Why there is no objective morality

A lot of the philosophers and thinkers I respect are coming around to the view that there can be an “objective” morality, which I take to mean this: rational consideration of the world’s facts will reveal criteria whereby things can be seen objectively as either right or wrong. It may be hard to get those facts, but once you do the moral path would, it seems, be clear.

I still don’t accept this, and for the reason that, unlike science, morality also includes “add ons”.  That is, after you divine the consequences of any action, one still has to add on the stipulation that those consequences comport with some standard of “rightness” or “wrongness.”  Now people like Sam Harris claim that those standards are objective, too (his is “does an act increase general well being?”) but I don’t think it’s so simple, and neither do other philosophers.

In contrast, science has no add-ons. Once you find out that birds descended from dinosaurs, nothing else need be added to make this an objective truth (provisional truth, of course!).

To see the problem of objective morality, consider this question:

“Is it right or wrong to eat meat, even if the animals are humanely raised?”

How do you answer this, even using the criterion of “well being”? Whose well being is being assessed? Humans, animals, or both? And how do you trade off human with animal well-being? Is it immoral to kill a mosquito just because it bites you? What if the mosquito lives in a place where such creatures are disease-free? Does your annoyance trump the life of an animal? It doesn’t for the Jains.

Any criterion of “moral action,” including “well being,” will end up so nebulous that in many cases it becomes useless—as in the above.

Let me hasten to add that I agree with Sam’s view that morality—although I prefer to avoid the terms “moral or immoral”—will nearly always jibe with what increases general well being. Like him, I am a consequentialist, and favor those actions that increase well being.

Where we differ is that I don’t think the criterion of “well being” is an objective one. It is a subjective choice, and can’t be chosen based on a scientific study of nature. (In contrast, the molecular structure of benzene can be objectively discerned.) And “well being” is sufficiently nebulous that it can be stretched to cover everything, in which case it becomes useless.  Is it moral to torture a prisoner if there is a 1/1000 chance that he will reveal where a bomb is planted that will kill 100,000 people? You could argue, based on well being, that torture is not only mandated, but required, in this case. But one could also argue that “well being” includes the structure of a society, and it’s not good to create a society in which anyone can be tortured.

I’m just working out some thoughts here, so don’t take this as a final pronouncement.  But I still have difficulty in seeing how “morality” can be objective in any sense.  Once you decide on a criterion, of course, then all else follows. But it is the case that “well being” always comports with what our notion of morality is? And if it doesn’t, should we revise our notion of morality to bring it in line with “well being”?  Or, if you agree that morality is objective, do you have some criterion other than well being?

But I emphasize again, that, as a consequentialist and determinist, I don’t favor the notion of “moral responsibility,” which I see as inimical to needed legal reforms. I would favor, instead, using the term “actions that are either good or bad for society.” This still leads to punishment on the grounds of keeping bad people out of society, as well as rehabilitating them and deterring others. But it eliminates the notion of retributive punishment, which in my view adds nothing to society.

Finally, it’s clear that under the standard of “general well being,” nearly all of us would be acting morally by giving a third of our income to the poor and starving people of the world.  Yet we don’t. Are we then immoral? Or are we going to selfishly argue that well being is actually maximized if we’re able to keep as much of our money as we want, and bestow its largesse on our family and friends?

409 Comments

  1. Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:12 am | Permalink

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  2. gbjames
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    IMO, if you are going to make the “no objective morality” case you need to take on Harris’ health analog. Harris’ makes the argument that morality is like health. Nobody (?) has a problem with saying that good health can be described objectively. Yet the same sorts of problems exist in that domain. Does good health include being free from parasites? Why can we not talk about morality and health as equally objective?

    • DryEraser
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:40 am | Permalink

      One difference between health and morality may be that health can be viewed as something that happens to an individual while morality is relations between individuals or beings. So maybe I need to sacrifice a leg in an amputation to stay healthy (alive), but that skin of my back not someone else’s. But what if my leglessness then affects the well-being of my tribe or family? What if I become a burden?

      What if a segment of society decides that the long run well-being of individuals requires that certain traits or beliefs should be excised from society, by force or law (think cultural revolution) .

      What if, according to some arbiter with force, ushering a peak of well-being (utopia) requires a temporarily “tyranny of the proletariat” or some such valley in the moral landscape?

      This topic is way hard!

      • Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:10 am | Permalink

        Besides which, health is surely a subset of well-being. And, conceptually, optimising (physical) health might not optimise (psychological) well-being. Which is why dieting is hard.

        /@

      • Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:53 am | Permalink

        You are confusing two things: deciding WHAT is moral with deciding whether there IS a morality. The answer to your question is that using tyranny to effect a means is generally not a good way to conserve moral principles. On some rare occasions it would be. You are in fact presenting evidence that subjective morality is not moral at all. But your argument does nothing against Sam Harris’ objective moral criteria argument.

      • JT
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:01 am | Permalink

        Yes, and because morality deals with a larger and more complex system it is harder to measure that sort of well-being. However, morality,like health, can, in theory, be measured objectively. The problem is that currently we don’t have the ability to measure well-being with any sort of precision—at the moment. I think it’s premature to throw our hands in the air and say that because it is so difficult to measure well-being we will never be able to do it. I like to consider it a science-in-waiting.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:13 am | Permalink

          Well being can and is measured. It is why we have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which recognizes that there are basic needs that humans should have met; the same can be said for The Geneva Convention.

          Looking at what these rights/conventions guarantee reveals what a society values and someone can be seen as well in a society if those rights are in place.

          However, they still are not objective. If these rights were codified in earlier times (medieval, Roman), they might reflect different values (maybe they would not be egalitarian for example) and in this way they are not reflective of an objective morality, but instead reflective of what society considers well being.

          • Posted July 24, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

            I wouldn’t say that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention are actually measuring well-being…they are attempts to secure a certain minimum degree of well-being for everyone, though their success is variable. However, they are certainly objective in the sense that there is a definitive phenomenology that describes all the consequences of their enactment, albeit far beyond our ability to follow and measure with any kind of precision. Then again, we can’t describe more than the simplest of quantum interactions mathematically, because the system becomes FAR too complex…nevertheless, such interactions are entirely objective.

            If ever we are able to determine, with clarity and in a useful way, all the impacts on human well being for any number of individuals, of any particular rule, regulation, action, etc., then we will of course have to decide how we want to distribute that well-being, which effect we seek. Perhaps that is what might be considered subjective, but if so, it is no more subjective than any engineering problem: You have to decide what you want done in order to choose WHAT to do the make it happen.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted July 24, 2013 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

              The UN measures against their standards of human rights all the time and this is why they can create lists like Countries by Human Development Index. Using the UN’s criteria, institutions like Amnesty International can measure violations to them.

              Moreover, these criteria are not in themselves objective. If the UN existed in Europe during the mediaeval period, they may think that protection was different between a serf and a lord (ie: rights would not be universal or inherent).

              Furthermore, pre Geneva convention, it would be acceptable to commit genocide (and lots were committed).

              So, I cannot buy that these measures are objective. They can be standard but they are not objective as they reflect the values of the society at the time.

    • Gary W
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:31 am | Permalink

      Health is objective because it’s a measure of functionality. To be in poor health is to have a mental or physical impairment of some kind. But there is no objective measure of morality. That’s the naturalistic fallacy. You can’t get an ought from an is. Defining morality in terms of “well-being” or “flourishing” or somesuch simply raises the question of why we ought to be well or why we ought to flourish.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:59 am | Permalink

        “Health is objective because it’s a measure of functionality. ”

        I can’t function as the Red Sox second baseman so therefore I am not healthy.

        Hmmm.

        • Gary W
          Posted July 24, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

          I’m guessing your comment is intended as a joke, but if not, ability-to-play-Major-League-Baseball is not the kind of functionality I’m talking about.

          • NewEnglandBob
            Posted July 24, 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

            No, it not a joke. Functionality is subjective. Your statement fails. It is a qualia.

            • Gary W
              Posted July 24, 2013 at 11:27 am | Permalink

              So in your view, evolution by natural selection, which is all about functionality, is not science but merely subjective belief?

              • Posted July 24, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

                No, because there is a very specific and explicit criterion for natural selection: Being able to reproduce offspring that live long enough to reproduce offspring, that live long enough to reproduce offspring…

                “Health” is much more vague in its specifics, and has many varying degrees…it’s not a binary phenomenon. Well-being is even less sharply defined, but as someone who suffers from depression, I can tell you that you know when you don’t have it, just as you know the difference between food and poison, even if you don’t know the one BEST food, or if there even is such a thing.

              • Gary W
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

                There are degrees of reproductive fitness just as there are degrees of health. If health were not a matter of objective fact, medicine wouldn’t be a science. Illness and disability are forms of dysfunction, diagnosed by objective criteria. Medical treatment restores function.

              • Posted July 25, 2013 at 2:17 am | Permalink

                The more I read, the less I think it’s true that medicine is a science. There might be objective criteria in the sense that there are fixed quantities that we can compare our health against. But those criteria are rather arbitrary and can be conflicting. According to a glucose tolerance test, I’m diabetic. According to a long-term blood glucose level test, I’m pre-diabetic. So, am I diabetic or not?

                /@

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 4:24 am | Permalink

                @Ant,
                Your neither wave nor particle, you are a superposition of quantum diabetic states. How scientific is that?

                I think the problem you are identifying is that our linguistic categories are crude, having sharp boundaries that enforce binary distinctions: well or sick, alive or dead, infected or not infected, etc.

                These questions define a continuum of uncertainty, where uncertainty is high at the margins but low at the extremes.

                The underlying reality is too complex for these crude distinctions to capture, but certainly a great deal of important diagnostic state can be determined by empirical measurements, and logical deduction can proceed from measured effects to an inference of possible causes.

                At the very least there is much about medicine that is scientific, even if our methods are still crude. The answer to the question: “is medicine a science?” has changed over time. It was once a dark art, and today is well on its way to becoming a science.

              • Gary W
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

                The more I read, the less I think it’s true that medicine is a science. There might be objective criteria in the sense that there are fixed quantities that we can compare our health against. But those criteria are rather arbitrary and can be conflicting. According to a glucose tolerance test, I’m diabetic. According to a long-term blood glucose level test, I’m pre-diabetic. So, am I diabetic or not?

                Medicine absolutely qualifies as a science. All sciences involve what you are calling “arbitrary criteria.”

        • Avinash
          Posted October 29, 2013 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

          Again, functionality is objective as well. To you maybe being not as fit as the Red Sox second baseman is alright, but not to an aspiring ball player. Therefore, in the ball player’s eyes, he isn’t healthy (enough).

    • MNb
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

      If health is objective, then why do English physicians prescribe antibiotica so much more often than their German colleagues?

      • Gary W
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

        Because much of medical science, like much of every other science, is unsettled, and because different countries attach different priorities to various aspects of health and health care.

  3. John Hamill
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:19 am | Permalink

    I think you have defined some cases where there is no clear definition of well-being, Jerry. However, as I understand it, Sam Harris has also pointed out similar cases that make navigation around his ‘Moral Landscape’ difficult. He also pointed out though that you can define cases where there is no clear definition of good health … but this does not prevent us from pursuing medical sciences. Similarly, while we can continue to struggle with the difficult edge cases, like some of those you have defined, that should not prevent us from noticing that an objective morality in very many other cases exists.

    • Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:55 am | Permalink

      Even if you can define “well being” objectively (and I think that that concept can indeed be made pretty objective, in terms of what humans prefer), that is still different from an “objective morality”, it just gives you a pragmatic morality rooted in human preferences.

      Any genuine “objective” morality would need to stand apart from any human opinion, desire or preference.

      • John Hamill
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:02 am | Permalink

        Okay Coen. Let’s say I grant you that a scientific “objective morality” must be separated from human preferences … in the same way that quantum mechanics is objectively true, irrespective of whether humans prefer it to be true or otherwise.

        If we limit our definition of morality to a Harris-esque view of human well-being though, can’t we then allow for an “objective morality” of sorts?

        • Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:11 am | Permalink

          Yes, indeed, but that “if” begs the whole question.

          Who decided that advancing “human well being” is what is “moral”?

          For example, tigers might think that anything that advances humans is bad, since it encroaches on tiger territory and drives them to extinction.

          We aren’t really so hubristic as to think that we humans are what “objective” morality is all about are we? This would but humans at the center of the universe in the worst medieval-religious manner.

          And even if it were all about humans, who decides how to aggregate the well beings of different people? If it’s “everyone counts equally”, who decided that? There is no good answer to either of those.

          • John Hamill
            Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:19 am | Permalink

            Fair points Coen … although I would sooner say that there are no simple answers rather than no good answers. For example, animals can be placed on a continuum of sentience, where the well-being of tigers and humans carries more weight than the well-being of amoeba. I fully accept that such broad stroke approaches don’t solve all problems and you could no doubt pretty easily point out more edge cases that are very difficult to deal with. I don’t think that this necessarily renders any discussion of an “objective morality” entirely redundant though.

            • Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:40 am | Permalink

              Who was it who decided that sentience was what “objective” morality was all about? We could equally put all animals on a continuum according to length of nose, and weight according to that!

              There are trillions of galaxies in the universe, and trillions of planets in each of those, and for all we know many of those trillions of trillions of planets have millions of species on them — and yet we’re declaring that “objective” morality is all about what happens to us here on Earth??

              Sure, what happens to us is all-important for *our* *subjective* moral feelings, but why would we even begin to declare that “objective”, unless we’re medieval religious philosophers?

              • John Hamill
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:47 am | Permalink

                So if I understand your view correctly Coen, it is not legitimate for us to discuss an objective morality that promotes the welfare of sentient creatures on earth, as the non-sentients (rocks, clouds, etc.) along with the as yet unidentified extra-terrestrials would be excluded? Could it be the case that you are extending the scope of the word “morality” a little further than is practical?

              • Posted July 24, 2013 at 7:01 am | Permalink

                There is nothing “objective” about picking out one species, or the species of one planet, and declaring that as the only thing that matters. That’s the epitome of subjective.

                If morality were an “objective” property of the universe it would have to apply equally everywhere, just as laws of physics do.

              • John Hamill
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 7:08 am | Permalink

                How do you objectively know that quantum field theory is correct in the Andromeda Galaxy? There may be areas of space where different laws of physics apply. Your assumption that the laws of physics are an objective property of the entire universe is a subjective assumption, from the perspective of one tiny corner of one galaxy.

                You see. I can play that game too, Coen. Don’t you think that at some point this just becomes wordplay rather than a useful discussion about the world we actually live in?

              • Posted July 24, 2013 at 7:23 am | Permalink

                How do you objectively know that quantum field theory is correct in the Andromeda Galaxy?

                By observing spectra of objects in the Andromeda Galaxy, which tell us that atoms and molecules behave the same there as here.

                There is no “subjective assumption” that laws of physics are the same elsewhere, this is testable by observing the rest of the universe. We observe and then ask “which fits the data better, the laws being the same or the laws being different?”.

                And no, I don’t think this is wordplay.

              • alanchais
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:50 am | Permalink

                Truth is a slave to well-being. Which is to say that anything you can say about the value of knowing the truth (e.g. it’s so interesting, so useful, so beautiful, etc.) translates into a claim about the well-being of conscious creatures.

              • Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

                *Valuing* truth is a slave to well-being, but that doesn’t mean that truth is.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:38 am | Permalink

        “Pragmatic”, good perspective!

        Though I don’t think “realmoral”, like “realpolitik”, is either decidedly objective or subjective. It maximizes resource use/well being/whatever the constraints lets you get away with that is beneficial to society. Mainly, for an outsider, it weasels against constraints. =D

        I aim to be a “realmoral” individual, akin to a “realpolitik” politician, from now on.

      • Kiwi Dave
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

        “Any genuine “objective” morality would need to stand apart fom any human opinion, desire or preference.

        So when aliens arrive saying, “Aha, humans, delicious snack food and useful target practice,” this would be part of an objective moral system. But would it be a good moral system?

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

          That wouldn’t be an objective moral system, the would be the alien’s subjective moral system. Hence, why I can’t conceive of an objective moral system – a thing of morals hanging out there waiting for us to discover it.

          However, this reminds me of an amusing debate on the comedy show The Debaters, which is on CBC so sadly only available in Canada and it seems you have to purchase the audio from iTunes. The debate was, who would make the better overlords: apes or robots. It was so funny, I almost had to pull over from driving from laughing so hard. The best line is vs apes and for robots, “a robot will never look at you and say, ‘huh, maybe I could have sex with that'”. If you can find it, well worth a listen!

    • eric
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

      I don’t really see how the analogy supports an objective morality.

      We can pursue medical sciences because once we set social goals, the sciences can be evaluated as the best/most likely way to achieve them. But this is not the same as those social goals being objective. Frankly, they aren’t. This is a fact pointed out by a lot of people concerned with global social justice issues: the wealthy first world spends a crapton of resources trying to fix the medical problems of heathy first world citizens rather than problems that affect a larger number of people. We spend billions of dollars on creating the next viagra when literally billions of people are starving. Is this out of some objective assessment that poor male performance is a bigger human health problem than poor people starving? No, obviously not – it has to do with profit. There is more profit to be had in viagra than in feeding the third world, so that’s the direction in which much private sector medical science goes.

      It is difficult to see how such observations support Harris’ (or your) idea that both health and morality are objective yet fuzzy. I think they are, instead, a very clear example of what Jerry describes as “Once you decide on a criterion, of course, then all else follows.” Its easy to come up with a rational system or rational measures for achieving goals. It is much harder to demonsttrate that those goals are objectively the right goals to have.

      • John Hamill
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:51 am | Permalink

        I don’t think the analogy supports an objective reality in the same way that statements within the physical can be objectively either true or false. It is possible (as you have done) to point out cases where statements about object morality or immorality can be demonstrably problematic. I just don’t think that this necessarily prevents such discussions on objective moralities in all cases. Just as ambiguities on what may or may not be healthy, don’t prohibit all medical sciences.

      • Gary W
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

        The fact that medicine, unlike morality, is a science illustrates the basic problem in Harris’s analogy. Health is a measure of functionality. Treating someone for illness/disability is a matter of restoring lost or impaired physical or mental function. Viagra, to use your example, restores lost or impaired sexual function in men.

  4. Trophy
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:25 am | Permalink

    I agree with most of what you say but my only objection is that it might be possible to give a precise and objective definition of “well-being”. For example, I doubt it is physically impossible to be an extremely precise “brain scan” that can objectively measure some particular definition of “well-being”.

    I agree that to assign mortal values to actions, we need arbitrary assumptions that cannot be based on science and I highly doubt people like Sam Harris disagree with this (I’ve not read his book but I’ve listend to a few of his talks on the subject). I believe his point is that it is possible to give some reasonable and intuitive definition of “well-being” that at least in some cases will help us define mortal values to some actions (e.g., killing a child for no reason). Once you accept this (that is, some reasonable definition of “well-being” can be objectively applied in some case) it is not entirely possible to postulate that it might be possible to give a more precise definition that could be evaluated objectively at all times.

    Finally, it’s clear that under the standard of “general well being,” nearly all of us would be acting morally by giving a third of our income to the poor and starving people of the world. Yet we don’t. Are we then immoral?

    That’s a tough one but probably the answer is yes.

  5. NewEnglandBob
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    Popping the popcorn, getting my beverage and a comfy chair. Let the games begin.

    • Dominic
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:28 am | Permalink

      That ain’t fair – get in the ring!

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:32 am | Permalink

        Been there and am sore from jumping back and forth over the wall.

        • Dominic
          Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:43 am | Permalink

          OK, well some gentle training to get you back to peak fitness then! 🙂

  6. Dominic
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    I agree that there is no objective morality OR immorality, but then I think morality is a pretty meaningless ‘catch all’ phrase rather than any fixed thing.

    Is it ‘immoral’ to wipe out smallpox? It is in my interests to eradicate a disease that might harm me. Substitute the term ‘interests’ for ‘morals’. We are just animals with highfalutin’ interests!

    • DryEraser
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:58 am | Permalink

      It’s in our ‘interest’ to stop eating animals. Hmm. Maybe not. But I do see the well-being of sentient life as objectively good in the sense that I don’t see anything else in the universe that can be considered to have states like ‘well-being’ or ‘non well-being.” I can’t imagine what else is worth considering.

      • Dominic
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:17 am | Permalink

        But is it not speciesist to assume we know what is or is not sentient?

        It may be in our interests to eat or not eat animals. It may be in MY interests to get protein or fat or whatever nourishment from that source, or if I am shipwrecked it may be in My interests to eat a fellow person who is shipwrecked, but that is where our interests diverge.

        Take a gene’s eye view. What is for the good of the gene, & the carrier of that gene. That is perhaps what morality emerges from, the conflict between my interests, the interests of another & the interests of a species, then of all life.
        ?

        • Leo
          Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:30 am | Permalink

          And wouldn’t it also be speciesist to assume that sentience is *the* measure of worth? Why not fast swimming? Or the ability to photosynthetise?

          Morality is a human construct, evolved just like the other aspects of our biology, and about as flexible as the other forms of our behaviour.

          • DryEraser
            Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

            Sure, assuming that sentience is the measure of worth might be speciesist, but I don’t get a sense motorboats mind or plants feel too distressed.

            • Marella
              Posted July 24, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

              Motorboats aren’t alive so they don’t have interests, but plants are and they do. That lettuce you casually chew has evolved over 4 billion years to live its life and reproduce just as you have and its interests are no more taken into account when you eat it than the cow’s, but the cow at least gets some sympathy from various quarters. The lettuce is perceived as fair game. Using sentience as your criterion for whether or not an organism’s interests need to be taken into account is highly speciesist in my opinion. Surely it is not just coincidence that we are the most highly sentient being on the planet, and this is the characteristic of life we choose to measure other species by? No I thought not.

              • DryEraser
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

                The motorboats example might have been weak as motorboats aren’t even alive and hence have no interests.

                Plants, I thought, don’t have a complex enough neural network or massive enough ganglia for consciousness, much less sentience, to have arisen.

                As for speciesism:I wouldn’t kill or eat humans in general because they are sentient. How is it speciesist to extend that courtesy to other living creatures that also are clearly sentient? Wouldn’t it be speciesist not to extend the same moral standard based on sentience to sentient species other than one’s own?

              • Marella
                Posted July 26, 2013 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

                Would you kill and eat a person who was no longer sentient? Say in a coma? My point is that sentience is the criterion we choose because we have it, (in Spades) and that it is just as speciesist as eating everything that isn’t human. A cabbage isn’t sentient but it still has an interest in not being eaten and be able to perpetuate its genes. I guess I just don’t believe that the choice of sentience as the salient characteristic defining worth is a truly disinterested one. Everything wants to live as much as everything else and the only good reason to kill is so that you can live.

            • gbjames
              Posted July 24, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

              Motorboats, sure.

              Plants? Not so sure. Plants actively try to avoid predators. They compete with one another and act very much like they have an interest in staying alive and reproducing. They just move a whole lot slower than us animals and we can’t easily recognize their distress.

              • DryEraser
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

                What am I supposed to eat now? Motorboats? 🙂

              • Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

                Yes — but not wooden ones!

                /@

            • Gary W
              Posted July 24, 2013 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

              That lettuce you casually chew has evolved over 4 billion years to live its life and reproduce just as you have and its interests are no more taken into account when you eat it than the cow’s

              I’d love to know what “interests” you think a lettuce has. Cows, pigs, chickens and other farm animals have an interest in avoiding suffering. There’s no evidence that lettuce have the capacity to suffer at all.

              • Posted July 24, 2013 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

                Your claim is that plants do not respond to stimuli whatsoever, or that they do not have appropriate reactions to positive and negative stimuli. Good luck demonstrating that — or even making it past the “Step away from the crack pipe” stage.

                b&

              • Posted July 24, 2013 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

                “‘Well,’ said the animal, ‘I know many vegetables that are very clear on that point.’” — DNA, op. cit. @ 2:24

                /@

              • DryEraser
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

                Ben,
                Gary wasn’t arguing that plants don’t respond to stimuli, he’s arguing that they have no capacity to suffer.

                Rude Goldberg machines, as well as computers, respond to stimuli. Sentient beings might be machines as well, but they are beings that by virtue of their complex neurology have crossed a threshold that makes them categorically different from non sentient beings.

                Now, I could be wrong to value the distinction being sentient and non-sentient, but that’s the argument.

              • Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

                DryEraser, even if you take that perspective, you’re still stuck with a continuum problem. Where does one draw the line? Anywhere you draw it will be entirely arbitrary. It’s all one continuous spectrum with mercury spring thermostats at the one end and hyperintelligent shades of the color blue at the other.

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

                Your claim is that plants do not respond to stimuli whatsoever

                As someone else already pointed out to you, I didn’t say that. I said that there’s no evidence that plants (actually, lettuce, but it applies to other plants too) have the capacity to suffer.

                Where does one draw the line? Anywhere you draw it will be entirely arbitrary. It’s all one continuous spectrum with mercury spring thermostats at the one end and hyperintelligent shades of the color blue at the other.

                I think the idea that an object has “interests” simply because it has the capacity to respond to stimuli (e.g. a thermostat) is ludicrous. As I said, I think farm animals have interests because they have the capacity to suffer. Lettuce and thermostats do not have that capacity.

              • Jeff Walker
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 4:31 am | Permalink

                the mere fact that we are arguing over the morality of eating a plant is pretty good evidence that morality is subjective. The argument of sentient v. non-sentient is very similar to arguments in the past, ultimately leading to the sphere of exclusion (of what cannot be eaten morally) expanding from other groups of humans, to pets, to other mammals, to “sentient” animals. Non-sentient living things is just one more step. And yes, non-sentient non-living things is just one more step beyond that. So no, in 100 years you will not even be able to eat metal motorboats.

        • DryEraser
          Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:37 am | Permalink

          Sure, if you’re in a shipwreck you might want to eat meat or people since your life depends on it . But what if you’re not in dire straights and have, in fact, an abundance to non-animal resources? Then your life doesn’t depend on killing other beings. You have a choice. Sure, it’s a privileged first-world problem, as my friend would say, but so what? First world problems are not bad problems to have.

          The boundary between sentient and non-sentient maybe fuzzy, but that doesn’t mean one can’t make distinctions. Yeast vs ape. Fish vs cattle???

          It’s speciesist to assume that only your own specie’s well-being matters.

          Down with the gene and up with the meme!

    • Mattapult
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:02 am | Permalink

      You touched on a hole in creationists arguments–immorality.

      Creationists claim God grounds morality. But they leave the opposite end–evil–unbounded. If “good” is necessarily bounded and objective, then so should “evIl”. That means either God must be the objective standard for evil too; or there is another god just as powerful as God that sets the standard for objective evil.

      Substitue “evil” for “good” in all their arguments, and the arguments carry the same weight for an objective grounding of immorality.

      • Pete Grimes
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

        I must say I am confused by the theist take on objective morality.

        My obviously confused reasoning goes thus:

        a) You claim your morality is objective and based on God
        b) Your God, as the source of morality is incapable of an immoral act
        c) Thus, if your God instructs you to carry out an act that would normally be considered immoral under “standard” circumstances [thou shalt not kill] if instructed on a case basis to perform that immoral act [suffer not a witch to live]it immediately becomes moral.
        d) Therefore all your moral actions must be relative, at least with regard to the opinion of your God as to the target.
        e) Since it is relative to an outside authority, it cannot, by definition be objective

        • Posted July 24, 2013 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

          You seem to be just as confused as Euthyphro.

        • Mark Thrice
          Posted August 13, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

          Pete,

          As a theist (who has thoroughly enjoyed reading through the conversation) I may be posting flamebait, but here goes…

          Your reasoning is a little wrong. The actual logic is as follows:

          a) — Almost… morality deals with one’s behavior. Therefore the standard of behavior must be a behavior… just a standard of length cannot be a mass, but must be a length itself. Morality is based in God’s *character*.

          b) — Agreed. As the standard, there is no other standard by which to judge him immoral. Furthermore, the classic definition of God is that he is immutable–unchangeable. Therefore what he would do today, he will do tomorrow. What he would not do today, neither would he do 10,000 years ago.

          I’ve been questioning whether we should say that God is amoral, as it is impossible for him to commit an action against his nature. We have that possibility, so for us to do so is to do something immoral, and to act in accordance with God’s character is moral. But perhaps God is neither moral nor immoral, but simply amoral; he has no standard by which he can be judged, but because of his consistent nature, he is the standard by which all others are judged.

          c) — You’ve introduced a different god here. A god that is mutable does not conform to the traditional description of God. See my response to b. If an act is immoral, it is an impossibility for an immutable God to command that act.

          That does not mean that a moral action cannot be perceived to be immoral for different reasons. Just that when all factors are considered, the action must be moral.

          d) — With an unchanging God, this statement is false. All moral actions are congruent with God’s character. Immoral actions are not.

          e) — If I understand what you’re saying here, this is the *definition* of objective. God’s commands flow out of his character, which does not change.

          Therefore, morality is based in the unchanging character of God, which means it is objective.

          Euthyphro’s dilemma doesn’t apply with this definition. God commands things because they are good… but the definition of Good is God himself. Therefore God is not arbitrary, nor is he subject to an external standard.

          Didn’t mean to throw the conversation off track… just wanted to correct a misconception.

          Now… if you wish… FLAME ON!! 😉

  7. Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    “Where we differ is that I don’t think the criterion of “well being” is an objective one. It is a subjective choice, and can’t be chosen based on a scientific study of nature.”

    This is interesting and reflects the insoluble problem in economics of coming up with a “best” or universal utility function, which makes me think you might be right.

  8. Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:32 am | Permalink

    I wondered about Harris on morality. But then it occurred to me that there are two different possible meanings:

    1: Morality is like an object, it that we can all see and discuss the moral questions. It is unlike a stomach-ache, which can only be felt by the one subject.

    2: Morality is objective in the sense that we can all come to an agreement on the same conclusions.

    For most of my life, I have assumed that objective morality was concerned with the second of those. However, I have come to realize that some people take it to be concerned with the first.

    • Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      Another way to put it, slightly differently but related (in order of decreasing “objectivity”):

      (1) baked into reality somewhere writ large(universe as whole, god, etc.)
      (2) baked into human social systems
      (3) evolves as people discover needs and better ways to live
      (4) evolves ad hocly
      (5) is whim-based and personal; no social component at all

      (3) is what I defend; i.e., a version of the “widening circle” idea. It is human (and potentially other animal) based in the sense if all of us gregarious animals died, there would be no more morality, at least on earth. However, it is not thereby *subjective* as these creatures have real needs of various sorts, as well as what one might call legitimate wants (those which do not interfere with the ability of others to meet needs). If the Moorean argument is played here, I think the person is just offering to change the subject.

      • Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:23 am | Permalink

        Since social systems themselves evolve, (2) is really (3) “institutionalised”.

        /@

    • Gary W
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      We can all see and discuss questions about any (subjective) belief or experience. If you’re going to say that the belief is therefore objective, the objective/subjective distinction is meaningless.

      • Posted July 24, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

        We can all see and discuss questions about any (subjective) belief or experience.

        We can all see and discuss a natural language statement which purports to express a belief. But the belief itself (if there are such things) is a subjective mental state that can be experienced only by the subject (the believer).

        Said differently, an expression of belief is an objective thing, but the belief itself isn’t.

        • Gary W
          Posted July 24, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

          Right, but the issue here is whether morality itself is objective. That is, whether there are such things as moral facts or objective moral truths, independent of what anyone believes.

  9. Joe
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:38 am | Permalink

    You should have been a philosopher Jerry! You are wasted in that biology game.

  10. Peter Archibald
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:43 am | Permalink

    A fascinating discussion, based on the rigorous interpretation of subjective vs. objective. This reminds me of the question posed by theists: is there an absolute morality? By this, they mean God-given morals – like the 10 Commandments. They infer moral relativism to be a slippery slope, responsible for the decline of values in modern society. Unfortunately, the reverse appears to be the case. Zealous adherence to “absolute” morals translates into discrimination and dogma, such as homophobia, the oppression of women’s rights and reproductive freedom. The abominations of Sharia Law in the Middle-East and Africa are a direct consequence of Islamic adherence to the “absolute” morality of the Koran. All this is further evidence that supposedly objective moralities are, in fact, entirely subjective and culturally relative.

  11. darrelle
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:46 am | Permalink

    I can conceive of how it would be possible, in principle, to make observations, devise experiments and perform studies on a sample of a population to figure out at some level of specificity what will cause significant changes in the well being of the average individual in the population with a useful level of accuracy.

    And I can conceive of how such information could be used to good effect in guiding ethical considerations, justice systems, etc. I don’t know if such information is objective though. It seems like there could be significant variance between different populations and over time as well.

    Another major issue, which Jerry mentioned at least twice, is the point of view from which you consider the issue. If you change the size of the “landscape” to be considered, that can lead to significant changes. For example, if you consider an issue at this point in time after the primary event, or at a point in time 5 years later, or a 100. Or, if you consider the effects of an event only on the person immediately involved versus on all the people, or even other types of organisms, that are or will become part of the cause and effect chain originating with the event.

    And that leads to the problem of complexity. It seems that pretty quickly things would get too complex to be able to accurately predict outcomes. It seems like the differences between Climate and Weather might be an appropriate analogy.

    • Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:52 am | Permalink

      “Or, if you consider the effects of an event only on the person immediately involved versus on all the people… ”

      This is an important point.

      Morality changes with scope from tribe, nation, race, gender, …

      Thus, for example, moral attitudes to slavery change once you allow potential slaves the same degree of “humanity” as yourself (i.e., you deem their “well being” to be as important, at least in principle, as your own).

      /@

  12. Dominic
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:48 am | Permalink

    Even if we DO think there is an objective morality/immorality, it is surely not a continuum on a sliding scale, but these are discreet groups – discreet sets more like lots of partially overlapping Venn diagrams. These layers of complexity build up our ‘morals’.

  13. Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    But I still have difficulty in seeing how “morality” can be objective in any sense.

    You are entirely right, Jerry, the notion of “objective” morality is the biggest red herring in philosophy.

    And there’s an even more basic argument against it: what does “objective” morality even *mean*? We can meaningfully say that in some human’s opinion X is wrong, but what does it *mean* by saying that X is objectively wrong?

    I don’t think there is any good answer to that question (most attempts at it just re-phrase the empty claim by using a synonym for “wrong”).

    • Jamie
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:29 am | Permalink

      It is entirely possible to operationalize “wrong”. It is just not possible to do so in a way that will immediately please everyone. One can imagine a sufficiently advanced neuroscience that can identify and measure “conscience” in a consistent empirical, material manner, and a science of ethics that distinguishes types of well-being, such as physical and emotional, properly operationalizes “well-being” and even measures the trade offs between various types of well-being and fully consideres the ‘scale’ of the well-being landscape.

      A lot of ink is spilled over the operationalization of these terms and whether it can be achieved. A lot less attention is put on the term ‘objective’ as everyone thinks they already know what objectivity is, and everyone thinks that everyone else means the same by it. But people are either materialists or idealists and these two camps have very different notions of “objectivity”. As I see it, we will have a working operationalized definition of “well-being” and “wrong” long before we have agreement on “objectivity”. And science will advance, but with detractors and nay-sayers as always.

      • Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:47 am | Permalink

        “A lot less attention is put on the term ‘objective’ as everyone thinks they already know what objectivity is”

        Previous discussions elsewhere (e.g., Eric MacDonald’s blog) have foundered on this. My view is that morality cannot be objective = “not dependent on the mind for existence”. I just cannot see how you can divorce morality from mind. I’d view it as an intersubjective consensus.

        /@

    • John Hamill
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

      Slow down there, Coen! Based on your own standards, aren’t you being a little trigger happy in stating objective realities? If I can’t discuss an objective morality without demonstrating that it is objectively true in all cases, then you can’t state that the laws of physics are the same everywhere in the universe without objectively measuring them everywhere in the universe. How do you know that they don’t just sometimes appear to be the same when viewed subjectively from one location?

      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100909004112.htm

      Or else we could just dispense with the wordplay in favour of something more useful. The fact that WordPress is preventing us post any more comments on the same thread would tend to support this latter suggestion. 😉

      • Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:00 am | Permalink

        You do not have to observe “everywhere” in order to make the sensible deduction that (as far as we can tell, and bearing in mind that science is always provisional), the laws of physics apply throughout the observable universe. A decent sampling of the known universe (e.g. observations of distant galaxies) coupled with Occam’s razor is sufficient. Your link demonstrates that whether different laws apply in different places is something that we can *test*.

        If you want to develop an alternative cosmology based on laws being different, but just appearing to be the same “when viewed subjectively from” Earth then go ahead, and see how it fares in terms of parsimony, Occam’s razor, fitting the data, and predictive power.

        And no, none of this is “wordplay”.

        • Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:08 am | Permalink

          For that matter, we have made observations of the entire Universe; see WMAP, for example.

          At least as far as the visible universe goes, you can be overwhelmingly confident that the laws of physics are constant.

          By “overwhelmingly confident,” I mean at least to the level that the Sun will rise tomorrow and that dropping a lead brick on your bare foot will result in serious injury and pain.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • John Hamill
            Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

            No Coen. Just because someone posits a view that the laws of physics may be different in different regions of the universe, I don’t think I should develop an alternative cosmology before I accept the laws of physics here on earth. That in fact being my point. Similarly, just because you state that there can be no objective morality unless it applies to extra terrestrials (whose opinions we don’t know) as well as humans, I don’t think that renders all discussion of objective morality here on earth entirely moot.

            Anyway, I suspect we will not agree on that point but I’ve enjoyed the discussion. Thanks for your time.

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted July 24, 2013 at 11:04 am | Permalink

              It is inherent in constraining physics to ask “what systems is the physics applicable to”. So you can’t take the medieval idea that you can discuss anthropocentric Earth alone as a characteristic of “objective”.

              I should also point out that the useful (FRW) cosmologies are based on homogeneity, which is also observed. It is iffy*, as the technical term goes, to make non-homogeneous laws of physics while maintaining generic homogeneity of spacetime and its contents.

              *Meaning absolutely impossible except for suggesting very small variations. I.e. it isn’t a natural idea, never mind parsimonious. And it hasn’t been a fruitful idea, on the contrary the constraints on variation has been tightened as time goes.

              • John Hamill
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

                Hi Torbjörn … I’m trying to follow and learning as I go! Although I suspect this is beside the point. I was trying to rebut the proposition that we can’t discuss an objective morality as we have no way of knowing if extra terrestrials would share our opinion of morality. Just as we don’t need to measure the fundamental constants at each point in the universe before we can consider it useful to refer to them as fundamental constants, I don’t believe that it is necessary to interview every extra terrestrial in the universe before we can consider a discussion about objective morality to be useful.

            • Posted July 25, 2013 at 1:50 am | Permalink

              just because you state that there can be no objective morality unless it applies to extra terrestrials (whose opinions we don’t know) …

              If you’re suggesting that our system of morality might not apply to ETs because they might have different opinions then isn’t that saying the system is subjective?

              The whole point of an *objective* system of morals is that they couldn’t depend on human opinion (and thus nor on ET opinion).

              Or are you understanding something different than me about what “objective” morals would mean?

              • John Hamill
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 2:14 am | Permalink

                Why stop at ETs, Coel? Why don’t you insist that nothing can be objective unless it applies equally within every universe in the multiverse? Are you saying that you are more important than all the other Coel’s in alternate universes?

                How about this? I’ll grant you a wordplay victory in stating that a morality can’t be objective for humans unless it applies equally to every ET in the universe. That makes not one iota of difference though, to how useful or otherwise the discussion on objective morality is on this planet on this day.

              • Posted July 25, 2013 at 3:06 am | Permalink

                John, what do you mean by “objective” morals?

                By “objective morals” I mean a system in which a statement “X is morally wrong” could be true regardless of any human (or ET) opinion about it.

                If the system is such that the idea “X is morally wrong” derives from human (or ET) opinion, that’s what I regard as subjective morals.

                This is why I don’t see why I need to poll ET opinion about **objective** morals.

                For comparison, statements of quantum field theory do not depend on human opinion. Atoms and molecules go on behaving as they do regardless of what we think.

              • John Hamill
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 3:55 am | Permalink

                Agreed Coel. There could be ETs with a morality that is the polar opposite of mine. Such an ET might consider all human morality to be entirely subjective. I just don’t think that fact makes it vacuous to discuss whether some behaviours are moral or not, using reason and logic.

                “The purposeful subjugation and torture of black people for no other reason than the amusement of white people.” There are many objective ways to describe why this would be immoral. We could even start with some mathematics, to show how removing the black population from the labour force damages everyone in the economy.

                I think that many behaviours can objectively be shown to have beneficial or detrimental consequences … and I don’t think it is moot to notice this fact just because ET may disagree.

              • Posted July 25, 2013 at 4:09 am | Permalink

                I just don’t think that fact makes it vacuous to discuss whether some behaviours are moral or not …

                I agree. But I think that accepting that morality is subjective (though no less important for that) is a good step towards proper discussion of morality.

                There are many objective ways to describe why this would be immoral.

                I don’t agree, I submit that all the ways would be subjective — ultimately rooted in human feelings and preferences.

                [If you have a conception of “objective” that disagrees with mine, please give it.]

                We could even start with some mathematics, to show how removing the black population from the labour force damages everyone in the economy.

                But you could only define “health” of the economy and “damage” to the economy in terms of human preferences. That is not objective.

                I think that many behaviours can objectively be shown to have beneficial or detrimental consequences …

                You can only do that once you have decided how to evaluate benefit and deteriment, and you can only do that by appealing to human opinion and preference.

              • John Hamill
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 4:20 am | Permalink

                Cole wrote:
                But you could only define “health” of the economy and “damage” to the economy in terms of human preferences.

                X causes immediate death. Ipso facto, X is objectively deleterious to health. Y causes the immediate removal of all wealth and resources from all people and corporations in a country. Ipso facto, Y is objectively damaging to the economy of the country.

              • Posted July 25, 2013 at 4:52 am | Permalink

                X is objectively deleterious to health.

                So what? That only matters if you value health and life and disfavour death.

                Y is objectively damaging to the economy of the country.

                So what? That only matters if you value wealth and a strong economy and disfavour poverty.

                Again, these things derive from human opinion, human likes and dislikes; this is a subjective conception of morality.

                Subjective (online Oxford dictionaries): “based on … personal feelings, tastes, or opinions”.

                Objective: “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions”.

                Why the strong resistance to accepting that our morals are subjective? Subjective = derived from human feeling. Human feelings are what matter most to us!

              • John Hamill
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 4:59 am | Permalink

                “X causes immediate death. Ipso facto, X is deleterious to health.

                So what? That only matters if you value health”.

                Nope. a person is objectively dead or alive, irrespective of your subjective opinion about what constitutes good health.

              • Posted July 25, 2013 at 5:10 am | Permalink

                I entirely agree, but we’re not discussing whether death is an objective concept, we’re discussing whether *morals* are objective.

                So far you’ve only provided subjective conceptions of morals — they all derive from human preference.

          • John Hamill
            Posted July 25, 2013 at 5:19 am | Permalink

            You entirely agree? What if my subjective opinion is that the best outcome when considering the health of a population is immediate death for everyone? Who are you to tell me that I am objectively wrong? 😉

            • Posted July 25, 2013 at 5:33 am | Permalink

              There is *no-one* to tell you that you are *objectively* wrong, because *all* value judgments are *value* *judgments* and these are *subjective*.

              Of course plenty of people would hold the *opinion* that they disfavour your suggestion.

              • John Hamill
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 5:35 am | Permalink

                Ahh … so you both entirely agree and entirely disagree.

              • Posted July 25, 2013 at 5:45 am | Permalink

                No, I’m being entirely consistent here.

                I entirely agree that *death* is an objective state.

                And I entirely disagree with you that *value* *judgements* about death are “objective”, they are subjective.

              • John Hamill
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 6:03 am | Permalink

                The process of navigating around a Harris-Landscape of health states, is something that I would concede is vulnerable to some subjectivity. Not everyone has the same view of what constitutes being healthy is. Moving immediately and directly towards instantaneous death, is in my view, objectively bad.

                I can understand that you might suggest “bad” to be a subjective human judgement and that some people may feel that immediate death is healthy. This is the point at which I find the discussion to be wordplay.

                I think I understand your view better now though Coel and that’s valuable for me. Thanks.

            • Posted July 25, 2013 at 6:26 am | Permalink

              Moving immediately and directly towards instantaneous death, is in my view, objectively bad.

              That statement is contradictory, either death is *objectively* bad or in your view (or some other human’s view) it is bad.

              I can understand that you might suggest “bad” to be a subjective human judgement and that some people may feel that immediate death is healthy.

              Even if no-one considers death to be healthy, even if every single human regards death as bad, that *still* makes the judgement subjective!

              That’s because that’s what subjective *means*, it means deriving from human preference or opinion.

              If you want to establish a value judgement about death being *objectively* bad then you need to do so without referring back to *any* human desire, feeling, opinion or preference.

              It seems to me in all this that you haven’t sat down and sorted out in your own mind what the words “objective” and “subjective” actually mean.

              • John Hamill
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 6:33 am | Permalink

                The problem isn’t the definition of objective and subjective. The problem is that we can’t talk about people being healthy unless we allow for the fact that healthy can mean instantaneous death.

              • Posted July 25, 2013 at 6:50 am | Permalink

                The problem isn’t the definition of objective and subjective.

                Yes it is.

                The problem is that we can’t talk about people being healthy unless we allow for the fact that healthy can mean instantaneous death.

                What’s that got to do with anything relevant?

              • John Hamill
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 7:08 am | Permalink

                I thought we were discussing the Sam Harris analogy? The Health-Landscape has many subjective regions where there is no single right or wrong answer. This does not prevent us from noticing that instantaneous death is objectively unhealthy. Stating that some people might think that instantaneous death is the epitome of good health is just wordplay. The Moral-Landscape has many similar regions that are vulnerable to subjectivity. This should not prevent us from noticing that “the worst possible misery for everyone” is objectively bad. Stating that some people might think that “the worst possible misery for everyone” is good, is just wordplay.

                I accept though, that if you can get your head around “the worst possible misery for everyone could be good” … then getting your head around “there is no such thing as objective morality” is small beer.

              • Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:17 am | Permalink

                I thought we were discussing the Sam Harris analogy?

                I am discussing whether morality is objective or subjective.

                … instantaneous death is objectively unhealthy.

                Agreed.

                Stating that some people might think that instantaneous death is the epitome of good health is just wordplay.

                I’ve have not said that, and that plays no part in any of my argument.

                This should not prevent us from noticing that “the worst possible misery for everyone” is objectively bad.

                No! The value judgment “bad” is a value judgment, that makes it subjective.

                Healthy/unhealthy can be defined objectively in a way that morally good/bad cannot. The latter is a value judgment, the former is not.

                Stating that some people might think that “the worst possible misery for everyone” is good, is just wordplay.

                Irrelevant. It’s the fact that the good/bad judgement comes from *people* that makes it subjective.

              • Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:23 am | Permalink

                … instantaneous death is objectively unhealthy.

                Just to try once more: I entirely agree, instantaneous death is objectively unhealthy.

                However, that does NOT mean that instantaneous death is *bad*. A terminally-ill cancer patient in great pain might WANT instantaneous death EVEN THOUGH IT IS OBJECTIVELY UNHEALTHY!

                Such a person might regard instantaneous death as GOOD, *even* *though* it is objectively unhealthy.

                Whether you *want* life or health or death or whatever is a *subjective value judgment*.

                That is totally distinct from whether life or death or good health are objective states!

              • John Hamill
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:25 am | Permalink

                So you are unable to say that “the worst possible misery for everyone” is objectively bad. You believe that this is just a subjective opinion and in fact, “the worst possible misery for everyone” could be good.

                Wow.

              • John Hamill
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:29 am | Permalink

                I didn’t say instantaneous death is bad. You are confusing analogies. I said that “the worst possible misery for everyone” is bad.

              • Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

                So you are unable to say that “the worst possible misery for everyone” is objectively bad.

                Yes, because I have no conception of what “objectively morally bad” means. To me value judgements about whether something is “bad” are value judgements by people, and are therefore subjective.

                You believe that this is just a subjective opinion …

                Yes, but without the “just”. And of course human opinions and feelings are of the highest importance to us.

                … and in fact, “the worst possible misery for everyone” could be good.

                No, I don’t think that, since I have no idea what “could be good” means in that sentence.

                If you are asking, do I think that somewhere out there there is an objective good-ness scale, and that measured against that scale, “misery for everyone” comes out as “good”, then no, that’s NOT what I think, I think that there is no such scale.

              • John Hamill
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 9:03 am | Permalink

                So if we moved from a state of “the worst possible misery for everyone” to a state of “the maximum possible happiness for everyone” then you would be unable to describe that as good, as there is no objective scale on which those two states could be compared? Rather, moving between those two states in that direction could conceivably be bad.

                Wow again.

              • Posted July 25, 2013 at 9:17 am | Permalink

                So if we moved from a state of “the worst possible misery for everyone” to a state of “the maximum possible happiness for everyone” then you would be unable to describe that as good, …

                Not at all! I would *readily* offer *my* (subjective) assessment of it as “good”.

                … as there is no objective scale on which those two states could be compared?

                The lack of an *objective* system of value judgment in no way prevents or hampers us from pursing a human-feeling-based (= subjective) value system!

                A subjective moral system is FAR BETTER than an objective one would be, because it is based on what WE want!

                … Rather, moving between those two states in that direction could conceivably be bad.

                Sigh. Again, I do NOT think that, indeed I don’t even know what that “could conceivably be bad” means. If you are suggesting that somewhere out there there is an objective “badness” scale and that measured against that scale the above change would come out as “bad”, then that is exactly what I DO NOT think, because I reject the notion of any such scale!

                Which bit of this are you not getting? (Sorry for getting frustrated with you.)

              • John Hamill
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 9:35 am | Permalink

                I get your position, Coel. It’s not difficult to understand. I just think that there is more sophistry than substance.

                You are arguing that there is no objective scale on which “the worst possible misery for everyone” is less good than “the maximum possible happiness for everyone”. In that case, I think you are deliberately blinding yourself with wordplay or else you haven’t thought enough about “the worst possible misery for everyone”.

                By the same token, if you accept that the concept of health is a subjective one then you would be guilty of sophistry and wordplay to argue that instant death is not objectively unhealthy.

              • Posted July 25, 2013 at 10:53 am | Permalink

                In that case, I think you are deliberately blinding yourself with wordplay …

                And I think that you are confused and don’t know what “objective” and “subjective” mean. But we’re getting nowhere so let’s end this.

                By the same token, if you accept that the concept of health is a subjective one then …

                No! I think that “health” is an *objective* concept!

              • John Hamill
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink

                Health is objective? Really?

                A person who lived 100,000 years ago would consider someone who can function adequately at age 50 to be one of the healthiest people in their population. Today we might not consider the same person to be at all healthy. We could make similar comparisons between people living in the first world and third world today. Sounds to me like health as a concept is a lot more subjective than quantum mechanics. Unless you feel that quantum mechanics operated on a different scale before the Stone Age? Health clearly did.

                Perhaps Coel, it’s time to admit that some objective statements can be made about concepts like health and morality … even if those concepts are clearly also vulnerable to considerable subjectivity.

                I know what the words objective and subjective mean, Coel. I just don’t think that a particular area or discourse (such as health or morality) must be either entirely objective or entirely subjective.

              • Posted July 25, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

                Health is objective? Really?

                Yes, I think one can establish relative degrees of health reasonably objectively.

                A person who lived 100,000 years ago … Today we might not consider the same person to be at all healthy.

                So what? Someone who was tall by the standards of the past might not be so in today’s world of better nutrition, but height and relative height are still objective concepts.

                it’s time to admit that some objective statements can be made about concepts like health and morality

                Why sure, objective statements *can* be made about morality, even though moral judgements are subjective.

                E.g. “X is wrong” — subjective. “Alice thinks that X is wrong” — objective.

              • John Hamill
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

                You can establish degrees of health objectively, Coel? Good for you! So let’s say you measured the health of a young boy. Then he was circumcised. Then you measured his health again. Would he be objectively more healthy or less healthy? Just to help you with your objective measurements, from Wikipedia:

                “The positions of the world’s major medical organizations range from considering neonatal circumcision as having a modest health benefit that outweighs small risks to viewing it as having no health benefit and significant risks.”

                Health is clearly subjective in very very many areas and yet we can still make an objective statement like “immediate death is not healthy”. Similarly, morality is clearly subjective in very very many areas and yet we can make an objective statement like “the worst possible misery for everyone” is bad. Just because you can show subjectivity in matters of morality, this does not disallow all objectivity from all matters of morality.

              • Posted July 25, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

                Would he be objectively more healthy or less healthy?

                The difference would be minor and unclear (unclear is different from “subjective”). But if you fired a shotgun into his belly from close range he’d be less healthy, clearly and objectively.

                Health is clearly subjective in very very many areas …

                That is mere assertion on your part, it is not “clear” to me. Again, uncertainty is not the same as subjectiveness.

                yet we can make an objective statement like “the worst possible misery for everyone” is bad.

                That’s an empty assertion on your part, begging the whole question. No we can’t.

              • John Hamill
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

                Different people can consider themselves to become either more or less healthy based on the same treatment. To simply describe subjective opinions as uncertainty is a cop out … no better than your “reasonably objectively” cop out (from the person who directed me to look up objective in the dictionary … I would have thought that something is either objective or it’s not).

              • Posted July 25, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

                Different people can consider themselves to become either more or less healthy based on the same treatment.

                First, different people can *be* more or less healthy as a result of the same treatment, since people are different. Second, whether someone *considers* themselves healthy (subjective) is different from whether they are healthy (objective). Hypochondriacs can consider themselves unhealthy when they are healthy. So, I don’t see why your point refutes anything I said.

                To simply describe subjective opinions as uncertainty is …

                I didn’t, I described uncertainty as uncertainty. Subjectivity and uncertainty are different things.

              • John Hamill
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

                Cop out. Many medicines have side effects that can be as bad as the illness they treat. Patients can be in the full knowledge of exactly how their bodies respond to the medicine and need to come to a view on which malady makes them less unhealthy … the illness or the medicinal side effects. Many patients come to different views based on their subjective opinions. Nobody is uncertain about the facts. They just have different subjective opinions on which condition is more or less healthy.

              • Posted July 25, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

                I have no idea why any of that is supposed to refute anything I said.

              • John Hamill
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

                It refutes more than one thing that you said. Firstly, you said that you could objectively measure health. You can’t. Health is subjective in many areas.

                Secondly, even though health is subjective, it is possible to make objective statements about health, such as “immediate death is unhealthy”. This is because on a multi-dimensional Harris-esque subjective Health-Landscape, death is the origin. The point at which the axis on all dimensions is zero. It is impossible to become any more unhealthy than dead, irrespective of your subjective opinion.

                “The worst possible misery for everyone” is also the origin. This is objectively bad. It is impossible to get any worse than this. Moving away from this origin in any conceivable direction is objectively better.

              • Posted July 26, 2013 at 12:56 am | Permalink

                … even though health is subjective, it is possible to make objective statements about health, such as “immediate death is unhealthy”.

                You are wrong that that refutes anything I said. Indeed I said much the same up-thread.

                “The worst possible misery for everyone” is also the origin. This is objectively bad.

                Your claim that that is “objectively” bad is just empty assertion. You are wrong. It is *subjectively* bad — meaning that the badness derives from human opinion/feeling.

                You don’t understand what the words “objective” and “subjective” mean, and you repeatedly demonstrate that you don’t understand my point of view. I’m giving up on you. Bye.

              • John Hamill
                Posted July 26, 2013 at 12:59 am | Permalink

                If I had said “reasonably objective” would you have been more impressed by my understanding of objectivity, Coel?

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted July 25, 2013 at 9:29 am | Permalink

              @Coel,
              I think it’s important to include some notion of consensus with subjective morality. I suspect you probably do this, but you didn’t make it explicit in this one post. You may have mentioned it elsewhere and I missed it.

              Without that it seems people tend to jump to the (false) conclusion that subjective morality just means individual relativism, and everyone invents their own. But subjective morality can be established by social norms, providing subjective standards that in some way represent the agreement of all, or most, or some kind of quorum within a substantial cultural body of human minds. I think this is the closest subjectivity gets to being objective, by including what is common in all (or most) human subjects considered as objects.

              I think this is what most people mean when they think that morality is somehow objective, that a set of moral standards that is generally agreed upon is presumed to somehow represent and objective standard, when in acuality, I agree with you, it doesn’t. It’s more like a crowd-sourced average of biologically and culturally determined rules.

              • Posted July 25, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

                I agree with you on this.

              • TreeRooster
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

                @Coel,
                I think you have put it very well. At the risk of simply restating your position, here is another take: My decision to aspire to behave a certain way and to declare it to be *moral* is choosing an axiom. Saying that it is *good* to act to increase the overall well-being of sentient creatures (of all stripes and degrees) is just defining what “good” means. Someone else could start with a different set of axioms, a different definition of good. Axioms are chosen, not proven.

                Let us assume that at least some of the time there exists a way to determine how my actions will affect the well-being of sentient creatures. I believe that behavior is “good” (of “high value,” to be encouraged and rewarded, to be aspired to) when it increases well-being of sentient creatures. This is a subjective opinion, something I have decided to hold to. I can’t prove to someone else that my opinion is true in any sense (empirically or logically.) That’s because my opinion is really just a decision about how to act–“good” just means “how I want to act, and what I want to encourage and reward in others.” Saying “that’s good behavior” is subjective because by “good” I simply mean “what I have decided to aspire to and encourage.” Of course I think that this is the most important decision we can make!

                It becomes confusing due to the fact that we often use “good” to mean “increases well-being” since so many of us think that way. If that was the case, then we could start to test the declaration that an action was good. It is not: we need different words for different things. “Moral” or “good” will describe my subjective decision while descriptors like “socially healthy” can be used for things that increase the overall well-being of sentient creatures.

  14. greg balteff
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    YES THERE IS OBJECTIVE MORALITY …USING THE 3 LAWS OF LOGIC AND THEIR COROLLARIES…HUMAN BEINGS HAVE OBJECTIVE MORALITY….CONTEXT SPECIFIC…A=A , WE HAVE A SPECIFIC NATURE THAT CAN ONLY BE AUGMENTED BY THE FACULTY OF REASON ….

    • Dominic
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:18 am | Permalink

      Can you clarify/expand on that a bit?

      • gbjames
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:32 am | Permalink

        But first… let me introduce you to that little Caps Lock key over there…

    • Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:20 am | Permalink

      We have an objective morality that is…contextual? Seems like that violates ond of them thar laws (non-contradiction).

      Also, why are you shouting?

    • Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:27 am | Permalink

      That you’re an Ayn Rand fan is clear to me, but why all caps on? If you want to be sure no one will take you serious, you should go on using caps on all the time.

      But what are the “3 laws of logic”? You don’t mention those. Further “A=A” does not prove anything, therefore claiming objective morality from it is a non sequitur.

      BTW is “the faculty of reason” not part of our specific nature?

      • Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:18 am | Permalink

        I suppose you mean with the three laws of logic the following ones:

        1. Law identity (A=A)
        2. Law of no contradiction (A is not simultaneously B and not-B)
        3. Law of excluded middle (A is either false or true)

        Besides their triviality, these laws do not prove anything (they only outline what conditions any prove has to meet). In particular they do not prove the existence of objective morality.

  15. John K.
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    I doubt Dr. Conye is willing to grant Catholics their position on abortion just because it is part of their own morality, I would be truly surprised if he was a hard line liberal moral relativist in this or any other way. Very few people ascribe to the “anything goes” extreme liberalism brand of moral relativism. I also find that the opposite absolutist “nothing goes but this” camp is fairly small and limited to religious hard liners.

    I think morality is neither purely objective nor purely subjective. On the absolutist side the concern is that if things are truly relative we have no basis for making any moral judgments at all, anything can just be culturally justified. On the other side, the relativists are not willing to accept any one particular system above all others without very good justification, which is always lacking for the reasons Dr. Conye brings up. We cannot shape the rock if it is too hard and absolute nor if it is too nebulous and relative, so by necessity we need to find something in the middle or abandon the enterprise.

    I tend towards the relativist label because the absolute label seems much more limiting, and I do not think the conversation is impossible just because we must build on values that are more or less axiomatic (provided we are well aware of which values truly are axiomatic). I also tend to think of absolute truth in terms of scientific knowledge, which is the closest thing we have toward absolute anything, even if it is not completely absolute in the strictest sense (new theories can always overturn old ones with compelling evidence). Against the scientific standard of absolute nothing else comes even close, so I shy away from using the word “absolute” in any other context.

    • Pete Grimes
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

      Isn’t objectivity a bit like virginity, you either are or you are not?

      Surely [Dennett alarm!] Mostly objective = subjective

      • John K.
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:47 am | Permalink

        In the context you are using, sure. Although, in the way you are using absolute I don’t think that anything at all can honestly said to be truly absolute, or at least nothing that we humans could ever observe and verify as being absolute.

        I tend to think of “absolute” as “free from change dependent on viewpoints”, so in that context it is not binary. Who makes the best hamburger is less absolute than who runs the fastest mile.

  16. jay
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    I agree with you Jerry, it is not possible in many cases to assign an overall ‘well being’ score, in part because all factors are not measurable, and in part because ‘well being’ itself is perceived differently by different people.

    Here’s a not too farfetched example: STDs and unwanted pregnancies are admittedly a bad thing. On the ‘well being’ argument, a government can determine (logically) the the answer is to legally restrict sex to your licensed (married) partner. Now they can choose to be ‘open minded’ and include gay people too, and in theory, IF the law COULD be enforced (Iran, anyone?) it is unquestionable that STDs would go down. Does that make this law an acceptable idea?

    It’s not just difficult, but it’s not possible to be completely objective about this. Fundamentally people place different weights on outcomes and risks (consider the women who choose to have pre-emptive mastectomies).

    It is a deep mistake to assume that morality ever CAN be truly logical. We can add logic to parts of it, inform certain actions through application of logic, but deep down, many ‘moral’ questions do not have unambiguous answers.

  17. Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    But I emphasize again, that, as a consequentialist and determinist, I don’t favor the notion of “moral responsibility, …”

    I would disagree with you on that, in that you are once again allowing the religious to own the language.

  18. David Howarth
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    Caring about both “health” and/or “general well-being” are both VALUE judgments, and therefore moral choices. The universe doesn’t care on whit about the health of individuals, the Earth, or society. Humanism is just religion under a different name, and with a different God (Man). The world just is. Why so-called atheists have to try to shoehorn morality into descriptions of the objective world is beyond me. David Hume had it right long ago, and not much more need be said.

    • David Howarth
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:02 am | Permalink

      Disregard one of the “both”s in the 1st sentence.

    • David Howarth
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:04 am | Permalink

      This of course leaves open the question of how we’d like to organize our lives and societies, but just because there’s some intellectual difficulty there doesn’t justify “punting” the question.

    • Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:07 am | Permalink

      I think your understanding of humanism diverges considerably from mine… 

      /@

      • Dominic
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:22 am | Permalink

        I think I am more with David! One reason I have not joined a humanist organisation – I do not think humans are particularly special. Remove a god from the centre of the universe & replace it with humans? That does not sound terribly moral to me -oops! 😉

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:49 am | Permalink

          I initially felt the same and have similar sentiments (which I guess makes me a bit of a misanthrope) but I also think that the Humanism movement isn’t about placing humans above all animals…..but I do get your larger point of humans being above other animals (a dangerous biblical sentiment).

      • David Howarth
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:26 am | Permalink

        Possibly, but no real way to tell unless you say what your understanding is. Mine is basically the anti-humanist stance, that notions about human nature, value, etc. are fundamentally metaphysical. Hence my lumping humanism (of whatever stripe) in with the various theisms. To my mind, this whole debate goes back to the idea of “natural law” (in the sense of applying it to human values) which IMO is pure unadulterated bunk.

        • Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:32 am | Permalink

          Well, most importantly re your point, David (and Dominic), I do not see humanism as a religion that replaces “God” with “Man”/humans.

          Per the BHA, a humanist is someone who:
          • trusts to the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural (and is therefore an atheist or agnostic)
          • makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals
          • believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.

          /@

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:50 am | Permalink

            Yes, I think the name, “Humanism” is a bit of a misnomer. I had initial repulsion to it based on name only but when I read the details didn’t feel it was what it seemed to be from their name.

          • darrelle
            Posted July 24, 2013 at 7:15 am | Permalink

            Exactly. Any humanists that replace a god with a human are doing it wrong. The view that Humanism is just another religion that replaces gods with people is primarily put forth by religious believers who either can not conceive of mere non belief, or who rather ignorantly try to disparage non believers by accusing them of having the same faults they themselves have.

            Humanism is not about putting humans at the center of the universe, it is about realizing that their is no fate, no purpose, no why, but what we make for ourselves.

            • David Howarth
              Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:14 am | Permalink

              That’s existentialism.

              • Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:53 am | Permalink

                Yes, so?

                Existentialism ≠ humanism, existentialism ∩ humanism ≠ ∅.

                /@

              • darrelle
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink

                It may be but since,

                “Humanism is a group of philosophies and ethical perspectives . . .”

                that does not present any problems.

                More over, though humanism has a long history with lots of variation, it is widely agreed upon (by people identifying themselves as humanists) that the defining characteristics of modern humanism are that it,

                “. . . espouses reason, ethics, and justice, while specifically rejecting supernatural and religious ideas as a basis of morality and decision-making.”

                I can certainly see why the idea of placing humans in the same position as people place gods would turn people off. It definitely turns me off. But the placing value on humans part of humanism is not about elevating humans to god status, it is about realizing that for better or worse we are our own masters and that we are responsible for ourselves.

                I see now that Ant said the same thing much more clearly and with admirable brevity. May as well post anyway since I took the time to type it.

              • darrelle
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:38 am | Permalink

                Holy (wholly?) Crap! That looks really bad. Missed a closing tag.

              • Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink

                I don’t consider that a moral failing.

                /@

          • Dominic
            Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:34 am | Permalink

            Interesting points from all here.
            However, if a humanist “makes their ethical decisions based on reason” I wonder how many REALLY do. I think most of us make decisions then justify them afterwards.

            In as far as we really make any decisions in a deterministic universe!
            😉

            • David Howarth
              Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:15 am | Permalink

              Bingo!

            • Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

              The key is that they/we make decisions based on reason (their own thought processes, however flawed – and probably, yes, often System 1 thinking rather than System 2), rather than because some archaic book says so.

              /@

              • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink

                Bingo!

              • David Howarth
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

                And “reason” (by which you mean Reason, of course) is not a problematic concept?

              • Posted July 24, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

                No, I don’t mean “Reason” (whatever you mean by that), I mean “reason” : “rtional thinking (or the capacity for it); the cognitive faculties, collectively, of conception, judgment, deduction and intuition.” [Wiktionary]

                And why would that be problematic?

                /@

              • Posted July 24, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

                *rational thinking

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:47 am | Permalink

      Yes, I was looking to see if anyone would mention “value”. The objective morality thing sits wrong with me because it depends on value judgements which change from culture to culture and time to time and person to person. We could say something like anything that interferes with the well being and flourishing of another being is immoral but where do you draw the line? Eating animals, even humanely is ultimately bad for the animal….you can tell it suffers when it is slaughtered and you stopped it from flourishing. We can rank animals based on criteria like sentience but that is human based and as others have pointed out, who are we to decide sentience trumps suffering?

      The only way I can accept the concept of an objective morality is to embrace the idea that suffering and impeding flourishing is immoral and then accept that morality will be violated under certain circumstances based on value judgements that can change. It isn’t quite a relative morality working with objective morality but an acknowledgment of the fact that there will be violation of objective morality itself…if that makes any sense at all.

      • gbjames
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 7:06 am | Permalink

        “who are we to decide sentience trumps suffering”

        The problem I have with this sort of question is that one can equally well ask “who are we to decide suffering trumps sentience?” Or “Who are we to decide anything?” Which gets nobody anywhere.

        We all impede the flourishing of living things when we eat them, cow or carrot. And we all enable the flourishing of living things (for a while at least) when we raise them, animal or vegetable, for consumption. This is part of the problem, IMO, way too many cattle, pigs, and chickens are given the chance to flourish for a while on this little planet. It isn’t sustainable.

        (Note: I am not saying this as opposition to, say, being vegetarian… I don’t eat mammals, birds, reptiles, or amphibians either. But I never find the “inhumane” case for avoiding meat very compelling.)

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 24, 2013 at 7:52 am | Permalink

          But that proves my point. There is an inherent subjectivity. There is no “morality” that exists outside of us. Either we accept that or we have to accept we violate morality if objective.

        • Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:01 am | Permalink

          “We all impede the flourishing of living things when we eat them, cow or carrot.”

          Do we impede their flourishing if that’s their purpose in life?

          /@

            • Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:19 am | Permalink

              Some kind of colonial upstart! 😉 I wonder if Adams knew of shmoon?

              /@

              • gbjames
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

                He was, so I’m not surprised if you Brits didn’t know of him. Apparently, however, people in Berlin did. From the deniskitchen site…

                Shmoos were air-dropped to hungry Berliners by America’s 17th Military Airport Squadron during the Soviet Union’s tense blockade of West Berlin in 1948. “When the candy-chocked Shmoos were dropped a near-riot resulted.” –Newsweek 9-5-49 (and 10-11-48).

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted July 24, 2013 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

            Meet the meat! It’s always a treat to hear Douglas Adams read his fiction. I have the audio version of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy read by adams & it’s fantastic!

      • Pete Grimes
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:32 am | Permalink

        I agree.

        One of the problems I see with objective morality is how one morally handles those people who do not behave in a moral way.

        If it is objectively moral that people should be free to live a happy and productive life, how does one deal with a murderer? Would it not be immoral to take away his freedom?

        There is the whole issue of course of how tolerant one is of the intolerant, a vexing question when dealing [as a previous poster noted] the “morality’ of tolerance of Sharia.

        Isn’t any system for the enforcement of moral behaviour in a society by defintion be subjective, thus rendering the morality it protects subjective also?

  19. Robert Bray
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    In Prof. Coyne’s post, and the comments, I saw only one iteration of the word ‘justice,’ and that was in the noun-phrase ‘justice systems.’ But how can the objective/subjective perplexities of morality be treated as only a matter of individual behavior? In the West, at least, justice has generally occupied the seat of highest social value. Because ‘human well-being’ is incalculable (it is a quality), justice carries both the individual and social weight of keeping the ‘local equilibrium’ of any tribe, group or state from collapsing into entropy. Yet ‘justice systems’ can do no better than approximate what used to be thought of as an ideal, and still is by millions (billions?) of humans.

    Thus, individuals and their immediate tribal relatives are often poorly served by justice. In retribution for a harm endured by one of their own, such as murder, they want the death
    penalty for the perpetrator; they get instead ten years to life, with possibility of parole. Vengeance for them is not satisfied; but has not the general welfare been protected, perhaps even promoted?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      There are many areas where individual morality touches secular societal concerns, such as democracy, human rights and freedoms, and justice.

      However when you say that individuals should be “served”, have “retribution”, see “penalty” and have “vengeance”, it is outside of those concerns and a medieval mind set to boot.

      Justice systems aren’t about any of that, they are about “justice” for all. (And do I have to mention it includes any perpetrator, who may end up in need of psychological and social training?) Therefore they remove themselves from morality as is by considering more rigid system of ethics on which basis one can make arbitration. Harris’s ideas would fit fine.

      • Robert Bray
        Posted July 25, 2013 at 7:15 am | Permalink

        Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear, Mr. Larsson: what you object to in my post I also decry. My point was that justice is often perceived by victims as failing in retribution, which they consider a necessary condition for justice to exist as all. And my concluding rhetorical question should make it clear that I agree with you and you should therefore agree with me.

  20. Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    When discussing morality, it’s important not to blur the term ‘objective’ with notions like ‘eternal’ or ‘transcendent’. Something which arises purely out of human thought and interaction and agreement can still be objective in the sense that it isn’t a matter of personal opinion. Murder is wrong because it contravenes the moral codes which we have put in place over the centuries. The fact that these codes have no anchor beyond human civilisation is only a problem if your definition of morality requires some deeper authority; in other words, it’s a circular argument. If you’re happy to grant objective authority to the product of human wisdom through the ages, and it seems churlish not to, then there is no problem.

    • David Howarth
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:34 am | Permalink

      Then churlish I must be. And I have no definition of morality, so there’s no circularity to my argument. Additionally, use of the term “human wisdom” is highly problematic on a number of levels. I’m Tomas de Torquemada thought he was acting wisely and morally.

      Basically my argument is that substituting human authority for God’s authority in matters of governing human behavior is rife with possibilities for horror (yes, I made a moral/value judgment).

      “Something which arises purely out of human thought and interaction and agreement can still be objective in the sense that it isn’t a matter of personal opinion.”

      That’s obvious as to be completely uninteresting. The point is that Harris and others like him DO want to anchor morality in something transcendent, even if it is in a concept as bloodless as “well being”. IMO this is a symptom of emotional cowardice.

      On a practical level, I agree with you 100%. I don’t particularly want to experience the apocalypse first-hand, so for the most part I’m happy to allow the metaphysical tale-spinners who justify morality one whatever basis to run the show.

      • darrelle
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 7:28 am | Permalink

        “Basically my argument is that substituting human authority for God’s authority in matters of governing human behavior is rife with possibilities for horror (yes, I made a moral/value judgment).”

        This seems to imply a denial of reality. Except, of course, for someone who believes that there are gods and that they do in fact provide authority in governing human behavior. In the real world where there are no good reasons to suppose that is true, and a plethora of reasons to suppose it is not true, who else is going to provide the authority to govern our behavior besides ourselves?

        I don’t disagree at all on the potential for horror though. There is plenty of evidence for that. But, there is also plenty of evidence that illustrates the potential for significantly reducing horror as well.

        • David Howarth
          Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:21 am | Permalink

          There is no “authority” to govern behavior except that which we set up for ourselves. But this doesn’t necessarily imply an objective moral standard derivable from principles. Every coherent group of humans has objective (using your definition of “intersubjectively agreed-upon”, tacitly or explicitly) standards, which conflict to one degree or another with every other groups (the monarchy and royal baby, anyone?).

          On a practical level this is necessary and I have no objection–the alternative is for us all just to crawl in holes and die.

          • darrelle
            Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink

            You may be confusing me with other commenters. I do not think that there is an objective moral standard derivable from principles, and I have not argued that position in any of my comments.

            “(using your definition of “intersubjectively agreed-upon”, tacitly or explicitly)”

            I did not provide any such definition.

            “There is no “authority” to govern behavior except that which we set up for ourselves.”

            Yes, that was my point. That viewpoint does not seem to agree with what you expressed in your previous comment, or your comments regarding your understanding of Humanism.

            • David Howarth
              Posted July 24, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

              My bad, yes I did mistake you for the commenter directly above my comment that you responded to. Sorry.

              To address your last point, I think I and a few other posters have differing definitions of existentialism and humanism, and this isn’t the most convenient format to hash it all out clearly.

              • Posted July 24, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

                Well, it certainly doesn’t help that you seem to have a definition of “humanism” that humanists themselves don’t recognise (compare these) … 😉

                How would you define “existentialism” except in way that overlaps with but is not equivalent to the three-point definition of humanism that I quoted elsewhere (search for “bha”)?

                /@

              • darrelle
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

                No worries.

    • Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:46 am | Permalink

      You are correct that it is an objective fact that murder violates human moral codes; it is an objective fact that humans usually regard murder as wrong.

      But I don’t see what one gains by claiming those codes/opinions to have “objective” standing.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:55 am | Permalink

        I agree that “murder is wrong” is not objective. Not so long ago, Western society didn’t see anything wrong with killing people for the smallest offenses and usually killing them in a torturous, humiliating way.

        Things changed when more value was put on the individual who was seen as having a body of him/her own that shouldn’t be arbitrarily abused by other humans.

        In this way, scientific knowledge can inform morality but morality is still subjective because it relies on value judgements.

        • gbjames
          Posted July 24, 2013 at 7:08 am | Permalink

          “Not so long ago, Western society didn’t see anything wrong with killing people for the smallest offenses and usually killing them in a torturous, humiliating way.”

          Texas, still.

          • Gary W
            Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:40 am | Permalink

            The idea that Texas kills people for “the smallest offenses” is ludicrous.

            • gbjames
              Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:59 am | Permalink

              When innocent people are executed the offense was so small as to be nonexistent.

              But I’ve now violated a rule I’m governed by and will refrain from further interaction.

              • Gary W
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 11:05 am | Permalink

                You haven’t shown that Texas has executed even one innocent person. Your claims are just absurd.

              • Posted July 24, 2013 at 11:08 am | Permalink

                Trolling troll is troll-tastic.

                http://bit.ly/143ufvj

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

                Troll, entering the words “texas executions of innocent people” in a google search box is not evidence that Texas has executed innocent people.

        • Robert Bray
          Posted July 25, 2013 at 7:21 am | Permalink

          In the English language, at any rate, ‘murder’ is wrong by definition. ‘Homicide,’ by contrast, is not always morally or legally impermissible, as in the cases of capital punishment and ‘justifiable homicide.’

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted July 25, 2013 at 7:58 am | Permalink

            Regardless of the different verbiage (which is really sophistry) it doesn’t make murder, homicide, etc. objective.

      • Posted July 25, 2013 at 4:07 am | Permalink

        I think for me, the point is that moral codes which have been agreed inter-subjectively are the only show in town. They should be seen as a mark of human achievement, not as a weak spot in the humanist / atheist philosophy. And yet I feel non-religous people are always having to fight a rearguard action, trying to show why their views don’t imply some completely destructive and anarchic moral relativism. When people say that the fact murder is wrong is ‘not an objective fact’ what they really mean is that it is not an eternal truth because attitudes to murder have evolved. But it’s still objectively true to say today that murder is wrong. Because ‘wrong’ means ‘wrong by consensus’ – once you accept the lack of a transcendental moral framework which lies outside human experience.If somebody told you they didn’t want to go the zoo because there weren’t any unicorns there, you’d think they were crazy. (I’ve no idea what I mean by that.)

        • Posted July 25, 2013 at 4:14 am | Permalink

          moral codes which have been agreed inter-subjectively are the only show in town. They should be seen as a mark of human achievement, not as a weak spot in the humanist / atheist philosophy.

          I entirely agree, subjective conceptions of morality work far better (indeed objective conceptions, those that don’t derive from human feeling, are non-starters).

          That’s why I think it’s a mistake to try to recover an “objective” scheme of morals (that’s playing the religious game) — we should instead laud and glory in our human-centered and subjective morals as vastly more coherent and superior to misconceived “objective” schemes.

  21. Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    Ethical legislation will always be an adjustable continuum, never a fait accompli.

  22. 7x7
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    For reference, I suggest people glance at a couple entries from the SEP to ground this discussion. For starters: (there are other relevant articles there too)
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/skepticism-moral/

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-anti-realism/

  23. Lianne Byram
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    I agree there is no objective morality. Like everything else we do in life we choose what we consider right and wrong both as societies and as individuals. Making those choices based on human well-being makes a lot of sense to me, but must be based largely on subjective assessments. However some of those assessments could be based on objective measures such as the social determinants of health.
    I think one could argue that what is objective about morality is an evolved human concern about it and its application in social life.

  24. Tim Harris
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    I think Jerry is entirely right in saying that there is no such thing as an objective morality, but just as ‘well-being’ is a nebulous term that in the end wreaks havoc with Sam Harris’s arguments, so such locutions as ‘the good of society’ are nebulous – Whose society? According to whose view of society? That of Fascists, Communists, libertarians, the present Republican Party, Islamists? ‘Society’is not a simple term but a contested area that is the focus of intense antagonisms.

  25. Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    Agreed with the gist of this post.

    The sources of human morality appear to be an ever changing mixture of what works to produce a stable society (selected through biological and cultural evolution), what we negotiate in power struggles between different interest groups (ages, genders, classes, etc.) and, once we are comfortable enough to start thinking things through, what we feel we can rationally defend (there is a bit of a moral philosopher in all of us).

    But there is really no reason to say why what works to make a stable society, for example, should be morally good or not. It is turtles all the way down. But why not? Of course we humans get to decide human morality, preferably collectively. Who else?

  26. Curt Cameron
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    I’ve wrestled with this question and I think I’ve settled on a conclusion that satisfies me at least.

    Morality is just one’s opinion on the rightness or wrongness of an action. How can an opinion be objective? Even if every sane person shares an opinion (like it’s immoral to torture babies for fun), that still doesn’t make it objective, it’s just everyone’s opinion.

    Now our opinions should be informed by actual data, and that’s what Sam Harris was trying to do. If you have the opinion that the well-being of sentient creatures is your goal, then there are some things that you can say objectively that go towards that goal, or away from them. However, you’ve already given up objectivity when you granted that the opinion of well-being is paramount.

    • Mia
      Posted July 25, 2013 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

      What’s interesting is that we mostly all do have the opinion that it is immoral to torture babies for fun and that goes across cultures/religions/time etc. Where does this practically innate repugnance come from? God, genetics? It doesn’t need to be socialized–it seems to just be there. It’s subjective, but about as close to objective as you can get.

  27. Posted July 24, 2013 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    A bit late to the party, and I haven’t fully caught up.

    But I would suggest that simply entertaining the notion that there could be something such as objective or subjective morality is indicative of a category error.

    Morality is, in the game theory sense, an optimal strategy for an individual living in a society. It is an amalgam of guidelines that says that if you wish to accomplish such-and-such then you would be well advised to do this-and-that.

    Now, might people have desires and goals that are, well, evil? Yes, of course.

    But the thing is, there are fundamental, inescapable desires, and accomplishing much of anything requires accommodating those desires, and those desires can only and / or best be accomplished by working within the accepted moral framework of the society.

    For example, you can’t do anything if you’re dead. You can’t do much of anything if you’re locked behind bars, or if you have no money, and so on. And if you go around murdering and raping and stealing and the like, sooner or later (and generally sooner) you’re very likely to wind up dead or imprisoned or destitute.

    And, yes, it’s an odds-based thing. There’re those who, mostly through random chance, “beat” the odds and, say, become a long-lived dictator of a banana republic.

    But, even then, the big-picture evolutionary pressure is such that we see less and less of that every generation. See Pinker’s latest magnum opus for the details.

    Many, especially those who have yet to fully let go of religion, get very upset at this characterization of morality in such evolutionary terms. They fear that, without at least a definition of morality that absolutely excludes Idi Amin from the moral landscape, suddenly everybody will try to game the system and start going on murderous raping pillaging rampages…and, with those worries, they spectacularly miss the point that you dramatically reduce your chances of success (at anything) as soon as you do so.

    There are no guarantees, but there most certainly are smart and stupid bets. Morality is all about making the smartest best…and that means being a good, upstanding member of a healthy and mutually supportive society.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Dominic
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      Never too late to have you at the party Ben! Well put.

      • Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:09 am | Permalink

        Thanks! Any popcorn left, or have all y’all eaten it all up already?

        b&

  28. darrelle
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    As with many other similar issues, for example the free will debates, the meaning of the central term defining the issue, “objective,” seems to be the main point of contention. Those arguing for objective moral values seem to either have a different idea of what “objective” means compare to their opposition, or to be trying to expand what “objective” means.

    Me, I’m just not sure yet. Trying to figure it out is like pushing my head through mush.

    • David Howarth
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      Then you’re doing it exactly right, I’d say :-).

  29. Posted July 24, 2013 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Ethicists generally use ‘objectively true‘ to mean something like

    the truth in question does not vary based on people’s situations or mental states.

    Thus objectivity, to them, is not an epistemological property, as it is to you. Objectivity is about there being an answer out there, not about whether we can ever find it.

    So by ethicists’ definition, at least, nothing in your post really opposes the existence of objective morality.

    Now, you raise a group of very important questions for epistemological theories in metaethics. To decide whether animals are part of the moral community, whether and in what cases we can sacrifice X’s interests to benefit Y, and so on, are all parts of live moral debate going on today. Just because it’s a difficult question, doesn’t mean there’s no objective answer. Those of us who believe in objective morality think it’s either true or false that animals are part of the moral community and either true or false that one may kill an insect in order to prevent a minor harm to oneself.

    The best thing to read about objective morality would be Huemer’s Ethical Intuitionism. I’d be very interested to see you review it here. If you don’t have time, this is a good introduction to moral realism.

  30. NewEnglandBob
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    The popcorn is finished and the arguments here are the same old, same old. I was hoping to learn something new.

    Bottom line: morality is not objective and society needs rules to function; collectively we need to improve things.

    • David Howarth
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      Yup.

  31. DavidIsaac
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    This discussion seems more abstract than it needs to be. A key element of a nontheistic morality has been put out by by both religious and secular thinkers, based on empathy (which appears not to be unique to humans): treating others as you would want to be treated in their place. Or, the operationally easier to deal with, don’t do to others that which you would not want done to you. Add in discussion of empathy for nonhuman species, future members of our own species, or the entire biosphere to enlarge the realm of morality.

    Does that make a start?

  32. Jeff J
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    Why bother trying to define an objective morality? It smacks a bit of the “You can’t fix everything so why do anything/perfect is the enemy of good” approach to a problem.

    There is a relative morality, and you can try to make yours as internally consistent as possible. Even the most PoMo attitude evident in these comments would have a hard time seeing a dog trapped in a car in the midst of a heat wave. It’s pretty easy to extrapolate to other animals or situations from there. Or, forget ‘morality’ and concern yourself with suffering, which should be much easier to define. There is a lot of low-hanging fruit out there. Hemming and hawing over what a carrot ‘feels’ compared to a scallop is just avoiding the question.

    • Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      But doesn’t that just provide a different basis for morality, minimising suffering rather than maximising well-being?

      /@

  33. Myron
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    General factors of well-being:

    1. the production of pleasure or happiness/the reduction of unpleasure or unhappiness

    2. the satisfaction of needs or desires

    3. the realization of values or ideals

  34. Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    While disabusing ourselves of the notion that morality is arbitrary, it would help also to disabuse ourselves of the other pernicious notion that morality is arbitrary. Here is a discussion on an intersubjective conception of morality that attempts to sidestep both those pitfalls.
    http://nirmukta.net/Thread-Morality-Neither-objective-nor-arbitrary-but-intersubjective

    As for the morals of meat-eating, here is another discussion:
    http://nirmukta.net/Thread-Religion-in-the-abattoir

  35. SelfAwarePatterns
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Morality is ultimately not objective. You can’t prove moral propositions. Unfortunately, you can only advocate for them.

    Accordingly, science can’t prove moral propositions. But that doesn’t mean that science is irrelevant. The science on the effects of corporeal punishment matter to me in regards to my stance toward spanking, although I can’t prove that it should. The science of fetal development matters to me in regards to my stance on abortion, although I can’t prove that it should. If science didn’t matter on these topics for most people, you wouldn’t see both sides in these issues quoting their favorite studies.

  36. Vaal
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Coel (and Prof. Coyne)…

    Coel wrote: “And there’s an even more basic argument against it: what does “objective” morality even *mean*? We can meaningfully say that in some human’s opinion X is wrong, but what does it *mean* by saying that X is objectively wrong? “

    It can mean “objectively wrong” in the same sense we tend to use that concept in any other empirical claim.

    For instance, height disparities. I’m 5.10 and my mother is 5.5 inches tall. If those facts are true then I’m taller than my mother. Anyone having the opinion that I’m not taller, or that I’m shorter, is objectively wrong, wouldn’t you agree?

    Yes ultimately we had to agree on a system of measurement, but once we did, objective facts follow. Objective in the sense “the truth of this claim does not change with someone’s opinion; someone having a different opinion is simply wrong.”

    Note also it’s a relational fact. Once it wasn’t true that I was taller than my mother, but now it’s a fact that I am. So we can have objectively true statements about states of affairs that describe existing relationships, whether they were not true at one point or not.

    Hence, if we come up with some criteria for
    assigning “more moral” or “less moral” then, in principle, we could have our moral claims appeal to objective truths that are not merely subject to opinion.

    IF, for instance, we establish morality as being about “what moves are most likely to work toward our combined well being, or against it” then there will be facts about us, and the possible actions we can take affecting our well being. These facts will be anchored in reality, and we could in principle come to “right” and “wrong” conclusions, right and wrong moral statements. The same for any other empirical claims.

    So: set a standard; objective truths related to that standard can follow.

    We can move on to the question of “why start with that standard?” Of course, the same can be asked for the standard by which we measure anything, including height and distance. Turns out there is something we wanted to measure, or account for. In this case, we may say we want to measure or account for human well being (or conscious well being). That it may be DIFFICULT many times to measure does not entail there aren’t objective facts involved.

    And it can be argued that one ought to use “the well being of conscious creatures” on the basis that it hits a bedrock of concerns that generally captures the concerns people import into “morality” and that it is an axiom denied on pains of incoherence, or lack of a more justifiable axiom.

    And/or it can be argued that we can ask “What IS value? What makes sense of people thinking we ‘value’ things, and how could this value arise, if it does?”

    If you come up with a cogent value theory that explains what Value is and how it arises and accounts for our valuing things, then it ought to be accepted on those grounds. And it turns out that some Value theories, imply down the road that we can make objective value statements.
    (E.g. I favor Desirism, the value theory that value arises as the relationship between desires and facts, real states of affairs, that fulfill desires. This necessary connection to the real world ends up getting you to value and ought claims that have objective truth value, in the same sense of height relationship claims have such objective truth values).

    Vaal

    • Posted July 24, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      Yes ultimately we had to agree on a system of measurement, but once we did, objective facts follow.

      Agreed. To take your example of “taller”, the meaning of “taller” is then “gives a larger value when measured”, that is, when compared with the size scale.

      You then want to define a “well being” scale (it gets awkward when you have to decide how to aggregate across sentient creatures, but let’s accept for now that we can establish this scale adequately.

      You then want to, as an axiom, establish an identity between “morality” and this well-being scale.

      Yes you can *define* morality in that way, but: (1) what do you gain over just using the term “well being”?, and (2) what is your justification for doing so?

      For example, how would you respond to the “Mother” Teresa stance that human suffering is a moral good because it redeems us from sin?

      And it can be argued that one ought to use “the well being of conscious creatures” on the basis that it hits a bedrock of concerns that generally captures the concerns people import into “morality” …

      The “it can be argued” rather suggests a lack of confidence in that claim! And the “ought” rather begs the whole question.

      … and that it is an axiom denied on pains of incoherence, or lack of a more justifiable axiom.

      Why do we need some other axiom? It is a property of the universe that “physical length” can be measured objectively such that we can make objective statements about a “size” scale.

      On what basis are you asserting that there exists some similar “moral good” scale, about which one can establish objective statements?

      Isn’t it better to accept moral sentiments as being *opinions* in the same way that ideas of beauty and taste refer to opinions?

      Do you consider that you could arrive at an objective scale of beauty, one that didn’t just amount to a popular vote?

      Everything about this topic makes much more sense if you accept that moral sentiments are *feelings* and *opinions*, programmed into us by evolution as a social glue to facilitate our cooperative way of life, in exactly the same way that aesthetic systems and immune systems, etc, are cobbled together by evolution for the entirely pragmatic reason that they work, and that there is nothing “objective” about them beyond that.

      Why would those moral feelings map to an “objective” scale any more than, say, sexual attractiveness does?

      The only root of *our* morality is our feelings and opinions. There is nothing incoherent about stopping there and not trying to adopt axioms that arrive at an “objective” moral scale.

      Of course our *feelings* are all about the well being of ourselves, our family, our neighbours, and our fellow humans, so of course there is a huge overlap between our moral feelings and any well-being scale, but the two are distinct concepts.

      • Vaal
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

        Coel,

        “Yes you can *define* morality in that way, but: (1) what do you gain over just using the term “well being”?, and (2) what is your justification for doing so?”

        Because “morality” is understood, descriptively as the prescriptions made by beings like us about treating one another, and normatively as the prescriptions for action we *ought* to follow. Generally, when you are talking about that, you are talking about “morality.” The mere term “well being” does not in of itself tell you any of this, what one ought to do etc; it would be just the basis
        for getting to what we ought to do.

        “Why do we need some other axiom? It is a property of the universe that “physical length” can be measured objectively such that we can make objective statements about a “size” scale.

        On what basis are you asserting that there exists some similar “moral good” scale, about which one can establish objective statements?”

        There’s a possible confusion in that question. I wouldn’t argue there is a “moral good” scale “out there in the universe, but rather it’s possible we could have a scale to measure certain phenomena in the universe, that we put in the category “moral.”

        Just as we found some phenomenon we wanted to measure – e.g. the variances in human size, hence we came up with a scale for measuring this – there may be phenomena we notice we also want to measure. This could be “the well being of conscious creatures” or “human well being” or something similar.

        The reason we would be motivated to call our measuring of well being “morality” is that it gives an ontological basis for value and captures the concerns that are generally understood to be those in the moral realm: how we ought to treat one another and on what basis.

        I agree that it can be hard to pin down what one always means by such phrases as “well being,” but I’d also agree with Sam Harris that this does not make the concept meaningless, for the reasons Sam has argued (e.g. we seem to be able to agree, often, on when someone is obviously in a poorer state of well being than a greater state – in fact much of the work most civil society recognizes as ‘good’ is predicated upon recognizing such disparities, and trying to raise the well being of the less fortunate).

        The reason I may be coming off as half-hearted (if not half-witted) in my defense of Harris’ specific thesis can be found down further in the comments; I’m more beholden to a different moral theory, Desirism, that shares some aspects of Harris ideas but that I think goes deeper and becomes more specific.

        Cheers,

        Vaal

        • Posted July 24, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

          Because “morality” is understood … normatively as the prescriptions for action we *ought* to follow.

          So, in essence, you want to co-opt the term “morality” to reinforce your opinion of what we “ought” to do. I’m dubious, it’s reminiscent of religious appeals to “God wants …” to back up what is in truth “I want …”.

          Of course morality *is* only about what we want, but I’d prefer that people were up-front, saying: “this is *my* opinion as to what I’d like to see”, admitting that this is subjective, rather than trying to claim objective standing for it.

          I’ve not met Desirism before. On a first glance I’d suggest you’ll have real problems aggregating desires onto any measurement scale.

          First, you’d need some way of assigning strengths to desires, this desire being 3.4 times the strength of that one. Hmmm.

          Second, you then need to sum up desires across people. Do they all have equal weight? That’s problematic. I, for one, would not accept a “morality” that required me to treat, say, my nephew no more favourably than a random person in a country I’d never visited. Humans aren’t like that.

          Then, how you do weight the desires of someone terminally ill with a week to live versus a young, healthy adult? How do you weight the desires of a 5-yr-old against a parent who knows that what he wants is not good for him?

          Thirdly, even more problematic, is how one aggregates over different species and what weights to assign. I suspect there is no coherent, non-arbitrary answer to any of these things.

          Moral philosophy gets so, so much easier if you simply accept that it *is* human feeling and opinion, and that there is nothing “objective” about it, and thus that attempts to aggregate onto any sort of scale, off which we can read off what we “ought” to do, are misguided and doomed to failure.

          • Posted July 24, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

            I don’t think we can quantify these things on any numerical scale, but we can make quantitative comparions. This becomes fuzzier as things become closer, which is where things like (at the risk of baiting Ben) the trolley problem become interesting.

            /@

          • Vaal
            Posted July 24, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

            Coel,

            “So, in essence, you want to co-opt the term “morality” to reinforce your opinion of what we “ought” to do.’”

            No. The theory first establishes the basis for what we ought to do. It just starts with “what is value, how does it arise, what reasons do we have for actions and thus also for prescribing actions?”

            You don’t even need the term “morality.” However, these also are the concerns usually recognized under the umbrella term “morality.” In the same way if I’m making a living from my skill as a basketball player in the NBA, I can just state the case for how that is so. But, this being the case, my work would reasonably come under the term “Professional Basketball Player.”

            Same with this value theory; in talking about the ontological basis for “value” and “good” and “bad” and the basis for our prescribing desires/actions that we all “ought” to do, this is the set of concerns normally recognized as “moral” or “moral theory.”

            Yes, there is a measurement issue. But, that can be the case with empirical reality – reality doesn’t owe us easy measurements. Also, as Harris says in his “health” analogy, hard to pin down metrics don’t equate to there being no easier to spot ends of the scale.

            Another way of stating moral desires is as I have said: they are the desires that we have reason to promote among one another.
            You will have prudential desires, but you will have a hard time finding reasons to promote or discourage just any prudential desire in your fellow man. These problems will relate to your other desires (you won’t want to promote in me a desire to thwart your desires, and I’ll have the same motivation), and the universal nature of reason will prevent special pleading.

            Finally:

            “Moral philosophy gets so, so much easier if you simply accept that it *is* human feeling and opinion, and that there is nothing “objective” about it,”

            Oh, I disagree with that! Yes we are dealing with human feelings (though we may want to expand beyond humans). But if you want to simply say “it’s all subjective” you open a pretty painful pandora’s box, especially the next time you want to convince anyone something is true or false…literally ANYTHING.

            I’d be left to ask: have you actually NO REASONS for doing anything? If not, it should be obvious this is going to be problematic. If you do have reasons for what you do, what would they be? I’d be fascinated if you can come up with any cogent structure that does not appeal to any desires. But if you do at least go along with desire-fulfillment as a basis for what we PERSONALLY value, and hence prudential “ought” statements have the structure I’ve outlined, then you’d have to explain why this logic suddenly disappears when I ask about desires. Since there are
            various desires we can promote or discourage among one another, which ought we promote, which ought we discourage? If you have no reason, then you give no reason for anyone including your kids, to ever listen to your prescriptions. But if you do have reasons, where do they come from if not from desires, like your prudential desires.

            I mean, sure you can make things easy if you throw up your hands and forget about explaining things. But if you start trying to make sense of all the whys of what you and I do, there is nothing about the purely subjective stance that makes it suddenly “easy.”

            Cheers,

            Vaal

            • Posted July 25, 2013 at 2:39 am | Permalink

              Hi Vaal, of course I entirely agree with you that our values derive from our desires (I regard that as near tautological). It’s getting from there to any sort of “objective” morality that I dispute.

              One commentator has suggested that we first need to discuss what we mean by “objective” morals.

              I propose that, under *objective* morality, it would have to be conceivable that the statement “George’s actions were wrong and he ought to be punished” was true, even if every human on earth were of the opinion “I see nothing wrong in George’s actions, indeed I consider them laudable”.

              I don’t see how your desirism could get you to that sort of objective morals.

              I do agree with you that human morality is grounded in human desires, feelings, opinions, values (all of these things being much the same thing), but I consider that to be a subjective conception of morals.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 4:46 am | Permalink

                That definition of objective morality seems logical to me, but it also persuades me that objective morality is a bad thing.

                Morality seems to be ultimately about an ideal of goodness that humans aspire to. It is about what humans want, and imposing such an objective morality on humans would be unethical, a form of tyranny.

    • Posted July 25, 2013 at 4:38 am | Permalink

      Perhaps others have already addressed this, haven’t read the responses you’ve gotten, but height is a poor analogue for well-being.

      Height is a clearly and completely defined dimension. It doesn’t matter how small or large we choose to make the units with which we chop it up to measure it. The point is that before we measure it, we know what we are measuring.

      Do we have a clear definition of well-being? I don’t think you can measure it if you don’t know, in a certain minimum amount of detail, what you’re measuring.

      And although given two simple cases we might be able to say A is better-off than B, a generalized well-being would be fraught with too many internal conflicts for us to say “this is what well-being looks like; this is how well-being is defined”.

  37. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    That is about as far as I’ve come too. And I don’t know if my analysis can be taken much further.

    Now I can’t reject the notion that there are good grounds for absolute morals in some sub-areas. (Less likely for the whole area of morality.) This is because, as the post notes, these are nebulous concepts.

    But that makes some progress. The property of nebulousness comes from such concepts being sometimes untestable, meaning they are story telling. Ironically it seems there are no “right or wrong” concepts of morality.

    Finally, it’s clear that under the standard of “general well being,” nearly all of us would be acting morally by giving a third of our income to the poor and starving people of the world. Yet we don’t. Are we then immoral? Or are we going to selfishly argue that well being is actually maximized if we’re able to keep as much of our money as we want, and bestow its largesse on our family and friends?

    Under what theory of economics is that clear? Even better, if someone can come up with statistics that shows such largesse on others works, it would be helpful.

    The first problem is that removing large parts of income doesn’t motivate people in an economy. This has been tried, in the form of taxation where most of the money goes back to the taxated, in Sweden. And it didn’t work well, so the system was eventually abandoned for a reasonable market economy.

    You could claim that voluntarily gifting would make a difference, but I doubt it does. And in any case the text suggests it should be involuntarily.

    The second problem is that support abroad is most often counter-productive when it isn’t dedicated relief. I’ve seen enough statistics (again, from Sweden’s support) on how the money doesn’t reach those who needs it, and when it does it harms the society that should benefit.

    It is a nice thought, but again: it is story telling. And AFAIK the facts, such as they are, goes against it.

    • Gary W
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      I’d like to know what facts you think go against the idea that a more equal global distribution of wealth would increase aggregate human well-being. Billions of people in the developing world live on just a few dollars a day. Their access to basic goods like food, housing, health care and education is far below what are considered poverty-level living conditions in the developed world. Their lives would be improved enormously through a transfer of wealth from rich developed nations.

      I also don’t understand why you think Jerry suggested this transfer “should be involuntarily.” He wrote “nearly all of us would be acting morally by giving a third of our income to the poor and starving people of the world.” That doesn’t sound involuntary to me.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

        You are putting up a strawman for what I said in my comment: “I’d like to know…”.

        Jerry: “Or are we going to selfishly argue that well being is actually maximized if we’re able to keep as much of our money as we want,”. [My cursive]

        • Gary W
          Posted July 24, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

          Then what proposition of Jerry’s, exactly, are you claiming the facts “go against?”

          As a matter of political and social reality, people in wealthy countries probably aren’t going to vote in the foreseeable for a new tax that would send a third of their income to poor people in developing countries. And they’re probably not going to start voluntarily sending a third of their income, either. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a moral duty to do so.

  38. alanchais
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    As Sam Harris says, truth is a slave to well-being. Which is to say that anything you can say about the value of knowing the truth (e.g. it’s so interesting, so useful, so beautiful, etc.) translates into a claim about the well-being of conscious creatures.
    So I’m guessing that’s what Sam means by an ‘objective’ morality, because there will be no such thing as morality, without sentient beings.
    Why don’t we feel compassion for rocks? Because we don’t think rocks can suffer, and if we’re more concerned about our fellow primates than we are about insects, as indeed we are, it’s because we think they’re exposed to a greater range of potential happiness and suffering.
    Now the crucial thing to notice is that this is a factual claim. This could be something we can be right or wrong about–the relationship between biological complexity and the possibilities of experience–we can be wrong about the inner lives of insects. And there is no notion, no version of human morality and human values that I’ve ever come across that is not at some point reducible to a concern about conscious experience and its possible changes.

  39. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    My muddled thinking on morality reminds me of the same problem I used to have on evolutionary heredity. I knew somewhat of population genetics, but I couldn’t connect the conceptual levels.

    It wasn’t until I heard of Dawkins’s gene centered theory that the waters cleared. But I doubt something similar will appear re morality which, as noted, is nebulous and lacks a quantitative basis.

    Did I mention that I am happy with the research that seems to show that generally people shows the same moral reflexes, and that the overhead “moral story” makes very little behavioral difference? =D

    • Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      You may well be thinking of morality as a platonic ideal.

      Instead think of it as, in the game theory sense, an optimal strategy for an individual living in society.

      For, example, in order of precedence:

      1) Do not do unto others that which they do not wish done unto them, except to the minimal extent necessary to prevent them from violating this rule.
      2) Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
      3) An it harm none, do what thou wilt.

      The first is the essence of criminal law.

      The second is the essence of commerce and all forms of cooperative endeavors.

      The last is the essence of art and exploration.

      So long as the precedence is held, I have yet to find a situation that doesn’t fit very nicely into those three rules.

      For example, Torquemada was following the second rule when he tortured people to save them from an eternity in Hell, but that violated the more-important first rule that gave them the right to determine their own fate for themselves. Had he applied the rules in order, he only would have tortured those whom he could cajole into voluntarily agreeing to the torture — an empty set, almost assuredly.

      Or, your hunter neighbor might ask you for your help dressing some game, but you’re a vegetarian. You can feel free to decline, but don’t expect her to tend your garden while you go on vacation. But that shouldn’t stop either of you from building a sculpture together in the town square.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted July 24, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink

        Platinum rule, golden rule, bronze rule … ?

        /@

        • Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

          Either that, or Einey, Meeny, and Miney. Still haven’t figured out what to do with Curly….

          b&

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

        Thanks, that is helpful. But FWIW I did see moral behavior as an example of when using game theory applies a long while hence. Tit-for-tat with somewhat forgiveness is AFAIK still the optimal strategy.* (So your 3 laws doesn’t quite encapsulate that, but close.)

        It is a fact, and I expect it is still visible, that I came from an absolute moral “idealist” position. Though I was mostly referring to, here, the translation to the conceptual level of “objective vs relative moral”. Above I got the impetus to see that a good translation between TFTWF and morality is pragmatism. I will call that “realmoral” (ref realpolitik).

        *I think the resolution of the recent Dyson spat was that precisely his strategy can be used to implode any such attacks on TFTWF, which reverts the global strategy back to an effective TFTWF.

        • Posted July 24, 2013 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think the Prisoner’s Dilemma is complete or sophisticated enough to be a good real-world model of actual morality…it runs into the same types of problems that physicists have modeling cows as frictionless spheres.

          Don’t get me worng; I think it’s a very useful model to start to get a grip on the matter. I’d just caution very strongly against naïvely assuming that lessons learned from studying the Dilemma should automatically be applicable in more complex systems.

          b&

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

        That’s a pretty good set of rules, and I like the way you broke it down into law, commerce, and pursuit of happiness.

        Considering the trolley problem, it’s difficult to fit into these rules as they are worded, primarily becuase in #1 it says “prevent them”.

        If it said “to the least extent necessary to minimize violations of this rule”.

        Then throwing the switch to kill one and save five fits.

        Or do you envision the trolly problem as outside the scope of these rules, perhaps because it is too contrived or rare?

        • Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

          I’m as much as an anti-fan of the Trolley Problem as it gets. Not only is it contrived, it amounts to little more than a really bad variation on the Milgram experiment.

          If you really want to consider those types of situations, it’s much better to look at how real professionals train to deal with actual life-or-death triage-type situations. For example, in the case of engine failure, a pilot will be trained not only to try to land in a spot that won’t cause any damage at all, but to minimize as best as possible casualties to those on the ground. I think, perhaps, even in preference over the lives on the plane. The people on the plane had the choice to put themselves at risk; those on the ground didn’t.

          But, when it comes right down to it, whenever you’re in a triage-type situation, so many things have gone so horribly worng that there’s really no point putting much energy into what the least awful “solution” is. Much better to put that energy into preventing those types of situations from arising in the first place, and into investigations aimed at preventing further occurrences when they happen. When the evil Nazi Philosopher is demanding that you must choose between shoving your fat wife or sick daughter in front of the trolley or else he’ll kill all three of you…well, you’re already well and truly fucked, so who cares that the Philosopher is just going to electrocute all the survivors regardless?

          b&

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

            I completely agree that the goal should be to avoid being backed into such constrained corners.

            The trolly problem isn’t really a basis from which to prescribe moral behavior, but seeing how responses change with variations of the scenario tells us something about the human mind.

            There are people who end up being faced with such tradeoffs, such as police, soldiers in combat, military commanders, and the President. For example, do you pull the switch to get involved in Syria, or do nothing and allow lots of people to be killed? Do you value American life above Syrian life? Or substitute Rwanda for Syria to change the picture a bit. There are lots of different ways to answer these questions.

            • Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

              …and I’d much rather do serious analysis of the real-world problems. The absurd caricature of the Trolly Problem is as relevant to police crisis training or military rules of engagement or realpolitik as a physics approximation of cows as frictionless spheres would be to a dairyman.

              Because, you know what? When you actually get into the thick of things, whatever lessons one thinks one learns about how many fat men you can murder and still come out a hero for saving the hot chicks has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on what types of warnings an officer should give before drawing a weapon — let alone what Russia’s response is likely to be to an American invasion of Syria or if it might even prompt Iran to launch a preemptive nuclear strike on Israel.

              b&

              • Mia
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

                When the examples you guys use include fat wives and hot chicks, it makes me as a current non-skinny wife and former sorta hot chick feel highly excluded from this blog. I’m a sentient being not a piece of lettuce.
                sheesh.

              • Posted July 26, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

                Erm…I included those examples because that’s the level of sophistication of the Trolley Car “thought” experiment.

                In case you’re not familiar with it, it sets up a wildly implausible scenario of gross criminal negligence whereby various people are threatened with gruesome death by trolley car unless you, a random bystander who just happens to happen on the scene and instantly receive a brain transplant of rail operations, perform various other gruesome acts. Would you throw a fat elderly woman off the bridge so she’d derail the train if it meant saving the cheerleaders trapped in the schoolbus stuck on the tracks?

                No, I’m not kidding. That’s the kind of obscenity philosophers relish in when they think they’re performing deep, meaningful “experiments” about morality, and it’s a big part of the reason why I have basically no respect for philosophy.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Mia
                Posted July 27, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink

                Fine–I was tired and sensitive when I read that, but I think my point stands that, ironically, we can sometimes care so much about whether non-humans have feelings etc. we forget the feelings of actual humans we are communicating with. And I am completely familiar with the Trolley Dilemma as everyone who took Ethics 101 ought be. I agree with your points about it entirely.

  40. Lyndon
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    I agree with many others here. What we call morality is really just intersubjective and societal wrangling over how we wish to organize societies and selves and to how to treat each other.

    To make a bit of a nihilistic argument, we care about our well-being, and we like to avoid pain and enjoy pleasures of different kinds and magnitudes, but ultimately we are products of a long evolutionary process that probably found pain and pleasure a useful tool so that a being would care for its body and its reproduction habits (etc). As humans became linguistic beings that could plan for the future and who could magnify self-representation and specie-representation, we started moving into concepts of more refined well-being, that went, at least at times, beyond more simple pains and pleasures.

    The idea that through this representation of “well-being,” as it derived from evolutionarily engendered pain and pleasure, we somehow transcended into a world of “morality” seems wrong. What we called morality were questions about how we could arrange societies and interactions so that as selves we could live longer and enjoy more pleasure and less pain. We called (and still call generally) these things both “good” and at times moral. But in the end there is not something intrinsically good about the continued existence of species homo (sapiens or transapiens) or of our individual selves or consciousnesses.

    Now, with that said, I will still argue for a world where we expand and explore and at times enjoy some of those simple pleasures (we can do those things better in robust, more equal, less religious . . . societies). But we are not striving for something “good” and certainly not moral as we do so, despite what Nietzsche may say. We are instead exploring and expanding, living longer and enjoying more pleasurable states, and in time understanding our selves and the world a bit better. Casting what we are doing in normative terms of “good” and moral obscures our best understanding of what we are doing, and thus (probably) prevents us from organizing societies and our selves in ways that many of us would argue for.

  41. Yair
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    “I don’t think the criterion of “well being” is an objective one. It is a subjective choice, and can’t be chosen based on a scientific study of nature. ”

    But subjective choices are grounded in the person’s nature, which CAN be studied scientifically. By studying the “Moral Utility Function” of humans, scientifically, you can come up with a moral theory that humans will want to follow, since it is based on furthering precisely what they want to further in the moral sphere – whatever that is.

    Most people seem to think that our moral values stem from a few fundamental values, or judgment-modules, and that while society can tinker with how these are expressed in society it is still the case that for the most part the basic drives are universal, or at least have something like a very peaked Normal distribution. So a socipath might lack empathy, for example, socipaths are rare – and normal people are driven by it.

    If this is the case, then you can investigate the basic moral values, and their variance, in the population, and can then construct a scientific and completely objective theory of morality on how to further them (perhaps with some leeway, to allow real people, each with his own variety of the moral sense, to still use the theory, rather than aiming at the abstract Average or Normal person).

    Most people seem to think they are driven by only one type of fundamental moral drive, e.g. consequentialist judging of well-being. I personally suspect this is a gross oversimolification, and that we actually have multiple, sometimes conflicting, basic moral intuitions. For example, I hold consequences dear, but even if you could prove to me that killing everyone in the Middle East and replacing them with Europeans will, in the long-run, improve human well-being – I’d still consider such genocide abhorrent.

  42. Vaal
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    It seems some of us, Jerry included, generally agree substantially with what Sam Harris is getting at, but we also acknowledge problems. The usual problem being the ambiguity of the concept of “well being.”

    This does seem to be a weakness of his approach, though Sam argues to the degree it’s a weakness it’s shared by other theories we accept.

    But it is a weakness especially if there exist more specific value theories, and various moral philosophers will argue that to be the case.

    I like Desirism as a value/moral theory because it DOES get more specific than Sam’s “well being.” To take just some of Desirism’s concepts:

    We have beliefs and desires. Beliefs
    and Desires can be expressed as “mental attitudes toward propositions.”
    If I believe my house is the same blue color as John’s house,that is to say I have the mental attitude that the proposition “my house is the same color blue as John’s house” is true.

    If I have the Desire that my house be the same color as John’s house, that can be expressed as “I have the mental attitude that the proposition ‘my house is the same blue color as John’s house’ is to be made or kept true.

    In other words, if my house isn’t blue, my mental attitude impels me to have it made blue, and if it is blue, my mental attitude impels me to keep it blue.

    And to say my desire is fulfilled is to say “X is such as to fulfill the desire in question.” Hence, my house actually MUST IN FACT be the same color blue as John’s in order for my desire to be fulfilled.
    My being fooled that my house has been painted blue would not have actually fulfilled my desire.

    Though desires are subjective, this necessary connection between desires and facts bring in an objective component to the theory, in the same way that natural selection brings in a non-random component to evolution theory, though mutations are random with respect to fitness.

    Value arises as the relationship between Desires and states of affairs that fulfill desires.

    From this, “good” means “X is good insofar as it is such as to fulfill the desire(s) in question.” (e.g., this is a “good” pair of running shoes means the shoes are such as to fulfill the desire to run comfortably, or whatever).

    Desires provide the only reasons for actions that exist in the universe. Ought statements are about recommendations for actions, and hence ought statements will necessarily appeal to desire fulfillment for coherency. You “ought” to do X is a way of saying “doing X will be such as to fulfill the desire(s) in question.” E.g. “you ought to buy THOSE running shoes, they will fulfill your desire to run comfortably.

    Hence “ought” statements equate to empirical claims about a relationship, the relationship between an existing desire or set of desires, and factual claims about what action or state of affairs will fulfill those desires. Hence, ought statements make objective claims that are not true simply on opinion, but on the truth of the facts, and people can be “wrong” or “right” about those claims.

    The desires referenced so far are what are typically referred to as “prudential” oughts or “hypothetical imperatives” – those that concern only our own desires.

    But we can then go on to ask if desire themselves can be evaluated on their utility in fulfilling other desires. Turns out, yes, they can. We can ask, for instance, “does the desire to rape have the tendency to thwart (bad) other desires or fulfill other desires (good)?” It’s an empirical question, because desires actually exist as do actions and facts that fulfill or thwart our desires. It’s reasonable to argue the desire to enslave
    someone to do your work is inherently more desire thwarting than the desire that work be consensual between the parties involved.
    The desire to enslave inherently entails thwarting the desire of the slave, whereas the desire for work agreement to be consensual is more likely to be inherently desire fulfilling (fulfilling the desires of both parties, your desire for my work, my desire to provide it for my rate of pay).

    Same can be said about rape, or any number of desire thwarting desires, vs desire-fulfilling desires (e.g. desires for one another’s safety, well being, desire for fairness, equal opportunity, etc).

    Since these are objective empirical claims about whether certain desires tend to fulfill other desires more readily or nor, in principle, we can talk objectively about what desires we ought to promote as “good” among one another, and which desire we ought to discourage as “bad.”

    Vaal.

    • Vaal
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      Just to add: and because of the greater specificity of this theory, the way it actually defines “value” “desire” and “good” and “desire fulfillment,” one can actually answer Sam’s challenge.

      Sam claims that to ask why the greatest misery for every conscious creature would be “bad.” He claims to ask that question is to hit philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question. But his lack of specificity about makes for “well being” actually allows other theories to dig deeper.
      An answer to why the greatest misery for everyone would be “bad” would be “because it would be the most desire-thwarting scenario possible, and that is why it would be “bad.”

      Appeal to desire fulfillment as the ontological account for “value” is more specific and concrete than Sam’s “well being of conscious creatures.”

      Vaal

      • Posted July 24, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

        Interesting. But given that desires are formed by socialisation and thus cultural background this means that the resulting system of “oughts” could only be valid for a given cultural context.
        So, no gain for people who would like some cosmic general ethics to exist.

        • Vaal
          Posted July 24, 2013 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

          martinhinsch,

          “Interesting. But given that desires are formed by socialisation and thus cultural background this means that the resulting system of “oughts” could only be valid for a given cultural context.”

          In isolation, yes, if that cultures desires were the only desires around. Though we can still evaluate their moral prescriptions as true or false, based on that culture’s desires. But note that, especially if we are talking about humans, it is highly unlikely that there would be a great deal of *justifiable* variation. Rape, for instance is inherently desire-thwarting, as is slavery, as are any number of desires, and so cultures can be quite wrong about desires they have promoted or discouraged.

          Also, once other desires enter the mix, e.g. people from other cultures interact with the first culture, the same imperative structure will arise: Which desires do we have reasons to promote and which do we have reasons to discourage? This will take everyone’s desires into consideration.

          Vaal

      • Posted July 24, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

        Here’s another objection to equating morality with desires. Suppose I desire a chocolate ice cream rather than a toffee ice cream. Is it then “moral” for me to choose the chocolate one?

        I’d say that answering “yes” to that is weird. To me morals are feelings that humans have about behaviour that pleases or displeases *other* humans (they are programmed into us as social glue), and that it is inappropriate to use the term “moral” about pleasing oneself.

        • Posted July 24, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think that desirism means that all desires are always about moral choices. (Although it might be a moral problem if there’s only one portion of chocolate ice cream left and others desire it too…)

          Desires that enable fulfilment of others’ desires are morally good; those that hinder fulfilment of others’ desires are morally bad; some desires (those that have no impact on the fulfilment of others’ desires one way or the other) are morally neutral.

          (Have I got it, Vaal?)

          /@

        • Vaal
          Posted July 24, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

          Coel,

          “Suppose I desire a chocolate ice cream rather than a toffee ice cream. Is it then “moral” for me to choose the chocolate one?”

          No. That’s a strictly prudential or practical “ought.” Kant had the two categories of hypothetical imperative (IF you desire X THEN you ought to do Y) and Categorical Imperative: “You always ought to do X”). A lot of people presume that the logic of our personal “hypothetical imperative” or “prudential/practical” prescriptions can not apply to moral prescriptions, as if moral prescriptions are of another nature, or exist in some other realm.

          And some portray some unbridgeable realm of “is” (facts) and “ought” (value/prescriptions). This value theory, Desirism, posits no such ontological distinction between fact and values, is and ought. All facts are in the real realm of “is” and all prescriptive statements are in that same realm of “is.” So good can be understood as “X is Good = X IS such as to fulfill the desire(s) in question.” A claim of empirical fact, like any other.

          The distinction between a prudential “ought” like your “I desire chocolate ice cream” therefore you ought to eat ice cream, and a moral ought, is simply one of category, not ontology. Moral oughts are just those oughts in the category of “evaluating reasons for promoting or discouraging desires themselves.”

          In essence, the categorical imperative/prudential prescription is the only sound structure that exists. Morality is just a certain category of these prescriptions, dealing with which desires to promote.

          I may desire to become a flutist, but I wouldn’t find good reasons to promote that desire in everyone else, nor would everyone else find such reasons to universalise that desire either. (All sorts of our other desires that are taken care of in a functioning society would go unfulfilled if no one filled other jobs, like farming, medicine, construction, etc).

          It’s unlikely your like of chocolate ice cream will supply your reasons to promote that desire in everyone else, and that everyone else will have the same reasons to promote that desire in you (after all, some may not like chocolate ice cream). But there are going to be some more generalized and pretty fundamental desires that will give us motivation and reason to promote among one another, without pains of self-contradiction, etc. Desires that tend to allow other people to fulfill desires, e.g. desires like the desire for freedom from bondage, respect for one another’s property, personal autonomy, fairness, compassion, etc…these are the types of desires we can promote generally that will have the greater tendency to fulfill our other wider sets of desires.

          If you really look at the motivation underlying why most people in our society condemn certain desires and praise others, you’ll see the pattern is generally explained by the desire to promote desire-fulfilling desires (e.g. for work to be contracts between mutually agreeing parties) vs desire-thwarting desires (e.g. the desire to enslave people do do our bidding).

          Is this making any sense yet?

          Vaal

    • Posted July 24, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      Just as a sanity check, you’ve outlined this in a comment on another bl— website post some time ago, didn’t you?

      /@

      • Vaal
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

        Ant (@antallan),

        Yes indeed I’ve brought it up on threads concerning morality before.

        Gets me into trouble every time.

        But hey, I’m in for a whippin’

        Vaal

        • Posted July 24, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

          Ah, yes. I see (h/t Google) you have several times. I recall I kinda liked it, though others (some of the same ones as now!) struggled with it.

          /@

    • Lyndon
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      Vaal,

      The problem for me is that if we are having a discussion about a societal structure (and what different changes would mean) I will not trust you as honest interlocutor when you turn a phrase from “this action will satisfy this desire or these desires,” to this action is “good,” “valuable” or “moral.” More than likely I will share many of your desirous concerns, that is, we will have a “core morality” because we are similar types of beings, but the reason you wish to slide from “to fulfill this desire . . .” to this action is “good” is because of the connotation (which is varying) or for the persuasive effect of doing so.

      “Value arises as the relationship between Desires and states of affairs that fulfill desires.”

      “From this, “good” means “X is good insofar as it is such as to fulfill the desire(s) in question.” (e.g., this is a “good” pair of running shoes means the shoes are such as to fulfill the desire to run comfortably, or whatever).”

      “Desires provide the only reasons for actions that exist in the universe.”

      There is no reason to claim that “’good’ means ‘X is good insofar . . .’” If you present a counterfactual to me, that is fine, “If you desire such, then you should do this, this and this.” If all of your statements stay clearly within that realm then there is nothing wrong with what you are presenting. But the fact that you (and Desirists) are so strongly trying to save the terms “value” and “ought” encourages me to believe that you will not always present straightforward and agreed upon counterfactuals, but instead that you wish to eventually bracket the conditional statement and play upon other connotational and emotional structures of the words “ought” and “good.” The terms you use may be clear in a narrow and mutual conversation but as we expand out there is no reason why we didn’t just stick with the more descriptive account (people with this desire can fulfill it by . . . ).

      The last, more metaphysical part, “Desires provide the only reasons for actions,” is more complicated, but I think we can boil it down to that we are brain/minds that are assessing and representing the world and who commit actions and choices based on those assessments. The structures of our “desires” (how future pain/pleasure will occur to us?) will of course provide assessment, allow us to imagine how different actions will come to effect the self, and thus will structure why we make the choices that we do. Taking all of the reasons and structures that make our brain/minds, pleasure and pains, all that they are and putting that in one place and calling that “desire” seems unnecessary. Though, in general it is fairly right about how we argue for what we do. Our desires, widely taken, are the basis of our reasons.

      • Vaal
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

        Lyndon,

        Most people have a suspicious reaction as soon as “desires” are proffered as the basis of morality. On first glance it appears to justify that morality would be entirely subjective and I get to say it’s whatever I desire and you whatever you desire. But that isn’t what the theory entails.

        “There is no reason to claim that “’good’ means ‘X is good insofar . . .’”

        Yes there is, if this value theory is correct. It’s not being presented in the manner “here’s an idea, do you prefer it?” Rather, it’s presented as a theory that actually EXPLAINS what value is and how it arises – it explains how and why we “value” anything. If it’s correct, and value only arises as the relationship between desires and states of affairs fulfilling desires, then yes the “good” would entail appeal to desires: to say something is “good” would HAVE to mean “such as to fulfill some desire(s) in question.” And that makes great sense of how we value anything, and talk of “good” this or that. At least prudentially. The theory just goes on to point out no other value structure can exist, so we would have to use this value structure to see if we have grounds for the types of prescriptions we normally associate with “morality.” It turns out, yes, we can apply it to those questions. We can ask which desires do we have reasons to promote among one another and which we have reasons to discourage. This is no strange departure from the realm of morality; it actually explains why we tend to promote and discourage various desires in our children, in our society, etc.

        “Though, in general it is fairly right about how we argue for what we do. Our desires, widely taken, are the basis of our reasons.”

        Yes. To someone disputing this theory, I ask: How do YOU explain value and how it arises, without appeal to desires? And since morality concerns reasons for actions, what reasons for actions could exist absent any desires?

        I never see a coherent answer to these questions.

        Cheers

        Vaal

        • Posted July 24, 2013 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

          I’d regard the “we regard as good what fulfills our desires” part of your theory as obvious and close to a tautology. It’s the going on from there to evaluate and aggregate desires in any objective way in order to get to objective “oughts” that I’d dispute.

          • Vaal
            Posted July 24, 2013 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

            Coel,

            Good = that which fulfills our desires, while it seems obvious once you take that lens to evaluate why people think things are good, is not obvious in moral theory.

            After all, as soon as you say “Desire fulfillment is the basis of morality” that actually strikes many as counter-intuitive.
            After all, isn’t it the case that moral imperatives seem to often counsel us to do not what we happen to be desiring, but that which we OUGHT to do?

            We might desire sex with the secretary when our wife isn’t around, or we desire someone else’s car, or to cheat on our taxes or whatever, but these desires seem in conflict with moral prescriptions about what we actually OUGHT to do. It almost then seems the opposite: morality often seems to be rules we employ to get us not to do what we desire.

            And to religious people the idea the morality is based on what we desire seems anethema; Good is that which God is, or declares we ought to do, not just what we mere mortals desire. We have all sorts of bad desires.

            The theory deals with all this. It’s clear we are going to have desires that at times conflict, some desires stronger than others.
            What it says is that moral desires are simply a certain category of desires: the ones that fulfill other desires; the ones we have reason to promote among one another.

            So, Fred may have the desire to have John’s shiny new iPad, and hence a desire to steal it. In practical/prudential terms, Fred’s desire gives him reason to take John’s iPad.
            One might say “Fred ought to slip John’s iPad under his coat when John isn’t looking.”
            That will be such as to fulfill Fred’s desire to have John’s iPad.

            But then we have the moral category of oughts. Those desires which we ought to promote or discourage among one another.
            Fred will not have good reasons to promote the desire to steal what isn’t yours in other people, nor other people in him.

            So we can say of this situation: From which category are we evaluating this? If the prudential category, Fred has reasons to steal the iPad. If the moral category, then it’s morally wrong for Fred to steal the ipad. Now, Fred’s desire to steal the iPad may win out and he steals the iPad. But that doesn’t change that he was acting on an immoral desire, and doesn’t change the logic that it’s a desire he would fail in prescribing to others, and a desire we have to discourage in Fred and others like him.

            Vaal

        • Posted July 24, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

          A bit stumbling block for many is they see the word, “desires,” and immediately leap to the completely unwarranted assumption that the most immediate, primitive, short-term desires must somehow trump all others.

          Most people have a very, very powerful desire to live to a ripe old age and to be able to look with pride on a lifetime overflowing with great achievements — whether that be family or career or scientific or artistic or whatever. And the only way to fulfill that desire is to suppress destructive immediate desires.

          What I find puzzling is that this sort of desire management is something that basically all mammals learn at a very age. Very young human children, for example, have a powerful desire to not get out of bed to use the toilet. And, indeed, if you give in to that desire, there’s the pleasure of relief and momentary warmth. But that pleasure is, in very short order, overwhelmed by the unpleasantness of the aftermath.

          If you’ve learned to control your bodily functions during the night, you should have no trouble understanding the prioritization of desires in general.

          …and yet, so many do….

          b&

    • Gary W
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      If morality is defined as the fulfillment of desires, there’s no such thing as objective morality. An act cannot be moral or immoral independently of a subject with a desire the act fulfills.

      But why is there a moral duty to fulfill desires? We obviously want to fulfill our desires, but why ought we fulfill them?

      • Vaal
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

        “If morality is defined as the fulfillment of desires, there’s no such thing as objective morality. An act cannot be moral or immoral independently of a subject with a desire the act fulfills.”

        First, that a theory has one subjective component does not make the entire structure “subjective.” Evolution has the component of “random mutations (with respect to fitness) and when creationists focus only on that random aspect to say “Evolution is a theory of randomness” we correct them by pointing out, no, the other components of the theory, e.g. natural selection, introduces a non-random character to the process, despite having *some* component of randomness.

        You can not merely dismiss this theory as “subjective” for the same reasons. The subjectivity of desires is only ONE component. The other components are desire FULFILLMENT which entails any claim about desire fulfillment must be factually correct, and that “ought” statements are of this nature, and hence there are objective facts about what ACTUALLY has fulfilled, or will fulfill the desires in question. You get to have subjective desires, but you don’t get your own facts about what has, or will or won’t, fulfill those desires.
        And desires themselves are evaluated on the same logic.

        Morality, on this theory, isn’t simply “what one desires.” Morality pertains to a certain set of desires: those desires that have the tendency to fulfill other desires (good) vs desires that have the tendency to thwart other desires (bad). Another way of stating it is: moral desires are those desires that we have reason to promote among one another, immoral desires are those we have reason to discourage among one another.

        You may have a prudential desire to steal my stuff, but you will have no good reason (based on your other desires) to promote in me the desire to steal your things. Despite your prudential desire to steal my things, you’ll have reasons to discourage that desire in me, and promote a desire to leave what is yours to you. I will have the same reasons to promote that desire in you.
        The desires that groups of people have reasons for promoting one another tend to be desire-fulfilling desires. And there will be facts about which desires when promoted tend to fulfill other desires (e.g. the desire to not be worried about you property being taken) or not.

        Vaal

        • Gary W
          Posted July 24, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

          Since desires are by definition subjective, defining morality in terms of desire-fulfillment necessarily defines morality as subjective. If there’s no morality independently of a subject with a desire, there’s no such thing as objective morality.

          • Vaal
            Posted July 24, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

            That just ignores the structure of the theory, in the way one would ignore the structure of evolution theory to proclaim “any theory based on random mutation is a theory of randomness.”

            Morality would be subjective if the truth of moral claims changed to fit the subjective opinion of any subject who considers it. If it were equivalent to what every subject likes – e.g. I think strawberry ice cream tastes “good” and you think it tastes “bad”, and we are both as “right” as the other. In a subjective scenario, you can say X is bad and I can say the same X is good, and we can both be right. I haven’t a basis to say “you are wrong.”

            That’s not the case with ought statements, on this theory. If ought statements are claims about what will or won’t IN FACT fulfill desires, then you can be wrong and I can be right about such empirical claims.

            Moral “oughts” are the statements that are factual claims about which desires have the tendency to fulfill other desires. If you say that the desire to rape is “good” desire, one we have reasons to promote among one another and which tends to fulfill desires, then that will be a factual claim about which you, or someone else, can be objectively wrong.

            In all likelihood more evidence and argument can be brought to conclude that rape is a desire-thwarting desire and we haven’t good reason to promote it, than the reverse.

            Vaal.

            • Posted July 24, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

              In all likelihood more evidence and argument can be brought to conclude that rape is a desire-thwarting desire and we haven’t good reason to promote it, than the reverse.

              This.

              Rape is bedwetting on steroids. Whatever short-term pleasures the rapist may or may not get from the act, the repercussions, both in the very short term at small scales and in the very long term at society-wide scales, are far more overwhelming.

              Even if the rapist himself doesn’t see it that way, enough other people suffer the harm to ensure that the rapist will personally suffer the consequences.

              Is the system perfect? Rapes are all too common, so obviously not.

              But, clearly, arguments that a pragmatism / desire / game theoretic approach to morality is problematic because people want to go on murderous rape rampages — those arguments are really, really bad strawmen that assume that we’re all still having trouble with the whole potty training concept.

              And not only do I find such implications offensive, I’m surprised that those making such implications don’t realize that they’re being at least as offensive to themselves.

              Cheers,

              b&

          • Gary W
            Posted July 24, 2013 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

            I don’t know why you’re having so much trouble understanding this. The proposition “Jupiter exists” is objectively true. It’s true independently of whether anyone believes it’s true. Its truth does not depend on any subject’s mental states. Your definition of morality, in contrast, RESTS ON a subject’s mental states (that is, his desires). Without a subjective desire, there is no morality. Moral statements therefore cannot be objectively true.

            You still haven’t explained why we ought to act in a way that maximizes desire-fulfillment. Or why we ought to care about anyone’s desires except our own.

            • Posted July 24, 2013 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

              Since the most fundamental of desires include eating and reproduction, it boils down to simple evolutionary biology. Only those organisms that fulfill their desires will have any significant representation in the gene pool, and we can safely ignore the rest.

              And the evolutionary advantages to social living have also been overwhelmingly demonstrated — and it should be blindingly obvious why caring about other’s desires is of vital importance in a social species.

              If you can’t put the pieces together from that, you need to read Jerry’s book and get back to us when you’ve made it through.

              b&

              • Gary W
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

                Only those organisms that fulfill their desires will have any significant representation in the gene pool, and we can safely ignore the rest.

                Irrelevant. That’s just an empirical cause-and-effect relationship, not a moral duty. You can’t get an “ought” from an “is,” remember?

              • Posted July 24, 2013 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

                Gary, you’re the one hung up on the requirement that morality must be a divine absolute command of a platonic ideal.

                Evolution has formed organisms with desires, and morality is the means by which organisms may effectively achieve those desires in the environment in which we find ourselves.

                That’s your is.

                The “ought” is that, if you wish to survive and fulfill your other desires (food, sex, writing the Great American Novel, whatever), you ought to behave in a moral manner that maximizes your chances for success — and that moral manner will inevitably include helping your little old lady neighbor with her groceries rather than raping her and eating her brains for lunch.

                Really, this isn’t hard — no more hard than understanding why you don’t (one hopes) wet your bed at night.

                Indeed, the only way to not get it is to be a sociopath, devoid of empathy and desirous of raping and pillaging and resentful that you can’t get away with it.

                And, no, the existence of sociopaths isn’t a sign that this model of morality is flawed. Evolution is a numbers game, and morality is no different. The presence of outliers doesn’t invalidate the model, since the model only describes big-picture trends.

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

                And the evolutionary advantages to social living have also been overwhelmingly demonstrated — and it should be blindingly obvious why caring about other’s desires is of vital importance in a social species.

                Why should we care about other’s desires except as a means of fulfilling our own? If acting in a way that thwarts someone else’s desires increases the fulfillment of your own desires, why is it immoral for you to act in that way?

              • Posted July 24, 2013 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

                As I wrote, it would only occur to a very emotionally immature sociopath to even make such an objection.

                A sane adult would realize that the payoff for being moral is living in an healthy moral society where everybody can benefit from the help of everybody else.

                Just as with disease vectors and communal immunization, too many parasites taking advantage of others for short-term gain without consideration for the big picture causes societal fracture and collapse, such as we see in Somalia and Afghanistan or WWII Germany and Russia.

                I should probably leave it at that, because your pattern and practice of trolling is such that you’re now likely to suggest that maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

                Evolution has formed organisms with desires, and morality is the means by which organisms may effectively achieve those desires in the environment in which we find ourselves. That’s your is.

                No, morality is not a means to an end. Morality is a matter of what we ought to do, not what we need to do to fulfill our desires, or achieve some other goal.

                The “ought” is that, if you wish to survive and fulfill your other desires (food, sex, writing the Great American Novel, whatever), you ought to behave in a moral manner that maximizes your chances for success — and that moral manner will inevitably include helping your little old lady neighbor with her groceries rather than raping her and eating her brains for lunch.

                Please show us how you have determined that your chances of success are maximized by always fulfilling the desires of others (like helping a little old lady with her groceries) rather than sometimes thwarting them. You seriously believe that crime (and wrongdoing more broadly) never pays, do you?

              • Posted July 24, 2013 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

                Trolls-with-strawmen unsurprisingly conveniently fails to notice that I’ve already made clear that morality, like evolution, is all about the statistical aggregates and that the existence of exceptions is irrelevant.

                Goodbye.

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

                It’s irrelevant whether they’re exceptions or not. On your account, you ought to murder someone if it will fulfill your desires more than not murdering them would.

              • Vaal
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

                Gary,

                “Yet more endless verbiage.”

                Yeah, it’s called explaining how you are getting things wrong, and watching you nonetheless mangle things again:


                Here, I’ll make it easy for you:

                Your question implies you are still confused about the theory, and if I simply fill in the blanks, it could perpetuate the confusion. It’s like asking “the reason a species evolve toward perfection is…(fill in this blank with the answer).”

                Just filling in the blank would perpetuate the confusion of anyone asking that question.
                You actually have to explain first how, from the perspective of the theory, that is a wrong question.

                Similarly:

                “The reason one person has to fulfill the desires of other people, except to the extent that doing so fulfills his own desires, is [description of reason].”

                Now fill in the “[description of reason]” part. Be as clear, concise and precise as you can.”

                First, I don’t think that question makes sense, even taken on it’s own. I’d think you would have wanted it to end “except to the extent that doing so thwarts his own desires…”

                Secondly, the theory identifies moral desires as the ones PEOPLE GENERALLY have to promote among others. So it’s not “Why should I fulfill the desires of other people” per se, it’s “Do I have reasons to promote or discourage certain desires in other people (and do they have reasons to do the same for me)?

                Along these lines, the right questions to ask of the theory are:

                What reasons might a person have to promote a certain unselfish desire in other people?

                Or, more generally:

                What’s an example of an unselfish desire that people would have good reasons to promote among one anther?

                I’ve already given the example of our aversion to pain in explaining how the reasoning will work.

                A desire to avoid pain
                gives us reason to discourage others from desiring to cause us pain. And we can increase the chances of our avoiding being in pain through cooperation, enlisting the help of others. If others are prone to noticing when others are suffering and in pain, and prone to helping ameliorate other people in pain, then they will be more likely to help US when we are in pain, to ameliorate the situation.

                This expands to enlisting others in searching for new ways to help ameliorate or avoid pain – e.g. medical research.

                The type of characteristics that will make people prone to doing these things are characteristics such as “compassion,” “benevolence,” desire for the well being of others, a desire for cooperation, etc. Promoting these characteristics and desires in others is more likely to help us fulfill our strong desire to avoid pain and suffering. We will also note that encouraging these desires in others will tend to help fulfill numerous other of our desires (promoting and increasing the desire for cooperation in general can enlist help in fulfilling many of our other desires).

                So these are examples of the reasons that will exist for you, and me, and others we live among to promote unselfish desires like cooperation, compassion for the sick, etc.

                If this still doesn’t make sense to you, or seems out of touch with the world, I don’t know what world you are living in and don’t think I can do any more to make sense to you.

                Vaal

            • Vaal
              Posted July 24, 2013 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

              “The proposition “Jupiter exists” is objectively true. It’s true independently of whether anyone believes it’s true.”

              Right. It is a statement alluding to empirical fact about which one can be right or wrong, and if someone has the opinion “Jupiter doesn’t exist” he is objectively wrong.

              “Ought” statements have that feature of objectivity.

              Take a practical ought statement: If you desire to freeze that water, you ought to subject it to a temperature below 0 Celsius.

              I would be fascinated if you deny that to be an objective claim, the objective facts of the case meaning anyone disputing it or having an alternate opinion – e.g. “No, you ought to place it in 24 d. Celsius” would be objectively wrong.

              Yes? No?

              If you don’t think there is any basis for evaluating that claim as objectively true, I’d have to wonder about the basis for your prescriptions, to say the least.

              “You still haven’t explained why we ought to act in a way that maximizes desire-fulfillment. Or why we ought to care about anyone’s desires except our own.”

              I have. When it comes to dealing with other people, you ought to care about other people’s desires because people seek to fulfill their desires, and hence what other people desire will affect you and your desires. Therefore, the question will arise “What desires do I have reasons to discourage or promote in other people?” and they will have the SAME imperative arise for the same reasons.

              (And the reasons will appeal to the desires that will, if promoted, be likely to allow more of your other desires to be fulfilled, and there will be empirical facts about the consequences of promoting certain desires over others, as it relates to these concerns).

              Cheers,

              Vaal

              • Gary W
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

                Take a practical ought statement: If you desire to freeze that water, you ought to subject it to a temperature below 0 Celsius

                No, if you desire to freeze that water, you NEED TO subject it to a temperature below 0 Celsius to fulfill that desire. There is no “ought.” Failing to act in a way that fulfills your desire may be irrational, but that doesn’t mean it’s immoral. You’re still confusing an empirical cause-and-effect relationship with a moral duty.

                When it comes to dealing with other people, you ought to care about other people’s desires because people seek to fulfill their desires, and hence what other people desire will affect you and your desires.

                In that case, you should seek to fulfill other people’s desires only to the extent that doing so helps you to fulfill your own. In a situation where fulfillment of your own desires is maximized by thwarting someone else’s desires, that’s what you ought to do (by your argument).

              • Vaal
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

                “No, if you desire to freeze that water, you NEED TO subject it to a temperature below 0 Celsius to fulfill that desire. There is no “ought.”

                You are simply replacing “ought” with “need to” and they fulfill the same function.

                A desire provides reasons for action. If I have a desire to freeze water that is my reason to act to freeze water. “Ought” statements are just a way of prescribing the actions that are likely to fulfill the desire. Insofar as your admitting that IF you desire to freeze water then “you NEED to subject it to a tempurature below 0 Celsius” then that is saying “subjecting the water to below 0 Celsius would be such as to fulfill your desire to freeze the water.”

                And that is the nature of the “ought” statement. You haven’t done away with the structure, only put a different word “need” instead to make the same case.

                “You’re still confusing an empirical cause-and-effect relationship with a moral duty.”

                Look at my statement. I first identified this ought as a PRACTICAL ought, so I’m under no such confusion. I’m first getting you to admit to the logic of practical prescriptions. And then I ask why this logic suddenly stops if we apply it to desires, to ask which desires do we have grounds to promote and which do we have grounds to discourage? THOSE are the moral category of oughts, per this theory.

                “In that case, you should seek to fulfill other people’s desires only to the extent that doing so helps you to fulfill your own. .”

                Essentially, yes. You would not have good reasons to promote in others desires that will make them thwart lots of your other desires, and they have the same motivations toward your desires.

                In a situation where fulfillment of your own desires is maximized by thwarting someone else’s desires, that’s what you ought to do (by your argument)

                A bit to fast there. The moral desire is the ones that we have reason to promote in other people – reason not allowing for the fallacy of special pleading (otherwise, our justification isn’t based on “good reasons”). So this desire-thwarting desire you are thinking of, would I have reason to promote it in other people, and would other people have reason to promote it in me, without self contradiction?

                I doubt you’ll get there with anything you and I would recognize as an immoral desire.

                Vaal

              • Gary W
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

                You are simply replacing “ought” with “need to” and they fulfill the same function.

                Huh? “Need to” expresses an empirical cause-and-effect relationship. It’s a matter of objective fact. “Ought” expresses a moral obligation. That’s a matter of subjective preference (or subjective desire, in your formulation).

                A desire provides reasons for action. If I have a desire to freeze water that is my reason to act to freeze water. “Ought” statements are just a way of prescribing the actions that are likely to fulfill the desire.

                No it isn’t. “Ought” expresses a duty or obligation, not a means to an end. When someone acts against their own desires, we may consider their action foolish or stupid, but we don’t generally consider it immoral. Indeed, we’re more likely to pity someone for acting in that way than condemn them for it. Your use of “ought” is completely inconsistent with how people understand and use that word.

                Essentially, yes. You would not have good reasons to promote in others desires that will make them thwart lots of your other desires, and they have the same motivations toward your desires.

                Yes, you’re arguing for everyone to act selfishly. You’re arguing that a person should care about what other people want only to the extent that it helps him get what he wants. On your argument, if screwing over someone else helps you get what you want (maximizes the fulfillment of your desires), that’s what you ought to do.

                The moral desire is the ones that we have reason to promote in other people

                What is a “moral desire?” You’ve DEFINED morality in terms of the fulfillment of desires. So what makes a desire itself moral or immoral?

              • Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

                On your argument, if screwing over someone else helps you get what you want (maximizes the fulfillment of your desires), that’s what you ought to do.

                When you wake up in the middle of the night after drinking too much fluids before going to bed, you soil your bed or do you get up and use the restroom?

                Do you understand why this question is relevant?

                Considering your steadfast refusal to even acknowledge the question or variations on it, no matter who puts it to you nor how, one might be forgiven for supposing that either you do or you assume everybody else does.

                b&

              • Vaal
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

                Gary,

                “No it isn’t. “Ought” expresses a duty or obligation, not a means to an end. “

                First, the “ought” concerning water is a practical ought, not a moral ought.
                And you can replace it with “should” as well. If I’ve already identified this as talking about practical oughts, please don’t keep mixing it up with moral oughts. I’m being clear when I’m switching between the two.

                Second, on morality: Unless you can supply a reason for a duty or obligation that makes sense independent of ANY desire, and be my guest trying, then this theory accounts for the logic of our prescriptions.


                When someone acts against their own desires, we may consider their action foolish or stupid, but we don’t generally consider it immoral.

                Yeah, this is the part you aren’t getting. Remember, on this theory moral desires are the ones we have reasons to promote among one another.
                What desire-thwarting desire are you proposing as a possible “moral desire” given the logic I’ve put forth?

                Your use of “ought” is completely inconsistent with how people understand and use that word.

                Not at all. First, you will not make sense of our PRACTICAL prescriptions – you “should do this/ought to do that” without understanding they appeal to fulfilling some set of desires. So this prescriptive structure based on desire fulfillment DOES make sense of our practical prescriptions.

                As for morality, look at the desires you, I and most people tend to promote in our children, and promote in society. The ones normally associated with “morality” – love, compassion, respect for others, helping others, respect for one another’s property, autonomy, care for other’s well-being, etc. You will notice they tend to be the desire-fulfilling desires when promoted in a society, and the ones we wish to discourage are the desire thwarting desires (e.g. rape, slavery, stealing, etc).

                It’s quite easy to propose moral thought experiments that show we regard our highest moral admiration for those people who do things on having “good desires” vs someone who performs the same act, without the right desire.
                E.g., Take the difference between two people doing the same ‘good act,’ but having different desires. Person A acts to help a fallen old lady off the road because Person A has a desire for that lady’s well being. Person B also helps the old lady off the street, but it turns out Person B had no desire for her welfare, and desired to sit eating his hotdog or whatever, but he did the good act at gunpoint, only desiring to save his own skin. Most people will say the person with the desire for the old lady’s well being deserves our moral admiration, over Person B.

                Of course, not all people and societies promote the good desires; but they DO all act to fulfill their desires, and this theory accounts for which desires they would be wrong to promote (don’t have good reasons to universalize them) or right to promote (have good reasons to universalize them).

                I have no illusion about changing your mind, but it might be helpful for others to see replies to your objections.

                Vaal.

              • Gary W
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

                First, the “ought” concerning water is a practical ought, not a moral ought.

                Then it’s irrelevant. The issue here is “ought” in the moral sense.

                Remember, on this theory moral desires are the ones we have reasons to promote among one another.

                As when you discussed this before, your long-winded attempts to explain your position just seem more and more confused. You previously DEFINED morality in terms of the fulfillment of desires. Which means a “moral desire” would be a desire that fulfills other desires. I’m not sure what that’s even supposed to mean. How does a desire (as opposed to an act) fulfill another desire? Why do desires (rather than acts) have a moral character at all? Acts are chosen but desires are presumably involuntary. We don’t sanction people for wrongful desires. We sanction them for wrongful acts.

                But this is all tangential. The fundamental problem with your position is that you’re simply arguing for people to act selfishly. You said “desires provide the only reasons for actions that exist in the universe” and you defined morality in terms of fulfilling desires. Therefore, if you desire to fulfill only your own desires and not anyone else’s, your acts are moral as long as they advance the fulfillment of your own desires, regardless of their effect on other people. If robbing a bank advances the fulfillment of your desires (a desire to get rich, for example), and you don’t care about its effect on the fulfillment of other people’s desires, then by your argument you ought to rob the bank.

              • Gary W
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

                Do you understand why this question is relevant?

                I’m sure you think it’s relevant. You just can’t explain why.

              • Vaal
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

                Gary W,

                Regarding my description of practical, prescriptive “oughts”:

                “Then it’s irrelevant. The issue here is “ought” in the moral sense.”

                No it’s not irrelevant, it’s of fundamental relevance and I’ve explained why. A value theory has to explain how we value any and all things, and we value, in prudential, personal ways, all sort of things that are not in the realm of morality (our cars, a hammer, an heirloom, music, food, etc).

                Once this logical structure is understood for how such value arises, this theory says THIS LOGICAL STRUCTURE, what is generally known as prudential, or practical prescriptions or hypothetical imperatives, are, contra other value theories, the ONLY type of oughts that exist. All oughts are of this same logic, so you have to apply this logic to any possible moral prescriptions.

                As to your other questions, I’ve already laid out explicitly what desires are in this theory.

                As to why desires are the objects of valuation in this theory: we want to know what we ought to do, what actions to take, but desires provide the only reasons for actions. People act to fulfill their desires, hence desires are a fundamental mover and target of our valuation.
                By not focusing on acts, but on desires, some of the objections to act utilitarianism don’t apply. A classic example: A woman is in a room with 10 axe murders. All of them desire to murder her; she desires to remain alive. If we concentrated on counting how many desires would be fulfilled by appealing to actions, then clearly it prescribes that they all kill her: 10 desires being satisfied in that action to 1. But instead, the desires themselves are evaluated for their desire-fulfilling potential. Are there other more desire-fulfilling desires to promote in that scenario? Yes, removing the desire to kill from the axe murderers, and promoting the desire for one another’s well being. Then there would be no desires-to-kill being thwarted, and no victim’s desires being thwarted, and the group would desire to help fulfill one another’s desires.

                This is essentially what we tend to promote as “good” in our society, a point you didn’t address.

                The logic here does not result in a selfish society, just the opposite; all the desires we have most reasons to promote among one another are the NON-SELFISH desires, the ones that take other people’s desires into account.
                And so each time you infer the theory impels people to act selfishly you are wrong.

                But if answering your questions with scenarios explaining the logic involved is too long winded for you, time to end there I suppose.

                This could go on forever. I’m not claiming you ought to just immediately accept this theory as correct, or even that I am 100 percent convinced by it. Given the subject of Jerry’s post I’ve only raised the theory for consideration, and this is getting too much for the confines of a comment section.

                Cheers,

                Vaal

              • Vaal
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

                Oh, I’m sorry I forgot one point as per your questions.

                It’s not like acts themselves are not, or can not be evaluated as “good” or “bad.” On Desirism, a “good” act ia the act a person with good desires would perform; a bad act the act a person with bad desires would perform.

                The most fundamental way to change how people act though is to change what motivates their acts, hence change their desires.

                Vaal.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

                On Desirism, a “good” act ia the act a person with good desires would perform; a bad act the act a person with bad desires would perform.

                But how does Desirism decide what are good desires and what are bad desires? It’s not clear to me that Desirism offers anything that helps with that decision.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

                On your argument, if screwing over someone else helps you get what you want (maximizes the fulfillment of your desires), that’s what you ought to do.

                Okay, this just reminds me of an old Doonesbury segment from way back in the 80s.

                Does anyone remember Dr. Dan Asher, and “Winning With Mellow”?

                This was in the height of the Reagan inspired “me” generation, the whole awful orgy of consumption, excess, glorification of wealth, yuppies, preppies, and the first time in my life when the media began to unapologetically cheer ostentation and greed. Clearly the nation was intent on trying to gloss over the guilt of Viet Nam and throw a sickening party to try to overcome the hurt feelings that we had lost, that Iran has shamed us, and that we were hopelessly dependent on Saudi oil. It was the conservative superficial band-aid and rose colored glasses period that kicked off the fateful rise of the Plutocracy. I think the whole nightmare was euphemistically known as “morning in America”. We are still paying the price for that explosion of horrid Reaganist fantasy.

                Dan Asher was the ultimate parody of the complete abandonment of conscientiousness, the the sneering dismissal of social consciousness that dominated in the 60s and 70s, which in the 80s was replaced with unfettered self-interest and self-indulgence, often thinly disguised as supposedly benign self-help.

                I remember one strip with Mark Slackmeyer interviewing Dr. Dan:

                Mark: Give us an example of winning with mellow.

                Dan Asher: Well, suppose someone at work has a great job and you want it. You should not feel guilty about trying to take their job away from them. Make them look bad, spread rumors, whatver it takes, just go for it.

                Mark: Even if it means hitting them over the head with a tire iron?

                Dan Asher: Sure, sure, as long as you’re up front about it.

                🙂

              • Gary W
                Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

                vaal,

                As usual, you write so much and say so little that is relevant to the problems I have described with your position.

                What reason is there for one person to fulfill the desires of other people, except to the extent that it serves to fulfill his own desires? In all your endless verbiage, you still haven’t answered this question. By your argument, people ought to simply act selfishly. If robbing a bank fulfills someone’s desires more than not robbing it, then according to you they ought to rob it.

              • Posted July 25, 2013 at 2:35 am | Permalink

                Gary, what you’re describing amounts to the “cheaters can win” scenario. An individual can behave imorally to gain (temporary) advantage over his moral fellows. Morally is based on what’s best for the larger social group. Desirism (promoting desire-fulfilling desires,deprecating desire-thwarting desires) is perfectly in line with that as Vaal has explained quite adequately. The fact that you can’t get beyond this selfish notion of your own desires taking precedence over others’ desires that you’d thwart seems to say a lot more about you than about Fyfe’s desirism and Vaal’s exposition of it.

                /@

              • Vaal
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 7:39 am | Permalink

                Ant (@antallan),

                Thanks. You needn’t be necessarily convinced by Alonzo Fyfe’s Desirism theory to at least get an understanding of it, and what it entails, as you seem to have grasped.

                I often bring up the analogy of evolution and creationists because this theory can provoke the same kid of response. The Creationist sees the word “random mutation”
                in the Theory Of Evolution and, fixating on it, can not comprehend the theory as anything but “randomness” and hence you have to keep correcting over and over that the theory does not entail the equivalent of “a tornado sweeping through a junkyard and randomly assembling a Boeing 747.”

                Similarly, certain folks see the word “Desire” as a fundamental component of this theory and fixate on it, sure that the outcome MUST be pure subjectivity and/or MUST result in pure selfishness, selfish desires. You can point out why this is wrong until blue in the face and never stop this fixation.

                I’ve given plenty of reasons and examples for why purely self-oriented, practical desires tend not to fit the bill. I pointed out I may desire to be a flutist and that’s fine, but I will not find good reasons to promote that desires in everyone else, as society wouldn’t function, thwarting a great many other of our, and other’s, desires.
                Same with my desire to steal your stuff.
                If I like to own things enough to want your things too, how would I have reason to promote in everyone else the desire to steal MY things? I’m going to want people to leave my property alone, and they’ll have the same reasons to promote that desire in me.

                When you look at the desires we actually have the best, strongest reasons to promote among one another, they are the NON-selfish desires, for altruism, compassion, cooperation, etc. So what you get isn’t a promotion of selfishness, but the opposite – promotion of desires that tend to help us all fulfill as many of our desires as possible.

                People who deny this almost always do so just in some general skeptical sense, without actual concrete examples of desires that, ON THIS THEORY, would be good and worthy of promotion in others, but which are purely selfish desires. I say: let’s see it.
                I get no such things, only more “but it’s all about being selfish” replies.

                I ask: give me an example of something valuable to anyone, that has value without
                any desires involved. Never any answers.
                I ask, if our prescriptions don’t depend on desires, give me one reason for action
                that makes sense, in the absence of any possible desire. This is never answered.

                And once people just start to ignore the implications of their lack of answer, and simply respond with a sort of emotional skepticism, at that point, the conversation might as well end.

                Glad to see you found the conversation of some interest.

                Later,

                Vaal

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:26 am | Permalink

                how would I have reason to promote in everyone else the desire to steal MY things?

                Vaal,
                Is this how Desirism distinguishes between good and bad desires? If so this answers the question I had. It includes the categorical imperative.

              • Gary W
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 10:18 am | Permalink

                Gary, what you’re describing amounts to the “cheaters can win” scenario. An individual can behave imorally to gain (temporary) advantage over his moral fellows. Morally is based on what’s best for the larger social group. Desirism (promoting desire-fulfilling desires,deprecating desire-thwarting desires) is perfectly in line with that as Vaal has explained quite adequately.

                No he hasn’t. Here’s his argument, stripped of all the tedious verbiage and repetition (Vaal seems to subscribe to the Jeff Johnson school of writing: never say in one sentence what you can say in ten):

                Premise: Desire-fulfillment is the only reason for acting.

                Conclusion: Therefore, we ought to act to maximize desire-fulfillment.

                Problem 1: The conclusion confuses morality with rationality. A reason provides a rational basis for acting. It doesn’t mean there is a moral duty to act. If it’s raining and I desire not to get wet, that’s a reason for me to use an umbrella. Using an umbrella is rational. But I don’t have a moral duty (“ought”) to use an umbrella. Failing to use an umbrella may be irrational, but it’s not morally wrong.

                Problem 2: The premise applies only to one’s own acts. I have a reason to fulfill my own desires, because they’re my desires. But I don’t have a reason to fulfill anyone else’s desires, except to the extent that it is necessary to fulfill my own. Therefore, the conclusion also applies only to one’s own desires. If my desires conflict with someone else’s desires, I have a reason to thwart that other person’s desires, not to fulfill them. Vaal’s argument supports acting selfishly, not acting in the interests of society as a whole.

              • Vaal
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

                Jeff,

                While I can see how you might have assumed from some of what I wrote that a categorical imperative is involved, earlier I explained that it’s the opposite: Kant’s categorical imperatives don’t exist, only hypothetical imperatives exist.

                Kant’s categorical imperative is a deontological rule-based imperative, where an action is ALWAYS the right thing to do, at all times, all places, in all conditions.

                The system I’m describing, Desirism, is a form of Utilitarianism, so the right thing to do will relate to the situation. Sometimes “doing X” would be good, other times “doing X” could be bad. But since “ought” statements on this theory are objective claims about desires that tend to fulfill desires (or not) there will always be facts of the matter. And these include facts about which desires people have reasons (based on our wider range of desires) to promote among one another.

                I can see that it is the notion I’ve mentioned of “being able to universalize a desire without self contradiction” that brings to mind a categorical imperative.
                While it’s been too long since I read Kant,
                I think he was on to something about the necessarily objective, universalizing character of reason. It’s just that he didn’t want to admit that the only reasons for actions that exist are those that arise from desires – he was trying to get away from that, since to him he could only associate hypothetical imperatives with desires and that wasn’t good enough.

                Desirism states that, indeed, there are only desire-related hypothetical imperatives. But that we can extrapolate from this nonetheless to objectively true statements about what we ought to do, which desires we ought to promote or discourage – the utility of any desire being the same as the utility of anything else, it’s tendency to fulfill other desires.

                I understand how that can come off as confusing at first blush, but I’ve gone on at length in other comments trying to make sense of the steps that lead to that conclusion.

                Vaal

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 10:46 am | Permalink

                @GaryW

                The many lines school of writing is an attempt to explain well enough to pre-empt the obvious counter-arguments that should implicitly go without saying because they are so obvious, but in practice they never do. These are the nits that always get picked by those who like to pick.

              • Vaal
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

                Gary is getting it wrong again, but I think
                what he wrote is actually useful to highlight one of the misconceptions:

                Premise: Desire-fulfillment is the only reason for acting.

                Conclusion: Therefore, we ought to act to maximize desire-fulfillment.

                This mistakes Desirism as a prescriptive theory about what you ought to do. It’s not. Desirism is a descriptive theory: a theory that seeks to explain how it is we value things, and from that, what would be the basis of our prescriptions, moral or otherwise. It does not conclude WHAT YOU OUGHT TO DO, it only says “prescriptions will appeal to fulfilling desires” in order to make sense.

                So Desirism doesn’t say people SHOULD maximise everyone else’s desires. But rather, it notes that, given how desires and people work, it’s a fact that people DO have
                many and strong reasons to promote certain desires over other desires among each other.

                Gary no doubt has an aversion to pain. A desire not to be put in pain will give him a reason for action; for instance a reason to discourage the desire in other people to cause him pain, and others with this aversion will have the same reasons to discourage Gary from desiring to cause them pain.

                Gary may then say “well, what if I happen to ENJOY pain. I’m a masochist!” Well, that may be the case for him, but most of the rest of society with an aversion to pain will still have their many and strong reasons to discourage Gary from causing pain to them (it would be thwarting their desires for being free of pain).

                See, it’s not that everyone SHOULD have desires that they not be in pain, rather it’s the descriptive CASE THAT people have the desires to not be in pain, which accounts for their reasons to promote and discourage certain desires.

                If the society comprised people who loved pain, then the reasons for discouraging the desire for pain-causing would be weakened, as being in pain would not be thwarting people’s strong desires; it would be fulfilling them.

                So Gary can raise all the hypothetical scenarios he wants, but if we are talking about facts, then there are facts about Gary’s actual desires, and the actually existing desires of other human beings, that will decide the matter.
                When you look at the facts of the types of desires that most of us have, you will be hard pressed to say there are just as good reasons to promote selfish desires vs non-selfish desires. Which is why folks like Gary can’t really come up with any concrete examples that would follow from this theory, given existing facts of the desires most of us tend to have.

                There is no magic step from the logic of prudential goal/desire-oriented “oughts” to moral “oughts.” Moral oughts are about desires that fulfill other desires, it’s just the existing category of “those desires that people have many and strong reasons to promote or discourage.”

                The theory doesn’t tell you which ones they are, though. You have to look at the desires involved.

                Vaal

              • Gary W
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

                Desirism is a descriptive theory

                This simply isn’t true. You have repeatedly stated that you think we ought to promote the fulfillment of desires, and that this excludes certain types of act, like slavery and rape. That is most definitely a prescription for how to act.

                And as a description of how people actually think and behave morally, your “Desirism” is clearly incorrect also. People simply do not act to maximize overall desire-fulfillment. People exhibit a mixture of selfish and altruistic behavior, sometimes acting to get what they want at the expense of others, and other times making personal sacrifices in order to fulfill the desires of others.

              • Vaal
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

                Gary,

                I’ve been clear that Desirism attempts to describe the ontology of value: if it exists, and if so how it arises.
                It claims that people value things on the basis of having desires. That’s either true, or false. If you want to dispute it, you’ll actually have to come up with another way of making sense of people valuing anything.
                Desires give people reasons for actions – descriptive statement. People have more and stronger reasons (based on their existing desires) to encourage some desires among one another than others. Descriptive statement. People either do or don’t have more and stronger reasons to discourage the desire to cause pain; descriptive, factual claim.
                That’s why I said you either do or don’t have an aversion to pain, and people in your society either do or don’t generally have an aversion to pain. If they do, the desire to avoid pain will mean they have reasons to fulfill that desire by discouraging in others the desire to cause them pain.

                “And as a description of how people actually think and behave morally, your “Desirism” is clearly incorrect also.”

                Really?

                Desirism says that something is valuable to someone insofar as it fulfills some desire(s). If you apply this, it explains
                why people value all the different things they do (and why we also agree on lots of the things we value, as we share many desires). It explains why I value my stereo system highly, because I desire to listen to music in high quality sound.
                It explains why my wife does not value my stereo system as I do; it fulfills no such desire in her.

                When you can answer the challenge of explaining how something can be valuable to anyone absent
                any desires whatsoever, get back to me. I keep putting out this challenge and I’m not expecting
                you to answer it any time soon.

                “People exhibit a mixture of selfish and altruistic behavior, sometimes acting to get what they want at the expense of others, and other times making personal sacrifices in order to fulfill the desires of others.”

                Uhm…yes. That’s obvious. Now explain to me how people have more and stronger reasons to promote the selfish desires in which you act at the expense of others. (And remember, when providing reasons, special pleading will be a fallacy).

                You keep skipping that challenge, for some reason…in fact you leave out every rebuttal and question that help and explain why your inferences have been wrong. Brevity certainly can be a virtue, but not when it involves simply ignoring what the other side has written.

                Vaal

              • Gary W
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

                Desirism says that something is valuable to someone insofar as it fulfills some desire(s).

                So I just imagined all the other thousands of lines of verbiage you’ve written attempting to describe what you mean by “Desirism,” did I? All you intended to say is that “something is valuable to someone insofar as it fulfills some desire,” is it?

                Now explain to me how people have more and stronger reasons to promote the selfish desires in which you act at the expense of others.

                I don’t need to explain it. A desire, by definition, is something the desirer wishes to fulfill. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a desire. YOU need to explain what reason anyone has to fulfill SOMEONE ELSE’S desires, except to the extent that doing so would fulfill his own desires. The absence of a reason to do this is one of the fatal errors in your argument, as I have already explained to you repeatedly.

              • Vaal
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

                Gary,

                You can not critique a theory on your own mangling of the theory. Also, as for my post lengths, as atheists debating creationists know, it’s a lot easier to fire off questions than answer them. That’s why whole books are often written pertaining to one or only a few questions.

                “….. YOU need to explain what reason anyone has to fulfill SOMEONE ELSE’S desires, except to the extent that doing so would fulfill his own desires.”

                The moral category of desires are those people in general have many and strong reasons (through their other desires) to promote, or discourage.

                It’s about evaluating what desires you have reasons to discourage or promote in other people, and visa versa. Those reasons will arise from a greater consideration of your wider desires.

                Do you desire to be in pain? I’m presuming you do not. I’m presuming that like most people, you generally desire to avoid pain. THIS DESIRE will GIVE YOU REASONS to discourage other people from desiring to cause you pain. The vast majority of people around you share this desire, giving THEM the same reasons to discourage in YOU the desire to cause them pain. So you, and the people around you, have reasons, arising from your own desires, to discourage in each other the desire to cause pain to one another. And, your desire to avoid pain ALSO gives you reason to promote in others desires to notice if you are in pain, and ameliorate your pain if possible. Promoting desires that involve compassion, for instance, will help fulfill your desire to avoid pain, in fact, fulfill it better than if you were left to your own devices. That’s why we create things like hospitals and support desires like other people researching ways of avoiding disease and pain. That EXPLAINS why societies form, that’s why humans cooperate to achieve shared desires and goals.

                Notice how this does not end in selfishness because the desires like compassion, which people have reason to install in one another ARE NOT SELFISH DESIRES. They are the opposite. We can also wish to instal the desire for altruism in one another for similar reasons, clearly the opposite of a selfish desire.

                If you want to say “well sometimes societies have cooperated in their desires to enslave other people” the issue will be the fact people can be wrong about the reasons they have for doing things – not really noticing their inconsistency. By that I mean, desires for attitudes such as “compassion” and “cooperation” can be promoted among one another much more consistently, given the wider set of people’s existing desires. GIVEN people’s existing set of desires, you will have trouble truly justifying reasons to promote desires for things like enslaving others or stealing. This is why you can not answer my challenge, to make sense of a truly selfish desire that you would have reasons to promote in others, and others in you. Your desires, and the existing sets of other peoples desires you come in contact with, will not consistently support the promulgation of that selfish desire.

                Vaal

              • Gary W
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

                Yet more endless verbiage. If there’s an answer to my question in that mess, I cannot locate it.

                Here, I’ll make it easy for you: “The reason one person has to fulfill the desires of other people, except to the extent that doing so fulfills his own desires, is [description of reason].”

                Now fill in the “[description of reason]” part. Be as clear, concise and precise as you can.

              • Vaal
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

                (Whoops, missed the right reply chain, hopefully this lands ok)

                Gary,

                “Yet more endless verbiage.”

                Yeah, it’s called explaining how you are getting things wrong, and watching you nonetheless mangle things again:


                Here, I’ll make it easy for you:

                Your question implies you are still confused about the theory, and if I simply fill in the blanks, it could perpetuate the confusion. It’s like asking “the reason a species evolve toward perfection is…(fill in this blank with the answer).”

                Just filling in the blank would perpetuate the confusion of anyone asking that question.
                You actually have to explain first how, from the perspective of the theory, that is a wrong question.

                Similarly:

                “The reason one person has to fulfill the desires of other people, except to the extent that doing so fulfills his own desires, is [description of reason].”

                Now fill in the “[description of reason]” part. Be as clear, concise and precise as you can.”

                First, I don’t think that question makes sense, even taken on it’s own. I’d think you would have wanted it to end “except to the extent that doing so thwarts his own desires…”

                Secondly, the theory identifies moral desires as the ones PEOPLE GENERALLY have to promote among others. So it’s not “Why should I fulfill the desires of other people” per se, it’s “Do I have reasons to promote or discourage certain desires in other people (and do they have reasons to do the same for me)?

                Along these lines, the right questions to ask of the theory are:

                What reasons might a person have to promote a certain unselfish desire in other people?

                Or, more generally:

                What’s an example of an unselfish desire that people would have good reasons to promote among one anther?

                I’ve already given the example of our aversion to pain in explaining how the reasoning will work.

                A desire to avoid pain
                gives us reason to discourage others from desiring to cause us pain. And we can increase the chances of our avoiding being in pain through cooperation, enlisting the help of others. If others are prone to noticing when others are suffering and in pain, and prone to helping ameliorate other people in pain, then they will be more likely to help US when we are in pain, to ameliorate the situation.

                This expands to enlisting others in searching for new ways to help ameliorate or avoid pain – e.g. medical research.

                The type of characteristics that will make people prone to doing these things are characteristics such as “compassion,” “benevolence,” desire for the well being of others, a desire for cooperation, etc. Promoting these characteristics and desires in others is more likely to help us fulfill our strong desire to avoid pain and suffering. We will also note that encouraging these desires in others will tend to help fulfill numerous other of our desires (promoting and increasing the desire for cooperation in general can enlist help in fulfilling many of our other desires).

                So these are examples of the reasons that will exist for you, and me, and others we live among to promote unselfish desires like cooperation, compassion for the sick, etc.

                If this still doesn’t make sense to you, or seems out of touch with the world, I don’t know what world you are living in and don’t think I can do any more to make sense to you.

                Vaal

              • Gary W
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

                Your question implies you are still confused about the theory, and if I simply fill in the blanks, it could perpetuate the confusion.

                No I’m not. In your very first comment, you wrote: “Desires provide the only reasons for actions that exist in the universe.”

                In response, I have repeatedly asked you what reason you think a person has to fulfill the desires of other people, except to the extent that doing so fulfills his own desires.

                I’ve now asked you this five or six times, and no answer has been forthcoming. Because you obviously have no answer. This is one of the fatal problems in your argument, as I have explained.

                I’ve already given the example of our aversion to pain in explaining how the reasoning will work

                If you fulfill someone else’s desires in order to avoid pain to yourself, that’s an example of fulfilling someone else’s desires in order to fulfill your own desires. You’re not acting altruistically; you’re acting selfishly, for your own benefit. So it doesn’t answer my question, which explicitly excludes such acts.

                Try again, or admit you have no answer.

              • Vaal
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

                Gary,

                “In response, I have repeatedly asked you what reason you think a person has to fulfill the desires of other people, except to the extent that doing so fulfills his own desires.”

                I keep telling you: the reasons will come from his or her desires.

                And…wait for it now!…… not all desires are selfish desires!!!!

                There are many unselfish desires, the desires that take into account fulfilling the desires of others. Examples: desires for cooperation, desires to be altruistic, desires for the well-being of others (benevolence, compassion, desire for your family’s well being and beyond), desires to respect the autonomy of others, desires to respect the property of others, desires to respect the liberty of others, desires to share what you have with others, desires to help others fulfill certain of their desires by helping them…and on and on. (Hey, you asked).

                I have a desire for the happiness and well-being of my sons. The desires is so strong that I believe, like many parents, I would give up my well being to save theirs if it came down to it. I desire that many of my kids desires are fulfilled. I desire that many of my wife’s desires are fulfilled. I desire that many of my friend’s desires are fulfilled (and we help each other fulfill our desires, I just helped my pal with his deck), I find myself desiring that many people whom I don’t even know have their desires fulfilled. I’ve seen pictures
                of starving people I’ll never meet, who will never be able to do anything for me, but I desired that their obvious desire for food and health were fulfilled (and I’ve given money to that end, perhaps you have too).

                Of course people can also have selfish desires too. And someone with a selfish desire may or may not find reasons (from his other desires) to help fulfill other peoples desires. But he will be hard pressed to make a case that his selfish desire is one other people around him OUGHT to have as well. And THAT is the object of moral judgement per this theory, which desires we will have reasons to promote among others, which desires we can prescribe.

                The desires people generally will have more, better, consistent reasons to prescribe and promote tend to be desires that increase the chances of more of us fulfilling our desires, rather than selfish desires which will head in the opposite direction.

                This is why your argument that this is a theory that promotes or results in selfishness reigning supreme is just wrong.

                Vaal

              • Gary W
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

                I keep telling you: the reasons will come from his or her desires.

                What reasons? What reasons do you think a person has to fulfill the desires of other people, except to the extent that doing so fulfills his own desires.

                There are many unselfish desires…

                I don’t care what desires you think there are. Answer the question.

                I have a desire for the happiness and well-being of my sons…

                I don’t care what desires you have. Answer the question.

                The desires people generally will have…

                I don’t care what desires you think people generally will have. Answer the question.

              • Gary W
                Posted July 25, 2013 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

                Criminal: Vaal told me “desires provide the only reasons for actions that exist in the universe.” Applying his principle, I’m going to rob a bank, to fulfill my desire to get lots of money.

                Vaal: But other people desire that you don’t rob the bank.

                Criminal: So what? What reason do I have to fulfill their desire rather than my own?

                Vaal: *sputter* *cough*

                [crickets chirping]

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 26, 2013 at 5:56 am | Permalink

                @GaryW
                regaring your question: What reasons do you think a person has to fulfill the desires of other people, except to the extent that doing so fulfills his own desires?

                I think Vaal is agreeing that fundamentally, if we fulfill the desires of others, it is grounded in the fact that doing so fulfills our desires.

                When it comes to the word “reasons”, there is some ambiguity that might cause confusion. Are “reasons” justifications or motives or explanations? The answer you are looking for may depend on how you are using that word.

                I think we are often motivated by fulfilling our own desires, but we give justifications in terms of fulfilling the desires of others. And what I just said is an explanation.

                Why don’t I kill my worst enemy? There are people I can think of that I wish didn’t exist, especially certain powerful and influential people who in my view are a scourge upon society. This is a desire. But I have so many desires, I desire to not be a pariah, I have desires to be seen as a good person, to be loved by my family and friends. Also I have guilt, conscience, and I have the desire to not have the emotional pain of guilt. I have the ability to think of the victims widow, their children, their friends, and know that such an action would cause great pain to many people, and I have the desire to have a self-image that does not include being the source of such pain. And these are just a few desires. Hundreds or thousands could be associated with varying weights with the idea of killing an enemy, and when I consider that action, I have reactions based on an internal summation or averaging of all these desires. That influences my motives, whether they are weak or strong, whether they win or lose the competition to act or not act.

                If I were part of another culture, if for example I was encouraged to be a martyr because it would bring honor to myself and my family, my desires might result in a different choice, also based on how my desires are affected by the desires of others.

                So some of my desires relate to the desires of others, but my actions are based only on my desires. I can justify (provide reasons for) my actions in terms of others desires, but my motives (reasons) for acting are based in my own desires.

              • Gary W
                Posted July 26, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

                Vaal’s fundamental principle is about reasons for acting. What reason does someone have to fulfill the desires of others when those desires conflict with his own, as in the bank robber example? Vaal cannot provide one without smuggling in some other principle that overrides his stated reason for acting.

                The only way “Desirism,” as he has described it, could maximize the overall fulfillment of desires is if every act that maximized desire-fulfillment for the actor also maximized desire-fulfillment for society as whole. That idea is ludicrous on its face. Human society is a mass of conflicting desires. Fulfilling a desire of one individual or group invariably means thwarting a desire of another individual or group. To maximize the fulfillment of your own desires, you must act in ways that thwart the desires of others.

              • Vaal
                Posted July 26, 2013 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

                Gary,

                First, on this theory, because it’s a fact (in all likelihood) that people will have many and strong reasons to discourage the desire to steal, we can say objectively that the desire to steal is a “bad” desire. That’s what it means to have a “bad” desire on this theory. (Virtually no one, INCLUDING bank robbers, desire their things stolen – fact),

                How would we try to influence the Bank Robber? We could try to reason with him to start with.
                Remember, when you ask “what REASONS can you give the bank robber to change his desire?”
                that presumes the bank robber is ready to reason consistently.

                To the bank robber: Since you are not born desiring to steal from banks, this is clearly an acquired desire – some people acquire it, others don’t. So I want to ask you this question:

                Do you think, given the choice, that one “ought” to have the desire to steal? In other words, do you think a desire to steal is something we have reason to encourage?

                It’s pretty clear the bank robber won’t be able to make a case that we ought to encourage people to steal. He knows we don’t want our things stolen, and he won’t want his things stolen. He will run into self contradiction quite shortly. Encouraging the desire to steal increases the likelihood of having our things stolen, thwarting our desire. His desire to own his property will give him reasons to discourage that desire in us, and he has to admit our desire gives us the same reason to discourage it in him. Hence, how would he make the more REASONABLE CASE that the desire to steal is one that ought to be encouraged, and that he ought to have? Be my guest if you want to step in for him here.

                He could say “well, I still have the desire to steal at this point” but even if true, he would not have justified that desire as one deserving anything other than wide condemnation.
                So, already, he’s got reasons why his desire is a bad one.

                We can keep reasoning with him: Notice how your desire to not have your things stolen gives you reasons to encourage honesty and respect for property in other people around you. But how will you influence people, encourage that desire, if YOU are providing an example of acting the wrong way? Each time you steal, you undermine your influencing others to act honestly and not steal.
                (Even if you aren’t caught, people know their stuff has been stolen, producing that bad example, undermining the environment of honesty and safety you are supposed to be trying to perpetuate).

                You are much more likely to achieve your desire by acting consistently, showing people trustworthy behavior. Notice also how acting honestly, and encouraging others to do so, also gets you on the path of fulfilling many of your other desires – enlisting the help of others increases your ability to fulfill more of your desires – while diminishing the possibility that they will have desires that thwart your desires. The more you desire to help others, respect property, cooperate, the more you can influence their desire to act that way back to you. You will find that working together with others will be both more desire fulfilling overall AND you’ll be more consistently justified in your desires and actions as well.

                Eventually someone moving on this route, following reasons to act in ways that take other people’s desires into account, and seeing the benefits, can actually alter their desires, replace them with desires-to-be honest, desires to cooperate, etc.

                This is, after all, how many people’s “bad” desires ARE influenced toward good desires.

                Again, you can only “give reasons” to the person ready to be reasonable. Such is life.

                Vaal

              • Gary W
                Posted July 26, 2013 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

                It’s pretty clear the bank robber won’t be able to make a case that we ought to encourage people to steal.

                Since the bank robber has no interest in “making a case that we ought to encourage people to steal,” this claim, and the rest of your latest time-wasting comment, is completely irrelevant to his question.

                What the bank robber is interested in doing is robbing a bank, to fulfill his desire to get lots of money, in accordance with your principle that “desires provide the only reasons for actions.” Since you still haven’t given him a reason not to do this, he’s off to rob the bank now.

                So some of my desires relate to the desires of others, but my actions are based only on my desires.

                Right. So when your desires conflict with the desires of others, as they inevitably do, the actions you take to fulfill your desires will thwart the desires of others.

                As I said, the only way your “Desirism” could possibly maximize the overall fulfillment of desires is if every act increased desire-fulfillment for both the actor and society as a whole. And that idea is ludicrous on its face, as the bank robber example illustrates.

              • Posted July 26, 2013 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

                Gary, when you understand why adults as well as children after a certain age get up in the middle of the night to relieve themselves rather than soil the bed, then you will understand why most people do not rob banks.

                Apparently, you still don’t understand this simple facet of human behavior, since you continue to be utterly bewildered by it. I truly feel sorry for you, for your life must be quite miserable as a result.

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted July 26, 2013 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

                Ben, when you understand why loose change may often be found under seat cushions, then you will understand why most people don’t like spinach.

              • Vaal
                Posted July 27, 2013 at 7:59 am | Permalink

                Gary,

                I started and ended my post, deliberately flagging for you a fact that ought to have pre-empted the mistake you just made:

                When you ask “what REASONS can you give the bank robber to change his desire?”
                that presumes the bank robber is ready to reason consistently.

                And ENDED with that reminder again:

                Again, you can only “give reasons” to the person ready to be reasonable.

                In other words, asking what reasons you can give someone to do something assumes this person has the desire to be reasonable.

                If we are talking about his desire to rob the bank, then robbing the bank will fulfill his desire to rob/steal money.

                But if we are talking about his desire to to have GOOD REASONS, to be fully justified and consistent, he’s going to have to be able to justify the desire to steal without inconsistency and special pleading, which for reasons I gave he can not do. He will see that everyone else has reasons to condemn a desire to steal, and he does as well, so he can not hold his desire to steal as a good one, one that he has good justification to maintain.

                Someone can always act unreasonably and you can’t argue with them anymore than you can argue with a bear. But if he desires to be reasonable, then the above would give the robber reason to think his desire is a bad one and give him reason to act in less contradictory ways and make his way to holding more consistent desires (And reason can alter your desires).

                And on that note, you’ve simply ignored the fact that the desire to steal is not the ONLY desire he would have, and that I also would appeal to how acting honestly and encouraging more honest, cooperative desires would help fulfill his other wider set of desires without the negatives that derive from his current desire to steal.

                So more reasons WERE given for the bank robber to alter his desire.

                But since you apparently will dismiss whatever salient points I raise as “excess verbiage,” ignoring them to stick to your own conclusion, I don’t see a real desire for conversation at this point 🙂
                and so this conversation I think is done.

                Cheers,

                Vaal

              • Vaal
                Posted July 27, 2013 at 9:08 am | Permalink

                You got it Ben.

                Relieving yourself in bed will fulfill the desire to clear your bowels, but people grow up and become reasonable, realizing that act thwarts all sorts of their other desires (desires for an unsoiled bed, for hygiene, for acting like and being seen as mature and competent, etc).

                Eventually you gain the desire to relieve yourself in a toilet – a way of fulfilling the desire to pee in a manner more consistent and fulfilling of your other desires.

                Gary keeps seizing on single desires in absentia of other desires, as if it’s the only desire, the only reasons someone would have that bear on whether he should act that way.

                Someone may have a strong desire to eat a box full of donuts, but she will more than likely have many other desires that can give her reasons not to pig out like that. That person may also be on a diet, reflecting her other desires. And/or you can bring up her desires for her well-being, free of hearat disease, diabetes, desires to remain healthy and competent for her family duties, desires to not look fat, etc. And you say how fulfilling these other desires give more reasons to resist eating an entire box of donuts.

                Similarly, the bank robber may have a desire to steal, but one can point to all sorts of other strong, fundamental desires he has that his stealing will threaten or thwart, and that modifying his desire to steal to something like working for a living can help him fulfill his desire to have money while also making it more likely his other desires will be fulfilled.

                This appeal to how acting on one desire will tend to be bad for fulfilling one’s other desires is pretty much a standard way we use to reason with one another away from bad desires and actions. It’s been quite something to see Gary ignore this, and pretend no other reasons can be offered to argue against a single selfish desire.

                Vaal

              • gbjames
                Posted July 27, 2013 at 9:21 am | Permalink

                @Vaal, Ben, Jeff, Ant… I long ago realized that engaging Mr. W was pointless. He seems motivated by little more than a desire to disrupt. Exchanges with him never go anywhere despite regardless of the length of the exchange.

                You guys have far more stamina than I do.

              • Posted July 27, 2013 at 9:39 am | Permalink

                I’ve only been sniping.

                /@

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 27, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

                @Ant,
                Sniping perhaps, but your scope is well calibrated, and your aim is true.

              • Gary W
                Posted July 27, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

                But if we are talking about his desire to to have GOOD REASONS,

                You’re contradicting yourself. For the umpteenth time, your principle is “desires provide the ONLY reasons for actions” [emphasis added]. There are no “good reasons” or “bad reasons.” There are just reasons, which come from desires. The only reason the bank robber has for acting is to fulfill his desires. The robber has a desire to get lots of money, which provides the reason for him to rob the bank. This follows directly from your stated principle for action.

                Similarly, the bank robber may have a desire to steal, but one can point to all sorts of other strong, fundamental desires he has that his stealing will threaten or thwart

                This is your “crime never pays” nonsense again. I hate to break it to you, but crime very often does pay. Most crimes do not even result in an arrest, let alone conviction and punishment. The criminal usually gets away with his crime, enriching himself at the expense of his victims. Given the bank robber’s desire to get rich, and his lack of concern for the desires of others, by your argument he ought to rob the bank. By your argument, that is the moral choice for him to make.

                Robbery is an extreme example, but virtually every action we take advances desire-fulfillment for one person or group and thwarts desire-fulfillment for others, from buying a tube of toothpaste to competing with other candidates for a job. The only way your “Desirism” could possibly maximize overall desire-fulfillment is if everyone’s self-interest always coincided with the interests of society as a whole, and that idea is simply nonsense.

              • Posted July 27, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

                if everyone’s self-interest always coincided with the interests of society as a whole, and that idea is simply nonsense.

                Gary clearly thinks Somalia is a model country. He is saunchly anti-social and proud of it.

                Fascinating. Horrific, yet fascinating.

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted July 27, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

                Ben Goren is living in a fantasy world in which there is never a conflict between the interests of an individual and the interests of society as a whole.

              • Posted July 27, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

                @ Gary

                You continue to quote “desires provide the only reasons for actions” as if it’s the whole of desirism.

                You continue to take only the cheater’s pov.

                Revealing.

                /@

              • Gary W
                Posted July 27, 2013 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

                You continue to quote “desires provide the only reasons for actions” as if it’s the whole of desirism.

                What supposed part of “Desirism” do you claim supports the conclusion that the robber should not rob the bank? Be careful not to smuggle in any subjective moral judgments of your own.

              • Posted July 27, 2013 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

                Pretty much the rest of it.

                /@

                Dr Ant Allan ant.allan@me.com @antallan

                Sent from my iPad mini

              • Gary W
                Posted July 27, 2013 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

                How does “the rest of it” support the conclusion that the robber should not rob the bank? Present your argument. Again, be careful not to sneak in your own moral judgments, or to contradict the principle that desires provide the only reasons for actions.

              • Posted July 27, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

                Because.

                (If you havent yet been able to discern the answer from Vaals “tedious verbiage” and Bens bed wetting, I doubt that further verbiage from me is going to understand it for you, so forgive me for not expending the energy.)

                /@

              • Gary W
                Posted July 27, 2013 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

                So you assure me you have an argument. You just can’t actually produce it.

                Compelling stuff.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 27, 2013 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

                @GaryW

                The question can’t be answered in three lines. The answer is in the efforts you rudely dismissed as tedious verbiage. You are thwarting everyone’s desire to make an effort to explain. And therein lies a clue to the answer.

                Another way to find the answer: tonight in bed, just relax that sphincter and let go, and fulfill the desire to evacuate without bothering to get up to go to the toilet. Observe how this thwarts other desires you have, and the desires of others around you. Observe how they act to thwart your desire to eliminate while economizing on the extra expenditure of energy required to get up and walk to the toilet.

                Or just rob a bank, and observe how that act thwarts the desires of others to not have the bank robbed. Then observe the steps they take to thwart your desire to rob more banks.

                If you act on desires that thwart the desires of others, then they will act to thwart that desire in you. If you act on desires that fulfill the desires of others, then they will encourage you to fulfill that desire.

              • Gary W
                Posted July 27, 2013 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

                The question can’t be answered in three lines. The answer is in the efforts you rudely dismissed as tedious verbiage.

                Then extract that answer and state it, as clearly and concisely as you can. “The answer is in there somewhere” is not an answer.

                Or just rob a bank, and observe how that act thwarts the desires of others to not have the bank robbed. Then observe the steps they take to thwart your desire to rob more banks.

                As I have already explained repeatedly, the robber doesn’t care about the desires of others not to have the bank robbed, so those desires are not relevant to his reasons for acting.

                If you act on desires that thwart the desires of others, then they will act to thwart that desire in you.

                So what? If the bank robber successfully robs the bank his desire is fulfilled, not thwarted, despite whatever anyone did to try and prevent the bank from being robbed. Yet more irrelevance.

              • Posted July 27, 2013 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

                Wow, Gary.

                You really think that no bank robber desires to not live a life on the run? Or that no child who wets his bed desires to sleep in a clean bed and avoid ridicule?

                You would appear to be even more blinkered than a Creationist.

                But at least you’re consistent.

                b&

              • Posted July 27, 2013 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

                I want this discussion to stop. NOW. Nobody’s mind is being changed and this is going nowhere.

                Get it?

                –Mgmt.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

      Considering the desire to rape as thwarting the desires of the victim allows you to call rape bad. But not raping thwarts the desire of the person who wants to rape. So the thwarting of desire in and of itself doesn’t really give you objectivity.

      You need to covertly smuggle in a pre-existing value judgement to say it’s better to thwart the desire of the rapist than to thwart the desire of the victim.

      • Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

        In general, and even whether one realizes or understands it or not, living in an healthy civil society is even more desirous than satisfying an immediate urge to commit mayhem of whatever type for whatever reason.

        Mayhem is not sustainable. Civilization is, and it’s much more comfortable, profitable, easier, efficient, and on and on.

        You’ll note that the three rules above promote civilization. Above all else, don’t force yourself upon others (and help defend against those who do, but without yourself crossing that line). Work together to help build up common interests. And, so long as it doesn’t get in the way of all that, the rest of your life is yours to do with as you please.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

          It’s basically one of the definitions of becoming a responsible adult, to be able to anticipate long term consequences and balance them against short lived pleasure when considering an action.

          Your rules are almost like an algorithm for each individual to behave so as to incrementally make Pareto optimal improvements to society. It is game theoretical in nature, and I like it because there is no attempt to define morality. Just three simple rules of ethical behavior.

          If you consider some of the teachings of Jesus, for example the beatitudes, turn the other cheek, love your enemy, do not judge, and a few others, one can simply view him as an early intuitive game theoretician, his goal simply being to increase the prevalence of cooperative strategies while phasing out the zero-sum mentality of the Old Testament.

          Robert Wright’s book “Non Zero” is interesting. It talks about the progress of humanity in terms of an increasing development and mastery of more powerful and complex information systems, which in turn enables a greater number of opportunities for people to engage in non-zero sum games, thus empowering individuals to realize increasing freedom and satisfaction.

        • Gary W
          Posted July 24, 2013 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

          Mayhem is not sustainable. Civilization is, and it’s much more comfortable, profitable, easier, efficient, and on and on.

          The Roman Republic sustained itself for hundreds of years, while practicing slavery, genocide, massive subjugation of women and other things we today consider morally abhorrent.

  43. Tony Halfpenny
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Hello Jerry,

    I remember reading Principia Ethica, by G. E. Moore as a student. It left the impression
    that nobody could sum up the pluses and minuses following their action as the effects
    rippled through time c.f. the “butterfly” effect of Chaos Theory. We have to make
    choices but often our “moral compass” is probably no better at making “good” choices
    than the flip of a coin. In today’s paper a writer says a busker seemed pleased when given £5 and the writer said he also felt good about the donation. After a long time might not the ramifications of this donation – if it were possible to accurately sum the net “good” – show an oscillation about some mean?

    Tony Halfpenny.

    Principia Ethica, by G. E. Moore, was first published in 1903.
    http://fair-use.org/g-e-moore/principia-ethica

  44. Boris
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Wrong. Morality is objectively based on the value of human life itself. That which enhances and protects human life is “good” and that which harms or destroys hyuman life is “evil.” Now morality based on a being that cannot be comprehended is subjective to the extreme, not to mention dangerous.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

      So is population control good or evil? If enhancing human life is ‘good’ then breeding like crazy and producing a lot more human lives must be ‘good’ too?

      I think your definition has loopholes in it.

  45. Posted July 24, 2013 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Objective morality is simply “might makes right.”

    However, when the weak cooperate they can prevail, and thus ethics emerge. See “survival of the fittest”

  46. kelskye
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    There’s (probably) no objective morality, but there are (mostly) objective ways of looking at moral propositions. Moral systems of thought can be quite useful for assessing aspects of our behaviour. How we treat others, how we ought to treat others, and how we expect others to treat us benefit from being mediated through moral systems of thought. Treat morality as a way of reasoning rather than as a property and the conversation will be much better for doing so.

  47. Cremnomaniac
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    I think that there are times when being intellectual is not advantageous. This is one of them. I have not read the entire thread, but much of the discussion seems to veer into realms of “is and “ought.” I really don’t get it, except its a distraction from the basic issue.

    As it applies to this discussion,

    Obective; of or pertaining to something that can be known, or to something that is an object or a part of an object; existing independent of thought or an observer as part of reality.

    You see, “objective morality is a concept; a product of human thought. There is no such thing as an “objective” morality beyond the human mind. Nature doesn’t use it. It can’t be found in the environment, nor is it a measurable property of any organism.

    What there is, is behavior in one form or another, the product of nature and evolution. Period. Primates don’t exhibit moral behavior. They exhibit behavior that resembles OUR idea of moral behavior. You can argue this until your blue in the face, but morality will always be a cognitive construct of humanity.
    And sure, it can be measured, but only in the manner by which we define morality, or well being,or whoever you want to frame it. But again, it requires that a definition be PRODUCED by human intellect. I really don’t see the controversy.

  48. MNb
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    “does an act increase general well being?”
    While I’m a utilitarian myself I fail to see how this is objective. Why should well being be objectively good? It’s better to be honest and admit that well being at best is based on an argumentum ad populum – most people prefer well being to ill being. I greatly prefer that to some source like an imaginary sky daddy, but that doesn’t mean it’s objective.
    In the second place there is no way to measure well being objectively. Some activity may contribute to yours but not to mine or vice versa. Admitting that well being is not an objective standard at least solves this problem; of course the problem of determining the lesser evil remains.

    “it’s clear that under the standard of “general well being,” nearly all of us would be acting morally by giving a third of our income to the poor”
    Even that’s not so obvious – it makes the poor dependent on us richer people.

  49. Jeffrey Kraus
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    An argument could made that giving food to the poor is immoral if it results in the birth of more poor people.

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/repugnant-conclusion/

    For example, 10 billion dollars was spent on the LHC that instead could have been spent on food for the poor. I would argue that the overall well being of our species was better served by spending that money on the LHC than preventing the early deaths from starvation of a few thousand people.

  50. Jeff Johnson
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    I don’t even like the word “morality”. I think it was Coel above it makes more sense to keep in mind that our morality really comes from emotional impulses, feelings programmed into us by evolution, which in my opinion probably came about because they simultaneously increase the harmony and cooperation amongst a small band of humans while increasing the violence and exclusion toward competing bands.

    The irony of war makes a mockery of the idea of morality, because God is on both sides, so to speak; both sides are killing for what in their value system is a moral purpose, and for both sides the other guy’s killing is immoral. The 9/11 bombers were perfoming a morally deserved punishment, and there is no objective argument that they were wrong. There is only the contrary opinion of Americans and the families of the victims that what they did was immoral murder.

    So the idea of “morality” as a good thing seems hopelessly corrupted by the evolutionary origins of morality, and the kinds of contradictory gut reactions humans can have to the same state of affairs. If we rephrase the trolly problem with five Iraqis on our current track, and one American on the parallel track, there are Americans who would consider it most moral to not pull the switch, killing five Iraqis to save one American. The same goes for communists, atheists, or other reviled pariahs of the American Exceptionalist jingoistic norm. I assume this from the way the media covered the war, and from the kinds of public statements made by various leaders and politicians during the war.

    If someone rapes your daughter, that gut feeling of enraged vengeance that makes you want to kill the perpetrator is actually a moral response, it’s moral indignation and moral outrage. In this sense morality was really a primitive form of law, before we could articulate laws based on reason, and establish (relatively) impartial means of enforcing and judging them. We have dusted the term “morality” off and tried to pretend it only has positive value, but we haven’t really severed the word from it’s emotional roots.

    I think we should shun the use of the word “morality” as a desireable standard of goodness, and consider it to be a primitive tribal instinct that we suppress because our cerebral cortex has developed the equipment needed to overcome such emotional gut feelings and place greater value on our capacity for reasoning.

    What we need are rational ethics, rules, and laws whose interpretations are not colored by emotions and tribal loyalties. Just try explaining to the Israelis and the Palestinians who is moral and immoral in that theater of conflict. It is an impossible task. One could get much farther abandoning moral judgement and discussing consequences and ethical principles of fairness. The word “morality” is too hopelessy corrupted, and too often a justification for brutality.

  51. Joey Frantz
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 2:15 am | Permalink

    Sam Harris’s comparison between health and morality doesn’t work because the concept of health has both objective and subjective components; it’s just that since people usually agree about what kind of health outcomes they want, physicians and scientists can pass off a statement like “you should drink plenty of fluids if you have a cold” off as a fact rather than as a subjective normative claim. But there is in fact a distinction between facts about the body and how someone should use those facts. It is a fact that HAART will increase the lifespan of HIV patients, and it is a fact that most patients will want to die later rather than sooner, but that doesn’t mean it is an objective fact that HIV patients should take HAART. The factual claims of medicine are objective; the wishes of patients and doctors are not.

  52. Posted July 25, 2013 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    Jerry, there is little doubt what you would say if I were to weigh in on a disputed question in evolutionary biology, without the knowledge to back up my claims. I suspect the same thing is in evidence in this post. By speaking rather cryptically about “add ons”, it is hard to know what kind of substantive point you think you are making.

    In any event, you can’t really start where you have done, if you expect to say something relevant to the question about the objectivity of moral valuations. You must at least begin by considering the question of having reasons for actions (in general)and whether such reasons can be objective. What is it that you are attaching objectivity to? You don’t say. Apparently, from your point of view, values cannot be objective, yet I could give you good reasons for acting in certain ways with respect to yourself and other people that include values concealed in their premises, and I daresay you would agree that you have reasons to act in the ways prescribed.

    For instance, your doctor might very well tell you that you have reason to give up certain kinds of food (and given some of the pictures you have sometimes regaled us with, no doubt he would be right!). Of course, underlying that would be issues about your continuing health or independence which, I suspect, are values that you would endorse. Do you then have objective reasons to do certain things? Certainly, you do.

    In the same way, if I tell you that you have a reason to run into the street and rescue a little girl who is in danger of being killed by busy traffic, is there some doubt that you have such reason if (i) doing so would not cause you disaster or be unduly hazardous; and (ii) you are in a position to do so, not hampered by disability, distance, or other obstacle to your doing so? To suggest, in this case that your moral responsibility here is based on the subjective consideration of the value of a little girl’s life seems, on the face of it, simply irrelevant to the question of the objectivity of the reasons for action involved. And your failure to save the girl’s life, or to make her death less likely, would justly be held to your account. You could have done it without undue demand on your time or your safety. You had no overwhelming reason not to do it on this occasion. Your failure to do so would be morally blameworthy.

    This does not mean your failure should be met with “retributive” punishment, but that it should attract moral censure seems just. But what is the “add on” which somehow transforms this simple situation into one where no moral judgement at all should be passed on your actions?

    My concern here is that you are making pronouncements on matters to which you have not given close study. Of course, this is not to say that there are no philosophical arguments in favour of subjectivism and relativism, but they stand within a tradition of discourse about such things, and do not stand alone in the very simple way that you seem to assume. We do not need relativism in order to dispense with the retributive justification of punishment. But nor do we want a situation in which people act without being judged on their actions. Strict relativism is really a form of nihilism, since, if values are merely subjective, there is never a reason for judging a person’s actions of be beneath the threshold of reasonable expectation, since the person’s values, which are relative to the person’s assessment of the values at play in the situation, are no one’s business but his own. I simply do not understand why you seem to think it justifiable to engage very complicated philosophical issues without first considering the many things that have been and are still being said on the question of the objectivity or subjectivity of moral justification.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted July 25, 2013 at 6:38 am | Permalink

      I don’t have any deep foundations in the philosophy of ethics. But I have a brain, and I like to think, and I like to learn, and engaging in discussion is a fun and useful way to learn. Perhaps I should spend the time to rigorously study ethics, but that prescription doesn’t mean it is unprofitable to engage in the kind of discussion going on here. So it seems to me there is no good reason to try to shut it down because it doesn’t rise to the level of certain profesional standards.

      Beyond that, I think people are not in agreement about what is meant by “objective”, and the way you’ve used it here bothers me. Through our sensory inputs we receive some information about objective reality, but then we form subjective views of what that data means. What we see, what we select, and how we interpret it is highly subjective.

      I see your reasons in the examples of the doctor and the rescue as not being objective at all. If you zoom out, there is a small sense in which something objective is happening; that is, a neuroscientist could objectively measure something about the activity in the brain. But zooming back into the subjective realm, inside the human mind, the reasons may have some influence from empirical input of the senses, but the decisions and reasons are 100% subjective. Of course we have a sense that our subjective evaluations become in important ways “better” if they are more tightly integrated with the sensory input from objective reality, but I can’t see anything objective about reasoning and deciding upon actions, even if those decisions are stimulated by events in objective reality, or the subsequent actions have effects in objective reality.

      I think that, as Ant Alan mentioned in another post, we need to view objective as meaning that which is in no way dependent on the human mind.

      Using the word “objective” to label subjective evaluations that incorporate a few objective “facts” (which are actually subjective interpretations of objective reality) seems extremely confusing.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 25, 2013 at 7:54 am | Permalink

        + infinity 🙂

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:29 am | Permalink

          Wow. Is that countable or uncountable? 🙂

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:30 am | Permalink

            Well it is objective 😛

      • Vaal
        Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:48 am | Permalink

        Jeff,

        “I think that, as Ant Alan mentioned in another post, we need to view objective as meaning that which is in no way dependent on the human mind.”

        Just a quibble. The reason that conception of “objective” rankles me is that it’s the very formulation sneaky theists like William L. Craig use in their moral arguments for God.

        In defining “objective” to mean independent of HUMAN minds, they get to say “if morality comes from a non-human mind, like God’s, then it is objective.”

        On the same logic, whatever an alien believes could be objective, simply because their beliefs aren’t dependent on human minds.

        While it seems there isn’t perfect unanimity philosophically on the concept of “objective,” I go along with those who hold it to be Mind Independent fact – that is a proposition that has a truth value, that does not change despite changes in a subject’s feelings, opinion, or beliefs about that proposition.

        The earth has a natural satellite, the moon, would be such a fact. That’s true whether someone, any subject, has the feeling or opinion it’s false. The opinion of an Alien or a God that the earth has no moon would be objectively wrong as well.

        And if there are objective moral facts in this sense, that entails that an alien or God believing otherwise would be wrong as well.

        Vaal

      • Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

        Two L’s.

        /@

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted July 25, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

          Sorry. As a one time corrective, to supply the missing ‘l’, I will say I agree with Ant Alllan’s definition of objectivity, along with Vaal’s more precise correction of not qualifying mind with “human”. I was implicitly assuming other minds were included as well, and using “human” was a mistake.

          • cyan
            Posted July 25, 2013 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

            Two L’s

            • Posted July 26, 2013 at 3:22 am | Permalink

              I believe Jeff was deliberately giving me an extra one to balance the previous deficit.

              /@

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 26, 2013 at 3:41 am | Permalink

                Yep. I supplied the missing one: 1 L + 3 Ls = 4Ls averaged over two usages is 2Ls per usage. From now on I’ll stick to two.

    • Vaal
      Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:30 am | Permalink

      Eric,

      Although I’m very sympathetic to the idea of objective morality, I’m having problems seeing how your post supports such a state of affairs.

      Surely if Jerry’s doctor can supply Jerry with good reasons to give up certain foods, these reasons will assume some desire or goal on Jerry’s part. In other words any reasons to cut out certain foods will appeal to Jerry’s desires to remain healthy, free of diabetes, high blood pressure, or the like. And given that desire or goal, yes objective reasons can be given for why to take certain actions. (Objective in the sense that there will be facts to appeal to, and objective also in the sense that reason itself has the nature of objective universality).

      The problem is, that can be said about anyone’s desire. If I have a desire to steal my neighbor’s car, then there will be objective reasons concerning which actions will fulfill that goal or desire.

      This is the problem that opens the wedge when you make the jump to the proposition that Jerry would have objective reasons to save the little girl.

      First, you simply alluded to there being objective reasons but didn’t give any.
      Secondly, if you are moving from the doctor example to the saving the girl example, the doctor example implies that the reasons Jerry has for doing something will derive from something Jerry values, or desires.

      But if Jerry doesn’t value or desire the life of the little girl, what basis is left to say it’s the case he ought to save her, and hence is morally blameworthy? I don’t see the basis given.

      And that’s the problem people have: if your “objective” reasons for how Jerry should act morally are based simply on things Jerry happens to desire or value, then we have the problem that people desire and value different things.

      Some people desire the suffering of others (e.g. serial killers). Some people are raised with values that, to them, entail homosexuality is evil, and they have the desire that homosexuality be banned. That would seem to give them “objective reasons” to suppress homosexuals on the same logic Jerry ought to take his doctors advise or save the little girl.

      And neither Jerry, nor you or I, could have the grounds to say those people are morally wrong in suppressing homosexuals. And a basis for saying “that is morally wrong, even if someone else thinks it is morally right” is really what most people are looking for when
      talking about morality being “objective.”

      Cheers,

      Vaal

      • Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

        As I mentioned in my very first comment on this page, I found that Eric was using “objective” in a way that I didn’t recognise, in a post on morality on his webs- blog (starting with a video of A.C. Grayling on the topic). Eric admitted, iirc, that morality varies with culture, time and space, but I don’t see that as being consistent with an objective morality, as I understand “objective”.

        /@

        • Vaal
          Posted July 25, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

          Ant,

          I think it depends on what you would mean by “morality.” If by that you would mean the logical structure underlying how things are evaluated as “good” or “bad,” then I don’t think that could vary with culture and be “objective” – that is if it varied with the opinion of the culture.

          But if you mean by “morality” the *specific acts* that are deemed good or bad in each culture, then I think it can still be objective. It could be objective in the sense of how relationships have object truth value. And a statement about a relationship doesn’t have to be true at all times in all places in order to be “objectively true.”

          An example I gave before: it’s objectively true I’m taller than my mother. Anyone having a different opinion is objectively wrong. But this wasn’t always a fact; I was once shorter than my mother. So, objective facts don’t have to be always and everywhere true, they just have to be true of the state of affairs being described.

          So, if morality is something like the relationship of facts that will fulfill society’s goals or desires, relationships between changing facts can alter. It’s conceivable that what would be a “good act”
          under some conditions at another time, could be considered a “bad act” under the conditions experienced by a different culture.

          In a place were water is abundant, then all sorts of uses for water could be “good” that would be “bad” in a place of drought where water must be saved for drinking. Given the stakes involved, doing the wrong thing with water can take on moral dimensions. Or…some societies may be in a situation where it would be “good” to have many children (e.g. farming society), but if a situation changes where overpopulation is a problem, it would be “bad” to have more than one or two kids, and the stakes involved make it a moral prescription against having too many children.

          So, depending on what Eric means and his value theory, moral prescriptions varying among cultures may not entail morality being strictly relative or subjective.

          Vaal.

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted July 25, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink

            I’m not sure you’re really getting to objectivity by considering relationships.

            First, the example with your mother’s height relative to your own depends on inertial reference frames of observers. (perhaps this is payback for your quibble on the minds of aliens and Gods…lol). If I were with your mother traveling past you at near the speed of light, she would be taller than you by every objective measurement I could make. Also the simultaneity of events varies between inertial reference frames. So by special relativity the notion of relations having consistent objective value is called into question.

            Now I realize your physical height example is an analogy, but still I think that using relationships doesn’t really enable you to pull the objective rabbit out of your hat that you can’t get to with absolutes.

            But I think that your description of relations between subjects having consistency within cultures gets at something close to objectivity. It seems more like consensus on subjective values, but I can’t see how you can extend the analogy of relations of facts, like height or the use of water, to relations of values to facts in a way that is actually objective. It always depends on culture, which is ultimately subjective, but it has some normative weight by virtue of the community standards or democratic consensus. So there is consistency rather than either relativity or objectivity, and that consistency is derived from subjective evaluation.

            • Vaal
              Posted July 25, 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

              Jeff,

              “If I were with your mother traveling past you at near the speed of light, she would be taller than you by every objective measurement I could make. Also the simultaneity of events varies between inertial reference frames.”

              But the claim that I’m taller than my mother didn’t imply, or entail, she was traveling past me at the speed of light, so that would be moot.

              If I say my mother – standing still beside me in her hallway if you need me to be that explicit – is shorter than I am now, that is an objective fact, via the standards of measurement we have chosen.

              If I say my mother, standing still beside me in her hallway WAS taller then me in 1969, that too is an objective fact, for the same reasons.

              Vaal.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 26, 2013 at 4:55 am | Permalink

                My parenthetical remark was supposed to indicate I was being slightly tongue in cheek about the point from special relativity. You could have taken it to the next level and quibbled that I should have said that the motion would have to be vertical with respect to your heights, or else you would both need to lie down for the measurements.

                But this is just fooling around. Leave it aside.

                Really my point was to move from the physical, which your height example is, and I was trying to imply it may not have real relevance, and get to the subjective, where you seemed to be making a point about the importance of relations between facts somehow having properties that simple absolute facts don’t have. I may not have understood you properly, but it seemed like you were trying to say that relations between facts that are involved in subjective evaluations created a kind of pseudo-objectivity, with a certain independence or invariance from individual to individual within a cultural system (but you took care not to extend the notion to humanity in general).

                Now I’ll proceed, provisionally assuming that paragraph is even close to what you were suggesting, even though I’m not certain of it. An important aspect of objectivity is the idea of invariance of properties independent of human subjective perspectives. It seemed to me you are going to great lengths to try to import that idea, or some variation on it, into the subjective realm of ethics and morals. In a cultural system with established norms, I can’t see how the agreement between people results from some underlying principle of relations between facts having the status of objective truth. If that’s not what you are saying, I’m just confused. But what I see is that within a cultural system norms develop by consensus, by individuals adopting ideas and behaviors that seem to be in their interest to adopt because of a prevalance in the social context. This process leads to consistent values by a selection process akin to natural selection, but based on individual interests, social success, and memes. And as a result of that process, one may identify consistent norms that resemble an objective-like invariance because of their consistent presence in a large group of people, a culture. In other words, it seems like you are making a backwards inference with respect to causality.

          • Posted July 26, 2013 at 3:17 am | Permalink

            Well, as I mentioned before, I consider morality to be an intersubjective consensus regarding good behaviour.

            I’m not disputing that you cannot make objective decisions about morality – A is better (more moral) than B – by comparing actions against prevailing rules/guidelines/frameworks/&c.

            But I don’t see the prevailing rules/guidelines/frameworks/&c. as being objective. (The clue’s in the word “prevailing”.)

            Culturally (and individual) subjectivity comes in when you consider whose desires are important. Thus slavery is moral if you consider that your captives, another races, … desires are of lesser importance, and thus that thwarting those desires has less relevance.

            You might make similar arguments about vegetarianism (here, giving animals desires greater weight), although that’s complicated by, say, considerations of dietary requirements (potentially an argument against vegetarianism) and energy consumption (is it moral to eat meat when the energy input is 10✖ more, with consequences for climate change at this point in our history).

            TL;DR, there’s still a set of (inter)subjective value judgements.

            /@

  53. Me
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    Generally agree with u on a number of things however I think u r being too Orwellian in this notion of ‘well-being’. While I like this notion over inherent morality I beg to differ on you saying it brings nothing to society with retributive punishment. You try having a relative be murdered or u told how to parent your children or having your hold sexually molested. I simply don’t believe that humans can accept no revenge motivations. U r trying to force some kind of objective acceptance of determinism and u ought to know that is not going to happen in totality. I freely admit that some things done by others r pure evil, and nothing less. I have seen it. Anyone who works in law enforcement or social services or psychology generally has seen this. You will not force ppl to NOT FEEL VENGEFUL, particularly if they themselves have been wronged or a beloved family member. Thinking like this too much can be just as detrimental as feeling too much and you come across as thinking too much at times

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted July 25, 2013 at 7:45 am | Permalink

      You will not force ppl to NOT FEEL VENGEFUL, particularly if they themselves have been wronged or a beloved family member.

      Absolutely correct. However, that doesn’t mean that building consensus for this approach based on reasoned argument can’t prevail democratically in the long run. The death penalty is already rare in the civilized world. At one time you would not have been able to force people to give up slavery, or to provide women the right to vote, or give women equal rights in the work place.

      Just because people feel a certain way doesn’t mean that it always must dominate the thinking of society as a whole. We can culturally evolve, and most of that involves a triumph of the cerebral cortex over the amygdala.

      • gbjames
        Posted July 25, 2013 at 7:52 am | Permalink

        “At one time you would not have been able to force people to give up slavery”

        Actually at the time you refer to there were a great many people who would have happily given up on slavery. No force would have been needed for those many, many people held as slaves.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:07 am | Permalink

          Right, I was obviously referring to the people with power, the people with an interest in slavery, or with an interest in preserving the status quo. The point was really that emotional instincts of individuals don’t always dictate the direction society as a whole moves.

          All such social revolutions involve a leading edge, early adopters, eventually a prevailing majority, followed by the trailing edge of bitter stragglers, a form of Gaussian distribution of population over time.

          The slaves were clearly the leading edge on ending slavery. It seems the victims almost always are practically by definition.

          I guess that makes a change in how we punish criminals more problematic, because the victims of crime would need to yield to a new way of thinking, and the perpetrators would potentially benefit as individuals, but the whole thing wouldn’t be worth considering if it weren’t a benefit for society as a whole.

          • gbjames
            Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:11 am | Permalink

            Ya, I know (about the main point). I was just being pedantic.

      • Me
        Posted July 25, 2013 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

        Again, you are sounding too Orwellian for me. Life has taught me that differences should exist and that some objective standard will be PUSHED by powerful societies or ppl OVER the will of the weak. Example..cannibalism. We in the west would think this abhorrent, however where this has been common practice, this would not seem to be in their mind. Although this is an extreme example, it would be the weak that would lose. Dont’ mistake this as an argument to accept cannabalism, but rather, the POWERFUL will exert power over the weak. I have seen it done too many times. Why should the powerful DECIDE for others?
        I am very much against Islam’s misogynistic ways, however I think it has to come mostly from within to fight this battle. Other forces or ppl or nations can’t do what must be done by the ppl themselves.
        I have thought about this a lot. It is only with pulling the lens back from my own indoctrination into this society that I realize everything is relative to what your culture is. I understand the necessity of this, BUT you are dumbing down the emotional life of ppl, when you try and take away all suffering. SUFFERING teaches ppl over the long run. Fear is essential to life…what level and to what degree can be debated, but FEAR is essential to making good decisions. I think you guys are objectifying ppl too much, just as a man who watches pornography too much objectifies women and thus, see women as OBJECTS with feelings, thoughts or value. YOu guys can objectify humans too much on this board. SAMENESS is not a virtue and you have no idea how giving that kind of power to ppl will destroy freedom and choice and uniqueness. You guys really coming across as everyone should not feel any negative emotions. Again i say, YOU WILL NEVER stop ppl from feeling vengeful about certain acts perpetrated on them. It will have to be their choice to forgive and not some objective stance of “non retributive justice”. We are not robots and will fight overtly and covertly to be told how to feel. You obviously have never had a heinous act against you, because if all your power is lost to another thru an act they committed, you will know the meaning of real emotion that no amount of objective bargaining or defining will change.

        • Me
          Posted July 25, 2013 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

          oops, should say above OBJECTS< WITH NO VALUE>.

      • Me
        Posted July 25, 2013 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

        You also ASSUME that cultural EVOLUTION MEANS objective moral code which EVERYONE has to accept. Again, you don’t see the Orwellian nature of this statement. There are always unintended consequences to things and your definition of “triumph of cerebral cortex over amygdala” is completely ridiculous.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted July 26, 2013 at 4:19 am | Permalink

          You seem to have read and responded to some other post. I was talking about long term democratic consensus changing peoples values over time. I said nothing about anyone forcing anything. You ASSUMED that was what I thought. You just have to look at history to see that it has happened. People’s attitudes change.

          Are there people being forced by some ORWELLIAN POWER to suppress the emotional instincts that made it popular to stand in a public square and cheer as some heretic is drawn and quartered? Perhaps, but I doubt it, and I think more likely that our attitudes have evolved. People today have a different set of concepts in their mind about what is and is not acceptable. Now they cheer over UFC or professional wrestling or something, but they would be horrified if someone were actually disembowled in the ring.

          I think this means that in some way reason and logic, which humans have in abundance compared to other mammalian species, is gaining greater and greater ascendancy over violent primitive urges, and I hypothesize this is happening naturally. There is no forcing I can see. I see a natural evolution in intelligence happening, which I refered to as cultural evolution, a competition among memes rather than genes. And in the comment about the cerebral cortex and the amygdala, I didn’t mean that literally, I was using metonymy to express the notion outlined in this paragraph.

          Of course at any moment and any place humans can get up to the kind of oppression you are talking about. I don’t deny that, and I don’t support it. I was referring to changes that seem to be happening naturally over generations and many centuries. It seems to me there is a kind of taboo in our society against vigilantism. If your daughter is raped, you are supposed to put justice in the hands of the legal system, not go shoot the offender. This is generally accepted, and exceptions are anomolies and outliers. Perhaps you have read Foucalt and you view this as some kind of self-imposed Big Brother in our own minds, suppressing the will to power of our inner übermensch. I’m not speculating on anything like that. I’m just noting what seems to be a fairly clear trend in human history, which is to consider slavery, vigilantism, sexism, and other forms of people oppressing other people as violations against our good consciences and antithetical to peaceful civilized society. There shouldn’t be anything controversial in that.

          You evidently have something to say, but what you are saying is totally disconnected from what I wrote. I was simply agreeing that you can’t force people not to feel vengeful, but that in my opinion, historical trends suggest the possibility that naturally, by individual assent, the general consensus of humans seems to be changing naturally so that people value institutions of law and order over the potential chaos of individual vigilantism, and that such trends could similarly lead to a broad acceptance of the idea that we are all better off if we punish criminals only to rehabilitate and deter, but not to inflict vengeful suffering. That’s just a way of interpreting the constitutional provision against cruel and unusual punishment. What we consider cruel and unusual changes, and not by force, but by a more enlightened set of ideas about who and what humans are, how we are connected, and what we mean to one another.

          • Me
            Posted July 26, 2013 at 8:02 am | Permalink

            History says empires live and DIE.and the U.S will die an eventual death as well. This form of government will not last, as no other form of government or country has remain unchanged for all of its long, long history. You may see ppl as accepting of this “trend” you speak about, but others see it differently.

            I dont think “values” held by certain groups will generally be carried to others. The sheer number of humans on this planet is going to make for more and more struggles and war, simply because of the sheer limitation of resources. I dont think we are anymore enlightened. We understand and will continue to understand the scientific aspects of life and our biology, however that doesn’t necessarily mean enlightenment.

            I really dont think you understand what I am trying to impart here. Imagine you are a poor poor boy born in the heart of one of the poorer countries in Africa.. Do you REALLY think their values will line up with ours over time? C’mon that is hubris to the extreme. You don’t see to realize that not only do you have your individual values, you also have cultural or national values and the U.S. sure doesn’t have a monopoly on what is the best well-being in the world. We consistently rank low on a number of metrics, but even if we didn’t, we have tremendous problems here that are not going to be solved with the present system, AND we don’t have the market on “best values, no one country or person does. When you start subjugating ppl to a group think mentality for everything, you surely will see revolution at some level. Ppl are so full of ourselves. It is only thru a true willingness to pull back and look at how you are “trained” to think, and you are “trained” to think. As a therapist, I see this all the time.

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted July 26, 2013 at 9:05 am | Permalink

              I wasn’t trying to imply that one nation will impose its values on others. I never mentioned the US specifically. That is something you brought to the conversation. But I’ve travelled a lot, and there is to some degree a convergence of certain shared cultural values across many nations, and the Internet is only accellerating that.

              I spent about 8 months hanging out in West and Central Africa with lots of very poor poor kids, and as a matter of fact, their values and our values are already a great deal in line just by the mere fact that we are all human beings. There are of course differences, but the similarities outweigh the differences.

              I suppose it depends on what you actually mean, what you actually have in your mind, when you talk about our values being in line with others, but I did not have in mind some kind of hegemonic cultural imperialism. I don’t believe that all American values or European values are going to dominate the entire world for thousands of years.

              I was talking about some specific trends that seem to span national and cultural boundaries, and the end of slavery seems clearly to be one of those. The empowerment of women is another. Obviously these things happen at different rates in different places, and they take on specific forms in different cultures.

              You are imputing to my words some pre-conceptions that you brought into the conversation, and that have nothing to do with what I was talking about. I was merely trying to address one issue: you originally expressed (rightly) the concern that people can’t be forced to change their emotional feelings of vengeance. That’s so obvious it’s practically a tautology. I mean, emotions are an innate part of our being and how our brain works. I was merely trying to point out that the long history of humans developing more and more complex institutions around settling disputes, punishing transgressions, streamlining commerce, etc. has enabled humans, on a large scale, to abandon many of the ancient enforcement mechanisms involving violence that were necessary prior to the existence of such institutions. These things exist in various forms independent of nation or culture.

              And these institutions have become popular around the world in many nations using all kinds of languages, religions, and cultures. It’s hard to go to a country without ambulances and police cars, without some kind of government, without financial centers and trade organizations and verious kinds of markets with standards and controls, even if it’s a market for tea in Kenya or for monkey meat in the Congo, or a rice market in Thailand.

              These things have not been imposed; they have been willingly adopted by people around the world, each in their own way, because they found it was in their own best interests.

              So in that context, specifically with respect to crime and punishment, and without reference to a specific culture, it appears to me that people around the world are gradually changing with respect to meting out “cruel and unusual” punishment. I can offer the fact that in the vast majority of nations, except for a handful of places with extreme authoritarian governments or with a deep pscyhological attachment to ancient religious beliefs, the death penalty has largely disappeared. I think only about 5 to 10 countries practice it, the US being one of them.

              So while I agree that people are by innate constitution emotionally pre-disposed to vengeance in certain situations, we were also emotionally predisposed to hide in fear or club to death a person from another tribe if we met them by chance in the forest (anthropological evidence from New Guinea or Amazonia).

              I admit I can’t be sure, and I’m only offering an opinion, but I feel pretty confident that because of our increased ability to manage information, because of increased ability to use technology, our increased leisure time, the high speed travel and communications, and various other reasons, that humans are changing over time, and in such a way that our abilities to reason abstractly, with more and more information and understanding available, allows us more and more often to override emotional instincts toward violence.

              And the better we understand the human mind, the better we will understand what makes people commit crimes, and with more information available, we can change our attitudes toward punishment. At one time a person with schizophrenia might have been considered possessed by demons, and perhaps locked up or destroyed out of fear. Today we have better ways of understanding and dealing with such people. This is the kind of change I’m talking about with respect to how we regard and treat criminals. In some future our ancestors will look back and shudder of the primitive state of affairs in 2013.

              • Me
                Posted July 26, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

                i hear what you saying, but you are steadfastly missing the point..a gradual trend, whether true or not, does not foretell the future. There is a new study out that Pinker has linked on his twitter account that deals with some of this very issue. One notable piece of content is that it is believed that humans have innate tendency towards war and violence. What if this could be PROVEN as part of our neuro patterning? Does this mean that even if we could prove this, that we still should not punish ppl for their wrongdoings. After all, I can hear the courts screaming, he was NEURALLY BOUND to do something. Or maybe that gives me license to go out and do whatever the hell I want, and guess what, you can’t give me any retributive justice, but you can give me an objective opinion on what constitutes mine, and others well-being. Perhaps you can then alter my neuro patterning to something else, and I can’t give my assent to this. HOw sickening is that? You are making ppl into robots in a sense. This smacks of a cult like mentality.

                There are more issues to this then having people accept a general consensus of what would be a human’s well-being. Societies emerge when there is enough humans to converge. Societies generally tend to make it easier on most of us, but there is always a price of freedom to be paid. Maybe its society that is the issue. How much do we give up to be a part of it? I think you are treading on thin ice around this issue.

                Whats wrong with the death penalty under certain conditions. I don’t have a problem with it. Paying for some ill or depraved being, depending on your viewpoint, for them to be behind bars or just sitting around, isn’t within the realm of reality in many ppls’ mind. I, for one, think there are some genetic aberrations out there that NEED to be excised from the pool. Why do we consider the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment really? there are many ppl that take innocent lives and snuff them without much thought, and yet we MUST enable them to continue living, simply because they are labeled HUMAN, and as such, MUST continue to live,simply by virtue of being that species, along with some neuro atypical thing that exists in their heads. I don’t consider that a worthwhile pursuit.

                Have you ever worked with schizophrenics or bipolars or any other mentally ill ppl. because i have, and it is not what you guys surmise here. The bottom line is that you can’t create a utopia bec. human beings will not be wholly subjugated into oblivion and into robots forever. Cults thrive for awhile, but they never last forever. A new one takes it place. This defining of a “well-being” is good to a degree, but very dangerous in another, and life has taught me that POWER corrupts and corrupts completely. It doesn’t matter who you give the power to, whether judges, police, psychologists, etc. regulating human behavior to the nth degree doesn’t work. YOu lose the HUMANNESS in the process and create something else.

                You guys are so liberal with your ideas, but I really wonder if you ever have worked with ppl in the deepest settings that reveal human behavior at his most depraved. I c that you are trying to get me to agree to a general trend, but that isn’t the whole story and the sheer numbers of humans on this planet are going to make such pursuits difficult indeed.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 26, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

                “Me” wrote:

                Does this mean that even if we could prove this, that we still should not punish ppl for their wrongdoings.

                It’s pretty clear you aren’t thoroughly reading things here. You are assuming a lot about what is written, perhaps after only skimming enough to determine that your bias has been confirmed.

                Because nobody on this thread, as far as I know, has written that people shouldn’t be punished, and I certainly haven’t.

                There is a distinction between punishing people in ways calculated to accomplish rehabilitation and deterence, and punishing in ways that are calculated simply to inflict pain and suffering beyond what is needed, and to slake the blood lust of victims. And by the way, because of the care needed in the legal procedures, and the high security involved, it is more expensive to put prisoners to death than to imprison them for life. So if expense is important, as you mentioned, get your facts straight because you might not want to waste all that money simply because there are some “genetic aberrations out there that NEED to be excised from the pool.”

                You might want to reflect on why the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution states:

                Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

            • gbjames
              Posted July 26, 2013 at 10:47 am | Permalink

              Ppl are so full of ourselves.

              Evidently so.

              • Me
                Posted July 26, 2013 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

                snarky being aren’t you…You evidence just my point

              • gbjames
                Posted July 26, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

                Could be. It is hard to tell, though, what exactly your point is. Perhaps that your role as some sort of therapist positions you to exhibit exactly behaviors that you seem to be decrying.

              • Me
                Posted July 26, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

                No, you guys simply are so flat in your assertions. You don’t work with humans the way others do. I agree that there is morality doesn’t come from the Bible, it comes from humans trying to organize themselves into less warring factions and to build societies, but there is never going to be a consensus on exactly what best constitutes human well-being and quite frankly, i dont want there to be. You are free to live in another society if you wish, but it will be OTHERS to decide this if it came to pass.

                I watched the whole Paula Deen debacle and there is no way I can totally condemn the woman for something she did 20 years ago. Do you really think if she had to do it all over again, would she tell the truth again? I do wonder. WIth the backlash she received from this one instance in her life, or even if she said it lots of times, does some objective rule keep her from saying again. You are not extrapolating to realize this is the kind of thing that comes from OVErregulating humans. Keep the rules pretty simple and leave room for error, but to decide that no death penalty should exist bec. it is not in human’s well -being doesn’t make sense to me. I think Niall FErguson has a point when he says in his latest book, Its fast becoming RULE BY LAWYERS and not rule of law.

                Then to ask ppl to never consider that a “neurally” impaired individual, who may have raped and killed your daughter, isn’t to blame..His neurons are. AND to then accept a ruling that this person can have no retributive punishment IS CONTROL of ppl. You are wanting them to follow the pied piper. I am saying emphatically, that not all ppl will do just that. Will you then add to your stance on well.being and then JUDGE the ppl that won’t go along to be neurally impaired to…And would you allow them to NOT GO ALONG with them and seek some form of non-retributive justice. The cycle starts and then it never ends. You end up regulating the crap out of everything and everybody, and that is ORWELL.

              • Me
                Posted July 26, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

                and i have nothing further to say on this matter. i dont really care if you can’t see this, but to have some kind of human general well-being standard is BS. Too many differences, too many cultures and too many damn inhabitants on this planet will never come to a willing consensus. If you FORCE ppl, then it is not a consensus, it is BY FORCE, and that never works in the long run.

                its bs because you cant regulate ppl the way you think and wherever the power resides in some imagined future will NEVER be unspoiled or sullen. It WILL HAVE BIAS, as all cultures, ppl, groups etc DO. it may be hidden from you, but it is there.

                THe “rules” need to be simple, not the overly complex ridiculous regulation freaks that define laws now.

                And power should NOT reside in any one place, person or location. That is asking for major trouble.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 26, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

                You must be pretty upset that there are so many poor southerners that were FORCED to end slavery, and were FORCED to end segregation and Jim Crow. How terrible for them.

            • Me
              Posted July 26, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

              You are a true idiot. I am not a southerner nor would i want to be. you are a beliveer in somethign that doesnt exist and never will in this human species. We need the death penalty but we need it enforced not some joke as it is now.

              • Posted July 26, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

                Considering that only the US, China, and parts of the Muslim world still has the death penalty, and that the rest of the world — notably including Europe, Russia, Canada, Japan, Central and South America, Australia, and most of Africa — has either legally or practically done away with the death penalty, it should be damned obvious that the death penalty is as far from a necessity as it gets.

                A civilized society does not deliberately murder its own citizens in cold blood with malice aforethought.

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 26, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

                Also, I think Jeff was making a point about consensus and not implying that anyone is a southerner. He certainly doesn’t deserve the moniker of “idiot”.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 26, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

                I could be wrong about this, but I’m fairly sure I’m not an idiot. But then I guess idiots have no reliable way of knowing that they are idiots, so I guess our words have to count as evidence here.

                Thanks Ben and Diana.

              • Posted July 26, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

                Me, you insulted another commenter, which is against the rules (something you apparently haven’t bothered to find out).

                I suggest you find some other website to troll.

          • Me
            Posted July 26, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

            your opinion, but mine is that the death penalty is appropriate and in need of in this country. YOUR opinion says otherwise. so its just that an OPINION.

            and you show a constant bias towards your own thinking. Mine is mine and borne of experience working with depraved individuals. You will never know what they are capable of and there is a lot of consensus within the law enforcement and psychological communities that ppl are not rehabilitiated. That is pie in the sky thinking and very very typical of you liberals that dont know anything. You are being biased and naieve in ways you do not understand. I would rather have freedom and punsihment than ‘imagined freedom” and imprisonment of the masses by some arbitaty ruling by pppl like you…yuck..your thoughts sicken me. so i know you will likely hate that opinion, but you have no clue.

  54. Marvol
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    I’m with Jerry on this one.

    My main reason can be summarised, maybe a bit pompously, by my observation that “(general) well being” or any of its equivalents used to measure the morality of a decision cannot be strictly (unambiguously) defined.
    Or at least, if it can be in theory, as yet no-one has found this strict definition.

    Unlike in science proper where “the speed of light in vacuum” is perfectly defined, and formulas like E=MC^2 can be measured to great accuracy.

  55. Richard Olson
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Late to the show; subscribing just in case more useful remarks arrive in this informative conversation.

  56. Kelton Barnsley
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    The science of medicine also requires qualifiers. Smoking increases your likelihood of lung cancer. So what? What “objective” reason do we have to avoid lung cancer? It’s a mere matter of opinion that cancer is bad. We might discover an isolated tribe which considers the disease a gift from the gods, and whose most devout citizens actively try to get the disease.

    I use the word “objective” in quotes above because there are two meanings of the term, and most of the controversy over Sam’s thesis in the Moral Landscape stems, in my opinion, from confusion over these two definitions. The first meaning, which Jerry seems to be using here, is “apart from anyone’s subjective experience”. Of course morality cannot be objective in this sense. We don’t have moral responsibilities to rocks because there is nothing that it is like to be a rock. Rocks have no interests for us to consider. The second sense of the word “objective” simply refers to the attitude in which good science is done: trying to be free from bias, letting our beliefs be guided by the evidence, etc. When we recognize that we can’t possibly have moral responsibilities toward a rock, it becomes obvious that for our actions to be moral or immoral they must affect the well-being of some conscious creature. From this point, we have two options: we can allow our beliefs about how we should behave to be informed by the evidence from psychology, neuroscience, economics, etc., or we can allow iron age superstition and anti-human philosophies to inform our moral beliefs. It seems clear which path we should choose.

    • Gary W
      Posted July 25, 2013 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      The science of medicine also requires qualifiers. Smoking increases your likelihood of lung cancer. So what? What “objective” reason do we have to avoid lung cancer? It’s a mere matter of opinion that cancer is bad.

      It’s a matter of opinion that anything is “bad.” The human body is a biological machine. Lung cancer is a disease that impairs the function of that machine. Diagnosing and treating lung cancer is a matter of science. Just as diagnosing and treating the cause of, say, a plane crash or a malfunctioning PC is a matter of science.

      • Kelton Barnsley
        Posted July 25, 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink

        What, exactly, is your point here? Diagnosing and treating the causes of suffering is also within the purview of science, unless you believe that our mental lives float entirely free of physical reality.

        • Gary W
          Posted July 25, 2013 at 11:00 am | Permalink

          Your “qualifiers” apply to any science. So I’m not sure what your point is in the text I quoted.

  57. Posted July 25, 2013 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    Vaal, replying here because on my phone I can’t find the right spot. Thanks for the exchange with Gary about desirism. Unbelievable that he couldn’t understand you, but I found it very interesting and informative. Your patience is unbounded.

    • Gary W
      Posted July 25, 2013 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

      Do you have anything substantive to contribute to the discussion, or is vacuous cheerleading all you’ve got?

      • Posted July 26, 2013 at 12:56 am | Permalink

        Better than being stubbornly obtuse.

        /@

      • Posted July 26, 2013 at 3:26 am | Permalink

        Okay, that’s enough argument, which has degenerated to name-calling. Stop it this instant!

  58. Posted July 26, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    With the choice to either torture the terrorist or not given the off chance that it saves 10,000 lives, this could be solved by using a decision theory algorithm. But this involves assigning arbitrary units of “utility” to the probability of each outcome. Someone would have to assign some utility to torture and utility to the lives of 10,000 people. Who gets to do that? Who is the authority on the utility of the lives of 10,000 people? Who gets to say how much negative utility torturing a terrorist gets?

    Of course, most people don’t reason that way. Scope insensitivity is a good illustration of how people’s moral intuitions aren’t logical and depend on an individual’s perspectives and education. If someone agrees to donate $10 to save 10,000 dolphins, logically they should donate $100 dollars to save 100,000 dolphins. But due to scope insensitivity, the dollar difference people are willing to donate increases logarithmically instead of exponentially if the number saved increases exponentially… like going from saving 10,000 to 100,000 dolphins (accordingly, it’s more effective to donate all of your charity money to one charity instead of splitting it among multiple charities yet people do the opposite).

    Or take the classic trolley problem.

    A train, its brakes failed, is rushing toward five people. The only way to save the five people is to throw the switch sitting next to you, which will turn the train onto a side track, thereby preventing it from killing the five people. However, there is a stranger standing on the side track with his back turned, and if you proceed to thrown the switch, the five people will be saved, but the person on the side track will be killed.

    It turns out that men are less likely than women to think it is morally acceptable to throw the switch if the single person is a stranger. But if you change it to a 12 year old child and not a stranger, women are less likely than men to think it is morally acceptable to throw the switch (Zamzow & Nichols 2009). Which one is the “objectively morally correct” answer? Again, you might assign some arbitrary units of utility to either a stranger or a 12 year old child and then decide. But the rub is that the amount of utility is always going to be arbitrary and obviously men and women in this case assign different amounts of utility to the life of a stranger and to the life of a 12 year old.

    Overall, it seems that the people arguing that objective morality exists are operating under a pre-1950s view of psychology and cognition, not understanding the way that human brains make moral judgements, as understood by modern cognitive science.

  59. Jeff Johnson
    Posted July 27, 2013 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    @Vaal, Ben, Jeff, Ant… I long ago realized that engaging Mr. W was pointless. He seems motivated by little more than a desire to disrupt. Exchanges with him never go anywhere despite regardless of the length of the exchange.

    You guys have far more stamina than I do.

    Stamina perhaps, or maybe a neurotic desire to persuade people using reasoned arguments! 🙂 It may be a form of masochism, but I figure there is some benefit just in going through the exercise of trying to clarify your own thoughts and write them down. There is some benefit in searching and striving for a better and better way to explain what you think and mean, even if it isn’t necessarily successful or appreciated.

    To understand what someone says, then enumerate your reasons for disagreeing with them is one thing, but to repeatedly, stubbornly, obstinately, or perhaps lazily, either refuse or fail to understand, is another. If the goal really is disagreement for disagreement’s sake, then it certainly would be true that continually failing to understand and misrepresenting what someone is saying would be a much easier way to accomplish it than to actually understand and come up with real counter-arguments.

    But then just because we can impute motives to behavior that appear to explain it, that doesn’t mean that is the true motive of the behavior. And whatever our motives and intentions are, they are arrived at deterministically as a result of genes, experience, the conditions we have faced, and the contributions of those who have tried to help us or thwart us.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted July 27, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      oops. Bad HTML. The first two paragraphs are quoting gbjames, and the rest is me.

      • gbjames
        Posted July 27, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

        Perhaps. But I find I am able to argue, agree and disagree, clarify my own thoughts, apologize when necessary, etc., with most people. Very few drive me to the conclusion I’ve reached with our friend.

  60. Peter Beattie
    Posted July 29, 2013 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    A little late to the party, but a lot of things are wrong in this post.

    1. The definition of “objective” that says, ‘an issue where one absolutely true answer can be deduced from facts’, is unworkable for at least two reasons. a) If we define “true” to mean “corresponding with all facts ever”, then we can use the word only in an ideal sense and never talk about assertions being actually true—because we could never know that they are. b) Nothing at all can be deduced from facts. This is the classical problem of induction, and since Hume it has been clear that there is no rational way to argue from singular observations (however many) to general regularities. Without a causal theory, not even probability statements can be defended.

    2. “science has no add-ons. Once you find out that birds descended from dinosaurs, nothing else need be added to make this an objective truth”

    That is only true if you ignore everything that goes into the process of science and only look at the results. In science, we do not just find the truth: we have to have a definition of “truth”, which is not self-evident; we have to agree to heed the law of non-contradiction, which is also not god-given; and we have to agree on certain procedural rules concerning our theories. All that can just as well be called an “add-on”. Not being aware of it doesn’t make it go away.

    And how do you, in fact, determine that birds are descended from dinosaurs? That’s not an unalterable fact, it is only the best explanation we have, given our current knowledge. Fifty years ago, we would of course have classed the Archaea with the bacteria, and we would have regarded that as a fact. Today, we think of them as constituting their own kingdom. Our knowledge has evolved, and what we call truth can only be that relative to a particular problem-situation with its specific background knowledge, facts, and arguments.

    3. By asking unfair questions, you are stacking the deck against an objective understanding of morality. If instead of killing mosquitoes you had chosen the question, ‘Is it morally wrong to kill your child because she looked at you funny?’, you would have looked at pretty much the same situation as with the question, ‘Does the Earth go round the Sun?’ With that question, “the moral path would, it seems, be clear”.

    Just as in science, in ethics we make decisions. And at best, we have a critical process that tells us which answers are better—given the current problem-situation—than others. And very often, in science too the path is anything but clear: for example, is information capable of escaping the forces of a black hole once the matter it was embedded in has fallen into the hole? To pretend that the question was incapable of being addressed objectively because the path to the one right answer was not readily apparent would be silly.

    4. Finally: “How do you answer this, even using the criterion of ‘well being’? … And how do you trade off human with animal well-being?”

    Imagine saying the same thing about the question whether some animals are the same species, and read “relatedness” for “well-being”. How does it even make sense to use the word “species” if you have a number of different (and sometimes contradictory) criteria for relatedness? How do you trade off morphological closeness with one particular kind of phylogenetic marker, like e.g. certain similarities in mitochondrial DNA?

    Impossible, you say? Of course not. As in science, you construct arguments and you weigh them, together with the evidence, in order to make your options as distinct from one another as possible, so as to be able, after testing them against the relevant facts, to confidently make a rational choice.

    tl;dr — As in science, the objectivity of morality lies in its following a critical process, not in arriving at a clear, eternally true answer.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted July 30, 2013 at 3:26 am | Permalink

      It seems like what you have done here is established, in your discussion of truth and objectivity, that science can’t be purely objective, and that ethics aren’t purely subjective.

      But science remains pretty heavily objectivish (a word I just made up), that is, close enough to the truth within certain boundaries of space and time that we can treat it as effectively and provisionally true. This is why we can build a mechanical contraption that is able to reliably transport hundreds of people across an ocean, meeting certain performance criteria, and they hardly ever fall from the sky, explode, or sink. Even then, in those few cases when they fail, we can learn a great deal about how and why they failed and strive to further reduce the chance of such failures being repeated.

      And while you’ve accused Jerry of swatting mosquitos, you’ve likewise lobbed yourself a slow and easy softball with the example of killing a child for a trivial infraction. With this example there is a suggestion that the only hope of any objectivity in ethics must be predicated on biological facts of evolution, namely the physical properties of the brain, which lead to an imperfect but substantial consistency in the emotions and intuitive moral judgements across human minds, and across human societies.

      Even so, there remains a huge gap between the objectivishness of science and the subjectivishness of ethics. Science need not fear, because of your remarks on the limits of objectivity and truth, that it can no longer send spacecraft to mars, whose unmanned status only highlights the objective nature of the mission. This is because science has a proximity to objective reality that ethics can’t have, because the basis of ethics isn’t the laws of physics, it rests on the human mind. There is enough consistency among human minds because evolution has converged on the notion that killing your child for looking at you funny is not a good idea, and thus our brains happen to be structured by evolution so that this seems intuitively obvious to us. But it seems a mistake, I think first noticed by Kant, to pretend such conclusions count as knowledge of the objective world. It seems to me like you are mistaking the traces left by evolution’s objective authorship of the brain for a sign that we might hope our brains could ever arrive at an objectve ethics.

      • Posted July 30, 2013 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

        I think you’re making good points but that there’s a crucial error in your reasoning.

        You seem to be suggesting that there’s a scale of objectivity and that science is (way) higher up on that scale than morality.

        I don’t think that there’s any evidence for the existence of such a scale. Science and morality both form part of the same natural world, and are exactly as objective as each other.

        What is different is how easy it is to find good explanations in either field that approach the objective truth. For science this is relatively easy – for morality it seems to be much harder. It is effectively harder to find models to predict increase in well-being in Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape. But that doesn’t make the target function of morality less “objectivish”, nor does it make judging approximations less objectivish; it just makes them harder to find and quantify.

      • Peter Beattie
        Posted July 30, 2013 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

        » Jeff Johnson:
        It seems like what you have done here is established, in your discussion of truth and objectivity, that science can’t be purely objective

        Um, no. What I am saying is that “objective” should be used not to refer to the truth status of a statement (that’s what we have the word “true” for) but to refer to whether a critical process was followed. Objectivity in science doesn’t mean either to empty your mind of all preconceptions (as Bacon would suggest) or to hit upon “the truth” (which we might do purely by chance). And the problem with “the truth” is not that the question whether something is true or not cannot be decided in principle (which notion would result in relativism) but that a conception of truth as a complete correspondence of a statement with all facts would mean that only a statement that perfectly described reality could be said to be true—but that is a condition we could never be sure was met. Thus, we would be unable to rationally call any statement true.

        If, on the other hand, you employ a conception of truth as the correspondence with all facts relevant to the problem-situation in question, then you can actually rationally say that, for example, evolution is true. It continues to be a satisfactory explanation for all sorts of biological phenomena, and it has withstood the most critical tests we have thrown at it. To that extent, it should count as objective knowledge, i.e. the best explanation of certain phenomena given a set of competing explanations and a set of critical tests.

        But science remains pretty heavily objectivish (a word I just made up), that is, close enough to the truth within certain boundaries of space and time that we can treat it as effectively and provisionally true. This is why we can build a mechanical contraption that is able to reliably transport hundreds of people across an ocean

        Two things. First, you are conflating objectivity and truth. Both words, however, have rather well-defined meanings, and they are different from each other. “Objective” may, for example, mean, if applied to “knowledge”, ‘having autonomous features and having been subjected to a process of critical testing’. “Truth”, on the other hand, usually means, ‘correspondence with the facts’.

        In any case, uncritically foisting a particular definition of a crucial term on all other participants of a discussion is not exactly kosher. (The same, incidentally, goes for discussions of “free will” on this site, where Jerry routinely fails to acknowledge the fact that his “spooky” definition of free will pretty obviously already assumes a particular answer to the problem in hand, making a critical discussion almost impossible.)

        Secondly, “it works” is a very poor argument indeed. Popular opinion notwithstanding, the mere repeated observation of a phenomenon is no ground whatsoever for supposing its continued occurrence. This matter has been settled since Hume treated it—and unless you can come up with an entirely new argument, the fact remains that induction cannot validly support a conclusion. The only thing that can do that is a (rigorously tested) explanation. However many consecutive times I see a roulette ball end up on red, my betting a large sum of money on red for the next spin of the wheel is irrational unless I have a causal explanation for the continued occurrence of that particular phenomenon that would allow me not to treat all those reds as independent events.

        Saying, “it works”, and intending that to be an argument to support its objectivity is like saying that natural selection just means whoever survives survives. It doesn’t, of course, mean that, as there is an independent reason why certain traits tend to aid survival. In the words of Stephen Jay Gould:

        [C]ertain morphological, physiological, and behavioral traits should be superior a priori as designs for living in new environments. These traits confer fitness by an engineer’s criterion on a good design, not by the empirical fact of their survival and spread. It got colder before the woolly mammoth evolved its shaggy coat.

        Similarly, what confers objectivity on science is not the empirical fact that it works but that it comes up with, and critically tests, explanations for things.

    • Sergio Graziosi
      Posted October 31, 2013 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      +1 to this.
      I’m very late to the party, apologies.
      Actually, I’ve written a whole argument comparing and contrasting Harris and Coyne positions. I’m not sure who would like it less, but I sort-of agree with both.
      See http://wp.me/p3NcXb-2H

  61. ChillyDogg
    Posted March 21, 2014 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    There IS objective morality but it only concerns itself with actions between two or more individuals. Subjective morality concerns actions effecting only an individual.

    • greg balteff
      Posted March 22, 2014 at 8:55 am | Permalink

      there is individual objective morality, not only the engagement of 2 people ….LAW OF IDENTITY WILL INFORM YOU THAT THERE IS INDIVIDUAL MORAL OBJECTIVITY ….


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] to the occasion for this particular post. This week Jerry published a post entitled “Why there is no objective morality.” The underlying reason  for making this claim is, as he says, that morality demands what he […]

  2. […] And then he goes on, in various ways, to suggest that this shows that there is no objective morality, certainly not in the way that the structure of benzene is objective. You can find Jerry’s post here. […]

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