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March 13, 2006


"...in the case of sane child rapists, I do not think that there are any such facts, or that anything the rapist could tell me about his motives or decision would alter my opinion of him and his actions."

I watched The Woodsman just the other night. A little pat and predictable, but the great performances, especially Bacon's, elicited compassion for all the characters. Recommended for any who like challenging movies.

I think I'd understand where you're coming from better if you could explain exactly what you mean by a "moral truth". How do you know when you've got one?

Personally, I think the burden of proof is on the one asserting the existence of moral "truths", since simple observation would lead one to believe that our "truths" are ultimately based on social consensus (since there's no official, universally-agreed-upon rulebook). Your argument at the end sounds a bit like how some believers argue for the existence of God -- just because you can't see Her doesn't mean She doesn't exist. OK, but absent any evidence that She does exist, Occam's Razor leads me to the godless conclusion.

I'm not sure you've made your case for the utility of making moral judgments either, but there again I may just be misunderstanding what you mean by the term. It's of course a good thing for me to work out for myself which standards I should hold myself to; and it's useful to consider the actions of others and see how they fit or don't fit into my moral scheme. But when you write about "moral judgment" or cast someone as "evil", I understand from that that you're asserting that there's some universal standard that the other "should" hold to, that you are not simply giving your opinion but stating a fact. That's a perfectly natural, human reaction, but where is the utility in it? How does it do anything but foster a sense of self-righteousness?

If one has strongly-held beliefs and wishes to force them on others (and all of us do), I believe it's actually better to be honest with oneself and admit that there's no external basis for that judgment -- it's an imposition of will for which one should accept full responsibility and not deflect onto an unobservable "Moral Truth".

"since simple observation would lead one to believe that our "truths" are ultimately based on social consensus (since there's no official, universally-agreed-upon rulebook)."

Why should the second clause suggest anything about the first?

This seems a good place for me to admit a secret shame. I do not always read all of hilzoy's longer posts. This one I did and enjoyed. Stuff like this is why I took all the philosophy classes I could in college. I've always used to think that morality, like mathmatics, depends on the axioms that you use. For the last several years I've had a sense that there is a system of morality which would best fit the circumstances humans now face, but I don't think anyone really knows what it is. (myself included)

"But moral claims do not reflect our observations, and we cannot use our observations to check them."

Do you accept this premise? I don't, at all.

Um...Katherine, that's one of her cases in point of a bad argument.

Me, I echo ken's question about the difference between moral truth and the more conventional kind.

"I've always used to think that morality, like mathmatics, depends on the axioms that you use."

Even in math, there are true things that are not provable. Morality may be a true thing which is unprovable by science.

When I was an undergraduate, I was absorbed with reading Albert Camus and after reading him like only an undergraduate convinced he has found the one truth-teller in the world can, I had an opportunity to hear a lecture by A. J. Ayer. In it he made an aside that that Camus couldn't be considered a philosopher because he said that the first question of any philosophy was whether or not we should commit suicide and that philosophy couldn't tell people how to live. That got my dander up, so in the question period, I said that if the task of philosophy is to determine what is real with what is not, isn't it implicitly telling us how to live. He said that was a very good point and he'd have to consider it (I think, this is over 25 years ago. Anyway, I don't remember being humiliated). I guess I wasn't cut out for Logical Positivism...

Going to Wikipedia, there is this anecdote about Ayer

At a party that same year held by fashion designer Fernando Sanchez, Ayer, then 77, confronted Mike Tyson harassing Naomi Campbell. When Ayer demanded that Tyson stop, the boxer said: "Do you know who the f**k I am? I'm the heavyweight champion of the world," to which Ayer replied: "And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men" (Rogers 1999:344).

"But moral claims do not reflect our observations, and we cannot use our observations to check them."

Here is an interesting question: Without agreeing to what the exact moral code is, is it nevertheless possible to observe that in certain situations morality is implicated?

Example 1: The ticking bomb/torture hypothetical

Example 2: Using sanctions which hurt a lower class population in order to try to destabilize a regime

Example 3: Child Rape

Seb: it may be, but that remains to be seen. Myself, I think there are good arguments in support of moral claims.

Ken: I wasn't trying to show that there are moral truths in the part at the end; just that some common arguments for the claim that there aren't don't work. This of course leaves open the possibility that other arguments do show this; and in fact there have been lots of much better attempts than the ones I put up here.

And Katherine: a lot depends on how you think observation plays in. Suppose you think e.g. that it's important to be kind: you need to notice what matters to a given person, and what she's like, in order to know what kindness to her would be. Likewise, if you think that the consequences of actions matter for whether they are right or wrong, then you;d have to pay attention to the kinds of consequences that certain types of action normally have.

But when it comes to justifying the more basic claim in these cases -- that people should be kind, for instance -- I'm not at all sure how this could be established on the basis of observation -- unless it depended on some even more basic moral claim, about which I;d raise the same question.

By dividing ways of thinking about morality into "the right way" and "the wrong way", are you exploring a sort of meta-morality?

"Seb: it may be, but that remains to be seen. Myself, I think there are good arguments in support of moral claims."

I think so too, but I was trying to take a step back even from that.

hilzoy, thanks for starting this conversation.

A long time ago I had a discussion with a rabbi about moral judgments of people. At that time, I took the position that the value in such judgments was that it would help predict what people's future behavior might be.

Nowadays, I am not so sure. I have learned through experience how likely I am to make errors, and how limited my life experience is. And, of course, people can change, although they often do not.

Even taking your example of "2+2=4" (something I deeply believe is true) -- how do I know? I haven't read Principia Mathematica and even if I did and devoted enough effort to convince myself I comprehended it, I could still make a mistake.

So what is the practical value of making these moral judgments and (as I imagine you are suggesting) applying them to politics? I share Katherine's view, for example, of the mendacity of the Bush administration, but what use is it? I find Shrillblog amusing and apt, but will it convince anyone else?

I believe I share many if not all of your (hilzoy's) definitions of "good" (devotion to truth, for example). But I don't see how to apply them other than faithfully pursuing them myself.


By the way, here is an interesting example that just happened to pop up: Paul Krassner on Michael Scanlon. Is it true? It fits with my prejudices but I don't trust that as an indicator.

ral: I think that it has to start with faithfully pursuing them yourself. Other applications will presumably pop up without notice. For instance, in the Mississippi thread, I say that the politicians in charge of this should be ashamed. Lo! an unanticipated use of moral language -- and one that I feel perfectly comfortable making.

The use I was thinking of when I wrote this, though, was just: making it clear, presumably in one's own conduct and conversation, that one is comfortable with moral assessment, primarily of oneself. There are enough people out there who have the peculiar view that liberalism is somehow opposed to this that serving as a counterexample would be a service all by itself. (As the Book of Common Prayer says: shewing forth the Gospel not only with our lips, but in our lives.)

We observe that when other people behave immorally towards us, it sucks. This is most obvious in extreme cases, where the actions run across basic biological imperatives to survive, avoid pain, see your children survive you: "there is no man under the canopy of heaven who does not know that slavery is wrong for him." It sucks so badly that we almost universally decide it is not merely unpleasant to experience these things; it is immoral for others to do them. (Even those who claim not to believe in morality in the abstract, find it hard to shake specific moral beliefs).

We observe that other people seem to be, well, people, independent beings with the same senses and emotions and basic humanity as we have.

If it is immoral for them to do something to us, and they are human beings too, it logically follows that it is immoral for us to do it to them.

So observations aren't enough in themselves, by any means, but they are HIGHLY relevant. (Kant says not so much, right? But from the little I know of Kant I'm not the biggest fan.) And this is why the most immoral acts often occur in cases where people literally don't observe the effects of their actions on other people, or where there's some breakdown in the observation that these people are human beings too.

Katherine: I'm with you there. (And Kant would be too, I think. Insofar as I can channel someone who's been dead for a while.) The only problem would be using observation to justify some claim like: I should treat people as I would like to be treated; or: if someone is a person like me, I should treat her as I would want to be treated. That's all I meant.

That said, though, I agree about people who seem not to notice the effects of their actions on others. Morality, it seems to me, requires that one try to become perceptive about such things; avoidable obtuseness is not OK.

Excellent post. Almost makes me wish I'd stayed in philosophy.

The comments to the "Evil" post were depressing; no wonder Hilzoy wrote this new one. If you're comfortable with the idea of goodness and benevolence, then I don't see how you can be against using their opposites as concepts.

In what different ways people are wicked, how it feels to them, how it's possible to be evil, are interesting questions, but they are not advanced by pretending that there's no such thing as "evil."

Nor is it valid to argue that it's too religious- or metaphysical- sounding. The same applies to "good."

slart -
a utilitarian meta-morality at that - note that hilzoy's "right way" is, quite simply, the way that accomplishes more, produces more and varied effects, and generates "results" - more self-knowledge, an evolving primer for reacting to future situations, etc.

The "wrong way," OTOH, simply ossifies, and accomplishes nothing except to increase the likelihood that the next situation will be reacted to in exactly the same way as before, out of an unhealthy pleasure principle - certainty is more comfortable than doubt. Less useful, thus less good.

However, this is not an objective judgment that Hilzoy is making - if one wanted to make an argument for tribal self-preservation as the font and basis of morality, then mindless repetition and reinforcement of received social mores may well be a higher good than a moral sense that seeks to "understand," humanize, and thus, in an undeniable way, justify the actions of those that destabilize society by violence, disease, and other destructive traits.

To put it another way, just because Hilzoy has reserved the right to make moral judgments, that does not mean that she has stated their basis. Hilzoy reserves the right to judge the man lecturing the accident victim, but offers no basis for this judgment other than the fact that the lecturer is "heartless."

Hilzoy's ultimate moral arbiter seems to be a gut instinct she follows to make moral judgments. This may be superficially comparable to other non-scientifically testable propositions like "what is beautiful," but in effect, this may be simply throwing the whole question over to the complex web of experience and learned reflex that informs our instincts. As none here can say whether this set of inputs is a more akin to the Jungian vision of a lovely mass synchronistic consciousness or the elemental fears of a crouching cave lizard, it seems to me that the central question - what are we doing when we make moral judgments - remains unanswered.

That said, to the degree we have to pick one or the other, I'm with Hilzoy. The former is as right a way as we're likely to get. Like everything else though, people wind up in the middle, curious and receptive in some contexts; in others, locked in amber.

st: I can't really see why you think that I have a 'utilitarian meta-morality', or that my "ultimate moral arbiter seems to be a gut instinct". I don't see that I said anything one way or the other about what my, or the, ultimate moral arbiter is; I was trying, apparently unsuccessfully, to avoid metaethics.

Just for you and Ken (and anyone else who's interested), I have put a .pdf of an article up on my .mac page. In it, I try to justify a substantive moral conclusion. It is not utilitarian, and it's not based on my gut instinct. Enjoy.

If there are two competing views of morality and one of those decides to fight to win preeminence, and the other decides that it is wrong to fight at all, then the fighter will win. And if fighting is immoral then only the immoral will dictate morality. So in that case, are we obligated to perform immoral acts to preserve our notion of morality, or should we submit and allow others to dictate what morality is at large?

Our own failings, not those of others, should always be our primary concern.

This is probably best for personal morality, but does not work on a larger scale. Leaders of society should in fact reflect on their own failings, but they in fact could not ever change anything if their
personal failings were always their primary concern.

hilzoy, you might want to fix the file name (right now it's "A_w_o_C_pdf.pdf.pdf-zip.zip", which isn't really right -- in fact it's a .pdf, not a .zip).

"Anyone who finds arguments about beauty or humor unproblematic should ask him- or herself why morality is different."

One difference is that we don't currently put people in jail for having a really bad sense of humor or an unspeakable way with a tercet (sadly in the latter case). We also tend not to run into people claiming there is a correct way to write iambic pentameter or tell a punch line and who make it their business to enlighten us.

Don't have time to read through the thread (or, hell, the post) in its entirety, but two things jump out at me:

Sebastian: Example 3: Child Rape

I'd be very interested to know historical attitudes towards this -- that is, child rape as opposed to regular rape -- in particular moral systems "uncontaminated" by Victorian adulation of childhood innocence.

ral: Even taking your example of "2+2=4" (something I deeply believe is true) -- how do I know? I haven't read Principia Mathematica and even if I did and devoted enough effort to convince myself I comprehended it, I could still make a mistake.

1) I can prove it to you if you like, from any of a variety of axiom systems (ZFC, PA, Q, whatever).

2) I actually wrote a 3 hour talk entitled "Why does 2+2=4?" [It was supposed to be an hour, but they scheduled another speaker before I edited it down.] Short answer: *shrug* But mine is a most educated kind of ignorance.

. And if fighting is immoral then only the immoral will dictate morality

I think you are confusing fighting with resisting. If I say that I won't spend any of my money at this store and convince everyone else to do the same, is that fighting? If I refuse to move from the lobby of a building, am I fighting?

There's a notion embodied in the martial art I do, which is aikido, and I've put up a placeholder post at HoCB that I'll try to write up after, appropriately enough, my aikido class tonite.

Frank wrote: "Stuff like this is why I took all the philosophy classes I could in college."

The scarcity of stuff like this is why I didn't. Thank you, hilzoy, you've convinced me that it's possible to talk sense with philosophers.

Dave C: What happens when a set of moral principles are followed, is not necessarily relevant for saying whether those principles are true. Outcomes depend on many things which are out of our hands - most importantly the moral choices of others.

The more partisan part of me was hoping people would comment on the conservative "ownership" of moral values. But the discussion here has been very good, a very nice change from the usual partisan bickering.

That said, I'll start with the partisan bickering. In the human rights arena it seems to me that it's the lefties who are, on average, the real believers in absolute moral standards, while the conservatives (again, on average) are the ones who talk about moral absolutes but have a purely tribal morality in mind. When they say we need to distinguish between Good and Evil, they mean we should condemn our enemies and not our friends--if we condemn the crimes of both, we're guilty of the heinous sin of "moral equivalence". There are exceptions to this pattern--lefties who romanticize or excuse the crimes of our enemies and conservatives who are morally consistent, but it's not an accident that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are perceived as leftist organizations in the US. (And presumably as reactionary tools of capitalism in communist countries, the ones that still exist.) I think some (not all) of the allergic reaction lefties have to the use of the word "evil" comes from hearing too many rightwingers use the term about the crimes of America's enemies and never about our own actions. Us Christian lefties don't necessarily have a problem with the word. I thought Reagan's use of the term "Evil Empire" for the USSR was apt, though coming from a death squad enabler like St. Ron, it smacked of that hypocrisy I was just complaining about. It's correct to describe a vicious antisemitic crime by Arabs as "evil", but we should also use it about some of Israel's policies. And so on. So if one is going to use the word, in the interests of fairness and accuracy it should be used in ways that will shock or irritate people across the political spectrum.

hilzoy: I can't really see why you think that I have a 'utilitarian meta-morality'

Well, because you evaluate two proposed purposes for moral reasoning purely in terms of what appears to be their utility, and declare one to be objectively right and the other to be wrong. The right way gives us guidance, helps us avoid unhappiness in our lives and work, gives us a library of "alarm signals" to help us spot potentially dangerous behavior in others, etc., while the wrong way is wrong because it is selfish, a "sneaky . . . self-congratulation," and serves no purpose but to feed a purely internal hunger for validation. Nothing is improved, nothing is learned, there is no utility.

And considering that the first half of your post was not about moral judgments themselves, but rather about preferred perspectives on the making of moral judgments, it seemed to me that the post was specifically about metaethics, rather than an attempt to avoid them.

Honestly, I am punching way above my weight class here, so if the above is nonsense, please disregard. I haven't had a chance yet to read the article you linked above regarding the source of moral judgments, but I will, and thanks for the reference.

st: ah. I see.

I was not really trying to argue for the 'right view', above (hence my saying it was tendentious of me to call it 'the right view' -- mild, and no doubt unsuccessful, attempt at humor.) I thought that if people assumed that what I called 'the wrong view' was in fact the only reason why anyone ever engaged in moral reasoning, it would seem pretty awful, and so I wanted to propose an alternative.

Any such view will involve some reference to what, exactly, you are trying to do when you engage in moral reasoning, and thus to the consequences you're trying to achieve. (Similarly: what are you trying to do when you talk to someone? Impart information; pass the time; make friends -- all of these refer to consequences.)

But actually deciding which view is best might or might not involve just looking at the consequences. If I were to actually try to argue for the two views -- as opposed to just laying them out -- I would probably focus more on the fact that only what I called the 'right view' makes sense, while the 'wrong view' seems to have an internal contradiction in it.

The 'wrong view' is not, I'm assuming, just a cynical ploy -- someone who just talks about morality while knowing full well that s/he doesn't care about it at all, and is just pretending in order to pull one over on other people does not hold the view I describe. Someone holds the wrong view if she seems to herself to care about morality, but in fact uses it primarily to demonize others, and to emphasize to herself how different she is from them.

But if morality is worth caring about at all, then what matters, surely, is how virtuous I really am, not how virtuous I think I am. (I suppose one could design a hokey example in which how virtuous I really am is just a function of how virtuous I think I am, but let's not bother with that -- it would in any case not be a counterexample to my claim.) Someone who holds the wrong view, however, seems to be committed to the idea that her own virtue is what really matters, but she's not acting on that view consistently. (Just as someone who thinks that succeeding in her job really matters, but in practice tries not to actually succeed, but only to convince herself that she is succeeding, isn't consistent.)

Does that help?

I took the wrong view as meaning roughly this: that way-of-looking-at-things that does more to diminish understanding and distinction and encourage an ossified, we're-right-by-definition, positional way of being.

So, wrong in the sense that it tends to run counter to philosophy, i.e. that it works to shut down inquiry.

Have I landed in the same quadrant as the intended meaning?

Shorter me: "wrong" roughly equates to that which runs counter to the aim of philosophy.

Slarti: yes, but I'd add: it also