Monday, November 26, 2007

"Owner's Manual" Morality

I have a natural interest in what other atheists write about morality, and found an interesting exchange posted on divided by zero in the posting Understanding of Morality.

It sprang from a debate over Objectivism vs subjectivism. (The ‘O’ is deliberately capitalized because this refers to a specific theory developed by Ayn Rand. There are many ways for a theory to be objectivist without being Objectivist.)

A commenter, Apple, attempted to defend some sense of an objective morality, to which the author of Divided By Zero gave a reply.

In this exchange, ‘Apple’ said:

As far as I can tell, morality is a collection of values to guide a man’s life. More simply, morality is a generic how-to manual for life. Like a car, you as a human being come out of an assembly line with the same owner’s manual. . . . [G]enerically, you are like a car. And like cars, you have basic maintenance requirements: gas of this type here, oil of this grade here, anti-freeze fluid at this level here, brake shoes after so many km here, tire pressures per kpc here.

People are free to invent terms that mean whatever they want them to mean. I do the same myself. For example, I have taken the terms ‘fulfill’ and ‘thwart’ and gave them precise meanings in desire utilitarianism that differ from common language. A desire that P (for some proposition P) is fulfilled in a state of affairs where P is true, and thwarted in a state of affairs where P is false. These do not reflect standard usage (though they are close enough to standard usage that a person who encounters them in my writing are not left completely in the dark).

However, this type of invention comes with an inherent hazard – the possibility of equivocating between the term that one has invented, and the generic meaning of the term that comes to mind in casual conversation among native speakers.

This definition of ‘morality’ is a private definition that deviates significantly from the term used by native speakers.

For example, consistent with the ‘owner’s manual’ concept of ‘morality’, I follow a specific diet and have specific plan of exercise. These are equivalent to an owner’s manual declaring what fuels to use in a car for best performance, and how best to run the car (e.g., short-tripping a car all of the time decreases its life expectancy).

However, these have nothing to do with morality in the common language sense of the term. Exercise and diet are almost never spoken of in moral terms. I would propose that the reason they are not spoken of in moral terms is because exercise and diet are relate states of affairs to the desires of the agent (what is ‘good for’ that person), whereas morality is intimately concerned with the effect on other people.

As such, diet and exercise can have moral relevancy. A parent who is not taking care of her health may well be morally condemned for neglecting responsibilities to her children, or for imposing costs on others. However, when we speak about diet and exercise out of the context of this affect on others, the ‘moral’ dimension slips away. Yet, the ‘owner’s manual’ concept still applies.

The problem, as I said, has to do with equivocating between this private language use of the term ‘morality’ and the common use. Anybody who takes the conclusions reached using this private definition and offers them to the public under the general public definition of ‘morality’ is guilty of the fallacy of equivocation – changing the meaning of a term in mid argument. Private uses of terms such as this must come with a disclaimer – made explicit where it might be misunderstood – that ‘we are talking about something that is different from what people usually talk about when they use the term ‘morality’”

Apple includes the following claim:

And that is what ethics is about. Ethics is a science that deals with studying man (not chimps) to define a proper morality at the generic level. Ethics is a science, like physics and biology and chemistry, to test each principle and weigh each in accordance to a human maintenance requirement. Its goal, like the goal of physics, is truth. In this case, the truth is in the realm of human conduct, at the generic level, truth for all humans, whether in a religious society, a secular society, or in a jungle.

This claim clearly suggests that Apple wants to be understood as using the term ‘ethics’ in its common, public sense, rather than in some sort of private language. This does not tell us that, ‘Ethics, as I am using the term for purposes of this essay, holds that X.’ It tells us that ethics itself, “What competent English speakers would recognize as ‘ethics’” – has these properties.

Unfortunately, that claim is false. What competent English speakers know as ‘ethics’ is something that does not include diet, exercise, or the various other activities that have to do with daily maintenance of one’s lives. Apple’s ‘ethics’ has little to do with ethics. His statement is like claiming, “The goal in a game of football is to swim the length of the pool faster than anybody else.” Sorry, but we use the term ‘football’ the way that competent English speakers use the term, then there is no pool.

Apple’s statements about ‘ethics’ are no more relevant to questions about ethics than the hypothetical statement about ‘football’ is relevant to the game of football.

In making this analogy to an owner’s manual, Apple did state something that is true both of morality in this private-language sense, and morality in the common-use sense. In both cases, it is reasonable to take a great many claims that people make and know them to be completely, totally false.

I suggest that morality in the common sense has to do with ‘reasons for action that exist’. This set of reasons for action is broader than ‘reasons for action that the agent has’. Just as the furniture that I have is a tiny fraction of all of the furniture that exists, the ‘reasons for action’ that I have is a small fraction of the reasons for action that exist. The reason that diet and exercise are not spoken of in moral terms is because they are typically spoken of in reference to the reasons for action that the agent has, and not reasons for action that exist – so these statements are not moral statements.

When it comes to reasons for action that exist, many of the statements that people make are utterly false. We do not have to accept them as ‘subjectively true’. They are not true.

God does not exist. Any moral statement that takes the form, “There is a god-based reason-for-action for X-ing,” that statement is false. There are no god-based reasons-for-action for X-ing. The same is true when people claim ‘reasons for action’ that refer to intrinsic values, categorical imperatives, Platonic forms, impartial observers, veils of ignorance, Randian ‘man qua man’, Neitchean ‘ubermen’, or any of dozens of other invented entities that commonly make themselves into moral discussions. All of these claims are false, and all of the conclusions drawn from them are drawn from false premises.

In fact, the only reasons for action that actually exist are desires. So, any moral claim that makes a reference to ‘reasons for action’ that is not a desire is false. It is objectively, knowably, in the real-world, false. We do not have to ‘respect’ such statements as just another opinion, any more than we need to respect the claim that intelligent design is science is just another opinion.

This is not the only type of false moral claim that one can make. One can, in fact, make a statement that refers a state of affairs to desires, where those desires do not exist. These statements also make reference to reasons for action that do not exist. It is also possible for a particular set of desires (reasons for action) to exist, but for the person to make false statements about the relationship between the object of evaluation and those desires.

In other words, moral debate is filled with all sorts of statements that are objectively false. One does not need to be an Objectivist, or even an objectivist, to recognize this fact. Even a moral subjectivist should recognize that any moral statement that appeals to the wishes of a God, when no God exists, are not ‘subjectively true’. It is ‘objectively false’. Even moral subjectivists should be able to recognize that there are moral claims being made out there – not just claims about morality but moral claims themselves, that are simply false, and can be treated as such.


Anonymous said...

It is ironic, given the point of your article's argument, that you misuse the concept of "private language argument", which has a specific referent in philosophy.

Anonymous said...

"In fact, the only reasons for action that actually exist are desires."

But this is so trivially true. I'm not seeing much of an argument being posited in this essay.

Afterall, the *whole* point of morality is in fact to investigate the nature of--to use your jargon--the reasons for actions, i.e., desires.

The point is to figure out:
1) Whose desires are the basis of your reasons for actions? Yours, God's, or someone else's?

2) What is the nature of this desire? Good, bad, neutral, irrelevant?

3) By what standard do we evaluate the nature of such desires? Revelation, faith, holy book, dogma, authority figure, tradition, society, caste, race, parents, reality, requirements of life proper to an entity, etc.

4) How do we desire a normative prescription to act on our desire from merely the fact that we have a desire? In others, how do we bridge is is/ought gap? Get from "I desire" to "therefore, I should act to gain and keep that which I desire"?

These are all moral issues, and ethicists grapple with the answers and implications of these issues. Nothing in your article even remotely addresses them; but very blithely you claim that all moral theories are "in fact" false. Demonstrate.

Anonymous said...

P.S. Point #4 was grotesquely expressed. My apologies. Here is my intended point:

4) How do we derive a normative prescription to act on our desire from merely the fact that we have a desire? In others, how do we bridge the is/ought gap--get from "I desire" to "therefore, I should act to gain and keep that which I desire"?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Ultimately, you will find the answers to the types of questions you ask spelled out throughout this blog, my web site (http:\\, and the book that I mention on the right of this blog, "A better place."

It is certainly far too much material to cover in its entirety in every single post.

(1) Yes, I know that there is a technical definition for "private language argument". However the logician's technical definition of 'argument' (two or more propositions related such that one proposition is said to follow implicitly from the other(s)) does not prohibit me from saying, "My parents had an argument last night." Similarly, I did not feel that the technical definition of "private language argument" would prevent me from using the term as I did in this post.

(2) I do not hold that desires are the only reasons for action that exist is so trivially true - particularly given the number of people who make reference to other types of reasons for action (divine command, intrinsic value, platonic forms, the essence of being human, etc.)

(3) I am not certain that the phrase, "the whole point of morality" makes much sense. Besides, there may be a difference between what the point of morality is for some people, and what the point of morality should be.

(4) My desires are my reasons for action. Your desires are your reasons for action. All of the desires that exist are all of the reasons for action that exist.

(5) Your phrase, "the nature of this desire" is vague.

(6) Desires can be evaluated the same way we evaluate other things - according to their tendency to fulfill or thwart (other) desires. In other words, "What reasons for action exist for promoting or inhibiting malleable desires?" Since desires are the only reasons for action that exist, desires are the only "reasons for action" for prohibiting or inhibiting (other) maleable desires.

(Note: This is not circular. This is, in the mathematical and logical sense, 'recursive'. Like a dictionary (defining words in terms of other words); or coherentist epistemology (justifying beliefs according to their relationships to other beliefs), it is possible to evaluate desires by their relationship to other desires.)

(7) We bridge the is-ought gap because 'ought' simply means 'is such as to fulfill the desires in question. Actually, 'ought' means, "is such as to be recommended by the more and stronger reasons for action that exist." However, since desires are the only reasons for action that exist, it boils down to the same thing.

To say,"A ought to X; but there is no reason for action for A to X" is a nonsense statement. The statement "A ought to X" means "The more and stronger of the reasons for action that exist recommend X-ing."

Anonymous said...

Could you expand on what DU would define as "what the point of morality should be," i.e., the moral reason for morals?