This blog is a response to some questions posed by David W in my earlier blog. I drafted this response and decided I should put it up as a separate blog, because it covers an important point of how I am coming at these questions.
I think you will understand where I am coming from if we first drop the idea of God all together. My strongest reasons for believing in God come out of my understanding of morality. So you can’t really gloss over my views on morality and start asking about my reason to believe in God. So let’s just think about morality and specifically whether the moral realist’s position is true. For example is it a moral fact that what Hitler did to millions of Jews was evil regardless of what anyone thinks?
It seems the holocaust either was really wrong or it wasn’t. Now in general I think the actual “evidence” of moral realism is pretty weak. For example I think there is *no* empirical evidence that the moral realist view is correct. Sure we all might see the photos of corpses or even have seen the corpses or the families of those Hitler killed directly. Looking at this might cause us to be repulsed. That emotional response might somehow yield a strong belief that what Hitler did was morally wrong. I do not think strongly believing something (especially when it’s due to an emotional response) is itself evidence for what we believe. There is no empirical indicia of wrongness that the moral realist can see, and point out to a Nihilist.
A nihilist will look at the same pictures and there is no reason to think he does not experience the same emotional response of repugnance. His emotional response would lead to him to try to prevent that sort of thing from happening. In fact a moral nihilist might take more actions to prevent it from happening. But if the nihilist is consistent, he would not claim he is trying to prevent the holocaust because it is morally wrong. Why he would try to prevent it is an interesting question that might have a variety of answers. Richard Joyce is as philosophical nihilist (although he doesn’t like the term “nihilist”) who I agree with on many issues and have allot of respect for. He has given glimpses into his views on this but never really fully explored this.
But I would say though that if I were to accept the view that no one should ever believe anything unless they have empirical evidence to support it, then there is no way I could be a moral realist. But I think rational people consider more than empirical evidence and indeed more than the probability of a belief being true when deciding whether or not to accept it. They also consider the consequences.
Let’s think this through with respect to moral realism. I have no empirical evidence that moral realism is true. But I also understand that it might still be true because it is really not the type of thing I would expect to have empirical evidence for. So what to do? Well I think there are people who would tend to say I must reject moral realism until I have evidence of it being true. Others would say they don’t know what to make of it. But some people would say they are going to believe it anyway. For me I will consider the consequences of believing or not believing.
Now moral realist’s view either corresponds with reality or it does not. I.e., it is either a true view or a false view. And let’s just say we either accept moral realism or we reject it. I.e., we either believe it or we do not believe it.
So ok that leaves 4 possibilities:
Possibility 1) We believe in moral realism but in fact it is not true. Well then I hold a false belief. But holding that false belief is not really morally wrong. Why? Because if this situation holds true then there is no real moral right or wrong. Now it might be wrong in some peoples morality that they create in their head – ie. a relativist view. But you know what? I don’t really care. That consequence has no weight for me. Not any more than whether my actions correspond with any other sort of make believe. So the consequences of my holding the false view that morality is objectively real is basically zero.
Possibility 2) What if I hold the view that moral realism is false when it really is true? Things get a bit more sticky here. Now my holding that false belief might have some real moral implications. Moreover I might be inclined to not be very concerned with what might or might not be really moral. (After all, I don’t believe in it) This might lead me to not carefully consider the different views of what is morally right and wrong or carefully consider what basis people have for giving me their moral views. In the end I might lead a life doing things I truly should not have done and not doing things I really should have done. I would have lived my life wrong in a real sense. This is basically what I am trying to avoid. And so to the extent I am trying to avoid that then rejecting a belief in moral realism seems to be a bad way to go.
Possibility 3) Now what if I correctly reject moral realism. Well then yes I would have got that one right, but it doesn’t “really” matter. Why doesn’t it really matter? Because if moral realism is false then nothing really matters. So again there is no good reason to reject moral realism despite the lack of evidence.
Possibility 4) So the final option is that I believe in moral realism and moral realism is true. I think this is really the possibility that we need to focus on. Let’s accept that moral realism is true.
So a pascal wager like analysis leads to the conclusion that we should believe in moral realism. But now how do we know what is really moral or not? That is our next step as a rational person right? If what I said earlier is true then we should believe in/accept moral realism. But what is really moral or not moral?
It is only at this point that God comes in. After careful consideration it seems to me that it is impossible that we can with any reliability believe what is moral or not, if we evolved without any supernatural guidance. I argue why this is here.
From that conclusion I do a similar analysis and conclude a rational person should believe in God here.
Travis R said:
I understand that you define moral realism as being necessarily immaterial and thus mutually exclusive with any moral theory that is grounded on desires or happiness or some empirical effect. With that in mind, I wonder whether you adequately account for these things when contemplating your moral wager. It almost seems as if you presume that morality is the only domain under which value can be assessed. Is moral value the only true value? Let me try and clarify my point by revisiting the possibilities where moral realism isn’t true:
Case 1: We believe in moral realism but it isn’t true. When faced with the possibility that your morality conflicts with others’, you say “I don’t really care … the consequences … is basically zero.” But what about the value of the emotional or physical effects that are realized? Why are these things valueless without moral realism?
Case 3: We don’t believe in moral realism and it isn’t true. Here you say that “if moral realism is false then nothing really matters”. Now you’ve just outright stated that value can ONLY be assigned based on some objective moral yardstick. Here again I question why that is necessarily the only way to assign value.
I’m intrigued by moral theories which define morality as being tied into our desires and emotions because it makes sense; it fits with my experience. Moral realism would argue that the compulsions are aiming toward something else beyond those feelings, but there is a lot of work in evolutionary psychology that also tries to explain how these compulsions might have arisen naturally. Not only that, but by assigning value to these empirical things we actually have hope of knowing whether we’ve done well or failed. In fact, we typically seem to fall back on some kind of utilitarian theory when asked to explain our moral perspective, and our answers are rooted in placing value on the consequences. Why can’t we assign value based on the feelings and effects of morality, without requiring some extra immaterial moral yardstick?
Lastly, I would like to question whether the cases where moral realism is true are really all that different from each other. In case #2 (we don’t believe in moral realism but it is true), you fear that you might “have lived my life wrong in a real sense”. But you could also ‘accidentally’ live your life correctly just by following your natural moral compulsions, whether you believe they point to something immaterial or not. You will do this because that is what moral feelings do – they guide your actions. This seems no different than case #4 (we do believe in moral realism and it is true) because in that case you’re going to operate under the same moral standards because ultimately your internal moral feelings are the only guide you have. You suggest that in case #2 we might be more likely to disregard our moral intuition but I don’t see why that is the case.
Hello Travis thank you for asking these questions. I am sure others might be wondering the same sort of thing.
I am actually not defining moral realism any different than others in this field. I agree that moral realism is not *defined* as proffering truths that do not provide material indicia. Instead I *argue* that ultimate moral truths do not provide material indicia.
Consider the case of the mouse trap. There was a disagreement about whether the mouses suffering should be considered or how much it should be considered. Both parties can see the mouse struggle. They can both reach the same conclusion about the existence of its pain. But still disagree whether it is right or wrong to use a sticky trap. There is no material indicia that will answer that question. If someone thinks there is, then where is it? After all it would seem that if it is material it should be found in space somewhere right?
Now someone can just start out with the assertion that causing suffering is always wrong. But again there is no material indicia or evidence for this claim. We might very well just believe that because it helped us survive. In this light it is interesting that we tend to feel this way about our own species more than other species like roaches or bugs. (whether they feel pain is admittedly up for some debate but there does seem to be some research suggesting they do.) So my question is how would we know this is really wrong and not just a belief that we hold, for example, due to it’s survival value? It seems there is no empirical way to prove this.
Other beliefs we can confirm through empirical evidence. For example if someone doesn’t believe 2+2=4. Lets say they think 2+1=4. I can show them 2 coins and then show them another 1 coin. I can combine them and let them count them. If they don’t believe it and they are being chased by 4 lions they might see 2 lions give up the chase and then one other give up the chase and then stop running. The proof that 4=2+2 and not 2+1 will manifest itself in that 4th lion. The same is true with many of our other beliefs but not our basic moral beliefs.
I think there can be other normative facts beside moral ones. For example I think there can be a right way and a wrong (you can substitute “good and bad”) way to tie your shoes. I don’t think its immoral to tie your shoes wrong. There is a right and a wrong (good and bad) way to do math and epistemology. In these cases the right and wrong does not necessarily mean morally right and wrong.
Morally right and wrong generally means something we should do or not do in and of itself. Those other normative values tend to be good or bad toward some purpose – figuring out how many lions are chasing you, or formulating certain beliefs, or avoiding tripping on your laces while at the same time being able to easilly take off your shoe when you want. These goals might or might not be good in itself. The Nazis tried to find “good” ways to kill Jews.
The moral good is something that is good in itself. We should do it simply because it is the morally right thing to do.
Now keep in mind that under this scenario there is no real moral value. That is because in this scenario real moral value does not exist.
Its not that I don’t care if people disagree with me about what is really moral. I will of course listen. But I don’t care if people say I made up this morality in my head and according to that you are not acting right. I am not inclined to live my life based on someones make believe.
If there is no moral reality than our suffering is not morally different than the fact that an entire colony of ants was wiped out. To be clear there is no moral value at all. Yes we have emotions but there is no real moral value to which they correspond.
Our emotions are morally valueless without moral realism because moral realism is the position that real morals exist. If there is no moral realism then these values no moral values really exist.
I am saying that in reality there would be no ultimate good or bad. As I indicated there might be good and bad ways to accomplish things, but these are not ultimately good or bad. We might believe they are good or bad but if you reject moral realism those beliefs do not correspond with reality.
Now people can define morality differently. They can say morality simply is whatever we believe. They are relativists. But again that view is living a life based on make believe. I am not inclined to accept that.
I agree with everything you say. But this is the crucial part: In every example where people see how these compulsions/beliefs arose naturally through evolution they arose because these compulsions helped us survive or reproduce not because they were true. Whether it is actually true that we should not cause pain to others is not part of the analysis. The analysis is generally along these lines: if people started believing things are really moral, and specifically that X is really moral, what effect would that have on survival.
Of course, we can just “assign value” on whatever we like. But this would be living our lives in an arbitrary way, unless we have good reasons to think the values accord with reality.
Travis R said:
I’ll agree and disagree. I’ll agree in that without moral realism there isn’t some objective moral value that exists independent of moral agents. However, I do not see how we can say that there is no moral value.
I feel like we didn’t quite connect on the intent of my questions, so let me try again. If one of my sons gets angry with his brother and does something to hurt him, I don’t just tell him that what he did was objectively wrong and that’s the end of it. I ask him to look at his brother and to recognize the pain or sadness that he caused. Then I also ask him to consider whether he would want the same thing done to himself. I’ll usually also explain that if you don’t want those things done to yourself then you shouldn’t do it other people. At no point am I appealing to some external standard. I’m simply asking them to make value judgements based on the feelings and consequences of their actions. In my experience, the golden rule is by far the easiest way to express the concept of morality and it is by definition a subjective rule. The value does not come from some objective standard – it comes from empathy and all of the empirical effects that we associate with moral actions.
But if the values are derived from our very real emotions and feelings then they do accord with reality. That’s my whole point. Why must the value come from something other than the value that we inherently assign to our feelings? You say that the relativist is just playing “make believe” but I think you’re trivializing the value we place on the emotions and feelings that we associate with morality – as if these don’t count for anything simply because there is a possibility that another person won’t respond with the same emotions and feelings.
Without moral realism, the holocaust is only on equal footing with the demolition of an ant hill if you completely ignore the undeniably real difference in the feelings that arise in response. History is replete with atrocities that are based on one group deeming another group as inferior, or sub-human. This is just how we work. The more we feel removed from somebody, the less we feel a moral obligation to them. If you’re anything like me, you’re repulsed by the holocaust, but you are less repulsed by people hunting apes, and you are even less repulsed by people hunting deer, and even less repulsed by people hunting birds, and even less repulsed by the destruction of an ant hill. Our only faculty for assigning a moral value to each of these is by measuring our feeling, regardless of whether moral realism is true. I don’t understand why that value disappears if moral realism is false. It doesn’t disappear, it just means that the value is no longer separable from the agent, and if there is commonality in the way those agents respond and value those feelings then that is just as effective as an external standard.
It may sound quibbling but I disagree with this logic. IMO your son should not hurt his brother because it is wrong. Whether that could ever happen to him is irrelevant. People who are in power can do things to other that they know will not be inflicted on them. This applies whether you are the toughest kid on the playground or the absolute dictator like Stalin was.
Also people vary in the amount of emotion they experience (if any) when they “recognize the pain or sadness that [they] cause.” This has been shown by mri scans of the brains with people considered sociopaths. So I don’t think morals should be dependent on how he feels about the pain he caused.
Belief in an external standard is important.
This is an interesting article that seems to give hope that even if your brain is conditioned this way how you are raised can make the difference:
I think the golden rule is an objective standard. Or at least a good guide to them. Just because it asks you consider someone elses feelings does not mean the morality is subjective. Not considering other peoples feeling can be wrong in a morally real sense.
I think its different to say
1) I will *assign* a value to peoples real emotions and feelings
2) value can be *derived* from peoples real emotions and feelings
The first case is like a divine command theory of morality where we are God. A thing
is good because we assign the goodness to it. This is a moral relativist view.
The second claim suggests that the goodness is coming from the reality itself. It “derives” from the real emotions and feelings. This is more in line with moral realism.
Is it possible that moral reality can derive from the real emotional states our actions cause? Yes I think they do. I can call a friend a name in fun if I know he will laugh and find it funny. But if I know it insults him that same comment will have a different moral implication.
But this is not because I “assign” the morality in this way. It is because in reality his emotional response is a morally relevant consideration.
I think the relativist is playing make believe because relativism is the view that moral truths are dependent on what someone made up as opposed to reality. Just like I might say “sleeping beauty lost her glass slipper.” That is wrong according to the make believe story of sleeping beauty but it does not substantially concern itself with reality out side of that make believe.
Also I don’t think its just a possibility that different people will respond to behavior with different emotions, I think there is fairly strong scientific evidence for this belief. Do you think the holocaust is immoral only for the people who have a brain that reacts the way yours does? Entirely tying morality to how our brain reacts seems like a contradiction just waiting to happen. It seems that morality needs to be taught to people and we can’t just rely on whatever their/our emotional response is.
Travis R said:
Sorry I took so long to respond. it’s been a busy week.
I’d like to try and rephrase my point. It seems that our moral compass is strongly correlated with emotion and feeling. We value certain emotions and feelings. We generally agree that a good guide to moral decisions is the golden rule, which is essentially telling us to use empathy. Empathy is the projection of other people’s feelings and emotions onto ourselves. It would seem, then, that we can assign moral value according to the value we place on the associated emotions and feelings, which we evaluate through the process of empathy.
You cited a couple articles which show a tendency toward a lack of empathy in criminals and sociopaths. To me, this just supports my position, which is that we assign moral value based on feeling. Those who are deficient in that feeling are more likely to not share our values.
I need to clarify something else. I’m not suggesting that a feeling based morality is what I want, just that this is how we actually work. It would be great if our moral operation wasn’t subject to the whims of our feelings, but it just doesn’t seem like this is how the world works. And if I’m honest, it appears that what I really mean when I say that is that I wish everybody’s morals agreed with mine. When I consider moral realism I have a hard time seeing why it should be true except that I want it to be true. What are other reasons for holding to moral realism?
Travis thank you for your comments.
I think there are different types of emotions at work. The emotions of the person doing the action and the emotion of the object of the action. You say this:
“I’d like to try and rephrase my point. It seems that our moral compass is strongly correlated with emotion and feeling. We value certain emotions and feelings. We generally agree that a good guide to moral decisions is the golden rule, which is essentially telling us to use empathy. Empathy is the projection of other people’s feelings and emotions onto ourselves. It would seem, then, that we can assign moral value according to the value we place on the associated emotions and feelings, which we evaluate through the process of empathy.”
Consider this case. A Dentist puts a female patient under sedation. While she is under he then proceeds to strip her down and grope her in a sexual way. He does all of this and fixes her teeth before she reawakens and she knows nothing of it.
Now lets assume the Dentist is indeed a sociopath so he has no negative emotions at all. He just had some sexual gratification and thinks its great. Is this wrong? it seems to me if we put emotions and feelings as the begin all and end all we have to say it wasn’t wrong and maybe even it was good.
Now lets say someone else knew he did this. They know if they told this patient she would be upset. Is it wrong to tell the patient? It would seem that it would be wrong to tell her the truth. The person who tells the patient the truth would be worse than the dentist if we are only looking at feelings and emotions.
I think that illustrates that there is more than right and wrong and good and bad, than feelings and emotions. That is not to say feelings are not a factor at all. I think they weigh in. But there is more to it.
“You cited a couple articles which show a tendency toward a lack of empathy in criminals and sociopaths. To me, this just supports my position, which is that we assign moral value based on feeling. Those who are deficient in that feeling are more likely to not share our values.”
I do think our emotions help us identify right and wrong. I think this is demonstrated by the tests on sociopaths. The feelings we have of guilt disgust based on the moral situations we are put in, I believe, were put there by God (“written on our hearts”). These feelings are not as strong in sociopaths so they need to learn how to act rightly by learning.
But this doesn’t mean all right and wrong comes down to what feels good or bad. In the dentist situation I gave no one had bad feelings yet it was still wrong.
“I need to clarify something else. I’m not suggesting that a feeling based morality is what I want, just that this is how we actually work. It would be great if our moral operation wasn’t subject to the whims of our feelings, but it just doesn’t seem like this is how the world works. And if I’m honest, it appears that what I really mean when I say that is that I wish everybody’s morals agreed with mine. When I consider moral realism I have a hard time seeing why it should be true except that I want it to be true. What are other reasons for holding to moral realism?”
First I agree with you. I do not think we can reason our way to ultimate moral truth. I think we ultimately start out thinking something is right or wrong based on a strong emotional response. The question is whether this emotional response tracks any truth in the world or if it just some byproduct of evolution. If there is no God then I am fairly convinced that these emotions are irrational and just byproducts of evolution. If I believe there is a God who made me to have these emotions there would be reason to think there is more to these emotions.
I think people can get over their emotional responses. We see lots of situations where people are doing bad things and we wonder how it was possible. How was it possible that people treated other people as property? Did people know this wasn’t right but saw it enough so they were able to bury that emotion? Are all of these emotions just training? I think its a mix. I am not generally a fan of Aquinas but I do agree with him that we can train our consciences for good or evil.
The question is should we try to stick to these emotional responses of what is right or wrong, or if we get over it, that’s fine too. if there is no real morality attached to these emotions then its fine if “we get over it.” As a moral realist I think its not fine to just let our conscience go to evil. We need to guide it protect it and train it. Christians do this through prayer and focusing on Christ’s messages.
I really don’t know what an atheist would do.
Travis R said:
In this statement and in the example you gave you left out a big segment of the population – the feelings of the people making the moral judgment. In your analysis you have constrained these people to only consider the actual experienced feelings of the immediate participants and to ignore any feelings that arise when they reflect on the situation. That was not my intent. Empathy plays a huge role in the process by which we make moral judgments. Your example is interesting in that the 3rd party who has all the information is the one who experiences the feeling which leads to a sense of wrongness, while the persons directly involved in the act do not.
The only way we would “get over it” is if our feelings actually changed. Training ourselves to ignore our feelings doesn’t make them any less real. If our feelings change, then our definitions of what is or isn’t moral will change accordingly. Historically it appears that this actually happens, as we are currently witnessing with homosexuality.
Two final questions:
1) You sometimes seem to infer that a relativist has to simply accept other people’s moral judgments and has no way to argue against views which disagree with their own. Have I misread this or do you think this is the case? If so, please explain. I don’t understand why we can’t appeal to any number of things to which we assign value.
2) I am genuinely interested in knowing whether you have reasons why we should think that moral realism is true which don’t reduce to some form of just wanting it to be true.
I am not sure what you mean here:
“In this statement and in the example you gave you left out a big segment of the population – the feelings of the people making the moral judgment. In your analysis you have constrained these people to only consider the actual experienced feelings of the immediate participants and to ignore any feelings that arise when they reflect on the situation. That was not my intent. Empathy plays a huge role in the process by which we make moral judgments. Your example is interesting in that the 3rd party who has all the information is the one who experiences the feeling which leads to a sense of wrongness, while the persons directly involved in the act do not.”
The other people in the population would not be aware of what happened either so they would have nothing to reflect on. Are you saying what the majority of a given population feels is what matters?
Are you saying that if no one saw what the dentist did and no one therefore had bad feelings or emotions then what the dentist did was not wrong? Remember the dentist is a sociopath so when he reflects on what happened he simply gets sexual gratification. No remorse or guilt.
“The only way we would “get over it” is if our feelings actually changed. Training ourselves to ignore our feelings doesn’t make them any less real. If our feelings change, then our definitions of what is or isn’t moral will change accordingly. Historically it appears that this actually happens, as we are currently witnessing with homosexuality.”
People who carried out orders in Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany sort of numbed their consciences and seemed to be able to get over it. They may have not been there at all or they may have have just become weaker.
It seems our feelings about all sorts of sexual acts including adultery is changing – sort of. Or maybe not. Perhaps our actions and statements are just better matching up to our beliefs and feelings. Its hard to say. In the past there would have been a stigma attached to saying you don’t hold anything against homosexuals. So perhaps it was this stigma that countered peoples feelings.
“Two final questions:
1) You sometimes seem to infer that a relativist has to simply accept other people’s moral judgments and has no way to argue against views which disagree with their own. Have I misread this or do you think this is the case? If so, please explain. I don’t understand why we can’t appeal to any number of things to which we assign value.”
They can argue. But if you don’t think there is any truth underlying morality, then its sort of like arguing about whether pickles taste good or bad.
“2) I am genuinely interested in knowing whether you have reasons why we should think that moral realism is true which don’t reduce to some form of just wanting it to be true.”
This is a good question. I actually think the empirical evidence for real morals is in some cases worse than that of God. At least with God we have reports of miracles and the Gospels. (value that as you will). We also have many other traditional arguments. But with morals we really have nothing. That is other than the Gospels. You see I read the Gospels as not only proving God exists, Christ died for our sins, but also that real morals exist. Christ, talked as if real morality existed. As if there was a real right and wrong. I think the Gospels give some evidence of real morality.
But here is the thing. Its not so much that I “want” real morality to exist. Its just that this is the possibility that I think rational people should base our life on.
If I am out in the woods, with poisonous snakes and get bit by a snake that I can’t identify, I think I should likely take action as if I were bit by a poisonous snake. That is if all things are equal. Its not that I hope I was bit by poisonous snake, its just that the actions that follow from that belief are more rational.
Notice i said all things being equal. Since my goal in life is to live a moral life all things *are* equal. If there is no morality then it’s ok. My acting as if there were real morality would not be morally any worse than acting as if there wasn’t. If there is no morality its impossible to do something morally wrong.
Again my concern (and I think the concern of rational people who have thought this through) is that there is moral right and wrong and if it is, how can I find out what it is and best act morally.
Travis R said:
No. I am only trying to describe how our moral judgments appear to actually operate. I am not making any normative claims. We receive information about a moral proposition and then respond to the feelings associated with the proposition by making a moral judgment. We place value on those feelings, regardless of whether they point to something external or not.
This is the key perspective that I’m contesting. We clearly place a higher value on the feelings associated with moral agreement than we do on our agreement about the taste of pickles. We are also usually able to trace a consequentialist rationale for our moral judgments – it causes pain, or it is oppressive, etc… – and these are associated with feelings that we value. Why isn’t this enough? Why must the moral value be grounded in some external standard before it can count for anything? It seems like you’re completely dismissing the inherent value that we place on these things – a value that we assign regardless of whether moral realism is true.
I disagree. If your belief of what constitutes “real morality” regularly conflicts with the subjective morality that everybody else holds to then you are doing real moral damage as far as everybody else is concerned. People who don’t care about this and continue operating as if it doesn’t matter are sociopaths and will be rejected by society. Accepting that morality may be subjective does not then require that we give everybody a pass to do anything. There are many common values that we share and want to preserve.
Which of these situations do you think is worse?
A) You believe in an objective moral standard but there isn’t one. Your application of the standard regularly conflicts with other people’s moral beliefs and causes them unwanted feelings and experiences.
B) You do not believe in an objective moral standard and there is one. Your application of your subjective moral standard regularly conflicts with the objective standard but generally agrees with other people’s moral beliefs and does not cause them unwanted feelings and experiences.
I don’t know about you, but B feels like a better outcome to me and I think that most people would agree.
Hi Travis thanks for your comments.
Here are some of my thoughts.
Ok this might be the case for some people. Other people think that these feeling do point to some external truth that is more important than just their feelings. Other people often don’t put a value on these feelings – sociopaths.
But if it all comes down to feeling then what of the dentist scenario I described? Lets assume no one else saw only the dentist knew and he does not have any misgivings or guilt he just had some sexual pleasure and is glad he did. Is it wrong?
I think how you answer that question can give me a better understanding of what your position is.
I think Martin Luther King disagreed with morality people held in his day. I think its pretty clear lots of people agreed that slavery was fine for a long time. Were the people the that disagreed with the majority sociopaths?
That’s the problem with relativism. It denies the possibility of moral progress that we all tend to think can happen.
You think B is better. But in what way?
I think the questions are somewhat misleading. Its not necessarily the case that following what you think is an objective moral standard will thwart peoples feelings and desires. But I agree it can. Case B is I think that is what people who do not want moral progress accept. People often will not want to change for the better. The change will necessarily conflict with their moral beliefs and may cause them unwanted feelings and experiences.
But that is the very idea of living the moral life and pursuing the truth instead of comfort.
Travis R said:
I don’t think I can answer this the way you want me to. Once I have all the information about the events that transpired I am going to base my moral judgment on those additional details. So yes, it was wrong, but I can only say that because I know the details. If instead all you told me was that somebody went to the dentist and then asked if the dentist did anything wrong, I would say no because I’m oblivious to the actions which inspire a sense of wrongness.
Does that make this some form of error theory rather than relativism? Sorry if I’m butchering the semantics. I’m still feeling my way through the world of moral philosophy. Pun intended.
Sociopaths are primarily defined by a lack of empathy, not simply as contrarian. Those who lacked (or suppressed) their empathy for the subjugated minority are closer to sociopaths under this definition. I suspect that this wasn’t the point of your question though, so please ask again if there’s a different point that you want me to address here.
Only in the objective sense. We can still each have our own interpretation of what moral progress is and strive for it and, just like with moral judgments, we can engage in dialogues and discussions to argue for our view based on things that we value and perceive that others value as well.
In the same way I make all my moral judgments – by intuition. It feels like the better situation. I am inclined toward a preference for social interactions which do not cause me or others unwanted feelings and experiences. Do you disagree that B seems better?
Obviously that is true. The point of was to show that moral realism on its own does not necessarily entail a situation which is intuitively better than a subjectivist account. I’m not suggesting that this is how it would actually play out.
This is an interesting spin. I’ve always associated moral realism is with moral stasis and moral relativism with moral progress. If I understand correctly, you’re saying that we should be open to the possibility that our current moral perspective can be improved, and the only way that we would deem our current perspective inferior is if we believe that there is an objective standard to compare with.
But you only need two things to make a comparison. In a world of subjective morality, there are billions of perspectives to compare. It’s not difficult to recognize that we am not aware of all possible perspectives and all pertinent details for a moral proposition. At any given time we may actively hold to a moral perspective which we think is the best among the moral perspectives which we have thus far encountered, but that does not imply that we also think it is the best among moral perspectives that we will ever encounter in the future, nor does it imply that we think we are fully acquainted with all of the information that goes into a moral belief. In short, relativism supports moral progress by encouraging a constant pursuit of new perspectives and new information. Realism may dangle the carrot to pursue, but it also presents the possibility of thinking you’ve reached the goal and need to hold firm.
Travis thanks for your comments.
I see what you mean about it being premature for me to insist you answer whether what the dentist did was right or “wrong.” You are still presumably considering whether there is a right or wrong – in a moral sense. I think this is an important question that shouldn’t be skipped over so I take your point. My question is making unwarranted assumptions and rushing things.
I am not sure how a subjectivist/relativist can say his moral views are “better” than another persons or groups who disagrees.
A realist would say his moral beliefs are better if his beliefs actually correspond better with moral facts. So lets say me and the sociopath dentist disagree about the morality of what he did. He would say no what he did was good because it didn’t hurt anyone and he received a sexual pleasure which he thinks is not only a legitimate good but he values it quite highly. Now if there is no actual moral standard then how is it that I can say my view is “better”? It seems better to me of course. But if there is no real standard that exists outside of our individual beliefs and feelings then I can’t say my view matches it better.
Now I agree we may learn more information at any given time. But often both sides will know the same information about a situation and draw different moral conclusions. The dentist case might be one as well as the mouse trap example from my earlier blog.
If we can’t say one view is better than another then I don’t know how we can make progress. We just sort of change our views and as we change our views and we create laws that match them then of course we look back and say yeah we are better. But really we only mean that our laws and cultural mores fit our current beliefs.
Lacking empathy is a sign of sociopath yes. But it is also lacking feelings of guilt or moral responsibility.
But my comment was made against a different view that you took of sociopaths.
Here you are suggesting that if someone doesn’t care about what moral beliefs others hold then they are a sociopath. But I disagree. Someone is not a sociopath just because their moral beliefs conflict with other peoples and choose to follow what they think is right. This is what I meant by Martin Luther King or people who would be against slavery even though it was accepted by almost everyone. Martin Luther King did spend time in jail for going against the moral beliefs of his time. But he was not a sociopath.
If Martin Luther King believed what he said in his sermons then his belief that there was a real objective right and wrong was a driving force behind his actions.
Its far from clear to me whether he would have acted the way he did if he did not believe in real morals and real justice. If he thought morality was just a matter of different feelings that different people have, I think he would have been a very different person.
There are various arguments in favor of real morality that I have not gone into.
Here is a blog that goes into some of them:
Notice that I argue against some of these in the comments. But the one from justice seems to be a fairly strong one.
Travis R said:
I appreciate the dialog and the affirmation that these ideas are at least reasonable. As you know I’m not committed to any particular moral view so it’s been a good exercise to “try on” the relativistic perspective. Maybe it will stick.
I was actually trying to highlight the interplay between our moral sense and other feelings that arise when considering moral scenarios. I find that I can identify some sort of close relationship between those feelings and my moral sense and my understanding is that this is a fairly typical observation. It’s unclear exactly what that relationship is but it definitely seems to be there.
Right, largely because I have information that the patient did not have and can imagine how a person in that situation would typically feel if they had that information.
I think that everybody who makes a moral judgment based on their moral intuition is really just relying on their own feelings. If that person has a relatively normal sense of empathy then the perceived or imagined feelings of the people directly involved in the moral proposition will be reflected internally and correlated with their moral judgment.
Then what did you mean when you said “There is something significant in pursuing reality that just doesn’t happen when we are referring to make believe.”?
That of course assumes moral realism and I find that the strongest force which pushes me toward accepting moral realism is a desire to sustain particular definitions of right and wrong. The examples you raise would seem to infer a similar compulsion on your end. On that note, I’m curious whether you can identify a substantive difference between the feelings and compulsions experienced by the following two persons?
* Person A believes that X is truly wrong and that it is extremely important for everybody to do what is right
* Person B highly values the absence of X and strongly desires that everybody else share their valuation
I have a hard time distinguishing between the way those two people would feel and that makes me think that the desire to sustain particular definitions of right and wrong does not necessarily count as evidence for the truth of moral realism.
I think that those who disagree about whether justice was done can attempt to reconcile their disagreement by appealing to the values which inform their perception of justice. These valuations should be rooted in reality and are most likely to effectively persuade the other party if they are shared in common between parties.
How do two moral realists arbitrate a disagreement about whether justice was done? It doesn’t seem like anything will happen if they both simply appeal to their divergent interpretations of the external standard.
From my current perspective the answer is no. I suppose that if I was part of the “everyone” then I would answer yes, by definition. But that doesn’t change the fact that from my current perspective I disagree with evil bizarro Travis.
As before, progress and justice lies in the eye of the beholder.
Travis R said:
While true, that actually wasn’t my point. It appeared to me that you were asking me to assign a moral value to the act while operating independent of my own perspective. That doesn’t seem possible from most relativist approaches because judgments are dependent on perspective.
Yes, “better” is itself a subjective claim.
Except that we can, it’s just a subjective claim.
Why can’t progress also be subjective?
I can see how my statement would have been interpreted that way but that wasn’t my intent. I was inferring a lack of empathy for the harm inflicted on others.
Why does a lack of belief in moral realism diminish the compulsion to act?
Travis thanks for your comments.
I am not sure what you mean then about my example. If you can what the Dentist did was wrong then you must be appealing to something other than people’s feelings. This would mean that there is more to morals than just feelings.
As for your defense of a relativistic view I think you make some good points. For example people understand dance and figure skating as generally things that are relative. There might be some disagreement here, but I think I would agree that they are pretty much subjective. So someone might say they have progressed, I suppose. Someone might think this sort of movement is what they did then and then it changed to some other thing and they call that progress. I really don’t know for sure how such decisions are made. But sure falling down on the ice and doing the but Zamboni does not make a “good” routine.
Art can progress as well but often that might have to do with how much it reflects reality. Not necessarily in a literally realist painting sort of way. Abstract and impressionist can reflect reality in a way as well. I don’t think I can speak to that very well either.
But I think you can understand there is a difference between progress in figure skating and progress in something where we think the field corresponds with reality. So for example in science we think there is progress because we think our beliefs are better matching up with reality. At one point scientists used to think alchemy was legitimate. We now know enough to say that was a dead end because that is not how reality works. But if science was not based on reality but just based on our own beliefs then we might think Newton’s theories of alchemy are just as valuable as his theory of gravity.
Why wouldn’t Martin Luther King pursue his moral beliefs even if he understood they did not correspond to reality? I think that is a deep question. What if science were understood as something that doesn’t really correspond with reality? Would that effect people’s devotion to it? I think it would. I think it comes down to the question in my very first blog. There is something significant in pursuing reality that just doesn’t happen when we are referring to make believe. I am not sure why my girls would ask me “in real life” but for whatever reason they thought it was important to know whether what I told them was real independent of my mind.
There is also the issue of whether there can be real justice if there is no real morality. I am not sure there can be. I think the Martin Luther King was really devoted to justice.
Travis R said:
I am appealing to my own moral sense, which is largely tied to the feelings which arise upon contemplation of the scenario.
As you are aware, I think that identifying subjectivity as “make believe” is an unfair dismissal of the forces behind our subjective experience. They are very real to us.
Justice has been done for those who perceive it to have been done.
Travis thanks for the great responses. I do not think your views are unreasonable. I don’t agree with them but I don’t think there is anything illogical with what you say.
Ok so you are not only considering the feelings of the people involved with the scenario but also the people who are judging the scenario. But then doesn’t it seem you are saying you have a feeling it is wrong because you have a feeling it is wrong?
I mean it doesn’t really substantively help your view. But regardless you still have a feeling what the dentist did was wrong even though no one directly involved in the scenario had any negative feelings about it right? So you are looking to something beyond the feelings of those involved to judge it wrong.
I am not sure that identifying subjectivity as make believe. I think there is one reality not different realities for different people. If someone decides that they think something is wrong that does not make it really “wrong for them.” Its either wrong or it is not wrong. The holocaust was not wrong “for me.” It was wrong in reality.
I disagree that “justice has been done for those who perceive it to have been done.” Hitler may have believed that the holocaust was justice, but he was wrong.
Do you agree with me? Or do you think it was just for Hitler but not me and there is no reality that can arbitrate this? If everyone agreed with Hitler would it be good and just?
Again it is difficult to see how you think there can be moral progress or better justice if it just changes based on beliefs of individuals.
Travis R said:
Oops. I was trying to submit the comment at a higher level and it ended up on the previous thread. Let me know if you want to delete it and have me resubmit on this thread.
cerrajero gracia said:
I was wondering if you ever considered changing the layout of your site?
Its very well written; I love what youve got to say. But maybe
you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better.
Youve got an awful lot of text for only having 1 or
2 images. Maybe you could space it out better?
Thank you for the compliments.
You are definitely right. I have been thinking about how I can categorize these posts. It is sort of hard. But I will be doing this in the future.
As far as pictures, it might be nice to have more. I agree that my views tend to be blocks of text. But I have to say that I am turned off by many sites that have more pictures that are there to invoke emotional responses. I want people to move past emotion. I really want my blog to be based on the actual words and logic.
I do certainly realize that my blog wont be as persuasive to many people. I will tell you if you want to be persuasive to more people play on emotions. But I am actually trying to avoid that path.
Ok but on a lighter note pictures can be fine and make the blog more fun to read. I really just don’t have the time to find them.