Sunday, January 29, 2012

And on the seventh day....

Check out Andrew Bernardin's Culinary Commanments:

And finally, the Lord said, For six days shalt thou toil at thy sink and at thy stove. But on the seventh day, thou may use thy cell phone to cry out for pizza. And though that prayer will be answered, thou shalt be charged for it.

Best laugh all week - thanks, Andrew!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

To Slurp Or Not To Slurp? That Is The Question....

I want to look at one more argument, this time against moral relativism. It comes from a very nice article by Paul Boghossian. I like this article because it lays out its argument very clearly and is well-written, and because it brings in the parallel between morality and etiquette, which seems to me a very useful one that doesn't get enough attention.

Boghossian starts by noting that people today are relativists about motion (as in Einstein's theory of special relativity) but eliminativists about witches. That is, we think those who condemned and executed the "Salem witches" were just wrong about the existence of people with supernatural powers.

So, is morality more like relative motion, or more like witchcraft? If we give up on absolute morality, can we hang onto a relativistic version of morality, or should we just eliminate moral concepts and language? Boghossian claims that there's no coherent way to retain a relativistic view of morality.

The trouble is that while “Eating beef is wrong” is clearly a normative statement, “Eating beef is wrong relative to the moral code of the Hindus” is just a descriptive remark that carries no normative import whatsoever.  It’s just a way of characterizing what is claimed by a particular moral code, that of the Hindus.  We can see this from the fact that anyone, regardless of their views about eating beef, can agree that eating beef is wrong relative to the moral code of the Hindus.

I think there's a flaw in the argument here. “Eating beef is wrong relative to the moral code of the Hindus” is merely a descriptive statement if made by a sociologist writing a journal article, but if made by a Hindu father to his Hindu son, it might mean much more than that. You can't just take a phrase like that and abstract it from its context: with moral claims, context is crucial. In the context of a father giving his son a chewing-out, the same phrase might carry a heavy non-cognitive burden: "This is the way we do things and you had better act in accordance with it!"

(It carries the further implication, "If you eat beef, you are not a Hindu." Which is to say, "If you eat beef, you are no longer one of us." This shows the implied threat behind moral rules: disobey, and you will be ostracized.)

Basically, I don't think we can make a sharp distinction between moral claims that are absolute, and therefore normative, and those that are relative, and therefore merely descriptive. Relative claims can carry normative weight, too.

We can see this at work in the objection Boghossian considers: what about etiquette? Aren't we all relativists about etiquette? Don't we all accept that it's OK to slurp one's soup in China, but not OK to do so in Buckingham Palace?

The reason is that our relativism about etiquette does not actually dispense with all absolute moral facts.  Rather, we are relativists about etiquette in the sense that, with respect to a restricted range of issues (such as table manners and greetings), we take the correct absolute norm to be “we ought not, other things being equal, offend our hosts.”

This norm is absolute and applies to everyone and at all times.

But there's a problem with this response. Why should we take “we ought not, other things being equal, offend our hosts” as an absolute norm? Why not take it, instead, as the goal in an end-relational sense? "In order not to offend your hosts (at Buckingham Palace) you ought not to slurp your soup."

Again, it all comes down to context. If I am visiting Buckingham Palace I will likely want to avoid personal embarrassment and want to avoid offending my hosts. On the other hand, if a UK political dissident is visiting Buckingham Palace and wants to create an embarrassing situation, he will follow a different dictate, "In order  to offend your hosts (at Buckingham Palace) you ought to slurp your soup."

To my mind, this is a much more satisfactory solution. Etiquette is anchored to the social context, and purely practical questions arising from that context, rather than to some free-floating absolute morality that remains unexplained. 

So why not morality, as well?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Opt-In Morality

I was going to write some more comments on the discussion between Michael Ruse and Jason Rosenhouse, but all I could have said and more is covered in a terrific post by Tim Dean at Ockham's Beard. (Wish I'd thought of that blog name.) Tim seems to be espousing the same sort of solution I came to when reading Richard Joyce.

You can acknowledge that there is no binding, logically necessary or factually obligatory reason to be moral, but you can choose to be moral. And there are plenty of good non-moral or prudential reasons for doing so, such as that social living benefits us, and it’s a darn sight easier to live socially when there are rules of conduct. So you be moral.

Tim also has a review of Phillip Kitcher's new book, The Ethical Project. Kitcher apparently takes a similar approach, and grounds it in our evolutionary history. So there's another one for the reading list....

Friday, January 20, 2012

Wrap-up On Objective Morality

To wrap up the series on arguments for and against objective moral values (that started way back in December), I have to say that I don't find the arguments on either side to be very compelling. I think the argument from disagreement might be the most promising one of the bunch, but it certainly isn't conclusive. The arguments for objectivism seem to me to be attempts to codify an intuition that moral values simply don't make sense unless they somehow exist "out there."

My intuition is the opposite: I don't see how moral claims can make any sense unless they are relative to some goal.

I'm not personally invested in one answer or the other. I think it would be very interesting if we could be sure that there were such things as objective moral values - I just don't see much hope for that view. It seems to me that if morals were like mathematics, we would see a lot more agreement about them than we do, and we would be able to identify the axioms from which moral judgements follow. In mathematics, there has been a tremendous convergence: nearly all mathematicians agree on the axioms and procedures and results. In morality, there has not, as far as I can see, been a similar convergence.

So my tentative conclusion is that there aren't any such things as objective moral values.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Argument from Science

The final argument on Reppert's list is an epistemological one:

IV. Argument from science:
1. What science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.
2. Science cannot discover which moral values are correct and which are not.
3. Therefore, mankind cannot discover which moral values are correct and which are not.
4. If we cannot in principle discover what moral values are right or wrong, then we ought to view them as subjective and not objective.
5. Therefore, we ought to view moral values as subjective and not objective.

Here, too, the theist will disagree right at step (1). But so will, for instance, Michael Ruse, who suggests three areas in which we can have non-empirical knowledge: mathematics, morality, and "philosophical meta-questions."

I have trouble with Ruse's argument here. Morality, of course, is the issue at hand, so we can't bring it in here as an example without being guilty of circular argumentation. As far as mathematics, I think philosophers tend to underestimate the extent to which it is based on experience. Jason Rosenhouse makes the same point in his response to Ruse. If we think of "science" in its most general sense as "conclusions based on evidence and reason," then mathematics seems to fall under it.

And likewise for philosophical meta-questions: any discussion of these either brings in our observations and experience, or else is an exercise in pure logic. Either way, the discussion is, in the broad sense, a scientific one.

(You might object that I'm stretching the meaning of "science" beyond reasonable bounds. But I think the argument requires a very broad definition, or else (1) is indefensible. For instance, I know that I have a deodora cedar in my front yard, even though I haven't done a scientific investigation of that tree, and even though "my front yard" may not even have a scientific meaning, in the strict sense.)

Under this broad definition of science, the argument turns into something like Hume's is-ought problem: there is no way to go from a descriptive account of what is out there in the world to a prescriptive account of what we ought to do.

Hume's view is famously controversial. Let's suppose, though, that we can successfully argue for premises (1) and (2). I think we still run into a problem with premise (4).

Let's suppose that some version of utilitarianism is the "correct" morality: there is some quantifiable "greatest good for the greatest number." But suppose that, even though this greatest good is objectively defined and in principle calculable, it is in practice too difficult to actually determine. The consequences of any possible action ramify to such an extent that it becomes impossible to determine what combination of possible actions is the "right" one to choose. In this case, "science" would be unable to determine which moral values are correct, and yet morality would be completely objective.

So it seems to me that even if we accept that morality is unknowable (3), we need not accept that it is also subjective.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Radford's Rule

In honor of Ben Radford, I'm suggesting we define "Radford's Rule": When caught in a logical fallacy, just insist your logic is fine.

I've never heard of Ben Radford before, but apparently he's known as a debunker and skeptic. He blogs at Center for Inquiry. In a recent post on SkeptiXX, he picked apart a video in which 4-year-old Riley rants about the way stores market princesses to girls and superheroes to boys. Although many people pointed out the problems with Radford's piece, he first insisted he wasn't wrong, then belatedly issued a non-apology apology, in which he continued to insist on the following "syllogism" (yes, he actually called it a syllogism):

1) Most things girls play with are dolls; 
2) Most dolls are pink things; 
3) Therefore, most things girls play with are pink.

For everyone who has already spotted the problem with this argument, stop reading now and go outside and play. For Ben and anyone else who has difficulty seeing it, read on.

Try this argument, which has exactly the same form as Ben's:

1) Most adults in the US are women.
2) Most women in the US shave their legs.
Therefore, 3) Most adults in the US shave their legs.

Now, (2) may or may not be true, but let's assume it is for the sake of the argument. I hope you can see that (3) doesn't follow logically from (1) and (2). First of all, even though (1) is true, there aren't a whole lot more women than men. Secondly,  all those non-shaving men count under "most adults", and there may be enough unshaven women to make up an unshaven majority.

I think what Ben probably has in mind is the classic syllogism:

All men are mortal.
All Greeks are men.
Therefore, all Greeks are mortal.

But it just doesn't work to replace "all" with "most." It's not longer a syllogism - it's now a probabilistic argument. And it's an invalid one.

To make it perfectly clear how the probabilities work, let's look at Ben's argument with some probabilities that I just made up. Let's say that 60% of girls play with dolls, and 60% of dolls are pink things. Also, let's assume that these are independent probabilities. Then the probability that a girl is playing with a pink thing is at least the product of the two probabilities: 0.6*0.6 = 0.36 or 36%. Clearly, we cannot conclude that "most things girls play with are pink."

Some folks on Ben's thread objected that you can't just make up numbers like that. But, IF the conclusion follows logically from the premises, THEN it must follow for any set of numbers you make up. So when I show that there is a set of numbers for which the conclusion doesn't follow, I am also showing that the logical structure of the argument isn't valid.

This is just basic logic, and I'm amazed that a well-known "skeptic" like Ben Radford isn't aware of these things. I pointed this out in a comment on his thread, and several other commenters did, too. But in his most recent post, he still says he "stands by" his logic.


Friday, January 13, 2012

The Argument from Atheism

Reppert's third argument against moral objectivity will obviously not be acceptable for the theist:

III. Argument from atheism
1. Probably, unless there is a God, there cannot be objective moral values.
2. There is no God.
3. Therefore, probably, there are no objective moral values.

Even among atheists, (1)  is not necessarily accepted. This argument doesn't seem to gain any traction.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Way to go, Jim!

Is this cosplay?

It seems to deserve a name all its own. Any suggestions?

(H/T Skepchick)

Saturday, January 7, 2012


Reppert's second point against against objective moral values goes like this:

II. The argument from nonphysical realities
1. Probably, there are no realities that are not physical in nature; that is, that do not exist at particular places and times and are not complex states of fundamental physical particles.
2. If objective moral values exist, then there would be realities that are not physical in nature.
3. Therefore, probably, there are no objective moral values.
Reppert's argument is similar to Mackie's argument from the "queerness" of objective moral values. Mackie's version seems to me to amount to little more than an argument from personal incredulity: "Well, I don't see any way such bizarre properties could exist!"

Reppert's version has the virtue of being much more specific. However, it runs us into all the difficulties of providing a physicalist description of phenomena. Moral values are no longer quite so alone, quite so "queer." What about other non-physical realities, like thoughts, emotions, and sensations? All of these would fall to the same objection - or, if a physical realization can be provided for these entities, why couldn't one also be provided for moral values?

Or take the realm of logic and mathematics. We know that if A implies B and B implies C, then A implies C.We can't justify this intuition in a rigorous way - we can only take it as an axiom. (As the tortoise pointed out to Achilles.) However, mathematical logic seems to be completely objective: everyone who takes the trouble to study and understand the subject pretty much agrees on the results.  It seems possible, at least, that morality is something like logic. Perhaps there is some set of self-evident axioms that everyone can agree on, from which all of moral thought follows logically.

The subjectivist can argue that, in fact, there is no such set of agreed-upon axioms, unlike in logic. But that's a different objection.