Thursday, 22 January 2009

Three popular arguments against moral objectivity

10 comments
Follow up to Weird Morality

Typical moral objectivity is the claim that morality exists independent of human beings, it is already part of the fabric of the universe. There are three popular arguments used against such a position, we will here examine these arguments skeptically. These arguments are, in descending order of popularity: "The Argument from Lack of Agreement", "The Argument from Relativity" and "The Argument from Queerness". Let us see if they any of them are acceptable to a skeptic or not.

The Argument from Lack of Agreement

From the fact that it seems that we cannot reach universal agreement (where everyone agrees)- on points of moral issues such as abortion, euthanasia and so on, this concludes that this is because there are no moral facts of the matter - there are no empirical objective moral facts and this is why people disagree. An extreme version of this would be that it takes only one dissenting voice on an issue to lead to this conclusion. However even where there are empirical objective facts there is still no universal agreement - look at creationism and global warming. Given these and numerous other situations given the fact that there is disagreement one cannot conclude that there are no empirical objective facts. Anyway this argument is self-refuting since, for the reasons given, I disagree with it and so we could no not reach universal agreement that this is a sound and valid argument! For more see my post The argument from lack of agreement.

The Argument from Relativity

This is based on the descriptive observation that moral codes vary from country to country, within different levels of individual societies and have changed over time. Not only does the content vary but also how the codes work - by laws, rules, informal guidelines, precepts and so on - and how they are explained - given by god's commands, built into god's nature, natural laws, rational laws, Karma and so on. Why would this be if there were empirical facts of the matter, why has there been no convergence?

Well, on the other side, one can chose to look for similarities rather than differences. Then one can see a broadly similar set of core principles across cultures. The differences - the variations in how they vary in scope (to whom they apply) and in the types and gravity of penalties and sanctions -`can be explained by society's specific extra-moral beliefs - their super-naturalistic and strange beliefs and myths - and by the environmental, ecological and economic history and current situation of that society. One could also argue that there is convergence now, we are in a global world and have the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Different groups might be resisting this and its improvements, but convergence is on the way.

Well anyone who has engaged in moral debate has probably been on one side or another of this argument - either emphasizing the difference (the similarities being secondary) or the similarities (then the differences being secondary). What one can say, at this stage of our investigation, is that this argument is insufficient to support the conclusion that there are no empirical objective moral facts of the matter.(I will post more on relativism in the future).

The Argument from Queerness

This is most popularly stated as in: What are these things called Goodness, Badness or Evil? Can I see them? Taste them? Touch them? Hear them? They are invisible to our senses. Empiricism is based on what we can sense about the world and our senses can be instrumentally extended beyond their human limitations using microscopes, telescopes, computers and so on. Whatever instruments we use to extend the reach of our senses - empiricism as normally understood - we still cannot detect the supposed essences or properties of goodness, badness and evil. We can measure all sorts of properties of objects and even actions - their mass, force, light reflectance but still we cannot detect such properties and if they existed they would be quite unlike any other property (primary or secondary) that we are familiar with - they are "queer". From this, one concludes that there are no empirical objective moral facts - that such facts would be queer in the sense that there are no precedents from anywhere in the enormously successful systematic empirical enterprise that we call science, that could used to explain or indicate what these properties are, how they work and whether we could detect them or not.

The main counter-argument to this would appear to be this is an argument from ignorance, but unless someone can demonstrate a reliable, repeatable way how to find and show these essences or properties independent of particular human views, beliefs, opinions or intuitions, this counter-argument has no force. The best we can say now is that until a solution is presented, we can provisionally conclude that empirical objective moral facts do not exist.

Conclusion

We have examined the three main arguments against moral objectivity (independent of human subjectivity). The first argument "The Argument from lack of Agreement" is useless and should be dismissed. The second argument "The Argument from Relativity" might be persuasive to some but not to others and is, for now, insufficient. The third argument "The Argument from Queerness" is, so far, the strongest argument and the only one a skeptic would deem sufficient to use in investigating specific claims and types of moral objectivity. We now have a tool to examine the main variants of moral objectivity next, the tool being this argument.

10 comments:

The Barefoot Bum said...

You have not accurately grasped the argument from lack of agreement.

The claim is not that moral objectivism is false because we cannot come to agreement about conclusions; the claim is that we cannot come to agreement about any facts, in the sense that we can come to astonishing agreement about empirical, physical facts.

Moral beliefs are not falsifiable by perception. If I believe it is wrong to kill a child, there's no logically possible experience I could have that would falsify that belief. I'm going to call all the killing of children wrong by virtue of my moral belief.

The unfalsifiability of moral beliefs is by itself sufficient reason to reject moral objectivism.

The Barefoot Bum said...

You also do not understand the argument from queerness; you present it as a simple positivist argument, but positivist arguments already fail in ordinary physics.

The argument from queerness goes much deeper: If objective morality were to exist, the ontological description would be fundamentally non-materialistic. This is a stronger claim than that objective moral properties are not directly perceivable.

Of course, it's logically possible that there are indeed non-material ontological properties. We have found enormous success in finding material bases for physical phenomena, including life, intelligence, thought and consciousness. That moral objectivism would require a non-material ontological foundation would force a very deep change to our ontological system. That deep of an ontological claim incurs an enormous burden of proof.

Probably the biggest argument against moral objectivism is that we can explain moral behavior by an appeal to empirical, scientific psychology and sociology. Moral objectivism is — like theology — an explanation in search of an explanand.

faithlessgod said...

Hi Barefoot Bum

"The claim is not that moral objectivism is false because we cannot come to agreement about conclusions; the claim is that we cannot come to agreement about any facts, in the sense that we can come to astonishing agreement about empirical, physical facts."
But that is exactly what I was arguing for - that we cannot come to agreement about facts! Maybe what I wrote was too brief, check the link the original post on this post but maybe that can still be misread? (BTW that original post was triggered by a debate with a positivist to whom I pointed out that the argument from lack of agreement was dismissed and not used by A J Ayer in his argument for non-cognitivism).

Thanks for your input, always like to kept on my toes.

faithlessgod said...

Hi Barefoot Bum

Only one more response for now, since this post is part of a series and some of your objections will be examined in future planned episodes.

"Moral beliefs are not falsifiable by perception... The unfalsifiability of moral beliefs is by itself sufficient reason to reject moral objectivism."
This was post was not discussing moral beliefs butargumetns against purported moral facts, features of the world supposedly independent of human beings, regardless of what individuals believe.

The Barefoot Bum said...

But that is exactly what I was arguing for - that we cannot come to agreement about facts!

You said originally: "However even where there are empirical objective facts there is still no universal agreement - look at creationism and global warming." I read this statement as saying that even when there is agreement over the facts, we can still disagree about the conclusions. I assume you mean that there are creationists and global warming deniers who presumably disagree about the facts. However they do not disagree: they are actually lying (or repeating lies).

I don't think it's necessary to allow mendacity and bad faith equal validity in our epistemology; the result would be pure epistemic nihilism.

faithlessgod said...

Hi Barefoot Bum

"I read this statement as saying that even when there is agreement over the facts, we can still disagree about the conclusions. I assume you mean that there are creationists and global warming deniers who presumably disagree about the facts. However they do not disagree: they are actually lying (or repeating lies)."
I now understand your point. Still they do disagree about the facts - their leaders (we think) might be deliberately lying but many of their followers are quite innocently being self-deceived, I do not take the cynical position by default. The point is they do not agree even when there are empirical facts and this argument is about the requirement for universal agreement alone.

I welcome your input and will revise this post but want to pursue the series. How I do this will be shown in my next post in this series.

The Barefoot Bum said...

I understand your point: the lack of universal agreement might not be a good argument against moral objectivism. However, empirical facts, i.e. perceptual experiences have a particular pattern, a quality of widespread agreement, a quality that can be described, precisely measured and statistically quantified.

I think the argument from disagreement is more precisely targeted as a rebuttal to moral intuitionism, where intuition acts as an analog to perceptual experience. The pattern of agreement of moral intuition is very different from the pattern of perceptual experience.

A more than superficial analysis of creationist speech -- especially quote mining and egregious misrepresentation of scientific thought -- argues strongly for a component of outright mendacity as the simplest explanation for the disagreement about what would otherwise be universally accepted as empirical facts.

(Keep in mind that 99.9% of global warming denial and 90% of creationist thought does not directly deny the evidence; they rather use invalid and fallacious analysis of the agreed-upon evidence.)

faithlessgod said...

Barefoot Bum

"I understand your point: the lack of universal agreement might not be a good argument against moral objectivism."
Well I originally called this "the argument from universal agreement" and it was the universal requirement I originally criticised. Would this make the point I am making clearer to you here?

With regard to the rest of your reply I had intended and will cover most of these in the future posts in this series e.g intrinsic value, prescriptive laws and moral intuitionism. I think we would agree on all this but want to make my points as concisely as possible without causing misunderstandings which I might be guilty of here.

Note I was not only talking about moral facts here but narrow (in Nagel's terminology) objectivity in general.

With regard to creationism vs evolution, the empirical data overwhelming supports evolution as an empirical fact - it would be perverse to hold otherwise (e.g Gould's famous quote I cant remember now), whereas creationists using the fit theory of confirmation use the same data to claim creationism as an empirical fact - see Stephen's Law's blog (I know you follow it) - this is a very important point with respect to creationism.

However I did not want to get into differences or not between data and facts. Maybe I could have suggested other examples, there are numerous ones in parapsychology, dowsers still believe - when asked they regard it as fact - that they can dowse even when they fail tests?

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