Anonymous said...

I see as much difference between the two as between "ball" and "spherical object, typically manipulatable by humans".

As Alonzo said, it's unclear what you meant to imply. But, from context, I assume that you were not making the trite statement that people's opinions on what is moral differ. Of course they do. The argument you were having and the statements you make in your post and above lead one to assume that the issue here is moral subjectivism. I quote you:

Why do you ignore the definition of morality. What is the definition of morality? Be exact. If you think morality is objective, what exactly are the rules?

Are you sure of what you're arguing? In the end it's unimportant. What is important is that people understand those fallacies that Alonzo presented.

Baconeater said...

I was trying to find how a particular person defined morality.
Again, I know exactly what I was attempting to prove: That what is considered to be moral to me and to the degree it is considered is most likely not exactly on the same scale as me or anyone else because we all have a different DEFINITION of what is morality is.

M, define morality.

Anonymous said...

Alonzo wrote: "It is not clear, in part, because I can come up with a similar set of statements about things that are totally objective, where people are in disagreement about the facts of the matter. Yet, they are still facts."

Alonzo, while I find your post very insightful, the above introductory passage caused me some confusion as I read the remainder. The statements you've enumerated in the section "Argument from Differences of Opinion" appear to be subjective, rather than objective, to me.

1. Of or relating to a material object, actual existence or reality.
2. Not influenced by the emotions or prejudices.
3. Based on observed facts.

1. Pertaining to subjects as opposed to objects (A subject is one who perceives or is aware; an object is the thing perceived or the thing that the subject is aware of.)
2. Formed, as in opinions, based upon subjective feelings or intuition, not upon observation or reasoning, which can be influenced by preconception; coming more from within the observer rather than from observations of the external environment.
3. Resulting from or pertaining to personal mindsets or experience, arising from perceptive mental conditions within the brain and not necessarily from external stimuli.
4. Lacking in reality or substance

Due to my confusion it is not clear to me if "subjective" is a more appropriate word for the context of your introductory passage, or if your intention was to point out an inherent weakness in Jewish Atheist's approach, by contrasting his framework for discussing subjective truths with the objective variety.

While your post is spot on for me, perhaps you can clarify the intent of the introduction for me?

Anonymous said...

Ben, perhaps I could cast some light. The statements 1-7 are objective because the relationships do not necessarily include an individual. God exists or does not, and this doesn't vary from person to person - but a belief does, and this is what might throw someone. "Ice cream is the best" is a subjective claim. "Alice favors ice cream" is an objective claim. We have no way to show that ice cream is the "best" (whatever that means), but we can easily determine the truth of the latter claim.

Atheist Jew, I'll try to be clearer. You were discussing the topic of the objectivity of morality (see your quotation). You stated "the definition of morality is subjective". It's unclear what this implies, but it might translate to one of two things: "people define morality differently, therefore morality is subjective", or "people define morality differently". Context suggests the fallacious former, but if all you were doing was making the obvious latter statement, then that's fine - we got an interesting post in response that might clear things up in case they confused anyone.

Anonymous said...

m said: The statements 1-7 are objective because the relationships do not necessarily include an individual. God exists or does not, and this doesn't vary from person to person

ok, I understand your position. However, I do not see how your qualification of the existence of God(s) is objective. If there is/are *no* God(s), then the belief must be subjective. Simply because there is no objective means by which to falsify the claim.

To be clear, with regards to the definition I linked in my prior comment, I do not see 1,2,3 as either/or's ... but as an inclusive set of requirements.

Meaning to be certain a claim qualifies as objective, there can be no doubt that the claim relates to the existence of a material phenomena which is not influenced by emotions/prejudices, and is based upon observed facts.

My feeble position is that it is impractical to attempt to purge from human society all philosophy respecting the non-objective (respecting my inclusive definition of objective).

It is impractical for two reasons; (1) there is no reason to believe that all questions either are or ultimately will fall to realm of objective methodology. (2) We will never *all* agree as to what qualifies as objective if the terms are not sufficiently explicit and narrowly defined ... what is really required is not a method for the qualification of objective claims, but a quantification.

While such a goal is as elusive as any truth, If we are going to distinguish between objective and subjective claims we should strive to develop an objective method to do so.

Otherwise, any attempt to distinguish between the two will appear as a separation based upon individual preferences and prejudices.

Anonymous said...

Ben, to better illustrate, I'll give two examples of subjective claims. The first relates to value judgements: enjoy, prefer, favor, hate. "Joan prefers ice cream". The second relates to belief in the truth of claims: think, believe. "Jack thinks god exists". In the first, if you take Joan out of the picture, it makes no sense: the relationship needs an ice-cream enthusiast. The second is a subjective statement about an objective truth. Jack is the subject, and Joan might not believe in god, so yes, the "thinks" statement varies from person to person. But the underlying statement is objective. God exists, or does not. It doesn't matter if we can falsify or detect God. We might be utterly incapable of determining what happened at a certain point in the big bang, but something did happen. A variance in belief does not suggest a variance in truth. A variance in definition or belief of what is good (moral) does not suggest that morality itself varies, only that people disagree, are mistaken, or suck at figuring out what is moral and what isn't. A variance in belief in god does not suggest a variance in the truth (or untruth) of god's existence. When we truly do not know, as with the existence of god (or the fsm), what we should do is remain agnostic, and analyze the probability of truth. A different type of subjectivity emerges, and it's specific to subjective claims that not only differ, but are baseless. Alice thinks Thor exists, but has no sensible and sound reason for the belief. Her belief is subjective, and her reason is sheer preferance.

A lack of knowledge should not lead to subjective debauch - "god's existence or morality are meaningless and up to my whims" - but to careful and perhaps hopeful agnosticism - "I truly don't know, but I hope that I can discover". I disagree with your first reason. I think that there are no questions that are both subjective and sensible. For example: "is ice cream the best?" is senseless; "does Joan favor ice cream most?" is objective. I could be wrong here, but just as there is imperfect reason to believe I'm right, there is drastically less reason to believe that I'm wrong. Can you think of a question that is subjective and sensible? Could elaborate on qualification vs. quantification? I don't think I understand what you mean there.

Anonymous said...

m wrote: "But the underlying statement is objective. God exists, or does not."

Ok, I'm now seeing your perspective. However, ... I still do no agree.

I'm speaking of the objectivity of the statement or claim, not of the truthfulness of the claim.

While there might actually exist some "God" by some definition, and his existence might be true, any statement that he does or does not is plainly subjective, as long as there is known objective evidence for the claim.

m commented: "A lack of knowledge should not lead to subjective debauch".

In my opinion, it certainly does. If an individual makes a claim with a lack of knowledge, the claim is subjective. Even if what is claimed is true.

Anonymous said...

If you mean that someone's making the statement "god exists" is subjective, then I agree. "Alice thinks that god exists", for example, is subjective because it involves Alice. But this is a different thing entirely. Here, any statement becomes subjective by virtue of an individual stating it. "The moon has more mass than this stone" becomes a 'subjective statement', as you define it, when we consider that someone is saying it, and that some fool might disagree. But this is hardly notable. When I talk of the objectivity or subjectivity of a certain claim, I'm considering the claim itself, and not going a step higher to consider the person making it.

If Alice says "the mountain is bigger than the sun", this claim isn't subjective - it's wrong. The line here is fine and easy to mistakenly cross. The difference is between "Alice thinks the mountain is bigger" and "the mountain is bigger". The former is subjective (and true), the latter objective (and false).

Bringing this back to Alonzo's statments: "at least one God exists" is objective. It has nothing to do with people or perception. Differing definitions of God have no effect because we're using Alonzo's definition. Differing beliefs regarding the truth have no effect on the actual truth of the statement. The claim itself is objective. I think that you're bringing a claimant into the relationship, and suggesting that thus the claim is now subjective. But it's really a new thing entirely. Things are subjective only because now we've switched to talking about "the claimant thinks at least one God exists", and no longer "at least one God exists". This is a subtle switch.

When I speak of subjective debauch, I refer to "her belief is subjective, and her reason is sheer preferance". My point there was that if we don't know, the right thing to do is admit it, instead of taking up some belief and hiding under "but it's subjective, so it's ok". If someone says "it's ok to randomly kill people", they're wrong. "Alice thinks it's ok to kill people" can't be equated with "Alice favors ice cream", because they're very different types of subjective relationships. In the latter, Alice can't be 'wrong' for favoring ice cream, but in the former, she definitely can be (and is) wrong for believing that it's ethical to randomly kill people.

Anonymous said...

m wrote: Bringing this back to Alonzo's statments: "at least one God exists" is objective.

I do not agree. I agree with Alonzo respecting this post. Which I extrapolate, and claim all meanings/definitions/statements/claims are subjective.

Objective relates to a material object. An object whose reality and existence is based upon observed facts.

Statements can respect the objective, but they are not objective themselves.

m adds: I think that you're bringing a claimant into the relationship, and suggesting that thus the claim is now subjective.

hmmm ... my intent was quite the opposite. I've intended to focus on the claim, not who is making it (Alonzo), nor on the object of the claim (God).

It appears to me that you are focus on the object of the claim, not the claim itself.

m concludes: Alice can't be 'wrong' for favoring ice cream, but in the former, she definitely can be (and is) wrong for believing that it's ethical to randomly kill people.

I don't have any interest in starting a discussion with regards to relativism. However, the conclusion that any action is immoral requires a definition of immoral and all definitions are subjective.

imo, to be objective each of the enumerated definitions below must apply

1. Of or relating to a material object, actual existence or reality.

2. Not influenced by the emotions or prejudices.

3. Based on observed facts.

At least that's my subjective opinion of what objective is ;-)

Anonymous said...

You're confusing "a claim" with "the act of making a claim". One shouldn't use the word "claim" to refer to the latter. You can say "that was an exhausting run", but when you say "that was an interesting claim" you're not saying that the act of making a claim was interesing, but rather that the claim was.

Relationship 1: "God is extant" (an objective claim)
Object: God

Relationship 2: "[? claims] God is extant" (a subjective claim)
Object: "God is extant" (an objective claim)
Subject: ? (a claimant)

When people talk about claims being subjective or objective, they're talking about 1. Nobody should talk of 2 being subjective or objective, because by definition it's subjective - that relationship includes a subject, an entity that feels, thinks, and decides (implied or explicit).

A claim can be called a claim on its own. Nobody need be claiming it. In the same way, I can call a man a runner even when he isn't running. When someone says "is a claim", there's no need to bring a subject, a claimant, into the picture.

bpabbott said...

m wrote: "You're confusing "a claim" with "the act of making a claim". One shouldn't use the word "claim" to refer to the latter."

Actually no :-(

As our discussion has slipped into a splitting of hairs, perhaps we should find something more tangible to discuss on the subject?

I asked a question to Alonzo here, that is specifically what I'm focused on. Perhaps this wording is more clear.

If you'd like to respond ... why don't we move our discussion to that location?

Anonymous said...

All this talk about Subjective vs. Objective, and I have yet to understand why, or who cares...

It is pretty obvious to me what Bacon Eating Atheist Jew was getting at. Now, it would seem to me that you are just looking to read your own words with this excersize in semantics.