Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Objectivity, Science, and Morality

In this post, I want to answer the second of Ken's three questions to me in the possibility of a science of morality.

Ken and I agree that a science if morality is possible. However, we seem to differ in our views as to what a moral scientist would study. Ken seems to suggest that a moral scientist would study the instincts and intuitions we have. A lot of people currently claiming to study the science of morality seem to hold this same opinion. They release studies on the instincts and intuitions we have and claim these findings are a part of the scientific study of morality.

I hold that a scientist studying morality would study the malleable desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote using social forces such as praise and condemnation. There is a vital distinction between the instincts and intuitions we have, and the desires we have reason to promote, that these scientists are missing. Their mistake is significant as confusing the study of what people believe to be true of the planets and stars and the study of the planets and stars themselves.

In the context of this discussion, Ken has asked:

Do you include the concept of an "objective morality" rather than objectively-based morality that I argue for. Again I interpret what I have read so far of "desirism" is that it conforms to the latter. But your discussion here of astronomy and comparison to the subjects of ethics seems to imply the former. That there is an objective morality. Or perhaps this is just a problem of inappropriate metaphor?

I hold that moral claims - claims such as 'abortion is murder' - are as objective (objectively true or objectively false or somewhere in between) as any claim in any science, such as astronomy. A moral scientist looking in the right spot at the right data, will be able to determine the moral properties of a character trait (virtue or vice) or an action (right or wrong).

In order to discuss this possibility, we have to clear up a confusion. What people mean by the word "objective" when discussing science is significantly different from what they mean by the term "objective" when discussing morality. My claim that moral statements are objectively true or false is to be understood using "objective" in the science sense – not the moral sense.

To see the difference, let's begin by noting that the proposition, "Jim's blood pressure is 142/87" is a perfectly objective statement in both the science and the moral sense. So is the statement, "Jim weighs 182 pounds."

Now, please note that the statement, "Jim likes opera," is just like the previous two statements. It describes a physical fact about the structure and functioning of a part of Jim’s body – in this case, it describes how his brain is wired. To say that Jim likes opera is to say that Jim is disposed to act to realize states of affairs in which he is watching opera and he tends to find that state of affairs pleasing. Just as we can measure Jim’s blood pressure by looking at its effects on a sphygmomanometer and judge his weight by putting him on a scale, we can determine his likes and dislikes by observing his intentional actions. We use desires to explain and predict intentional actions. Where intentional actions deviate from our predictions, we alter our judgment of what the agent likes or dislikes, coming up with a new theory that better fits the available data.

All of this fits in with the scientific concept of “objective”

Yet, in ethics, when a person uses a term like "like" of "desire", people tend to assert that the speaker is no longer making claims that are objective. Likes and desires are subjective.

The standard test for subjectivity in ethics is, "Would it still be the case if there were no people around?" would the Mona Lisa painting have value without people to value it? No? Then it's value is subjective.

We can see this in Doug S.’s question

For example, would sunsets still be beautiful if people had evolved brains that found sunsets ugly instead of beautiful?

The answer to this question is “no”. However, it is still an objective fact – in the scientific sense – that in the real world creatures on Earth evolved with brains that dispose them to value certain sunsets.

Would moons exist if there were no planets? The answer is "no", because the definition of a moon requires that it be a body that stands in a particular relationship to a planet. Without planets there would be no moons. But planets and moons exist and their relationships can be described scientifically. Would states of affairs have value without brains? No. But states of affairs and brains exist and their relationships can be studied scientifically.

Against this, Ken could say that this is what he is talking about - the scientific study of the instincts and intuitions we have. I am not denying that such a study would be scientific. I am denying that it is a study of what we commonly understand by the term 'morality'. It is like studying rock formations and claiming that this makes one a biologist.

This is not to say that biologicsts cannot be interested in facts about solar flares, or that ethicists cannot be interested in facts about our instincts and intuitions. But solar flares are not the focus of scientific research, and our current instincts and intuitions are not the correct focus for ethics.

Besides, the concept of "objective" used in discussing ethics - as distinct from science - is simply confused and incoherent. Would left-handedness exist if there were no people to be left-handed? No? Then left-handedness must be subjective. Would the job of legal secretary exist if there were no people to employ people as secretaries? Then the statement, "Jim is a legal secretary" must be subjective. There is no objective fact of the matter.

Really? That's nonsense.

Besides, if the subject under discussion is the possibility of a moral science, then the scientific concept if "objective" is the one we should be using.

In this case, "Jim likes opera," and "People generally have very many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to sex without consent" are perfectly objective claims - as objective as any claim in science.


Jesse said...

I do think most people come to realize that so called 'evolutionary ethics' are quite unsatisfactory for many reasons (a consequence of equating "natural" with "moral").

But that is not how I understand the "science of morality". Those terms have been used by a few thinkers (most recently, Sam Harris) to mean something more like a utilitarianism that has been humbled and grounded by science.

Mr. Fyfe, I hope you read Harris' "The Moral Landscape" and address his thesis more fully than those comments. Or at least check out the relevant wikipedia articles, because your arguments for desirism often synchronize almost word for word with the case Harris seems to be trying to make.

If there are differences, they are nuanced indeed, and at least one reader is not seeing them.

The only time you guys might diverge could be when we go deeper into "units of good" for your ethical systems, and yet even then, you each still seem to make many similar caveats (e.g. Precise "units" of what we have called 'good' are difficult to compare; Science, especially neuroscience, will tell us more about what we are really saying we value, because it will tell us about the minds that must value those things; A person's intentions and desires are a great, albeit fuzzy in practice, way to guide moral decisions; etc)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Jesse D

Here is what Harris gets right. He puts two images side-by-side; one of a mother playing happily with a child, and one of a mother wailing over her dead child, and says how absurd it is to deny that there is a fact here that scientists can study.

Okay . . . this is right.

The next question is, "What is this fact that we are looking at?"

He says it is the well-being of conscious creatures.

I say he is mistaken.

His well-being of conscious creatures claim is classic utilitarianism - a thesis that moral philosophers considered 200 years ago and has rejected.

Harris substantially ignores 200 years of moral philosophy in order to present this thesis. And his critics rightly claim, "What are you talking about? We have 200 years of moral philosophy explaining why THAT option doesn't work."

There are two responses to this.

One is that there are no facts about value - because all attempts to present value-facts have continued to fail.

The other is that there are value-facts, but they are not what Harris says they are.

I go with the second option.

This is where I disagree with Harris