Thoughts on is/ought

reality
I have been engaged in a lengthy discussion with long time visitor and commentator Andrew Finden regarding the definition of “human”, what it means to be happy, and the morality (or otherwise) of abortion – the ultimate aim of the conservation. In the latest round of comments Andrew raises a point which I think deserves a blog post of its own.

In response to my comment:

“Actions have consequences, and we can make judgement calls on those consequences.” – askegg

To which he replies:

“Is-ought problem, anyone? You have to sneak a whole stack of presuppositions in for this to work. why is it is morally wrong to cause pain, for example? Why is it ok to kill someone just because they can’t ‘feel’ it?” – findo

For those who may not be familiar, the “is/ought problem” was proposed by Scottish philosopher David Hume. Essentially Hume argued that making statement about the way things are does not inform us how things ought to be. This is a serious philosophical issue which has the potential to neuter all motivation and covert us to nihilism. However, I do not wish to directly address the is/ought problem in this post, but if you are interested in a reasonable argument against the proposition I recommend you read Sam Harris’s “The Moral Landscape”.

Instead, I think it is sufficient to point out the mutually assured destruction when deploying the is/ought argument in conversation – if valid, it can be applied in all circumstances.

Why is it better to want happiness for all conscious creatures, rather than absolute misery? Why is it wrong to cause pain rather than seek pleasure? Why should we consider the results of our actions on others, rather than not? Is every action ultimately equally valid in the grand scheme of thing? Is the a universe in which there is suffering and pain really worse than one in which there is pleasure and ecstasy?

Surely Andrew is not arguing this point, but then what does he mean by “why is it is morally wrong to cause pain, for example?” Is he seriously proposing it is morally acceptable to inflict pain? To make such an argument mocks the very meaning of words like good, wrong, evil, moral, and immoral. Surely even he accepts pleasure is “better” than pain, which makes the entire question a distraction to the central topic. Perhaps this post will spur a discussion centred on the is/ought problem in isolation?

We all seem to recognise that a universe in which all conscious beings experience maximal pleasure is “better” that one in which they suffer. However, the deeply rooted underlying question of why we think it’s “better” remains; and it not easily answered.

“Once again we have hit philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question.” – Sam Harris

Perhaps a divine authority is require to grant us an escape hatch from this issue; things look bleak for the skeptic at this stage. But let’s consider this hypothesis for just a moment.

Let’s assume an intelligent creative force did cause the universe. Let’s also assume this force is conscious and cares about its creations. Let’s further assume this force has the power to intervene in the workings of its creation to inflict pleasure or pain.

You will notice that these are all “is” statements – they describe reality as it would be if these things were true, not how things should be. So why should this force create the universe rather than not? Why should this creative force care rather than not? Why should it intervene rather than not? Aren’t these also is/ought problems as well?

Believers will probably be screaming at the screen at this point:

“Of course god cares and intervenes to cause pleasure within the universe – that’s the very nature of god!”

Alright, let’s also assume that it the case. Why should we follow these instructions rather than not? What makes what “god” “better” rather than not? Why should we follow god’s instructions rather than not? Why is Heaven “better” than Hell?

Believers, please post a response that does not resort to special pleading – it’s better because god said so.

PS. Further reading.

Posted February 17, 2012
Tagged with , ,

  • fidel

     

    Presumably Mr Finden is not “seriously
    proposing it is morally acceptable to inflict pain” no. And doubtless he does
    think pain is better than pleasure.

    The question posed seems to seek some justification from you
    for the claim that “it is morally wrong to cause pain.”  What you think makes that claim true is at
    issue. A deferral to Sam Harris of all people is no substitute for answering
    the question.

    Accepting without question
    the existence of objective morality whilst arguing that belief in God is unwarranted
    seems to invite a ‘Tu quoque’ from the religious  believer (of which I am not one).

    • http://godless.biz Andrew Skegg

      I did not cover the question “it is morally wrong to cause pain?” here because I have already addressed it multiple times in the comments of the other post.  To reiterate – actions which cause discomfort, pain, and suffering of others can be considered “immoral”.  Actions which increase pleasure can be considered “moral”.  This simple equation do not require the dictates of a genocidal, jealous, and judgemental deity to determine morality, and dispenses with many religious edicts which deem private acts “sins”, which equate to immorality in the minds of many.

      • fidel

        No I don’t think a deity is going to help either.

        But it seeems a simple enough question – “why is it morally wrong to cause pain?” I’d have thought the meaning is obvious even if the answer isn’t..

        You can reiterate “actions which cause discomfort, pain, and suffering of
        others can be considered “immoral” and  “Actions which increase pleasure can
        be considered “moral” all day but its not an answer to the question.What work is the word ‘moral’ doing in these assertions?

        What makes causing pain immoral? What makes moral claims true?  On what philosophical grounds do you think belief in objective morality is intellectually respectable? 

        You’ve no thoughts on ‘ought/is’ to share (which makes the title of your post a little odd), and you seem to be dodging the question that prompted the post.

        • http://godless.biz Andrew Skegg

          As I said, it was not my intention to attempt to answer the is/ought problem.  I don’t think it can be answered and I referred to Sam Harris’s reasonable (but incomplete) proposal.

          The point here was to highlight the problems the is/ought question raises – it can also be applied to theistic beliefs.  Why *is* it correct to follow god’s instructions?

          Asking what makes causing pain immoral boils it down to a game of schematics where nothing has nay true meaning.  It renders the words we use useless and the conversation moot.

          • fidel

            So you simply take it on faith that there is such a thing as
            objective morality?

            And ‘causing pain is immoral’ is true in your account
            because you have defined ‘immoral’ as ’causes pain’?

          • http://godless.biz Andrew Skegg

            I wouldn’t say objective moral exist as a thing in their own right, or that I “take it on faith”.  I do agree with Sam Harris that a universe in which conscious creatures experience maximal pleasure is “better” than one in which they experience maximal pain.  Indeed this is the very definition of better in my mind, and I see the is/ought retort as an attempt to undermine the very definitions of “good”, “bad”, “better”, “worse”, “moral”, “immoral”, and “evil” which renders the entire discussion meaningless.

            Nevertheless, at the very base there seems to be no philosophical reason to assert pleasure *is* better than pain outside our own experiences.  As conscious creatures we desire pleasure and avoid pain, but this is the “is” part of the is/ought problem and does not address why this ought to be the case. Ultimately I do not think the question is answerable, and adding a deity to the equation does not solve the problem – as outlined above.

      • fidel

         

        Okay, so like Harris
        you’re a moral realist, but one who thinks moral facts only exist because there
        are moral agents (you’re not some ‘spooky’ Platonic Realist). Presumably moral
        facts – prescriptive facts – somehow supervene on, or are identical with, psychological
        facts, and thus physical facts, in some way. You don’t know how this works presumably
        – I mean you don’t have an argument for the existence of moral facts or how we would
        we discover them do you? So you take their existence ‘on faith’ i.e. without
        argument or evidence no?

         “I do agree with Sam Harris that a universe in
        which conscious creatures experience maximal pleasure is “better” than one in
        which they experience maximal pain. “

        Yes, it does sound a very
        plausible thing to say. But Harris can’t mean *morally* better can he? A universe
        isn’t the type of thing that can be morally better than another. What more can
        ‘better’ mean here than (something like) ‘preferable to live in’? So is “it’s
        preferable to live in a universe of maximal pleasure rather than one of maximal
        pain” all that Harris’ insight amounts to?  

        Talking of universes,
        is a universe populated only by ecstatically happy and selfish imbeciles ‘better’
        than one with profoundly miserable altruistic philosophers?   A purely
        hedonic calculation would suggest so. How about an unpopulated universe? Is
        that ‘better’ than a universe full of utterly, and incurably, miserable
        philosophers? If that’s the case I suppose we must mean something other than ‘preferable
        to live in’ but I don’t quite know what. Do you?

        ‘Indeed this is the
        very definition of better in my mind’ – okay, putting aside questions of ‘better’
        and ‘worse’ universes, your definition of morally better, roughly speaking, is less
        pain/more pleasure – roughly utilitarian (as is Harris’ roughly speaking though
        he talks about ‘well-being’).  You
        subscribe to something like the happiness principle – possibly a more nuanced
        version involving the ‘well-being’ Harris can’t quite define. What makes that
        principle true and how do you know it?

        Not only do you accept
        Hume’s contention that you can’t logically deduce an ‘ought’ conclusion from an
        ‘is’ premise, and that Sam Harris didn’t solve it by sliding in a premise about
        what we value, and not only do you think the problem can’t be solved. You go
        way further than Hume. You take the ‘unsolvable’ ‘is/ought’ problem to have
        “the potential to neuter all motivation and convert us to nihilism.”  The idea that Hume’s philosophical puzzles
        have “the potential to neuter all motivation” is just silly. You can’t undo
        millions of years of evolution with a philosophical puzzle.

        And if ‘is/ought’ has
        the power to convert ‘us’ to nilhism as you assert, and you have no answer to
        it and think there is none to be had, why aren’t you converted to nilhism (or
        at least moral scepticism)? Shouldn’t you follow the arguments instead of the
        ‘gut feeling’ that there are such things as moral facts? Neither of those
        philosophical positions will neuter all motivation and any argument that we
        should reject them on such account is an argumentum ad consequentiam. You
        simply take it for granted that moral talk is worth having, and you ignore the
        ‘is/ought’ problem because you think it will make the moral talk you personally
        value ‘meaningless’.  And your only
        response to the religionist who brings up ‘is/ought’ is ‘Tu quoque’ – ‘you
        can’t solve it either’?

        • http://godless.biz Andrew Skegg

          “Okay, so like Harris you’re a moral realist, but one who thinks moral facts only exist because there are moral agents (you’re not some ‘spooky’ Platonic Realist).”

          I do not think morality is a “thing” at all – it is a description of the consequences of an action.  As such, I agree that it only exists do to moral agents – beings judging the actions.

          “Presumably moral facts – prescriptive facts – somehow supervene on, or are identical with, psychological facts, and thus physical facts, in some way.”

          Physically exist as patterns of activity within the brain.

          “You don’t know how this works presumably – I mean you don’t have an argument for the existence of moral facts or how we would we discover them do you? So you take their existence ‘on faith’ i.e. without argument or evidence no?”

          No – we do not have a complete understanding of the brain.  Actually we don’t know very much at all, but nothing we DO know points to something outside the physical brain.

          “A universe isn’t the type of thing that can be morally better than another.”

          I stated a universe in which the creatures which exist in it experience “pleasure” is “better” than one in which they do not.   You seem to be disagreeing with this notion, thereby claiming that in reality both universe are equally moral.  Is this really the argument you want to be having?  As I said, how does a deity (for example) solve this thorny issue?

          “What more can ‘better’ mean here than (something like) ‘preferable to live in’? So is “it’s preferable to live in a universe of maximal pleasure rather than one of maximal pain” all that Harris’ insight amounts to?”

          Yes – Sam Harris’s argument is somewhat circular, however I do not see any truly air tight philosophical argument to say *anything* is truly “better” than anything else.

          “How about an unpopulated universe? Is that ‘better’ than a universe full of utterly, and incurably, miserable philosophers?”

          Good question.

          “If that’s the case I suppose we must mean something other than ‘preferable to live in’ but I don’t quite know what. Do you?”

          The phrase “preferable to live in” is rather silly.  Once there is a being in this universe, it ceases to become unpopulated and destroys the very premise of the argument.

          “What makes that principle true and how do you know it?”

          This amounts to “what makes you happy and how do you know it”.  If you don’t know what makes you happy, then I think you’re a disturbed individual.

          “The idea that Hume’s philosophical puzzles have “the potential to neuter all motivation” is just silly. You can’t undo millions of years of evolution with a philosophical puzzle.”

          That is not what I was suggesting with those few words.  While we cannot escape our in-built evolutionary desires (what is), not being able to distinguish between “good” choices and “bad” makes a mockery of our motivations to be “good” or “bad”. There is no reason to select any particular course of action without discrimination between them, leading to chaos or (once realised) a form of nihilism where every choice is equally as meaningless and pointless.

          “… why aren’t you converted to nilhism (or at least moral scepticism)?”

          Because I know what makes me happy.

          “Shouldn’t you follow the arguments instead of the ‘gut feeling’ that there are such things as moral facts?”

          I reject the notion of morality as a “thing”, however I do think I can determine one universe as being “better” than another based on what makes me happy – a form of hedonism to be sure.  However, when combined with what makes *everyone else* happy the equation may change considerably.  Who knows, maybe I am a psychopath?

          “Neither of those philosophical positions will neuter all motivation and any argument that we should reject them on such account is an argumentum ad consequentiam.”

          Heh – I am making an argument from consequence.

          “You simply take it for granted that moral talk is worth having, and you ignore the ‘is/ought’ problem because you think it will make the moral talk you personally value ‘meaningless’.”

          I a hardly ignoring – I wrote a blog post on it and am now engaged in an interesting conversation on it.

          “And your only response to the religionist who brings up ‘is/ought’ is ‘Tu quoque’ – ‘you can’t solve it either’?”

          You can call it “tu quoque” if you like, but simply asserting one side does not have the answers does not automatically mean the other side does.

          • fidel

             

            Thanks for your response Andrew,

            Glad if you’ve found it interesting. Hope you don’t take the
            interrogative tone too seriously. Just banter. ;)

            ‘I do not think morality is a “thing” at all – it
            is a description of the consequences of an action.’

            Okay, but accepting that, it only seems to make sense to describe
            a universe as *morally* better or worse than another if the universes are the consequences
            of acts and neither of us think universes are the consequence of acts.  If what we were comparing was totals of good
            and bad ‘act consequences’ in given universes – not just totals of pain/pleasure
            in them – it would make some sense to talk of morally better universes but that’s
            not what is seemingly being referred to.  I’m not disputing there some sense in saying
            the maximally pleasurable universe is ‘better’ than the maximally painful one –
            just that it is not morally better.

            I certainly think that moral talk is intended as a
            description of acts, persons or character traits. I don’t buy non-cognitive
            accounts of it but what puzzles me is what type of facts could possibly make
            moral claims true.  I just don’t see any
            place for the types of things that could make moral claims true in a
            naturalistic worldview.

            I don’t quite see how prescriptive moral facts could “physically
            exist as patterns of activity within the brain”.  Obviously I think our moral sentiments are
            located in the brain. But I only see scope for science to describe how those
            sentiments arose. I don’t see how science can get you any categorical ‘oughts’
            about maximising global well-being as Harris seems to think. You seem to reject
            Harris’ thinking that it can – that he can’t derive any ought from any is – and
            this seems eminently sensible. But you still seem to think that something like “we
            ought to maximise global happiness’ is true and knowable.  

            But if I ask what makes this true and how you know it you
            say that amounts to asking to “what makes you happy and how do you know it?”
            That bit I just don’t grasp. You know what makes you happy sure. And perhaps
            maximising global happiness (or ‘well-being’ or whatever) makes you happy. I
            can see how you get a hypothetical imperative for yourself and like-minded
            folk. If A, B and C desire maximal happiness then if they are rational they
            ought to act to obtain it.  But how do we
            get to the claim that “we [all] ought to maximise global happiness “?

            When utter bastard D doesn’t value it at all what makes it
            the case that morally he ought to act in such and such a way? And if E and F value
            global happiness but value something else more – and think some goods such as
            virtue or preference satisfaction or what have you are worth increasing
            suffering over pleasure for what makes them wrong?  Global happiness might be best achieved
            through some Brave New World full of medication and social control that’s devoid
            of art, literature, romnatic love and philosophy. Is that better? It would still seem
            reasonable for people to value some things, say truth, over maximal ‘pig in shit’
            happiness.

             ‘While we cannot
            escape our in-built evolutionary desires (what is), not being able to
            distinguish between “good” choices and “bad” makes a
            mockery of our motivations to be “good” or “bad”. … There
            is no reason to select any particular course of action without discrimination
            between them, leading to chaos or (once realised) a form of nihilism where
            every choice is equally as meaningless and pointless.’

            We discriminate between acts solely on account of what we
            desire. We do feel ‘moral’ compulsions and will do regardless of what
            philosophy we accept.  But I don’t see
            how there is any ‘justification’ of any set of moral sentiments. There’s what
            you want and do and what you happen to feel bad or good about. That’s it as far
            as I can see. I’m not mocking motivations to do what feels ‘morally right’ I’m
            just highly sceptical that there is any such thing as moral rightness.

            ‘Heh – I am making an argument from consequence.‘ Okay, you’re
            a consequentialist so you can justify your belief in consequentialism on
            consequentialist grounds – it makes you happy to believe it. This requires the
            questionable assumption that believing in consequentialism has good consequences
            and leaves questions in meta-ethics to be decided, not on the basis of what is
            true, but on the basis of what makes you happiest to believe. That’s not what
            you mean is it?

            ‘You can call it “tu quoque” if you like, but
            simply asserting one side does not have the answers does not automatically mean
            the other side does.’

            Fair comment. Perhaps some of my criticisms were unfair. If
            the theist brings up is/ought it is reasonable to say: ‘you can’t solve it
            either’.

            But you do seem to think a lot hangs on is/ought and that it’s
            a big problem. It seems there is scope for somebody working in naturalistic ethics
            to argue that it is simply not a real problem – Patricia Churchland seems to
            take this view – or that it is merely a philosophical puzzle that will dissolve
            like Zeno’s paradoxes. It does seem like something you need some answer to..

          • http://godless.biz Andrew Skegg

            Glad if you’ve found it interesting. Hope you don’t take the interrogative tone too seriously. Just banter. ;)

            You gave me some serious thing to consider, and I thank you.

            Okay, but accepting that, it only seems to make sense to describe a universe as *morally* better or worse than another if the universes are the consequences of acts and neither of us think universes are the consequence of acts.

            Woah, I think we have a misunderstanding here.  I was proposing comparing two theoretical universes to determine which was “better”. Let’s pretend there is a universe in which a child was brutally tortured and killed, and another universe which is identical in every way except this event did not occur.  Which of these two is “better”?  It’s a mental exercise, not a comparison of caused universes (at least not caused in the sense you imply).

            If what we were comparing was totals of good and bad ‘act consequences’ in given universes – not just totals of pain/pleasure in them – it would make some sense to talk of morally better universes but that’s not what is seemingly being referred to.

            That’s exactly what I am proposing.

            … what puzzles me is what type of facts could possibly make moral claims true.I just don’t see any place for the types of things that could make moral claims true in a naturalistic worldview.

            Sam Harris proposes pleasure and pain are actually patterns of chemical/electrical activity with the brain – a purely physical construct.  In theory (though possibly not in reality) this provides an empirical method for determining pain/pleasure.

            I don’t see how science can get you any categorical ‘oughts’ about maximising global well-being as Harris seems to think.

            It’s about maximising the “pleasurable” patterns in the brains of maximum number of individuals.  If we cannot define this as “good”, then what does “good” even mean?  Further, if we ought not to strive for this “good” then what meaning have we given “pleasure”?

            But how do we get to the claim that “we [all] ought to maximise global happiness “?

            To some extent this is like asking “why should we try to maximise our own happiness”, and there seems to be no imperative to maximise other people’s happiness.  Mind you, we call those kinds of people psychopaths.  Perhaps my ultimate pleasurable state also involves those around me experiencing pleasure?  I will need to ponder this.

            When utter bastard D doesn’t value it at all what makes it the case that morally he ought to act in such and such a way?

            Are we proposing an individual who does not desire pleasure, or one who derives pleasure from other’s pain – a sadist?

            And if E and F value global happiness but value something else more – and think some goods such as virtue or preference satisfaction or what have you are worth increasing suffering over pleasure for what makes them wrong?

            It’s difficult to speak to without specifics, but one may increase pleasure at the cost of others, but these people naturally desire pleasure and will be displeased.  The equation works itself out. 

            Global happiness might be best achieved through some Brave New World full of medication and social control that’s devoid of art, literature, romnatic love and philosophy. Is that better?

            Another interesting question.  More pondering required.

            It would still seem reasonable for people to value some things, say truth, over maximal ‘pig in shit’ happiness.

            Can we value reality if we can never be sure we are experiencing it?  The brain in the box comes to mind.  More thinking ….

            This requires the questionable assumption that believing in consequentialism has good consequences and leaves questions in meta-ethics to be decided, not on the basis of what is true, but on the basis of what makes you happiest to believe. That’s not what you mean is it?

            Do you mean to say I have chosen to be a consequentialist due to hedonistic desired?  To a certain extent I think this is true. 

            Fair comment. Perhaps some of my criticisms were unfair. If the theist brings up is/ought it is reasonable to say: ‘you can’t solve it either’.

            @findo has attempted a solution elsewhere in the comments.  Have a look and see what you think.  I am formulating my response.

            But you do seem to think a lot hangs on is/ought and that it’s a big problem.

            No, I raise it because I am often accused of ignoring it by @findo.

          • http://thingsfindothinks.com/ Findo

            @andrewskegg:disqus you wrote:

             this provides an empirical method for determining pain/pleasure

            What the criticism of your and Harris’ argument is that you haven’t justified why you’ve equated pain/pleasure with good/bad – and moreover, that you can’t seem to do so without falling foul of the is/ought problem.

            If we cannot define this as “good”, then what does “good” even mean? Further, if we ought not to strive for this “good” then what meaning have we given “pleasure”?

            It’s not that you can’t – it’s that you’re being asked to justify why you have. Why do you equate ‘pleasure’ and ‘good’? (And is that an admission that there is such an objective moral value as ‘good’?). The reason you’re being asked to justify it is because you want to draw moral ‘oughts’ to which you expect other people to adhere (i.e., objective moral duties).

             there seems to be no imperative to maximise other people’s happiness. Mind you, we call those kinds of people psychopaths.

            I agree, that on naturalism, there is no imperative – you can’t get any oughts from any natural ‘is’. But then you recognise that this is not actually how we operate. We act as if objective moral duties do exist, and there are repercussions for those who act as if there aren’t. If atheistic naturalism is true, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.

          • fidel

             

            Findo: “We act as if objective moral duties do exist, and there are
            repercussions for those who act as if there aren’t. If atheistic naturalism is
            true, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.”

            Hmm… how would we have to act in order to act as if
            objective moral duties did not exist?

            I think we act in accordance with moral sentiments shaped by
            evolution and culture – our ‘moral’ behaviour doesn’t depend on a conscious
            belief in Moral Realism only the ‘tug’ of ‘moral sentiments’ that seem
            explicable in terms of evolution, neuroscience and to some extent culture
            (similar things can be said of ‘proto-moral’ behaviour in chimps).  Adopting a different meta-ethical view to
            Realism (as I think most non-theistic moral philosophers do) wouldn’t radically
            alter our behaviour. It might change our considered views and practices regarding
            say criminal punishment somewhat (just as disbelief in freewill might) but I
            think it might be slightly misleading to say “we act as if objective moral
            duties do exist.”  

            Certainly I think we *talk*
            as if objective moral values do exist (and are knowable) – that’s the only
            plausible way I think we can read moral talk as it is usually employed.  I find non-cognitivism entirely implausible. When
            people say (1) “torturing children just for fun is morally wrong” they think they
            are saying something truth-apt and indeed obviously true. They don’t think it
            is something that is only ‘subjectively’ true or something that is only true relative
            to some norms of their culture – they don’t just mean to report truths about
            what they, their society or the majority thinks or feels. And yes, I think
            within a naturalistic worldview there is no place for the type of queer moral
            facts that would seem necessary if our moral talk were to be true in the spirit
            in which it is actually uttered. Even if they existed how would we know them? So
            I veer towards moral error theory (‘nilhism’ in the Alex Rosenberg sense) – I’m
            inclined to think moral talk is systematically false. Though, I’d say I was only
            entitled to moral scepticism.  Of course
            I feel exactly the same horror at child torture and what have you as either you
            or Andrew S feels – what I think can reasonably be described as my ‘moral
            sentiments’ are appalled by it.

            I’m agnostic about the ‘there is objective morality only if
            there is a God” claim through ignorance of the arguments. I don’t believe in either.
            But I would incline towards thinking, like Nietzsche and Sartre, that when God
            dies rather a lot else dies with Him – that there are philosophical questions
            to confront that not all atheists do.

            [Incidentally whilst (1) seems in keeping with hedonic
            consequentialism, one can ask what the hedonic calculus suggests is ‘good’ if
            torturing a child makes 99 sadists ecstatically happy and affects only one
            child.  And, indeed, if a group of
            paedophiles can rape a drugged little girl so that she never knows about it and
            no physical harm done to her where is the hedonic minus that seems required to
            make it morally wrong in the way pretty much anybody who wants to engage in moral
            talk agrees?]

          • http://thingsfindothinks.com/ Findo

            @9a8ede26a91a419477469238fc415838:disqus 

            how would we have to act in order to act as if
            objective moral duties did not exist?

            Well we wouldn’t hold others accountable for what they did.

             Adopting a different meta-ethical view to
            Realism (as I think most non-theistic moral philosophers do) wouldn’t radically
            alter our behaviour.

            Well no, but then our behaviour is not always consistent with our identified view.

            I think what you say about ‘talk’ and the ‘torturing children’ analogy is the same kind of idea. In a practical sense, most people act as if it’s objectively wrong. I would add that the only way we can hold someone (morally) accountable for that (i.e. tell them they ought not have done it and punish them etc.) is if it is objectively morally wrong and that moral duty to protect children from harm is objective.

            I also think you’re right that many who might glibly retweet Nietsche’s idea that God is dead don’t bother to think through the inevitable nihilistic consequences that Nietsche had in mind. 

  • http://thingsfindothinks.com/ Findo

    I was hoping that the American Library in town would have a copy of Harris’ book.. alas not, so your deferal to it will need elaboration (I have some familiarity with the position argued, based on debates etc. that I’ve read, but that is by no means as clear as having read it).

    I understand that Harris holds to a form of objective morality – that is, there are things (he uses the example of genital mutilation) that he asserts are objectively wrong. 

    To clarify terms, when I speak of objective moral values and duties, I mean that they are true regardless of what individuals may think of them. Therefore, to say that genital mutilation is objectively wrong (a statement of moral value) it means that it is wrong, even if a Taliban chief thinks it’s good (indeed, if it is beneficial to greater well-being).

    Now, if I’ve understood your post (and the following discussion) correctly, the brunt of your argument is a kind of ‘tu quoque’: so what if my moral values and duties fall foul of the is/ought problem, so does the theists, right? As you put it in one comment:

    Why *is* it correct to follow god’s instructions?

    The is/ought fallacy is a problem because, as Hume notes, you can’t derive a prescription from a description. What is needed, in fact, is authority, that is, you need something that already contains the prescriptive force.

    We ought to pull over when directed to by a police officer, because of their authority. That is not the kind of is/ought problem that you get if you say we ought to not drive on a frozen lake because we might fall in.So in the theistic view, there is no is/ought problem because there exists an authoritative moral law-giver. It is fallaciously equivocal to liken this to the ‘is’ of the is/ought problem.The point, then, remains, that if God doesn’t exist (if naturalism is true) then there is no grounds for objective morality. If there’s no objective moral values and duties, then there’s no grounds for enforcing any ‘oughts’, as they simply end up being nothing more than personal taste.

    What you’ve tried to do dodge my question of why it is wrong to do anything (such as cause pain) and have simply equated ‘causing pain’ with immorality. In other words, you’ve simply restated the thing I asked you to justify in the first place.

  • fidel

    Hi Findo,

    It’s hard to know quite where to put replies…

    Re: If we acted as if objective moral duties did not exist then
    we wouldn’t hold others accountable for what they did (if we acted consistently
    with our views).

    Punishment for the own sake of retribution seems to have no
    justification if we deny freewill of the sort that may seem to make sense in
    some theistic views but is denied by ‘scientistic’ atheists like Harris. I
    remember that coming up in my undergraduate days but taking comfort in the idea
    that we can’t be blamed for stringing up child murderers either. Thinking about
    things calmly of course that’s not what I’d vote for or encourage.

    I think if we remove fear and false beliefs, then
    psychopaths aside, our moral sentiments tend to converge. We would still seek
    to ‘rehabilitate’ and deter those of a certain dispositions or at least keep
    them from harming others. I don’t think our practises would radically change from
    those found in more ‘enlightened’ Scandinavian countries if we denied freewill
    and objective morality. I don’t think there’d be a ‘deep’ justification for
    those approaches – I think it would simply have to rest on what we place
    subjective value on and the fact that the majority would act to enforce it. It’s
    not an entirely satisfying position – one does rather want more but I’m not
    convinced we’re entitled to it.

    Bertrand Russell said that “I cannot see how to refute the
    arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values but I find myself incapable of
    believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don’t like
    it.”  It is hard to believe but I think
    it may be true. For those who look at moral talk and can’t accept
    non-naturalism, physical reductionism, non-cognitivism or eliminativism – I’d
    suggest they ‘go back to Hume’ and look into Quasi Realism of the sort
    propounded by Simon Blackburn.  

    But of course, you are comfortable with your own position.  There are some prima facie concerns about your
    position as it has hinted at here that can be raised. I’ll raise those in a separate
    comment directed at Andrew S.

     

  • fidel

    Hi Andrew S

    I have conversed with to Findo but I’ve not really
    challenges his position.

    Putting aside is/ought and my professed moral scepticism,
    for a moment, I don’t think we can plausibly define ‘maximising pleasure’ as
    always and only the “good”. I think I have at least raised a few
    thoughts that suggest what you really want to maximise is more than mere
    pleasure. Though Harris gets some flak for the vagueness of ‘well-being’ it
    does seem that a richer notion than ‘pleasure’ is indeed needed as a plausible utility
    function. Bringing that scepticism back in, “what does ‘good’ even mean?” seems
    exactly the right question.  

    Regarding Findo’s position, I certainly think the theist has
    his own puzzles to sort out regarding objective morality. There’s the Euthyphro dilemma for starters – does God
    command x because x is morally obligatory or is x morally obligatory because God
    commands x?  Both positions seem to have initially
    undesirable outcomes for the theist. If the theist takes the ‘Divine command
    theory’ horn his position certainly does seem, prima facie, to be susceptible
    to the ‘is/ought’ problem. And one might also say that if x defines ‘morally obligatory’
    as ‘God commands’ he is himself guilty of committing (something very like) the
    so-called ‘naturalistic fallacy’ that he will perhaps accuse you of for
    equating it with (something like) ‘causes maximal happiness.’  Moore’s ‘open question argument’ seems equally
    pertinent in both cases (though whether it is a real issue is another matter).

    Findo’s brief comments here are suggestive of the view that
    God’s commands create obligations because the commander
    has some ‘commanding
    authority.’  We can’t derive that
    authority from God’s command that we obey him or we’re in a vicious circle. And
    we can’t derive it simply from saying we owe gratitude to Him for creating
    everything – that requires an independent moral standard that we ought to obey
    those responsible for our existence.  As
    for his policeman example, the claim being that we ought to pull over because
    of the policeman’s authority, it seems to me that “why should I obey the
    policeman’s commands?’ remains an open question. In other contexts one might
    talk of a prima facie obligation to obey laws and policemen for the sake of a
    functioning society etc. But the only obvious and pertinent answer in this
    context seems to involve reference to self-interest: I’ll be punished
    otherwise. And ‘it is prudent for me to do x’ doesn’t entail ‘it is morally
    obligatory for me to do x’. So raising ‘is/ought’ doesn’t seem obviously wrong-headed
    to me.

    But I imagine Findo will have a more nuanced view on the
    relationship between God and morality than I can grasp from his brief remarks
    here. Certainly there are ways for the sophisticated theist to evade the horns of
    the Euthyphro dilemma or come to a more comfortable accommodation with one of
    them. For example, some argue that the nature of God, like the French meter
    stick, is the standard for measuring – so He’s not the inventor of the moral
    order but neither is there some independent moral order to which He is subject.
    All such moves may be seen to raise puzzles or problems. There is a good
    thousand years or so of theological and philosophical thought on this conducted
    by profoundly intelligent men that he could draw on and you could explore with
    him if such were your want. It would certainly stimulate the brain cells to get
    into all that. But, without in any meaning to dismiss his beliefs, I don’t know
    that I really want to get to that myself.  I think there is no God or objective morality
    and he believes the polar opposite and neither of us will change the other’s
    mind. And I don’t know that I’d want to even if I could.

More Articles

Recent Comments

Tags