I want to give some flow to this post whilst at the same time not selecting items just in my favour. Difficult and I don't quite achieve this but think it fairer to Yair this way. So I quote primarily Yair's key response from his last significant post and then later add some key points from some previous ones. My response should then make sense of all this (whatever context is missing due to prior comments between us) as I answer these points. This post should stand on its own without needing to reference the orginal comments and also as development of a critique of Moral Relativism in general.
First the bigger fish - morality. I’m perplexed, but will try one more angle of attack. It has been said the all of philosophy is a footnote on Plato, but I rather think it is a footnote on Aristotle. So let us start with the very beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics,If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life?Would you agree with Aristotle and me that it is identifying and furthering these final desires, the ultimate ends of people, that is the core subject of morality? I hope that we can agree on this much, at least.
We also seem to agree that, as an empirical matter, we find desires, including ultimate desires, in the minds of humans. [Let us leave other creatures alone, at least for now.] I note that exploring the mental structures of humans, including elucidating the structure of human desires and any ultimate desires they have, is a wholly empirical scientific task, falling under psychology and neuroscience.
Now, you object to relativism. But does it not follow from the last point that it is a priori possible that different humans will pursue different final ends? And does not modern psychiatry indicate that sociopaths, for example, follow different final ends than normal humans do, in that their ends do not include consideration for others’ suffering? Does it not follow from modern neuroscience and biology that different people will have different brain structures and varied mental faculties, e.g. some people will be fairness-blind much like some people are color-blind? It therefore follows that to study the final ends of humans requires recognizing the variety within the human species, and therefore that relativism holds true.
At the same time, virtually every human will share the basic moral structures much like virtually every human shares the mental and cognitive structures related to vision. To quote Wikipedia, “Humanists endorse universal morality based on the commonality of the human condition” - hence, this is humanism.
You seem to be arguing for another meaning of morality. You say,the domain that morality … is caused by and is partly constituted by what I call the territory - the domain of voluntary social interactions. My main complain is that you have defined away this domain which keeps on indicating that you are talking about morality in name onlyI have not defined this territory away, but nor am I restricting myself to it. The territory spanned by morality is whatever is spanned by human desire, and voluntary social interactions form only part (albeit the lion’s share) of this domain.
At any rate, I fail to see why it is the territory that defines morality and not the other way around. As defined by Aristotle, morality is about the final desires of humans. These, in turn, heavily involve social interactions. It’s the reverse causal relation.[Yair Comment #5]
First of all there are two basic and related issues occurring here. The first is what is the domain of morality for which any proposed answer would address. The second is Yair's proposed answer - Moral Relativism.
Stacking the deck
Now a typical scenario when I debate a Moral Relativist is that they appear to stack the deck in their favour. They define morality such that Moral Relativism is the only possible conclusion but do this by assuming what they are trying to prove. This is of course question begging and not a real argument in support of Moral Relativism. So inevitably the discussion devolves into a question of what is morality.
Another issue is equivocation of terms or related concepts such as "subjective", "objective", "relative" and "absolute". Alan Sokal summed this up ""When one analyses these writings, one often finds radical-sounding assertions whose meaning is ambiguous, and which can be given two alternate readings: one as interesting, radical, and grossly false; the other as boring and trivially true."" Note this was Sokal addressing cognitive relativism, not ethical relativism, and we both agree in rejecting cognitive relativism. However I often find that such methods are also employed in arguments for Moral Relativism.
A Definition of Moral Relativism
My final preliminary point is that it is unclear, at least to me, what Yair means by Moral Relativism. Much of his argument looks like an argument for stereotypical Moral Subjectivism rather than Moral Relativism in particular. I capitalize Moral Relativism as I think this is a quite specific thesis, one which I can provide arguments to reject. For now I will only state what I understand by Moral Relativism and Yair can agree or provide an alternative version which would, if that is the case, I predict, be closer to stereotypical Moral Subjectivism. Anyway this distinction is not substantive in my critique as it applies to both.
Moral Relativism is two related theses:
What a society (or sub-culture or group) says is good is good, what it says is bad is bad. This is how good and bad are defined. Clearly different groups might provide quite different reasons or grounds as to why the good is good and the bad is bad. However Moral Relativism asserts that there are no independent grounds or reasons upon which to determine which of any these different conceptions of the Good (and/or the Right) are, in fact, correct or incorrect.
This leads to the second thesis, one which many Moral Relativists are prone to deny but still, nevertheless often invoke, namely that of Judgemental or Normative Relativism - one cannot judge the morality of another group, because there are no independent grounds to do so and there is no justification for preferring or privileging one's one cultural based (which can include religion or science) morality to evaluate others.
Smuggling in universal values
Now I am yet unclear if Yair supports this or a different view, I offer this not to put words in his mouth but this is what I can address and believe can refute. Further there are some typical implications of Moral Relativism which, again, I do not know if Yair supports, for example this being a justification and encouragement of tolerating other's views. There are significant problems with this, or rather for the solution implied by Moral Relatvism, which I have addressed in a previous post The Paradox of Tolerance.
With these preliminary comments over I will address the meat of Yair's actual argument above.
Diverse Final Ends
There is much that we agree upon. I like the quote from Aristotle's post but am somewhat dubious of the implication that Yair makes of it. The fact that people have final ends is uncontroversial and the fact that different people have different final ends too. Further I might add these ends can change over time for any person and that these can be influenced by a variety of factors including other people's ends. There is a dynamic interaction of these ends. Now I hold is that it is not up to us to dictate what ends people must have, each individual is the morally best qualified person to decide upon this. I think we would agree on that and that others dictating what our ends should be is deeply problematical both in theory - which is one reason why I reject simple first order utilities such as pain/pleasure (hedonism), happiness/misery (eudaimonia), man qua man (Randianism) and so on - and, in practice, as I think history can substantiate.
Still from all this Yair concludes that relativism is true and I do not. Secondly Yair concludes that this is the core of morality and I do not. Yair is using this argument to conclude with evidence as Moral Relativism or, at least, some form of stereotypical(?) Moral Subjectivism, but this fails either way, for the type of reason that my Sokal quote highlighted.
This recognition (which many fail to make) only establishes that people have different values and that is it. These ends are not formed in vacuo but partly from interactions with others as well as other factors due to age, health, looks and so on. Some people people might have a reasonable set of fulfillable ends and other might not. Some ends might be formed to deal with the "unfairness" of their position (due to differential power, status and so on) and in other circumstances might be quite different. It is insufficient to conclude that this is all there is and that one cannot investigate these interactions. Still the mere establishment that people, for whatever reasons, have variable and diverse ends is I think trivially true. However naming it "relative" and concluding some form of Moral Relativism or Moral Subjectivism is exactly the type of fallacy of equivocation and hasty generalisation that one needs to guard against.
The core of morality
I disagree that this is the core of morality but agree that this is an issue that any moral approach needs to deal with and many fail to adequately do so - they unduly, without real justification, interfere with people's ends. It appears that Yair, defining the core of morality his way, ensures that such issues are in some sense prevented, but he is then to some degree smuggling in a universal value - to protect the distinct and diverse ends of people by defining morality in such a way that they are indeed automatically sacrosanct (a similar point is made over tolerance in the above linked post). Surely this should be a conclusion of a moral theory and, indeed, a moral theory not acknowledging this distinction would be one we would both be motivated to criticise and we would hope to be able to provide reason and argument why it fails. But Yair has, presumably, disqualified himself from doing so otherwise he would not be, at least, an implicit judgemental relativist, so, in my view, is forced to introduce this defence at the wrong stage of developing such a theory as his. Anyway I have no wish to speculatively psychologise Yair, so lets leave this point.
An interesting side point is that alternatively Yair could criticise such theory from a meta-ethical basis in which case his Moral Relativism is irrelevant - or is it? It would still look like contradicting normative relativism as far as I can see and just highlights the problems of that specific thesis - which Yair may not support - it seems to disqualify one from meta-ethical debate!
What Yair fails to acknowledge, at least at this stage of his theory formation, is that these ends are formed by people interacting with each other, whereas I am am arguing that this needs to incorporated from the outset (he accepts this can be looked at later on). Still it is not a question of one or another but both. As Korzybski says "Not either/or but both/and". That is it appears that Yair unjustifiablly limiting the domain of morality and so stacking the deck. In another post Morality is a physical process, I talk about the map and the territory (thats from Korzybski too but note I am dubious of his some of his elaborations of his ideas) but to avoid any confusion both the maps - people's and inner feeling about morality, their ends, moral codes and so on - and the territory - the world of social interactions between agents are both part of the domain of morality. To exclude either one is to create a distortion of the problem space. I can only add that I have not seen any a priori justification to choose one over the other, certainly a theory might conclude that one has primacy over the other but they both surely must be at least relevant.
Is morality in the head?
I think I have sufficiently addressed the core quote from Yair so only want add some short points in relation to Yair's other quotes which brought about the title of this post.
You maintain that morality is not “all in the head”. Where else is it? Your moral (or aesthetic) judgment is a bit like your taste-judgment, [Yair Comment #3]
I persist in my opinion that morality is more like taste than astrophysics. Astrophysics is about what the physical structure of the universe is, a reality that is not inherently related to humans at all. Morality is about what is the moral value of a given physical state, values that can only be determined by considering what a human thinks about the physical state - just like sweet taste can only be determined by considering human’s taste buds. These categorizations are inherently subjective because they are internal categorizations of the agent (to be used in his decision-making), rather than ones representing factual properties of the objects/states that are true regardless of the agent and his categorization schema.[My emphasis]
[Morality is] Just like taste, and artistic taste, and NOT like the rotational velocity of a star, or whether Ceasar had a beard… Sorry if that’s confusing, but I’m calling these kinds of relations “all in the head”.[Yair Comment #4]What Yair appears to be doing here is the type of Sokal equivocation - at least implicitly if not explicitly. We agree that the belief and desires of agents are critical in moral analysis and that people can only be motivated by their own desires. However noting this, if I can present this in simpler terms than Yair used, and calling it subjective (or "calling this kinds of relations "all in the head"") does not imply Moral Subjectivism (or a support for Moral Relativism).
Secondly Yair is also stacking the deck by only focusing on this and excluding the surely just as trivial fact that desires make no sense if they have no effect on the world and looked at Yair's way that such an understanding of desire would be highly impoverished and likely misleading. To deny the reason that desire exists - to make or keep a state of affairs true - is an unjustified limitation on what the domain of morality means.
I note that he calls this an opinion (as I emphasis) but would hope he could do better than that to establish his case. With respect to the distinction between astrophysics and taste one needs to make two distinctions. The first is between desire and beliefs (and belief/desire formation) and their interactions with the world. One would not study the domain of astrophysics by just studying the beliefs and desires of astrophysicists and develop a theory of astrophysics. The second distinction is that just because part of the domain under investigation is, unlike astrophysics, the belief and desires of people, does not mean this must be studied in a radically different fashion. Yair accepts that one can perform at least some sort of an empirical analysis of such beliefs and desires but this is no justification to exclude their physical interactions and effects nor is anything substantively different to rational-empirical inquiry needed. Clearly the skill set and tools of the astrophysicist and, lets us call it, the moral philosopher-scientist are quite different, the former using tools and methods from other branches of physics, computing, engineering and mathematics, the latter more likely using tools and methods from neuroscience, cognitive and social psychology, biology, economics, history and game theory and so on. Still they are not both examples of rational-empirical inquiry?
I do not think, for the reasons above, that Yair has yet established a well supported argument for Moral Relativism or Moral Subjectivism. Hopefully I have done justice to his position at least in the selection of quotes I used. An amusing parting shot (amusing to me at least) is that Yair's insistence on his definition of morality looks like privileging his view over others, certainly mine (and many ethical philosophers my position is neither unusual nor aytpical of modern ethical thinking). Noting that meta-ethics is about using rational and empirical arguments to determine the contents of morality and not moral arguments from morality, his position looks somewhat self-refuting?
P.S. Maybe I will leave the second post for a while and see how we can progress on this topic first?