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March 19, 2005


I guess now that I try to think about it, I only admit statements of the form "at time bar the state of the universe will be foo(bar)", and that's not a rich enough system for goedelization.

As long as you can embed (or at least represent) all the true quantifier-free statements of arithmetic -- things like "4 + 9 = 13" and the like -- you have enough for goedelization. I'm not sure how much of this works if your universe is inherently finite, though; there was a discussion of this on the Foundation of Mathematics email list a few months back but I don't recall that anyone ever came to any conclusions.

has very little to do with belief in God.

People who claim that there are no ethical truths & it's all just personal taste tend to act is if they believe otherwise.

" I don't know how one reconciles opposing sets of moral precepts otherwise."

Humans are fallible. That we disagree about what is true and beautiful and right does not prove that truth, beauty and ethics don't exist.

Katherine, people who claim there are ethical truths tend to act as if they believe otherwise, too - IOKIYAAR or whatever - but in my case I get to say "it's just programming". Also note the "moral"/"ethical" distinction above and my atheism. I have no argument to make against moral positions except consistency.

Anarch, think I'm not leaving room for encoding, but really this stuff is too hard for me. Re a finite universe, I don't think cosmology likes that (not talking observable here - with my physics hat on I think the universe is trivially finite since it's what's in our light-cone) but if it matters something's wrong with the model.

People who claim that there are no ethical truths & it's all just personal taste tend to act is if they believe otherwise.

What's really the difference between saying "You, other person, shouldn't do X because it violates what I consider an 'ethical truth'" and "You, other person, shouldn't do X because it violates a value that I hold very dear"? Since there's no absolute way to determine a moral or ethical "truth" (absent some sort of mutually agreed-upon framework), isn't the one just a restatement of the other? The only difference I see is that the second acknowledges the fact that the speaker is attempting to impose his/her own will on the listener, whereas the first attempts to deflect responsibility to some supposed impartial standard.

The only difference I see is that the second acknowledges the fact that the speaker is attempting to impose his/her own will on the listener, whereas the first attempts to deflect responsibility to some supposed impartial standard.

The other difference is one would presume that the person who says the first has given some thought to logical consequences and can present some argument as to why they feel it is an axiom that should be followed, but in the second case, the person would not feel they have to offer up any reasoning.

LJ, why would you presume that? I would think that the person who's appealing to an external "truth" would feel less need to justify him/herself than the person who looks to his/her own ethical motivations. Isn't a common complaint against bible-thumpers that they just point at the Book and say "God says so"?

Well, since we are talking about an imaginary person, I would think that if someone said 'I think this is an ethical truth', I could ask them 'well, why would you think that?', but if someone said 'That disgusts me', unless I was in a very bloody minded mood, I would presume that this person thinks I think the same thing and I wouldn't go out of my way to dissuade them (unless I'm on the internet ;^) On the other hand, I might do what Kristof did with Matthew Hale) The person who simply says 'I don't like that because God says so' would be leave themselves open to the challenge 'how do you know that?' Assuming that they are Christian, I could discuss this (if a Buddhist said that, it would be a little more difficult) I'm of the firm opinion that Christianity is a far more radical system of belief than most people are willing to admit and, while I might not be willing to debate them in real life, I would certainly think that they are just pointing at the Bible, and they haven't really read it.

This goes back to katherine's question about 'admirable consistency' which I would rephrase 'why is consistency always to be taken as admirable?' It's an interesting point, and I'm still trying to understand why I would accept felixrayman's consistency, but not accept it from others with whom I disagree with (note that I disagree with felix's position, but I do accept it) Still not close to an answer, but I think it has something to do with the level of consistency.

Ah, consistency. When I think "science" or "mathematics" consistency plays a big part. In math, of course, an inconsistency in reasoning is an error, pure and simple. In physics, we believe that the observable reality obeys consistent laws.

When we get to the world we can perceive and moral or ethical problems, though, it is so complex that the logically consistent mathematical rules are impossible to apply (never mind the problem of undecidability). So, for me, consistency becomes a judgment -- I am a scientifically-minded person so I follow that path and highly value reasoned argument and observable facts. But that is not the only way to look at the world.

[It's getting to be a very interesting discussion here.]

I can't help also thinking of the famous Emerson quote: "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

kenB--that wasn't what I mean. I mean, people like rilkefan who say that it's all just personal taste don't actually go around harming other people whenever it's convenient.

for that matter, lj, how can anything be REALLY "admirable" if all moral principles are just arbitrary matters of tastes?

As if there weren't enough evil in the world, Satan's image is burned into a turtle's shell

Katherine, one can also ask, "is anything real at all?" I give you Lewis Carroll:

"Well, it's no use your talking about waking him [the White King]," said Tweedledum, "when you're only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you're not real."

"I am real!" said Alice, and began to cry. "You won't make yourself a bit realer by crying," Tweedledee remarked: "there's nothing to cry about."

"If I wasn't real," Alice said -- half-laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous -- "I shouldn't be able to cry."

"I hope you don't suppose those are real tears?" Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.

ARRGH!! The Red King. Memory is an unreliable thing.

How I see it:

1. one can accept one's programming (what most of us do; no argument from me)

2. one can consciously follow a moral framework but in a contingent (or do I mean ad-hoc?), results-oriented way (hypocrisy)

3. one can consciously follow a moral framework (perhaps because it it gives some results in accord with one's programming) wherever it leads one according to one's best intellectual efforts (felix I take it. I suspect this is rare and hence "admirable").

Accepting your premise that it's all arbitrary preference, I can say: I have lots of Jewish family members. Therefore I prefer that Christians who are certain that Jewish people are going to hell and Christians are going to heaven do not take the logical step of forcibly trying to convert and harm them if they refuse.

Also, "hypocrisy" is an obvious moral judgment. I suppose you could say "I was just saying that I arbitrarily prefer consistent arguments to inconsistent ones", but why should I care about your arbitrary preferences and why should you care about mine? Why are we discussing this at all? I don't have arguments with people about their favorite color.

In general, you're all over the map here, but I haven't taken enough philosophy to make an argument that has any chance of convincing you. So this'll be my last attempt; I'll leave it to hilzoy.

Katherine, sorry if I misinterpreted -- I must confess that I haven't been following the thread closely, just scanning comments here and there. I was just objecting to the idea I thought I saw in your comment that one either believes in moral "truths" or is a libertine -- it's entirely possible to be a dedicated relativist and still operate under a moral code that's much like anyone else's.

Just waking up, so I don't know if this thread is over, but Katherine, when you ask
how can anything be REALLY "admirable" if all moral principles are just arbitrary matters of tastes?

I think that was actually my point and this gets us closer to a reason why 'I think that is an ethical truth' is better than 'that's just what I think'. I assume that felix's position is admirable because he's thought it out, is at least partially aware of the ramifications (leaving aside all of the discussion we've had on this). His position would not be admirable if he said 'I just don't think people should be killed, ever'.

I agree (I think) with liberal japonicus in that I find admirable a willingness to wrestle with deep issues and rigorously examine one's own moral judgment.

Maybe this is a deeper meaning to consistency -- being willing to challenge one's own deeply held beliefs, to test them against all the observed facts and discard them if they prove wrong.

But is this behavior that I regard as admirable in some way a universal good? I am not certain.

Heavens to Murgatroyd: all this metaethics and me not paying attention. But then, I'm not entirely sure what to say to it all, since so many different issues are on the table.

kenB: "there's no absolute way to determine a moral or ethical "truth" (absent some sort of mutually agreed-upon framework)" -- are you sure? how? If by 'some mutually agreed-on framework' you mean e.g. a common language and logic, then sure, but not much follows from that. If you mean something more like an agreed-on moral framework, it's not so clear.

Also: "I would think that the person who's appealing to an external "truth" would feel less need to justify him/herself than the person who looks to his/her own ethical motivations." -- A lot depends here on what the "truth" is, and how it is known. What the truth is will determine (in part) whether the person who claims to know it feels any obligation to try to justify his or her views to others. If the true morality includes such values as respect for others, and a willingness to try to persuade them rather than coerce them, then of course one would want to justify one's views to others, I would think. About how it's known: I think what you say might make sense if a person took him- or herself to have just "seen" the truth in some way that was inaccessible to other people. But it's hard to see what would justify that person's confidence that this was a vision of the truth and not just a hallucination or an unfounded sense of certainty. In any case, suppose one took the truth to be established by rational argument: why would this lead someone not to try to justify his or her views to others?

rilkefan: while of course I don't know you etc., you strike me as a completely decent person, and thus a walking embodiment of Katherine's point. According to me, you get credit for this (even if determinism is true!), but since you know yourself and I don't, I'll accede to you and say: OK, it's just your programming.

However: I think it's worth thinking about the following sort of question: suppose we are all just 'programmed', in some sense that's compatible with our living the lives we do: lives in which, for instance, we seem to wonder what to do, weigh reasons, and act accordingly, at least some of the time. If we're just programmed, we nonetheless have this odd vantage point on our programmed lives: we see them as it were from within, no doubt in programmed ways, but still.

Now: 'I'm just programmed' is a statement that has, I think, no practical bearing when you're trying to make a choice, unless its truth doesn't just record the fact that whatever you choose has causes, but also serves as a reason somehow. I mean: if you are asking yourself, shall I advocate the view that we're just programmed?, then the fact that (according to you) we are is a good reason to say 'yes'. But if you're wondering whether or not to go out to the store, it has no practical bearing: all it tells you is that whatever you end up doing is whatever you were 'programmed' to do.

Now: it seems to me that when you make decisions (OK, I seem to recall that you think we don't make decisions, but all I mean here is: when we ask ourselves, what should I do? and consider our various reasons for doing things), we need to use certain concepts. We need the concept of what we should, in fact, do (=the right answer to the question, 'what should I do?'), the concept of a reason for action (=the concept of something that counts in favor of some option); also the concept of an alternative (=the concept of something that we would do if we chose, and thus something that it makes sense to consider whether or not to do. It makes sense for me tao ask whether I should go to the store now, but not whether I should instantly teleport to Beijing, since the latter is not within my power.)

(But, someone might say, you're just making up these concepts! -- I think we make up all concepts, which is NOT to say that they don't pick out real distinctions. We figure out what constitutes 'granite', but it's not up to us what meets our criteria. More to the point, we construct some concepts, like, oh, 'truth', 'evidence', and the various concepts in mathematics. (That X is evidence of Y is not a natural property of X.) But the fact that we have constructed the concept doesn't mean that we can apply it any way we want. In mathematical terms: if you define the criteria of inclusion in a set, it does not follow that you get to decide what meets those criteria.)

Anyways. So we need these concepts, just as, if we want to add, we need the concept of a 'sum'. Now the next question is: are there rational constraints on how we can use them -- on what actions we can take to be the ones we ought to perform, for instance? If so, then it wold seem to me that this would show some moral claims to be justified, in a way that's consistent both with a basically materialist conception of the world and also with our being 'programmed' -- since even if we were programmed, we'd still need to use the concepts in question, and the arguments that demonstrate rational constraints on how we can legitimately use them would apply to us.

If that didn't clarify anything, just forget it ;)

Not feeling enlightened yet. As noted I think that decisions get made rather than we make decisions - especially true in the human case, where we (for some sense of "we") have little or no access to the decision-making algorithms. And of course what decision-making "we" do follows programmed procedures. Anyway, just as there are nice Christians and nasty ones, there are nice nihilists and nasty ones, and my guess is that non-logical reasons tend to determine who's who.

Anyway, so I went to a talk today from someone at Harvard who in the best case basically can cure diabetes (and a host of other auto-immune diseases) with an off-patent medicine (the treatment would be definitely improved by also using a much more difficult technique that works in mice). Since the stuff is a cure and is well-tested and is practically free, companies aren't interested in backing her research, so she's organized a fund drive. The research will go to coming up with the optimal regime (and working on the other technique). In the meantime there is a report of a guy in Israel taking the off-patent stuff and being cured.

After the talk, I mentioned this to a colleague, whose family back in the old country is badly affected by diabetes. When I described the above to him, he wondered (as I had wondered) why not just try the stuff in non-toxic doses?

All of which I mention because a) it's super-cool that diabetes and Crohn's and rheumatoid arthritis and lupus and ... may soon be curable and b) the why not experiment on oneself ethical question.

The Decembrist on consistency.

the why not experiment on oneself ethical question.

This reminds me of the story of the researcher who sought to prove that ulcers were caused by a bacterial infection by dosing himself. Also, when googling 'terminal wean', this abstract surfaced that seemed to be connected as well.

Some research is too risky to be conducted on anyone with a life expectancy of more than a few hours. Yet under some circumstances, the research can still be carried out by using subjects who are either brain dead or are soon to undergo a terminal wean, and who have articulated values that inclusion in the study can honor. So argues a team of ethicists and researchers at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, where such research was recently undertaken.

If anyone can see the paper, I would be very interested to know precisely what kind of research was undertaken.

but in my case I get to say "it's just programming".

I choose to believe what I was programmed to believe!

hilzoy (and others),

First of all, in honor of Passion Week, I ask "what is truth?" To me, an assertion given that label is held to be valid for everyone, not just for a given person or community. If it's a truth, it should be able to be proven; if it can't be proven, it can't be said to be "true", no matter how strongly we may believe it or how many people agree with us. I get the sense that this is perhaps not the sense that people here are using the term. But for my sense of the term, how would one go about offering a proof of a moral principle? Any proof requires prior agreement on (a) what the givens are and (b) what the permitted transformations are (i.e. how one may form conclusions from premises). This is what I meant by a "moral framework" -- there has to be mutual agreement on assumptions and method. Absent this agreement, all you get is pointless arguments.

Anyway, ISTM that the idea of moral or ethical "truth" mainly comes into play when deciding whether we have the right to coerce others (who may not share our assumptions about basic principles) into obeying one or more of our own standards. If we can convince an other of the rightness of our view, there's no need to appeal to its "truth". What I was saying is that the attempt to say "this is an absolute truth, so I'm willing to stop you from doing X even if you disagree and I can't convince you otherwise" is functionally no different than saying "I consider not doing X to be an extremely important principle, so I'm willing to stop you from doing X even if you disagree and I can't convince you otherwise". There is no universally-acknowledged ultimate moral arbiter, so the appeal to "truth" looks like an attempt to shift the responsibility for the coercive act away from the actor.

What I find most disturbing about the Schiavo case is the way the Right has embraced a norm of lawlessness. They have made claims such as that the courts are "out of control" (Richard Viguerie), and "Just because there is a judge somewhere in the world who would give an estranged husband like that the time of day tells you how bad the court system is" (Rev. Falwell). They nourish there the sapplings of fundamental disrespect for law. I have myself advocated for the use of illegal force in the name of justice. But in a regime that is generally legitimte, one must also weigh the importance of maintaining respect for the law in general. They don't. (Or maybe I'm just incensed b/c their view of justice seems so unhinged from both facts and reasonable considerations.)

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