Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Morality: Philosophy vs Biology

This semester I'm taking an introductory course through the Philosophy department called Biomedical ethics. After four classes, I'm convinced I'm insane for taking this class "for fun." So far we've just been learning about ethics in general, and my brain is already melting. Somehow my mind manages to agree and disagree with about every topic we're presented, no matter how contradictory they are. I admit I'm totally unfamiliar with philosophy, but right now it just seems like a whole lot of bullshit that grad students pull out of their ass while at the pub.

I'm fine on understanding sound and valid arguments - those are based on logic, which I understand - but my mind explodes when we start talking about various moral theories. I think my problem is that I view things as a scientist and a biologist, and I have a really hard time getting into the mindset of a philosopher.

For example, our professor has spent the last two classes talking about how moral subjectivism (moral statements are true and false, but their truth is determined by the attitudes and beliefs of society and culture) and emotivism (moral statements are neither true nor false) are piles of crap. I don't know if this is the common opinion of the philosophical community, but it doesn't sit well with me.

As an atheist, I don't think moral codes were carved into stone or written in a book. Rather, evolutionary biology and instincts explain most of our moral behavior (I recommend Marc Hauser's book Moral Minds). We automatically and rapidly come up with moral decisions based on instincts and emotions, and then after the fact we come up with reasoning to support our opinion. So are we really all just emotivists, but trick ourselves into thinking we're being rational?

I also don't understand how you can prove something to be morally right or wrong without invoking evolved behavior/emotion/instinct. Let's say my professor is right and moral subjectivism and emotivism are totally and utterly wrong, and we're just little logical machines. Whether you subscribe to consequentialist or deontological moral theories (or other ones, I have no idea what I'm talking about), it still doesn't seem right to me. Let me play the annoying child for a bit:

Philosopher: Stabbing a child in the face is morally wrong.
Me: Why?
Philosopher: Because it lowers the happiness of others/causes harm to others, and that is morally wrong.
Me: Why?
Philosopher: Because that's the moral theory we're using.
Me: Why?
Philosopher: *fails Jen*

Alright, yes, I think stabbing a child in the face is morally wrong. And if you asked me to outline the certain moral "rules" I follow, they would generally be to reduce harm to others. But why should that be my rule? Why do we label reducing harm as good? The way this class is teaching it, it seems like right and wrong are some sort of voodoo mysterious universal constants that simply are.

But the way I see it, morality evolved. We want to reduce harm to others because we evolved in a group situation, and the only way we could survive is if we stopped killing our family and tribe members long enough for us to all cooperate. If we evolved in a more independent environment, we may have a totally different moral system. Maybe the moral rule that would have evolved would have been caring only about your own children, and killing other children would be seen as a moral act.

Of course, maybe I'm totally wrong. I'm not familiar with philosophy, and it's quite possible that I'm over thinking it by wondering where morals even came from to begin with. But that seems like a really important point to me. If instinct decides what's morally right and wrong, what value do all of these various theories have? They're not merely trying to predict what humans do do, because we don't always act morally - they're trying to say what we should do. I have a hard time accepting that my professor 100% rejects emotivism when everything seems to start there, and then get tweaked by a cognitive theory.

Aannddd I've gotten to the point where I think I'm self contradictory and my brain has oozed onto the floor. I really don't know what I'm talking about and none of this stuff makes sense to me. As this is an atheist blog, I have a good feeling that I have a fair number of philosophers (amateur or otherwise) in my readership. Maybe you all can help explain this to me, because I'm not even making sense to myself.


  1. I don't think you're wrong about questioning this assumed moral constant. I'm just a first-year philosophy major so I'm far from an expert on this, but I have yet to hear an argument for a moral constant that doesn't resort to "because I said so". I've heard arguments for why being moral in a universe that has no moral constant can be conventionally justified, but outside of that I have no idea where your professor is coming from.

  2. I just got my B.Sc. in biochemistry and I am in my final year of a B.A majoring in philosophy. I feel your pain. Philosophy consists mainly of bashing intuitions (and generally ideas about how the world works) together to see which ones we get to keep and which we have to toss aside. The intuitions we hold most dearly get to stay and anything that contradicts them must go. This would be fine except that most philosophers insist that they don't need to test their intuitions against the kind of intuitions that might arise from the study of science because........

    I actually have not quite worked out why. Probably because science is hard and therefore irrelevant.

  3. Part of the problem with the fake conversation in this post (unless you really kept asking him/her why!) is that it can be applied to anything including biology, for instance:

    Biology professor: Creationism is false
    Creationist: Why?
    Biology professor: Because the earth has been reliably dated to be much much older than 6000 years
    Creationist: Why?

    And so forth, the whys will continue to come about all basic assumptions about science, naturalism etc. So I don't think your professor starting with some [unproven] axioms is much different to how the situation is in all fields including your own.

    Morality is a very tough question and I think philosophers often wrestle with it in the same way that you have. Also it's interesting to note that the same skepticism can be applied to your own position: if you think morality is just about how we evolved (in a group situation) I could ask you why this should make something moral or immoral. But yes, most moral foundations don't have a good basis (the interesting thing to Google here would be the is-ought problem).

    One thing in philosophy's favour is that applying logic and reason can at least make our moral reasoning more consistent AND can also help us override our biological/instinctual morality (which is often about killing those in the outgroup). A lot of improvements in human welfare over the last few centuries have been due to such moral reasoning by philosophers so I think that by itself suggests it's not a completely empty endeavour.

  4. From what I take of it, philosophy isn’t something that you need to study in school to get a grip on. Quite simply, it’s the rational study of various concepts, such as (of course) morality: where does it come from? What is morality? And so forth.

    If your teacher indeed dismissed moral subjectivism (or as I call it, relativism) and emotionism, then no offense, but he ain’t fit to teach kindergartners. There’s a reason those are the running theories (I see them as working together, pretty much): they’re the ones that fit best according to evidence and common sense, as you explained quite well.

    Don’t be quick to condemn all of philosophy because of one dumb teacher and boring class. In the end, really, philosophy is one of the best branches of academics, and probably the purest, so to speak. Especially in the realms of atheism and debating against theists and morons, where critical thought and logical analysis of arguments and thoughts are in good demand, philosophy is pretty much your greatest asset. It's basically getting to understand the world better, at its core.

  5. Moral philosophy is an attempt to ground normative or prescriptive statements in rational argument. Descriptive statements (such as what instincts we're evolutionarily predisposed to) doesn't tell us what we necessarily should do; if we drew our morals exclusively from our evolutionary instincts, then we'd have no place to criticize a rapist.

    If you don't think that morality is grounded in such arguments, then the position of relativism (for example) is a dangerous one, because we are, again, left without reasons to decry people who do things we consider bad. I'm sure your philosophy teacher has already raised this point (since it's a classic example): if relativism is true, then we'd have no grounds on which to impune the Nazis.

    Undoubtedly it is difficult working out a moral system that permits logical deduction of the right thing to do in all circumstances, but what is the alternative?

  6. Jen,

    Your professor (I'm gonna call your prof a HIM for ease of writing) thus far has mentioned moral subjectivism and emotivism are "piles of crap" which means that the philosophical community has largely rejected such theories. However, you're only 4 classes in. He'll probably get to other theories/ideas as you get further into the semester. I haven't taken many science-y classes, so I don't know if teaching you all the bad theories people had before, and why they're wrong, and then teaching you the new theories (I'm using the word "theory" loosely here) that are currently in vogue is the MO. But that's what happens a lot in liberal arts... particularly when it comes to philosophy. You have to learn the WHOLE history of a philisophical question, because you need to understand what current ideas are reacting against and whatnot. I'd say give it a little time. As to where morality comes from... your professor may be more interested in discussing how humans perceive and define morality. Also, this is just me, but I can't think that morality is entirely based in evolution. Yes, big issues (like killing people, stealing, etc) undoubtedly spawn from it being an evolutionary advantage NOT to do those things, but what about weird little things (witness all the strange rules religion has, etc)? It's not just instinct; I think personal morality has a lot to do with how you were raised. For instance, while some people don't feel bad about slacking off on the job and getting paid to sit around, others feel extremely guilty about it and perceive it almost as stealing... at the very least not holding to their obligations. Generally, that has something to do with if they were raised to believe they when they have an obligation that it has to be filled no matter what, not just if someone makes them. So philisophical theories try to explain stuff like that. In fact I probably just spouted my own theory; I'm sure you could find someone to disagree with me :)

    Anyway, I would say look at the syllabus to find out if the class really will be a big history lesson on the various philosophies regarding morality. And also consider that your professor might be purposely trying to shake up your beliefs about morality and make you think about where you stand on the issue so that your ideas are "loose" and open to change - after all, biomedical ethics are tough and require a lot of thought. If you have kids coming in with set notions about right and wrong they probably won't get much out of the class. Or maybe he just sucks, I don't know 'cause I haven't had him. You could always try talking to him during office hours to get a read on him and see if it's worthwhile to stay in the class.

  7. Good grief, sorry about the essay length of that comment.

  8. I definitely agree that we shouldn't be slaves to our biology, and that moral reasoning is important there. ...But I don't know why I think that! Gah!!!

  9. There are proponents of both subjective descriptivism and emotivism. Hume's works on ethics provide a classic defense and motivation for subjectivism. CL Stevenson's "The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms" is another standard reference. Your professor may be going through some standard objections to the views, but that doesn't mean they're crap views that nobody holds. There are standard objections to every view. In fact, you've more or less hit on one of the standard objections to Moorean realism, the argument from "queerness" (see Mackie's "Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong").

    BTW, something every atheist should know is that theism is no help to someone wanting an objectivist meta-ethics. Divine command theory, as Plato argued in Euthyphro, is just god relativism. Also, I have to disagree with Joe. Philosophers have spent thousands of years mapping out the "conceptual space" pertaining to the problems they consider and there is great benefit to having a good teacher show you the map. Furthermore, your peers in a good philosophy classroom will push you to clarify and defend your view, something that's not always easy to find outside of class.

  10. I find it weird that a philosophy professor would be disproving any theory in class. The standard way to teach philosophy is to lay out the competing arguments and then challenge the students to defend one or another of the views (or make up their own entirely).

    But anyways. You've hit on a very important problem in philosophy that philosophers address under the study of meta-ethics. There are all manner of moral theories, like the ones you've mentioned; meta-ethics attempts to decide between these, or at least decide what qualities a moral theory should have, and why. All of that is just to say that philosophers do realize there's some level of arbitrariness when it comes to deciding between normative ethical theories, and do attempt to address the problem.

    The value of moral philosophy, I think, is not necessarily proving an action is absolutely right or absolutely wrong; rather, it's learning how to apply the moral theory (whichever one we happen to accept) consistently. So if you and I both accept a basic utilitarian principle to not harm other people, we might then discuss what characteristics people possess that other animals don't, and decide that it's arbitrary to extend certain rights to humans and deny the same rights to other animals which possess similar characteristics. We wouldn't have to discuss whether we're using the right moral theory, because we both already take that for granted. That's my take on it, anyway.

  11. Here's something else to look at:

  12. I'm impressed, I expected it to take you at least a month to get this far. I unfortunately have had a fair amount of experience with philosophy, and am likely to continue to have to deal with it. I've found philosophy in general to be just as strongly opposed to science as creationism. Philosophers think they can talk about what fundamentally exists in the universe in a field they call metaphysics. It's all bull shit. Physics tells us what fundamentally exists in the universe, and there's nothing in physics about morals. Philosophers, as you have noticed, think that there is an internally consistent moral law out there in the universe somewhere to be found. We know from science that this is not true. The philosophers are no different from creationists, end of story.

    Philosophers even support creationists a lot. At Delaware the philosophy department cosponsored a series of lectures advocating intelligent design a few years ago. I've had multiple philosophers tell me that because Michael Behe is an intelligent person, irreducible complexity is a serious scientific idea that must be taken seriously. And the chair of the cognitive science department here at RPI, who is a philosopher, I've read some of his papers, he could get a job at the discovery institute if he wanted it. In short, philosophy supports intelligent design. It is just as much bull shit as theology. Philosophers are no more authorities on ethics than the pope. If you can get out of that class, you should.

  13. I should probably say a little more about the methodological problem with philosophy. They think intuition counts as evidence for the thing being intuited. The fact that it seems wrong to kill a baby to philosophers is evidence that it actually is a violation of an objective moral law to kill a baby. I've had philosophers tell me this flat out. It's amazing that such intelligent people can fall to such insanity, but they do.

  14. Meh. Morality is simple. Don't be an asshole. If you are an asshole, be ready to deal with the consequences. The End.

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. I did a paper on Environmental Ethics a while back, and I feel your pain. I found most of the theories often based itself on lofty assumptions which philosophers like to think are metaphysical (read: doesn't require fact checking) which they then carry through their entire exercise as a given fact. Hence when two theories disagree with each other, noone wins, and both schools of philosophers get paid for writing hefty amount of material disagreeing with each other.

    I'm a scientist in training, so I'm probably rather biased in this regard. I enjoy many philsophical discussions, but when encountering some "philosphers", it often feels like they pull theories out of their asses that fit in all given conditions (no pun intended)and cannot be disappoved. The only way, it seems, for a philosophical thought to be abandoned, is to simply go out of fashion.

  17. Just to add onto my ramble. For the environmental/animal ethics. Being a biologist, it's a bit hard to grapple "humans are special and should not cause any unhappiness to other animals" or change unhappiness to "fulfil their maximum potential". I argued that, the anthropocentric perspective with dealing with nature that the professor bashed so much never really went away, even in those post-capitalistic theories. They simply move away from short term anthropocentric fulfilment to longer terms. Which is somewhat evident that environmental movements tend to favour cute/majestic animals over ones that are hard to find but perhaps plays an important role of the survival of an entire ecosystem. After all, anthropocentrism is really all we know, but how to prioritise and apply it, is another matter.

  18. Frank, you're making a lot of broad claims about both philosophy and philosophers. There are indeed many so-called philosophers (undergraduate philosophy students seem to be the worst about this, generally) running around espousing the sort of ideas you're talking about, but there are many more intelligent and well-educated philosophers who would shrink in horror from those same ideas.

    You said, "Philosophers, as you have noticed, think that there is an internally consistent moral law out there in the universe somewhere to be found."

    I have never met a philosophy PhD who would ever say anything even close to this. I certainly wouldn't (I have a BA in Philosophy). Philosophy simply provides a method for evaluating competing claims about morality; it has no creed that every philosopher must adhere to (except perhaps logic, and philosophy debates even this criterion).

    You said, "In short, philosophy supports intelligent design. It is just as much bull shit as theology."

    That is, at best, a wildly unsupported claim. The mere fact that certain philosophers support intelligent design does not disprove the philosophical method and certainly does not prove that philosophy itself supports intelligent design. This would be like me claiming that science supports mass murder because some scientists developed an atom bomb. Philosophy, like science, is a neutral tool that we can use to understand the nature of the physical world.

    For my part, philosophy actually turned me away from theism and intelligent design (I was a Christian until my sophomore year of college). Philosophy gave me the tools and motivation to question my basic assumptions about the world, and I came out with a much more coherent and rational paradigm. I know many philosophy majors with similar stories.

    Having said all that, I will gladly admit that there are many areas in philosophy that seem to serve no purpose. I'm in a Philosophy of Mind class right now, and I remain convinced that it is not a useful study. Any question that can be addressed in a Philosophy of Mind class would be better evaluated by cognitive science. Discounting one or several areas of philosophy does not discount the broader field, and I would ask you to please keep distinctions like this in mind before you throw philosophy out the window all together.

  19. Ok, I started to respond, and then I realized that I was starting a full blog post of my own. So to keep it short... I agree that philosophy can be a pain in the ass, but I also think philosophers and their way of thinking have their uses.

  20. Oh, and go watch this:

    My kind of philosophy. Science + a little bit of careful thinking about the implications of the science. That's it.

  21. metaskeptic, when I spoke of philosophers I was thinking of professional philosophers, people with philosophy PhDs employed in either philosophy or cognitive science departments. You can't deny that the basic methodology of moral philosophy is to try to find general rules which match our intuitions as much as possible. And they consider contradictions in their moral rules a problem. I've discussed this stuff with philosophers, even hardcore atheists, they admit this is the philosophical method. Considering contradictions a problem makes sense if they think there is an objective truth out there somewhere to be found. It does not make sense if they are trying to describe intuitions in the heads of individuals or populations. If the goal is to describe peoples intuitions, contradictions are fine. People are in fact inconsistent. Peoples moral judgments can change depending on the order moral dilemmas are presented in. Peoples moral judgments can change depending on whether the dilemmas are worded in terms of killing people or saving people. If philosophers were trying to find something that actually exists, they would accept contradictions. They don't.

  22. This raises a lot of questions/good points, and if it where not 2am and me having a test in the early am, I would chat about such points..but alas it'll have to wait.

  23. I don't like philosophy, either. I like discussing ethical and religious issues, but I wanted to claw my eyes out in my phil class when the prof kept saying stuff like, "Science can't answer this or that" when no, not concretely, but they have a REALLY GOOD IDEA! Much better than philosophy's "I've never had a science class, but I like weed, so I must be smart!" ideas.

    And they talked about how science would never be able to answer this or that, and I just wanted to yell, "Well, how do you know?!"

    I am pretty horrible at science, but I like it and have a very healthy appreciation for it, and philosophy drove me nuts.

  24. Although I'm more with MetaSkeptic than Frank, the latter's bit about metaphysics is music to my ears. Last year I read Copleston on Aquinas, and Copleston's explanation of how thinking "metaphysically" about the universe provided more certain knowledge than studying it physically -- because science tells you about Stuff while metaphysics told you about Being -- reminded me of the letters I keep getting from the widows of Nigerian dictators. And Frank's right about professional philosophers not generally knowing any science, though their support for intelligent design is news to me.

    For me, philosophy is about deprogramming ourselves from cognitive mistakes created by the vagaries of ordinary language, cf. my own essay on the language of death that mcbender liked. Debugging our O/S.

    Re moral philosophy: If, Jen, you were to study one of the approaches that your prof dismisses, master it, and then argue it in class, and others were to do do likewise for their pet approaches, you will all be DOING philosophy, which as far as I can see nobody is yet, including the prof.

  25. P.S. On my own site I post from a collection of essays and squibs sometimes first written long ago. By pure coincidence today's seems to refer to this discussion:

  26. As my old philosophy professor used to say in my undergrad Ethics class, "no one's a moral relativist with a gun to their head." That is to say, if some murdering guy wants to shoot you, everything in your body tells you that they shouldn't. Not that it's a grey area or that our culture tells him he shouldn't, but that absolutely, morally, he shouldn't shoot you. I was never sure what that argument meant for moral theory.

    I've taken a few rewarding philosophy courses, and one of them was ehtics, although I left it much more confused and less sure of morality than I entered it. That's kind of what philosophy does. In a philosophy of science course at my undergrad, a girl mid-way through the class who was a biology major told the professor that he was making her want to drop her major (I think she was a junior or senior). That's what philosophy does, it hits you in the gut and makes you question everything. You should question your own moral actions, and not rest on your laurels. Ethical theories are just ways for you to think about why you do the things you do. Don't go into the class thinking you need to argue yourself into a moral theory; you're allowed to feel contradictary.

  27. Moral philosophy is an interesting subject. I'm currently taking a class in it "for fun" as well, and I'm a bit uncomfortable with some of the methodologies, but I wouldn't go so far as to dismiss it out of hand. I'm also only a few classes in, so it's quite possible that it will improve.

    What bothers me most about it right now is that there seems to be an element of circular argumentation to it. The approach this class seems to be taking is along the lines of "Let's start with our intuitions, see what kinds of moral theories we can derive from them... and evaluate those theories based on how well they conform to our intuitions". I'm hoping that methodology will eventually change... although I honestly don't think I have any idea what a good methodology for approaching the subject would be.

    I'm not sure what my personal opinion on ethics is. I agree with you that our intuitions about ethical questions are inbuilt by evolution, but that doesn't necessarily imply that those intuitions are optimal. "Is does not imply ought", as they say.

  28. Maybe you'll like this then. A very nice take on metaethics packed into a SF story:
    Three Worlds Collide - The Baby-Eating Aliens

    "The kind of classic fifties-era first-contact story that Jonathan Swift might have written, if Jonathan Swift had had a background in game theory." -- (Hugo nominee) Peter Watts, "In Praise of Baby-Eating"

  29. Yeah, philosophy is not, traditionally, based in science. Even logic and reason only do so much; look at Plato and Aristotle. Those kinds of metaphysics are as much religion as anything else, even if a lot of their conclusions are actually pretty useful from an ethical standpoint. This is a large part of why Nietzsche criticized philosophy as a system; most of it very much is subjective, even when claiming complete objectivism. A lot of philosophy, especially at the time, was basically finding reasons for various moral beliefs that were holdovers from Christianity. It's like saying "well, we don't believe in god anymore, but still believe in a soul because that makes us feel special. How do we explain the soul?" And you end up with Descarte and dualism.

  30. Unlike science, philosophy is an attempt to discover truth pretty much through thinking about things.
    But it sounds as though the problem here isn't so much an "ethics" one as it is a "meta-ethics" one. Most people are not comfortable with the idea that morality is subjective, even to the point where morality is common only to our species and would be different if our species were otherwise.
    That's the objection, people are not comfortable with that. People want to claim that some things are universally wrong.
    It seems to me that morality stems from personal reactions and ethics are closer to laws that are created by groups of people, but that is my take and may not necessarily be anyone else's.
    But I've had a professor tell me flat out that morality is objective because we feel it to be objective.
    My point, is that your concerns are meta-ethical ones concerning what morals are rather than ethics which usually governs how morality is defined using a given system.

  31. Since it's a class on ethics, it's reasonable to throw away some metaethical positions to start; this isn't a class on metaethics, after all. At least, working within an objectivist framework makes things a lot more clear cut for the purposes of the class.

    If you take a wide enough definition of ethics, it's pretty clear that some form of objectivism is appropriate. To use Sidgwick's definition (which isn't that controversial), ethics is the study of what one has most reason to do or to want. It's pretty clear that there's a fact about these things (or at least that we act as though there is); it's uncontroversial that in order to get a snack, I'm better off going to get a snack rather than flailing about on the floor or bashing my head against a wall. Of course, some think that by 'ethics' we mean something a little more specific.

    Some folks above seem to have some odd views about philosophers, and the study of ethics. For one, theologians generally do not accept "divine command theory"; Socrates pretty well crushed that one in the Euthyphro, so Catholic scholars dismissed it in the middle ages.

    Regarding "There's no morality in physics", you could just as easily say that there aren't any video games in physics. Presumably, morality is something that supervenes on brute physical properties at a higher level of abstraction, like consciousness, solidity, and tea.

  32. If you want to read "three worlds collide" as recommeded above, here is the main link:

  33. Part of the problem is that all college philosophy classes (that I know of, anyway) separate 'moral philosophy' from 'epistemology,' meaning that you generally won't read the material that explains why a particular system is true in the class that first explains that system.

    That being said, I've found two moral systems that seem to be internally consistent.

    The first is Immanuel Kant's deontology. For Kant, moral rules consist of not doing things that generate internal contradictions of the will. His most famous example is the 'lying promise.' (This is not a general injunction not to lie at all, as many misapprehend.) Kant reasons that when you make a promise to do something, you understand that promise has value only because both parties expect that you will uphold it. If you make a promise that you have no intention of keeping, you recognize that you're acting immorally.

    This doesn't mean people *don't* make lying promises -- obviously, we do that all the time. But Kant's argument is that you know it's inherently wrong in the same way that you know that 2+5 does not equal 413. You might assert that 2+5 equals 413 for some personal gain (say, to cheat on your taxes?), but you would never really be convinced that it does.

    In this way, Kant argues that we can recognize authentic moral commands with real moral force (even if we ultimately choose not to obey them) on the basis of reason alone ("a priori").

    The second internally-consistent moral schema that I've come across is John Rawls. He starts with the premise that all people are equal in the moral sense as a brute fact, and then says: given that we are equal, how would we formulate rules consistent with that fundamental equality? The mechanism Rawls proposed is called the "veil of ignorance," and the idea is that you formulate any rule from a standpoint that eliminates your specific knowledge about your circumstances, the world, etc. -- what Rawls calls "morally arbitrary factors." Thus, if you were to consider a rule that says "White people are allowed to own black people as slaves," under the hypothetical veil of ignorance you wouldn't know if you were white or black.

    Obviously this is way oversimplified, but I hope this helps.

  34. @Andrew: In my own, possibly idiosyncratic, reading of Kant he is saying the same thing as Rawls. The Categorical Imperative excludes any appeal to special pleading, that is, to the notion that you are in some way special and so entitled to more than the next guy. If an unsocialised adolescent of any age protests, the way they so often do, not least before shooting up schools, "But it doesn't apply to ME!", Kant replies, "It bloody well does, sunshine, it applies to everybody". That I am the glorious ME and not some loser is one of Rawls' morally arbitrary factors. And this universal application I take to be part of the job description of ethics. Since the CA is about maxims of actions rather than rules with particular designated actors, in deontology you would have to formulate your example as follows: "Should I enslave this person? No, because I can only do so if I will that the maxim of my action be a universal law, and that would bite me in the ass." Comes to the same thing; you have to imagine yourself on the receiving end.

    They tell me that Ayn Rand detested Kant and you can see why, he is profoundly anti-elitist. I guess she would hate Rawls even more. Fancy being prevented by the veil of ignorance from knowing that I (beats chest) am the superman and y'all are the "lice"!

  35. Typo: for CA read CI.

    Wish there was a time-limited edit function like on the OSX Forum.

  36. Jen, you might actually enjoy a heavy-duty metaethics class. Moral philosophers have spent a lot of time and ink wrestling with the questions you raise here -- and almost nobody thinks the answers are satisfactory, but what you get in an introductory class won't even dent the surface ... there are all kinds of positions that don't make heavy metaphysical commitments to things like moral realism, but nonetheless can make sense out of our moral statements...

  37. (Also, we can talk more about this if we grab coffee when you come to CA :-) )

  38. The best text I've found on the foundation and theory of ethics is Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness. (Note: I'm not an objectivist, but that's another discussion.)
    It's rationally built, working from a set of axioms ("existence exists", for example), and it has made far more sense to me than any of the twenty-someodd theories of ethics I've studied over 30 years.
    Coincidentally, I posted this earlier this morning before I read this post.

  39. There is no universal 'good'.
    Good is always just some degree better than whatever we want to define as bad.


    A great online resource for overviews of philosophical topics. I'm an amateur philosopher at best -- a few classes, but I largely read the "classics" and discuss them on my own, with my friends, and, of course, online. This usually means my opinions on philosophy are largely influenced by commentaries, and sometimes totally off-base. But I've found the above useful in exploring philosophical topics, and find myself largely in agree with The_Metaskeptic.

  41. The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Truth About Morality and What To Do About It:
    “If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

  42. I also recommend this Harvard lecture series:

    Justice: What's The Right Thing To Do?

    "An ethics course is one of the greatest and most deeply formative experiences of one's intellectual life."

  43. @XiXiDu: Thanks for that, it chimes with an article I am planning, about "the meaning of Is". Yes, starting with the Clinton story but treating it as a meaningful issue: going on to explore the thesis on which public policy, law and police action is based in my country, that buying sex "is" Violence Against Women. This position is extreme moral-realist, the "is" is intended to be a strong "is", as in "water is wet", and it is not politically possible to criticise it. Because that unleashes immense moral indignation and demonisation.

    I like the quote, it feels vaguely Augustinian.

  44. @Andrew: "But Kant's argument is that you know it's inherently wrong in the same way that you know that 2+5 does not equal 413."
    Yes, because is is part of the definition of a promise that it should be kept. "I should keep this promise" is therefore an analytic or a priori proposition, as you say equivalent to a mathematical one.

  45. @Hugo Grinebiter: More food for thought on buying sex might be found here...

    Why men use prostitutes -

    "The reasons why many men pay for sex are revealed in the interviews that make up a major new piece of research"

    "The men didn't fall into obvious stereotypes. They were aged between 18 and 70 years old; they were white, black, Asian, eastern European; most were employed and many were ­educated beyond school level. In the main they were presentable, polite, with average-to-good social skills. Many were husbands and boyfriends; just over half were either married or in a relationship with a woman."

  46. @Hugo Grinebiter: You might also want to check out the following links...

  47. @XiXiDu: ""The men didn't fall into obvious stereotypes."

    Have you read Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy, specifically the second volume? That expresses the Scandinavian orthodoxy perfectly. Customers "are" rapists, prostitutes "are" kidnapped teenagers chained to the bed with their legs apart. He doesn't quite say that customers ought all to be shot on sight and their heads mounted over the fireplace, but he's not far off. This is how, they think, it "is", and reading the study you cite would "be" pro-rape, so of course they won't.

    However, this is the wrong thread for a discussion of commercial sex, don't you think? I have some beefs with The Guardian piece; perhaps you could remind me if we have a suitable thread? I might then paste in some of my own musings about this. I just wanted to bring it up as an example of extreme moral realism.

    Your other links: You gotta love a piece that unites alien monsters ravishing earthlings in torn dresses with Hume and Kant! Geek fodder!

    Moi, my big project now is reading The World is Will and Representation cover to cover. Schopenhauer rocks! Funny thing, I read some essays at school and pretty well forgot them. I re-read them in 2008 and discovered that my own thinking and writing of the last decades is totally consonant with him. Either he affected me far more than I realise at 17, it's a case of parallel evolution, or I am his reincarnation. Now, I hold no brief for woo, but it was a bit strange when I developed an inexplicable genius-loci affinity for Frankfurt and the river promenade, and only then discovered that this is where Schopenhauer lived........ Passed the site of his house many times, but it's still a souvenir of Bomber Harris.

    Any other fans out there?

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  49. I'm not a philosopher, although aren't we all philosophers to some extent? Actually, I'm pretty uneducated. My opinion on all this is pretty simple...

    I think there is a lot of noise out there. It's all about what we want and how to achieve it. Ethics is at best a means to an end. Rationality being just a matter of definition. It's all about practicability, what works. If prayer worked, we'd use it if we wanted to use it. Meanings are not created in reference to other words but ultimately rely on the all-purpose of desire from within the entity uttering these words. These desires, which turn into volition, are the ultimate truth. The ultimate purpose on which all meaning is based, the subjective-first-person knowledge of volition. A truth which is self-evident. Volition is a truth that is adequately proven by circular reasoning. I want what I want, by reason that's what I want.

  50. My intention was to provide some links that might be informative and maybe enlightening.

    I would have to think thoroughly about commercial sex. It's a very difficult topic. My intuition on this is that we're better off without it or very strict regulations. But as you said, let's not discuss that here.

    And no, I haven't read anything by Stieg Larsson.

    Sorry for the double posts.

  51. " The ultimate purpose on which all meaning is based, the subjective-first-person knowledge of volition."

    Very Schopenhauerian, actually. He identifies the Kantian thing-in-itself (the real world behind our subjective perceptions) as being Will, which in inanimate objects manifests as natural forces, gravity and suchlike, but in ourselves manifests as will in the usual sense, volition and desire -- which we know absolutely and a priori.

    "Ethics is at best a means to an end."
    - You might like to look at Nietzsche, who looked at ethics in terms of games. I preach ethical rules at you in the hope that you will follow them, while I don't, so that I can put one over on you. I get you to handicap yourself. Very radical, I doubt Jen's prof will cover this one.

  52. Interesting, I've wrote something very similar here:

    You are not the first person to tell me that I should read Nietzsche, many suspect that I already did. I guess I'll have to do so at some point...

  53. There's a really big problem with classic utilitarianism, in that "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" is a double variable. It doesn't tell us whether to make everyone slightly happy or more people pretty happy or a few people deliriously happy. Le Guin took a swipe at it with her Omelas story. Kant, by the way, has no problem dealing with the scenario of torturing one person in order to make a whole planet very happy: you don't treat a person as a means to an end, nohow.

  54. @Hugo Grinebiter: -- "Would you prefer that one person be horribly tortured for fifty years without hope or rest, or that 3^^^3 people get dust specks in their eyes?"

  55. If we evolved in a more independent environment, we may have a totally different moral system. Maybe the moral rule that would have evolved would have been caring only about your own children, and killing other children would be seen as a moral act.

    Have you read Darwin's Descent of Man? In chapter 4 (the one that talks about morality), he makes exactly the same point.

  56. Ultimately, I believe, this goes back to Heraclitus, who reports the King of Kings as giving lessons in cultural relativism. OTOH that concerned burial rites rather than ethics. Your example isn't a "totally" different system: it's just a matter of the referents. That is, human morality is pretty much the same for any given group, the difference is the size of the group. Even now, there are plenty of cheerleaders for a restriction of the in-group, everyone else being fair game. A truly universal ethic is probably NOT rooted in our evolutionary psychology; if we want one, we have to work at it, deriving it from philosophy instead. The interesting question then might be why we want one -- the why in terms of psychological etc. causes for our desiring something that in zoological terms is rather odd.

  57. @xixidu and Hugo: If you like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche is a necessity, since it's arguable that his entire project was one of picking holes in Schopenhauer's philosophy. Schopenhauer's conclusions were basically that one needed to retreat from life to avoid inevitable suffering. One thing to remember about Nietzsche's writings on ethics is that they are primarily descriptive, not proscriptive. He isn't making ethical suggestions, he's looking at how ethics developed. He's trying to diagnose why thinking like Schopenhauer's develops. A lot of Nietzsche's conclusions are (broadly) that it comes from a continued belief in transcendent truth, a sort of carryover from Christian belief, which has us looking for something eternally outside of ourselves, which devalues life, leading to a depressive, weak organism. As relevant to this topic, I would recommend On the Geneaology of Morals as a good starting point. Preferably a copy with decent footnotes. Heh.

  58. It's pretty funny how philosophy has been described as both too intuitive and too antiintuitive here. It's also pretty hilarous how scientist apparantly don't know history. Do you know where the word science comes from? It comes from an idiosyncratic use of a greek word by Descartes. Everything we now call science was called Natural Philosophy up until the early eighteen hundreds and was not popularly called science until the mid to late 1800s.

    There also seems to be a misunderstanding as to what philosophy is. Philosophy is the use of logic and reasoning to try to find truth. Ironically, the people who insist on evidence and consistency being applied to religious claims are getting pissy when they have to face the same sort of scrutiny about their views.

    Also, btw, relativism also requires setting up a definition of good and bad which applies universally. In relativism, an action or object is good if and only if it is approved of by one's culture. Relative terms are not meaningless and undefined, they are just terms which can be applied to an object only with the reference point. Consider the word Big. Is a horse big? Compared to a human, yes. Compared to a whale, no. But, we still understand what the term big means. You are confusing relativism with antirealism. The position 'there is no such thing as good or evil' is moral antirealism, NOT moral relativism.

    The definition of good is disputed. that is why you see utilitatarians using a different definition of good than relativists. Both groups have the burden of showing why their definition is right (or at least superior to the rest) and why their moral theory is right. If you have good evidence that one of the premises or starting definitions is false, then you have a good criticism of the theory. I think, though, you might want to reask yourself the question of whether or not your views and evidence actually do contradict the premisises of nonrelativist views, because as far as I can see, they currently do not.

    On that note, I think your professor is doing a poor job if he declares these things crap without explaining why the theories are very weak. I took an ethics class where the professor spent the first couple classes shredding divine command and similar notions. By the time he was finished, even the religious fundy kids understood WHY these theories did not work and were self contradictory. If a professor is preaching rather than using logical argumentation to prove, they are being pretty sucky philosophers. Or, at least, sucky professors. Talk to other students (or the prof) and see if they can help you understand the problems with these theories. If you can solve the problems, great job,that's how philosophical theories are refined and developed.

  59. @Jeffreyhamm: I read a lot of Nietzsche in my youth, but when I tried to read some again recently, I found him annoying. There again, that was "Ecce Homo", by which I defy anyone not to be annoyed. I did read the Geneaology way back when, it's probably his most important work and I agree with you about his ethics being descriptive. Source of much misunderstanding, that.

    I think that both of them can claim to be forefathers of evolutionary biology: Schopenhauer for his notion of reason in the service of the Will (which is the same as I call, in my own writings, the animal agenda), Nietzsche for his analysis of ethics etc. as strategising.

  60. @Jeffreyhamm: P.S. The transcendent in Schopenhauer is because he insists on uniting Kant and Plato, and possibly neo-Platonic emanationism as well, in the same metaphysics. I have my reservations about this.