Learn the Science & Philosophy of Moral Reasoning This November!

Hone your philosophy skills, master how best to debate the moral argument, learn how to improve your own philosophy of life and moral reasoning skills. Take my online course on The Science & Philosophy of Morality this November!

This is a good part of becoming a better philosopher, for your own worldview and for combating religion. You’ll learn all about the science and philosophy of moral reasoning, from readings I’ll give students in class, and a textbook students will need that covers both: Personality, Identity, and Character (which you can affordably just rent on kindle for the month).

You’ll be able to test out your thinking and ask questions of a published philosopher with peer reviewed work on the subject. You’ll learn how to think more effectively about building your own moral system and making better moral decisions, and be more adept at evaluating the moral reasoning of others, and persuading them to morally improve their conduct and decisions. And you’ll be more adept at answering godists who claim atheism provides no basis for morality, or that moral reality proves the existence of a god.

So register now! And let others know about this affordable opportunity to improve their philosophy skills and knowledge. Please share this announcement on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere.

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This course is particularly important for atheists, because unlike religious moral systems, atheist moral systems are evidence- and science-based, incorporate logic and reason in an informed way, and attend to the factual realities of human life and emotion. So we need to be serious about it, and get up to speed on the science and philosophy required to morally reason well. Completing this course will help you become a better, more thoughtful and aware person, and provide you with information & techniques to help bring others to the same state.

This course is also useful for engaging, answering, or arguing with Christians and other theists; and when promoting atheism and humanism generally. Because it is commonly the case that you will do better knowing more about how to defend and explain why atheists are moral, and where our moral values come from, and how we develop them and why. Because that centrally comes up a lot.

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Subjects covered in this course will include:

  • What the words “morals” and “morality” can variously mean and how to make use of that knowledge in public discourse.
  • What we must mean when we argue others “should” share or adopt or agree with a moral opinion, and how we can more effectively argue they should.
  • How we can use science and philosophy to determine what our own moral values are or should be, and how to reason from values to best actions.
  • And what brain science and sociology tell us about the cognitive errors that impair sound moral decision-making and how to overcome them or control or compensate for them.

Just one month. Study at your own pace and time. Register now.

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28 comments

  1. I’d love to take this class and others but unfortunately I get the feeling it might be hard without a computer or tablet. All I have is my phone. ☹

    Reply
    1. That would only not work if you are uncomfortable writing online forum comments with your phone, and intend to participate in that way. Many students just do the readings and lurk. But the only thing further one would do is write up answers to questions from me, and write out questions to me, in pretty much the same way you just wrote this comment.

      Reply
        1. Unknown at this time. I haven’t determined what I will be doing vis-a-vis course lineups next year. You’ll have to keep an eye on my feeds here for updates on that.

  2. Hi Richard,

    As an atheist, how do you avoid the issue of “global epistemological relativism”?

    Since we don’t have a god’s eye view of the universe, our beliefs are relative to our own frame of reference. Our moral systems are always relative because there’s no way of knowing whether they’re true in all corners of the universe, in all times and places or even among extraterrestrial species in distant galaxies.

    Is pointing out the self-refuting nature of relativism always enough (i.e. “all things are relative” as an absolute statement)? That may be true linguistically, but from the perspective of the grandest framework of all, the universe, moral relativity seems pretty inescapable. Or is there a way of affirming moral absolutes despite global epistemological relativity? Speaking of morals as emergent properties of social systems doesn’t escape this global relativity, meaning that morals are still relative from a god’s eye perspective, but only objectively true within our limited human frame of reference.

    Reply
    1. There is no difference between moral facts and facts of physics or biology or agriculture. The same way we overcome epistemic subjectivism in those domains is the same in the moral domain. The same way we can objectively ascertain “what the best way to perform surgery or build a bridge is,” we can objectively ascertain “what the best way to live and behave is.” Same tools. Same principles.

      Reply
      1. If one can determine morals scientifically, why isn’t there any agreement among moral philosophers over which system of ethics is the best one, compared to the agreement of biologists on evolution or of physicists on the laws of thermodynamics? Doesn’t this undermine the case that moral facts are like the facts of biology or physics?

        Saying morality can be scientifically proven isn’t enough, unless you can show it concretely. For example, in utilitarian ethics, how do we even measure utility or the “greatest happiness” scientifically using an objective methodology (obviously excluding surveys, which are notoriously unreliable subjective assessments of well-being)? Is it even possible? How do we distinguish between people who are genuinely happy and those who say they’re happy because they’re deluded or conformist? Another problem is the utilitarian evaluation of whether an action is justifiable based on consequences. This entails accurately predicting the consequences of our actions in advance to know whether a certain behavior is beneficial or harmful, but how is this scientifically possible? The same action that produced beneficial consequences in one situation may produce entirely negative ones in others.

        Doesn’t the impossibility of mathematically quantifying happiness or scientifically predicting consequences mean that moral facts are very unlike the facts of biology or physics?

        Reply
        1. If one can determine morals scientifically, why isn’t there any agreement among moral philosophers over which system of ethics is the best one.

          Same reason 18th and early 20th century scientists couldn’t agree on the nature of the human psychology and mind: the science wasn’t developed yet. Yes, we can study that scientifically. But we didn’t really honestly start doing so until the 1920s and didn’t really start doing it right until the 1960s and it took us another fifty years to make substantial progress.

          Same with moral science: no such field exists yet. We are simply describing how there could be one and what it would do. In the meantime, we have to do what scientists did with mind and psychology in the 18th century: work from what data we do have to infer likely conclusions. The result will be disagreements.

          Although in this case it’s worse, because academic philosophy has lost its way, and become less interested in evidence-based reasoning at all. So agreement will only likely start happening when they can start agreeing on what it is we are even talking about.

          …how do we even measure utility or the “greatest happiness” scientifically…

          We are already measuring things like that. There is a well-developed science of happiness, for example. It’s so far been only tangentially connected to conclusions in the moral sphere. It could direct its research even more toward doing that.

          How do we distinguish between people who are genuinely happy and those who say they’re happy because they’re deluded or conformist?

          Psychology has been answering that question for a hundred years. We have lots of scientific tools for it. And many examples of teasing these apart in the peer reviewed literature.

          Another problem is the utilitarian evaluation of whether an action is justifiable based on consequences. This entails accurately predicting the consequences of our actions in advance to know whether a certain behavior is beneficial or harmful, but how is this scientifically possible?

          Not relevant. We cannot act on what we do not know. Moral decisions therefore can only be based on present knowledge. Our obligation therefore is to make sure we aren’t overlooking easily accessible knowledge, or if certain outcomes are genuinely unknowable. Also, moral theory is a risk theory: morals are not about what always have a certain outcome; they are about what produces the highest probability of that outcome among all available options.

          As such moral facts are identical to all other normative facts: best surgical practices; best bridge design features; best agricultural procedures. Same scientific methods, same results, same applications, same incorporation of uncertainty and ignorance.

          The same action that produced beneficial consequences in one situation may produce entirely negative ones in others.

          Fully studiable and fully answerable with even currently known proto-scientific facts; the more so with any developed science. Just as in all other normative sciences, as just noted.

          Doesn’t the impossibility of mathematically quantifying happiness or scientifically predicting consequences mean that moral facts are very unlike the facts of biology or physics?

          It isn’t impossible. Happiness science is already a well developed field. And biology and physics are no different: same uncertainties in how to treat ailments or manage ecosystems or predict the weather or run economies or correctly build bridges and so on. All normative sciences, many of which are highly developed, already face and overcome this same issue. One need merely direct the same methods to moral norms. And in the absence of formal science doing so, we have to do so as proto-scientifically as we can. Just as we did in all these domains before they became formal and well-developed sciences.

        2. Isn’t another possibility that moral scientists could be no different from 18th and 19th century scientists who disagreed on the relationship between mind, brain and skull shape, even though phrenology was later shown to be pseudoscience?

          The idea that moral facts can be derived from natural facts appears to face a number of difficulties:

          First, science is descriptive, not prescriptive; it cannot tell us what we ought to do, without violating the is-ought distinction. A moral science, as anything more than descriptive, assumes that one can derive an “ought” from an “is,” but when we observe the natural world, we see things as they are, not as they ought to be.

          Wouldn’t a scientist have to empirically demonstrate the existence of “things as they ought to be” to assert the objective existence of moral facts? How do you prove the existence of something that, by definition, cannot be empirically observed in the real world?

          Utilitarian ethics violates the is-ought distinction by identifying the “good,” a normative concept, with the “greatest pleasure,” a factual state of affairs.

          The utilitarian identification of the good with the greatest happiness is a logical fallacy; just because the two appear together doesn’t mean they’re the same thing. If this is so, how can you claim that the good is the greatest happiness?

          Furthermore, logically speaking, you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is,” because in deductive arguments, if conclusions are to validly follow from premises, there can’t be anything in the conclusion not already found in the premises. This means the conclusion of a deductive argument cannot extract or uncover an “ought” in the premises. How can you derive an “ought” in the conclusion if none is to be found in the premises? Can science empirically bridge this is-ought gap if the derivation of one from the other is not logically possible?

          How would your vision of a science of morality overcome these logical and empirical difficulties?

        3. The idea that moral facts can be derived from natural facts appears to face a number of difficulties…

          None of those matter to this question any more than they did to every other normative science (e.g. surgery, engineering, agriculture, etc.)

          First, science is descriptive, not prescriptive

          False. We have tons of well-developed normative sciences: e.g. surgery, engineering, agriculture, etc.

          There is no is-ought distinction. That’s a fiction invented by confused philosophers who misread Hume. We derive an ought from an is all the time (e.g. in surgery, engineering, agriculture, etc.); and in fact can arrive at an ought in no other way. Which is what Hume actually said. Semantically, every ought statement that conveys any meaningful proposition always reduces to some statement of fact. This was acknowledged by Kant (who nevertheless tried to find “another way” to derive an ought, and failed), and has since been developed into a formalization of normative language by Philippa Foot. See Open Letter to Academic Philosophy: All Your Moral Theories Are the Same.

          Note I formally demonstrate this under peer review in my chapter on it in The End of Christianity. Which article I provide students in this course as a major item of discussion and critique.

          Utilitarian ethics violates the is-ought distinction by identifying the “good,” a normative concept, with the “greatest pleasure,” a factual state of affairs.

          That actually isn’t the problem with utilitarianism. See “Open Letter,” above.

          The problem with utilitarianism is that it doesn’t take into account all consequences of actions, but obsesses on only some of them, and therefore cannot generate true conclusions (deontological and virtue ethics, likewise). “Desire utilitarianism” does better on this measure; but as I’ve shown, when it does, it simply collapses to what I call Goal Theory (see Goal Theory Update), which is what I teach in this course (and seek challenges to from students: as it must survive critique to have any claim on being true).

          The utilitarian identification of the good with the greatest happiness is a logical fallacy; just because the two appear together doesn’t mean they’re the same thing.

          Correct. Which is why one must arrive at the goal of moral reasoning in a non-fallacious way. This is what Aristotle did, and he was largely correct (science has confirmed nearly everything he said on this point). And I demonstrate a modernization of it, with a formal deductive syllogism (thus avoiding any fallacy) in TEC.

          This means the conclusion of a deductive argument cannot extract or uncover an “ought” in the premises.

          That’s incorrect. A deductive proof is valid if the conclusion follows from the premises and also sound if the premises are true. Thus one need merely establish the premises are true. This is accomplished in my deductive syllogisms in TEC.

          One of those premises must be a correct statement of what we mean by “ought” when we say anyone “ought do something.” Correct, as in, actually describes what we are looking for or claiming when we make such a statement. This I accomplish in TEC as well, following the previous demonstration of it by Philippa Foot, who merely followed up on Kant’s demonstration of it (though he tried to ditch it for something else, and failed; see “Open Letter,” above), who was merely articulating what had already been suggested by Hume, who was merely updating what had first been proposed by Aristotle.

          Note we already accomplished this for all other normative sciences: e.g. in surgery, engineering, agriculture, etc., we have a well-understood definition of what we mean by “you ought to do x,” and thus have proved countless true ought-statements. There has actually never been any other definition found in three thousand years of philosophy. Kant tried, but as I noted, failed (his “categorical” ought ended up reducing to the very same “hypothetical” ought everyone had always been talking about, the only ought ever still to this day ever actually meant by anyone).

          There are several different goals one can orient ought statements to, e.g. one can “mean” by “you ought to do x” merely “I want you to do x.” But that’s not what people mean when they are seriously trying to ascertain moral facts (some people might try to conceal that that’s all they really mean, but that they have to conceal it is what demonstrates it isn’t what anyone else is talking about). Moral facts are only distinguished from other normative facts by one single assertion: that they supersede all other normative facts. When we say that “one ought to do x” morally, we mean, there is no other statement as to what one ought to do that supersedes that one.

          Moral facts are therefore “that which we ought to do above all else.” And a cross-cultural study of moral “discourse in practice” demonstrates that’s what everyone actually has always meant by moral facts. Once you get to that point, all moral facts follow the same procedures as every other normative science: you just have to locate that which we want above all else (as that will supersede all other goals for every agent, and thus all ensuing ought-statements will supersede all other ought-statements). The rest is straightforward empirical science (discovering what human beings actually want above all else, and what will actually obtain it).

          This is all discussed and debated, with evidence and syllogisms, in this course. Registration is still open.

        4. I’m not sure where or how you’re getting the ought from the is, so I want you to show me using rules of inference.

          Here’s what a deductive argument would look like if you wanted to go directly from is to ought:

          (1.) If you don’t want to spread germs, you ought to use proper hygiene.

          (2.) You ought to use proper hygiene.

          This is logically invalid because the premise does not entail the conclusion. If it does, what is the rule of inference that allows you to go from (1.) to (2.)? In order to get from (1.) to (2.), you would need an additional premise (1.a):

          (1.) If you don’t want to spread germs, you ought to use proper hygiene.

          (1.a) You don’t want to spread germs.

          (2.) Therefore, you ought to use proper hygiene.

          You can’t get an ought from an is because “If P then Q” does not entail Q. Only modus ponens can give you the additional premise you need to get from (1.) to (2.):

          (1.) If P then Q.

          (1.a) P.

          (2.) Therefore, Q.

          Even if the argument with the additional premise is both valid and true, we’re still not getting the ought from the is. Instead we’re getting an ought from an ought and an is. Any attempt to get an ought from an is leaves us with an enthymeme, an incomplete and therefore invalid argument because it’s missing an essential premise. Far from overthrowing Hume’s is-ought distinction, the attempt to get an is from an ought shows just how difficult it is to overcome.

          An ought is something that is impossible to know empirically, which is why science remains a purely descriptive enterprise. When we look outside, we never observe the world as it ought to be, only as it is. In the sciences, there is no ought from an is, just a series of descriptive accounts of optimal ways of doing things. We sterilize instruments before performing surgery because it’s the best way to ensure patient survival, not because we ought to. You can have an ought, but it can only come from an ought and an is.

          Please correct me if I’m wrong.

          I have some further questions about your moral beliefs. In your response, you write:

          “Moral facts are only distinguished from other normative facts by one single assertion: that they supersede all other normative facts.”

          How is that even possible? If a normative ought is what any rational and well-informed agent would do, what is a moral ought? Does a moral ought imply that the agent would have knowledge of ALL relevant facts? That doesn’t make any sense. Wouldn’t that require a god’s eye perspective for moral oughts to be possible? If that is the case, morality would be impossible because all rational, well-informed agents are finite beings, at least in this universe.

          A further question is how do we distinguish moral oughts from normative ones? Saying that they supersede all normative oughts isn’t going to cut it, because it’s still an open question as to why moral oughts supersede normative ones.

          If morality is reducible to hypothetical imperatives (if you want x, then you ought to do y), as you appear to suggest, then how do we rule out something like:

          “If you want to rob banks, you ought to get a gun, a mask and a getaway vehicle”?

          And let’s say that the person doing this has done this many times before and has never suffered any consequences for robbing banks, nor will he ever suffer any consequences. What makes this person immoral from a consequentialist perspective?

          I’m guessing that you’re a moral realist, right? Out of curiosity, how do you ontologically ground moral oughts?

          If you’re saying the Golden Rule objectively exists because its a co-operative strategy that promotes social harmony, then you haven’t ontologically grounded your moral ought. If you’re claiming that we should rely on the Golden Rule because it promotes the greatest happiness, what you’ve done is ground your moral ought on another moral ought. What we have is moral subjectivism, not realism.

        5. Read my peer reviewed chapter in TEC if you want to understand the underlying formal logic. I have full syllogisms in the appendix. If you want informal summaries, I’ve already linked you to several. If you aren’t even going to read the summaries, stop asking questions already answered in them, because if you don’t care to read the answers, why ask the questions?

          All ought statements are “hypothetical imperatives” and thus empirical facts (“is” statements about the world). If you don’t know why, get up to speed by reading literature on hypothetical imperatives; you can start with my chapter in TEC, which gives a bibliography. Even Kant gets this one right; he just didn’t like hypothetical imperatives and tried inventing another, and only ended up inventing another hypothetical imperative, as I proved in TEC, as summarized in my Open Letter. But Kant demonstrated how most oughts (it just turns out, all of them) derive from an is. If you don’t even know Kant demonstrated that, you are way behind the learning curve here.

          Since in fact (despite Kant’s attempt to argue otherwise) all ought statements derive from is statements about ends-and-means, the only thing one needs to establish moral oughts are the ends of morality (what goal moral facts serve). But that is logically entailed by what everyone has always meant by moral oughts: oughts that supersede all other oughts. The only oughts that can supersede all other oughts are oughts that serve a goal that supersedes all other goals. This is a logically necessary truth. Therefore once you locate the goal everyone places above all other goals, all moral oughts follow as a matter of empirical fact. Aristotle got this one right over two thousand years ago.

          If you still don’t understand, read my chapter in TEC. It has all the formal logic you are looking for, relevant bibliography, analysis of Hume and Kant, and step-by-step explanation. That chapter is provided for free to all students of my moral science course, so you could always register for that, do the readings, and ask your questions there for the class to benefit from.

        6. I’m not getting your interpretation of Hume’s is/ought passage. In Treatise of Human Nature, he wrote:

          “In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.”

          He’s saying that if you’re going to use an ought in a deductive argument, there should be an explanation for how you got it from an is. Hume notes that writers never provide one. Because of this little detail, we cannot say that morality (“vice and virtue”) is based on reason or matters of fact (I believe he said morality was based on sentiment, emotions). Hence, the is-ought distinction.

          You write:

          “We derive an ought from an is all the time (e.g. in surgery, engineering, agriculture, etc.); and in fact can arrive at an ought in no other way. Which is what Hume actually said.”

          Where are you getting this from? Is Hume not saying that we can’t derive an ought from an is (at least not without explanation) because they are very different relations?

        7. Don’t stop at that passage. Keep reading Hume after that passage: he indeed goes on to answer his own complaint by providing the basis for deriving an ought from an is. He is complaining that others don’t do this, but he will. Indeed he even wrote a whole additional book on it. This is the problem with just reading excerpts of Hume. You easily miss the entire point of everything Hume said.

          As I wrote in the TEC chapter you need to read: “David Hume declared that imperatives not only do, but can only derive from the facts of nature, and are therefore proper objects of scientific inquiry: David Hume, “Of Morals,” in Treatise on Human Nature (1739), § 3.1.2, more fully expounded in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). And: “David Hume, “Of Morals,” in Treatise on Human Nature (1739), § 3.1.1, where he only declares that ‘vulgar systems of morality’ have failed to establish that connection, not that no system ever could; to the contrary, in the very next section he argues he can—so, even if you believe his specific moral theory is incorrect, it’s still wrong to claim he declared a reduction of values to facts to be impossible.”

        8. I realize how important TEC is for properly understanding your moral system, so I will either get the book or enroll in your course in the next few days.

          That said, I have one final question:

          If morals are objective, it would be logically possible for something to be right, even though ALL humans disagree with or hate it. Why this is logically possible should be apparent: if morals are objective, they will be independent of human feelings and desires. This being the case, they will be features of the external world.

          If you agree, fine, and we can stop here. But if you disagree, and believe that moral rightness must necessarily coincide with human well-being, then that morality becomes a subjective, not an objective one.

          Why do I say this? According to Collins English Dictionary, “subjective” means:

          of, affected by, or produced by the mind or a particular state of mind; of or resulting from the feelings or temperament of the subject, or person thinking; not objective; personal

          This is not to deny that we can empirically find out what someone feels or desires. For example, imagine a little boy who enjoys eating chocolate pudding. We could ask him whether he enjoys eating pudding. We could even put him under an fMRI, show him images of pudding and see whether this visual stimuli activates the dopamine-producing areas of the brain.

          Although we can investigate this empirically, the fact remains that the boy’s love of pudding results “from the feelings or temperament of the subject, or person thinking.” The same goes for human well-being. And what determines this well-being other than what people feel and desire? Even if we can empirically investigate human well-being, it doesn’t change the fact it’s determined by feelings and desires or “produced by the mind or a particular state of mind.”

          Wouldn’t this make all morality necessarily subjective?

        9. If morals are objective, it would be logically possible for something to be right, even though ALL humans disagree with or hate it.

          Technically yes. It’s just like the same fact in ordinary science, where we can be fully warranted in believing something is true (e.g. Newtonian relativity, classical mechanics), when in fact it’s not (e.g. Einsteinian relativity, quantum mechanics). Until we get the information that corrects us. Thus all knowledge domains must be tentative and revisable. This is as true of morality as every other field of human knowledge.

          Indeed, both sides can even disagree on which action is right, while at the same time agree they are both right to believe what they deem right is actually right. Because one side can agree the other side lacks information, and thus is acting exactly as they should given the information they have, which is all anyone can ever expect from anyone else (and is exactly what the other side also must do, e.g. they can only ever act as correctly as possible given what they know at the time, and no one ever knows everything).

          This is again identical to any other field of knowledge: e.g. we can now agree that 19th century scientists should have believed, and thus were right to believe, Newtonian relativity governed the universe, even though we now know they were wrong, because we now have more information than they did and thus we know Newtonian relativity is only a special low-resolution outcome of Einsteinian relativity.

          Why this is logically possible should be apparent: if morals are objective, they will be independent of human feelings and desires.

          That’s not quite correct. Think of the science of psychology: it empirically demonstrates true facts about human feelings and desires (e.g. whether they exist, what kind exist, when, and so on). So you cannot say the facts of psychology are “independent” of human feelings and desires. They are, to the contrary, factual statements about human feelings and desires. What is independent is whether those fact claims are true or not, as in, that you have a certain desire is objectively true or false no matter how much you desire that not to be true. What you wish were true, has no effect on what is true, even with regard to the things you actually want.

          Likewise feelings. You can “feel” that something is true about your feelings yet be wrong; “feeling” is not a reliable indicator of truth, even about your own feelings. The only thing it can be failsafe for are direct uninterpreted experience, e.g. that you are feeling a certain thing right now is always true and can never be false, but why you are feeling that can be something you are mistaken about, likewise how you describe or understand your feeling can be false. For instance, you can directly feel angry, and can’t be wrong about that; and yet it could be you feel angry because really you are sad and don’t know how to process sadness, so your brain kicks it into consciousness as anger, and irrationally picks a target for the anger, that actually is totally unproductive, and won’t address the real cause of your feeling angry, which is your being sad about something. Human psychology is complicated that way.

          Likewise desires. You can want to be rich, because you mistakenly think it will make you happy. When really, trying to chase wealth can make you unhappy. There is thus a difference between your desires of the moment, and your real long-term desires, the things you really want, that are the reasons for wanting anything else at all. You can thus feel a present desire, but still be wrong as to whether that’s what you really want, as in, what you would want instead if you took the time to reason everything out with correct information and no fallacious reasoning.

          Similarly, whether a moral conclusion is true will not depend on what someone wants to be true or feels is true. But it will not be entirely independent of feelings and desires. If feelings and desires did not exist, no moral facts would exist at all. Moral facts are directly entailed by desires and feelings. Morality is entirely about modulating pain, pleasure; misery, happiness; etc. such that if those things didn’t exist, neither would there be any moral facts. And moral motivation, and thus moral truth, is entirely about desires: what sort of world do we really want to live in; what sort of person do we really want to be. Without which no one would have any reason to be moral, and thus there would be no sense in which any moral statements were true for them.

          This being the case, they will be features of the external world.

          Everything is a feature of the external world. That you have emotions and desires is a physical fact of your brain, which is external to your present phenomenology of experience, and is true independently of anything you think or believe, and observable to third parties (e.g. fMRI machines can read people’s minds at a crude level now because they can detect what emotions you are feeling by tracking which emotion circuits your brain is exercising; when they reach fine enough resolution they will be able to read every single aspect of your thoughts and feelings).

          When people say “external world” they can only be excluding one single thing: immediate uninterpreted experience. Which tells us nothing about even ourselves, because to get to conclusions about ourselves we have to interpret so as to draw inferences from our immediate uninterpreted experience.

          But if you disagree, and believe that moral rightness must necessarily coincide with human well-being, then that morality becomes a subjective, not an objective one.

          False. Whether humans are in pain or not, are happy or not, are satisfied are not, is a neurally measurable objective fact about their brains, and thus about themselves, and thus about the world. Completely independently of what they “think” or “wish” is true. Likewise what people want and don’t want, are objective facts about them. Usually in conjunction with objective facts about the world, e.g. your desire to chase wealth because you want to be happy is objectively false, because of the way the world works, independently of how you think or wish it worked.

          Why do I say this? According to Collins English Dictionary, “subjective” means: of, affected by, or produced by the mind or a particular state of mind; of or resulting from the feelings or temperament of the subject, or person thinking; not objective; personal

          This refers to phenomenology, e.g. “I feel right now that chasing wealth will make me happy.” That you feel that can never be false (if indeed you are feeling that). That’s a subjective fact. But the objective fact is whether what you feel is true: will chasing wealth make you happy? That’s going to be true or false owing to facts wholly apart from how you feel about those facts.

          Moral facts are the latter. We aren’t asking what you “feel” is true. We are asking what actually is true, regardless of how you feel about that. And that requires knowing two things, neither of which are directly accessible in subjective experience:

          (1) What do you really want? As in, not what you happen to want right now (“I want to be rich!”), but what it is that you want that for (“Why do I want to be rich?”).

          (2) What actions will actually stand the best odds of accomplishing the things you want. As in, what you must instead want to get that other thing, the thing you really want (“Will chasing wealth stand better odds of making me happy than cultivating friendships and a frugal life of simple success doing something I love?”)

          Neither of these things can be discerned from direct uninterpreted experience. They are therefore not subjective facts, but objective facts. About you and your feelings, desires, and needs. About which you can be entirely wrong in your direct subjective experience (“I just feel sure chasing wealth will make me happier than cultivating friendships and a frugal life of simple success doing something I love”).

        10. I’m trying understand how an objective morality could evolve, so I have a few more questions.

          Evolution results in changes to a population’s heritable characteristics over the course of thousands or millions of years. Successful adaptation to an ancestral environment maximizes the population’s ability to survive and pass on its genes. As a process, evolution is only concerned with what works, not with what is objectively true.

          From this, it follows that human moral systems are necessarily evolved; they are structured the way they are because they maximize the survival and replication of genes. Now my questions are:

          How can we speak of objective moral truth if morality evolved the way it did to maximize survival and replication? How can anything be objectively morally right or wrong if moral rightness and wrongness are determined by what maximizes reproductive success? Isn’t the only objective truth about morality, if there is any, its evolutionary function as a group fitness maximizer?

          It is conceivable that human evolution could have taken different paths, not necessarily the one outlined by paleontologists. Humans could have evolved in an ancestral environment radically different from the one they actually evolved in (Paleolithic Africa); they could also have evolved with different capabilities (i.e. the ability to regenerate body parts, fly, infrared vision or breathe under water). In these cases, human morality would be very different from what it is now.

          How can there be an objective morality when the morality we have is not only shaped by evolution, but could have differed from contemporary morality if evolution had taken a different course?

        11. I’m trying understand how an objective morality could evolve…

          Objective moral facts don’t “evolve.” Any more than facts about how best to conduct surgery or agriculture “evolved.” They are simply facts. The only thing that has to evolve is a cognitive system capable of discovering them.

          You are confusing what evolution rewards (differential reproductive success), which is thoroughly, callously, inhumanly amoral, and what we mean by morality, which is, how we ought to behave to achieve what we really want out of life. Evolution is not a moral authority in answering that question. It doesn’t give a shit how miserable you are or how unjust your world is. “Reproduction” is by itself a useless goal. There is no point in continually replicating a population mired in abject misery. Morality is about fixing what evolution would not, and could not, accomplish for us. Just as science and logic “fixed” the broken and defective minds evolution stuck us with.

          You clearly aren’t reading anything I have told you to. You don’t even know what we are talking about.

        12. I was under the impression that morality was a set of evolved social behaviors that had to be analyzed to uncover objective moral principles, but I know I’m wrong now. Thanks for clarifying that.

          What is the statistical likelihood an objective morality exists? We haven’t discovered any objective moral principles and it is quite possible we will never discover any. We don’t know what an objective morality looks like precisely because we haven’t discovered objective moral principles as yet. Judging from the widespread disagreement among philosophers, we’re not even sure they exist.

          Since there isn’t any reason to assume objective moral principles are any more probable than subjective ones, wouldn’t assigning them equal probabilities (basically 50% either way) be the only reasonable option? How would you calculate it?

          An objective morality would entail quantitative measurement of aggregate human well-being on an absolute scale of moral “oughtness.” This reading would then be used to determine whether you ought to act in a certain way, depending on the situation. Given how difficult it would be devise such an absolute scale, wouldn’t a subjective morality be more practical? At least until we discover objective moral principles?

          Shouldn’t the greater practicality of subjective morality count in favor of its being more probable than objective morality?

        13. Evolution does not dictate morality, it discovers morality, the same way it does not dictate logic, it discovers logic.

          Our brains evolved to be better at logic over time, but our evolved brains are still highly defective in the logic they think is correct. So we eventually had to fix evolution’s errors by continuing to discover correct logic on our own, and installing a “software patch” to fix evolution’s mistakes (which patch we call education and culture). Evolution was not creating this logic. It was discovering it. And did so imperfectly, requiring us to go the rest of the way through investigation and cultural evolution.

          Morality is exactly the same: evolution discovered some true moral principles, but did so just as poorly and incompletely as it did logic, requiring us to go the rest of the way on our own, and discover what evolution got wrong, and installing a “software patch” (again, education and culture) to fix it.

          To get up to speed on the difference, follow my debate on this point with Wallace Marshall, starting here.

          You’ll there see that the statistical probability of there being moral facts for any self-aware entity is 100% in every possible universe: it is a logically necessary fact of any such being, that there is a best way for it to live. That is what moral facts are. We simply have to discover what it is. And we do so empirically.

          You are now also confusing different concepts; subjective is not the opposite of absolute. Situational ethics are also objectively true. You do not seem to understand what “subjective morality” means. Please do what I have been asking you and read the articles I directed you to. You need to correct a lot of misunderstandings. You don’t know what you are talking about. And I wrote those articles exactly for people like you so you can get informed. So get informed.

          Here are some suggestions, again (and I suggest you read in this order):

          Objective Moral Facts

          The Real Basis of a Moral World

          How Can Morals Be Both Invented and True?

          Open Letter to Academic Philosophy: All Your Moral Theories Are the Same

      2. You say, in one of the articles you linked:

        “Moral truth is what you would do if you were fully informed and reasoning without fallacy.”

        According to you, this can be empirically investigated.

        The only problem here is that this isn’t an a posteriori observation, but an a priori one. At what point do we become fully informed enough that we are able to discover moral truth? Isn’t it possible that one could forever be searching for moral truths since the process of informing ourselves is an endless one?

        At what point do we become fully informed enough to formulate moral truths? Setting limits would necessarily be arbitrary and subjective, given that rational deliberation about moral truths is an endless one.

        If a “fully informed” ideal agent is an impossibility, your subjunctive clause is a counterfactual and is therefore a priori. No one can be fully informed about anything, although we can speculate about what a “fully informed” ideal agent “reasoning without fallacy” would do in a hypothetical situation. However, this speculation is not something that can be established empirically because no such ideal agent exists.

        In short, you contradict yourself when you define objective morality as what an ideal agent would do if he “were fully informed and reasoning without fallacy.” This is an a priori statement because it involves a fictional possibility that transcends experience because it cannot be decisively established by it.

        Reply
        1. At what point do we become fully informed enough that we are able to discover moral truth?

          Moral knowledge resides in what is available to know. Just like all other sciences. Hence just as we can be wrong about a fact or not know a fact in physics, so also morality. This has nothing to do with being a priori. It is, rather, an inalienable feature of the a posteriori.

          Just as our quest to know what’s true in physics is eternal, but increasingly close to complete and certain, so also moral knowledge. There is therefore no problem here for moral facts than already exists for all other facts in all other sciences.

        2. You didn’t answer my question.

          My point is that when you define objective morality as what “you would do if you were fully informed,” you no longer have an objective morality. No agent can be fully informed because the accumulation of moral knowledge is an endless process. Even if we limit ourselves to what is currently available, the information is still vast … and growing. It would take many lifetimes to sift through all of it. A fully informed ideal agent would have to be a morally omniscient one. Because of this, all we can do is speculate about what a fully informed agent would do in a hypothetical situation.

          Your definition of morality contains an a priori and is therefore subjective. How can it be a posteriori if we cannot observe what a fully informed ideal agent would do in a laboratory setting? Saying that science is the same way does not avoid the problem, but merely indicates the subjectivity of normative imperatives.

        3. You aren’t listening. “No agent can be fully informed” is the same fact as “no physicist can be fully informed.” Yet we still continue to gain knowledge of physics. So too we can continue to gain knowledge of morality. It is not necessary to know every true fact of physics to know true facts of physics. It is likewise not necessary to know every true fact of morality to know true facts of morality.

          In no way does this make moral facts not objective facts, any more than it makes the facts of physics not objective facts.

          When you look at what makes a claim in physics true, it’s the same for morality: of any moral fact claim (of any fact of physics; of medicine; of history; of car maintenance; etc.), if you respond to evidence rationally, then you will agree it’s true once we tell you all the reasons it’s true (“becoming fully informed”).

          You can no more object by saying “maybe there is something we both don’t know that would change this fact,” than you can say this of any other claim in science. Because the same statement is true of every fact in the universe. Yet you don’t let this cripple you, thereby insisting all science is false and not objective; you instead accept scientific facts exist and are known and are true even though each and every one of them might be false “because of something we don’t know.” The way you resolve that conundrum for every fact of the world, is exactly the same way we resolve it in morality.

        4. OK, so there’s closure to the learning process.

          This leads to my next set of questions:

          When does someone become fully informed enough that they’re able to act morally? And who decides who is well-informed enough to act morally, a Supreme National Committee of Objective Moral Practice? How do you draw the line in a way that’s non-arbitrary and non-subjective?

          [quote]You can no more object by saying “maybe there is something we both don’t know that would change this fact,” than you can say this of any other claim in science. Because the same statement is true of every fact in the universe. Yet you don’t let this cripple you, thereby insisting all science is false and not objective; you instead accept scientific facts exist and are known and are true even though each and every one of them might be false “because of something we don’t know.”[/quote]

          You’re confusing two separate issues. Normative imperatives are prescriptive, but their subjectivity wouldn’t affect the objectivity of the underlying scientific methodology, which is meant to describe a state of affairs. IOW the problem of the fully informed agent only affects whether prescriptive statements like “You ought to sterilize surgical equipment in an autoclave before surgery” are empirical, not whether sterilizing equipment is an effective way of preventing the spread of germs (descriptive).

          My question:

          You seem to think that morality is a science because we can frame moral principles as a series of hypothetical imperatives. However, we can also frame mathematics as a series of hypothetical imperatives, i.e. if you want to find the hypotenuse of a right angle, you ought to use the axioms and deductions of the Pythagorean theorem, but this does not make mathematics a science. How would you respond to this?

        5. When does someone become fully informed enough that they’re able to act morally?

          Exactly as defined for negligence law in criminal courts: When does someone’s ignorance rise to the status of culpable negligence, rather than a legitimate defense? We already have answered this with the reasonable person standard. If it is not reasonably possible for you to have acquired the knowledge that would have changed your decision in the given circumstances, you were acting morally (you acted on the information you had, with good intent). But if it was reasonably possible and yet you chose not to check the facts, then you are acting in willful negligence, and are culpable for any consequences that result from your ignorance. This is how it works in courts of law. It’s how in works in all moral judgment.

          And who decides who is well-informed enough to act morally, a Supreme National Committee of Objective Moral Practice?

          Anyone can. If they can show you acted wrongly out of willful negligence, they get to condemn you as doing so. That’s how moral judgment has always worked and would always work. And if you care about being a moral person, then you will care not to ever do such a thing, a thing even you would have to admit you could rightly be condemned for. Whereas if you don’t care about being a moral person, you are openly declaring to us all that you are not a moral person. You will then have made the judgment as to that yourself, saving us the trouble.

          How do you draw the line in a way that’s non-arbitrary and non-subjective?

          What’s arbitrary? Facts are facts. Logic is logic. There is nothing arbitrary about whether you acted in logical accord with known and knowable facts.

          What’s subjective? We can all objectively observe whether you are acting in logical accord with known and knowable facts.

          IOW the problem of the fully informed agent only affects whether prescriptive statements like “You ought to sterilize surgical equipment in an autoclave before surgery” are empirical, not whether sterilizing equipment is an effective way of preventing the spread of germs (descriptive).

          Both are objective facts. Moral facts, same.

          Medicine is a good analogy indeed: when we didn’t (and at the time couldn’t) know about germs, some of our normative statements about surgery were false; but as soon as we corrected our ignorance, we corrected our surgical norms. Social progress in moral knowledge works exactly the same way.

          You seem to think that morality is a science because we can frame moral principles as a series of hypothetical imperatives. However, we can also frame mathematics as a series of hypothetical imperatives, i.e. if you want to find the hypotenuse of a right angle, you ought to use the axioms and deductions of the Pythagorean theorem, but this does not make mathematics a science. How would you respond to this?

          Mathematics is a science in most classification schemes. But I think you mean, empirical vs. analytical science.

          Mathematics differs from morality the same way it differs from physics: the latter are empirical sciences; the former, however, is an analytical science.

          The distinction is actually weaker than that (since analysis takes place empirically in the theatre of the mind, and always retains a nonzero probability of being mistaken, and mathematics depends on axioms that cannot be analytically proved but only empirically demonstrated to be highly probable). But it’s distinguishable enough: we cannot answer moral questions in the theatre of the mind; unlike mathematics. We have to actually go out into the world and learn things. Just like medicine, physics, agriculture, etc.

          Otherwise, yes, they are just the same. They differ only in where you look for evidence their statements are true.

        6. OK, so there’s closure to the learning process.

          This leads to my next set of questions:

          When does someone become fully informed enough that they’re able to act morally? And who decides who is well-informed enough to act morally, a Supreme National Committee of Objective Moral Practices? How do you draw the line in a way that’s non-arbitrary and non-subjective?

          [quote]You can no more object by saying “maybe there is something we both don’t know that would change this fact,” than you can say this of any other claim in science. Because the same statement is true of every fact in the universe. Yet you don’t let this cripple you, thereby insisting all science is false and not objective; you instead accept scientific facts exist and are known and are true even though each and every one of them might be false “because of something we don’t know.”[/quote]

          You’re confusing two separate issues. Normative imperatives are prescriptive, but their subjectivity wouldn’t affect the objectivity of the underlying scientific methodology, which describes a state of affairs. IOW the problem of the fully informed agent only affects whether prescriptive statements like “You ought to sterilize surgical equipment in an autoclave before surgery” are empirical, not whether sterilizing equipment is an effective way of preventing the spread of germs (descriptive).

          My question:

          You seem to think that morality is a science because we can frame moral principles as a series of hypothetical imperatives. However, we can also frame mathematics as a series of hypothetical imperatives, i.e. if you want to find the hypotenuse of a right angle, you ought to use the axioms and deductions of the Pythagorean theorem, but this does not make mathematics a science. Just because it occurs in time and space does not mean that it can be investigated using empirical methods. How would you respond to this?

      3. Your account of objective morality appears to be deeply flawed. It assumes that if all humans are well-informed and reasoning without fallacy, they will all value the same things. But where’s the proof this is even true?

        It’s possible that one can be well-informed and reasoning without fallacy, but come to completely different moral and ethical conclusions. For example, vegetarians are opposed to meat-eating and many see it as profoundly immoral, but no one would ever dismiss vegetarians as ignorant or vegetarianism as illogical.

        How can there be such a thing as objective morality if people can reach contradictory moral and ethical conclusions, even when well-informed and reasoning without fallacy?

        Reply

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