Monday, December 26, 2011

Against Moral Objectivism

Victor Reppert also posted a list of arguments against the objectivity of morality. I'll look at these in the next few posts, as time and holiday events allow. Here's the first:

I. The argument from disagreement:
1. People and cultures disagree extensively about what is right and wrong.
2. Probably, if moral judgments were objectively true or false, people would not disagree extensively about what is right or wrong.
3. Therefore, probably, moral judgments are subjective.

This is the flip side of the argument from moral agreement. I don't think theists or moral objectivists would find this a very persuasive argument.  The objectivist can claim that there is a common " moral core" - as we saw in the argument from moral agreement. While I think the evolutionary view is better at explaining the existing variety of moral codes, the objectivist is free to interpret the same evidence differently.

(Michael Ruse thinks morality evolved, but is nontheless objective. His argument doesn't seem very coherent, though, as pointed out by Jason Rosenhouse.)

Another objection: the theist can argue that true morality only comes from an understanding or acceptance of his/her preferred god, and those who have different moral codes are simply wrong. 

A more difficult challenge for the theist (specifically, the Christian) is to explain how moral codes change over time. Christianity accepted slavery as part of the divinely ordained order of things for more than 1000 years. Yet today most Christians would say that slavery is wrong. (William Lane Craig is one who bites the bullet and says that Biblical slavery was not morally wrong. He also defends Biblical genocide - which is why Dawkins refused to debate him. I'm not finding the link to his Reasonable Faith post about slavery (he calls it "indentured servitude"), tho.) So how is it that God-based morality was so much in error for so long? But theists have potential answers to this challenge, too. (For instance "continuing revelation" or an evolving understanding of God's will.)

Unfortunately for the subjectivists, this might be the strongest argument they have.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Christmas Treat

As a holiday treat, I refer you to an honest-to-OCMOG Biblical scholar who explains that the divinity of Jesus is not a part of earliest Christianity.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

But What About the Holocaust?

Reppert's fourth argument is one that moral absolutists often raise.

IV. The argument from clear cases
1. If moral values are subjective, then even in clear cases of wrongness, we have to say that it is neither true nor false that an action was wrong.
2. But consider the case of someone inviting another person over for dinner, shoving that person into the oven, and then eating them as dinner. (Or the Holocaust, etc.)
3. Therefore, moral values are objective rather than subjective.
I think this makes more sense as an argument against relativism, rather than subjectivism. I don't see how this argument can be anything but circular, though. The second premise amounts to "X is (obviously)  absolutely wrong." This is just an appeal to our moral intuition that some things, at least, are really wrong, and not just wrong according to some particular standard.

But that moral intuition is exactly the point in dispute: the relativist says the intuition is simply incorrect.

(We can also quibble that premise 1 confuses the issues of subjectivism and non-cognitivism. The cognitivist subjectivist, for example, agrees that moral judgements are subjective, but thinks they are capable of being true or false.)

Reppert's fifth argument is basically the same one, but turned around:

V. The argument from human rights.
1. If moral values are subjective, then there are no inalienable human rights. (A right in a moral obligation on the part of someone not to do something to you. If I have the right to free speech, that means someone has the obligation not to forcibly shut me up).
2. There are inalienable human rights.
3. Therefore, moral values are objective and not subjective.

Here the second premise is "X is (obviously) absolutely right." Again, it is an appeal to the very intuition that is in question.

Does anyone know if there's a non-question-begging way to formulate these arguments?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Are We Becoming More Moral?

 Reppert's third argument in favor of objective/absolute morality:

III. The argument from reformers:
1. If moral values are subjective, then moral codes cannot improve, since there is no objective standard by which to judge one code better than another.
2. But the work of people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks shows that moral codes can be made more just.
3. Therefore, moral values are objective rather than subjective.

The weak point here is in premise 2: how are we to decide if a moral code has become "more just"? There were many who opposed the civil rights reforms, who thought it was a move away from true morality rather than towards it. Likewise, there were many Germans who applauded the moral "reforms" of Naziism. The fact that it is possible for moral codes to change does not imply that they are improving. I think it would only be possible to claim that a particular reform has made things objectively more just if everyone agreed that that reform was an improvement - and this just returns us to the considerations of argument two.

The fascinating question of how moral codes change and why seems to get neglected by moral philosophers. There is a great discussion of the issue in Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue. MacIntyre says moral codes change when they encounter challenges (from encounters with other societies, or from considerations that arise internally) that reveal the existing code to be inadequate according to its own standards. (His view is reminiscent of Kuhn's view of scientific revolutions.)

Such a view of moral codes as constantly evolving and interacting doesn't rule out objectivism or absolutism, but neither does it require it.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Everyone Agrees...

The second argument against subjectivism Reppert gives goes like this:

II. The argument from Underlying Moral Consensus:

1. If morality were a subjective matter, we would expect to find sizable differences of fundamental principles amongst moral codes.
2. But there is, in general, agreement concerning fundamental principles amongst moral codes.
3. Therefore, morality is objective rather than subjective.

I think this is legitimately an argument against subjectivism, though it could also work as an argument against relativism. We often consider things to be objectively true when everyone agrees they are true. If I see a tree over there, and everyone agrees there is a tree over there, then we take it as objectively true that there is a tree over there. On the other hand, if I see a tree over there, and no one else does, then people will assume I am having a hallucination, a vision, or some such.

I don't think either premise is true, though. If morality is an evolved behavior, then we might expect there to be a fair amount of convergence among codes, without this implying that moral codes must be objective. On the other hand, moral codes exist or have existed in the past that allow infanticide, human sacrifice, huge inequalities in social standing, torture, slavery, and on and on, so I think it's hard to find common fundamental principles that all moral codes adhere to.

Morality-as-evolved-behavior seems to have the capacity to explain the observed range of moral codes better than morality-as-objective-truth.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Rock Bottom In Philosophical Argument

In a NYT article, Alvin Plantinga declares

“I think there is such a thing as a sensus divinitatis, and in some people it doesn’t work properly,” he said, referring to the innate sense of the divine that Calvin believed all human beings possess. “So if you think of rationality as normal cognitive function, yes, there is something irrational about that kind of stance.” 

 This has to be the worst philosophical argument ever. "You are a defective human being, so you cannot see the evidence I see." Can there be any clearer declaration that the speaker is lacking any serious argument and flailing desperately than to say that I have a special secret knowledge that my opponent lacks?

And this guy is supposed to be the top Christian philosopher of our time?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Higgs Non-News

We interrupt your irregularly scheduled amateur philosophizing to bring you an unimportant bulletin from the world of science. Once again, the Higgs particle has not been sighted!

Yes, folks, you heard it here first - unless you heard it somewhere else first, in which case, not. After a summer of breathless excitement, followed by an autumn of suspenseful waiting, and then a week of wildfire rumors, the infamous Higgs particle has again failed to show up.

And that's actually sort of exciting.

Exactly in line with the rumors, the two big LHC experiments, ATLAS and CMS, both reported small excesses in events at an energy of about 125 GeV. These excesses are actually slightly more than what would be expected from a Standard Model Higgs particle. (See Matt Strassler's excellent post about what might be in store if there is more than one Higgs particle, or none.) Similar hints were reported earlier this year at 140 GeV - the new results conclusively rule out a Higgs particle with this higher mass. In fact, the whole range from 130 GeV up to 600 GeV has been ruled out, again as far as a Standard Model Higgs.

These excesses are still far too small to make any kind of a claim about a new particle being discovered. Disappointingly, the bumps in the two data sets are at slightly different energies - ATLAS  at 126 GeV and CMS at 123 Gev. It will take months for the experiments to combine their data, but Phillip Gibbs at viXra has already done a quick-and-dirty combination, and even included Tevatron data.

So is this the first hint of an experimental detection of a Higgs particle, or will it all go away with more data? No one can say right now. Certainly, there will be an intense focus now on 125 GeV, and the data will be looked at in many different ways. By the end of 2012 there should be about five times more data - enough to conclusively rule the Higgs in or out at these energies.

Either way, we are entering a new era in our understanding of the structure of the universe. This is the beginning of the end of a 40 year long wait.

[Revised viXra link 12/17/11]

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Wrong According to Whom?

Here's Reppert's first argument against subjectivism:

I. The argument from Implied Practice

1. If ethics is subjective, then we should expect people to recognize that actions which they are inclined to think of as "wrong" are only wrong from their point of view.
2. But invariably, people view wrongs against themselves as actions that are really wrong.
3. Therefore moral values are objective and not subjective.

This is actually an argument against relativism, not against subjectivism. The issue is whether morality depends on one's point of view - is morality the same for everyone? I will interpret this argument with "subjective" replaced by "relative" and "objective" replaced by "absolute."

 But if morality is relative to the social or cultural group, rather than to the individual, this argument doesn't work. The people with whom I interact on a regular basis are, by definition, part of my social group. If morality is just a group's implicitly agreed-upon restrictions on behavior, then of course I will expect those restrictions to apply to others in my group, and I will feel justified in being upset when those restrictions are violated.

What about the case where I feel wronged by someone from a different culture? The absolutist might claim that this proves morality is not relative to the group.

But the relativist can argue that this response is a result of how ingrained our sense of morality is. I will tend to assume that anyone with whom I come in contact is part of my social group and subject to the rules I am familiar with.

Furthermore, there are cases where we do make allowances for cultural differences. I might feel offended if someone cuts in line in front of me, but if I learn they come from a country where pushing to the front is standard operating procedure, I might think, "Oh, that's OK, they didn't know how we do it here." Or imagine that someone steals from me, and I later learn they come from a culture where all property is shared communally. Then I might not feel a sense of moral outrage at the act - though I would probably still want my property back.

Finally, there is no problem here under a non-cognitivist account of morality, either. For the non-cognitivist, moral disapproval amounts to saying, "I don't like what you did," or "Don't do that!" or both. When someone does something that hurts me, these would be very natural reactions, not requiring any sort of absolutism.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Absolute or Objective?

A post at the Secular Outpost pointed me to an old post of Victor Reppert's, where he summarizes five arguments in favor of moral objectivity. I want to consider these arguments briefly.

First, though, I think Reppert has confused the subjective-objective issue with the relative-absolute issue. This SEP article explains the difference, but let's review it here:

If morality is objective, it is something that exists "out there in the world", independent of what anyone thinks or believes. The truth of a moral claim is fixed by objective facts.

Moral subjectivism, on the other hand, says that moral truth is fixed by some person or persons. The person could be the individual, the social group, or God. (So William Lane Craig is being inconsistent when he argues that morality is objective, yet subscribes to a Divine Command theory of morality: the latter ascribes morality to the desires of God, and thus it depends on a person's (God's) opinion. That's subjective, not objective.)

The other axis is relativism versus absolutism.

Morality is absolute if it is the same for everyone, everywhere, at every time.

Morality is relative if it depends on the person or the social context. As the SEP article says, "Stealing is wrong" could be true for one person and false for someone else, for instance, for someone from a different culture where stealing is an acceptable practice.

These axes are "orthogonal", in the SEP's words: it is possible for a moral theory to be subjective-relative, subjective-absolute, objective-relative, or objective-absolute.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Blogroll Update

I've been wanting to get more religious sites into the blogroll for balance. I just added two. Atheists ought to confront the best counter-arguments available, and both of these writers are intelligent, informed, and Christian. It's too easy to stay inside the atheist echo chamber - you need to get out and challenge your assumptions regularly.

Victor Reppert writes the Dangerous Idea blog. He is friends with one of the philosophers at the excellent Secular Outpost blog, and they have been having a respectful back-and-forth for some time.

Professor of philosophy Edward Feser is more confrontational, as can be seen in his recent exchanges with atheist philosopher Stephen Law and scientist Jerry Coyne. Personally, I am turned off when the epithets start flying - I would much rather read a respectful exchange than one laced with invective on both sides. Still, Feser is very smart and very well-read, and I find that his criticisms are usually fair and on point. His own brand of AT philosophy ("Aristotelico-Thomism", nothing to do with the Appalachian Trail unfortunately) seems a curious relic from the distant past. By my triangulation principle, I have avoided reading his books so far, but I may eventually do it just to understand where he's coming from. Feser is a former atheist, proving that not all smart people move in the "correct" direction....

I also trimmed a few previous blogs. Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (funny, but not at all serious), Common Sense Atheism (Luke has turned his attention to Less Wrong and Facing the Singularity), and The Busybody (a religion blog that rarely deals with religion).