Tuesday, July 24, 2018

"Objective" "Morality"

A member of the studio audience directed me to a YouTube video on objective morality.

I wrote a response to the author of the video.


Your recent YouTube videos concerning objective morality has drawn some attention my way from people wondering how I would respond to your arguments.

I am an atheist who defends objective morality on my blog “atheistethicist”, which explains their interests. I thought I would share that response with you.

Before I start on that, however, I want to clear away a potential mistaken assumption that would get in the way of understanding my response. This is the thought that, in responding to your argument, I am defending Sam Harris.

Objections to Harris (and most Moral Realists)

Harris’ argument is also flawed. Harris’ argument contains an invalid inference from, “I have an aversion to my own pain,” to “you and everybody else has a reason to prevent the realization of a state in which I am in pain.” It follows from the fact that I have an aversion to my own pain is that I have a reason not to put my hand on a hot stove. It follows from your aversion to your own pain that you have a reason not to put your hand on a hot stove. You do not, necessarily, have a reason not to put my hand on a hot stove. I could try to give you a reason - e.g., by threatening or bribing you. However, the reason does not exist automatically.

The antelope’s aversion to pain means that it has a reason to run from the lion. It does not imply that the lion has a reason to forego chasing the antelope.

It is true of almost all atheists who defend an objective morality that they make this invalid leap from “I have a reason” to “there exists a reason valid for everybody”. They waste a great deal of effort trying to justify this leap. They all fail. So, criticism of almost all atheist moral realists is well founded.

Almost all.

It would be a mistake to try to interpret my remarks as containing or defending that invalid inference.

So, now, my criticism of your argument . . .

Objections to Your Argument

You said in your video:

"I am not disagreeing with Harris that it is objectively true that we all experience pain as bad. I just think that this doesn't warrant us to define bad as that which brings about pain."

The problem is: no definition has a warrant. There is no objectively correct definition of anything. Definitions are, by their nature, determined by social convention. Consequently, you cannot use the fact that a definition lacks warrant to prove anything about objectivity or subjectivity.

Take, for example, the word “atom”.

What “warrants” defining the term “atom” as the smallest unit of an element still recognized as a unit of that element - the smallest piece of gold, oxygen, or mercury? The term ‘atom’ could alternatively been made to mean ‘without parts’. Indeed, that was its original definition. It came from ‘a’ (without) + ‘tomos’ (cut). By way of social convention, people changed the meaning of the term. As a result, the proposition "an atom cannot be divided further into smaller parts" went from being true by definition to being false. What was 'true' at one moment in history was 'false' a few years later - simply because people decided to define a term differently. Yet, the objectivity of chemistry as a science was never threatened.

How did the meaning of “planet” change? The members of the International Astronomical Union took a vote. With a vote, the proposition “Pluto is a planet” went from being objectively true (those in school who failed to identify Pluto as a planet were wrong) to objectively false. It went from true to false because people changed their minds about the definition of a term. Yet, astronomy remains a hard science, filled with objective facts. How is that possible?

Indeed, we can say the same thing about calling an element ‘californium’ or ‘einsteinium’. What “warrants” giving it that name? There is nothing that "warrants" defining 'einsteinium' as 'the element that has 99 protons in its nucleus'. It was decided almost on a whim. Yet, the proposition "einsteinium has 99 protons in its nucleus" is objectively true - and nobody uses the fact that this definition has no warrant to argue that chemistry is subjective.

As soon as you start talking about the definitions of term you are talking about things that are true only in virtue of social convention. This is no less true in chemistry and astronomy and, indeed, in logic as in morality. If this is a reason to claim that statements made in a field are subjective, then all statements in all fields are subjective, and moral statements are no different from statements in chemistry or astronomy in this respect.

Scientists have long recognized that definitions do not matter. What we call something does not determine what it is. Because they respect this fact, they have fun with definitions, giving quarks names like “strange” and “charm” or even adopting whimsical definitions, such as defining the term "eriovixia gryffindori" (named after a fictional wizard) so that it refers to a species of spider.

Criticizing Definitions

Having said this, we can often find a problem when people claim to be offering a definition of morality. The problem is not with their definition, it is with their reference. The person who says, "I am going to define 'good' as that which maximizes the welfare of conscious creatures" or "as that which maximizes overall utility" or "as that which people would agree to behind a veil of ignorance" or whatever are not actually giving us a definition. They are giving us a reference for a term that already has a different definition.

What they are actually saying is, "I define good as that which everybody should promote for its own sake," and then they add that this definition refers to whatever it is they are promoting as the moral good. This is not legitimate. If the author is going to define good as "x", then whether or not the term refers to something in the real world has to be discovered, it cannot be stipulated. You can, of course, define a term by referring to something - e.g., by saying, "by 'eriovixia gryffindori' I mean the species that thing belongs to", but then one has to discover what is true of the thing being pointed to. The definition cannot stipulate that it is anything other than "the thing being pointed to".

So, yes, it is possible to criticize definitions. However, one cannot criticize a definition as lacking warrant (all definitions lack warrant). One can criticize the use of a definition as lacking consistency, or as lacking a referent, or as assigning a property to its referent that the referent does not have.

I could go on. Like I said, I believe in an objective morality. All I have done here is criticize the arguments of others. It is always easier to criticize than to create. However, I also recognize that your time is limited, so I will leave the discussion here and see if you have an interest in continuing it further.

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