A Defense of Moral Objectivism

The HTML version of this essay, which I wrote for my freshman philosophy class a few weeks ago (I am a newbie), is available at the following link. I prefer you read it there rather than in this post, because the HTML crap (like the footnote links and bulleted lists and whatnot) did not survive when I pasted them here.

angelfire.com/biz2/sexydood/philpaper1.html

The question of whether or not our ethical judgments have an objective basis is a question that has been grappled with intensely since the time of Plato. There has been a great deal of literature produced on the subject and the avenues of argumentation that have been pursued are copious in number. It would be a task that is beyond the scope of this paper to consider all the positions that have been ably defended by their respective adherents and to answer every possible objection that could be raised to the ideas that I develop. However, it is my goal to defend a modest form of moral objectivism (or “moral realism”, if you like) and address some of the most common objections leveled against moral objectivism by relativists or other noncongnitivists in general.

It is my contention that at least some of our moral judgments are objectively true or false, and that they are true or false regardless of the beliefs or feelings of any particular person or group about them. I am only concerned with the metaethical aspect of moral judgments. I will not be developing a system of first-order ethics or suggesting that my metaethical standpoint implies or does not imply the validity of any particular first-order ethical system, excluding a few exceptions (1). I will not be developing any kind of “algorithm” that can ascertain any and every ethical truth. Such a thing is impossible, and I believe someone would only expect an ethicist to come up with such an algorithm if they were ignorant of what exactly the business of ethics is. I am not defending a form of “moral absolutism”. By moral absolutism I mean a system of ethics that makes monolithic first-order claims that are allegedly applicable for any conceivable subject in any conceivable context. This sort of moralizing is typical of classical theism, and the form of moral objectivism I am defending will not depend on any appeal to the supernatural (2). I have no qualms about acknowledging the fact that our ethical judgments are both context-dependent and subject-dependent. I do not see this as an objection to moral objectivism for reasons that will become clear.

My moral theory (which is a form of “ethical intuitionism”) presupposes the existence of real universals and a priori knowledge. By “universal” I mean any predicable that can be instantiated in diverse contexts. I will not take the time to refute nominalism here because the problem of universals is beyond the scope of this paper, however it is my opinion that nominalism is plainly false (3). There is such a thing as “blueness” and that is all I will say about that. By a priori knowledge I mean any item of knowledge that is grasped through reason or some other means aside from sensory-perception, such as the general principles of logic or mathematics (4). I believe that ethics is a rational, a priori body of knowledge that is more or less of the same nature as mathematics. Ethical judgments are derived from self-evident moral principles. In our moral deliberations we find ourselves drawing conclusions from descriptive premises that seem valid to our common sense. However, upon reflection we find that there are actually suppressed premises that our deductions consistently rely upon. For example, “Hitler murdered millions of people, therefore Hitler is bad” presupposes that it is bad to murder millions of people. It seems that we are able to intuitively grasp the intrinsic value of things. Consider the following statements:

It is wrong to punish someone for a crime she did not commit
Genocide is wrong
Happiness is preferable to suffering
If it is wrong for one person to suffer X, it is wrong for two people to suffer X
Kindness is a virtue and not a vice

Is there really any rational person who doubts any of these statements? I have been careful not to include statements that are merely my opinion, such as “capital punishment is unjust”. It may be argued that certain moral propositions like “abortion is murder” cannot be deduced with the same level of certainty as the principles stated above, but I do not see this as an objection to intuitionism any more than I see Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle as an objection to physics or the fact that the continuum hypothesis is undecidable as an objection to set theory. It may be the case that certain ethical facts are unknowable or have equally plausible alternatives. However, most ethical judgements are derivative, not self-evident. The axioms of geometry may be self-evident, but most would agree that the fact that the distance between two points can be expressed by the equation ((x2-x1)+(y2-y1))^.5 is not exactly self-evident. It is a derivative fact, but still certainly objective. Philosophers have historically regarded mathematics as the most objective discipline in existence. The multiplication table in particular is presented as a prime example of an objective, indubitable set of truths. After some reflection, I believe it becomes clear that ethics and mathematics, though they differ dramatically in their subject-matter, are not very dissimilar at all in their methodology. As I said before, ethical judgements are both subject-dependent and context-dependent. Many other objective bodies of knowledge are as well. In mathematics, for example, 1+1=2 in the context of a numbering system that is base 3 or greater (in a base 2 or “binary” numbering system, 1+1=10). Water boils at 100 degrees celcius in the context of sea-level elevation. These are still objective facts, regardless of their context-dependent nature. Likewise, certain value judgements may be subject-dependent. For example, it may be objectively true that poetry is a greater expression of human creativity than skill at pushpin. However, for a person who lacks appreciation for poetry, pursuing pushpin as a hobby may be objectively the superior “subjective” choice.

If anyone regards just one of these aforementioned propositions as true or “self-evident”, the case for intuitionism has been made. For if certain ethical judgments are self-evident or a priori they can, in turn, be regarded as the foundational basis for deriving other ethical judgments about particular situations. Also, in acknowledging the self-evidence of any particular moral judgment one has already implicitly accepted moral realism, as the following deduction seems to indicate:

[1] There are moral propositions
[2] Propositions are either true or false (Law of Excluded Middle)
[3] They are not all false
[4] Some correspond to reality (from [2], [3], and the correspondence theory of truth)
[5] Moral values are a part of reality (which is moral objectivism)

In accepting the self-evidence of certain moral claims one cannot question [3], which is the most difficult of the premises. One may question [2] on other grounds which we will consider later. One may also reject my invoking foundationalism as a basis for deriving ethical truths. David O. Brink provides prima facie valid criticisms of foundationalism (5) while at the same time arguing for a plausible form of moral realism based on coherentism (6). Regardless of the numerous technical objections that could be raised to these ideas, I think one should still default to moral realism. Noncognitivists bear the burden of proof, in my view, since they are presenting a metaethical system that is very counterintuitive and defies common sense. Noncognitivism should only be accepted as the conclusion of an extremely compelling philosophical argument, and I have yet to see such an argument. One might be able to draw the analogy between the controversy between noncognitivism and moral realism and the controversy between realists (in general) and skeptics. A noncognitivist may say “How do you know that X is wrong?”, just as an absolute skeptic may ask “How do you know that you aren’t a brain-in-a-vat or that you aren’t being fooled by a Cartesian demon?”. Is there any way to reply to such a question? (7) I don’t believe so. We simply regard the external world as self-evident because it is next to impossible for us to regard it otherwise. There is also no pragmatic reason for us to think we are brains in vats. I think the situation is analogous with regard to ethics. We (especially since we are social animals) will inevitably have to make value judgments at some point or another in time. We could no sooner refrain from doing so than we could refrain from believing in the external world. This is simply a pragmatic argument for moral realism (made only for bolstering purposes). We will now consider some of the most common objections to moral realism and why they fail.

The first objection I wish to consider is David Hume’s “is/ought” gap (8). Simply put, one can not, in principle, derive moral judgments from descriptive premises. Conclusions about one subject-matter cannot be deduced from premises that belong to a different subject-matter. No matter how much you feel, taste, smell, listen to, or look at something, you only get sense-perception. No moral judgments. We touched on this briefly when we examined the fact that all attempts to deduce ethical judgments from descriptive premises relied on suppressed premises. We solved this problem by regarding those suppressed premises as self-evident truths. This is how ethical intuitionism avoids the “is/ought” gap. Indeed, most intuitionists hold a firm belief in the validity of the “is/ought” gap (9). G.E. Moore even elaborated on his own version of it, which he called the “naturalistic fallacy” (10). It seems curious to me that most noncognitivists who reject moral objectivism on the grounds that it violates the is/ought gap do not reject mathematics. No matter how often my teacher shows me two pairs of oranges, I never see any quantities. I never sense a “2”. I arrive through pure reason at the conclusion that 2+2=4. Should there not be an “is/math” gap as well? Mathematical conclusions certainly cannot be derived from descriptive premises (this is even more obvious with maths than it is with ethics). Mathematics is the business of reasoning about certain universals (namely quantities) that we grasp through the faculty of reason and their relations to each other, and ethics is the same way; it just concerns itself with universals such as “goodness” and how they relate to other universals such as “life” and “happiness”. If one rejects the objectivity of ethics on these grounds, then I see no reason why that person should not also be forced to concede that mathematics is also not objective. Most consistent relativists actually do shun all objectivity and regard matters that we think “objective” merely as “intersubjective” (Richard Rorty is a prominent example of this). I would submit that at this point the noncognitivist’s position is reductio ad absurdum. I will note in passing that some have outright denied the validity of the is/ought gap. A.N. Prior presents two kinds of counterexamples (11):

A 1. Tea drinking is common in England
2. Therefore, either tea drinking is
common in England or all New Zealanders
ought to be shot.

B 1. Undertakers are church officers
2. Therefore, undertakers ought to do
whatever all church officers ought to do.

This is simply a comical attempt to undermine the exact letter of the is/ought thesis. One could easily come up with a re-wording of the thesis to allow for such statements, but intuitionism would still be immune to its objections.

The second argument I wish to consider is probably the most common argument for moral relativism in existence–the argument from disagreement. People who make the argument from disagreement are utilizing a thesis that Michael Huemer calls “The Idiot’s Veto”. The Idiot’s Veto is the thesis that “any individual has the power to block a fact from the realm of objectivity or knowledge, merely by persistently refusing to agree with it, and resisting all efforts to educate him.” (12) The argument from disagreement essentially states that different people and cultures have moral views that vary dramatically, therefore there are no objective moral values. This argument, if valid, would not only refute all of philosophy, but also all of mathematics, logic, and therefore the entire foundation for any kind of knowledge. We have already demonstrated the manner in which mathematics is a body of knowledge not very much unlike ethics, so it would seem that the argument would apply equally to mathematics or any body of a priori knowledge (such as logic). I don’t believe this is a valid argument at all. There are disagreements in all sorts of fields of knowledge that moral skeptics have no trouble accepting the objectivity of. A moral skeptic may argue that those particular bodies of knowledge (say, the social sciences) have the quality of the external world acting as an arbiter between our own “subjective” beliefs and the truth of our propositions. This may hold for the social sciences, but it does not hold for mathematics and logic. Without mathematics and logic, not even the strict scientific disciplines are valid. Physics is not possible without equations, and physics is the basis for every other natural science there is. The argument from disagreement would indirectly refute all of science if it were valid. The level of disagreement that exists is exaggerated in my opinion. How many societies approve of genocide or unadulterated murder and torture? Not very many. Even if there is a significant level of disagreement, I don’t see why anyone should be surprised. How we act as moral agents has a profound impact on our daily lives. People care greatly about what is or isn’t right and wrong. If for some reason numbers were suddenly as important as ethics to people one day, I suspect the level of disagreement in mathematics would rise dramatically. We are fallible creatures with innumerable biases and varying levels of intelligence; it is only natural that we will end up disagreeing on a lot of things.

Another kind of objection states roughly that ethical judgments are really just expressions of personal sentiment and have no connection to truth or reality. The people who hold this view are called “emotivists” or “prescriptivists”. Saying “X is wrong” is like saying “Boo X!” or “I don’t like X”. This view is counterintuitive, to say the least. Almost all languages treat moral propositions as either true or false, with a few rare exceptions (13). When we sit down to discuss moral matters, we do so under the pretense that we are seeking the truth, not just exchanging personal expressions of sentiment. Furthermore, some people make moral judgments that are contrary to this theory. Take for example, a Christian who advises youths against sex. Is he saying “Boo sex!” or “I don’t like sex.”? I would think that he probably likes sex very much, but he doesn’t think it is moral. Also, I may reflectively observe that Einstein’s theory of relativity is good with no emotional sentiment attached to the thought at all. Judgment is the result of active deliberation whereas statements such as “I like X” are passive statements of fact. Judgments can properly be called true or false, but who would disagree with “I like X”? This argument is also prone to Moore’s “open question” thesis (14) since it makes perfect sense to say “I like X, but is X good?”. Ever since the demise of logical positivism, the popularity of this sort of noncognitivism has waned. Even renowned moral skeptics such as J.L. Mackie have admitted that the ordinary use of moral terms involves the belief on the part of the speaker that he is referring to such (real) properties. (15)

The next argument I will consider was invented by Mackie and is called the “argument from queerness”. According to Mackie, if objective values existed they would be “entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort” and that “if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else.” (16) First of all, Mackie misrepresents the position of most intuitionists by implying that “intuition” implies the existence of a “sixth-sense” or some sort of quasi-perceptual apparatus specific to moral detection. This is simply false. My version of intuitionism, for example, involves the faculty of reason discerning self-evident moral truths and deriving other moral truths. Reason is by no means a “sixth moral sense”, and many other intuitionists have held views similar to mine. To quote W. D. Ross, “We apprehend that conscientiousness or benevolence is good with as complete certainty, directness, and self-evidence as we ever apprehend anything” and “an act, qua fulfilling a promise . . . is prima facie right, is self-evident . . . It is self-evident just as a mathematical axiom, or the validity of a form of inference, is evident.” (17) H. A. Prichard wrote earlier that “We recognize, for instance, that [the] performance of a service to X, who has done us a service, just in virtue of its being the performance of a service to one who has rendered a service to the would-be agent, ought to be done by us. The apprehension is immediate, in precisely the sense in which a mathematical apprehension is immediate.” (18) This refutes Mackie’s allegation that intuitionism requires some sort of “sixth sense”, but what of the “queerness” of moral knowledge? To be perfectly honest, I do not see this as an argument at all. Just because something is different from other things doesn’t mean it can’t exist. Colors are different from any other thing that isn’t a color, but they exist. Like many of the arguments we have considered so far, the argument from queerness seems to lead to some form of nihilism once it is taken to its logical conclusion.

At this point I would like to discuss what I believe are the consequences of moral relativism and conclude this essay. None of this is intended as an argument against moral relativism, save for maybe on pragmatic grounds. However, I still believe it is worth pointing out. There seems to be a trend among noncognitivists in which they believe they can separate ethics and metaethics and treat them as completely distinct fields of inquiry. In other words, Mackie can be a moral relativist while at the same time have strong moral convictions. This reminds me of Moore’s paradox: “It is raining outside, but I don’t believe it”. (19) Likewise the relativists seem to be saying “There is no right or wrong, but that is wrong.” Some relativists (especially emotivists or prescriptivists) may object to this and say that their moral convictions are the result of their own personal sentiments. It still seems to me that this position undermines the nature of ethics. If ethical judgments are mere emotive expressions, then saying “genocide is wrong” should have no more forcefulness than saying “I like seafood”. Clearly this is not the case; at least I do not believe it should be the case (and most would agree with me). Moral relativism implies a weak and passive ethical nature that I can only conceive of as having dreadful consequences. The Social Contract theory of John Locke was, in my view, a good attempt at establishing objective ethics that has lead to a great deal of prosperity, freedom, and happiness. What has relativism offered us historically? The Orthodox Marxism of the Soviet Union and postmodernist Israeli academics who don’t bother to protest their government’s brutal policies (20). Noncognitivism seems intellectually lazy to me as well. I don’t mean to imply that we should not question even our most firmly held convictions and inquire in to the nature of everything in the unending quest for knowledge. I think that sort of “healthy skepticism” is a very good thing. However, I don’t think that naively assuming that there is no moral truth just because people disagree about moral issues is an example of well-reasoned philosophical inquiry.

In this paper we have elucidated a plausible theory of moral objectivism. Moral principles are derived from other foundational, self-evident moral principles. We examined several objections to this theory, namely the argument from disagreement, the is/ought problem, the argument from queerness, and emotivism. On each account, we found the arguments given to be based on false premises or to lead to absurd conclusions. We then examined the numerous negative implications of relativism. We have seen that moral objectivism is the most rational, common sense metaethical position and that its adoption is not only rational, but is also bolstered by several pragmatic arguments.


Notes and References

(1) Since my ethical theory presupposes a priori knowledge, universals, and intrinsic value, some first-order ethical systems will not be compatible with it, such as certain forms of egoism and utilitarianism. [Back]

(2) Those who believe in the supernatural have a convenient answer to moral relativism, namely that right and wrong has a divine mandate. I personally feel that all god concepts except for those of the pantheist variety (which I happen to believe in) fail to stand up to Occam’s razor However, it is hard to conceive of such an impersonal deity serving as a law-giver. I believe that an arguer has saddled himself with a burden of proof that is probably impossible to satisfy when he or she appeals to a personal, supernatural being. [Back]

(3) A good refutation of nominalism can be found in D. M. Armstrong’s Universals: An Opinionated Introduction. [Back]

(4) When I say that a priori knowledge is not gained through sense-perception, I do not mean to imply that it cannot be elicited through sense-perception. In fact, it almost always is. A teacher may show a child two fingers and say “this is two fingers” and then show her that two more fingers makes four fingers. The child now knows that 2 fingers plus 2 fingers equals 4 fingers, not the general principle 2+2=4. That has to be arrived at through reason. Incidentally, 2 pairs of particulars does not always equal 4 in the real world. Two cups of water will not equal four cups of water when poured together with two other cups of water, since water is partially miscible. This is not a refutation of mathematics, in my view. Empiricist epistemology would seem to indicate that it is though, which is why believe any serious philosophy must be at least a form of minimal rationalism.[Back]

(5) David O. Brink, Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1989) pp. 100-143. [Back]

(6) I don’t believe that coherentism and correspondence are mutually exclusive. If one accepts, as I do, Brand Blanshard’s view that all rational thought proceeds on the postulate that reality is really one single, overarching, coherent, intelligible system, it becomes less clear whether the proper theory of truth should be called “coherence” or “correspondence”, depending on how we define those respective terms. [Back]

(7) One possible reply would be to resort to a Sartrean/Husserlean view of consciousness. Namely, to be conscious is to be conscious of something. Consciousness itself has no content and is purely transparent. It is dependent on its object. This would avoid absolute skepticism because it affords the possibility of direct or “naive” realism. This, of course, is unacceptable to the moral relativist since we clearly are conscious of moral principles. The moral skeptic would have to argue that we are in fact conscious of something else when we think we are conscious of moral principles, but this path of argumentation would be quite difficult. [Back]

(8) David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (Penguin Classics, 1989), pp. 501-527. [Back]

(9) Many moral realists, such as David O. Brink (mentioned earlier) do not accept the validity of the is/ought dichotomy. Their reasons for rejecting it are plausible, but too difficult to enter in to here. [Back]

(10) G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge University Press, 1971). [Back]

(11) A. N. Prior, Papers in Logic and Ethics (London: Duckworth, 1976). [Back]

(12) Michael Huemer, March 1996: Why I’m Not An Objectivist (home.sprynet.com/~owl1/rand.htm). [Back]

(13) The Aymara language uses trivalent logic. Rather than having the typical true and false values of Boolean logic, there is a third value for propositions that are indeterminate. This sort of thing is rare, however. It is also somewhat interesting to point out in this context that Chomskyan linguistics, if true, imply that we have an innate “language faculty” that compels a child to acquire a language.[Back]

(14) G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge University Press, 1971). [Back]

(15) J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), pp. 44, 59, 73-76. [Back]

(16) J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), p. 38. [Back]

(17) W. D. Ross, The Foundations of Ethics (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1939), pp. 262. [Back]

(18) H. A. Prichard, “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” in Moral Obligation and Duty and Interest (London, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), pp. 8. [Back]

(19) G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge University Press, 1971). [Back]

(20) Ran HaCohen, March 2002: Postmodernism Alive and Killing (antiwar.com/hacohen/h031602.html). [Back]

An excellent essay. I disagree with just about everything you’ve said but that doesn’t take away from its excellence. I don’t want to make HVD angry but consider this a prologue post, I’ll be back with more substantive comments.

If I were grading the paper, I’d give it an A.

Thanks. I look forward to hearing your objections. This is a position that I have only recently adopted, so I’m not very confident in my defense of it. I will appreciate any criticism you can give.

Woohoo! Another moral debate, love em. Very good essay, I enjoyed it thoroughly. But as Brad said, doesn’t mean I agree with it (though sounds like I agree with more of it than him :slight_smile: ! I’ve read it thorugh twice, but I’m a bit poorly and my brain is refusing to get into gear properly, so if I miss the point, tell me! I’ll just be adding a running commentary rather than try and write a coherent essay in reply as that just sounds like too much work and I got 6 essays to write this semester already :slight_smile: A word of warning JustinFelux, I tend to attack arguments I don’t like with much gusto, but I’m not attacking you!

A couple of openers. I do believe in moral objectivity. I just see some holes in your arguments, and you seem to believe in some sort of intuitive rule morality, which I don’t, I veer towards a modified Humean Utilitarianism, so I see some arguments of yours as invalid. Also, you refer to Locke in your essay, I thought he quite adequately refuted innate ideas, which in my eyes are your “self-evident moral principles”. Your essay seems to rely quite heavily on these, and less on defending moral objectivism as a whole.

Firstly I’d like everyone to remember what kind of person (most of) you are. You’re from a liberal democratic country that has several concepts “embedded” in your brains, doctorines that you must not confuse for intuitive fact. A few examples are Human Rights, the wrongness of killing (which has been advancing to such extremes as vegetarianism, animal rights, positive discrimination etc. which would have been considered ludicrous 100 years ago) and other such concepts. We can be like this because we’re all safe and cushy in our central heated homes with no threat to liberty or to our lifestyles.

(Possibly, depending on who you are) intuitive refutations:

  1. Two possible for this. If they’d commited an equally heinous crime. Or if the [false] convinction lead to thousands of lives being saved (a setup to stop race riots, for example).

  2. (Know this requires a bending of imagination, but it is intuitive). Killing all vampires. I could go into a very complex and far out idea of a race that carried a highly infectuous deadly disease, but not deadly just to their (small compared to rest) ethnic group. Fill in the details yourself. And there’s no difference between genocide and most forms of mass murders, it’s always that they’re from the ‘other’ side. Why did you not use mass murder in the first place? Genocide is just a convention of naming “nationality or ethnic group”, why not religious group? It’s a line in the sand of murder, not really distinguishable. And murder in itself, even mass murder, is not always morally reprehensible. I assume you already saw the difficulties defending that position or you’d have used murder as your example.

  3. Only if that happiness doesn’t come at a price, and it depends whose happiness. Hitler’s?

  4. Is just plain maths, based on the above premise.

  5. Well, virtue and vice are vague concepts anyway, but kindness is not always good, if it’s misplaced, and over kindness can be a vice if it leads to someone being exploited for their kindness!

So I do doubt those statements, not most of the time, but in certain circumstances. And I hope I’m rational :slight_smile: And as we’re talking about moral objectitivity they have to always be true or false to hold as intuitive. Note I’m not using an “Idiot’s Veto” here, there’s a difference, what I’m doing is showing that the above premises are not universals.

Couldn’t agree more. In fact this argument is wholly irrelevant to a moral objectivist, as it is against very premise of moral objectivism.

Slightly missed the point of the skeptics question, the problem is defining right (or good) and bad (or wrong) (this is the only point that skeptics may contend). Then you devise the theory to define “X is wrong”. The “X is wrong” won’t be under attack. What is meant by “wrong” will be their target, and it is a valid target. How you define good or bad seriously affects your moral philosophy, I prefer the pleasure/pain distinction, which I do not think is indefensible as pain is always bad and pleasure is always good.

Confused example, the Christian either thinks that sex is wrong outside marriage, but that sex within marriage is fine (so his position is not one of paradox), or he actually thinks that sex is wrong, and though he may gain some pleasure from it, he derives more pain from the idea that he’s done something immoral. Otherwise they’re empty words, and the same goes for any example you throw at this. A moral belief has to be that. Either they suffer for breaking it or they don’t believe it!

Surely good is emotional? You can only use true, false or possible without emotion. (can any other judgements be used with out emotion? I’d like to hear if so, I’'ve been wracking my clogged brain but it’s not yielding any other answers)

Careful with political statements like that. You never know who is marking your essay, or how it will swing the [general] reader against you.

I have always thught that when you get to a conclusion it’s time for you to start standing up for yourself. There’s no we about it, you think that, not me, I’ve not been convinced :wink: I tend to use “I” when I reach the conclusion of an essay, but “we” in the rest of the essay. But I’m not a very good essay writer, so you probably shouldn’t listen to me!

To be honest I don’t know that much about moral relativism, but there are those here that believe it so I’ll leave any other arguments they think you haven’t considered to them!

Utilitarianism is a system of first-order ethics. I did not talk about first-order ethics. Utilitarianism would be compatible with a broad spectrum of metaethical standpoints. Even relativism, some would argue.

It is true that John Locke thought we are born with tabula rasa minds, but that is not incidental to the argument I was making. The only thing I said about innate ideas was a fleeting thought about Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theories. Moral principles are not innate by any means. They are no more innate than logical truths or mathematical axioms. It requires reason to discern their veracity.

This is true. However I think you’ll find most moral sentiments transcend barriers of ethnicity and wealth and so on.
on who you are) intuitive refutations:

These are not objections to general principle. Of course you can go out of your way to find exceptions. But the fact that in certain contexts cerain moral truths would be altered is not a problem for their objectivity or the validity of the intuitive principle. Just like 1+1 does not always equal 2. This applies to all the objections you raised.

No, you are not using an Idiot’s Veto. You are demonstrating exceptions to the rule and falsely assuming that these exceptions undermine the rule.

You’re right. I think any judgement has at least a degree of emotional sentiment attached to it. I thought this at the time of writing that too, it must have been a lapse. However, the amount of emotional sentiment attached to something like “I think the weather outside is good” is probably very small. I think borderline cases like this make any prescriptivist or emotivist theory seem a bit awkward. That is not the only objection to such theories though.

My politics will inevitably get me in trouble, especially if I become a teacher as I hope to. I never will stop speaking my mind though.

A lot of philosophers use “we”. I used to read a lot of Russell, it was a habit I initially picked up from him.

A nice piece.

I agree with your idea of intuitive morality, but why intuitive?

We share a common humanity. I cannot dehumanize you without to that extent undergoing dehumanization myself. It is in my best interest to validate your humanity for in doing so, I validate my own.

The same is true for all life, since men and animals share a common biology.

I have trouble with your rejection of moral relativism.

According to the US Supreme Court, no right is absolute since any right, extended indefinitely, will always conflict with some other right. As Chief Justice Holmes pointed out, the First Amendment does not allow a prankster to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

In my opinion, this same relativism extends to morality.

It is 1944. You live in occupied France. Nazi storm troopers knock on your door and demand to know whether you are hiding Jews. You are, but you say, “No.”

While it is wrong to lie, it is “more wrong” to deliver up Jews to certain death. Dr. Thomas A. Harris called this problem, “the dilemma of comparative difficulties.”

The fact that moral idiots abuse relativism (“freedom is freedom from morality”) is an objection to moral idiots, not relativism.

A reasonable act is a moral act. All sin originates in the single sin of not thinking.

Thank you for a well-written, knowledgeable and thought-provoking essay. I enjoyed it.

If most of ethics is a set of strongly held derived disagreements then isn’t your objective moral position useless in resolving these disagreements? Could you explain to me the usefulness of a moral system that can’t help answer a basic moral question about the death penalty. And if it is a helper, but ultimately not the deciding factor - that is, if the relative answer is always gets the final word - then is objectivism really at odds with relativism at all? Are they not both useful in the end in dealing with the complexisites of moral questions. But maybe you’re not opposing moral relativism.

I’m not too sure if you finished your second argument because you ended it in agreement with the point that you were supposed to be refuting. First you say:

But you are talking about morality not mathematics and logic. Morality has a decidedly non-mathematical, non-logical basis. Then you say:

This seems to be saying that morals are inherently different from mathematoics and therefore we cannot not rely on objective moral principles as we do on mathematical principles. Am I misunderstanding your refutation of moral relativism?

The only thing absolute in morality is that each society has one. The only thing in common among societies is that their specific morality (mores and laws) is used to order the society. The specifics are random and arbitrary. Murder could exist in a well-ordered society.

If you’re going to develop a system of objective morality without relying on mysticism, it has to be based off some assumption that can be assumed to be true for every human being living (since the dead have no use for ethics or philosophy).

So far, all I’ve ever been able to come up with is this:
Remaining alive is desirable.

In my judgment, this can be safely assumed to be true for every living individual because any individual who truly desires death (as opposed to, say, fleeting thoughts of “I’d rather be dead than wear those clothes!” or “My life sucks, let me die” said right after a traumatic event but does not actually reflect the speaker’s true wishes) will shortly find a way to terminate his life and, as I said above, the dead have no use for ethics or philosophy.

So what can be concluded from that statement? Quite a bit.

Dear Justin,

I thank you for your essay as it led me to re-examine some of the foundation of my own position. It is beyond my ability to evaluate your work in the context of the historical discussions in which it is situated, but I would like to share the bits that interested me and the reactions I’ve had to them.

The question that stood out for me was this:
–Given my “postmodernist” stand on the nature of truth (e.g., they are imperfect correspondences, pragmatic, finite perspectives on infinitely complex realities); and
–Given my contention that EVEN mathematical truths constitute constrained, limited descriptions of reality; and
–Given my contention that moral statements are different from statements of fact (in being tied to persons and their preferences rather than being attempts to objectively mirror reality)
–How can I claim to distinguish between the “context-based” and “relative” truths of mathematics and the “context-based” and “relative” truths of morality? What defines the scale from subjective to objective, if it is not a matter of “fact vs. opinion”? Can one still have “subjective vs. objective”?
I remain satisfied that my position is defensible, but it seemed a good challenge, even if it was not exactly the trajectory you were pursuing.

To explain why I find my position workable seems to call, however, for a re-statment of the issues at stake. As is so often the question, different positions arrive not just from different conclusions, but from different ways of approaching the problem. This will require me to de-construct your position, which I’m afraid my seem unfriendly. Do keep my respect and gratitude in mine.

From my perspective, your discussion seems to rely on an approach to understanding the world that (generally) priviledges logic and objective fact. While you carefully decline to make a great many of the strongest claims about the existence of objective fact, and your arguments do not, I believe, rely on any belief in objective fact, this approach seems evident to me throughout. I won’t (at the moment) try to make my case with quotes. I’ll just say that your discussion seemed to me to assume that what we’re talking about is a scale of how much certainty we can have about things: from perfect, absolute, universal truth at the top to baseless whim at the other. The debate, then, is about where moral judgments fit on this scale. Are there properties of moral judgments which mean they can’t ascend to the level of mathematical fact? I think your whole discussion implies this approach, and as I try to fit my position into your arguments, I find that approach gets in the way.

Let’s say your approach looks like this:

[size=117]Perfect Truth[/size]______
|
| --Mathematics (supported by logic)
|
| --Science (supported by proof)
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|
|
|
|
| --Belief in God (supported by faith and experience)
|
| --Personal Desires (entirely subjective)
|
|
|[size=117]Crazy Talk[/size]_______

Now, when you want to place “moral judgments”, you see the problem as whether to classify them with personal desires or with math and science. I don’t see the problem that way. I might find some use for a system like the scale above, but I wouldn’t put moral judgments on it anywhere. They seem like an entirely different issue.

How do I distinguish moral judgments from other types of belief? What activities seem like moral work? It seems to me that the common threads in what we call moral (leaving out “following gods will” as I am working within a post-theistic framework) are that moral judgments involve commitment to some type of behavior as opposed to some other. One wants to do A but has a moral value that one should do B. It makes little sense to say I have made a moral committment to not eating mud, or to breathing air. I only have use for moral commitments that constrain me from doing something I might want to do or require me to do something I might not otherwise get done. Morals are goal-oriented. I commit to doing some things and not doing others because I have a plan for my life.

Now I realize that for people who believe that morals are “just out there” it is not necesarily the case that they are goal-oriented. My explanation of their position would be that when there was a god, he had a plan for mankind, and morals involved following that plan. Morals, then, seemed to be just out there, but this relied on some other will having given us a purpose in life.

Describing my commitments as part of my plan of action for life doesn’t strike me as related to evaluating what I understand about the world (the truth scale). Rather, these sorts of judgments seem to need their own scale: from matters of taste to those absolute laws (for me) which I must always uphold. My moral scale might look like this:


[size=134] Mark’s Values[/size]

[size=117]Absolute Law[/size]
|_____Save my daughter and son
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|_____Be a good dad
|_____Be a good husband
|_____Keep my job
|_____Be respectable member of community
|_____Finish my Ph.D.
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|
|
|
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|_____Maintain my Website
|_____Don’t get speeding tickets
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|
|
|_____Play Pharoah by Sierra
|_____Chocolate or vanilla?
|
[size=117]Matters of Taste[/size]___


For me, then, your discussion of how to place moral laws on a scale of certainty and objectivity doesn’t make sense. Your discussion of Hume’s is/ought gap doesn’t show an understanding of this distinction. You still seem to be stuck on the question of where to place value on the truth scale. You seem to assume that if we can’t give value judgments a respectable place on the the truth scale, then we’ve devalued them. You appear to rescue them from this insult by showing their basis in “self-evident truths”, but the point is not (well, I haven’t read Hume) that value judgments are not as good as true statments. It’s that they’re a different thing, quite necessary and laudable in their own right.

Mathematics, on the other hand, is not in any way in competition for a place on the value scale. Mathematics serves to describe some relationships. It does not involve commitment to some behavior or other. It is doing the same thing that science and creation myths try to do: describe the world. Morals don’t try to describe the world. Again, they involve committments to some set of behaviors which are preferred in relation to some plan, and in relation to some subject the plan serves.

I really liked your arguments along the lines of practical considerations early in the paper. I put a star by this:
“We (especially since we are social animals) will inevitabley have to make value judgments at some point or another in time. We could no sooner refrain from doing so than we could refrain from believing in the external world.”
While you didn’t give it the weight of proof (“for bolstering purposes”), I found it a powerful argument.

A similar case could be made for the belief that tables and sidewalks are “really solid”, not made up of atoms with spaces in between. We have to believe in solidity. It turns out, however, that there are things (e.g., “cleavage”-- the only one I understand) that we can understand better when we set aside our necesarily simplistic views and think of sidewalks and tables in an new way. Are tables really solid? Yes. Are there really atoms and spaces in there? Yes.

Which is to say, I suppose, that in many ways there are objective moral facts, but that in other ways there are not.

Finally, I didn’t like your concluding appeals to practicality, suggesting that moral relativism should be rejected because it leads to disorder. I agree that for most people moral values are treated as real and objective. (I believe this is a consequence of our theistic history. It is an error to be corrected.)

I might agree that it is best for our society that most people believe in objective moral facts, and even in God and an afterlife. After all, if people were ready to face a world without God and moral facts, wouldn’t they have already worked it out? Still, here I think we’re talking about how can we best describe what really happens-- not what would it be convenient for people to believe.

It has been a pleasure to speak with you. I hope something here has been of interest to you as well.

Mark

Excellent essay, Justin, though I also disagree.

I think Mark said it best with this-

"Mathematics, on the other hand, is not in any way in competition for a place on the value scale. Mathematics serves to describe some relationships. It does not involve commitment to some behavior or other. It is doing the same thing that science and creation myths try to do: describe the world. Morals don’t try to describe the world. Again, they involve committments to some set of behaviors which are preferred in relation to some plan, and in relation to some subject the plan serves. "

There is another way to understand this as well. “Morality” isn’t a descriptive entity such as a mathematical formula might be, a moral conclusion cannot be either “true” or “false” because moral actions aren’t describing anything with a quantitative value. That my action is “moral” or “immoral” depends on the consequence of an evaluation that is contextual, unlike the conditions required to make one and one equal two when added together. The truth of a mathematical proposition is discrete and an unconditional fact, as there could never be the possibility that under certain circumstances one and one might equal three. Whereas a “moral” action can be both “good” and “bad” depending on the context in which it takes place.

One may adopt various positions such as Utilitarianism or Pragmatism in which morality may be defended accordingly, but in doing so one makes “morality,” as a subject in and by itself, contingent and dependent on the premise of the position which is taken. Example- Utilitarianism would justify a quarintine of a single diseased individual for the greater good of many individuals, or, the abortion of a fetus to avoid the unfortunate circumstances in which that child would be subjected to if it were allowed to be born. The question here is not “what is “moral” in and by itself,” but what is “moral” under “these circumstances.” If one could present a situation where a mathematical fact were conditional then we could approach morality as we approach mathematics, with objective certainty.

What makes morality objective is the fact that interaction between individuals is inevitable, a fundamental structure in human existence. But not that any one act takes priority over another so that we can say that this act is “good” in the same way that one plus one equals two.

"It is wrong to punish someone for a crime she did not commit
Genocide is wrong
Happiness is preferable to suffering
If it is wrong for one person to suffer X, it is wrong for two people to suffer X
Kindness is a virtue and not a vice

Is there really any rational person who doubts any of these statements? I have been careful not to include statements that are merely my opinion, such as “capital punishment is unjust”. It may be argued that certain moral propositions like “abortion is murder” cannot be deduced with the same level of certainty as the principles stated above, but I do not see this as an objection to intuitionism any more than I see Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle as an objection to physics or the fact that the continuum hypothesis is undecidable as an objection to set theory. It may be the case that certain ethical facts are unknowable or have equally plausible alternatives. However, most ethical judgements are derivative, not self-evident. The axioms of geometry may be self-evident, but most would agree that the fact that the distance between two points can be expressed by the equation ((x2-x1)+(y2-y1))^.5 is not exactly self-evident. It is a derivative fact, but still certainly objective. Philosophers have historically regarded mathematics as the most objective discipline in existence. The multiplication table in particular is presented as a prime example of an objective, indubitable set of truths. After some reflection, I believe it becomes clear that ethics and mathematics, though they differ dramatically in their subject-matter, are not very dissimilar at all in their methodology. As I said before, ethical judgements are both subject-dependent and context-dependent. Many other objective bodies of knowledge are as well. In mathematics, for example, 1+1=2 in the context of a numbering system that is base 3 or greater (in a base 2 or “binary” numbering system, 1+1=10). Water boils at 100 degrees celcius in the context of sea-level elevation. These are still objective facts, regardless of their context-dependent nature. Likewise, certain value judgements may be subject-dependent. "

-Justin

Yeah, this is damn good. I have seen the same demonstration, with different examples, by a host of Kantians at another forum long ago.

Especially this nice touch-

"Philosophers have historically regarded mathematics as the most objective discipline in existence. The multiplication table in particular is presented as a prime example of an objective, indubitable set of truths. After some reflection, I believe it becomes clear that ethics and mathematics, though they differ dramatically in their subject-matter, are not very dissimilar at all in their methodology. "

You had given examples with the binary numbering system where the value of the number was determined by the “context” in which it was regarded. That they were derivative facts, not self evident, but nonetheless “objective,” and, since, “morality” is also contextual, they must both therefore be equally legitimate. I must disagree. It is not a similiar methodology I don’t think. The parameters for the logical possibility of a coherent equation already exist, they are “a priori” and self evident, I agree with Kant(I apologize for being so harsh earlier), but not in the same way as Kant tried to prove the point. No matter how we arrange a symbology of numbers, if there can be a quantitative plurality to begin with, then the possibility for a summation of individual entities, other than the self, is present. The intitial fact is the distinction of the “being” other than “that” being, other than that being, and so on. The objective truth of mathematics is ontological and absolutely necessary for experience. Later, as we compose systems of arithmetic, do we notice the relativity of “numbers,” but contexts are not needed to discern the truth and fact of the initial division between self and object. It is here that I don’t think that because of the relative nature of the systems in which “numbers” are employed as symbols that are “contextual,” does that automatically mean that since morality is contextual as well, it is classified with mathematics.

It is the method, I think that is different. Examine the nature of these two types of knowledge- mathematical truths and ethical truths. Strip all the logical positivism from experience and look at it raw…

How do I come about the decision that under any empirical circumstances I would act imperatively when the “imperative” is changing before my eyes? If there is to be a “moral fact/truth” about a human action it must exist with or without reason and rationale; one says- “through the use of reason do we decide that he should die, that same reason we use to determine that he should not die…under “these” circumstances.” What? “Objective” means precisely unchangeable and absolute. Obviously the item if knowledge with which you come to the conclusion of via “reason” isn’t an objective “truth” if the empirical world that you apply the “reason” to is changing structure. We must first determine what “human” is or is not before we can assure ourselves that we know what it is that we should “do,” how to act, what “ought” we do. Moral “truths,” unlike the the contextual differences of the mathematical systems we use, do not have an infrastructure or parametric limitation. These kinds of evaluations involve “intentions,” which I understand to mean- an ensemble of motives/ends which are congruent with a “future” project. Example, I do not steal because I believe that I should obtain material property by buying it because I believe that it would be detrimental to the human economy because I believe that we should propagate our existence because I believe that we are “good” because I believe that our existence is satisfying because I believe…ad infinitum. Never is a course of action taken because one has determined that one should not, no matter what, commit to the contrary. Think about your example with the mathematical system. The value of the number was relative to the values of the other numbers, but never can a value be determined without establishing a parameter. If these limitations are set, the value of whatever number would be “a priori” within that set and would be given to reason, if we are using the Pathagorean theorum than a square, under any circumstances, will be composed of four right 90 degree angles, but the “value” of a moral action is not determined from a standpoint of absolute knowledge of what it is that that action is seeking to achieve or maintain, such as the coherency of the theorum and the necessity of these mathematical values. Understand? We do not act because we “know” what action should be taken, whether or not this is compliant with “reason” isn’t even the important part. It is the distinction between the sources from which we consent to truths…how we decide that one plus one equals two, and, that not stealing is/ought “good” that is of interest. Ethical actions are deeds performed for a “reason” that is neither “a priori” or objective because the elements involved in the determination of the value of the acts are completely different in experience than in the experiencing of mathimatical concepts.

I am honestly not trying to ramble here. My objection is to the claim that moral behavior can be determined with the same certainty as a mathematical truth. I do not think that because numbers can be referenced differently that morality, because it is referenced differently as well, is now with the qualifications of logic.

Oops, thought I was logged in. Excuse me.

That post was my monster. I take the blame for it.

“It is wrong to punish someone for a crime she did not commit
Genocide is wrong
Happiness is preferable to suffering
If it is wrong for one person to suffer X, it is wrong for two people to suffer X
Kindness is a virtue and not a vice”

I want to elaborate further on my point about how a set of moral propositions is dependent on assumed premises. With the first statement we must already assume that what is called a “crime” is reasonable, what “punishment” can or cannot reasonably be, how it is administrated, etc. So really we’re only saying that IF there is something such as “crime” then there is something such as “punishment,” and that there can be such a thing as excessive “punishment” which can be “wrong.” A lot of other “truths” must be determined previously before we admit to the obviousness of the statement. Let’s say that it were neither right or wrong to punish her for a crime she didn’t commit because there simply wasn’t any such thing as “crime,” as “punishment,” or objective right or wrong. I don’t need to admit that because we agree on terms like “crime” and “punishment” that there is a possibility for “wrong” punishment and that, if so, that fact makes the statement true on its own accord. I am simply saying that the truth value of the statement relies on an “if” scenario, a premise. I don’t deny that there can be values created by man that can be called “right” or “wrong,” but only that the status of these truths is not objective like mathematics. “If” there is crime and someone commits it, there will probably be something called “punishment” which will be dealt by authority. Given these conditions, there might arise a case where a person was “wrongly” convicted, and we would all admit to the “truth” of the evaluation that this persons punishment was unjust. But all this admission relies on us assuming that we’ve got everything else perfectly defined and figured out before we make a judgement, a judgement that is subjective from the start…a consensus at most, a collection of individual judgements and agreements. We don’t decipher among the decisions that bring us to the conclusion that there is a such thing as “stealing” like we would decipher among the numbers provided to compute a mathematical equation.

I know it’s wrong, you know its wrong, but niether of us arrive at this conclusion by necessity. I am held spellbound by this paradox. No eidetic reduction will save me now.

Let’s move on.

“Genocide is wrong”

Well, what are “genes?” What is an “ethnic?” What is a “nation?” What does skin pigment have to do with the fact that people like to kill other people? These are all contingencies. Isn’t the statement really “Killing is wrong?”

“Happiness is preferable to suffering”

I know some people who are so religious they abstain from sex. These people seem miserable to me, yet they will claim that they are “happy” to suffer, or even that abstaining from sex is certainly not a form of suffering or discontentedness. It will depend on how “suffering” is defined to validate that statement.

“If one shouldn’t suffer, than two shouldn’t suffer.”

Hmm… That’s a hard one. Okay, I got an idea. What if a person were dying and needed an organ transplant from two different people. There was one person there, but because it would not be possible for that one person to save him alone, he should not suffer by performing a useless transplant. Two should suffer precisely because one shouldn’t suffer, not vice-versa, and attempt to save the dying person.

“Kindness is a virtue and not a vice”

I don’t think so. Kindness is to closely related to weakness for me to give it any thought. There should be a sense of sternness about oneself, when we give in kindness to others, it should be with expectation. We give with a kick and not with pity. Is it not doubly wrong and tactless to say “here, my friend, this is for you, because you are incapable and powerless?” My gifts are not insults and pity. Kindness hints to me of an overabundance of leniency. Like not giving someone a deadline for the payback of a loan, or allowing the jobless drunk on the street corner a six dollar meal for free three times a day, not to mention a fifty dollar pair of Nikes for helping the staff sweep the curch floor after the donation banquet, or forgiving one’s spouse for cheating “a second time,” I could go on and on. Compassion and kindness is not always productive. Especially when exploitation is inherent in animal interaction.

I heard a quote a long time ago at the beginning of a movie which was something like-

A bird will fall frozen and dead off of a limb without ever having felt sorry for itself.

This is a masterpiece and I’d tatoo it to my ass if I had an ink gun.

The essay is awesome, Justin, and I wish you were around to correspond with me if not point out and/or help me with what ever errors you think I am making.

I hold views rather similar to yours. Having read the responses that you have received here, I can assure you that your argument is pretty much unscathed. (None of these comments is on the same level as the original in my judgment.) Congratulations.

Great, Freddy, then you can make yourself useful and explain this part:

You’ve got money … well, enough to purchase a collection of essays on phenomenology anyway. Buy Paul Ricoeur’s recent book where “phenomenology” is explained to you in very accessible terms. You’ll get it then.

Justin, you’ve got nothing to worry about. :smiley:

Be away for a while, but I’ll definitely be back sometime. … :sunglasses: