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

 
burt
 
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burt
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22 October 2017 08:57
 
Ain Sophistry - 21 October 2017 11:51 PM

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.

There may be a question of equifinality here. I desire a particular result but am not sure which line of action most advances me toward that result while in reality there are multiple lines that would work equally well.

That said, I think you would appreciate the first page of G. Spencer-Brown’s book Law of Form. The relevant part:

“We take as given the idea of distinction and the idea of indication, and that we cannot make an indication without drawing a distinction. Therefore we take the form of distinction as the Form.

“Distinction is perfect continence.

“That is to say, a distinction is drawn by arranging a boundary with separate sides so that a point on one side cannot reach the other side without crossing the boundary.  For example, in a plane space a circle draws a distinction.

“Once a distinction is drawn, the spaces, states, or contents on each side of the boundary, being distinct, can be indicated.

“There can be no distinction without motive, and there can be no motive unless contents are seen to differ in value. 

“If a content is of value, a name can be taken to indicate this value.

“Thus the calling of the name can be identified with the value of the content.”

Ain Sophistry - 21 October 2017 11:51 PM

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?

I agree that acting in a way that contradicts ones prime values can be called irrational, but in your example the catch seems to be that saying Bob values good health, financial stability, etc., might not be correct. Perhaps all he values is his next fix, and in that case, for him, it is reasonable that he do whatever it takes to get it. We could say, from third person, that he ought to value these other things, but he is acting to get the only thing that he values.

 

[ Edited: 22 October 2017 09:03 by burt]
 
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22 October 2017 13:49
 
burt - 22 October 2017 08:57 AM

There may be a question of equifinality here. I desire a particular result but am not sure which line of action most advances me toward that result while in reality there are multiple lines that would work equally well.

Yes, it is a consequence of my view that two or more possible worldstates can be equally good (morally or non-morally). This might be counterintuitive to some, but I don’t find it problematic.

I’ve heard of Laws of Form but have yet to get around to reading it. Guess I have a little more incentive now.

burt - 22 October 2017 08:57 AM

I agree that acting in a way that contradicts ones prime values can be called irrational, but in your example the catch seems to be that saying Bob values good health, financial stability, etc., might not be correct. Perhaps all he values is his next fix, and in that case, for him, it is reasonable that he do whatever it takes to get it. We could say, from third person, that he ought to value these other things, but he is acting to get the only thing that he values.

This is possible (though, I think, highly improbable), but that’s only to say that our claims about Bob’s non-moral good are defeasible and corrigible. The big point is that the claims are truth-apt in the first place, that there are facts in the world (e.g., facts about Bob’s psychology) that can confirm or falsify such claims.

Importantly, such a revision in our judgment as to what Bob non-morally ought to do wouldn’t change our judgment as to what he morally ought to do, since moral goodness is not based on the particular content of anyone’s values but only on very general conditions for value satisfaction.

[ Edited: 26 October 2017 21:26 by Ain Sophistry]
 
 
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22 October 2017 14:18
 
Ain Sophistry - 21 October 2017 11:51 PM
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?

My only sticking point is semantic. What you’re describing doesn’t sound like objective morality to me.

I like to use the baseball analogy. Consider using “science” (cameras and software) to determine balls and strikes. That’s analogous to what I think you’re describing. Whether any given pitch falls inside or outside the strike zone can be determined objectively.

Now consider how the strike zone itself is defined. That’s a subjective preference that cannot be determined by “science.” Claiming that something is “objectively wrong” is like claiming that there is an “objective” strike zone that can be determined by science.

We can even back this up an additional step. The purpose of defining the strike zone one way or another is (presumably) to maximize profit. “Science” could help in this respect. Making the strike zone too large would result in fewer hits and more strikeouts, which in turn would probably cause many people to lose interest, thereby causing a decrease in revenue. Making it too small would result in more hits but longer games which would probably also cause many people to lose interest. “Science” could help us determine the optimal strike zone in terms of maximizing profit.

One might be tempted to claim that this scientifically-determined strike zone is objective. But it’s only objective in the sense that it objectively maximizes profit. I think this is analogous to what you’re calling “objective morality.” To me, moral values are not analogous to the strike zone, they’re analogous to the subjective preference for maximizing profit.

So I agree that science can help us determine how best to live our lives in accordance with our moral values. In fact, that seems obvious to me. We use science for that purpose all the time. I just don’t think that’s “objective morality.”

 
 
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22 October 2017 15:56
 
Ain Sophistry - 22 October 2017 01:49 PM
burt - 22 October 2017 08:57 AM

There may be a question of equifinality here. I desire a particular result but am not sure which line of action most advances me toward that result while in reality there are multiple lines that would work equally well.

Yes, it is a consequence of my view that two or more possible worldstates can be equally good (morally or non-morally). This might be counterintuitive to some, but I don’t find it problematic.

I’ve heard of Laws of Form but have yet to get around to reading it. Guess I have a little more incentive now.

burt - 22 October 2017 08:57 AM

I agree that acting in a way that contradicts ones prime values can be called irrational, but in your example the catch seems to be that saying Bob values good health, financial stability, etc., might not be correct. Perhaps all he values is his next fix, and in that case, for him, it is reasonable that he do whatever it takes to get it. We could say, from third person, that he ought to value these other things, but he is acting to get the only thing that he values.

This is possible (though, I think, highly improbable), but that’s only to say that our claims about Bob’s non-moral good are defeasible and corrigible. The big point is that the claims are truth-apt in the first place, that there are facts in the world (e.g., facts about Bob’s psychology) that can confirm or falsify such claims.

Importantly, such a revision in our judgment as to what Bob non-morally ought to do wouldn’t change our judgment as to what he morally ought to do, since moral goodness is not based on the particular content anyone’s values but only on very general conditions for value satisfaction.

Are you saying here that what one morally ought to do is to act in a way consistent with satisfaction of ones values. It seems to me that this shifts the issue to what values one ought, morally, to adopt, which seems circular and suggests that there is some way to identify objective values.

 
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22 October 2017 21:29
 
Antisocialdarwinist - 22 October 2017 02:18 PM

My only sticking point is semantic. What you’re describing doesn’t sound like objective morality to me.

I like to use the baseball analogy. Consider using “science” (cameras and software) to determine balls and strikes. That’s analogous to what I think you’re describing. Whether any given pitch falls inside or outside the strike zone can be determined objectively.

Now consider how the strike zone itself is defined. That’s a subjective preference that cannot be determined by “science.” Claiming that something is “objectively wrong” is like claiming that there is an “objective” strike zone that can be determined by science.

We can even back this up an additional step. The purpose of defining the strike zone one way or another is (presumably) to maximize profit. “Science” could help in this respect. Making the strike zone too large would result in fewer hits and more strikeouts, which in turn would probably cause many people to lose interest, thereby causing a decrease in revenue. Making it too small would result in more hits but longer games which would probably also cause many people to lose interest. “Science” could help us determine the optimal strike zone in terms of maximizing profit.

One might be tempted to claim that this scientifically-determined strike zone is objective. But it’s only objective in the sense that it objectively maximizes profit. I think this is analogous to what you’re calling “objective morality.” To me, moral values are not analogous to the strike zone, they’re analogous to the subjective preference for maximizing profit.

So I agree that science can help us determine how best to live our lives in accordance with our moral values. In fact, that seems obvious to me. We use science for that purpose all the time. I just don’t think that’s “objective morality.”

Ok, I have a clearer idea of where you’re coming from now.

I think this impression that “[w]hat [I’m] describing doesn’t sound like objective morality” is worth interrogating. Remember, there are a number of descriptive claims whose truth is contingent our on existence, but which are nevertheless objective. If we’d never existed, then it wouldn’t be true that we share a common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos who lived about 7-8 million years ago, for example, but the fact that we do share such an ancestor is not a merely subjective fact about us. Similarly, if no valuers existed, then no morality would exist, but valuers do exist, and their existence instantiates a great plethora of further, third-person discoverable facts, some of which are facts about how they ought to behave.

Objectivity is not necessity and subjectivity is not contingency. If we’re imposing a more restrictive notion of objectivity (and eo ipso a more liberal notion of subjectivity) on prescriptive facts than on descriptive facts, then, absent a good argument for doing so, I submit we’re simply trying to rule out objective morality by fiat.

In any case, we don’t need more than the standard notion of objectivity in order to articulate a moral system that does just about everything I think we’d want a moral system to do. It is distinct from both natural and man-made law. It furnishes reasons for action, but doesn’t guarantee people will perform those actions, nor even that they’ll always be motivated to so (prescriptive talk would be redundant if no one could ever do other than what they “ought” to do). Rather, it makes the performance of those actions a matter of instrumental rationality. Someone who fails to do as he ought is not being fully rational, and it’s in virtue of this that the rest of us may judge his actions wrong.

It’s a “skinny theory,” metaphysically speaking, but that’s precisely the point. We don’t need gods or natural teleology or mysterious, non-natural moral properties in order to have a rational, objective basis for judging each other’s behavior. Such a basis is out there, whether we call it “morality” or not, but given all the desiderata it meets, I have no problem using the term.

 
 
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22 October 2017 22:48
 
burt - 22 October 2017 03:56 PM

Are you saying here that what one morally ought to do is to act in a way consistent with satisfaction of ones values. It seems to me that this shifts the issue to what values one ought, morally, to adopt, which seems circular and suggests that there is some way to identify objective values.

Not quite. What one non-morally ought to do is to act in a way consistent with the satisfaction of one’s values. What one morally ought to do is to act in a way consistent with the satisfaction of any value. Again, there are certain satisfaction conditions that will be common to all values. One must be free to act toward their satisfaction (necessitating liberty and healthfulness), and one must have knowledge of the relevant parts of the world within which the acting is to be done. These are goods everyone needs, regardless of the particular values held.

Perhaps this could be fruitfully thought of in a Rawlsian way (this just occurred to me, so take it as a provisional suggestion and not yet my considered opinion). Let every agent ask “What should I want, knowing nothing else about what I want?” The rational answer, I think, would have to be a society that optimizes the three aforementioned goods (liberty, healthfulness, and knowledge), for such a society will give me the best chance at satisfying my values, whatever they may be. So it will be for everyone else as well, and that is, therefore, the society we all have reason to work toward and maintain.

[ Edited: 23 October 2017 03:17 by Ain Sophistry]
 
 
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23 October 2017 08:41
 
Ain Sophistry - 22 October 2017 09:29 PM
Antisocialdarwinist - 22 October 2017 02:18 PM

My only sticking point is semantic. What you’re describing doesn’t sound like objective morality to me.

I like to use the baseball analogy. Consider using “science” (cameras and software) to determine balls and strikes. That’s analogous to what I think you’re describing. Whether any given pitch falls inside or outside the strike zone can be determined objectively.

Now consider how the strike zone itself is defined. That’s a subjective preference that cannot be determined by “science.” Claiming that something is “objectively wrong” is like claiming that there is an “objective” strike zone that can be determined by science.

We can even back this up an additional step. The purpose of defining the strike zone one way or another is (presumably) to maximize profit. “Science” could help in this respect. Making the strike zone too large would result in fewer hits and more strikeouts, which in turn would probably cause many people to lose interest, thereby causing a decrease in revenue. Making it too small would result in more hits but longer games which would probably also cause many people to lose interest. “Science” could help us determine the optimal strike zone in terms of maximizing profit.

One might be tempted to claim that this scientifically-determined strike zone is objective. But it’s only objective in the sense that it objectively maximizes profit. I think this is analogous to what you’re calling “objective morality.” To me, moral values are not analogous to the strike zone, they’re analogous to the subjective preference for maximizing profit.

So I agree that science can help us determine how best to live our lives in accordance with our moral values. In fact, that seems obvious to me. We use science for that purpose all the time. I just don’t think that’s “objective morality.”

Ok, I have a clearer idea of where you’re coming from now.

I think this impression that “[w]hat [I’m] describing doesn’t sound like objective morality” is worth interrogating. Remember, there are a number of descriptive claims whose truth is contingent our on existence, but which are nevertheless objective. If we’d never existed, then it wouldn’t be true that we share a common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos who lived about 7-8 million years ago, for example, but the fact that we do share such an ancestor is not a merely subjective fact about us. Similarly, if no valuers existed, then no morality would exist, but valuers do exist, and their existence instantiates a great plethora of further, third-person discoverable facts, some of which are facts about how they ought to behave.

Objectivity is not necessity and subjectivity is not contingency. If we’re imposing a more restrictive notion of objectivity (and eo ipso a more liberal notion of subjectivity) on prescriptive facts than on descriptive facts, then, absent a good argument for doing so, I submit we’re simply trying to rule out objective morality by fiat.

In any case, we don’t need more than the standard notion of objectivity in order to articulate a moral system that does just about everything I think we’d want a moral system to do. It is distinct from both natural and man-made law. It furnishes reasons for action, but doesn’t guarantee people will perform those actions, nor even that they’ll always be motivated to so (prescriptive talk would be redundant if no one could ever do other than what they “ought” to do). Rather, it makes the performance of those actions a matter of instrumental rationality. Someone who fails to do as he ought is not being fully rational, and it’s in virtue of this that the rest of us may judge his actions wrong.

It’s a “skinny theory,” metaphysically speaking, but that’s precisely the point. We don’t need gods or natural teleology or mysterious, non-natural moral properties in order to have a rational, objective basis for judging each other’s behavior. Such a basis is out there, whether we call it “morality” or not, but given all the desiderata it meets, I have no problem using the term.

I think it’s a mistake to compare morality with the ancestors we share with other primates vis-à-vis the objectivity of morality. From my position, the fact that both are contingent upon our existence is irrelevant. This makes me wonder if maybe we disagree about the meaning of “morality.” It’s also possible that you’re conflating the perception of a thing with the thing itself, which seems to be a common mistake among people with whom I’ve had this discussion.

“Morality,” to me, means a set of beliefs about right and wrong. “Objective morality” implies that the rightness or wrongness of a given behavior is objective, which is to say that its wrongness does not depend on bias, belief, preference, etc.—that wrongness is independent of perception, to put it in the most general term possible. Morality (a set of beliefs about right and wrong) exists in the same way beliefs about anything exist: as combinations of neurons connected by synapses, or however it is our brains are wired. But rightness and wrongness themselves don’t exist. Only beliefs about rightness or wrongness exist. (You can see that “objective morality” is an oxymoron, at least according to how I see morality and objectivity.)

If, on the other hand, you take “objective morality” to mean the existence of beliefs about right and wrong—which is how I’m interpreting your position, or at least the crux of it—then doesn’t the same apply to “objective Santa Claus” or “objective karma?” As long as people believe in Santa Claus or karma, those beliefs exist alongside beliefs about right and wrong. Wouldn’t that make them “objective,” too? And if Santa Claus is objective—that is to say that my belief in Santa Claus exists—then it’s rational for me to put cookies out for him on Christmas Eve.

Where I’m coming from is that the belief in Santa Claus is not the same as Santa Claus himself. And the belief in the rightness of stoning adulterers—for example—is not the same as the rightness of stoning adulterers. Since only the perceptions of Santa and rightness exist, they run afoul of my definition of objective—which, again, I take to mean independent of perception.

The science fiction author Philip K. Dick said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” I agree with him. My position is that if wrongness is objective, then it must exist in reality, so won’t “go away” when you stop believing in it. But as far as I can see, that’s not the case.

 
 
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23 October 2017 09:18
 
Ain Sophistry - 22 October 2017 10:48 PM
burt - 22 October 2017 03:56 PM

Are you saying here that what one morally ought to do is to act in a way consistent with satisfaction of ones values. It seems to me that this shifts the issue to what values one ought, morally, to adopt, which seems circular and suggests that there is some way to identify objective values.

Not quite. What one non-morally ought to do is to act in a way consistent with the satisfaction of one’s values. What one morally ought to do is to act in a way consistent with the satisfaction of any value. Again, there are certain satisfaction conditions that will be common to all values. One must be free to act toward their satisfaction (necessitating liberty and healthfulness), and one must have knowledge of the relevant parts of the world within which the acting is to be done. These are goods everyone needs, regardless of the particular values held.

Perhaps this could be fruitfully thought of in a Rawlsian way (this just occurred to me, so take it as a provisional suggestion and not yet my considered opinion). Let every agent ask “What should I want, knowing nothing else about what I want?” The rational answer, I think, would have to be a society that optimizes the three aforementioned goods (liberty, healthfulness, and knowledge), for such a society will give me the best chance at satisfying my values, whatever they may be. So it will be for everyone else as well, and that is, therefore, the society we all have reason to work toward and maintain.

This is beginning to sound like Bronowski (his question, if I recall correctly, was “what values does science contribute to society, and what values in a society most facilitate the possibility of science”). Not sure that you can include healthfulness since that’s contingent on all sorts of uncontrollable factors. And the rational answer to the “what should I want” question might start off not with a form of society, but with “I should want to be able to want what will be most beneficial for my well being, and following on this a society within which those wants can be most easily realized” or something like that.

 
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23 October 2017 16:46
 
Antisocialdarwinist - 23 October 2017 08:41 AM

I think it’s a mistake to compare morality with the ancestors we share with other primates vis-à-vis the objectivity of morality. From my position, the fact that both are contingent upon our existence is irrelevant. This makes me wonder if maybe we disagree about the meaning of “morality.” It’s also possible that you’re conflating the perception of a thing with the thing itself, which seems to be a common mistake among people with whom I’ve had this discussion.

“Morality,” to me, means a set of beliefs about right and wrong. “Objective morality” implies that the rightness or wrongness of a given behavior is objective, which is to say that its wrongness does not depend on bias, belief, preference, etc.—that wrongness is independent of perception, to put it in the most general term possible. Morality (a set of beliefs about right and wrong) exists in the same way beliefs about anything exist: as combinations of neurons connected by synapses, or however it is our brains are wired. But rightness and wrongness themselves don’t exist. Only beliefs about rightness or wrongness exist. (You can see that “objective morality” is an oxymoron, at least according to how I see morality and objectivity.)

If, on the other hand, you take “objective morality” to mean the existence of beliefs about right and wrong—which is how I’m interpreting your position, or at least the crux of it—then doesn’t the same apply to “objective Santa Claus” or “objective karma?” As long as people believe in Santa Claus or karma, those beliefs exist alongside beliefs about right and wrong. Wouldn’t that make them “objective,” too? And if Santa Claus is objective—that is to say that my belief in Santa Claus exists—then it’s rational for me to put cookies out for him on Christmas Eve.

Where I’m coming from is that the belief in Santa Claus is not the same as Santa Claus himself. And the belief in the rightness of stoning adulterers—for example—is not the same as the rightness of stoning adulterers. Since only the perceptions of Santa and rightness exist, they run afoul of my definition of objective—which, again, I take to mean independent of perception.

The science fiction author Philip K. Dick said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” I agree with him. My position is that if wrongness is objective, then it must exist in reality, so won’t “go away” when you stop believing in it. But as far as I can see, that’s not the case.

It seems you still don’t understand what I’m arguing for. Objective morality is not about “the existence of beliefs about right and wrong.” It is about the satisfaction conditions for our values. These conditions are all grounded in facts about the real world that are independent of any beliefs, preferences, desires, and yes, even values. The whole point is that some of these satisfaction conditions are so general (because our very ability to act effectively in the world depends on them) that everyone has a reason to work toward them, independently of any of their particular mental states. Yes, one can have beliefs about right and wrong—but these beliefs can be true or false, and what makes them true are false are the independent facts about these general value satisfaction conditions. Again, these facts are out there whether they’re believed in or not.

 
 
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23 October 2017 18:36
 
burt - 23 October 2017 09:18 AM

This is beginning to sound like Bronowski (his question, if I recall correctly, was “what values does science contribute to society, and what values in a society most facilitate the possibility of science”). Not sure that you can include healthfulness since that’s contingent on all sorts of uncontrollable factors. And the rational answer to the “what should I want” question might start off not with a form of society, but with “I should want to be able to want what will be most beneficial for my well being, and following on this a society within which those wants can be most easily realized” or something like that.

I don’t think healthfulness is unique among the three in being “contingent on all sorts of uncontrollable factors.” It’s still desirable. Again, I’m conceptualizing it as a sort of counterpart to liberty, where liberty means freedom from unnecessary external constraints and healthfulness means freedom from unnecessary internal constraints. We may never achieve perfect health, of course, just as we may never achieve perfect liberty or perfect knowledge, but each little improvement means better odds for more people to satisfy a wider range of values.

Yes, one could answer the Rawlsian question more abstractly.

Q: “What should I want knowing nothing else about what I want?”
A: “I should want to be able to satisfy whatever my wants turn out to be. Ergo, I should want to be able to act freely and intelligently in the world. Ergo, I should want liberty, healthfulness, and knowledge. Ergo, I should want a society that optimizes these goods.”

I just compressed these intermediate inferential steps in service of presenting a goal that’s at least a little bit concrete.

It’s interesting that you use the term “wellbeing.” Some philosophers (e.g., Louise Antony and Valerie Tiberius) explicitly equate wellbeing with value satisfaction. I know Sam conceives of it more as something like “subjectively good conscious experience,” though, so I tend to avoid the term in these circles so as not to cause confusion.

[ Edited: 26 October 2017 21:27 by Ain Sophistry]
 
 
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23 October 2017 19:46
 
Ain Sophistry - 23 October 2017 06:36 PM
burt - 23 October 2017 09:18 AM

This is beginning to sound like Bronowski (his question, if I recall correctly, was “what values does science contribute to society, and what values in a society most facilitate the possibility of science”). Not sure that you can include healthfulness since that’s contingent on all sorts of uncontrollable factors. And the rational answer to the “what should I want” question might start off not with a form of society, but with “I should want to be able to want what will be most beneficial for my well being, and following on this a society within which those wants can be most easily realized” or something like that.

I don’t think healthfulness is unique among the three in being “contingent on all sorts of uncontrollable factors.” It’s still desirable. Again, I’m conceptualizing as a sort of counterpart to liberty, where liberty means freedom from unnecessary external constraints and healthfulness means freedom from unnecessary internal constraints. We may never achieve perfect health, of course, just as we may never achieve perfect liberty or perfect knowledge, but each little improvement means better odds for more people to satisfy a wider range of values.

Yes, one could answer the Rawlsian question more abstractly.

Q: “What should I want knowing nothing else about what I want?”
A: “I should want to be able to satisfy whatever my wants turn out to be. Ergo, I should want to be able to act freely and intelligently in the world. Ergo, I should want liberty, healthfulness, and knowledge. Ergo, I should want a society that optimizes these goods.”

I just compressed these intermediate inferential steps in service of presenting a goal that’s at least a little bit concrete.

It’s interesting that you use the term “wellbeing.” Some philosophers (e.g., Louise Antony and Valerie Tiberius) explicitly equate wellbeing with value satisfaction. I know Sam conceives of it more as something like “subjectively good conscious experience,” though, so I tend to avoid the term in these circles so as not to cause confusion.

If you take healthiness in the sense of “given my condition” (e.g., if you’re Stephen Hawking that means something different than if you’re Michael Phelps) it works. I smiled to myself using the term “wellbeing,” knew it was equivocal.

One thing that gets involved here, I think, is the question of obligation. If I have a desire to manifest certain valued results in my life I think that means that there is an implied obligation to develop whatever capacities are required to do so, which implies an obligation to gain self-knowledge at least to the extent of understanding the source of the desire, whether it actually is to be valued, and what capacities need to be developed to realize it.

 
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23 October 2017 21:30
 
Ain Sophistry - 23 October 2017 04:46 PM
Antisocialdarwinist - 23 October 2017 08:41 AM

I think it’s a mistake to compare morality with the ancestors we share with other primates vis-à-vis the objectivity of morality. From my position, the fact that both are contingent upon our existence is irrelevant. This makes me wonder if maybe we disagree about the meaning of “morality.” It’s also possible that you’re conflating the perception of a thing with the thing itself, which seems to be a common mistake among people with whom I’ve had this discussion.

“Morality,” to me, means a set of beliefs about right and wrong. “Objective morality” implies that the rightness or wrongness of a given behavior is objective, which is to say that its wrongness does not depend on bias, belief, preference, etc.—that wrongness is independent of perception, to put it in the most general term possible. Morality (a set of beliefs about right and wrong) exists in the same way beliefs about anything exist: as combinations of neurons connected by synapses, or however it is our brains are wired. But rightness and wrongness themselves don’t exist. Only beliefs about rightness or wrongness exist. (You can see that “objective morality” is an oxymoron, at least according to how I see morality and objectivity.)

If, on the other hand, you take “objective morality” to mean the existence of beliefs about right and wrong—which is how I’m interpreting your position, or at least the crux of it—then doesn’t the same apply to “objective Santa Claus” or “objective karma?” As long as people believe in Santa Claus or karma, those beliefs exist alongside beliefs about right and wrong. Wouldn’t that make them “objective,” too? And if Santa Claus is objective—that is to say that my belief in Santa Claus exists—then it’s rational for me to put cookies out for him on Christmas Eve.

Where I’m coming from is that the belief in Santa Claus is not the same as Santa Claus himself. And the belief in the rightness of stoning adulterers—for example—is not the same as the rightness of stoning adulterers. Since only the perceptions of Santa and rightness exist, they run afoul of my definition of objective—which, again, I take to mean independent of perception.

The science fiction author Philip K. Dick said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” I agree with him. My position is that if wrongness is objective, then it must exist in reality, so won’t “go away” when you stop believing in it. But as far as I can see, that’s not the case.

It seems you still don’t understand what I’m arguing for. Objective morality is not about “the existence of beliefs about right and wrong.” It is about the satisfaction conditions for our values. These conditions are all grounded in facts about the real world that are independent of any beliefs, preferences, desires, and yes, even values. The whole point is that some of these satisfaction conditions are so general (because our very ability to act effectively in the world depends on them) that everyone has a reason to work toward them, independently of any of their particular mental states. Yes, one can have beliefs about right and wrong—but these beliefs can be true or false, and what makes them true are false are the independent facts about these general value satisfaction conditions. Again, these facts are out there whether they’re believed in or not.

Well, we agree on one thing: I still don’t understand what you’re arguing for.

It sounds to me like all you’re saying is that if I hold the value that all people have equal rights, then slavery is objectively wrong? Because the absence of slavery is what you’re calling a “satisfaction condition?” In other words, “objective morality” has nothing to do with underlying values, but speaks only to behavior that leads to conditions that either do or don’t satisfy the underlying value, whatever it may be?

Suppose I hold the value that Whites are the Master Race. Is exterminating or enslaving non-Whites then objectively right? Because it leads to a condition that satisfies my underlying value?

 
 
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24 October 2017 20:12
 
Antisocialdarwinist - 23 October 2017 09:30 PM

Well, we agree on one thing: I still don’t understand what you’re arguing for.

It sounds to me like all you’re saying is that if I hold the value that all people have equal rights, then slavery is objectively wrong? Because the absence of slavery is what you’re calling a “satisfaction condition?” In other words, “objective morality” has nothing to do with underlying values, but speaks only to behavior that leads to conditions that either do or don’t satisfy the underlying value, whatever it may be?

Suppose I hold the value that Whites are the Master Race. Is exterminating or enslaving non-Whites then objectively right? Because it leads to a condition that satisfies my underlying value?

The only value satisfaction conditions that qualify for moral status are those that are so general they apply to all values. The misunderstanding may be partly my fault; in an early response, I had narrowed my focus to non-moral goodness to see if you would at least accept my account of that. I’ve since re-broadened the scope, but maybe I didn’t make that sufficiently clear. To clarify, then:

Every value furnishes (Humean) reasons for realizing its satisfaction conditions.

Some of these satisfaction conditions are subject to change if the focal value is swapped out for another one. Other such conditions would not change with any change in value.

The reasons for realizing any changeable value satisfaction conditions cannot be moral reasons. Insofar as the goodness of these conditions is only relative to the particular value held, that goodness is merely subjective.

The reasons for realizing any non-changeable value satisfaction conditions, however, are moral. Because these conditions are good irrespective of the particular value(s) held, their goodness is objective.

Because “exterminating or enslaving non-Whites” is a particular, rather than general, satisfaction condition, it cannot be a moral good. Further, because it operates against the general promotion of liberty, healthfulness, and knowledge (which are general value satisfaction conditions), it is not only non-moral but immoral.

 
 
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25 October 2017 19:32
 
Ain Sophistry - 24 October 2017 08:12 PM
Antisocialdarwinist - 23 October 2017 09:30 PM

Well, we agree on one thing: I still don’t understand what you’re arguing for.

It sounds to me like all you’re saying is that if I hold the value that all people have equal rights, then slavery is objectively wrong? Because the absence of slavery is what you’re calling a “satisfaction condition?” In other words, “objective morality” has nothing to do with underlying values, but speaks only to behavior that leads to conditions that either do or don’t satisfy the underlying value, whatever it may be?

Suppose I hold the value that Whites are the Master Race. Is exterminating or enslaving non-Whites then objectively right? Because it leads to a condition that satisfies my underlying value?

The only value satisfaction conditions that qualify for moral status are those that are so general they apply to all values. The misunderstanding may be partly my fault; in an early response, I had narrowed my focus to non-moral goodness to see if you would at least accept my account of that. I’ve since re-broadened the scope, but maybe I didn’t make that sufficiently clear. To clarify, then:

Every value furnishes (Humean) reasons for realizing its satisfaction conditions.

Some of these satisfaction conditions are subject to change if the focal value is swapped out for another one. Other such conditions would not change with any change in value.

The reasons for realizing any changeable value satisfaction conditions cannot be moral reasons. Insofar as the goodness of these conditions is only relative to the particular value held, that goodness is merely subjective.

The reasons for realizing any non-changeable value satisfaction conditions, however, are moral. Because these conditions are good irrespective of the particular value(s) held, their goodness is objective.

Because “exterminating or enslaving non-Whites” is a particular, rather than general, satisfaction condition, it cannot be a moral good. Further, because it operates against the general promotion of liberty, healthfulness, and knowledge (which are general value satisfaction conditions), it is not only non-moral but immoral.

You claim that “The only value satisfaction conditions that qualify for moral status are those that are so general they apply to all values.” How can you claim that “the general promotion of liberty” applies to the value, “Whites are the master race?”

It sounds to me like what you’re claiming is analogous to the claim that all swans are white, and now I’m showing you a black swan. What am I missing?

 
 
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26 October 2017 21:35
 
Antisocialdarwinist - 25 October 2017 07:32 PM

You claim that “The only value satisfaction conditions that qualify for moral status are those that are so general they apply to all values.” How can you claim that “the general promotion of liberty” applies to the value, “Whites are the master race?”

It sounds to me like what you’re claiming is analogous to the claim that all swans are white, and now I’m showing you a black swan. What am I missing?

1. “Whites are the master race” is a belief, not a value.

2. I assume you mean something like a desire that whites dominate other races. This meets some criteria for valuehood, but not others (white supremacy isn’t an end in itself; those who want it want it because they ultimately want other things). At any rate, it wouldn’t be at the top of any desire/value hierarchy, and so it would not be the source of the strongest reasons for action to which one is beholden.

3. I addressed the broader question of why I shouldn’t only care about my (or my tribe’s) value satisfaction conditions in the OP (in fact, the answers to many of the questions you’ve raised so far could have been gleaned from the OP). The relevant bit was:

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.

There are more arguments to make here, but they take us out of the realm of a Theory of Good and into the realm of a Theory of Right. I’m working on the latter, but that’s probably going to be a separate post.

4. You may find helpful my suggestion to burt to think about this within a Rawlsian framework:

Let every agent ask “What should I want, knowing nothing else about what I want?” The rational answer, I think, would have to be a society that optimizes the three aforementioned goods (liberty, healthfulness, and knowledge), for such a society will give me the best chance at satisfying my values, whatever they may be. So it will be for everyone else as well, and that is, therefore, the society we all have reason to work toward and maintain.

 
 
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