Is there anything objective about morality?

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby doogly » Sun Jun 07, 2015 9:56 pm UTC

PeteP wrote:My stance is that Moral Objectivism is akin to arguing for the existence of a soul or God or any undetectable supernatural claim.

Yeah that's essentially where it falls for me.
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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby Dthen » Sun Jun 07, 2015 10:21 pm UTC

Thanks for saying everything for me and more coherently than I could have, PeteP.
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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby Thesh » Sun Jun 07, 2015 10:28 pm UTC

doogly wrote:
Thesh wrote:Harm can be defined as simply anything that results in a loss if overall happiness..

- No it can't
- If it can, what's happiness?


Sure it can, and yes happiness is subjective and can be difficult to define, and no morality is not 100% perfectly objective and well defined, but that doesn't exclude the idea that there is some objectivity in morality.
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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby morriswalters » Sun Jun 07, 2015 10:40 pm UTC

Dthen wrote:
morriswalters wrote:
Morality is a concept; an idea. A thing we invented. It's not measurable or quantifiable. It is not even a property of behavior, but rather, a judgment about that behavior. In order to be judged, there needs to be a scale against which to do the judging. But there isn't one naturally present in the universe. The best we can come up with boils down to "I prefer it that way". But other people prefer it a different way and "I'm right and you're wrong" is not a convincing argument to prefer one over the other.
Describe it for the purpose it serves. If continuation of life is considered a purpose, then rules which cause life to prosper can be called moral, if they work. And if they don't work then life doesn't prosper and that can be considered immoral.

Why would you say it serves that purpose?
I'm not certain it does. But with no authority figure to, appeal to it is where I hang my hat. And the type of rules I'm thinking of don't translate well to language. More like we evolved to them. And then because of our ability to use language we then abstracted them to ethical constructs. So you end up in a position where a thing can be universally believed and not universally applied. So thou shall not murder seems to exist everywhere, but when applied isn't applied the same to out groups as in groups.

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby Copper Bezel » Sun Jun 07, 2015 11:23 pm UTC

doogly wrote:
PeteP wrote:My stance is that Moral Objectivism is akin to arguing for the existence of a soul or God or any undetectable supernatural claim.
Yeah that's essentially where it falls for me.

I mean, are you saying that objectivism assumes an external source for morality, and that's the thing that's undetectable or unknowable? I don't think that's necessary to the definition of objectivism I'm assuming, and it's certainly not a part of my "belief" in the matter. And like others have said, I don't consider objectivism itself some kind of end goal or first principle here, either. It's just a classification based on the test that, yes, I think Genghis Khan's activities would be immoral whether or not society today said so. So if that test is in itself the definition of objectivism, I don't see that that requires any external forces or claims about the nature of rights or reality to say so.

If morality derives from human attributes and realities of the human condition, I see no reason that we can't generalize them apart from one individual social context, so long as we understand that they'll always be colored by our own. There are aspects of morality that simply are bigger than these individual social contexts, because they derive from factors common to all.
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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby PeteP » Sun Jun 07, 2015 11:36 pm UTC

What is you definition of objectivism?

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby benefluence » Sun Jun 07, 2015 11:46 pm UTC

All the arguments for the existence of objective morality are about as bad as the arguments for the existence of God.

A morality is a framework of value assessment for human action. Values are subjective. Full stop. There is no way to derive from any set of facts about the physical universe that one thing or state is 'better' than another. You need some arbitrary assignment of good or bad as a place to start. Humans tend to share many values, and there are reasons, primarily evolution driven, that humanity values what it does, but that's not the same thing as any of those values being objective.

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby doogly » Mon Jun 08, 2015 12:14 am UTC

Copper Bezel wrote:I mean, are you saying that objectivism assumes an external source for morality, and that's the thing that's undetectable or unknowable?

Not at all. I mean the arguments for objective morality have the same character and flaws.

I think the most natural metaethics is to give ethical truth values similar to the ones in math. You have to assume some framework - some premises, some manuevers that you form a logic with - and then within a framework, you can have more or less rigorous statements, which are true or false in that framework.
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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby Copper Bezel » Mon Jun 08, 2015 12:18 am UTC

But to me, that sounds a lot more like a form of objectivism than a form of relativism.

You can make an objective statement about a subjective experience. The brains involved objectively exist. Saying that morality starts in brains is a far cry from saying that morality is a cultural fad.

Something like utilitarianism is aligned with moral objectivism, not relativism. Specifically, it seems, moral universalism. A utilitarian view can say that Genghis Khan was wrong without further qualification. I'm not sure that I can say that I subscribe wholly to utilitarianism, but it's a lot closer to how I make decisions and judgements than any system derived from pure relativism is.
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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby ucim » Mon Jun 08, 2015 1:00 am UTC

morriswalters wrote:Describe [morality] for the purpose it serves. If continuation of life is considered a purpose, then rules which cause life to prosper can be called moral, if they work. And if they don't work then life doesn't prosper and that can be considered immoral.
But we already have a word for that: "Practical". And morality is also about whose life prospers, at the expense of whom. To be able to choose between the two on the scale of "life" prospering, you'd need some sort of weighting function between the two lives in question. That weighting function becomes your "moral stance", and defining it is not at all simple, nor is it objective.

TheGrammarBolshevi wrote:If by "testable" you mean "empirically testable," then this looks obviously false. For example, it's objectively true that 2 + 2 = 4, but I can't think of any way to test that claim. For another example, I doubt there's any way to test whether every statement that's objectively true is testable in principle.
Assume 2+2=5. Do math. Find contradiction. This of course relies on the idea that (P and ~P) is always false, but if that's the showstopper, then pretty much all bets are off. For the second part, a statement whose truth value is unknowable is not very useful, whether it is true or not.

We keep throwing around the words "right" and "wrong" (in the sense that does not mean "correct" and "incorrect"). However loaded those words are, they need a well thought-out definition before they can be used to support any kind of absolute morality. The idea (for example) of "wrong" meaning "going against moral principles" does not do any good when being used to define those moral principles.

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby morriswalters » Mon Jun 08, 2015 1:32 am UTC

ucim wrote:But we already have a word for that: "Practical". And morality is also about whose life prospers, at the expense of whom. To be able to choose between the two on the scale of "life" prospering, you'd need some sort of weighting function between the two lives in question. That weighting function becomes your "moral stance", and defining it is not at all simple, nor is it objective.
I believe that it is called natural selection. The importance you place upon those two people and the differences between them is a product of your intellect. Taken those two individuals as parts of the race, it doesn't matter who survives and prospers, as long as one of them does. The fact that the process of natural selection gave us intellect and a social nature, predicated that some sort of system would come to exist that would govern our relations as individuals.

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby Copper Bezel » Mon Jun 08, 2015 1:54 am UTC

Well, we're built in with systems governing behavior, because that's what natural selection and mutation do. Behavior is as much a phenotypic expression of genotype as physical attributes are. So, uh, no. And natural selection "cares" very much who dies, in the sense that it's an emergent phenomenon that is a consequence of reproduction and death. Your genes don't care about Fred's genes or the continuation of your species, they just want the best chances they can get to carry on into another generation.

So, uh ... no. Nothing you just said has anything to do with morality.
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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby doogly » Mon Jun 08, 2015 2:11 am UTC

Yes the brains involved objectively exist, and it is an objective fact that "Doug thinks capitalism is crap," but it is not a fact that capitalism is crap. I mean, it is, but it's not an objective fact? It's a different kind of fact, I'm getting at, you see.

Utilitarianism is basically meaningless. Instead of having to hem and haw over moral judgments we can just hem and haw over judging the utility on each side of a question. This does not progress anything!

Utilitarianism is neither aligned with objectivism or relativism as metaethical stances - if you believe there is one standard for "utility" which is objectively correct you are an objectivist, if not, relativist.
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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby ucim » Mon Jun 08, 2015 2:33 am UTC

morriswalters wrote:I believe that it is called natural selection. [...] it doesn't matter who survives and prospers, as long as one of them does.
But morality is about which one of them should, at the expense of the other. And even if natural selection were an objective fact, it does not follow that it is "good", any more than the moon is "good" or that arithmetic is "good". It give no information about the morality of which person should live and which person should suffer as a result. That is an axiom which is supplied by the individual, and this fact removes it from the realm of "objective".

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby moiraemachy » Mon Jun 08, 2015 2:40 am UTC

doogly wrote:Utilitarianism is basically meaningless. Instead of having to hem and haw over moral judgments we can just hem and haw over judging the utility on each side of a question. This does not progress anything!
When someone tells me they are utilitarians, I interpret as them as saying "if you know the odds, you can know if the ends justify the means - add the utility of means and ends, multiply by the odds". And this is a big (and, to me, obvious) claim, since many people believe that some means are just off limits.


Anyway, relativism has all the features of objectivism. You can just put your "western, civilized, won't go Genghis Khan on you" moral and hang out with people, talking about morality. Except people can't pull a Socrates on you since you never claimed any of that was fully justified.

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby Cres » Mon Jun 08, 2015 2:53 am UTC

You don't need to posit supernatural stuff for morality to be objective (I expect that the implicit assumption that you do is why relativism appeals to a lot of naive, CS 101, never-read-any-philosophy, New Atheist mood-affiliated types - JL Mackie a good (although infinitely more sophisticated) early example).

For morality to be objective, it just needs to be the case that moral statements can be true or false. 'Killing babies for fun is wrong', is a true statement, in the same way '2 + 2 = 4' is a true statement. It is either correct or incorrect.

When I say 'Killing babies for fun is wrong' (or raping and murdering an entire town of people - jeez guys, Philosophy Hint: if you are on the same side as Genghis Khan in an argument about ethics, something's gone wrong for you) my words don't mean 'I don't like people killing babies for fun' or 'According to my moral framework, killing babies is wrong'. If someone else from another culture comes along and says baby murder is all dandy, we don't just shrug our shoulders (as we might if we were arguing about the 'best' ice cream flavour, or whether it's OK to burp loudly after a good meal) and say 'It takes all sorts! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯'. No - we have a fundamental, consequential disagreement of fact.

(You can of course repackage this as a higher level disagreement about which moral framework is correct. This is extensionally the same - the objectivity just comes in at that higher level.)

(By the way, a lot of you seem to be missing the concept of reflective equilibrium: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/refle ... uilibrium/ . We don't just deduce our moral beliefs from some arbitrarily chosen moral framework - we have many pre-theoretical shared moral convictions which are used to shape explanatory theories and adjudicate between competing theories.)

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby Dthen » Mon Jun 08, 2015 3:20 am UTC

Cres wrote:For morality to be objective, it just needs to be the case that moral statements can be true or false. 'Killing babies for fun is wrong', is a true statement


Why is that true? Can you objectively prove that it's true? What does "wrong" even mean? If someone were to say that killing babies for fun is okay, what makes them wrong and you right?
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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby ucim » Mon Jun 08, 2015 3:46 am UTC

Cres wrote:'Killing babies for fun is wrong', is a true statement, in the same way '2 + 2 = 4' is a true statement.
The problem with this is that "wrong" is an undefined word. This makes the statement meaningless. Yeah, we think we know what "right" and "wrong" mean, and most of us use the words in ways consistent with behavior most of the rest of us agree with, but for the purposes of establishing objectivity - the absoluteness of a moral system - this does not cut it. You need a precise definition of "wrong".

Further, this definition must be independent of any existing moral frame (otherwise the result would need a "+c" appended to it, in the sense of "from this moral POV", making it no longer an absolute.

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby Cres » Mon Jun 08, 2015 4:43 am UTC

ucim wrote:Yeah, we think we know what "right" and "wrong" mean, and most of us use the words in ways consistent with behavior most of the rest of us agree with, but for the purposes of establishing objectivity - the absoluteness of a moral system - this does not cut it. You need a precise definition of "wrong".


I can see why you would think this, but I think there are two confusions here.

First, we're not talking about a word here, we're talking about a concept. The word 'wrong' is just a label we apply to the concept which exists independently of any theorising or precise definitions. People around the world use this concept successfully every day, whether or not philosophers are around to tell them how to. This is not a maths paper, where at the top you say 'Let x = ...' ('Let 'wrong' mean ...') and go from there. The task of the philosopher is to explore the contours of this concept, which might (or might not) lead them to a definition. If the definition a philosopher comes up with doesn't agree with how the concept is actually used ('well my definition of 'wrong' says this'), then it's the philosopher who is mistaken, not everyone else. This is how moral theories are created, refined and evaluated.

The second confusion is that questions of the status of morality are metaethical questions. They are apply across different substantive ethical theories. Your stance on the definition of 'wrong' (ie your stance on the content of the concept of wrongness) - whether you're a utilitarian, say, or a contractualist - has no direct bearing on whether morality is objective. Therefore in fact the precise definition of 'wrong' is irrelevant.

Dthen wrote:
Cres wrote:For morality to be objective, it just needs to be the case that moral statements can be true or false. 'Killing babies for fun is wrong', is a true statement


Why is that true? Can you objectively prove that it's true? What does "wrong" even mean? If someone were to say that killing babies for fun is okay, what makes them wrong and you right?


Objectivity does not require the ability to prove that something is true. If I think the moon landings were faked, you might not be able to prove me wrong: maybe there isn't enough surviving evidence to place the matter beyond doubt, or maybe there is, and I still won't change my mind. What is important is the nature of our disagreement: one of is incorrect, even if we can't prove it. Likewise you can give me good reasons to believe that killing babies is wrong - 'it causes unnecessary suffering', 'it is cruel', 'it damages society', say - but if I'm not swayed by them, it doesn't mean that we're just having an inconsequential difference of opinion.
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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby ucim » Mon Jun 08, 2015 5:15 am UTC

If you can't identify exactly what it is you are talking about, you cannot convince (me) that this thing is objectively true, or even has a truth value at all. You can be sloppy with subjective statements, you can be sloppy with relative statements, but if you are going to claim that thus-and-such exists in an objective sense (that is, independent of the frame it speaks to), you cannot be sloppy about it. The reason is that the frame slips in uninvited in the slop. That turns it into a relative statement, and destroys the argument.

Cres wrote:First, we're not talking about a word here, we're talking about a concept.
That concept needs to be defined well. We happen to use words for this.

Cres wrote:People around the world use this concept successfully every day...
Indeed, as I said. But using a concept does not make it absolute, and you are claiming that it is absolute. That claim does make it (like) a maths paper.

Cres wrote:The task of the philosopher is to explore the contours of this concept...
...but you are not speaking about the concept (of good and evil) itself. You are speaking about where it comes from, and to the extent that it comes from the way people think, it is inherently non-absolute, because people are different.
Spoiler:
Groups of people have similarities, which give rise to similar ethics and morals. But different groups can have radically different ethics and morals, thus if there is an absolute morality, it cannot come from people. If it is to be meaningful at all, it has to come from some inherent property of the universe.
Cres wrote:Your stance on the definition of 'wrong' [...] has no direct bearing on whether morality is objective. Therefore in fact the precise definition of 'wrong' is irrelevant.
"Your stance" stands in contrast to "the precise definition", thus the statements don't work together. If you hold that "right" and "wrong" come from the people, and that it's up to the philosopher to find a definition that fits what the people do, that pretty much makes it non-objective. Each person has their own frame, their own concept of right and wrong, and you just mash them together. To be objective, as you say, right and wrong have to be independent of what I (and everyone else) thinks. But in that case, "The task of the philosopher" you proposed will give no insight into morals, but only how people misunderstand them.

But then, without an external, independent, rigorous definition of right and wrong, you go nowhere, because you can't defend the claim that something is being misunderstood if you don't have a clear frame-independent idea of what that something is.

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby Cres » Mon Jun 08, 2015 5:34 am UTC

OK, so let's say I am a slave in Ancient Rome. I'm forced to work incredibly hard, I receive regular beatings from my master, I'm housed in the worst conditions imaginable. But my treatment is entirely within the accepted norms of Roman society: I am my master's property, and he can do what he wants with me. Is it honestly your view that I have no moral grounds for complaint here? Or that we, now, can't find any fault with this arrangement? Was the rejection of slavery over the last couple of centuries not moral progress but just a change in tastes and sensibilities? (genuine questions)

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby Copper Bezel » Mon Jun 08, 2015 6:11 am UTC

doogly wrote:Yes the brains involved objectively exist, and it is an objective fact that "Doug thinks capitalism is crap," but it is not a fact that capitalism is crap. I mean, it is, but it's not an objective fact? It's a different kind of fact, I'm getting at, you see.

Perhaps, but the fact of dealing with means to ends doesn't, to me, reduce something to a matter of taste and preference, either. I mean, admittedly, the way we interact with those beliefs is similar - and if you don't like strawberry jam, knowing that taste is "relative" (that is, individual) doesn't make it any more palatable.

It does require you to reframe some things, though. If you're even a little bit relativist, you can't really talk about social progress. You can have conflicts between more and less liberal or egalitarian ethical systems, and you can take a side in them, but you can't really say that we've progressed or learned over time in the way that we do in the sciences and so on - and never mind how much of the last few centuries of social progress relates to increased knowledge of the world ....

We're made of and inhabiting one historical moment, and I imagine that the future is as incomprehensible and terrifying as the past is narrow and repetitive. But I'd like us to get there, you know? There are good and bad directions in which it's possible to move. And because moral "tastes" are not a maths problem, they have to be trained in, they're part of an ethos, there's a limit to how much any one person can change with new information.

So something like this....

ucim wrote:Groups of people have similarities, which give rise to similar ethics and morals. But different groups can have radically different ethics and morals, thus if there is an absolute morality, it cannot come from people. If it is to be meaningful at all, it has to come from some inherent property of the universe.


to me, is the core of the thing I disagree about. The universe doesn't give a damn about morality. Morality only exists in context of multiple sapient beings trying to get along. Does game theory or economics or ... hell, the concept of an "evolutionary stable strategy" exist as a "property of the universe"? I don't think it'd be very useful to think of them that way. But to act with more information and understanding and maturity is better than to act with less. It just is. I'm under no obligation to acknowledge the right of a society to act with stupidity and cruelty instead. If you have as a set of initial conditions a society of people with attributes like we've mentioned earlier, vulnerability to harm and a particular set of instinctual drives and so on and so forth, there are more and less moral behaviors in the same sense that there are more and less prosocial behaviors or anything else.

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby Quercus » Mon Jun 08, 2015 6:22 am UTC

Cres wrote:OK, so let's say I am a slave in Ancient Rome. I'm forced to work incredibly hard, I receive regular beatings from my master, I'm housed in the worst conditions imaginable. But my treatment is entirely within the accepted norms of Roman society: I am my master's property, and he can do what he wants with me. Is it honestly your view that I have no moral grounds for complaint here? Or that we, now, can't find any fault with this arrangement? Was the rejection of slavery over the last couple of centuries not moral progress but just a change in tastes and sensibilities? (genuine questions)


I would say that if you believe your treatment to be immoral, then you have a moral complaint. Because your treatment involves a greater impingement on your freedom to pursue your life according to your moral framework than it impinges on the freedom of Roman society to pursue its moral framework, your moral complaint has weight (I will admit that I'm struggling how to define "greater" in this context, although I guess it involves the fact that Roman society would probably function pretty well without slavery, whereas it is difficult to imagine slaves living anything close to how they would wish while remaining slaves). Morality for me is relative to individuals, rather than to cultures, simply because the individual is the smallest unit that can hold a distinct moral view.

If, however, you don't see anything wrong with the fact that you are a slave then I would say that you don't have a moral complaint, because morality consists solely of ideas within the minds of humans (or, potentially, other sentient species), and if no-one has had an idea yet then that idea doesn't exist. I'm a Monist and don't believe that moral principles, or anything else, have some sort of independent platonic existence. In that sense they are invented, not discovered. This doesn't mean that there can't be moral progress - moral progress for me consists of finding solutions that enable the maximum number of people to live as far as possible according to their own individual moral frameworks. Morality to me doesn't have an objective foundation - rather it bootstraps itself. There are optimal configurations of the network of moral views, but that optimal configuration changes depending of the state of the network.

My meta-morality does rely on certain basic premises, such as all humans being substantively equal, but that is objectively true - because all humans are more or less the same on a physical level, it's equivalent to saying that all the pebbles on a beach are substantively similar.

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby Copper Bezel » Mon Jun 08, 2015 7:22 am UTC

I don't think I disagree with any of that except semantically. As far as I'm concerned, the attempt to solve out all those sets of individual intentions is just "morality," not some external meta-moral system. Again, an emergent system with predictable attributes based on the individual interacting units that make it up. And a Genghis Khan is still acting in opposition to that system, thus, immoral. Nonetheless, a person can't be held responsible for acting in opposition to moral standards that haven't been invented yet, etc. etc.

Quercus wrote:My meta-morality does rely on certain basic premises, such as all humans being substantively equal, but that is objectively true - because all humans are more or less the same on a physical level, it's equivalent to saying that all the pebbles on a beach are substantively similar.

I do think this is less defensible. How we define human value rarely has to do with physical similarities anyway. Some people are definitely "objectively" better than other people. It is a choice based on moral reasoning that we opt to consider humans equal in moral weight, in the degrees to which we do. Arguably, when we live in a system in which we believe we have constructed a meritocracy and in which those individuals who excel in that system have survival advantages over those who do not, then we haven't actually made that decision at all.
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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby Quercus » Mon Jun 08, 2015 8:18 am UTC

Copper Bezel wrote:
Quercus wrote:My meta-morality does rely on certain basic premises, such as all humans being substantively equal, but that is objectively true - because all humans are more or less the same on a physical level, it's equivalent to saying that all the pebbles on a beach are substantively similar.

I do think this is less defensible. How we define human value rarely has to do with physical similarities anyway. Some people are definitely "objectively" better than other people. It is a choice based on moral reasoning that we opt to consider humans equal in moral weight, in the degrees to which we do. Arguably, when we live in a system in which we believe we have constructed a meritocracy and in which those individuals who excel in that system have survival advantages over those who do not, then we haven't actually made that decision at all.

What differences can there be other than physical differences?

I guess I was being too broad here though. It's certainly true that some people are more intelligent, more hard-working, more friendly etc. etc. than others. For me though the dimension of equality that matters in this context is basically sentience, and all human beings that don't have severe brain damage or abnormality have, on an absolute scale, pretty similar brains, therefore to a first approximation, equal degrees of sentience. What this means to me is that everyone's moral choices have, a priori , equal weight and it is only in the way that they interact with other moral choices that they may be judged.

Maybe that means I'm a moral objectivist - my objective moral "truth" being that I believe that humans are substantively equal in sentience, and therefore their choices have equal moral force.

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby PeteP » Mon Jun 08, 2015 9:20 am UTC

Cres wrote:OK, so let's say I am a slave in Ancient Rome. I'm forced to work incredibly hard, I receive regular beatings from my master, I'm housed in the worst conditions imaginable. But my treatment is entirely within the accepted norms of Roman society: I am my master's property, and he can do what he wants with me. Is it honestly your view that I have no moral grounds for complaint here? Or that we, now, can't find any fault with this arrangement? Was the rejection of slavery over the last couple of centuries not moral progress but just a change in tastes and sensibilities? (genuine questions)

You can consider it progress because it better aligns with your values. If you say think "human suffering=bad", "human freedom = good" no slavery is progress in regard to fulfilling these values. And since many people share these values they will agree. There just isn't anything objective about having those values. If someone doesn't care about them there isn't some logical proof that they have to care about them. It is a preference that it's bad for humans to suffer, luckily one most of us share but that doesn't elevate it to objectivity

Look at your own post. Notice that it's little more than an appeal to emotion? It's saying: "This is horrible, so shouldn't it be objective that it's wrong" If someone doesn't find it horrible you have no argument, because it's not objective. (Or you might have an argument if they have other relevant underlying values and value consistency in their moral system. But if they don't you are out of luck.)

Also you have grounds for complaints if you think you have in your ethical system, they won't care of course but that your moral system isn't objective doesn't imply in any way that you have to care about their system.

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby Copper Bezel » Mon Jun 08, 2015 9:34 am UTC

Yep, sorry, that's the point at which moral relativism parts company with the rails for me. There's no point in talking about morality whatsoever at that point. Just say that morality is a dead end concept. And you're still making the assumption that we can't make objective statements about subjective experiences, which is really kinda funny, given the only experiences any human being has ever had happened to be subjective and you might well just toss out the word "objective," too. (So, yeah, of course there's no basis for an objective morality, because neither of those things exists.)

Quercus wrote:What differences can there be other than physical differences?

I guess I was being too broad here though. It's certainly true that some people are more intelligent, more hard-working, more friendly etc. etc. than others. For me though the dimension of equality that matters in this context is basically sentience, and all human beings that don't have severe brain damage or abnormality have, on an absolute scale, pretty similar brains, therefore to a first approximation, equal degrees of sentience. What this means to me is that everyone's moral choices have, a priori , equal weight and it is only in the way that they interact with other moral choices that they may be judged.

Maybe that means I'm a moral objectivist - my objective moral "truth" being that I believe that humans are substantively equal in sentience, and therefore their choices have equal moral force.

Well, yeah, I mean, all similarities or differences in physical objects are physical differences, right? But flagging it specifically as physical difference and comparing to inanimate pebbles sounds like focusing on superficial or physically obvious differences, which isn't a very good set of metrics for humans (evaluating value based on the color of a particular human, for instance, or the presence and absence of conspicuously differing external organs, has gone rather poorly historically.)

I think the thing that we tend to be really particularly interested in holding to be equal among all humans in a these-truths-we-hold-to-be-self-evident way is the inner subjective experience, which is precisely as far from our present methods of physical observation and verification as a thing can be. For what it's worth, I do recognize the irony of my having come into the discussion to defend an objectivist stance, and now arguing that this most enshrined principle of most moral systems is probably just sort of a provisional utility step we all agree on to make things simpler.
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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby Quercus » Mon Jun 08, 2015 10:28 am UTC

Copper Bezel wrote:Well, yeah, I mean, all similarities or differences in physical objects are physical differences, right? But flagging it specifically as physical difference and comparing to inanimate pebbles sounds like focusing on superficial or physically obvious differences, which isn't a very good set of metrics for humans (evaluating value based on the color of a particular human, for instance, or the presence and absence of conspicuously differing external organs, has gone rather poorly historically.)

That was just me being a hard-line Monist and not making it particularly clear that's what I was doing. Re-reading my post I can understand why you would take it this way. Sorry for being unclear.

Edit: Actually, looking back, it was worse than that - I was being utterly inconsistent with my use of language and probably came off as a bit of an ass. I should really re-read my posts more. Sorry.

I think the thing that we tend to be really particularly interested in holding to be equal among all humans in a these-truths-we-hold-to-be-self-evident way is the inner subjective experience, which is precisely as far from our present methods of physical observation and verification as a thing can be. For what it's worth, I do recognize the irony of my having come into the discussion to defend an objectivist stance, and now arguing that this most enshrined principle of most moral systems is probably just sort of a provisional utility step we all agree on to make things simpler.

I still think that the fact that certain areas of the brain appear to have a pretty consistent role in certain higher mental processes (I'm thinking, for example, of the prefrontal cortex's role in what are generally referred to as "executive functions"), to the extent that lesions in these areas lead to reasonably predictable impairments in those areas, is a reasonably good reason to believe that mental processes operate broadly similarly across all humans. I agree that this is far from settled, but the principle you discuss is more than simply a provisional utility step, in that the evidence we do have does align with it.
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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby PeteP » Mon Jun 08, 2015 11:58 am UTC

Copper Bezel wrote:Yep, sorry, that's the point at which moral relativism parts company with the rails for me. There's no point in talking about morality whatsoever at that point. Just say that morality is a dead end concept. And you're still making the assumption that we can't make objective statements about subjective experiences, which is really kinda funny, given the only experiences any human being has ever had happened to be subjective and you might well just toss out the word "objective," too. (So, yeah, of course there's no basis for an objective morality, because neither of those things exists.)

No point? I have preferences for how I would like people to act and behaviours that horrify and disgust me, moral systems can potentially get people to act how I would like them to act and not do things I find horrifying. So why shouldn't I argue with people who have moral systems in their terms? Also many people value having a non-contradictory system so if you can agree to some underlying values you can argue from there. That the underlying values are just your preferences is just how it is. That the whole thing is subjective doesn't mean it isn't useful or can't be important to me or you. You could see it as abstraction to better discuss how to best fulfil shared preferences. Why do you see no point in it?

And yes all our discussions about the world are based on the assumption that the world exist and our sensory organs supply information that gives us half way dependable information about it. And usually we also tend to assume the world follows physical laws and doesn't just randomly appear to follow them for a while. It's unavoidable to make that assumption to discuss almost anything practical. But that doesn't mean we have to randomly declare other things to objective without any reason.
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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby doogly » Mon Jun 08, 2015 12:36 pm UTC

Cres wrote:OK, so let's say I am a slave in Ancient Rome. I'm forced to work incredibly hard, I receive regular beatings from my master, I'm housed in the worst conditions imaginable. But my treatment is entirely within the accepted norms of Roman society: I am my master's property, and he can do what he wants with me. Is it honestly your view that I have no moral grounds for complaint here? Or that we, now, can't find any fault with this arrangement? Was the rejection of slavery over the last couple of centuries not moral progress but just a change in tastes and sensibilities? (genuine questions)

The situation you describe has nothing whatsoever to do with metaethical relativism.

It seems like there is a common misconception that people who believe in some sort of objective reality, but not that things like morality or other social constructs have the same level of morality, must think that all these "not objective" things collapse into worthlessness in our eyes. We must seem so silly to you, living our lives concerned with pebbles and black holes and just sort of shrugging at the important things like mass slaughter and the various flavors of pie!

Metaethical relativism would deny that there is an objective notion of progress, but not that there is a sense of progress at all! I happen to quite prefer living in our current society to ancient Rome. I would also have preferred ancient Greece.

I think you must have completely ignored my post further up talking about the connection between moral objectivism and religiously supernatural claims. I distinctly said that I did NOT think that the former only made sense given the latter; my point is that the two claims have a similar character.

Though it does seem that if we let you define metaethical relativism for us, we could defeat it very quickly! It's sounding quite amoral. You have to wonder what they're even bothering to do in this thread, eh?

To further illustrate my position, I think it's nice to talk about free will. This is another thing that I don't think objectively exists. I can observe it as a cognitive label. It exists 'like baseball.' It is not a fundamental building block of the world with an objective reality that would persist without us, but when I want to explain human behavior, it's nice to use concepts like free will and behavior. Likewise morality does not exist in an objective and independent sense, and if I want to make a moral argument to you, I cannot make objective arguments independent of our moral framework. (I could yell at you, or the Roman slave holders, but I can't really make arguments until we find some common framework. And it's pretty satisfying to just yell at slave holders, or slaughter them, I really wouldn't have a problem with this.) But although it doesn't exist in this sense, if I want to optimize my life and my culture, according to what I think is optimal, this sort of language and framework is extremely useful.

tl;dr: there is more to onotology than "objective reality" and "meaningless crap." Metaethical relativism posits that morality is neither of these two.
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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby morriswalters » Mon Jun 08, 2015 12:41 pm UTC

ucim wrote:
morriswalters wrote:I believe that it is called natural selection. [...] it doesn't matter who survives and prospers, as long as one of them does.
But morality is about which one of them should, at the expense of the other. And even if natural selection were an objective fact, it does not follow that it is "good", any more than the moon is "good" or that arithmetic is "good". It give no information about the morality of which person should live and which person should suffer as a result. That is an axiom which is supplied by the individual, and this fact removes it from the realm of "objective".

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The point isn't that you aren't correct, but that you couldn't be correct if the basic function didn't exist. Your intellect takes the drive to live and abstracts it to something more useful. The fact that humans live or die as groups is the real point. And for any group to exist and prosper certain things have to occur. Good is when those things occur and bad is when they don't. There is no reason to favor one or the other that exists outside the need to form groups to survive. That is neither ethics or morality directly. That is the well from which they are born.

Ethics are themselves a product of natural selection. And the success of a particular ethical system is represented by continuing to use it and for it to continue to serve the function it is designed to serve. Genghis Khan had a ethical system of some type that worked for a time and then at some point didn't. His ethics were bad because in the end they didn't work.

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby Zamfir » Mon Jun 08, 2015 1:15 pm UTC

Non-contingency: When Genghis Khan was doing his conquering, one of his big strategies was to systematically murder every single person in cities that opposed him. Rome did this too. It's a pretty effective strategy, since a lot of people would rather surrender in a war that they might win rather than fighting and risking that they and everyone they love will be killed if they lose. But, obviously Genghis Khan and the Romans were wrong to do this. So far, we're on the same page as relativists: since the moral framework of our culture says that the Romans were wrong, they were wrong. But it seems like what the relativist can't say is that what the Romans did would be wrong, even if our culture thought it was right. And it seems like that is the right thing to say: that the wrongness of murdering a city full of people has nothing to do with whether anyone approves of it. Objectivists can happily accept this view.


It's from back in the thread, but the example has been referenced several times, so I'd like to respond to it anyway.

I find this an odd case for an obvious moral wrong, one so obvious that it might serve as a kind of axiom. By the last poll, 61% of Americans consider the atomic bombs on Japan the right thing to do, against 22% who consider it wrong. Support is higher among people who were alive at the time. For decades afterwards, NATO had a fairly blunt first-strike doctrine. If the potential war wouldn't go as our side wanted, we reserved the right to kill as much Russians as possible. No matter if the Russians attacked civilian populations first or not. And quite some people applaud this as the doctrine that prevented world war 3.

In short, our culture does support this military tactic. Everyone knows the arguments. The Japanese started it and were horrible, it shortened the war, millions of Japanese would have died from starvation otherwise, hundreds of thousands of Americans would have died in the invasion of Japan, etc. So, fairly similar to the arguments of Ghengis.

Is there a single objective standard about when you can and cannot exterminate cities to end a war in your favour? I don't know it. I don't think anyone else knows it either.

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby ucim » Mon Jun 08, 2015 4:42 pm UTC

Cres wrote:OK, so let's say I am a slave in Ancient Rome. [...] But my treatment is entirely within the accepted norms of Roman society [...] Is it honestly your view that I have no moral grounds for complaint here?
It is my view that you are being treated immorally. However, this is my view, not the view of "the universe". My having a view (and even your agreeing with my view) on some moral matter does not make it a universal truth.

And it is that which I am focused on here. Mass and orbital mechanics are universal truths (which we can approach understanding). They are "part" of the structure of the universe. Morals are not - at least there has been no convincing evidence presented to me that they are anything more than glorified opinions, with which I may or may not agree.

Cres wrote:Was the rejection of slavery over the last couple of centuries not moral progress but just a change in tastes and sensibilities? (genuine questions)
How do you measure "progress"? Moralities (in many ways) have moved closer to the set I presently hold, but defining progress that way makes it relative - relative to me and my own standards. Moralities have moved farther away in some cases from the set I presently hold also. But in this case how would you evaluate, without referring to your personal moral system, whether my morals are defective or whether instead the world's morals are slipping? I claim there is no way to do so. You can only measure against your own ethos.

Thus, not absolute.

Copper Bezel, disagreeing, quoted me as having wrote:...thus if there is an absolute morality, it cannot come from people. If it is to be meaningful at all, it has to come from some inherent property of the universe.
The unstated followup is "... and if you don't think it comes from some inherent property of the universe, then "absolute morality" does not exist in any meaningful way.
Copper Bezel wrote:Does game theory or economics or ... hell, the concept of an "evolutionary stable strategy" exist as a "property of the universe"? I don't think it'd be very useful to think of them that way.
Game theory is essentially a branch of mathematics. Economics uses math but it's underlying assumptions are behavioral, and use game theory. I don't see any absolute truths in economics. And in any case, these things are descriptive, and are amenable to empirical testing: Does the world behave the way the description and the model predict it would? If so, the model is correct. If not, it is not correct. This is essentially different from morality, which is prescriptive.

@morriswalters:History is written by the victors. The fact that ethics can help a group survive does not make a particular set of ethics "good". It makes it "effective". There is an important difference. The latter could be an absolute. The former is not, and should not be conflated with it.

It sounds like I'm just saying "I disagree" again; I wonder if we are using the words (absolute, objective) in the same way.

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby morriswalters » Mon Jun 08, 2015 5:19 pm UTC

ucim wrote:History is written by the victors. The fact that ethics can help a group survive does not make a particular set of ethics "good". It makes it "effective". There is an important difference. The latter could be an absolute. The former is not, and should not be conflated with it.

It sounds like I'm just saying "I disagree" again; I wonder if we are using the words (absolute, objective) in the same way.
That is for you to decide. However I did define good as I've used it. But just for the record, history and who wrote it have nothing to do with it. It isn't about what people said.

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby ucim » Mon Jun 08, 2015 5:45 pm UTC

morriswalters wrote:That is for you to decide. However I did define good as I've used it.
to wit:
morriswalters wrote:And for any group to exist and prosper certain things have to occur. Good is when those things occur and bad is when they don't.
This does not sound like a meaning of "good" that has any moral implications. It just duplicates the meaning of "effective". It is not what I mean when I use the word "good" in an ethical sense.
morriswalters wrote:But just for the record, history and who wrote it have nothing to do with it.
My point was that the ethical system of the survivors (us) is what we are using to judge the ethical system of the vanquished. Again, it's not an example of objective ethics, except in the sense of "it worked, which is why we're here, and they're not", which to me has nothing to do with ethics.

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby Tyndmyr » Mon Jun 08, 2015 5:54 pm UTC

ucim wrote:
morriswalters wrote:I believe that it is called natural selection. [...] it doesn't matter who survives and prospers, as long as one of them does.
But morality is about which one of them should, at the expense of the other. And even if natural selection were an objective fact, it does not follow that it is "good", any more than the moon is "good" or that arithmetic is "good". It give no information about the morality of which person should live and which person should suffer as a result. That is an axiom which is supplied by the individual, and this fact removes it from the realm of "objective".

Jose


Good is merely a summary of various traits. Perhaps you state that this food item is "good" because it is nutritious. Or because you like the flavor. Well, yes, we can obviously study flavors or nutrition, and come to well supported conclusions. The only reason people have any difficulty with "goodness" is due to ambiguity. When I say that bacon is good, and you say that celery is good, we are speaking of different things*. The actual facts are not in dispute, the subjectivity is only due to imperfect understanding.

Likewise, morality is objective. When you say "capitalism is bad", you really have some more specific complaint regarding capitalism. Perhaps you feel it is inferior to another system in regards to accomplishing x. We can study that, and determine if that is true or false. A given person may not yet know the answer to a given question, but that does not mean that the facts do not exist. Evolution existed before we had a name for it, and before we learned as much about it as we have. We learn about what is. What is does not exist because we learn about it.

Reality IS the objective record of everything.

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby elasto » Mon Jun 08, 2015 6:07 pm UTC

Tyndmyr wrote:Good is merely a summary of various traits. Perhaps you state that this food item is "good" because it is nutritious. Or because you like the flavor. Well, yes, we can obviously study flavors or nutrition, and come to well supported conclusions. The only reason people have any difficulty with "goodness" is due to ambiguity. When I say that bacon is good, and you say that celery is good, we are speaking of different things*. The actual facts are not in dispute, the subjectivity is only due to imperfect understanding.

Likewise, morality is objective. When you say "capitalism is bad", you really have some more specific complaint regarding capitalism. Perhaps you feel it is inferior to another system in regards to accomplishing x. We can study that, and determine if that is true or false. A given person may not yet know the answer to a given question, but that does not mean that the facts do not exist. Evolution existed before we had a name for it, and before we learned as much about it as we have. We learn about what is. What is does not exist because we learn about it.

Reality IS the objective record of everything.

That's not really true at all.

If I say big macs are good because they're tasty, and you say big macs are bad because they taste gross, which one of us is 'objectively right'?

If you try to resolve it with statistics (eg. 80% of people think they're tasty and 20% think they're gross), then you're doing the equivalent of moral relativism. The 'correct answer' will vary according to the population being questioned.

So, sure, some moral questions can be reduced to objectively measurable quantities. But many, if not most, can't.

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby Tyndmyr » Mon Jun 08, 2015 6:15 pm UTC

elasto wrote:
Tyndmyr wrote:Good is merely a summary of various traits. Perhaps you state that this food item is "good" because it is nutritious. Or because you like the flavor. Well, yes, we can obviously study flavors or nutrition, and come to well supported conclusions. The only reason people have any difficulty with "goodness" is due to ambiguity. When I say that bacon is good, and you say that celery is good, we are speaking of different things*. The actual facts are not in dispute, the subjectivity is only due to imperfect understanding.

Likewise, morality is objective. When you say "capitalism is bad", you really have some more specific complaint regarding capitalism. Perhaps you feel it is inferior to another system in regards to accomplishing x. We can study that, and determine if that is true or false. A given person may not yet know the answer to a given question, but that does not mean that the facts do not exist. Evolution existed before we had a name for it, and before we learned as much about it as we have. We learn about what is. What is does not exist because we learn about it.

Reality IS the objective record of everything.

That's not really true at all.

If I say big macs are good because they're tasty, and you say big macs are bad because they taste gross, which one of us is 'objectively right'?

If you try to resolve it with statistics (eg. 80% of people think they're tasty and 20% think they're gross), then you're doing the equivalent of moral relativism. The 'correct answer' will vary according to the population being questioned.

So, sure, some moral questions can be reduced to objectively measurable quantities. But many, if not most, can't.


It is objectively true that I think big macs are taste great, and that you think big macs taste terrible.

If you wish to answer a question like "Do Americans think big macs are tasty", then you do indeed use statistics.

When you use specifics, the existance of a solution becomes clear.

Usually, however, such a disagreement is not about trying to determine facts. It is a matter of expressing your preferences, and wanting your preferences to have more weight than those of another.

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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby gmalivuk » Mon Jun 08, 2015 6:21 pm UTC

In addition to the fact that imperfect understanding has nothing to do with disagreements about flavor quality, even if we completely agree about how good something tastes and about how nutritious it is, we may disagree about the relative importance of senxory pleasure compared to nutrition. And that's another case that can't be solved by simply making sure we each know what the other is talking about.
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Re: Is there anything objective about morality?

Postby Tyndmyr » Mon Jun 08, 2015 6:27 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:In addition to the fact that imperfect understanding has nothing to do with disagreements about flavor quality, even if we completely agree about how good something tastes and about how nutritious it is, we may disagree about the relative importance of senxory pleasure compared to nutrition. And that's another case that can't be solved by simply making sure we each know what the other is talking about.


Relative importance to what?

See, the ambiguity here is the object that it is important to.

Unspecified, it is likely that each person is talking about themselves. So person A thinks that sensory pleasure is more important to them. Person B thinks that nutrition is more important to them. And by "more important", they mean "I like this more". Great, we're just stating opinions here, not expressing a factual difference.

If we want to determine which of the two is more important to say, maximizing human lifespan, we can test that.


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