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Objective Morality: A Back-of-the-Napkin Sketch

 
Ain Sophistry
 
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Ain Sophistry
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17 October 2017 21:39
 

One afternoon a while ago I was bored and decided to answer one of the many Quora.com questions on objective morality–namely, on how such a thing could be possible. This proved a useful exercise in distilling my moral theory down to a fairly succinct, fairly outsider-friendly sketch, and I thought it might be helpful if I reproduced my answer here. There’s a lot more unpacking that needs to be done, and a longer treatment is in the wings, but in the meantime this ought to give you a rough idea of where I’m coming from, metaethically and ethically speaking.

The question: Is there an objective moral standard? If not, what are we doing when we think and talk about morality?

It’s important to make sure at the outset that we’ve got a clear and consistent notion of objectivity to work with. People often conflate moral objectivism with moral absolutism, the latter of which might most succinctly be stated as the view that moral facts would obtain even if humans or other value-having creatures had never existed. Note that there are many non-moral facts that fail the test of absolutism (viz., descriptive facts about humans) yet are nevertheless regarded, and with amply good reason, as perfectly objective features of reality. So we must take care not to have a double standard here, not to unduly demand more of objective moral facts than we demand of objective non-moral facts.

“Objective” is often taken to mean “mind-independent,” but there are at least two senses of “mind-(in)dependent” that need to be distinguished. I take the aim of any serious candidate for an objective moral system to be the articulation of some set of principles (or standards, as the OP puts it) to which all persons are beholden and on the basis of which their behavior may justifiably be judged and regulated. Note that to meet this aim, we don’t need a moral system that is independent of the general existence of minds but only one that is independent of any particular mental states. The key idea is that I can’t simply exempt myself from an objective moral obligation by citing some desire or preference of mine that the obligation confounds or contradicts. If an action is morally right, then I ought to do it, whether I want to or not. Sure, there would be no moral obligations in a world with no minds, but so what? That is not our world. The ultimate contingency of these obligations is no barrier to their objectivity.

Now that we have a clearer idea of what’s needed, we can broach the question of how to get there. Different ethical theorists (e.g., consequentialists, deontologists, virtue ethicists, etc.) have given very different answers to this question. My own proposal is deliberately minimalistic. I’m a bit of a metaphysical ascetic—a naturalist, reductionist, and hard determinist—and so I need a moral theory that doesn’t commit me to more than these views can countenance. Of course, if there proves to be more in heaven and earth than my current philosophy allows, there may be more to objective morality than what I offer below. If not, however, I think my minimal account is actually a pretty satisfying and practicable consolation prize.

Non-moral goodness

I follow the philosopher Peter Railton in providing first an account of non-moral goodness to serve as a sort of conceptual stepping stone to an account of moral goodness. Suppose I am given a choice between eating a slice of apple pie and a nutritious salad. I desire to eat the apple pie, but it seems I really ought to desire to eat the salad; it is, after all, healthier for me. We might say that while eating the apple pie will provide some temporary pleasure, eating the salad is in my better long-term interest (Railton would say that the apple pie constitutes a subjective interest of mine, while the salad constitutes an objective interest).

Now, what, if anything, makes these sorts of judgments—judgments about what’s really best for me, independent of my transient desires—true, or at least justifiable? I submit that it’s the existence of a more general desire—say, a desire to be in good health—that is in several important respects superordinate in my cognitive ecology to my desire for the apple pie. These sorts of superordinate desires, unlike transient desires, tend not to be exhaustible and tend to have as their objects not momentary events or achievements but stable states of the world (you don’t just acquire good health; you cultivate and maintain it—or fail to do so). They are also, I think, more central to one’s identity, in that they are much harder to change or replace than transient desires. Henceforth, I’ll call this special subset of desires values.

On this account, the proper analysis of the claim that I ought to choose the salad over the apple pie would be something like: “Eating the salad will (partially) satisfy the value of being healthy, while eating the pie will not, and satisfying this value is more important for my overall wellbeing than satisfying the transient desire for apple pie.” The various facts about my values, transient desires, and the conditions of their satisfaction are the truthmakers of any claims about what is good for me. Insofar as these claims are justified, then, my values give me reasons to act accordingly. Failure to heed these reasons would constitute a failure of instrumental rationality.

Moral goodness

Now, again, the above is only an account of non-moral goodness. However, I think an account of moral goodness can be built upon it. In the details of how this is to be done I henceforth part ways with Railton, and those interested in his particular account of moral goodness should read his paper, “Moral Realism.”  One way you might think to found an objective moral system on the above account would be to posit a set of values that are universal, i.e., held by everyone. While I find it plausible that there are such values, I think this is the wrong approach. People might have some values in common, but their particular circumstances may dictate distinct conditions on the satisfaction of those values, and these particular satisfaction conditions may give rise to reasons to act in different, conflicting ways. That is to say, shared values alone do not guarantee moral agreement as to what ought to be done, even when everyone is ideally informed and acting perfectly rationally (that is, in accordance with their most salient reasons).

However, not all value satisfaction conditions are context- and situation-dependent. To satisfy any value, one must be able to act effectively in the world. And to act effectively in the world with any sort of consistency requires certain things: namely, (1) freedom from unnecessary restrictions external to the body (that is to say, it requires liberty); (2) freedom from unnecessary restrictions internal to the body (that is, healthfulness); and (3) knowledge of how the relevant parts of the world work. These three things, I submit, are genuinely objective moral goods. They are made moral (and not merely personal) by the fact that every valuer—every person—has a stake in them, and they are made objective by the fact that these stakes obtain regardless of the specific values held. People have reasons to act toward the realization of these goods in virtue of their values, but these reasons are independent of the particularities of those values (since all values require these goods for their consistent satisfaction). I therefore can’t escape being bound by these reasons simply by appealing to some other value (much less any transient desire!).

Note that while these goods may be explicitly valued by people (as healthfulness was in our example of non-moral goodness), they needn’t be in order for valuers to have reasons to realize them (the salad, recall, wasn’t explicitly valued by me, but I nevertheless had a reason to eat it).

Suppressing details and formal pieties, we can capture the gist of the above in the form of a simple argument (there is a much more nuanced argument here, but this answer is long enough as it is):

P1. All valuers have, in virtue of their values, reasons to act in ways that facilitate the satisfaction of those values.

P2. Some goods are instrumentally necessary for the satisfaction of any value whatsoever.

Therefore,

C. All valuers have, in virtue of their values, reasons to act toward the realization of such goods.

But doesn’t this only suggest that I should work toward my own liberty, my own healthfulness, and my own knowledge, and likewise for everyone else? Aren’t we faced with essentially the same problem that frustrated the value universalist?

I don’t think so. I rely constantly on knowledge acquired by others (scientists, philosophers, mechanics, journalists, friends), on liberty protected by others (judges, lawyers, police officers, good Samaritans, even—ugh—legislators), and on healthcare and health-related goods and info provided by others (doctors, pharmacists, nutritionists, food providers, employers, family members). These folks could not provide these resources without sufficient knowledge, liberty, and health of their own, and they depend for their share of these resources on the activities of others, and so on, and so on. I thus have a stake in their access to these goods as well as mine—and likewise for each of them.

The convergence point, if you will, for all these overlapping and complementary reasons would, I think, be something like the following:

All should work toward the realization and maintenance of a stable society that affords and assures optimally equal access to liberty, health, and knowledge.

Pursuant to the OP’s question, this is my candidate for an “objective moral standard.”

Admittedly, the above is all quite broad. How does this moral system counsel with respect to some particular contemplated action? On this account, for me to have a moral obligation to do some act, x, the following conditions must be met:

1. I have a reason to do x (because x facilitates the satisfaction of some value I hold).
2. All other valuers have a reason to want me to do x (per the analysis just given). Note: this doesn’t require that all valuers actually want me to do x, but only that it would be rational for them to want this, since my doing x would plausibly facilitate the satisfaction of their own values.

A claim that I have a moral obligation to x, then, is simply the claim that these two conditions are satisfied with respect to the x in question. Note that here, as in our analysis of claims about non-moral goods, the truthmakers are simply facts about the values people hold and the material conditions of their satisfaction. Claims about what we morally ought to do are no more mysterious or metaphysically loaded than claims about what we non-morally ought to do; the former are, in fact, a proper subset of the latter.

This, at any rate, is one possible (I would argue plausible) path to an objective moral standard. Others may be possible as well, but I offer the above because it is extraordinarily ontologically innocent, requiring of us no commitment to strange sui generis moral properties. One additional perk is that it provides a sound foundation for a novel, and more practicable, kind of cosmopolitanism—one that doesn’t depend upon shared values but only on the common goods necessary for their satisfaction. Let a million values bloom; we can still defensibly hold each other morally accountable.

 
 
burt
 
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burt
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18 October 2017 09:24
 

You might find Jacob Bronowski’s book Science and Human Values a useful read.

 
GAD
 
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18 October 2017 23:29
 

The answer: No.

 
 
Ain Sophistry
 
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19 October 2017 00:21
 

Try harder.

 
 
GAD
 
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19 October 2017 09:13
 

Thousands of years of trying harder hasn’t produced anything. Accept moral relativism and move on.

 
 
Ain Sophistry
 
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19 October 2017 13:01
 

And for how many of those years were we needlessly conflating objectivity with necessity/the Absolute? We don’t need the latter for the former; we never have. The belief that we do is a noxious holdover from our godbothering past.

I’m happy to discuss particular objections to the view outlined above, but you’ll pardon me if I’m not impressed by vague handwaving.

 
 
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19 October 2017 17:52
 
Ain Sophistry - 19 October 2017 01:01 PM

And for how many of those years were we needlessly conflating objectivity with necessity/the Absolute? We don’t need the latter for the former; we never have. The belief that we do is a noxious holdover from our godbothering past.

I’m happy to discuss particular objections to the view outlined above, but you’ll pardon me if I’m not impressed by vague handwaving.

Well that’s just rude, I pride myself on my vague handwaving, especially when it comes pointless philosophical debates on whose opinion of morally is the right opinion. Mine is of course and my hands are in the air like I just don’t care.

 
 
Antisocialdarwinist
 
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19 October 2017 20:49
 

Moral absolutism is the view that a particular action is always right or always wrong regardless of circumstances. If killing another person is absolutely wrong, then it’s just as wrong to kill someone in self defense as it is to kill them for personal gain.

You can play around with semantics all you like, but if your end goal is to defend Harris’s thesis in TML—that science can determine human values—then you’ll have to show some material evidence of rightness or wrongness or goodness or badness. And if the only evidence you have is belief, then that’s not science. It’s dogma.

 
 
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19 October 2017 23:31
 
Ain Sophistry - 19 October 2017 01:01 PM

And for how many of those years were we needlessly conflating objectivity with necessity/the Absolute? We don’t need the latter for the former; we never have. The belief that we do is a noxious holdover from our godbothering past.

I’m happy to discuss particular objections to the view outlined above, but you’ll pardon me if I’m not impressed by vague handwaving.

Sorry, I failed mime school.

 
Ain Sophistry
 
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20 October 2017 15:31
 

I’m not interested in defending TML’s particular thesis. My own view is distinct and was developed before Harris published his book.

You’re right that any moral theory worth its salt needs a plausible account of moral properties (this was Mackie’s great challenge to non-naturalist strains of moral realism). I had this foremost in mind when working out my account, and it makes no more metaphysical demands than our everyday talk about goodness in the relativistic sense (e.g., “it would be good for me to get out and go for a jog.”). Broadly speaking, goodness is a relational property a possible state of the world bears to some value in virtue of the satisfaction conditions of that value. Because I value being in good health, a state of the world that promotes the satisfaction of this value is, ceteris paribus, good for me, and if I fail to recognize it as such despite having the relevant information, then there’s a clear and straightforward sense in which I’d be thinking and acting irrationally.

Now, moral goodness, on my account, is not a wholly different kind of goodness; it is simply non-moral goodness subject to some additional constraints. It is a relational property a state of the world bears to all values in virtue of a set of satisfaction conditions shared by all values (those conditions being, again, liberty, healthfulness, and knowledge). A state of the world is morally good just in case (and just to the extent that) it is rational for all valuers to desire that state, and it is rational for all valuers to desire that state just in case it facilitates the realization of a necessary condition on value satisfaction. Moral goodness is a complex property, certainly, but it’s no more mysterious or non-physical, on my account, than non-moral goodness, so if you want to throw it out, you’d best be prepared, on pain of inconsistency, to take an error-theoretic or noncognitivist stance toward hypothetical oughts (e.g., “If you want to get to the party on time, you should leave by 8:30.”) as well.

 
 
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20 October 2017 17:29
 
Ain Sophistry - 20 October 2017 03:31 PM

I’m not interested in defending TML’s particular thesis. My own view is distinct and was developed before Harris published his book.

You’re right that any moral theory worth its salt needs a plausible account of moral properties (this was Mackie’s great challenge to non-naturalist strains of moral realism). I had this foremost in mind when working out my account, and it makes no more metaphysical demands than our everyday talk about goodness in the relativistic sense (e.g., “it would be good for me to get out and go for a jog.”). Broadly speaking, goodness is a relational property a possible state of the world bears to some value in virtue of the satisfaction conditions of that value. Because I value being in good health, a state of the world that promotes the satisfaction of this value is, ceteris paribus, good for me, and if I fail to recognize it as such despite having the relevant information, then there’s a clear and straightforward sense in which I’d be thinking and acting irrationally.

Now, moral goodness, on my account, is not a wholly different kind of goodness; it is simply non-moral goodness subject to some additional constraints. It is a relational property a state of the world bears to all values in virtue of a set of satisfaction conditions shared by all values (those conditions being, again, liberty, healthfulness, and knowledge). A state of the world is morally good just in case (and just to the extent that) it is rational for all valuers to desire that state, and it is rational for all valuers to desire that state just in case it facilitates the realization of a necessary condition on value satisfaction. Moral goodness is a complex property, certainly, but it’s no more mysterious or non-physical, on my account, than non-moral goodness, so if you want to throw it out, you’d best be prepared, on pain of inconsistency, to take an error-theoretic or noncognitivist stance toward hypothetical oughts (e.g., “If you want to get to the party on time, you should leave by 8:30.”) as well.

I will still claim that it is not possible to give a linguistic set of rules for moral behavior, but it is possible for a person to learn to recognize what is the moral imperative in any given situation.

 
Ain Sophistry
 
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20 October 2017 18:17
 
burt - 20 October 2017 05:29 PM

I will still claim that it is not possible to give a linguistic set of rules for moral behavior, but it is possible for a person to learn to recognize what is the moral imperative in any given situation.

If you mean to express skepticism of deontology, then I agree. If you mean something else, then I’m not sure I fully understand. If one could do the latter, why could they not do the former? Are you thinking along a Pat Churchland/William Casebeer direction?

 
 
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20 October 2017 19:11
 
Ain Sophistry - 20 October 2017 06:17 PM
burt - 20 October 2017 05:29 PM

I will still claim that it is not possible to give a linguistic set of rules for moral behavior, but it is possible for a person to learn to recognize what is the moral imperative in any given situation.

If you mean to express skepticism of deontology, then I agree. If you mean something else, then I’m not sure I fully understand. If one could do the latter, why could they not do the former? Are you thinking along a Pat Churchland/William Casebeer direction?

No, this isn’t something I have any expertise on, more going with my reading of Platonic dialogues that end up with conclusion that “we haven’t found it.” and the idea that objective virtue exists but can’t be taught. For me, what that points to is the idea that the one objective moral obligation that can be taken as universal is that it’s a duty for individuals to attempt to develop their awareness and understanding to the point of being able to recognize moral behavior situationally.

 
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21 October 2017 08:26
 
Ain Sophistry - 20 October 2017 03:31 PM

I’m not interested in defending TML’s particular thesis. My own view is distinct and was developed before Harris published his book.

Fair enough. Then let me back up and ask a question to better understand what you mean by “objective.” Are there things which are objective—according to your definition—that cannot be determined by “science?” Where by “science” I mean a process that separates bias, belief, preference, etc. from our understanding of reality.

For example, according to my understanding of “objective,” the boiling point of water is objective. Science can therefore determine the boiling point of water.
Santa Claus’s blood pressure, on the other hand, is not objective (again, according to my understanding of what it means for something to be objective). Therefore, science cannot determine Santa Claus’s blood pressure. The set of all things which are objective is equal to the set of all things that can be determined by science.

Ain Sophistry - 20 October 2017 03:31 PM

Moral goodness is a complex property, certainly, but it’s no more mysterious or non-physical, on my account, than non-moral goodness, so if you want to throw it out, you’d best be prepared, on pain of inconsistency, to take an error-theoretic or noncognitivist stance toward hypothetical oughts (e.g., “If you want to get to the party on time, you should leave by 8:30.”) as well.

I’m not suggesting we should throw out moral goodness, I’m suggesting that objective moral goodness doesn’t exist. Nor does objective non-moral goodness. The amount of time it will take to get to the party is objective; whether getting to the party on time is (non-morally) “good” is a matter of preference, therefore not objective.

“If you believe that people should be stoned to death for adultery, you should stone adulterers.” The outcome of stoning someone to death is objective; whether stoning adulterers to death is (morally) “good” is a matter of belief, therefore not objective.

But again, this is according to my understanding of the word, “objective,” not necessarily yours.

 
 
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21 October 2017 21:11
 
Ain Sophistry - 17 October 2017 09:39 PM

One afternoon a while ago I was bored and decided to answer one of the many Quora.com questions on objective morality–namely, on how such a thing could be possible. This proved a useful exercise in distilling my moral theory down to a fairly succinct, fairly outsider-friendly sketch, and I thought it might be helpful if I reproduced my answer here. There’s a lot more unpacking that needs to be done, and a longer treatment is in the wings, but in the meantime this ought to give you a rough idea of where I’m coming from, metaethically and ethically speaking.

Dude, you have very large napkins.  I’ll just nibble and try not to drool.

The question: Is there an objective moral standard?

The closest we might come to something objective or “absolute” is genes.  Monkeys nurture their young, rats display tribal behavior.  Some of this is wired in, thank God.

If not, what are we doing when we think and talk about morality?

We might think if we were stranded on an island with little hope of discovery but it would probably be about coconuts.

Talking normally implies two or more people, the domain of intersubjectivity, and this throws the wrench into objectivity which, on my napkin, is third-person perspective, what is there regardless of who is around drooling.

We talk because we are social animals with this amazing thing called language.  It lets us tell stories and it does not care whether our stories are true or fictional.  No other animal does this.  Monkeys can say “Look out, a leopard!” and everyone runs into the tree or “Look out, a hawk!” and everyone looks up but only we can say “God loves you, he has a purpose for you, and he wants you to be a Marine.”

I don’t know if that’s what God actually says, it is a fictional thought.

Regards,
Dave.

 
 
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21 October 2017 23:51
 
Antisocialdarwinist - 21 October 2017 08:26 AM

Fair enough. Then let me back up and ask a question to better understand what you mean by “objective.” Are there things which are objective—according to your definition—that cannot be determined by “science?” Where by “science” I mean a process that separates bias, belief, preference, etc. from our understanding of reality.

For example, according to my understanding of “objective,” the boiling point of water is objective. Science can therefore determine the boiling point of water.
Santa Claus’s blood pressure, on the other hand, is not objective (again, according to my understanding of what it means for something to be objective). Therefore, science cannot determine Santa Claus’s blood pressure. The set of all things which are objective is equal to the set of all things that can be determined by science.

I’m not claiming that science can tell us what we ought to value (nor, for what it’s worth, do I think Sam was claiming this; the subtitle to his book was chosen by the publisher against his wishes). People have values, though; that is an empirically discoverable fact about them. And different possible states of the world will satisfy these values to varying degrees. That is also an empirically discoverable fact. If I have a value that I want to satisfy, but I’m working toward a possible world in which that value will not be satisfied, science can at least in principle reveal this inconsistency. That is to say, it doesn’t tell me what I ought to value; it tells me what I ought to judge and do based on what I already value.

Antisocialdarwinist - 21 October 2017 08:26 AM

I’m not suggesting we should throw out moral goodness, I’m suggesting that objective moral goodness doesn’t exist. Nor does objective non-moral goodness. The amount of time it will take to get to the party is objective; whether getting to the party on time is (non-morally) “good” is a matter of preference, therefore not objective.

“If you believe that people should be stoned to death for adultery, you should stone adulterers.” The outcome of stoning someone to death is objective; whether stoning adulterers to death is (morally) “good” is a matter of belief, therefore not objective.

But again, this is according to my understanding of the word, “objective,” not necessarily yours.

A background component of my view is a Humean theory of reasons, according to which having a reason for acting in a certain way means having some mental state (e.g., a desire or value) that would be satisfied by the consequences of acting in such a way. To fail to act in accordance with one’s reasons is to be irrational.

Now, consider an addict jonesing for his next fix. In virtue of his desire, he has some reason to get high again. But he probably has other reasons not to, in virtue of wanting other things like good health, financial stability, beneficial relationships, etc. And I think it’s accurate to say that he has stronger reasons not to, because those other desires are a lot more foundational than his transient desire for a hit. On balance, then, we can judge—truthfully—that getting high again would not be in his best long-term interest. This, by itself, is not a moral judgment, but neither is it subjective. It concerns only his interest, yes (that is why it’s not a moral judgment), but the facts that ground the judgment (facts about his psychology, about the pathophysiology of addiction, etc.) are at least in principle third-person accessible.

On this analysis, the claim: “Bob really ought to kick his habit” is really just a kind of shorthand for the claim: “Bob values good health, financial stability, and beneficial relationships, and continuing to feed his addiction is behavior that is inconsistent with the satisfaction of these values.” This seems like an unproblematically empirical claim to me.

Do you agree with this much? If not, what are the sticking points?

 
 
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