Phil & Mari discuss morality…or the absence thereof.
I’m a ‘moral realist’ but not a theist. While it’s traditionally been believed (in western thought) that morality comes from the Bible (or otherwise from God) I think it’s wrong (whatever that means) to throw out one with the other. I believe the opposite, that ethics (like most things) should be based on reason, and that it’s possible – and a duty of any rational being – to reason our way to and apply ethical considerations to life. I see this as being very different to responding to situations emotionally OR blindly following a moral law thousands of years old purported to come from God. It’s hard to justify the existence of ethics though. Do you think that society has made any moral progress (if there is such a thing) in the last few centuries, or say since the times of slavery? If yes, then surely you need to accept some form of ethics / morality, and if so, what do you base it on?
I don’t see any evidence for a domain of objective morality. There are emotions. Slavery makes me angry, and I will do my best to fight it, but at the foundation you’ll find “only” my emotions.
(Emotions are the only source of meaning in the universe.)
Why does slavery make you angry? Chances are it wouldn’t have made your great great…. great grandfather angry. Why is there (presumably) a difference between your emotional reaction and his?
Culture affects emotions. Having been brought up in a more egalitarian culture, slavery makes me angry. I emotionally desire equality and am angry when I see the opposite. We might have had a more favorable view of slavery if we had been on the master side of the equation a few hundred years ago. It is difficult for us to imagine who we would have been within that cultural context. We all emotionally want to think we would have felt then as we do today. That is not likely. Humans emotions are, in part, a reflection of the social context.
I still see no evidence for objective morality. Social notions of “morality” simply reflect the degree of emotional commonality among humans who are emotionally similar to the degree that emotions are constrained by biology and social influences.
Though there are many that took greater pleasure in the rewards of slavery, there were others that took great pain both directly and in the witness of the suffering involved. These reactions are still largely emotionally driven.
Humans have developed sympathy I believe as a countermeasure for the potential cruelties that intellectual capacity entails. Sympathy is manifested in emotional response.
I agree that our emotions (and what I would call our ethical beliefs) are for the most part a reflection of social context, particularly that which we’re exposed to though childhood to early adulthood. But I also think that our emotional reactions can be (though often aren’t) reached and justified through reason. Would it be possible for someone to discuss with you (on purely rational grounds – no shocking images or other emotional appeals) an issue which made them but not you angry (it could be child slave labour, shark finning, factory farming or female circumcision, or any issue at all you don’t know or don’t feel strongly about) and by the end of it have you react the same way (emotionally) to how they do?
Also, do you believe that a real world exists outside of our experiences/emotions?
I do believe that an objective world exists apart from our emotions, but no subjective meaning can exist without emotions.
Reason can be used to modify our emotions, and reason is also used to cobble together frameworks of rules and laws that roughly map to conventional emotions. This 1) serves to generally protect the common emotional interests of a community, and 2) results in the sense that our emotions have been given legitimacy by some higher authority. But there is no other foundation for these rules and laws other than emotions.
Perhaps people can modify my emotions, but that fact speak nothing to the possible existence of an objective morality, does it?
“Reason can be used to modify our emotions, and reason is also used to cobble together frameworks of rules and laws that roughly map to conventional emotions”.
This reasoning process is almost what I define as the study of ethics, except for the “conventional” part. How do you account for the minority of people who have, throughout history, reasoned (or otherwise reached) “emotional” reactions to practises which the majority have had no emotional objection to, such as slavery a few hundred years ago, or more recently factory farming or shark finning? What makes their emotional reactions different?
What evidence do you have that an objective world exists beyond your senses/emotions? I accept that it’s difficult to prove we’re not all “spirits controlled by an evil demon” (or the more modern “brain in a vat”), and even more difficult to prove that laws of nature exist in the world (if it exists at all), but it’s a very useful – and necessary – assumption to make, and the benefits to society of rational (scientific) inquiry into these “laws” have been tremendous.
I think the same goes for ethics. It may be difficult (or impossible) to prove that an objective morality exists, but it’s useful to assume that it does, and the process of rational inquiry into what’s right and wrong I think has huge benefits for society, as the “moral progress” (as I would call it) over the last few centuries has resulted in better lives for most of the world’s population, just as the scientific progress has.
I would say neither the scientific nor moral conclusions are given any legitimacy by a higher authority as a result of the rational inquiry which reached them but the opposite: it wasn’t until people stopped looking to a higher authority for moral and scientific answers and instead turned to rational inquiry, wihich occurred (for the western world) during the renaissance, that significant scientific and moral progress was made.
Reason can be used to fabricate ethics, but there is no foundation other than emotions. There is the logically illegal assumption that there is something higher than emotions when there is not.
To suggest that we need to believe in the falsehood that there is a non-emotional foundation for ethics is not a very wise direction as demonstrated by the many fictions that have been presumably employed for the benefit of humanity that turned out to be actually anti-humanity.
Simply take the notion that we could treat blacks poorly since they had no souls. Or that animals could be treated cruelly since they were automata that felt no actual pain.
I therefore strongly disagree that humans need a moral fiction to behave. It is akin to telling children about Santa or the boogieman to make them behave. If you keep them immature enough to believe one fiction, they will never develop the rationality to avoid accepting any other fiction. Humanity must make the leap from our superstitious adolescence to an adult rational view of reality. If we don’t, we will languish in self-destructive myths such as tribalism, nationalism, and experience the strife between various “moral” groups, all claiming it is they who have the “correct” moral code.
That would be foolish. It is far better to acknowledge that our emotions are all there is beneath the facade of ethical notions, and that, instead of imposing our own pet moral code, we need to attempt to find emotional compromise. This will be difficult, but it will be honest.
There is no parallel between objective reality and “moral” reality as it seems you suggested. The material theories of those engaged in scientific inquiry around the world converge, while the moral theories of those engaged in ethical inquiry around the world diverge into fragmented, yet dogmatic incompatible theories. The convergence of scientific thought is a measure of our approximation to an objective material world. The divergence among the moralists is indication that they are just making things up.
There is nothing to ground moral thought other than our emotions, and perpetuating a myth that there is will only prolong humanity’s adolescence.
I agree that emotions make the foundation of ethics, however I think that these foundations are nearly universal across humanity, such as valuing life and equality. This part is emotional. But the process of applying these to our lives (such as whether or not we should buy produts made in sweatshops) requires reasoning (does it benefit or harm the lives of others?), and this is the important study of ethics. So long as I and others else share these values of life and equality then we can reason our way to the best ethical conduct, or whether certain behaviours are right or wrong. I don’t see anything superstitious about this process.
I see ethics as very different to the bogeyman:
Boogeyman: Always do what I say; otherwise if you do X the boogeyman will come and get you.
Judeo-Christian Religions: Always do what the scriptures say; if you do X God will send you to Hell.
Law: Always follow the law; if you do X you will go to jail.
Ethics: What effects, good and bad, will doing X have on the world? Based on this, is it a right or a wrong thing to do? It might be difficult to evaluate this, but it’s our duty as moral agents to consider the consequences of what we do.
“Simply take the notion that we could treat blacks poorly since they had no souls. Or that animals could be treated cruelly since they were automata that felt no actual pain.” If these people had used ethics, they would have reasoned that blacks have the same soul (or lack of) as whites, since there’s no physiological difference which could account for such a difference. Can you suggest any alternative ethical reasoning which would support mistreatment of blacks? Likewise it’s through reasoning (ethical and scientific) that I believe that because animals have the same core physiology as humans do that I assume them to have the same basic rights that are almost universally applied to humans (right to life etc).
If you don’t believe in any objective morality, how can you describe these actions as “anti-humanity” (or any others, such as the holocaust)? How are you evaluating or measuring what’s pro- or anti-humanity? And if we had found a “moral compromise” with slavery (instead of ethical crusaders fighting against slavery and imposing their moral views on the law-abiding slave masters who had no emotional objections to keeping slaves) what might the compromise have been?
Can you give an example of divergence among moralists? I mean where both sides base their arguments on reason and logic (ethics)? I think that, just as scientific theories generally converge, so do ethical ones, as in most countries at most times, the rights and treatment of women, minorities and animals continually improve (with exceptions being when authoritian groups take over and forbid free thought – thus prohibiting moral progress). It’s not as clear-cut as scientific theories are, but there are certainly convergences in moral progress around the world, such as the outlawing of slavery in most parts of the world, increasing equality for women or more recentl the outlawing of factory farming and testing of cosmetics on animals in most of the EU.
Jesse, you keep implying we are moral agents.
I’m unequivocally saying there is no evidence of a moral domain, and therefore no moral agents.
The emotional domain and emotional agents may be retagged as “moral” in an attempt to give emotions more legitimacy, but it is a superfluous tag that, at its root, is a lie.
(My “anti-humanity” quote was in the context of and in contrast to what is beneficial for humanity. I don’t personally need to define what is beneficial, but only point out that moralists who presumably care about what is beneficial to humans, using rational arguments in the past, arrived at views that are abhorred by moralists today. The rigor of the house of reason is meaningless when the house is riding on the flood of emotions. Why not just admit your position is an emotional position?)
(Here is just one debate among moralists who reason to divergent views. http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/interviews-debates/200106–.htm)
I accept that morality has, at its foundations, a set of emotional propositions (such as that life, equality and happiness are good, and that loss of life and suffering are bad) but think that these are generally shared among most of humanity. And I don’t see how this reduces the importance of morality, let alone makes it a “lie”, particularly if “emotions are the only source of meaning in the universe” (which I’m inclined to agree with). It doesn’t make ethical considerations any less important for humanity (however you measure that), but quite the opposite: if emotions are all that exists, and our actions cause good and bad emotions in others (and ourselves) through a complicated cause and effect chain, then surely we should apply reason to determine how we can produce good emotional outcomes? If you have ever stopped to consider whether or not you should or shouldn’t do something (aside from rules prescribed by religion or the law) then you were being a moral agent. That’s all I mean by it.
Moral discussions themselves set a moral domain, in the same way that scientific research provides a scientific domain. Even if a real world didn’t exist beyond our senses, it wouldn’t make the “scientific” tag applied to theories a lie.
In that debate, one “moralist” is using reasoning and one is appealing to “moral instincts”, which he says trump reason. All Peter Singer’s philosophy begins with a basic (emotional?) premise that a greater amount of happiness is good, and a greater amount of suffering is bad. From that he reasons his way to conclusions which the judge says go against his “moral instincts”. So we can’t expect their views to converge since they don’t agree to apply the process of reason.
So you agree that there is no objective morality, but merely various subjectively constructed frameworks of behavior that attempt to map to emotional dispositions?
The lie I’m referring to is the pretending that there is an objective morality when, in fact, morality rest wholly on subjectivity. You can’t get to an objective morality when the substrate is subjective.
When you say “morality”, do you place it in the same ontological category as “fashion”?
If you give “morality” a higher ontological status than “fashion”, how do you arrive there?
Do criteria for judging “moral” behavior have any more of an objective foundation than the criteria of judging a dog show? If so, please elaborate.
“So you agree that there is no objective morality, but merely various subjectively constructed frameworks of behavior that attempt to map to emotional dispositions?”
It depends what you mean by “map ‘to’”. If you mean they attempt to justify emotional dispositions, then no: they reach rational conclusions based on a foundation of emotional dispositions. In your example, Peter Singer argues for things which he admits are counter-intuitive (to the judges objection), but are an inevitable conclusion of rational ethical inquiry (based on his foundation of the greater good being important).
No, I place morality in the same ontological category as energy. Both have no objective existence, but are very useful starting assumption to make and work from. If you put energy at a higher ontological level, can you explain why?
I give it a higher ontological status than fashion because the foundational criteria (also unlike a dog show) are more universal across humanity, for example most (if not all) societies have considered it immoral to take the life of an innocent person. (I don’t know enough about dog shows to be sure, but I doubt there would be such consistency, at least not intuitively). Also, using these basic foundational criteria it’s possible to (qualitatively) measure society’s moral progress over time (as with scientific progress) and it’s generally in one direction (for example slavery is rarely reinstated after being outlawed) whereas to my understanding fashions tend to come and go without a consistent direction over time.
Let me rephrase the question.
Do you agree that there is no objective morality, and that moral systems always are grounded in emotions?
My point is that there are only 2 ontological domains; objectivity and subjectivity. Objectivity is ontologically superior in that objective objects exist independent of the mind. Moral notions are products of subjective minds with no objective foundation. Even an economy has an objective substrate in that the material distribution necessary for the subjective notion of an economy to emerge is objective. This material distribution of resources and wealth necessary for survival and thriving can not be subjectively ignored. If an economic notion wanders from from the objective material substrate, predictive success will diminish. Morality has no such objective substrate. It is merely a fabricated domain, conjured up directly from subjective emotions. Anyone can introduce a moral game based on their own emotional disposition, and hope everyone else plays the game. But there is no obligatory weight behind it. You can create a new card game, but then to suggest it must be played by anyone else is to misunderstand the inherent subjective nature of your game.
It also seems that you think a position is ontologically superior or less subjective if many subjects subjectively hold the “foundational criteria” for that position. Why does the degree of a concept’s universality increase the ontological superiority of that concept when, at the same time, it can contradict reality as did aether a century or so ago?
So objectivity and subjectivity are discrete categories. You don’t make a concept more objective by aggregating subjective opinions. If many humans play a particular game, this does not create or increase an obligation to play the game. Right?
Phil, I would argue that morality does have an objective substrate, much as the economic model, in that it exists universally, takes on similar characteristics and traits that are clearly observable across all people groups and that the mechanisms involved in the codification of social ethical systems are predictable to the same degree economic modalities are.
Subjectivity of morality is real, it is just that there is an objective basis for such. (Please do not confuse this argument with the concept of moral absolutism.)
But I’m arguing that “morality”, as it is understood by nearly every mind that employs the term, does not exist. The vast majority of those who use the term “moral” believe the term carries obligation. I’m arguing that the mechanics in arriving at various “moral” codes can not produce obligation; they can only describe a consistent principle of behavior. The goals of the behaviors are necessarily embedded in emotions/preferences. How can emotional goals give rise to objective obligation by merely being attached to a principle? And if there is not objective obligation, this leaves us with “subjective obligation”? Can this term carry any coherent meaning?
Yes, I agree that morality is always grounded in emotionally-based propositions (such as equality being good or pain and suffering being bad). But I don’t see how this diminshes the importance of morality (which your video, if not your discussion here, appears to do?). I can accept your definition of objective and subjective domains, and that morality exists in the latter, regardless of however universally its acceptance is (though I think the universality of moral beliefs is still significant for the comparison to fashion and dog shows).
However, I think you’ll find it difficult to fit much into your objectivity domain. Economics begins with the subjective, emotionally-based assumption that the objective material distribution you talk of (essentially the production of goods and services) is a good thing, and then works to maximise it. I think more people would challenge this assumption than mine that equality is good and pain and suffering are bad.
By comparison, ethics (as I see it) makes the assumption that something which increases happiness and/or equality in the world is a good thing, and something which decreases it or causes pain and suffereing is a bad thing. Then ethics is about how to maximise good or minimise harm. The suffering of thousands of slaves (or sweatshop workers, or animals in cages) is as real and objective as the material substrate of an economy.
So both are grounded in emotional premises about what’s good. “You can create a new card game, but then to suggest it must be played by anyone else is to misunderstand the inherent subjective nature of your game.” The same could be said with economics: small, self-sufficient communities could choose not to ‘play’ economics, and continue to live as they have for centuries, without so much as a medium of exchange. Does this affect the objectivity of economics?
Since morality has merely an emotional foundation, the “importance” of morality can be no greater than the importance of our emotions.
The problem is not that morality has been granted too little importance; the problem is that morality has been granted too great of an importance by those attempting to deem morality objective to lend more legitimacy to their emotions. Contradictory moral systems have resulted in most of the world’s wars. The admission that there is no non-emotional authority behind your moral system is a good start to a peaceful world.
Does something emotionally disturb you? Then find a community where that emotion is prevalent, and pass a law in line with that emotion. But don’t pretend others are obligated to bow to your emotions in some imaginary “moral” domain. Such a domain does not exist. Morality is just a pretty mask worn over emotions, and is important only to the degree that emotions are important.
Suffering is real, but there is no obligation to eliminate suffering as you imply. I attempt to eliminate suffering because suffering is emotionally unpalatable to me. That’s all. That’s enough.
In neither the game of morality nor of economics is participation obligatory. You maintain the privilege not to play, though the objective consequences may prove rather uncomfortable in their respective emotional and economic contexts.
So let’s not pretend moral rules are anything greater than their single ingredient of emotions. You can bake, boil or sauté emotions in various hot pockets of rationale, but the end result will be nothing but a form of emotions.
So are emotions important? ;) The question is ill-formed. There is nothing apart from our emotions that can generate significance for a mind. Emotions alone create importance. The importance of a “moral” rule can not rise above the degree of the underlying subjective emotions.
Can you state a war over morality? I can’t think of any, though I’m no historian! Unless you count the current war in Afghanistan (which has been justified at times by liberating people from the Taliban, though that was hardly the cause of it)?? Or the US civil war? (if you do count that one [as a war over slavery] do you consider the war to have been a good thing?.) It seems to me that most wars are fought for power, economic greed or (historically, and perhaps as a contributing cause in many modern wars) religion.
To me your post seems somewhat contradictory: “the importance of morality can be no greater than the importance of our emotions”, and “emotions alone create importance”. So I accept (as a point that seems to have come out of this discussion) that morality rests upon an emotional foundation, such as our mutual (emotionally-founded) aversion to suffering.
So it can’t be proved objectively that we ‘should’ find suffering unpalatable, so from that it seems fair to deduce that there is no objective moral domain, as you say. But it can be shown objectively (perhaps proved, as much as anything in Philosophy can) that, for example, buying products made in sweatshops in China either reduces or increases the amount of suffering in the world (in the same way that economic laws can be deduced). And given how universal the (emotionally-based) aversion to suffering is, and how significant our actions are in causing or reducing the suffering of others, I don’t think the lack of objectivity in justifying this near-universal aversion to suffering takes anything away from the significance and importance of morality itself. As covered earlier in this discussion (at risk of going around in circles) it’s difficult to argue that laws of nature (or even an objective world at all) exist, but this takes nothing away from the science.
Nearly every war in history was legitimated to the citizens of the participating nations as “just” through an imaginary morality. I can’t think of a single war in which it was not “morally justified” by those promoting the war.
Aversion to suffering is only one emotion. Meaning is subjectively derived from all of our emotions. Emotions are subjective. Any “morality” is at its base “merely” emotions. Therefore the legitimacy of any system of morality can not exceed the legitimacy of our emotions. Therefore, since emotions can not produce communal “oughts”, neither can any system of morality that is based on emotions. That includes all of them.
As for your last paragraph, if you are emotionally troubled by suffering, and would like to alleviate suffering in one particular context, you’ll have to first find others who have the same emotional disposition of a distaste for suffering. This is not a given. And it is not an “ought”. No one else needs to participate in your moral game. However, most humans dislike suffering, and that is why there has been much success at alleviating suffering in the world. But, of course, alleviating suffering carries no objective imperative.
Can you explicate the process of scientifically establishing “laws” of nature, then demonstrate that we establish “moral” laws the same way? It currently appears you’re actually suggesting they are both given legitimacy through the very same process of science, when I’ve only seen moral system arise from emotions rather than some scientific method yielding predictive success such as induction. Scientific laws are derived from and inductive survey of an objective world. “Moral” laws are are clearly not, and are at best a subjective agreement among people with the same emotions.
Almost all the wars found in the bible, for instance, were morally driven. Genocide often finds its routes in perceived moral superiority. The Spanish Crusades, extreme jihadism, Japanese & Chinese Imperialism, etc., the list goes on…
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