Debate with Anthony Freeland on Objective Morality: Second Post

This post continues my debate with the Christian blogger Anthony Freeland over whether moral values and duties are objective (independent of human opinion) or subjective (being reports of human opinion). See Anthony’s first post, my first reply, and then Anthony’s second post.

Was the Holocaust evil?

Anthony feels that I hadn’t properly answered his question: Was the Holocaust an act of evil? He also complains that “with subjective morality … nothing can be considered evil”.

It’s clear that Anthony and I interpret the word “evil” differently. I had considered that my statement: “most humans regard the Holocaust as among the vilest and most abhorrent crimes ever” answered the question. Yes, subjectively, most people feel the Holocaust to be evil. But Anthony is presumably asking something different.

So let’s turn to the Oxford English Dictionary. It gives the primary meaning of “evil” as (1) “profoundly immoral and wicked”. To me, morality is subjective and derives from human values and feelings. Someone regards something as “profoundly immoral” if they regard it as “vile and abhorrent”, and that’s why I gave my previous answer. Yes, most people regard the Holocaust as an act of great evil.

Another OED meaning (1.2) is “harmful or tending to harm”, but Anthony explicitly says that “I do not mean harmful”, so let’s discount that meaning.

Thus I presume that Anthony intended either the OED’s definition (1.1), that evil means “embodying or associated with the forces of the devil”, or that by “evil” he was intending something that was objectively immoral.

On the former, no, I do not consider the Holocaust to have been the work of the devil, since I don’t believe in any of the deities of the Christian pantheon.

On the latter, I repeat my previous stance that I don’t known what “objectively immoral” is even supposed to mean. To me morals are value judgements made by sentient beings, and thus by definition they are subjective. As before, I have no conception of what an “objective” moral scheme (one independent of opinion) would even mean. Being God’s opinion doesn’t really help, since that’s just the opinion of some other sentient being, and thus is equally subjective.

But, let’s return to Anthony’s complaint: “with subjective morality … nothing can be considered evil”. The one thing one can do in subjective morality is consider something to be “evil” or “profoundly immoral”. We humans all have opinions and feelings, and we’re generally keen on expressing them! Thus plenty of us do indeed consider things to be “evil” and say so.

The only thing we can’t do is appeal to a god or to an objective standard to back up our opinion. But nothing stops our opinion being sufficient on its own!

As I see it, a religious believer is also judging on their own subjective opinion, and is merely invoking a god constructed in their own image to add weight to their claim. The believer’s god’s opinion is nearly always a mirror of their own. Few people say: “I personally think gay marriage is fine, but God says no, so I guess we can’t have it”, and similarly hardly anyone says: “I abhor the idea of gay marriage, but God says it’s ok, so I guess I’d better accept it”. The god usually backs up whatever opinion the believer wants it to. In the same way, a boy squaring off with a rival might invoke an imaginary older brother to intimidate his opponent.

At this point, let me also say that I wouldn’t personally describe my view as being “moral relativism” (a phrase that Anthony uses about me several times). That phrase can mean several different things and can be misleading. For example a common definition is that “moral relativism is the view that moral judgements are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint”. Yet, I would say that any application of truth values to moral judgements is misconceived. Morals are a matter of how different people feel about how people treat each other.

For example, Anthony says: “But according to moral relativism, all that can determine right or wrong or good or evil is the consequences.” But that is “consequentialism”, which is not “relativism”. Consequentialism is a claim of objective morals, with the consequences being what determines objective right and wrong.

One of the big problems with arguing that morals are subjective is that people simply don’t understand the idea. That’s not aimed at Anthony in particular, but against humans in general, who are so used to their moral-realist intuition that they misinterpret what a subjective scheme of morals entails.

In a subjective scheme, morals are all about human feelings, values and opinions. Yet, that often gets interpreted as saying that humans are not allowed to have feelings, values and opinions!

For example, Anthony says:

If a man cheats on his wife with his own teenage daughter, according to Coel’s view, if they both think it’s ok then no evil has been committed. You see, there is nothing the Professor can say against the molestation of a little girl as long as they both think it’s ok.

Well no, there is plenty I can say! I can say that I consider the man’s actions to be harmful and that I want laws against such acts to deter them. Similarly, the man’s wife can also deprecate the man’s actions. So can anyone else. Just ask them! You’ll see that the idea that people can’t say anything on the matter is just wrong.

Anthony quotes:

Ivan Karamazov said that, “If God is dead, then all is permissible.”

It is true that there is no supra-human authority to tell humans what is impermissible. But that does not mean that humans must permit everything! We can arrange human society as we see fit. If we consider something to be harmful based on our feelings, values and opinions, then we can prohibit it. Nothing stops us doing that. Indeed, that’s exactly what we humans do, collectively arranging society according to our feelings and values.

The Euthyphro Dilemma

Anthony next replies to my raising of the Euthyphro Dilemma. He gives the commonest theological reply, as done by Augustine, Aquinas and others. He objects that it is not simply the case that something is “good” because God commands it, he argues that something is “good” if it derives from God’s nature. He declares:

Something is good because it is in line with who God is. […] His commands are good out of necessity because they flow from His nature which is, by definition, good.

This completely fails to deflect the power of the dilemma. Yes, let’s grant that God issues commands that derive from his nature. That makes no difference to the dilemma, it merely re-phrases it:

Is God’s nature “good” because we have judged God’s nature against some supra-God standard and found it to be “good”? Or is it the case that, whatever God’s nature is, we label that “good”?

Well, Anthony is clear in going for the second of those, declaring that: “His nature … is, by definition, good”. At that point Anthony is thoroughly impaled on the second horn of the dilemma.

So, whatever God’s nature is, that nature is, by definition, “good”. So if God were a sadistic monster, then being a sadistic monster would be “good”. If God were the most hateful, vilest creature ever, then being hateful and vile would be “good”.

On what basis, then, would we decide between God and Satan? The term “good” here just means “whatever God’s nature has”, so doesn’t help to choose between the two. To do that you’d need to rank the two of them against some objective standard, independent of either God’s or Satan’s opinion or nature.

Of course what we actually do is decide between them based on human preference. Morality is, after all, all about human feelings and values. We choose love over hate, and so choose the deity associated with love over the one associated with hate (or, more accurately, we create a god embodying all the virtues that we like, and an anti-god embodying all the vices that we deprecate).

Later in his post, Anthony suggests:

I think that both the Professor and I will agree that … If God exists then objective moral values and duties exist.

Well, if we were to define “objective moral values” simply as “whatever God wants” or “whatever derives from God’s nature”, then I would agree. But I don’t accept that definition. I don’t see why “God’s opinion” or “God’s nature” is a better definition of “good” than “Satan’s opinion” or “Satan’s nature”. And if we’re just picking one of those two arbitrarily, then the system is hardly “objective”.

Anthony’s reply has been tried repeatedly since Augustine and Aquinas, but it simply doesn’t work. As I claimed, the force of the Euthyphro argument has not lessened in the 2400 years since Plato.

Expert Testimony

An argument from Anthony’s first post was that philosophers are the experts on morals, and that the majority of academic philosophers hold to moral realism. Anthony continues this line of attack:

Science cannot answer the origin of morality, the reasons that we have morality, or whether morality is objective or subjective. These are philosophical questions that the materialistic world cannot touch.

I simply disagree. The origin of morality is our evolutionary programming. We have been programmed with feelings about how humans interact with each other because that is a necessary part of living together in a social and cooperative way of life. Given that we have evolved to occupy a cooperative ecological niche (one in which we are more successful by cooperating communally, and sharing the proceeds, rather than by acting alone) we have been programmed with moral feelings as a social glue.

It follows from this explanation that morals are subjective (which means that they are human feelings, they are not about any supra-human standard of “morally correct” conduct). Note, also, that other social animals, such as chimpanzees, also clearly have moral feelings about how they interact with each other.

Anthony continues:

Let me end my rant about philosophy and science by posing a direct question to Prof. Hellier: If philosophers aren’t the “experts” on moral questions, then who is?

Scientists are. Our understanding of the above questions (“the origin of morality, the reasons that we have morality”) was first put forward by Charles Darwin in the Origin of Species, and then at greater length in Chapter 5 (“On the development of the intellectual and moral faculties during primeval and civilised times”) of The Descent of Man. That scientific understanding has been hugely developed since then. As Anthony quotes me saying, in science it is “taken for granted that human moral sentiments derive from evolutionary programming”.

On the difference between philosophy and science Anthony writes:

Philosophy is about using logic and reasoning to come to rational and coherent conclusions.

Yes, but so is science. Science uses logic and reasoning in addition to empirical evidence. Anthony’s tactic here is simply to assert that morality is outside the scope of science, but simply asserting it is not an argument.

Evolution

Anthony notes that I base my understanding of human morality on evolution, but argues:

Until it’s shown to be true that macro-evolution is the best explanation for how we got here (and not because an evolutionist says so but because the evidence shows it to be true) then we have no reason to begin with an evolutionary “context.”

My reply is simply that is has been shown, and yes, shown overwhelmingly on copious evidence. That’s been known and accepted in science since at least the 1930s.

Yes, there are a small number of “scientists” who dispute that, but only very few who are actually working scientists of any note, and nearly all of whom are motivated by their religious convictions.

The problem is that much of the public still doesn’t understand evolution. As an example, Anthony totally misunderstands evolution when he says:

Animals adapt to their environment and their features change according to what they need. But that does not mean that one kind of animal can give birth to another kind of animal. This may seem like a misrepresentation of evolution, but the fact is that if macro-evolution is true then at some point in the past, one kind would have had to give birth to another kind (or one species give birth to another species …).

That’s the “tyranny of the discontinuous mind” (to use Richard Dawkins’s phrase), the human tendency to insist that something must be one thing or the other. Biology is not like that, it is a matter of gradual transitions.

Beowulf first page

Have a look at the image on the right. Can you read it? It starts:

Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon.

That is the poem Boewulf in Old English, English from a thousand years ago, and likely you’ll have a hard enough time pronouncing it, never mind understanding it. Thus it is effectively a different language, though it led to Modern English.

Does that mean that one generation were speaking Boewulf English, and then gave birth to a generation who spoke Modern English, which was so different that parents and children were unable to understand each other? Of course not!

What happened was that in every generation children were speaking the same language as their parents and grandparents. But each succeeding generation spoke it slightly differently from their parents, not nearly differently enough to make it a different language (all generations alive could understand each other, just like now), but over time the differences accumulated. And so the language drifted over time such that an English speaker today would not understand the language of the time of Boewulf.

The two ends of the gradual transition are mutually unintelligible, and thus are a different language, but in no generation did people switch to a different language from their parents.

Similarly, at no point in evolution do animals of one species give birth to offspring of a different species. Rather, they give birth to a new generation that is very slightly different (though not nearly different enough to be a different species). Then, over time, the differences add up. The two ends of the gradual transition are different enough to be different species. But at no generation did parents give birth to children of a different species.

Anthony quotes a blog that says about natural selection:

However, no matter how long this process goes on, it will not transform those deer into another species. The weak deer are eliminated, the strong survive, but, since no alteration in their genetic data takes place, no transformation of a species occurs. Despite the continuous processes of selection, deer continue to exist as deer.

The claim “no alteration in their genetic data” is simply wrong. There are changes to genes, called “mutations”, in every new child. Each of us has about 50 new mutations that were not in our parents’ genes. That, in itself, is pretty insignificant (similar to the minor changes between how children speak English and how their parents speak it), and yet, over time, those changes accumulate. Over time, by the combination of mutation and selection, our genomes change. Deer can evolve into something that is not a deer (just as English can evolve into something that is too different to be called the same language).

Indeed, Anthony’s quote goes on to say this:

Darwin, too, accepted this fact, stating that “Natural selection can do nothing until favourable individual differences or variations occur.” That is why neo-Darwinism had to add the mutation mechanism as a factor altering genetic information to the concept of natural selection.

Exactly. The novel variation in each new generation is a key part of Darwinian evolution.

Scientific Method

Anthony also wants to attack “macro-evolution” in terms of the scientific method. One has to be careful about what one means by “scientific method”. Quite often people, usually non-scientists, try to codify and teach a simplified version of “the scientific method”. Rarely do these accounts bear much resemblance to the range of actual practises in science. When it comes down to it, science is pragmatic, judging on whatever evidence it can get its hands on, but not rejecting perfectly good evidence just because it doesn’t fit into a narrow and over-simplified scheme.

Anthony claims:

As I see it, macro-evolution fails in requirements 2 and 3. That is that macro-evolution is not falsifiable and is not repeatable (or observable).

On the former, “macro-evolution” (which I put in inverted commas since it is a creationists’ term, not really used by scientists) is indeed falsifiable. Darwinian evolution makes a vast array of predictions about how the fossil record would be. “Fossil rabbits in the pre-Cambrian” was Haldane’s oft-quoted answer to what would falsify the theory. Further, evolution predicts that the patterns now discernible in the genes of today’s creatures would agree with the patterns in the fossil record, and they do.

As for repeatability, that is not a requirement of the scientific method. No, really, it isn’t, despite what various claims might say. All historical sciences would be ruled out by that criterion. Events over geological time or over cosmological time cannot be repeated, and yet geology and cosmology are valid sciences. Repeatability is a good thing to have if it is practical, but science is pragmatic, and if repeatability isn’t practical then science does its best without it.

Anthony ends this section with:

If Coel expects us to take his view of moral relativism seriously then he is going to have to give good evidence for the foundation of his view; namely, macro-evolution.

The evidence is vastly too copious to fit in a blog post. But books such as Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True” and Dawkins’s “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” are good starting points. It is fair to say that evolution is doubted only be those who either know little about it, or who have strong religious convictions that require them to reject evolution.

Am I being consistent?

Anthony’s last major argument is that people like me “take an objective approach to morality when it’s convenient”, and he says that reading my blog “it becomes abundantly clear that [I] believe that freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and tolerance are objectively good”.

Let me admit one part of Anthony’s claim. Since most people have been moral realists, our language is steeped in moral realism. Therefore, when writing about ethical issues, it is hard to avoid sounding as though you’re a moral realist. When discussing meta-ethics, as now, it’s easy enough to clarify what one means, but if we were discussing, say, equality legislation, such caveats and clarifications would just get in the way. The only way to write well is to use the normal language that everyone uses, and that can make one sound like a moral realist.

But, there is no inconsistency. It is equally easy to interpret such writing from the stance that morals are subjective. For example, Anthony writes:

If morality is merely relative then how can one say that anyone has a right to anything?

To people with my view, a human “right” is not something objective or granted by God; instead, a right derives from agreement among humans. We have a right to “free speech” or “religious freedom” because humans have collectively agreed to grant each other such rights. Documents such as the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights might specify lists of rights, but they do so as agreed by humans. The American Constitution outlines a Bill of Rights, but it does so on the authority of “We the People”.

Similarly, equality and non-discrimination legislation are collective agreements to set rules for how people treat each other. There is no need for rights to be “objective” for this concept to work.

When I argue that, say, religious tolerance is “good” I am simply presenting my opinion, arguing for the sort of society that I want to live in, and which I think would be best for humans. Again, there is no need for “goods” to be objective for this to work. Indeed, everyone influencing society by arguing for the sort of society they want is exactly how societies work.

Anthony argues:

The right of equality is not possible from a naturalistic worldview. Equality can only be a right if morals are objective.

But, again, the concept of “rights” as collective agreements works fine. For example, in many countries a worker has a “right” to a minimum wage, a set number of days holiday, and protection from unfair dismissal. Surely no-one would argue that these are anything other than collective agreements made by society? Surely, even someone who argues that morals are objective is not going to argue that the level of the minimum wage and number of days of holiday entitlement are “objective facts” set by God?

A second example is the UK concept of a public footpath over which the public has a “right of way”. Again, what is or is not a “right of way” is quite clearly an agreement among humans, not something drawn on a map by God.

Anthony continues:

Given [my] views, why should the religious and non-religious be treated equally? Why not bar atheist from holding public office like Sam Harris wants to do with theists? Why not make slaves out of the non-religious if that’s what society at large wants to do?

Quite simply, because it’s not the sort of society we want. The evidence is that such inequalities create tensions and strife that makes things worse for everyone. Further, in a society where such things were accepted, one might, in the future, find oneself on the receiving end. Accepting human rights protects oneself as much as others. The best way of securing those rights for ourselves is to secure them for everyone.

(By the way, I’m not sure that Sam Harris really does want to bar theists from public office, where did he say that?)

But if morality is subjective to one’s, or societies’, opinion then there is no reason why we shouldn’t.

There is no reason external to humans, no supra-human authority to direct us, that is true. However, the reason not to do those things is that we humans realise that it would be worse for us! We don’t want them.

Can we humans be trusted to make such judgements? To a large extent we can be proud of our record. Over the centuries we’ve undergone a gradual broadening and deepening of respect for fellow humans, and have granted each other more and more rights. Few of us would want to go back on that.

This process has also continued as Western society has become more secular. Thus the process is not dependent on belief in objective morals or in God. Places with the lowest levels of religious belief, such as Scandinavia, tend to have the highest quality of life and the highest levels of respect for fellow humans.

Of course humans have also behaved very badly at times. There is no supra-human authority that stops us doing that, and the evidence is that a societal belief in God doesn’t prevent that either. Indeed moral realism can be dangerous, since it can tell people that they ought to, for a higher cause, do what would otherwise be regarded as wrong.

The worst tyrants have tended to be ideologues who felt they had a Messianic duty to impose their warped ideology on society. Many armies have marched into battle claiming a moral mandate from their god, and many others have marched into battle claiming a moral mandate from some other absolutist ideology, such as communism.

Despite our flaws, most of us would judge that, overall, over time, we humans are making moral progress in the sense of producing societies that we regard as better. Placing our trust in our fellow humans is all we can do, and we have reason to be sufficiently optimistic about the outcome.

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139 thoughts on “Debate with Anthony Freeland on Objective Morality: Second Post

  1. Pingback: On objective moral values and duties: A reply to Anthony Freeland | coelsblog

  2. keithnoback

    He does not understand the meaning of “moral realism”. He also does not understand the theological implications of moral realism, which are exactly as you describe. Craig subscribes to divine command theory for good reason – it preserves the deity’s all-encompassing nature.

    Reply
    1. keithnoback

      Moral realism – the idea that moral statements such as “X is good” are truth-apt – encompasses what this conversation has referred to as ‘objective morality’ (presumably some non-naturalist account such as Moore’s) as well various naturalist accounts which you seem to want to exclude.
      In either case, if it is true that X is good, then the deity must face the old question, “Does God will it because it is good, or is it good because God will it.”
      The standard response is something along the lines of, “It is good, and God wills it.” appealing to the notion that god’s nature is simply good. But that begs the question.
      If God’s nature can be qualified it exists in context (it is good as opposed to man’s nature, for instance) – still an external standard. The alternative is some form of DCT.

    2. keithnoback

      You seem to think that it does not encompass reductionist positions, for instance. Railton’s ideas come to mind. Someone who thinks that moral values are evolutionarily derived imperatives is just as much a realist as someone who thinks God has handed those values down. There is a moral fact of the matter in either case.

    3. keithnoback

      Crude example: a proponent might say that we have evolved to value our hands, as they help us survive, thrive and therefore, indirectly, to reproduce. Therefore it is bad for us to lose our hands. Therefore, it is morally wrong for one to run around cutting people’s hands off. You may disagree with the overall soundness of the argument, but it is a realist argument nonetheless. There is a moral fact about hand chopping (it’s bad) and it is true that one ought not do it.

    4. TheProphet310

      Your example presupposes an evolved value system with no standard given. According to evolution, there is no transcendant standard by which to measure the value of a hand nor the moral truth that it is bad to cut hands off. Moral realism cannot be a product of evolution because it does not allow for intrinsic worth. If a person has no intrinsic worth then there is nothing objectively wrong with cutting off their hands.
      There may be a moral fact about chopping off hands but it doesn’t derive from evolution.

    5. keithnoback

      Can you provide an example of an intrinsic value? Moral value is always beholden to something – God’s judgement, humanity’s needs, the dignity (derived) of the individual, etc. This is the other edge of Moore’s OQA. If you are a realist, you must give some account of what constitutes moral value and how it adheres to other facts. I have given you a naturalist account. You may find it unsatisfactory, but it is still a realist account.
      The non-naturalist approach is at least as difficult. Moore ‘resolved’ the problem by saying (more or less) that we can’t account for moral values; we just know what they are. Do you find that answer any more satisfactory?

    6. TheProphet310

      Though I have not read up on Moore, at this point I would not disagree with his statement from an evidentiary standpoint. As to the former, I would contend that humans hold an intrinsic worth stemming from our being made in God’s image. Because we are His image bearers, we hold (1) a special value to Him and (2) a conscience which convicts us when we deface the perfect standard for which we were created. This is why I believe objective morality is good evidence for God. Because it gives us the best explanation for these two virtually undeniable concepts.

    7. Marvin Edwards

      Well, doesn’t everyone have a separate conscience? And doesn’t the conscience of one person sometimes conflict with the conscience of another? For example, conscientious objectors may refuse to fight in wars, while other religious people do. And during extreme racial prejudice in the old south some people’s conscience said black children should not attend school with white children.

    8. TheProphet310

      The conscience can certainly be molded by different factors. For example, some militaries will show gruesome images to their newer recruits in order to desensitize their emotions toward killing. This sort of thing was done to me by my dad who was trying to devoid me of my conscience.
      Also, psychopaths are naturally born with decreases brain activity that controls morals. In this, one could make an argument that some, or even all, aspects of the conscience is subjective. This does not at all deminish the case for objective morality. If you’re trying to make a different point I’d be happy to discuss it.

    9. Marvin Edwards

      The goal of all morality is to improve good and reduce harm for everyone. To the degree that we can derive rules that we can demonstrate empirically to advance that goal, morality is objective.

      I know how I get there. I am still unclear how you get there.

    10. TheProphet310

      If I may, allow me to point out that I am speaking of moral ontology. Your example does not ground morality ontologically. If two people are debating morality and one is talking about moral ontology and the other moral epistemology, then obviously nothing will ever be accomplished.

    11. TheProphet310

      You say: “Moral value is always beholden to something”
      Not necessarily. If I lay my newborn baby on the slab, certainly (if I’m sane) I would not chop him into pieces. Why not? Because he holds a worth to me(extrinsic). Does this mean that he holds no intrinsic worth? Not necessarily but he certainly holds an extrinsic worth. This is in line with your point above.
      Now let’s say that you lay another baby on the slab. A baby of a different family, nationality, and race. A baby that I do not know and I have no reason extrinsically to value. This means that I should have no problem chopping him up into pieces right? Not if I’m sane!
      You see, even though I have no emotional ties to this child, there is still a value that he holds in and of himself. I think anyone would agree (if they’re sane). Even if it is not in line with their worldview.
      Where does this value come from. I think it’s obvious that humans are special for some reason. What that Reason Is IS Another issue. But I have stated my beliefs earlier.
      I’m not arguing any point here. I’m just giving an example as you asked.

    12. keithnoback

      No, that value judgement still supervenes on all sorts of presumably extraneous facts and non-moral considerations – what is human, your motivation to chop the baby up, your means of identification with the baby. I would presume that you would say that none of these non-moral facts would, by themselves, inform your moral valuation. Yet where is the moral valuation without them? Does it float freely? An intuitionist would say that we detect the moral fact of a matter as a bare fact, by a moral sense. Is that your position? If so, what informs the moral sense? How would it tell the difference between a human and a human-chimpanzee hybrid (if it did) without recourse to the associated, ordinary qualities of the two?

    13. TheProphet310

      To your examples, every sane person has a predisposition against killing other humans. I would say that this is good reason to believe that we are made in God’s image and that image should not be defaced.
      Your second example is obviously cultural. My children play with kids of different races and even though they recognize the difference in appearance, they have never come to the conclusion that they are different kinds or subservient.

    14. Marvin Edwards

      But that was the case in the past. Black Africans were classified as less than human by those who enslaved them, partly because they were not modern and partly because they were considered heathens because they were not Christian.

      America has been lucky in that it was forced to confront both religious and racial prejudice.

    15. Marvin Edwards

      Anthony, if you have an argument for an ontologically objective morality then by all means lay it out. (However, the suggestion that we have more than one kind of objective morality already throws us into subjectivity).

    16. TheProphet310

      Keith: I was merely giving an example of intrinsic worth as you asked. I was not speaking to the issue of moral worth. Even though they are in relation to each other, they are separate issues. I don’t think that I hold a purely intuitionist view, I would have to study that view more in depth and contrast it against its counterpart, but I do believe that some moral facts are self-evident.

    17. keithnoback

      Um, you are a little confused on these issues. That’s OK; they are confusing. But don’t take my word for it (please!).
      If you really are interested in the bloody details, I’d suggest Pricipia Ethica, Treatise of Human Nature and Contemporary Metaethics. I’m not qualified to expound instructively past this point. Sorry.

  3. Marvin Edwards

    Coel: “Someone regards something as “profoundly immoral” if they regard it as “vile and abhorrent”, and that’s why I gave my previous answer.”

    And this is why morality cannot be allowed to be merely subjective. Let me point out two other kinds of people that were considered “vile and abhorrent”.

    One was the black man in the old south, both during slavery and then again after slavery during the years of discrimination and segregation. People were offended at having to sit with them on the bus, or at the lunch counter, and God forbid they should drink from the same water fountain or use the same bathroom. This was subjective morality at its worst, based in evolutionary preferences for one’s own tribe, the natural fear of strangers and anyone not like us.

    The other example is the gay man, subject to persecution, discrimination, and even violent murder because he too was viewed as “vile and abhorrent”, again, because his behavior was strange to us and he was not like us, and we feared him, and hated him because of our fears.

    The only objective formula that I know of that is universally applicable is to seek what is good for everyone and seek to reduce harm for everyone. That is the objective goal of morality. And all moral progress results from seeking the best rules that can be objectively demonstrated to move us toward that goal.

    All prejudices are based in false, subjectively held opinions. By integrating the schools and taking affirmative action to insure that qualified black men and women could pursue professional careers through higher education, we undermined the prejudices held against the black race.

    And as gays came out of the closet and we recognized the familiar faces of our coworkers, our doctors, our friends, and our family we were able to view them objectively as well.

    Our moral judgments are best when made objectively, based upon the best information as to what is in fact good for us, and what is in fact real in our world and real about others.

    The harms of prejudice, discrimination, and persecution are objective and measurable in the lives of the people who we mistreat solely because they are different from us, whether that difference be religious, racial, or sexual orientation.

    And our progress has been achieved by seeking objectively good results.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Marvin,

      And this is why morality cannot be allowed to be merely subjective. Let me point out two other kinds of people that were considered “vile and abhorrent”.

      Isn’t that entirely a wishful-thinking argument? You want it to be the case, therefore you’re arguing that it is the case?

      Indeed, this illustrates exactly why we have the illusion that morals are objective. You argue for your opinion, and then to try to reinforce your opinion by appealing to objective support, because you think that makes the argument more compelling.

      But, there isn’t anyone except us humans here — no-one else to come along and impose objective morals on us. Therefore, whether morals are objective makes no practical difference. The only thing that matters, de facto, is human opinion (which is subjective). In essence, what you’re trying to do is influence subjective opinion by persuading people that your opinion has objective backing.

    2. Marvin Edwards

      Human opinion may be either subjective or objective. When we set a moral goal, such as achieving the best good and least harm for everyone, then we have an objective standard by which all subjective opinions may be judged.

      The persecution of any minority for subjective prejudiced reasons causes unnecessary harm and therefore falls short of the goal of achieving the least harm possible for everyone. Therefore it is objectively wrong. It is no longer a matter of personal opinion, but of objective truth.

    3. Coel Post author

      Hi Marvin,
      With all due respect, you’re simply misunderstanding what the words “subjective” and “objective” actually mean!

      Human opinion may be either subjective or objective.

      No it can’t! By the very definition of the word “subjective” human opinions are “subjective”.

      OED: subjective: 1. “Based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions” and 1.1 “Dependent on the mind or on an individual’s perception for its existence”.

      Are a person’s opinions dependent on that person’s mind? If so then they are subjective. If you want an objective morality, it needs to be entirely independent of human opinion.

      When we set a moral goal, such as achieving the best good and least harm for everyone, then we have an objective standard …

      Nope. If we set that goal, then that goal is dependent on our minds for its existence (if our minds didn’t exist, nor would the goal). Further, that goal is “based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions”. It is thus subjective.

      Further, notions of “good” and “harm” can only be meaningful in terms of our feelings.

    4. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “Are a person’s opinions dependent on that person’s mind? If so then they are subjective.”

      Since the only way that we can experience objective reality is dependent upon the human mind you’ve left no room for anything to be objective! The word objective becomes meaningless if you claim that everything is subjective.

      No. The distinction between objective and subjective is the difference between fact and opinion.

      In the case of persecution of Jews, blacks, and gays there was a subjective prejudice that they are evil or less than human. The objective fact is that they are different from us in some very specific way (religion, race, orientation) but otherwise identical in nature to us as persons deserving the same value and respect as ourselves.

      Despite subjective feelings that some have held hold against them to the point of persecuting, segregating, or discriminating against them, such treatment is objectively harmful to them and their rights which ought to be the same as our own.

      Equity is an objective standard. It means fairly applying the same rules to everyone. If some are treated differently under the rules due to a prejudice for or against some irrelevant fact of their religion, race, or orientation, et cetera then it is an objective fact that the standard of equity has not been met. We don’t need an opinion poll but merely the objective observation of facts.

      The fact that slaves were whipped to the point of deep wounds and scarring is objective evidence of the fact that they were harmed. This harm is not a matter of subjective feelings or subjective opinions. It is objective fact.

      Coel: “Further, notions of “good” and “harm” can only be meaningful in terms of our feelings.”

      Really? Matthew Shepard was pistol whipped to the point of a fractured skull, beaten and left tied to a fence to die because he was gay. Do you not consider the fractured skull to be objective evidence that he was actually harmed? Do you actually claim that this harm was entirely a matter of opinion rather than objective fact?

      Morality is objective when it is based upon an objective standard and it can be demonstrated by empirical evidence that the standard was met or not met.

    5. Coel Post author

      The distinction between objective and subjective is the difference between fact and opinion.

      Agreed. And one way of illustrating that is that “objective” facts remain true even if all human feelings, values and opinions were turned off.

      If some are treated differently under the rules due to a prejudice … then it is an objective fact that the standard of equity has not been met.

      Yes, I agree. Now, why should humans be treated equally? You cannot establish the goal of equal treatment except by reference to human feelings, values and opinions.

      All along you seem to claiming that if you can establish that *some* parts of your scheme are objective, then you have an objective scheme. That’s not so, to have an objective scheme it needs to be *entirely* independent of subjective elements in every respect.

      Do you not consider the fractured skull to be objective evidence that he was actually harmed?

      It is objective *evidence* yes, but it is only part of the story. “Harm” can only be established by reference to how humans want to be. Shepard wanted to be alive and healthy, and judged against *that* subjective goal, he was harmed.

      Yet, suppose a brain surgeon needed to cause much more extensive damage to someone’s skull, cutting the whole skull open as the only way of operating on a brain tumour. In that case we would make a different value-judgement about the fracturing of the skull.

      Suppose an eagle takes a rabbit, and feeds it to its chicks. Is that “harmful”? It is harmful from the point-of-view of the rabbit’s preferences, and the opposite of harmful from the point-of-view of the eagle’s preferences. There is no fully “objective” measure of harm, one can only evaluate harm relative to someone’s subjective goals and desires.

    6. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “Suppose an eagle takes a rabbit, and feeds it to its chicks. Is that “harmful”? ”

      Being alive and well is objectively good for all life forms. I’m not sure how to prove this other than by the requirement for some first principle from which all the others may be derived. I believe we have no option but to accept this as axiomatic. Those who disagree are free to offer proof by suicide. Everyone who remains I must presume agrees with the axiom.

      It is objectively harmful to the rabbit and objectively beneficial to the eagle’s chicks.

      Both judgments can be made objectively by a mind that is entirely separate from that of the rabbit or the eagle. Therefore the judgment is objective.

      Coel: “suppose a brain surgeon needed to cause much more extensive damage to someone’s skull, cutting the whole skull open as the only way of operating on a brain tumour. In that case we would make a different value-judgement about the fracturing of the skull.”

      Yes. But that is not about subjective versus objective. That is about unnecessary harms versus necessary harms to achieve some greater benefit.

      Coel: “Now, why should humans be treated equally? ”

      The objective rule must incorporate equity for the practical purpose of universal agreement.

    7. Coel Post author

      Being alive and well is objectively good for all life forms. I’m not sure how to prove this other than by the requirement for some first principle from which all the others may be derived. I believe we have no option but to accept this as axiomatic.

      Good! There you are accepting that your scheme rests on an axiomatic declaration. But, sorry, I don’t accept your axiom.

      Those who disagree are free to offer proof by suicide. Everyone who remains I must presume agrees with the axiom.

      No, not me, I reject your axiom. But I’m not suicidal because, while I reject your axiom that life is *objectively* good, to me it is **subjectively** very good indeed.

    8. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “But I’m not suicidal because, while I reject your axiom that life is *objectively* good, to me it is **subjectively** very good indeed.”

      Then, for as long as you feel subjectively that life and well-being are good, you must also agree that anything that can be proven to objectively sustain life and well-being would be “good” for you and others like you, And that anything that can be objectively proven to unnecessarily harm life or well-being would be “bad” for you and others like you.

      And the distinction between subjective and objective morality would be whether that which helps or harms life and well-being are matters of opinion or matters of objective fact.

    9. Coel Post author

      Then, for as long as you feel subjectively that life and well-being are good, you must also agree that anything that can be proven to objectively sustain life and well-being would be “good” for you and others like you,

      Why of course!

      … And that anything that can be objectively proven to unnecessarily harm life or well-being would be “bad” for you and others like you.

      Why of course! And since all of that derives from my subjective preference for life, that makes the scheme subjective.

    10. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “Why of course! And since all of that derives from my subjective preference for life, that makes the scheme subjective.”

      The “context” is an object (person) pursuing the satisfaction of a subjective desire (internal) in objective reality (external).

      A “scheme” would be a plan mapped out in terms of the specific means to a specific goal. The map begins in the imagination (subjectively/internally), but it must be implemented in objective reality (outside of the mind). The plan is first subjective and then objective.

      The “effectiveness” of the plan would be judged by how well it works in reality. By science and reason we objectively measure the effects of the external implementation of the internal plan.

      By science and reason we judge the means to be effective if the objective goal is reached. The subjective goal was already reached, but only in our imagination. The objective goal is the actual change in the external world that was subjectively desired.

      The moral “goodness” or “badness” of the plan would also be judged by what happens in the objective world. If the effects are objectively beneficial and harmless then the means are judged to be “good”. If the effects introduce unnecessary objective harms to others or oneself, then the means are judged to be “bad”. (And there’s probably mixtures of benefit and harm to be resolved, but let’s keep it simple).

      By science, reason, and experience, we learn objectively which means produce the best results for everyone and which means produce bad results. We create a moral code of ethics to objectively embody what we have learned from objective experience. The code is an object that now exists within the real world.

    11. Coel Post author

      You’re still trying to point to *some* objective aspects of the overall scheme as though that is enough to make morals objective. But it isn’t. To have an objective morality, you have to remove all subjective aspects entirely.

      Thus, you’d have to be able to permanently turn off all feelings, values and desires of all sentient beings, and then argue that some action would *still* be immoral. That, to me, is nonsensical.

    12. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “To have an objective morality, you have to remove all subjective aspects entirely. ”

      Nope. That would be irrational. To have objective morality is nothing more and nothing less than to have a standard based in objective reality rather than subjective feelings and opinions.

      Your argue from the standpoint that everything is ultimately subjective. And that is certainly true, because we organize the concepts by which everything is understood.

      But one of those concepts is the distinction between objective standards and subjective standards. That is a meaningful, real world distinction with practical impact. Specifically, that standards based in personal feelings and opinions are substandard when compared to standards based in objective fact and reason. And that any current standard may be improved by better knowledge and better reasoning. That is the practical distinction between subjective and objective morality. That is the distinction that actually makes a difference in practical daily affairs.

    13. Coel Post author

      Nope. That would be irrational.

      Yes! It follows from the very definition of the word! If there are *any* subjective aspects to your scheme of morality then, by the very definition of the terms, your scheme is subjective.

      Subjective: (OED): “Based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.”
      Objective: “NOT based on or influenced by personal feelings, taste or opinions …” or “NOT dependent on the mind for existence”.

      All along you’re treating the word “subjective” as a word to be avoided at any cost, something that would produce a “substandard” morality. That is just wrong!

      A subjective scheme is one that is about human feelings and values, about what *we* want, what *our* purposes and goals are.

      An objective scheme would be one would be entirely independent of human feelings, values and goals. A subjective moral scheme is thus much better for us, since it is about what *we* *want*!

      If — in any way at all — your scheme is predicated on the fact that humans like life and health and well-being, then — by the very definition of the terms — your scheme is subjective.

      That is not in any way a problem, not in any way something to be got round or explained away! Your scheme makes no sense *except* as based on the fact that human *like* life and health and well-being.

      If, instead, you’re just going to declare an arbitrary axiom that “life, health and well-being” are “good”, then your scheme is entirely arbitrary, being based on an un-justified axiom.

      It is blatantly obvious that life, health and well-being are “good” because we like them! Your whole approach to this is a perverse denial of that blatantly obvious fact, based purely on your irrational horror of the word “subjective”.

  4. Phil

    Coel,

    Would you consider the human need for air, food and water to be objective, which you seem to define as being above human preference? Wouldn’t such a need be universal, a well documented fact of nature since the very beginning, and not a function of culture, opinion or belief etc?

    Don’t human societies require some measure of morality to function, just as individuals require air, food and water to function? Wouldn’t evolution on average remove societies that fail to achieve the same level of internal social cooperation as competing societies? Seen this way, could morality then be reasonably labeled as objective, without the need to invoke anything supernatural?

    We would then come to the trickier question of whether evolution has also determined that at least the illusion of some higher authority who can police morality when the cops are not available is part of what helps moral systems work in large complex societies in the real world. On this topic you seem to be arguing that you are wiser than evolution.

    It would seem that a higher authority concept helps introduce moral controls inside of a person, instead of requiring that such control be applied externally. Without a higher authority concept I can steal your car, and so long as you and the cops don’t catch me, I’m home free. If there is a higher authority, or if I perceive there to be one, I can only get away with stealing your car in the short run.

    Reply
    1. profon

      The need for food, water and oxygen is just another preference. Some people who want to die prefer not to eat or drink and suffocate themselves.
      The example of Sweden shows that people don’t need belief in an invisible tyrant to refrain from stealing cars.

    2. Phil

      The example of Sweden shows instead that ideological atheists will cherry pick any evidence they need to promote their ideology, while discarding all inconvenient evidence, such as for instance the overwhelming majority of human cultures since the dawn of civilization.

      I am arguing with Jehovah’s Witnesses here, I should use reason myself and realize the obvious, it is a complete waste of time. I give up, you guys win, this is too silly.

    3. Coel Post author

      Don’t human societies require some measure of morality to function, …

      Yes, clearly they do.

      Seen this way, could morality then be reasonably labeled as objective, …

      No. “Subjective” does not mean “unimportant” or “disposable” or “arbitrary”. All “subjective” means is that it involves human feelings, values and desires.

      Even if morality is universally necessary in all human society, even if all humans feel the same way about things, that does not make morality “objective”.

      … the illusion of some higher authority who can police morality when the cops are not available is part of what helps moral systems work in large complex societies in the real world.

      Well, we lack sufficient control experiments to fully know the answer to this one. But, as belief in any “higher authority” has died away, in many parts of the Western world, societies morals seem to be getting better, not worse. Further, Japan is a morally functioning society, and yet Japanese religion has never invoked a higher-authority god as a moral judge.

      That concept is dominant in the Abrahamic religions, but there have been plenty of societies which have not had that concept.

  5. Marvin Edwards

    Coel: “Consequentialism is a claim of objective morals, with the consequences being what determines objective right and wrong.”

    Exactly! Otherwise morality is of no consequence. 🙂

    The objective of morality is to make things better for everyone and/or to reduce the harm that people suffer. That is the common sense standard that everyone uses every day to judge one thing moral and another thing immoral. It is how we objectively assess the rightness and wrongness of an action or a rule, by applying that yardstick.

    Murder and assault are immoral because of the physical harm it does to the person killed. Theft is immoral because it deprives someone of their property, a right that we have agreed to respect and protect for each other. And so on.

    Once you have a standard then you can compare the consequences of your choices to that standard and objectively say whether the standard is met or not. And two rules (slavery versus no slavery) can be objectively measured in terms of the benefits and harms that it is most likely to produce.

    Needless to say, we often do not have all of the information required to make an objective decision. Frequently we must choose between two options that are both somewhat good and somewhat bad. Two good and honest persons may disagree as to what will happen as a result of applying this versus that rule. So we take a vote, implement a working rule, and assess the actual results. Later we can return to the question, with better knowledge, and change or discard the rule.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      The objective of morality is to make things better for everyone and/or to reduce the harm that people suffer.

      Who says? You? That’s your subjective opinion is it? And notions of “better” and “harm” are equally subjective.

    2. Shawn the Humanist

      Coel, how about this:

      If you take a good hard look across time and cultures, it seems clear that what most people mean when they say ‘morality’ is in fact social thriving or human flourishing: the full development of all people. I suggest some people just get it wrong. But from the most religious to the most abstract philosophical, I think that is actually the case.

      I believe that’s what people mean when they say morality. I think that’s what Marvin means even though it’s not quite what he said.

  6. Marvin Edwards

    If we are to offer science and reason as an alternative to supernatural beliefs, then we should not be arguing that values are merely subjective. We should be arguing that our means of achieving a true understanding of what is objectively good for us and what is objectively bad for us is better than theirs.

    Reply
    1. The Realist

      Marvin Edwards,

      What you just said is what is know as a “noble lie”, and has nothing to do with truth or science. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noble_lie

      It is of religious nature, which I presume Humanism has ultimately become in their efforts to promote an irrational “objective morality”.

      Also, about “objective morality”, please read my response to you at the end of the previous post. https://coelsblog.wordpress.com/2015/06/30/on-objective-moral-values-and-duties-a-reply-to-anthony-freeland/comment-page-2/#comments

    2. Marvin Edwards

      R: “What you just said is what is know as a “noble lie” … ”

      Little early in this relationship to resort to name-calling, don’t you think?

      R: “It is of religious nature, which I presume Humanism has ultimately become in their efforts to promote an irrational “objective morality”. ”

      The point of pursuing the best ethical system through reason and science is to avoid the irrational.

      The point of Religion is to provide spiritual support for those seeking to be good and to do good. This is especially important in a world where the wicket often prosper at the expense of the good. By words, songs, community, et cetera we encourage each other to feel good about doing good and being good. But, it’s not for everyone. There are religious and non-religious humanists. Both, however, have abandoned belief in the supernatural.

      R: “Also, about “objective morality”, please read my response to you at the end of the previous post.”

      Done. I had unsubscribed since it had gotten repetitive. Sorry to have missed your comment.

    3. Coel Post author

      If we are to offer science and reason as an alternative to supernatural beliefs, then we should not be arguing that values are merely subjective.

      First, it is wrong to use the adjective “mere” about subjective feelings. Human feelings (qualia) are really the only thing important to us.

      But, why do you say that? Are you saying we should not argue that morals are subjective: (1) because you think it’s wrong?, or (2) because you think it’s easier to persuade people to secular ideas if we claim that?, or (3) because you consider that notions of *objective* morality are necessary and best for society?

    4. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “First, it is wrong to use the adjective “mere” about subjective feelings. Human feelings (qualia) are really the only thing important to us.”

      Feelings are flexible. We can adapt our feelings to match objective truth. But we cannot adapt objective truth to match our feelings.

      Coel: “Are you saying we should not argue that morals are subjective: (1) because you think it’s wrong?”

      Relying upon subjective evidence is less accurate than relying upon objective evidence. It leads to the wrong answers to real problems.

      Coel: ” or (2) because you think it’s easier to persuade people to secular ideas if we claim that?”

      Saying that “all morals are subjective” is heard as “everyone can make up their own rules”. And that is morally corrupting.

      Coel: ” or (3) because you consider that notions of *objective* morality are necessary and best for society? ”

      I believe in dealing with real problems in a realistic way. Treating them as objective matters in the real world, not as some abstract philosophical debate about technical definitions.

    5. Coel Post author

      Relying upon subjective evidence is less accurate than relying upon objective evidence.

      It’s not the evidence that I’m saying is subjective, it’s the *goals*. We should use the very best objective evidence in order to best attain our subjective goals.

      Saying that “all morals are subjective” is heard as “everyone can make up their own rules”. And that is morally corrupting.

      Which is about tactics, rather than about truth.

      I believe in dealing with real problems in a realistic way.

      Thee is nothing unreal or unimportant about human values and feelings.

    6. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “We should use the very best objective evidence in order to best attain our subjective goals.”

      Only if those goals are objectively good. Goals are also subject to moral judgment. If the subjective goal is to murder someone you dislike, then that would be objectively wrong. To unnecessarily harm someone is objectively wrong. (The harm is objectively “bad for” the person murdered. The fact that the harm is unnecessary means that inflicting it is objectively “wrong”.)

      And as Kant pointed out, without a “good will” all of the other virtues could be employed just as easily for evil. The best objective evidence could be used to concoct the most efficient plan to commit evil.

      Coel: “Thee is nothing unreal or unimportant about human values and feelings.”

      We can, and should, feel good about doing good and being good. But, unlike the utilitarians, I believe you must first decide what is good before you know how you should feel (As in the two scenarios involving the fractured skull: you do not know how to feel until you know whether the harm was unnecessary (Matthew Shepard) or necessary (to surgically repair an injury).

    7. The Realist

      Marvin Edwards,

      Sorry if you felt offended by the “noble lie” argument, but that’s what it is when you try to convince humanity to have faith in an “objective morality” for the greater good of social harmony. I am actually an advocate of the use of noble lies, but I don’t support the wrong use of terms needed in philosophy to discuss important matters of reality. If we simply redefine the meaning of words, how can we know what we are talking about?

      The terms “objective” and “subjective” are used in ontology to distinguish between things that exist in reality and those which exist only as conscious experience. The experience of color and sound is ontologically subjective even if there might be an ontological objective reality that actually triggers theses experiences in our brain. René Descartes was one of the first to think deeply about these matters of reality and he raised the question “what can we truly know about the objective reality trough our senses?”. And the conclusion to which he came was that he could really only be certain about his own existence and wrote the famous words “I think, therefore I am”, or in other words “I think, therefore I exist”. The topic of “Objective Morality” is used in metaphysics to refer to the question “Is there a morality out there as part of the objective reality?”. The answer, as for now, is no.

      A confusion arises by the use of the term “objective” in epistemology as if it were the same as ontological “objective”. John Searle has proposed a distinction between the two. He separates them into four groups.
      – Ontological Objectivity
      – Ontological Subjectivity
      – Epistemological Objectivity
      – Epistemological Subjectivity.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Searle#Ontological_subjectivity

      From an ontological viewpoint, colors are subjective because they don’t exist as part of the objective reality. A star on the other hand exists independent of any consciousness, and is therefore ontologically objective.

      Now, things that are ontologically subjective, like color, might still be epistemologically objective. The claim “this object is red” is epistemologically objective because there is an onologically objective fact that can prove this argument true or false. We just need to measure the ontological objective wavelength of the electromagnetic wave emitted by that object to determine if it is red or not.

      On the other hand, value claims like “this is better”, “this is good” or “this is prettier” are even epistemologically subjective because there are no ontological objective facts to measure the “goodness” of something. Is it “good” for an asteroid to wipe out all life on earth? Ontologically speaking, the universe has no “goodness” in itself that we can measure.

      Moral claims of “right” and “wrong” are tied to a predefined purpose. What is “wrong” other than the violation of purpose? If the purpose for humans is to live, then it is wrong to kill because killing is a clear violation of that purpose. But who said that humans ought to live? We? Then what about the asteroids and other natural threats trying to kill us? If we say that the universe has no ontologically objective purpose (Humanists also stand by that), then all moral claims are condemned to be subjective because the purpose that supports these moral claims is subjective. We ultimately invent our own purpose, be it based on scientific facts, our own desires or irrational beliefs.

      “But if science proves that evolution has programmed us to avoid harm, then it is our purpose to avoid harm and therefore we ought to avoid harm”.
      This line of thinking is wrong, twice.
      1 – It commits the naturalistic fallacy. Just because nature IS in a certain way doesn’t mean that it is therefore “good” or “better”.
      2 – It violates the is-ought problem. Just because something IS in a certain way doesn’t mean that it also OUGHT to be that way.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naturalistic_fallacy
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Is%E2%80%93ought_problem

      Now, if this is all too technical and we should just go back to what is practical, no problem. Just leave “objective morality” to the philosophers, take our subjective desires (to avoid harm) and create a global law based on consensus and reason, which then promotes well being for everyone. Is this invented law based on scientific facts now objective? No, but that’s no problem because in pragmatic terms it still works.

      Humanists seem to have a grudge against Christians who can claim to have an objective morality because they believe that there is a “being” that exists objectively in an ontological sense which transcends our reality and gives them their purpose. That given purpose is the basis for their moral claims of “right” and “wrong”. Humanism on the other hand is trying to prove that there is an ontologically objective morality that you can’t escape from, but they fail to give any evidence for its existence. They don’t even explain how their fundamental purpose to avoid harm turns out to be ontologically objective. They simply try to redefine the term “objective” to call that which is ontologically subjective as “objective” just to compete with the ontological objective morality Christians claim to believe in. I find this to be embarrassing. Instead of being proud of being able to create a moral system that is (subjectively) better for all humans, Humanists try to desperately get what Christians claim to have.

    8. Coel Post author

      Hi Realist,
      Very nice comment, and I agree entirely. I wonder, given the arguments as you outline them, why are so many academic philosophers (about half?) still moral realists? Are there good arguments for moral realism that I don’t know about, or are they all just judging on intuition, and trying to rescue moral realism to satisfy their intuition?

    9. Marvin Edwards

      R: “but I don’t support the wrong use of terms needed in philosophy to discuss important matters of reality. If we simply redefine the meaning of words, how can we know what we are talking about?”

      Since philosophy seems to be dedicated to the preservation of every possible irrational notion in endless catalogues of its own definitions, it seems to me, as a regular guy, that philosophers should be banned from access to words, lest they destroy all meaning. They should certainly not be consulted on what anything actually means in any practical sense (you know, the “important matters of reality”).

      If you want to know what somethin’ means, just ask the regular guy who uses it in the regular way.

      R: “René Descartes was one of the first to think deeply about these matters of reality and he raised the question “what can we truly know about the objective reality trough our senses?”. ”

      Case in point. What we know of objective reality is what it smells like, feels like, looks like, tastes like and sounds like. What is René’s problem? When our senses are limited we invent telescopes to see farther and microscopes to see things up close. And if we want to track a smell, we befriend a dog.

      R: “And the conclusion to which he came was that he could really only be certain about his own existence and wrote the famous words “I think, therefore I am”, or in other words “I think, therefore I exist”. ”

      Do I have to say anything about that?

      R: “Moral claims of “right” and “wrong” are tied to a predefined purpose.”

      Obviously. And that purpose is to promote our life and well-being. We call something “good” if it meets a real need we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species.

      That is actually the objective purpose of every life form. What separates the animate from the inanimate is the activity that a living organism must engage in to satisfy its basic needs of survival. The tree grows roots into the ground for water. The amoeba extends a pseudo-pod in search of food. Et cetera.

      What is objectively good and rational is that which best leads to the survival and well-being of everyone.

      R: “Now, if this is all too technical and we should just go back to what is practical, no problem. Just leave “objective morality” to the philosophers, take our subjective desires (to avoid harm) and create a global law based on consensus and reason, which then promotes well being for everyone. ”

      Everyone has their own subjective desires. Therefore there can be no consensus without an objective standard by which those desires may be judged. That is the practical problem.

      R: “Instead of being proud of being able to create a moral system that is (subjectively) better for all humans …”

      Hmmm. Subjectively, how do I get to “all humans”? The only appeal we have to anyone else’s private opinions and feelings is that which is objectively good for all of us.

      A standard, especially of everyone’s individual conduct, is an objective yardstick that everyone can agree to. Therefore it cannot be subjective.

    10. The Realist

      Marvin Edwards,

      “Normative Morality” is that code of conduct which, given the specified conditions, will be accepted by every rational being. This normative code of conduct is based on the objective fact that humans tend to avoid harm. The “Normative Morality” is therefore exactly what Humanism is looking for. It is a morality that every rational being will agree upon. If that is what you mean by “objective morality”, then “normative morality” is what you are actually looking for.

      I invite you to take your time to read the definition of “Morality in a normative sense”. You will be pleased to see that it says everything you stand for.
      http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition/

      Also, I invite you to read about Bernard Gert, who was a superb philosopher with a deep understanding in human psychology, who gave us the definition of “Normative Morality” mentioned above.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Gert

      All the individual codes of conduct of this “normative morality” still have to be “reasoned up” and written down, and that is where Humanists should be spending their time on. The term is already there, reserved for that very purpose. Humanists just need to use reason and logic to fill out this normative morality with actual codes of conduct. Once this is done, all rational beings will (in theory) agree upon that code of conduct, which is exactly what you want. If it is ultimately called “objective morality” or “normative morality” is irrelevant in the practical sense of it. People will agree on it because it will make sense, not because of the technical name that was given to it.

      “Objective Morality” is a morality tied to an ontologically objective purpose in the universe, who’s existence Humanism denies. So I wouldn’t spend too much time trying to advocate for the existence of such a morality from a naturalistic or humanistic perspective. It just doesn’t make sense.

    11. Marvin Edwards

      We need to distinguish morality from ethics (otherwise we waste two perfectly good words on the same thing). The concern of morality is the best good (and least harm). The concern of ethics is the best rules.

      Kant refers to a “good will” as the only virtue that can be called good in and of itself, because all other virtues can serve either good or evil intention.

      A “moral” person is a person of “good will” and has the intention of seeking good for others as well as for himself or herself. (I also like it’s semantic tie-in with “morale”, the “spiritual” side of morality).

      A “rule” may be deemed “ethical” by definition, but not necessarily moral (as in the slavery laws). A code of ethics is called a “moral code” to the degree that it serves to achieve the best good.

      “Normative” refers to the tendency to set a commonly shared “normal” status for a social group. Once a set of rules is generally accepted it becomes a “norm” for the community. Any rule set, be it good or evil, is by definition “normative”.

      “Objective” distinguishes what can be empirically demonstrated from what is held as a private, “subjective” view.

      A rule is objectively moral if it can be demonstrated empirically that it serves to improve good or reduce harm. A rule is “more” moral or “less” moral than another rule according to how well it serves to achieve good and/or reduce unnecessary harm.

      Ontology plays no meaningful role in this matter and can only serve as a distracting sideshow.

    12. Coel Post author

      We need to distinguish morality from ethics … The concern of morality is the best good (and least harm). The concern of ethics is the best rules.

      You can’t declare your personal definitions by fiat, and then claim that you’re being objective. The OED does not agree with your distinction, for example defining “ethics” as “moral principles …”.

      A rule is objectively moral if it can be demonstrated empirically that it serves to improve good or reduce harm.

      Only if you can define “good” and “harm” objectively (without any reference to human feelings, desires and values), which you can’t.

    13. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “Only if you can define “good” and “harm” objectively (without any reference to human feelings, desires and values), which you can’t.”

      Been there. Done that. Good day.

    14. The Realist

      Cole,

      I think most arguments for moral realism rely on the confusion around the term “objective” itself. But the real reason might simply be the fact that many academics believe in what their intuition tells them to, rather than following unbiased to the logical conclusions the evidence points to. Einstein intuitively wanted quantum mechanics to be wrong. He believed that the universe was deterministic and rejected the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics out of pure intuition. Einstein was ultimately wrong because quantum mechanics with all its weirdness has become the most successful theory ever and has never been proven wrong in a single experiment. So yes, I think people intuitively want moral realism to be true because it “feels” right to them.

      I see humans as a consciousness awaking in a primitive body. We just woke up. We are a rational consciousness in a primitive body that still emits primitive instinctive impulses which are rationally hard to ignore. The feeling that morals have to be objective is one of them, and that makes many academics fight moral nihilism in every possible way they can. They try to use rationality to prove that their subjective feelings and intuitions are right after all, just like Einstein tried to prove quantum mechanics wrong despite all the rational evidence that supported it at that time. It simply didn’t “feel” right to him that the universe was probabilistic. Einstein also made the mistake to include the cosmological constant into his equations to stabilize the universe and make it static, rather than expanding or contracting. He did this out of confidence in his intuition. For Einstein it was intuitive that the universe was static and not expanding or contracting. He was wrong.

      I think evolution has solved a very important problem in human psychology by creating superstition. Superstition is what gave every culture its fundamental purpose uppon which to base their morality. If you believed in that superstitious purpose, then for you that morality seemed to be objective. But with the advances of science we came to realize that our superstitious beliefs were wrong. What we actually found in the universe regarding our superstitions was a big fat “nothing”, just a dark, cold and frightening (for some) nihilistic universe. Since we got rid of our superstitions we also got rid of the purpose we had, which made our morals seem objective to us. What’s left is a subjective morality, and this intuitively “feels” wrong. It’s the primitive intuition speaking.

      Another good example is Sandra LaFave from the West Valley College. She is a philosophical academic and she wrote an essay called “Thinking Critically About the Subjective/Objective Distinction”. The essay is actually very interesting because she uses the ontological/epistemological separation of the term “objective” proposed by John Searle to clarify things up. But then she starts to make some very disturbing claims, like one where she says that it is “just obvious” that her home-grown tomatoes taste better than store-bought ones “if you’ve experienced both”, or that “Austin Powers” can only be said to be a good movie because the person saying it is an ignorant about what “good” movies really are. She seems to see the human being as a machine that never changes over generations and completely ignores the fact that these opinions are directly linked to the neural configurations inside the human brain. She doesn’t realize that these neural configurations can be different given the right mutation, which could suddenly cause things to be perceived differently in someone else. Think of synesthesia for example. For her, aesthetics judgments aren’t just a simple matter of taste. This is an old idea that goes back to Hegel where the human neurology wasn’t at all understood and evolution hasn’t even been proposed by Darwin yet. But what clearly comes trough when you read her essay is that she has a real problem in accepting moral nihilism. She seems desperately trying to prove that moral nihilism cannot be possibly true. Maybe morals are just as “obvious” to her as the taste of tomatoes.
      http://instruct.westvalley.edu/lafave/subjective_objective.html

      A critic to Sandra LaFave’s argument can be found here
      https://whatapathwemade.wordpress.com/2014/07/10/sandra-lafave-the-subjectiveobjective-distinction/

    15. Coel Post author

      Yes, I think this is the main problem. Many people have an intuitive phobia about morality being “subjective”, as though that would imply it being second-rate, unimportant, disposable.

    16. The Realist

      Marvin Edwards,

      We will never agree on anything if you insist in using your own definitions of what “objective” and “subjective” mean.

      > “Ontology plays no meaningful role in this matter and can only serve as a distracting sideshow.”

      Well, as absurd as this claim may seem to me, at least we agree that from an ontological point of view morals are then in fact meaningless (subjective) and the universe is ultimately morally nihilistic. Also, the “objective morality” Christians claim to believe in is an ontological one, so your attempt to replace it with an ontologically subjective one is therefore also just a distracting sideshow for them.

    17. Marvin Edwards

      The only word I define in an off-book fashion is “morality”. All other words I use in a standard way that I believe is consistent with any ordinary dictionary definition, even if I express it differently.

      The word pair “subjective” and “objective” distinguish one person’s private “truth” from what can be demonstrated to be a fact in the real world, regardless of private opinion. One is a private view, which may or may not be confirmed in the real world. The other is an objective view, that can be independently confirmed by any and all observers.

      If you think you have any definition from any source that has different semantic underpinnings, then by all means bring it to the table.

      The first principle of morality is that life and well-being are objectively good. There is no proof required for this principle. Morality is only relevant to the living.

      From this we can demonstrate in the real world how different behaviors affect the actual welfare of individuals, communities, or the species. And by this empirical evidence make objectively true statements regarding what behaviors are helpful or harmful in specific situations.

      That is what I mean by an “objective morality”.

    18. Coel Post author

      The other is an objective view, that can be independently confirmed by any and all observers.

      If everyone you asked said that chocolate tastes nice, would you claim that the nice taste of chocolate was “objective”?

      If you think you have any definition from any source that has different semantic underpinnings, then by all means bring it to the table.

      OED: “objective”: “not dependent on the mind for existence”. Thus things like the nice taste of chocolate and the niceness of being alive are not objective.

      The first principle of morality is that life and well-being are objectively good. There is no proof required for this principle.

      That’s a cop-out. You are admitting that your scheme rests on an unjustified axiom.

    19. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “Thus things like the nice taste of chocolate and the niceness of being alive are not objective.”

      The goodness of being alive (assuming a state of well-being) is objective. Proof:
      (a) It remains true in the real world regardless of anyone’s personal feelings or opinions. Therefore it meets the requirements of the definition of “objective”.
      (b) No dispute between two subjective opinions is resolvable while subjectivity governs the norm. The only arbiter is that which is objective, something separate both subjective viewpoints to which both views must bend.
      (c) No subjective opinion can invalidate the goodness of being alive and well. For example, the subjective feeling of suicidal depression (wait for it) cannot invalidate it. If it could, then there could be no superior argument against the teenager offing himself after being rejected by the one he loves.

      The first principle of morality is that being alive and well is objectively good.

      Coel: “That’s a cop-out. You are admitting that your scheme rests on an unjustified axiom.”

      If you wish to argue that being alive and well is not good, be my guest. Otherwise, it may be accepted as a given. That’s the nature of first principles, Coel.

    20. Coel Post author

      The goodness of being alive … is objective. Proof: (a) It remains true in the real world regardless of anyone’s personal feelings or opinions. …

      Now suppose that everyone hated being alive. What would “life is good” even *mean*? When I’ve asked you to define you’ve replied that “good” is what enables life. So “life is good” just means “life is life”. It’s an empty tautology.

      The *only* sensible interpretation of “good” is “what people like”, which makes it subjective. “Life is good” means “people like life”. You have given no alternative interpretation of the phrase.

      If it could, then there could be no superior argument against the teenager offing himself after being rejected by the one he loves.

      Note the unstated parts of the argument: “but I *want* there to be a superior argument, therefore there *is* a superior argument!”. This is as convincing as “I *want* there to be a God, therefore there *is* a God”.

      If you wish to argue that being alive and well is not good, be my guest.

      As I clearly stated, I argue that being alive and well is **subjectively** good. That means that most people like it.

      As for the idea that it is *objectively* good (good in some way independent of the fact that people like it), well you have not even explained what that even *means*. Yes I know, life is “good” because “good” means whatever produces life. It’s an empty tautology.

      Your whole scheme is a confused mess based on not knowing what the words “objective” and “subjective” actually mean. There is no rational argument here, only an intuitive horror of the word “subjective” and a determination to avoid that label, however incoherent that leaves your scheme.

      Otherwise, it may be accepted as a given. That’s the nature of first principles, Coel.

      Thank you for admitting that! I’ve been saying all along that your entire scheme depends on an arbitrary axiom for which you have no justification.

      On what basis are you applying the label “good” to life and health, as oppose to applying it to disease and death? Personal whim? If so, you hardly have an objective argument. Human preference? Why sure, but anything based on human preference is — by the very definition of the concept — subjective. And there is absolutely no good reason for this phobia about morals being subjective!

    21. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “Now suppose that everyone hated being alive.”

      Personal feelings do not alter objective reality. We observe objective reality. We observe not just our own lives, but the life all around us. We observe its tenacity even when well-being is compromised. We observe its creativity in satisfying its real needs. Apparently, from what we can see with our own eyes, life is good for all of those things which are living.

      The opinion that “life is good” appears to be confirmed by a truck load of empirical evidence. We call “opinions confirmed by a truck load of empirical evidence”, that everyone can independently confirm for themselves, “objective fact”.

      Coel: “When I’ve asked you to define you’ve replied that “good” is what enables life.”

      I’m pretty sure I’ve said repeatedly, We call something “good” if it meets a real need we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species. That first applies to life itself, because you have to be alive to have needs to be satisfied. Therefore life itself is clearly at the top of that list of our real needs. After all, if we’re not alive then none of this matters.

      Coel: “The *only* sensible interpretation of “good” is “what people like”, which makes it subjective.”

      What people like happens to include heroin, shoplifting, bullying, and any number of other harmful behavior that is by definition NOT good for them. Therefore, “what people like” is clearly not a sufficient guide to moral behavior.

      We KNOW objectively a great many things that are good and bad for us. And from these objective facts we can also KNOW objectively that certain behaviors are beneficial or harmful to people –NOT based upon our subjective opinions or feelings, but based upon objective empirical data.

      Coel: “Your whole scheme is a confused mess based on not knowing what the words “objective” and “subjective” actually mean.”

      I hope you were looking in the mirror when you said that.

      Coel: “… but anything based on human preference is — by the very definition of the concept — subjective.”

      False. It is only “subjective” if it is based solely on a person’s private preference. A subjective opinion becomes objective as it conforms to objective reality.

      Actually, this might be best expressed as one of those line charts with complete subjectivity on the left and complete objectivity on the right. Probably all opinions/assertions are somewhat mixed, with some, like prejudice, being mostly subjective and some, like science being mostly objective.

    22. Coel Post author

      I’m pretty sure I’ve said repeatedly, We call something “good” if it meets a real need we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species. That first applies to life itself, because you have to be alive to have needs to be satisfied. Therefore life itself is clearly at the top of that list of our real needs. After all, if we’re not alive then none of this matters.

      Exactly, so you’re defining “good” as fulfilling needs that we have in order to be alive. So “good” is what gets us life and health. But, then you make the claim: “The first principle of morality is that being alive and well is objectively good”.

      So let’s put those two concepts together. You get: “The first principle of morality is that being alive and well is something that gets us being alive and well”, or combined the other way: “Things that produce being alive and well lead to being alive and well”.

      As I said, your whole scheme is a confused mess, it doesn’t mean anything. Yes you have said the above before, and I’ve repeatedly pointed out that your scheme is either an empty tautology, or rests on an unjustified axiom.

      Coel: “… but anything based on human preference is — by the very definition of the concept — subjective.” False. It is only “subjective” if it is based solely on a person’s private preference. A subjective opinion becomes objective as it conforms to objective reality.

      This clarifies your misunderstanding of what “subjective” means. An opinion about a **fact** can be supported by empirical evidence, and that *fact* can be “objective”.

      A *preference* cannot be “objective”. Objective reality does not have preferences! *Humans* have preferences. There is no “fact of the matter” about preferences. I might prefer lemon sorbet over chocolate, but there is no “fact” that makes such a preference “objective”.

      Any and all *preferences* are *always* subjective, they are *always* “dependent on the mind for existence” (OED). You can’t even *have* a preference without a mind doing the preferring! Without the mind there is no preference!

      In the same way, a human preference for life and health is the very epitome of subjectivity. If you don’t agree, you are simply misunderstanding what “subjective” means. Yet, human preference is your only reason for picking life and health over death and disease. That makes your scheme subjective. And it’s your avoidance of that fact which leads you to the circular tautological loop above.

    23. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “or combined the other way: “Things that produce being alive and well lead to being alive and well”. ”

      Well, that’s also true, of course. But the question is what shall we call “objectively good”.

      By first principle (that which everyone observes to be true) we assert that being alive and well is good. And from that premise we may deduce that everything that we can empirically demonstrate will actually contribute to our life and well-being is objectively good (like a glass of water when you actually need it). It ceases to be a matter of private, subjective opinion once it is proven to be an objective fact. A glass of water is objectively good for anyone who truly needs it.

      We cannot rely upon subjective opinions and feelings to know what is objectively good. And we especially should not rely upon such subjective feelings when they conflict with objective facts regarding what is truly good for people. Lots of things that feel good are in fact objectively bad for us.

      Coel: “Objective reality does not have preferences! *Humans* have preferences. There is no “fact of the matter” about preferences.”

      Exactly. (Except for the minor caveat that humans are objects in the real world, and as specific objective realities they do have preferences, but we can let that pass).

      The main point is that subjective “preferences” should not be guiding moral judgments. Moral judgments should be based upon what is objectively good for ourselves and others.

      Coel: “In the same way, a human preference for life and health is the very epitome of subjectivity.”

      Sometimes a preference coincides with an objective need, as when someone is smothering you with a pillow and a very strong preference to have some air arises subjectively coincidentally with your body’s objective need for air. It is the objective need for the air that establishes the true “goodness” of the air, rather than your preference. However, in this case, your biological mechanisms that sense your urgent need for oxygen will trigger your urgent desire for the same.

      I’m pretty sure that I’ve repeatedly clarified the distinction between subjective desire and objective need. And also why morality should be based upon the latter rather than the former whenever possible.

      When morality is based in subjective desire it may be called “subjective morality”. When morality is based in objective needs it may be called “objective morality”.

      Any questions?

    24. Coel Post author

      But the question is what shall we call “objectively good”.

      Why do we necessarily have to call something “objectively good”? Whether there is something that deserves that label is exactly the point of contention.

      By first principle (that which everyone observes to be true) we assert that being alive and well is good.

      What does that mean if it does not mean “we generally like being alive”? In making that claim, have you already defined “good” as “whatever gives life and health”? If so, your statement becomes: “we assert that being alive and well produces being alive and well”. If that’s not what you mean by “good” in that sentence, what do you mean by it?

    25. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “Why do we necessarily have to call something “objectively good”? ”

      Specifically to distinguish it from subjective opinions. We run across many subjective opinions as to what is right and what is wrong. Recent modern issues have been gay marriage and abortion.
      What is the criteria by which we decide among several subjective views that one is superior to another?

      We know that the criteria must be something that both sides can (eventually) agree to. One such criteria is that the resolution of the issue ought to result in life being better for everyone. If we can reduce or eliminate an unnecessary harm, without merely shifting that harm to someone else, then everyone can eventually get behind that.

      So we step back from the issue, set aside our subjective views, and try to assess what will actually happen in the real world if we change from forbidding same-sex marriage to allowing same-sex marriage. Who are benefitted and what is the quality of the benefit? Who is harmed and what is the quality of the harm?

      And we step back from personhood at conception versus personhood at birth to find an objective point in time when the fetus can experience itself in pain (currently estimated to be around 20 weeks).

      When we set out to find an objective viewpoint, by gathering the data on the benefits and harms, and laying them out on the table, then we have the possibility to actually resolve moral issues in an objective fashion.

      Coel: “What does that mean if it does not mean “we generally like being alive”? ”

      It means things like the vaccine is objectively good for you (and the community) whether you “generally like it” or not. If we presume (and every sane person should at this point) that life and well-being are good, then the vaccine is objectively good regardless of any person’s private beliefs and feelings about it.

      Coel: “If that’s not what you mean by “good” in that sentence, what do you mean by it?”

      I mean precisely what everyone else means by it. We call something “good” if it meets a real need that we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species. Others may use other words to define “good”, but I assert that they will each and they will all boil down to that same semantic assertion.

    26. Coel Post author

      Sheesh, this is frustrating.

      Can you really not see that if you claim:

      “By first principle (that which everyone observes to be true) we assert that being alive and well is good”, and then define “good” by: “We call something “good” if it meets a real need that we have as an individual”, things that lead to good health and life,

      then you have a circular definition. Put the two together and you have an empty tautology. Can you really not see that? Please can you sit down and consider that point. Please — if you want to reply further — can you address that point head on?

      So far, all you’ve done is assert one, then the other, then back to the first, and think that you’re making sense. Please can you consider them both together?

      I mean precisely what everyone else means by it.

      No you do not. Plenty of people use the word “good” as a label for things they like. If someone tucks into a chocolate dessert and declares “this is good!”, it means they like it and they are enjoying eating it. Both of those things are subjective.

      Replies such as you’re giving are simply evasive, because you don’t have the gumption to stick two simple sentences together and realise that your whole scheme is a confused mess.

      We know that the criteria must be something that both sides can (eventually) agree to.

      No, you DO NOT know that! You can’t make a presumption of moral realism in arguing for moral realism.

      If we presume (and every sane person should at this point) that life and well-being are good, …

      Look, if I ask you to define the word “good”, then you can’t define it in terms of the word “good”! Sheesh!

    27. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “Sheesh, this is frustrating. ”

      Been there. Done that.

      Coel: “Can you really not see that if you claim: “By first principle (that which everyone observes to be true) we assert that being alive and well is good”, and then define “good” by: “We call something “good” if it meets a real need that we have as an individual”, things that lead to good health and life,” then you have a circular definition. ”

      No circles, Coel. It’s called a “hierarchy”, as in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. At the base you have a first principle/axiom/a priori/metaphysical assertion/et cetera from which all else follows. A “first principle” (or axiom) is basically a non-debatable assumption. It is an underlying presumption that all parties agree to at the outset. (The fact that you do not agree to it notwithstanding).

      If you wish to base your agreement to “life and well-being are good” upon a subjective opinion, then that is fine. But once we concur that life and well-being are good, then the next question is what is REQUIRED to sustain life and well-being.

      If we really need to make it explicit, we could pencil in a new bottom to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We’d call it “life and well-being”, for it is the need for life and well-being that the next level of the hierarchy presumes.

      At the next level up we have all of the specific things that are necessary to support and sustain our life and well-being. There is the non-debatable necessity of air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, shelter from temperature extremes, et cetera.

      So, are they objectively good or merely subjectively good? Is “having air to breathe is good” a matter of subjective opinion or is it an objective fact? Does the need to breathe air exist only in the subjective mind, or is it there in the object itself, the living human organism?

      Since we really need air to breathe if we are to sustain life, and life is good, then it is an objective fact that having air to breathe is good.

      That’s objective morality. It is not a matter of subjective opinion, but objective fact.

      And, as I’ve mentioned before, as we move up Maslow’s hierarchy, things get fuzzier and arguably less objective. But there exists the theoretical possibility that what is beneficial or harmful to one’s own life or that of another may be objectively determined in any given situation.

      And there remains the theoretical possibility of an ideal set of ethical rules that would accomplish the best good and least harm for everyone, and that each rule could be demonstrated to do its part by empirical evidence.

      Coel: ” Plenty of people use the word “good” as a label for things they like. If someone tucks into a chocolate dessert and declares “this is good!”, it means they like it and they are enjoying eating it. Both of those things are subjective. ”

      Indeed. Which is precisely why it is important to distinguish what feels good or tastes good from that which is objectively good for you.

      Coel: “Look, if I ask you to define the word “good”, then you can’t define it in terms of the word “good”! ”

      We call something “good” if it meets a real need that we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species.

    28. Coel Post author

      There you are again, just going round in circles, first saying:

      “But once we concur that life and well-being are good, then …”

      and …

      “We call something “good” if it meets a real need that we have” in order to be alive and well.

      You’re saying that life is “good”, but then defining “good” as what gives life. It’s an empty, circular tautology. Your last comment doesn’t even attempt to rebut that point.

      At the base you have a first principle/axiom/a priori/metaphysical assertion/et cetera from which all else follows. A “first principle” (or axiom) is basically a non-debatable assumption.

      And I don’t agree with your “non-debatable” assumption. And metaphysics, and anything else based on arbitrary and unjustified axioms, is tosh. And you still haven’t explained why you pick “life is good” as an axiom over “death is good”. Which makes your scheme arbitrary.

    29. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “And I don’t agree with your “non-debatable” assumption.”

      So you don’t believe that life and well-being are good? Then you have no basis for making any moral judgments at all.

    30. Coel Post author

      I certainly do not agree that “life and well-being are good” is an undebateable axiom, especially when you won’t tell me what “good” means in this axiom that I’m supposed to assent to.

      (Don’t bother telling me that it means stuff needed for life and well-being, since that makes the axiom “life and well-being are necessary for life and well-being”.)

      But, yes, I have every basis for making moral judgements — my opinion.

    31. Coel Post author

      Could you provide an example of how that works?

      Sure. If I (say) think that assisted dying laws are needed and would be moral then I argue for that. Others in society argue their opinion. We all try and influence society in the direction we want to. Then laws are made (or not).

    32. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “If I (say) think that assisted dying laws are needed and would be moral then I argue for that.”

      And, for example, how would that argument go?

    33. Coel Post author

      And, for example, how would that argument go?

      I’d argue using compassion and empathy for the person wanting to end their life. I’d argue that I want a society in which people have personal autonomy; it’s their life so they should have the biggest say over it. And I’d argue against a society in which unrelated people could over-ride that person’s wishes over their own life, especially if they’re basing that on religious beliefs that the person concerned does not share.

      How would you argue it? “By definition, being alive is the primary moral good, and therefore you are morally obligated to live as long as possible, regardless of whether you like that”?

    34. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “I’d argue that I want a society in which people have personal autonomy; it’s their life so they should have the biggest say over it.”

      Could you explain what you mean by “should”?

      Coel: “And I’d argue against a society in which unrelated people could over-ride that person’s wishes over their own life, especially if they’re basing that on religious beliefs that the person concerned does not share.”

      But aren’t those religious beliefs subjective opinions? Doesn’t that mean that their subjective viewpoint is precisely equal to and should carry exactly the same weight as your own?

    35. Coel Post author

      Could you explain what you mean by “should”?

      My stating “… they should have …” means “… I would prefer it if they had …”. All moral language is code for human preferences.

      But aren’t those religious beliefs subjective opinions?

      Yes.

      Doesn’t that mean that their subjective viewpoint is precisely equal to and should carry exactly the same weight as your own?

      The phrasing “precisely equal to” suggests you want to rank the beliefs and are ranking them “precisely equal”. But, in subjective morality there is no objective ranking, so it makes no sense to rank them or declare them “equal”, just as one would not rank Tom’s liking for lemon sorbet against Fred’s liking for chocolate mint. What one can do, of course, is declare ones personal preference between the two beliefs.

      Turning to description, though, you are indeed right that religious viewpoints are influential in society and do affect what laws are in place. In a democracy, we’ve made a collective agreement that everyone has one vote, and in that sense one can say that everyone’s opinions contribute equally to the debate.

    36. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “My stating “… they should have …” means “… I would prefer it if they had …”. All moral language is code for human preferences.”

      I see.

      Coel: “But, in subjective morality there is no objective ranking, so it makes no sense to rank them or declare them “equal”, just as one would not rank Tom’s liking for lemon sorbet against Fred’s liking for chocolate mint.”

      And your preference for an “assisted dying law” is no different in quality than your preference for lemon sorbet or for chocolate mint. So would your preference for an assisted dying law be something you were born with? And those with a different view are born with their view?

      Coel: “In a democracy, we’ve made a collective agreement that everyone has one vote, and in that sense one can say that everyone’s opinions contribute equally to the debate.”

      Excuse me, but what is the point of a debating? If morality is based upon each person’s subjective viewpoint, then all that should be required is taking a poll? Right?

      I mean, how could anyone’s opinion be changed if all opinions are presumed of equal weight? Do you expect to change someone from preferring lemon sorbet to preferring chocolate mint?

    37. Coel Post author

      And your preference for an “assisted dying law” is no different in quality than your preference for lemon sorbet or for chocolate mint.

      Well, no, I am comparing those preferences for clarification that human feelings and preferences lie at the basis of all of this. But, some of our preferences matter a lot to us and others less. The lemon sorbet would be one of the lesser ones. Love of ones child would be one of the stronger ones.

      So would your preference for an assisted dying law be something you were born with? And those with a different view are born with their view?

      Preferences, like much about ourselves, would be a mixture of genetic and environmental influences.

      Excuse me, but what is the point of a debating? If morality is based upon each person’s subjective viewpoint, then all that should be required is taking a poll? Right?

      The point of debating is to try to change people’s minds, and to see if there are compromises or alternatives that suit more people. To take an example, the fraction of the US in favour of gay marriage has increased from about 30% to about 60% over twenty years. People can change their minds, changing how they feel about things, over time. This is entirely normal.

      I mean, how could anyone’s opinion be changed if all opinions are presumed of equal weight?

      I’m baffled by the question. People’s minds and feelings change about things all the time. People often vote for one party at one election and then prefer another one at the next election. People can fall in love with someone and marry them, and decades later come to hate them. Also, the “…if all opinions are presumed of equal weight” is both false (we make no such presumption, see last answer) and is totally irrelevant.

      Do you expect to change someone from preferring lemon sorbet to preferring chocolate mint?

      Could well do, yes. All sorts of things can change such an preference. Someone might prefer one one day and the other another day. Someone’s tastes can change over time. Someone might like heavy metal music aged 17, and then get totally into classical music aged 40. I find your questions baffling, since people’s feelings and opinions changing is such a normal aspect of humans. Have you never changed your opinion on something?

    38. Marvin Edwards

      (Takin’ Shawn’s advice and selecting the Reply under the first comment showing one. No email notification on Coel’s last post.)

      Coel: (July 20, 2015 at 12:16 pm): “Preferences, like much about ourselves, would be a mixture of genetic and environmental influences.”

      And that’s where I’m heading with this line of questioning. The environmental influences are specifically objective facts about the benefits and harms of one course of action versus another.

      Your mysterious subjective feelings as to end-of-life options are reactions to repeated exposure to public cases (like the one this Sunday on 60 Minutes) where a person was denied their final wishes (the lady’s father had been given 6 months due to multiple health issues, he was fine mentally and had explicitly given her written end-of-life instructions that he did not wish to die in a hospital, he asked for the bottle of morphine, she handed it to him, he drank it, but the social worker who arrived later called an ambulance and the cops, the hospital gave him drugs to counteract the morphine, and when he woke, he was royally pissed, and he died 4 days later anyway!).

      My point is that subjective feelings can change when presented with objective evidence. The whole point of objective evidence is to resolve subjective differences.

      I think it was in one of the philosophy articles that someone gave an example that it is entirely subjective to say that one mountain is “prettier” than another, but we can say for certain that one mountain is objectively “taller” than another through measurement.

      Coel: “To take an example, the fraction of the US in favour of gay marriage has increased from about 30% to about 60% over twenty years. People can change their minds, changing how they feel about things, over time. This is entirely normal.”

      Exactly. Generally this is done by making the issue less subjective and more objective. The prejudices we acquired (I’m 69, so I grew up with fairly strong taboos) are countered by the evidence. As our opinion becomes more objective and less subjective, our feelings change.

      Coel: “People’s minds and feelings change about things all the time.”

      Indeed. Suppose, for example, that America imposed restrictions upon the media like Russia and some Muslim countries do. There would be no objective evidence to counter the subjective view of gays promoted by fundamentalist religions.

      The point of saying morality might be made objective is simply to claim that our morality becomes better when informed by science and reason. As clearly as we know that it is morally right to give the man dying of thirst in the desert a cup of water, we may also prove that it is objectively right to provide a right-to-die for those with incurable suffering, and a right to marry for gay couples.

    39. Coel Post author

      The environmental influences are specifically objective facts about the benefits and harms of one course of action versus another.

      Or, rather: environmental influences are objective facts that given information about the notions “benefit” and “harm”, which are notions that can only derive from a value judgement by a sentient being.

      My point is that subjective feelings can change when presented with objective evidence.

      I agree. But the changed subjective feeling is still a subjective feeling.

      The whole point of objective evidence is to resolve subjective differences.

      The objective evidence can inform, but it cannot adjudicate. In the end, adjudication is the value judgement of a human.

      … it is entirely subjective to say that one mountain is “prettier” than another, but we can say for certain that one mountain is objectively “taller” …

      Agreed.

      As our opinion becomes more objective and less subjective, our feelings change.

      Even if feelings change, they are still feelings, and thus they are still subjective.

      … we may also prove that it is objectively right to provide a right-to-die for those with incurable suffering …

      So how do you do that? Haven’t most of your previous statements been based on the idea that life is axiomatically “good”? How have you got from there to immediate death being the better option? To me the answer is easy: human preference. And I don’t see how you can produce any answer that doesn’t involve human preference somehow (noting that “pain” and a desire not to be in pain can only be made sense of in terms of human preference).

    40. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “But the changed subjective feeling is still a subjective feeling.”

      Indeed. But we can rationally overcome a subjective feeling that is bad for us. I quit smoking despite the fact that I felt an urgent subjective desire to smoke for several days and had to continue to choose not to smoke from hour to hour for about a week. Occasionally I’ll still miss it, but it has less and less draw as time passes. Gee, I really shouldn’t have said “draw”, nostalgia.

      Coel: “The objective evidence can inform, but it cannot adjudicate. In the end, adjudication is the value judgement of a human.”

      Well, the judgment is always made by a human subject. The issue is whether the human makes the judgment based upon values that are demonstrated objectively to produce better results or upon values that only mean something to themselves personally.

      The value can be both of course. For example, if everyone made choices that supported the best good for everyone as well as for themselves, then the probability is that the objective world will get better. We subjectively believe that valuing the best good for everyone is objectively better than seeking self-interest at the expense of others.

      Coel: “How have you got from there to immediate death being the better option?”

      It ain’t easy. But if we look at real-life examples, like the daughter who handed her father the morphine bottle when he asked for it, and then being brought back against his will by the hospital for 4 days of torment, the facts tend to pile up for a more rational end of life ethic.

      Coel: “To me the answer is easy: human preference. And I don’t see how you can produce any answer that doesn’t involve human preference somehow (noting that “pain” and a desire not to be in pain can only be made sense of in terms of human preference).”

      It is human preference and human emotion, but it is also human reasoning. On the one hand, we would not want to step in and prevent someone elderly with an incurable and painful disease from taking a dignified death option. But then we would want to step in if we have a teenager with a broken heart and compromised judgment.

      The objective facts of the scenario make a difference. We have two different kinds of people seeking to end their lives, an elderly person with an incurable disease and a lovesick teenager. Each one has made the same subjective choice to end their life.

      If the morality is totally subjective, then each person’s subjective feelings would establish what is morally right, and both would be equally right to take their own life or to be prevented from doing so.

      The judgment of what is morally right and wrong should as objective as possible, taking into account the objective facts of the moral issue at hand.

    41. Coel Post author

      But we can rationally overcome a subjective feeling that is bad for us.

      What this means is that we have a range of values and goals, often conflicting. We might have a short-term desire of enjoying a cigarette, but also a long-term goal of wanting to be healthy. We then tension our different goals against each other, and, yes, objective information (e.g. on health risks) can influence the outcome. This doesn’t change the fact that all these desires and goals are subjective (being properties of our minds).

      Well, the judgment is always made by a human subject.

      Exactly.

      The issue is whether the human makes the judgment based upon values that are demonstrated objectively to produce better results …

      But that is not the issue! The point is that the end-goals, the evaluation of what is “better” is always a human judgement. The real issue here is whether there is normativity that is independent of and more than human desires. You have not explained where normativity comes from in your scheme. If there is no such normativity, that is independent of human opinion, then moral realism is false.

      It is human preference and human emotion, but it is also human reasoning.

      Exactly. I am 100% in agreement. I am 1000% in agreement (if you’ll excuse the exaggeration!). Human morality is all of those things. But it cannot be made independent of the “human preference and human emotion”. The normativity about morals derives from human feelings. It does not derive from any supra-human standard of “oughtness”.

      That’s why human morality is subjective (and there really isn’t anything second-rate about that!). An *objective* scheme would be one with a supra-human standard of “oughtness” and normativity that humans “ought” to follow entirely independently of human preferences and emotions.

      … On the one hand, we would not want to . . . But then we would want to step in if …

      And here again, the basis of your moral judgements is what we want and don’t want!

      The objective facts of the scenario make a difference.

      Absolutely, I am in 1000% agreement that objective facts inform our preferences. If the objective facts say that a smoker has a 50% chance of dying from smoking-related cancer, then it hugely influences the above tensioning between different (subjective) goals.

      If the morality is totally subjective, …

      Well hold on, a “subjective” morality is not one in which objective facts are entirely irrelevant. No-one has ever argued for that. A subjective moral scheme is one in which subjective judgements are an essential part of the scheme, not the only part of it.

      (In this sense, the words “subjective” and “objective” are not symmetric, any mixture of the two is by definition “subjective”; something has to be entirely objective to be objective.)

      If the morality is totally subjective, then each person’s subjective feelings would establish what is morally right, and both would be equally right to take their own life or to be prevented from doing so.

      Hold on, that sentence is a mashing together of incompatible concepts. The concept “… would establish what is morally right …” is one from *objective* morality, the notion that there is some absoluteness about morals such that we can rank different actions, and read off which comes highest on the scale, and say that that is the “morally right” one. Yet subjective morality says that that whole idea is misconceived.

    42. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “The concept “… would establish what is morally right …” is one from *objective* morality, the notion that there is some absoluteness about morals such that we can rank different actions, and read off which comes highest on the scale, and say that that is the “morally right” one. ”

      That is not what we have. But it is what we are shooting for. The gold standard of morality is what benefits or harms humans as individuals, as societies, or as a species. We apply this standard to establish the moral goodness of having clean water to drink and the moral badness of genocide.

      And while the markings on the yardstick are not yet clear, we can say objectively that one mountain is noticeably higher than another, and that drowning a child is morally worse than sending him to bed without his supper.

      This is epistemological objectivity. It is about how we know things. It distinguishes the world of subjective feelings and opinions from objective facts.

      The category of “ontological subjectivity” and “ontological objectivity” is probably screwed up. As you’ve pointed out yourself, saying that morals come from God implies they are subjective to him. And if God’s revelations are unreliable, then the epistemological subjectivity of different morals for differently revealed standards to different people comes into play again.

    43. Coel Post author

      That is not what we have. But it is what we are shooting for.

      This, again, is the argument: “I would like it if there were objective morality, therefore there is an objective morality, if only I search hard enough for it”. This is akin to: “I would like there to be a benevolent God, therefore there is a benevolent God, if only I search hard enough for it”.

      The gold standard of morality is what benefits or harms humans as individuals, as societies, or as a species.

      Who says? You? This is your arbitrary and subjective axiom, declared by fiat. Who decided that, in this “gold standard”, humans count but chimps don’t? Let me guess, a human did!

      we can say objectively … that drowning a child is morally worse than sending him to bed without his supper.

      No you can’t. There is way that you can say that *objectively* (removing human values from the assessment). All your attempts at that are either circular tautologies or depend on an unjustified by-fiat declaration of your *opinion* coupled with the pretence that that opinion is “objective”.

    44. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “There is way that you can say that *objectively* (removing human values from the assessment).”

      It is not at all necessary to remove human values. It is only necessary to demonstrate whether that value is objectively satisfied to distinguish a moral difference between the mother drowning her child versus sending him to bed without his supper. If life is subjectively valued then which scenario objectively satisfies that value, the drowning or the missed meal? Even if the value is subjective, the judgment of the drowning as failing to satisfy that value is objective.

      If the mother is insane then her subjective opinion may be that drowning the child is a morally good idea. Is that subjective opinion to override the objective facts?

    45. Coel Post author

      It is not at all necessary to remove human values.

      It is if you want to argue for an objective morality.

      If life is subjectively valued then which scenario objectively satisfies that value, the drowning or the missed meal? Even if the value is subjective, the judgment of the drowning as failing to satisfy that value is objective.

      I am in 1000% entire agreement. There are indeed objective facts-of-the-matter as to whether the subjective value has been satisfied. Still doesn’t get you “objective morality”, because the value at the root of it all is subjective.

      If the mother is insane then her subjective opinion may be that drowning the child is a morally good idea. Is that subjective opinion to override the objective facts?

      It is not the “objective facts” that would be overridden. It would be one subjective value (valuing the child’s life) competing against another subjective value (that of the insane mother who wants to drown her child).

    46. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “It is not the “objective facts” that would be overridden. It would be one subjective value (valuing the child’s life) competing against another subjective value (that of the insane mother who wants to drown her child).”

      And how are we to decide between those two subjective values? By what criteria do we choose one over the other?

      Coel: “Still doesn’t get you “objective morality”, because the value at the root of it all is subjective.”

      Irrelevant. The context is that we value life, either for subjective or objective reasons. From there we can either judge an action as “good for” life or “bad for” life. And we can do this either subjectively (smoking makes me feel good) or objectively (smoking harms health). Our ethical rule is either “smoke’m if you got’m” based on our subjective feelings or “break the habit and quit” based upon objective medical facts.

      Moral rules derived objectively are called “objective morality”. Moral rules derived subjectively are called “subjective morality”. This distinction is both helpful and meaningful.

      To insist that “objective morality” cannot exist and that only “subjective morality” can possibly exist due to some technicality about everything being subjective destroys useful meaning.

      Besides, we can always pull the same trick on the other side of thinking. Everything is objective, because technically speaking, every subject is an object. Therefore the source of all subjective feelings and opinions is actually an object. And if the ultimate source of the value is an object, then the resulting value must necessarily be objective. Now we’ve destroyed the meaning of subjective. Happy?

    47. Coel Post author

      And how are we to decide between those two subjective values? By what criteria do we choose one over the other?

      The criteria we “do” use to decide are all sorts of things. We use a mixture of human preferences and objective information to decide about other human preferences.

      If you’re asking whether there is an objective standard of “oughtness” that tells us what we “should” do then the answer is no.

      Irrelevant. The context is that we value life, …

      And that valuing is **always** subjective. “Valuing” is a mind state. By definition it is subjective. Being a mind state is what subjective *means*. (The relative heights of two mountains is *not* a mind state nor dependent on a mind state.) If your scheme depends on human values, then it is subjective.

      And we can do this either subjectively (smoking makes me feel good) or objectively (smoking harms health).

      That sentence is confused. The whole problem is that you are using “subjective” and “objective” as value-judgement labels. If it’s “subjective” then, to you, it is bad, or second rate, or less important, or to be over-ridden. This is simply not what the term means.

      The “feeling good” of smoking a cigarette is a subjective state. It is an objective fact that cigarettes cause that state. The valuing of good health is a subjective state. It is an objective fact that cigarettes can result in the opposite.

      Moral rules derived objectively are called “objective morality”.

      Your whole notion of what the words “subjective” and “objective” mean is just confused and wrong. You cannot arrive at a moral rule without reference to a human value judgement. That value-judgement is a state of the mind. It is not a rock doing the valuing, it is not a tree, it is your mind. That — by the very definition of the term — makes values subjective.

      “Subjective” does not mean “bad” or “second rate”, it means property of the mind.

    48. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “Your whole notion of what the words “subjective” and “objective” mean is just confused and wrong.”

      And your definitions, by which everything becomes subjective, pretty much destroys the distinction between the two words.

      Coel: “You cannot arrive at a moral rule without reference to a human value judgement.”

      Indeed. But that value judgment may be arrived at objectively or subjectively. Subjectively, chocolate and sweet sodas are good for me, because they taste good and give me immediate pleasure. Objectively, too much sugar leads to obesity and its related health risks.

      There is nothing that I can know from merely sitting and thinking that will give me objective information. But if I wander through the objective world I may observe the effects of one person’s dietary choices versus another’s. Or my doctor will tell me. With that objective information in hand, I can change my choices from eating what is WRONG for me to eating what is RIGHT for me.

      Now you wish to destroy that distinction between objective and subjective by insisting everything is subjective, you will remove a useful tool.

      Coel: “That value-judgement is a state of the mind. It is not a rock doing the valuing, it is not a tree, it is your mind. That — by the very definition of the term — makes values subjective.”

      And since all of objective reality is experienced through such states of the mind, all of objective reality is now subjective as well.

      The common sense fact is this: we use objective/subjective to classify how we obtain knowledge and form our opinions about, and attach feelings to, things. It is primarily an epistemological distinction. And, generally speaking, knowledge obtained objectively tends to be more reliable than “knowledge” we derive without empirical confirmation.

      The existence or non-existence of God, although posed as an ontological problem for an objective moral code, actually reduces to an epistemological question of the reliability and consistency of revelation.

      And that should lead both the believer and the non-believer to look for some means of objectively confirming the supposed “revelation”.

      A reasonable, objective standard, for measuring which ethical rules to embrace and which to reject is this: Which rule produces the best good and least harm for everyone? The rule that produces better objective results (e.g., outlawing slavery) is then chosen over the rule that produces worse objective results (e.g., laws enforcing slavery).

      The objective judgment convinces and changes the subjective judgment, and we have moral progress.

    49. Coel Post author

      And since all of objective reality is experienced through such states of the mind, all of objective reality is now subjective as well.

      That’s simply not so. Objective facts remain true independently of the human mind (and independently of whether that human knows that fact). For example, if I kid a 5-yr-old that a local hill is higher than Everest, then, even if he is convinced, that makes no difference to the fact of the matter about those hills.

      But, suppose that that same child eats some chocolate and is convinced that he likes chocolate. If he is convinced, then he *does* like chocolate, because the “liking” is a brain state. If his brain is in the state of liking chocolate then he *does* like chocolate. There is no external objective fact that can override his brain-state liking of chocolate on the matter of whether he likes chocolate.

      Thus, the things that external facts about the world are very different from things that **are** brain states. Now, human value judgements **are** brain states. Thus they are subjective. Sizes of mountains are not brain states. Thus they are objective.

      Once again, the recurrent issue through this rather lengthy discussion is that you simply do not understand what the words “objective” and “subjective” actually mean, and you are using them entirely wrong.

    50. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “Sizes of mountains are not brain states. Thus they are objective. ”

      Extent of harm is not brain a state either. The child who breaks a leg is harmed more than the child who skins his knee. Thus they are objective.

      And the benefits of owning slaves can be objectively compared to the harms of being enslaved. All moral issues are ultimately objective.

      Coel: “Once again, the recurrent issue through this rather lengthy discussion is that you simply do not understand what the words “objective” and “subjective” actually mean, and you are using them entirely wrong.”

      Again, I would suggest that you stand in front of a mirror and read that to yourself. Your continued insistence that morality is only a matter of subjective opinion and private feelings is undermining any practical relevance or meaning to the word morality.

    51. Coel Post author

      Extent of harm is not brain a state either.

      The notion of “harm” has two aspects: the facts of the matter (objective) and the value-judgement about those facts (subjective). There is no notion of “harm” or “benefit” without that value-judgement aspect. By the way, I’m the one who is using the words in line with the dictionary definition of them.

    52. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “The notion of “harm” has two aspects: the facts of the matter (objective) and the value-judgement about those facts (subjective). ”

      The facts of the matter demonstrate a greater harm from a broken leg than from a skinned knee. The value of the healthy leg is what you are calling “subjective”, as if it were a matter of private opinion. I call the value of the healthy leg “objective”, because with a healthy leg you can walk, dance and run around in the real world. The value is not merely a private opinion, but can be verified in the real world by all observers.

      You are equating “subjective” with “comes from humans” because that is the nature of an ontological debate between you and Anthony, who says morals come from God. But “comes from humans” is not the dictionary definition of “subjective”.

      Hang on a second while I find a dictionary that agrees with me … Ah! Here we go, from Wiktionary:

      ” subjective (comparative more subjective, superlative most subjective)
      1.Pertaining to subjects as opposed to objects (A subject is one who perceives or is aware; an object is the thing perceived or the thing that the subject is aware of.)
      2.Formed, as in opinions, based upon a person’s feelings or intuition, not upon observation or reasoning; coming more from within the observer than from observations of the external environment.
      3.Resulting from or pertaining to personal mindsets or experience, arising from perceptive mental conditions within the brain and not necessarily or directly from external stimuli.
      4.Lacking in reality or substance.
      5.As used by Carl Jung, the innate worldview orientation of the introverted personality types.
      6.(philosophy, psychology) Experienced by a person mentally and not directly verifiable by others.

      The meaningful and helpful distinction between “subjective” and “objective” is about the source and quality of the information. We have a private view of things as we may think they are and we have a view of things as they are in the real world, a view that can be empirically confirmed by others.

    53. Coel Post author

      I call the value of the healthy leg “objective”, because with a healthy leg you can walk, dance and run around in the real world.

      Which depends on you wanting to walk, dance and run around. Once again, you cannot remove subjective judgements from your scheme.

      You are equating “subjective” with “comes from humans” …

      Nope, I’m equating subjective with the dictionary definition: “dependent on the mind for existence”.

      … because that is the nature of an ontological debate between you and Anthony, who says morals come from God.

      Nope, since I said exactly the same and wrote blog posts on this long before talking to Anthony.

      But “comes from humans” is not the dictionary definition of “subjective”.

      You’re right, it is “dependent on the mind for existence”.

    54. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “Which depends on you wanting to walk, dance and run around. Once again, you cannot remove subjective judgements from your scheme.”

      But my supposed “scheme” is nothing more than a statement of the obvious: Moral judgments are made on the basis of the benefits and harms that may result from a chosen course of action. To the degree that the benefits and harms can be assessed objectively, the result is that one course of action is objectively better than another.

      You repeatedly insist that the “harm” of a broken leg is a subjective matter, totally dependent upon the private opinion of one person’s mind (perhaps the guy who broke the fellow’s leg). And if one person claims the break is harmless, then that opinion is just as good as any other, since all opinions on harm are subjective.

      I disagree. I believe that the harm is just as much an objective fact as the broken leg itself. To deliberately disable someone is morally wrong. This is objective fact, not subjective opinion.

    55. Coel Post author

      To the degree that the benefits and harms can be assessed objectively, …

      Which they can’t be. Benefits and harms ALWAYS have a subjective aspect, since whether something is beneficial or harmful is a value judgement.

      You repeatedly insist that the “harm” of a broken leg is a subjective matter, …

      As I’ve already explained, if something is a mixture of objective facts and subjective judgement, then it is subjective. That’s how the terms work. To be objective, something needs to be *entirely* objective. You can never remove the subjective value-judgement from notions of benefit and harm.

      And if one person claims the break is harmless, then that opinion is just as good as any other, since all opinions on harm are subjective.

      No, no, no. Opinions being subjective does not imply that they are “as good as any other”. Ranking different moral ideas is a notion from moral realism.

      I believe that the harm is just as much an objective fact as the broken leg itself.

      Really? How do you attain a notion of “harm” without any reference to human values, desires or goals, and without any unjustified axioms which just declare the thing by fiat?

    56. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “To be objective, something needs to be *entirely* objective.”

      Apparently not.

      Coel: “You can never remove the subjective value-judgement from notions of benefit and harm.”

      Totally unnecessary to do so. We humans experience the objective world subjectively. The fact that we do so does not make the objective world subjective. Only the experience is subjective. I presume you would agree with me that a tree falling in the forest makes the same sound whether it is witnessed or not.

      If one child breaks a leg and the other child only skins his knee, then we can say objectively that one child has suffered more harm than the other.

      If you cannot get that, then you are not equipped to make moral judgments.

      Coel: “Opinions being subjective does not imply that they are “as good as any other”. Ranking different moral ideas is a notion from moral realism.”

      Ranking benefits and harms, as best as we can, is critical to moral judgment. Morality is all about the real world. If it were not, then it would not be worth discussion.

      Coel: “How do you attain a notion of “harm” without any reference to human values, desires or goals, and without any unjustified axioms which just declare the thing by fiat?”

      The axiom is that life and well-being are inherently good. If you don’t agree with that first premise then morality is not going to make much sense to you, and you should leave the discussion in the hands of others.

      If it is true that life and well-being are inherently good, then it follows that what sustains life and well-being are also good. We know by objective fact that air, water, food, and shelter are necessary to sustain life and well being. Therefore we know that they are objectively good for us when we need them (well, air – pretty much all the time, water – when thirsty, etc.). And we can know that unnecessarily harming someone else is objectively wrong.

      Pretty much all of morality is based in the objective world, of which we are a part.

    57. Coel Post author

      If one child breaks a leg and the other child only skins his knee, then we can say objectively that one child has suffered more harm than the other.

      Only if you consult a human and their subjective notions of what constitutes “harm”. Harm *has* to be something that a human doesn’t want to happen.

      The axiom is that life and well-being are inherently good.

      Thank you for admitting that you start from an unjustified axiom. It’s also meaningless, because if I asked you what “good” meant you’d reply it is things that lead to life and well-being, and thus all you are saying is that life and well-being lead to life and well-being.

    58. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “Harm *has* to be something that a human doesn’t want to happen.”

      Harm has to be objectively real if it is to be called a real harm.

      The fact that a mother subjectively believes a vaccination can cause autism clearly does not mean that the vaccine creates real harm. That is the difference between a subjective harm based in a false belief and a real objective harm.

      A real objective harm would be her child actually getting the measles. And that harm would be real regardless of anyone’s subjective opinions or feelings, thus “objective”.

      The axiom is that life and well-being are inherently good. This is a first principle, one that is presumed in any meaningful discussion of morality. It requires no proof other than that we exist as living organisms.

      Coel: “Thank you for admitting that you start from an unjustified axiom.”

      Really? What justification do you require for the proposition that life and well-being are inherently good? How shall I prove this to someone who can offer no argument against it other than insults?

      Coel: “It’s also meaningless, because if I asked you what “good” meant you’d reply it is things that lead to life and well-being, and thus all you are saying is that life and well-being lead to life and well-being.”

      If life and well-being are good, then that which sustains life and well-being are also good, and that which harms our life or diminishes our well-being is bad.

      You keep playing this “circular logic” card when there is no circle. What we’re looking at is something similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. At the base of his pyramid are our physiological needs: air, water, food, and shelter from extreme temperature. If life and well-being are good, then meeting these needs is objectively good, because otherwise we die. Once the basic needs are being met, we need safety and security, then social belonging, then self-esteem, and so forth.

      How we go about meeting our needs are the “means” that morality is especially concerned with. Do we trample upon the needs of others or do we use means that are consistent with everyone else meeting their real needs as well?

      Means are subject to moral judgment. And that judgment can be subjective, based in personal beliefs and prejudices, or it can be objective, based in an empirical analysis of objective benefits and harms to those involved.

      That is the only distinction between subjective and objective that relates to morality.

    59. Coel Post author

      The axiom is that life and well-being are inherently good. This is a first principle, one that is presumed in any meaningful discussion of morality. It requires no proof other than that we exist as living organisms.

      Thank you for admitting that you start from an unjustified axiom.

      What justification do you require for the proposition that life and well-being are inherently good?

      An explanation what “… are inherently good” even means, and which doesn’t just dissolve into a tautology, would be a good start.

      How shall I prove this to someone who can offer no argument against it other than insults?

      It’s up to you how you want to prove it. It is, after all, your claim. And I *have* presented a counter-argument, by showing that your axiom is an empty tautology.

    1. The Realist

      I understand what Marvin means.

      Things for him are “objective” when they are true based on reason, regardless of personal opinion. Since it is objectively true that humans were programmed by evolution to live and seek well being, then things that favor this are “objectively good”. You can’t argue about that because it is objectively true that our DNA makes us seek life and well being, and therefore those things that favor life and well being are “objectively favorable” for us, or in other words “objectively good”.

      But his definition of “objectivity” comes from a human perspective, or in other words, it depends on the perspective of a conscious being. Once you leave human perspective behind, his “objectivity” becomes meaningless, and that’s why he said that talking about an ontological objective morality makes no sense to him. I agree.

      Now, since we can’t change how Marvin defines his “objectivity”, lets get rid of the philosophical term “objective” all together and replace it with “consciousness independent fact” so as to avoid confusion. That way we can once again talk about things that were true in the universe even in a time when humans and consciousness didn’t existed.

      Examples of the use of our new term:
      – Stars exist as a “consciousness independent fact”.
      – Evolution happened as a “consciousness independent fact”.
      – Animals exist as a “consciousness independent fact”.
      – Humans exist as a “consciousness independent fact”.
      – Electromagnetic waves exist as a “consciousness independent fact”.
      – Color does NOT exist as a “consciousness independent fact”.
      – Motion of molecules in a medium exist as a “consciousness independent fact”.
      – Sound does NOT exist as a “consciousness independent fact”.

      Statements that use “good”, “bad”, “right” or “wrong” are said to be “value claims”. We know that “good” is that which favors a given purpose. So, purpose precedes value claims. First you define the purpose, then you start making value claims of “good”, “bad”, “right” and “wrong” based on that purpose. For instance, if our purpose is to live, then things that favor that purpose are said to be “good”. Actions that go against that purpose are said to be “wrong”.

      Now, one question philosophers ask is whether there is a purpose in the universe as a “consciousness independent fact”. In other words, they ask if there was a purpose in the universe even in the time when humans didn’t even exist. Naturalistic Atheists and Humanists would say, no. That’s because the “consciousness independent” purpose would in fact define what the universe was meant for, even in a time where living beings didn’t existed. The existence of this “consciousness independent” purpose would imply that our universe already came into existence with that purpose. It would also imply an intention for our universe. So, was our universe intended to BE something? Was our universe intended to DO something? Was our universe intended to favor life? Was there any intention or purpose for our universe? Unless you believe in a designer (theism, intelligent design, simulism, etc), the answer is, NO.

      So if there is no “consciousness independent” purpose embedded in our universe, then we can’t say that anything was meant to be in a certain way. Who are we to say for sure that a star was meant to be in a certain way? We can’t even say for sure that living beings were meant to exist. After all, we believe that this universe came into existence by accident and that it was NOT designed with the purpose of producing life for example.

      But since we already have life, are there ways to say what is “good” for life? Well, we can if *WE* agree to say that “existence” is its purpose for example. But is it really? Is it a “consciousness independent fact” of the universe that its ultimate purpose is for us to exist? No. It’s a purpose we invented for ourselves. Life is still an accident of nature, a chemical process that started by chance with no real “consciousness independent” purpose. It’s the process of the laws of physics acting on matter. Some of these processes formed stars, some formed galaxies and some formed life. Was it meant to be so? No. Do stars have a purpose? No. But just because humans are “smarter” than stars and can invent a purpose for themselves doesn’t mean that the purpose they invented is therefore a “consciousness independent fact” of the universe. Without a “consciousness independent” purpose, any value claim of “good”, “bad”, “right” and “wrong” is therefore not a “consciousness independent fact”. And if there is no “consciousness independent” purpose, then the universe is ultimately morally nihilistic.

      So if I decide to kill someone, humans may say that I’m “wrong” because it goes against some invented purpose all human beings **believe** in. They may even invent a definition for that and say to me that I’m “objectively wrong”. But they can’t say that I’m **actually** “wrong” as a “consciousness independent fact” of the universe, the same way they can’t say that stars are “wrong” when they fall form the sky, explode as a supernova or collapse into a black hole. Because there is no **actual** purpose for anything in the universe as a “consciousness independent fact”.

      Female Black Widow spiders kill and eat the male spider after mating. If human evolution had followed that path, then humans would say that it is “good” to be cannibalized after mating. Evolution may even have evolved the male human so that he reaches a climax while being cannibalized, making the whole experience even “better”. Every single male human would long for the moment to mate and be cannibalized by a women, claiming it to be his purpose in life and therefore “good”.

      This shows how fragile moral claims are. They depend on what the subject perceives as “good” depending on what he believes to be his purpose, and any mutation or change in the neural configuration of the brain may cause someone to disagree with any currently held moral standard. Evolution may even favor a certain individual that believes that the purpose for humans is to maintain a clean DNA, killing those who have a genetic disease. This would then become the new “good”. The best humanity can get out of morality is therefore just a moral consensus, because in reality there is no “consciousness independent” purpose which dictates how things ought to be in the universe.

    2. Marvin Edwards

      Nicely done.

      I’m a little concerned about the phrase “morally nihilistic” because nihilistic suggests an intention to annihilate. I’d just as soon keep the universe “morally indifferent”, or, better yet, presume the universe has no intention at all and not bring it up during discussions of morality. 🙂

      All the meaning of all the words we use derive from the mind trying to make sense of its experiences. As you said, “Once you leave human perspective behind, his “objectivity” becomes meaningless”. As a humanist, I would extend that to say “once you leave human perspective behind, there are no longer questions of meaning.”

      So the key here is what do the terms “objective” and “subjective” mean to us humans in any practical sense. I generally lean toward the idea that a word carries a certain semantic content with it, and that content can be found in the vast majority of its uses. It’s like a variation in dialect rather than in its central meaning. (As in “integrity is being consistent with one’s values, to be inconsistent risks disintegration”, loving the double entendres).

      I’m using “objective” in the sense of scientific objectivity. The dictionary defines “objectivity” as “The quality or character of being objective; esp. the ability to present or view facts uncoloured by feelings, opinions, or personal bias.” (SOED)

      And if we look up “objective” we have a pile of definitions which boil down to your “consciousness independent fact” or an object we are conscious of that is separate from us (SOED 3b “Existing as an object of consciousness, as opp. to being part of the conscious subject; external to or independent of the mind.”) And then there is SOED 2b “Of or pertaining to an object or end as a cause of action.” which is synonymous with “goal”. A “goal” is an object external to us that we wish to reach.

      Our purpose is embedded in our DNA. All of the carrots and sticks that drive us to live, breathe, eat, drink, and seek shelter from a snowstorm are in there. The biological organism that results finds itself crying out for what it needs to survive. That is our existential condition at the time of birth.

      That is everyone’s initial subjective opinion as to whether life and well-being are good. And it corresponds to the objective fact that we need air, water, food, and shelter to exist.

      Later, as we grow up, our subjective opinions and desires often lead us astray, and prevent us from attaining what is objectively good for us, that is, what we truly need.

      And that is the meaningful and relevant distinction between choices and actions based in “subjective opinion and feelings” versus those based in “objective fact”. This distinction is critical to morality and moral judgment.

    3. The Realist

      Although “nihilism” may seem to suggest an intention to annihilate, it is just a common misconception because of the similarity with the English language, it’s actually a claim of “nothingness” from the Latin language. So nothing to be afraid of. Let me quote you a nice definition of it’s principles.

      “Moral nihilism (also known as ethical nihilism) is the meta-ethical view that nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral. For example, a moral nihilist would say that killing someone, for whatever reason, is neither inherently right nor inherently wrong. Moral nihilists consider morality to be constructed, a complex set of rules and recommendations that may give a psychological, social, or economical advantage to its adherents, but is otherwise without universal or even relative truth in any sense.”
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_nihilism

      So, moral nihilists don’t actually try to actively destroy any kind of morality. They just look into the universe and realize that it is without morals, which actually leaves them with an interesting problem. What is morality for humans? If it is a construct of reason, then can there be a “better” morality than the current one we have inherited from ancient evolutionary processes? And what would “better” mean in this case? Feel less pain? Maybe. It depends on the purpose we are willing to adopt. If the purpose is to grow in numbers, then we should have a morality that preserves as many lives as possible. This might forbid abortion for example. The purpose can also be a complex one, like “grow in numbers and feel the least amount of pain”. That would generate another set of moral rules.

      Another important question would be “is there one common purpose embedded into every human DNA, or does humans have slightly different purposes inside their DNA?”. If it turns out that there is one common purpose in our DNA with no variations, then it might be possible to create a normative morality which every human being would agree on. But if changes in DNA among individuals cause them to have slightly different perceptions of purpose, then it will be complicated to simply agree universally on one kind of morality. In that case it might be necessary to vote for one kind of purpose (which might be a complex one), and enforce its resulting morality onto every human being.

      But then again comes another question. Should we have one single morality on this planet, or should we allow many moralities to exist as a result of different kinds of purposes? An individual might be able to chose a country or region where the adopted purpose is that with which he identifies himself the most. In some places it might be a law to be vegetarian, while in others it might not be. In some regions it might be allowed to commit suicide once a slow deadly and painful sickness is detected. There could then be a small global morality that says that every human has the right to chose the moral region he wants to live in, according to his perception of purpose, and that all moral regions must at least base their morals on the fact that humans prefer to live. This is actually similar to what the declaration of human rights is, with the difference that it currently doesn’t give you permission to chose the country you want to live in.

      The topic of morality is a complicated one. Many new facts come in every day from fields such as neurology and psychology. As things are now, I don’t think we will find one single purpose embedded in our DNA. I think it will be a complex one with variations among individuals. The question then is if we should enforce one morality or permit many moralities.

      There is a nice definition of morality from a neurological perspective. It’s under the section MORALITY: DEFINITION AND BACKGROUND. It also describes how some variations in brain regions have caused different moral perceptions in humans. It’s an interesting read.
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3163302/

    4. Marvin Edwards

      Hmmm. The NIH has a definition of morality? Okay, I’ll take a peek at that in a second.

      I grew up in a time of civil disobedience due to civil rights and the Viet Nam war. I guess that is why I sense a difference between morality and ethics. An ethical person follows the rules. A moral person may challenge an immoral rule for the sake of a greater good.

      The purpose of morality is to achieve the best good and least harm for everyone. It is bigger than just a rule system. A moral person may feed the hungry as a moral act. Or grow food as a moral act. Or run a grocery store as a moral act. We even call food products agricultural “goods”. They are “goods” because people need food to live. We view economic “goods” as beneficial to us.

      Ethics are called a “moral code” because rules (at least those that we “really need”) are good for us. Rules serve goodness, not the other way around (“the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath”).

      The best goodness and least harm for everyone, then, becomes what you called “the purpose we are willing to adopt”, what you would refer to as a “meta-ethic”, the reason behind the ethics.

      And that, I believe, is the common sense calculation that nearly everyone applies to a new ethical problem. And you will find this concern for benefits and harms in Supreme Court decisions such as the recent case that extended marriage to same-sex couples.

      Now, obviously what is ultimately good for us and what will harm us is often in debate. After all, the Supreme Court decision was 5 to 4.

      Specific rules are not coded in our DNA, except may the rules that say you must breathe, drink water, eat food, and moderate your temperature. There may be a sense of equity that is either evolutionarily selected or acquired very early by newborns, but the details of its application are generally worked out later (“No Billy. You may not stick your fork in Tommy’s hand when he takes your food. Call an adult.”)

  7. Marvin Edwards

    Thanks for the link to the article. I just finished reading Michael S. Gazzaniga’s book, “Who’s In Charge?” and he covers a lot of the same material.

    I have no problem with mind being wholly a property of the physical brain. Gazzaniga pointed out how mind is not a point of central control but rather an emergent phenomenon of a complex system having many specialized functional areas.

    Gazzaniga also describes a mixture of top-down and bottom-up causation, where concepts at a higher level of the brain may affect activity at lower levels. In a similar fashion, society is created bottom up, but then serves as a top-down cause in the development of moral concepts and even the evolutionary selection process.

    He mentions that experiment by the guy who bred wolves by selecting just those pups that approached the human hand. After a few generations he was looking at wolves that appeared and behaved more like domesticated dogs.

    Reply
  8. TheProphet310

    Marvin: It is not two kinds of objective morality. Moral Ontology asks, “Where do morals come from?” Moral Epistemology asks, “How can we know what is moral?” When two people debate the issue and each is trying to answer a different question nothing is accomplished.

    Reply
    1. Marvin Edwards

      To say that morals come from God (ontology) becomes relevant only if God reliably reveals what those morals are (epistemology).

      (a) If God reveals them to different people differently, then for all practical purposes they are subjective.
      (b) If God reveals them to all people the same, then for all practical purposes they are objective.
      (c) If God reveals nothing, but keeps them to himself, then whether morals are objective or subjective is meaningless for all practical purposes.

      In Christianity, God reveals his will through the conversion of the heart, such that it seeks God’s will in all things. To me, that means that a moral problem is resolved via Matthew 22:37-40.

      In Humanism, Matthew 22:37-40 would translate as “Love Good, and love it for others as you do for yourself. All rules derive from this.”

      In practical terms, that means to seek the best good and least harm for everyone. All laws and ethics are judged by this criteria. And to the degree that we can objectively determine what is good for us and what is harmful, and demonstrate empirically that a new rule improves overall good and/or reduces overall harm, then the rule is objectively good. If the morality of the rule is held only subjectively, such that it cannot be proved to be beneficial/harmful in the real world, then it is subjective.

  9. TheProphet310

    Keith: I am a layman even though I am pursuing my education. But everything I know about philosophy and apologetics is completely self-taught. If you’d be so kind, could you point out my inaccuracies (what I’m confused about) so that I may study the matter and maybe give a more accurate explanation on my beliefs?
    I’m not condescending, I truly want to learn what I do not know. One area in which I’m lacking is philosophical classification. Am I an intuitionist or a counterpart? I’m not sure but I have noticed that my opposition often tries to get me to admit to a philosophical category so that they may attack it’s weaknesses instead of mine. I am definitely out of my league with the more educated such as you and Prof. Hellier but how else am I to learn? That’s why I have these debates. Thank you and I would appreciate your guidence.

    Reply
    1. keithnoback

      Likewise. I’m not being some sarcastic, condescending jerk (I hope). Ethics is a confusing subject, and I am a rank amateur. I can tell you that your view of moral realism is too narrow, and not exactly what philosophers mean when they use the term. But, I’m afraid that the sort of explanation that I can offer will be incomplete at best. Principia Ethica sounds daunting, but it is very approachable. Contemporary Metaethics is a bit tougher to digest, but fairly complete. Those are better sources than an internet comment section – no offense to the author of this blog.
      I hear you. People run around with canned arguments and it is easier to deploy a familiar line of reasoning than to really delve into what someone else is actually saying.

  10. William

    Do you agree that there is little to no real world value to being a moral subjectivist? Moral subjectivists aren’t really in the business of providing principles that will help you figure out what to do, at least from what I’ve seen.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Yes I do think there is real-world value in being a moral subjectivist, since there is real-world value in properly understanding human morality. You are right that moral subjectivism does not give a set of morals prescriptions. But it does tell you that all the moral prescriptions offered by those claiming moral realism are unfounded, and knowing that has real value.

    2. The Realist

      William, two questions:
      1 – What does “real world value” mean to you?
      2 – In you opinion what is the purpose of a morality that has “real world value”?

    3. William

      Suppose a married person is deciding whether or not to cheat on their spouse. Their spouse has been unkind to them recently, say, and there is someone at work who has been understanding and even indicated some degree of attraction. How should they go about deciding whether or not to cheat?

      On a broader scale, suppose an American citizen is deciding whether or not to vote for Donald Trump in the upcoming primary. Trump claims to be in favor of immigration and the free market, and he has disparaged John McCain’s military service recently. How should they go about deciding whether or not to vote for Trump?

      People need for a way of answering this kind of question, and it is not self evident what that way is.

      One of the most important roles of a religion like Christianity is to provide a way of answering this kind of question. Christianity provides an elaborately detailed moral code which purports to be objective and grounded in fact. It tells people what to do, including what legislation should be passed, what virtues they should try to live by, and what their private sexual conduct should be like. It provides thousands of pages’ worth of examples of what this moral code looks like in practice, and additional exposition is available to the Christian every Sunday.

      Moral subjectivism offers nothing like this, and indeed explicitly denies that it is possible. There are no objective grounds on which to pass laws or live by certain virtues rather than others, no grounds which cannot be rejected by any other person or even by the subjectivist himself ten minutes later in a different mood. This view offers nothing of substance that can be used to make decisions like those in the examples I offered above.

      Christians’ explicit grounds for rejecting moral subjectivism are usually weak or confused, but I think the reason so many people find them persuasive is that they mask the fact that morality is a navigation tool. What could possibly be a good reason for throwing out one’s only means of navigation?

    4. The Realist

      Christian morality is in practical terms subjective because people subjectively decide to believe in it in the first place.

      Every morality is based upon a purpose, an end, a goal. This purpose is subjectively chosen. The choice might be based on feelings, scientific evidence, faith, and so forth. Since we have never found an objective (consciousness independent) purpose in the universe, we cannot claim that there is an objective morality. For more details on that, please read my reply to Marvin Edwards on July 19, 2015 at 2:35 am, just a few pages up.

      Being scientific and looking at our DNA to see what evolution has done to us is also not a candidate for an objective (consciousness independent) morality, because science only tells us how our evolved morality currently *is*, but It doesn’t tell us how it *ought* to be. This is the famous “Is-Ought problem”. The worlds of the *is* and the *ought* are like two separate dimensions which you cannot connect together. The leap from an *is* to an *ought* is always subjective, and when someone says that an *ought* is objective (consciousness independent), then he is doing that by faith, like Christianity and other religions.

      So, all moralities in effect today are in this sense already subjective, and I don’t see why they wouldn’t have “real world value”. Would it be easier for us to know what to do if there was a God given morality presented to us in a meaningful way? Sure, but the fact that it would be easier doesn’t matter here. As philosophers and scientists we have to accept the truth the way it presents itself when we seek to know what is true in the universe, and all evidence today points to morality being subjective, in the sens that it doesn’t exist as a consciousness independent fact.

    5. Marvin Edwards

      Some matters of faith are justified by objective facts, while others not so much. Christian morality is based in a transformation of the heart, such that the Christian seeks what is good for others as well as what may be good for himself or herself.

      This is moral intent. It is similar to Kant’s “good will”.

      And I would put to you two practical questions:

      (1) What would our world be like if everyone cared about the welfare of others as well as his own welfare?

      (2) What would our world be like if everyone sought their own self-interest at the expense of others?

    6. The Realist

      > (1) What would our world be like if everyone cared about the welfare of others as well
      > as his own welfare?
      A: In my opinion it would be the world early Christians dreamed of.

      > (2) What would our world be like if everyone sought their own self-interest at the
      > expense of others?
      A: In my opinion it would be a world were humans didn’t form communities and might even have gone extinct or were at least fewer in numbers than today.

      I believe we sit in between of these two extremes. Our individual self-interest generally includes not just our own welfare, but also the welfare of our children, our grandchildren and that of other relatives and friends who we hold dear. But our evolutionary instincts only extend our self-interests onto those who we consider to be part of our family or community. Beyond that, we simply stop caring too much and are not that emotionally attached anymore. This has caused, and is still causing, all sorts of conflicts among human societies. The same effect can be seen among chimpanzees when they kill another group of chimpanzees for resources. They have a self-interest for themselves and for their family or community. But they don’t care too much about other individuals of other families or communities.

      “Discovering that our closest living relatives are capable of such slaughter led some anthropologists to suggest that an instinct to kill may be a grisly trait that humans and chimpanzees inherited from their common ancestor some 7 million years ago. The conclusion: Violence is just part of human nature, stamped in our DNA.”
      http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/human_evolution/2012/10/chimpanzee_wars_can_primate_aggression_teach_us_about_human_aggression.html

    7. William

      Realist, I think I failed to make my point clear to you, and I apologize for that.

      You conclude your post with the observation that “as philosophers and scientists we have to accept the truth the way it presents itself when we seek to know what is true in the universe.”

      I do not know how you could motivate this claim if you maintain that moral subjectivism provides us with no practical guidance and indeed undermines the moral codes that we use to guide our actions. If a belief has nothing of practical value to offer us, then there is no reason to accept it, empty paeans to the truth notwithstanding.

      To be sure, a moral subjectivist might feel a sense of intellectual superiority to the Christian in the rare cases when he engages in debate with one. 99% of the time, though, the only difference between them is that the Christian has moral principles to live by and the subjectivist doesn’t.

      Not exactly a compelling trade off.

    8. The Realist

      William,

      The whole point of moral nihilism is that it’s not just a belief that we chose to accept in place of Christianity. It’s a logical conclusion derived from naturalism, or in other words, science.

      Also, what I tried to say is that, although all moralities today are subjective, they still work. Throughout history almost every culture has come up with their own morality, and they all worked very well for their purpose. So, even if morality is subjective, it still has its practical “real world value”, if you enforce it properly.

      Now, that doesn’t seem to be “a compelling trade off” (as you put it) for religions like Christianity, where the individual truly believes in the moral principles and follows them gladly. Following a moral code because you believe in it is a lot more effective than following a moral code because it was enforced while believing in moral nihilism.

      For most of human history our morality was based on strong belief systems and religions. It was not enforced by police until later on in our social evolution. Imagine a primitive tribe with no police. Science is starting to show that our brain seems to be tuned by evolution to believe in something transcendental. This may have been the solution evolution has found to make each individual truly believe in the morality that derived from that communities belief system, and therefore behave “morally”.

      Now, is it then dangerous to tell people that there is in fact nothing transcendental and that our morality is therefore subjective? Well, I personally think that it is in fact dangerous, and so did Friedrich Nietzsche and countless others. Nietzsche coined the phrase “God is dead” and concluded that we had lost our moral principles as a result of that. Who killed god? Naturalism did. He then claimed that because of that, the following century would become the bloodiest century in human history, and he was right.

      Viktor E. Frankl, a holocaust survivor and former professor of neurology and psychiatry at the university of Vienna Medical School also said the following, and I quote: “When we present man as an automation of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instincts, heredity, and environment, we feed the despair to which man is, in any case, already prone. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment — or, as the Nazis liked to say, of ‘Blood and Soil’. I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.”

      So is moral nihilism the source of the problem? No. The problem is that naturalism has killed god and therefore the universe has no actual purpose and humans have no intrinsic value anymore. The advances of naturalism lead people to not believe so much in a god anymore, and that is the main problem. Saying that the universe is morally nihilistic is just the logical conclusion of naturalism. But by killing the transcendental, we have effectively turned off a mechanism of evolution which helped us to create the illusion that there is an objective morality.

      So what should we do now? Well, not even Nietzsche knew what to do. He literally went nuts later in his life. But many intellectuals have since tried to get rid of moral nihilism, specially after the holocaust. Leo Strauss proposed that we invent a “noble lie” for people to believe in. A noble lie that is in line with today’s science and so beautiful that no human could possibly resist believing in its moral principles. The truth that the universe is actually without purpose and therefore morally nihilistic would then be kept hidden from society. In this way we would reactivate that part of us that wants to believe in an objective morality, and would then regain the natural benefit of moral behavior.

      In my opinion, that would be a compelling trade off for religious belief.

    9. Coel Post author

      Now, is it then dangerous to tell people that there is in fact nothing transcendental and that our morality is therefore subjective? Well, I personally think that it is in fact dangerous, and so did Friedrich Nietzsche and countless others.

      I would disagree with you on it being dangerous. As I see it, human moral feelings are a very deep part of our nature. The “meta ethics” stuff is more of a superficial commentary that we construct. We can change the commentary about morals without actually changing human morality much at all. This is borne out by the fact that societies in which belief in God is dying out (such as Scandinavia) are among the best societies to live, they are are not degenerating morally.

    10. The Realist

      Not even a century ago, the US was headed by highly intellectual and educated people, and they decided to build and drop a nuclear bomb on thousands of innocent civilians in Japan… twice.

      Human self-interest of welfare only naturally extends onto those who we consider to be part of our community. Japan was not considered part of the US community, and therefore moral feelings for them were weak or non-existent. Now, many factors during our development shape and broaden our feelings and sense of community. One very important factor is belief.

      “Wainryb (1991; 1993) shows that many apparent cultural differences in moral judgments are actually due to different informational assumptions, or beliefs about the way the world works.” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_development

      A belief based on science showing that black and white people are all equally human may be helping us to get rid of natural feelings for racism. But a belief in moral nihilism on the other hand may just be giving our natural feelings the freedom to favor our own society at the expense of others, the same way these feelings still operate in chimpanzees today. And if that is the belief our future world leaders will grow up with, then I don’t think that it will ultimately result in global harmony.

  11. Philosopher Eric

    Come on Coel, how is any of this stuff going to solve anything at all? It does inspire a joke however: What do you get when you cross a Christian who likes to argue, with an atheist who likes to argue? Answer? See above. 🙂

    Reply
    1. The Realist

      Solve? There is nothing to be solved. Unless someone (subjectively) invented a problem in the first place. Could you share with us what this subjective problem is for which you seek a solution? =)

  12. Ryedo40

    Hi Realist, some of your comments sparked my interest, so thought I’d offer a few of my thoughts.

    “For most of human history our morality was based on strong belief systems and religions.”

    I agree. And most of human history has been hostile and extremely violent.

    “It was not enforced by police until later on in our social evolution. Imagine a primitive tribe with no police.”

    Not sure what you mean by police here, but wouldn’t primitive tribes police each other – or wouldn’t their hierarchy determine their social norms and taboos. For example, as I understand it, cannibalism was used by some primitive tribes, not just for religious reasons(mostly involved killing and eating the out-group), but also as punishment for in-group anti-social behaviour.

    “Science is starting to show that our brain seems to be tuned by evolution to believe in something transcendental. This may have been the solution evolution has found to make each individual truly believe in the morality that derived from that communities belief system, and therefore behave “morally”.”

    As a child I didn’t believe in the supernatural until I was told about the supernatural. But I was a sceptical child and soon came to the conclusion it was all nonsense. I’m not convinced we’ve evolved to believe in the supernatural(transcendental); although we are predisposed to soak up and believe information, especially from those we trust, regardless of whether that information is correct or not.

    Beliefs in gods and the supernatural are carried culturally. Should a society successfully discard or replace those beliefs, it’s unlikely future generations will hold those older beliefs. Those beliefs will simply be forgotten.

    “Now, is it then dangerous to tell people that there is in fact nothing transcendental and that our morality is therefore subjective? Well, I personally think that it is in fact dangerous, and so did Friedrich Nietzsche and countless others. Nietzsche coined the phrase “God is dead” and concluded that we had lost our moral principles as a result of that. Who killed god? Naturalism did. He then claimed that because of that, the following century would become the bloodiest century in human history, and he was right.”

    Before Nietzsche and naturalism, what was different? Nothing. People, believing in objective morality, still enslaved, tortured and slaughtered the out-groups as well as those within their own-group; often using morality, and the “greater good”, as justification for their actions.

    Industrialisation and its efficiency, as well as greater population, were the only differences between “the bloodiest century” and times previous to Nietzsche and naturalism. Also, those participating in war were mostly those who believed in the transcendental. I don’t see how you come to your conclusion.

    Reply
    1. The Realist

      > I’m not convinced we’ve evolved to believe in the supernatural

      “There is general agreement among cognitive scientists that religion is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved early in human history. The two main schools of thought hold that either religion evolved due to natural selection and has selective advantage, or that religion is an evolutionary byproduct of other mental adaptations.” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_origin_of_religions

      > Not sure what you mean by police here

      “Chimpanzees live in fission-fusion groups that average 50 individuals. It is likely that early ancestors of humans lived in groups of similar size. As community size increased over the course of human evolution, greater enforcement to achieve group cohesion would have been required.” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_origin_of_religions

      > Before Nietzsche and naturalism, what was different? Nothing. People, believing in objective morality, still enslaved, tortured and slaughtered the out-groups as well as those within their own-group; often using morality, and the “greater good”, as justification for their actions.

      Just because large part of the world was dominated by an institutionalized belief system that had little to no effect in changing human behavior, doesn’t make it false that human actions are in fact driven by their convictions and beliefs.

      > Industrialization and its efficiency, as well as greater population, were the only differences between “the bloodiest century” and times previous to Nietzsche and naturalism.

      It’s a tempting idea, but it doesn’t make sense to me. The increase in percentage from deaths by conflict with respect to the world population is just too high in the 20th century.

      > I don’t see how you come to your conclusion.

      In the 20th century, at the heights of human reasoning, in an age of unprecedented intellectualism, where ethics had already been thoroughly studied for centuries, utilitarianism was already an old idea and things such as the theory of relativity and quantum physics were already well understood, humans still committed genocide at an unprecedented level in human history. Stalin killed 20 to 60 million of his own. Reason, the intellectuals of the enlightenment thought, would prevent us from doing such a thing. But reason alone failed. And if nothing has fundamentally changed in our belief since then, other than some additional scientific knowledge that doesn’t give us intrinsic value, then what prevents us from committing another genocide in the future? And what are the logical arguments *not* to commit another genocide if we have no logical means to reject it? In 2006, Dr. Eric Pianka brought up the idea of eliminating 95% of humans to save the planet and proposed a mutant strain of the Ebola virus as the most effective mean for it. It caused such an outrage in the scientific community that he had to explain himself to the FBI. But despite the widespread rejection of his idea, no one was able to come up with a naturalistic argument to morally reject it, other than by some subjective standard for which we have no universal agreement. And that’s the problem with moral nihilism. It’s the dead end to which reason alone leads us, leaving the doors wide open for anything to happen.

      So what do we do today? We run back to our primitive instincts. Can you believe that? After centuries of pure reason, the best we’ve come up with is a world run by people who still base their decisions on a subjective feeling that humans might have intrinsic value. And many of them actually don’t even believe that it is universally true. We give them the declaration of Human Rights and hope that they buy it. But it’s a lottery, because we haven’t taught them nothing that actually gives humans intrinsic value. We have given them no logical argument to support it. We just hope that they somehow create within themselves the conviction and belief that humans have intrinsic value, while we are at the same time destroying the very basis for any logical reason to create that conviction in the first place. And that’s why I support the pragmatic view that we should tell humans what they psychologically need to hear so as to make them believe that humans actually have intrinsic value. It doesn’t matter if what we tell them is based on objective truths or subjective faith. What matters is that it psychologically becomes a true conviction within these people. What we need are headlines such as: “Scientists have discovered that there is a purpose for this universe after all”.

      As an example, I invite you to watch a piece of a documentary about the psychological experiment “Princess Alice is Watching you” and the influence it has on moral behavior in children. Of course, we would have to invent something much more sophisticated for it to work in adults too.
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21377689

  13. Ryedo40

    “The two main schools of thought hold that either religion evolved due to natural selection and has selective advantage, or that religion is an evolutionary by-product of other mental adaptations.”

    I tend to agree with the latter. The mechanisms our brains have evolved help us survive real and potential threats. And, because we often lack definitive or accurate information, we are prone to blunder and misunderstanding. Those mechanisms also aren’t perfect: we see and seek patterns were there are none and apply agency where there is none. We are also a fearful and paranoid species – useful for survival.

    The above problems, along with our intellect and ignorance, give rise to imaginative or superstitious thinking.

    Superstitious beliefs, even beliefs in anal-probing aliens, are more or less cultural fads that arise from the above. They remain in culture because of fear and ignorance. And begin to disappear or change as we gain more definitive or more accurate information.

    So I’m not convinced we’ve evolved to specifically believe in the supernatural or religion. Such beliefs are, more or less, a result of ignorance, fear/paranoia and our flaws in comprehension.

    “Chimpanzees live in fission-fusion groups that average 50 individuals. It is likely that early ancestors of humans lived in groups of similar size. As community size increased over the course of human evolution, greater enforcement to achieve group cohesion would have been required.”

    And in those groups, as with our species, there is always some level of policing going on; not just between individuals, who may have disputes with other members, but also amongst the more dominant members of the group. The more dominant members, of course, will have greater influence on how others behave – and in controlling/punishing group members who don’t fit their subjective morality.

    “Just because large part of the world was dominated by an institutionalized belief system that had little to no effect in changing human behaviour, doesn’t make it false that human actions are in fact driven by their convictions and beliefs…

    It’s a tempting idea, but it doesn’t make sense to me. The increase in percentage from deaths by conflict with respect to the world population is just too high in the 20th century.”

    People are driven by their convictions and beliefs. If someone is convinced it is acceptable to commit genocide, and they get the backing and power to do it, they’re going to commit genocide. That’s always, unfortunately, been the case.

    I disagree with you about the percentage being too high. During the 18th, 19th & 20th centuries our populations had greatly boomed; with vast numbers accumulating in expanding cities across the world. Technological advancements, not just with weaponry, but also in transport and communication, made the world a much smaller place with fewer places to hide. It was not only easier to destroy infrastructure, leading to numerous deaths(not always violent), but also easier to slaughter people in their thousands. The duration of conflict during the 20th century lasted years, not days or months. The numbers of death would have soon stacked up – something that, given the circumstances, wouldn’t have occurred during less technological and industrialised centuries even if they did have long wars.

    Likewise, I also disagree with your conclusion here:

    “No. The problem is that naturalism has killed god and therefore the universe has no actual purpose and humans have no intrinsic value anymore. The advances of naturalism lead people to not believe so much in a god anymore, and that is the main problem.”

    The vast majority taking part in war during the 20th century believed in god. The same could be said today – or any century or millennia previous to the 20th. When we were more god fearing, women were treated as second-class citizens. Few opposed slavery or the harsh treatment of slaves. It was acceptable to force children to work long hours. Child marriage was also common – and even today there is some variance across the world with the age of consent. Torture, mutilation and the execution of those who spoke against the status-quo was a norm. Executions were also often a form of entertainment. Men and women were burnt at the stake. Even children were executed. There were countless wars and conflicts with enemies of either side slaughtering each other in the most gruesome manner. Even the Bible depicts acts of genocide – usually performed in gods name, or as claimed, commanded by god himself. Go back further and human and animal sacrifice were also wide-spread. All of this when we believed we had intrinsic value and when we had god given purpose in our lives.

    Now if we were morally better in the past, even though history shows otherwise, you’d have a point. So I have to disagree with you again.

    Reply
    1. The Realist

      Let’s just agree to disagree on what actually lead people to commit violent actions in the past.

      If you don’t like or don’t agree with the proposed solution, that’s OK. I always expect constructive criticism. But your criticism hasn’t actually given an alternative solution to the problem. So, let’s play a little game.

      Imagine you meet someone that is willing to kill you, and you have to logically convince him that killing you is wrong. What are the arguments you would use to convince each one of these two persons?:
      a) A Christian
      b) A Naturalist

  14. Ryedo40

    Sorry, but in a real life situation, those who want to kill are beyond reason. And trying to convince them not too would involve a lot more than presenting sound logical argument as to why they shouldn’t.

    A better question would be to ask why a Christian or Naturalist would want to kill me. Maybe then I could play your game.

    Here’s another game. Who is more likely to kill:

    a) Someone raised in a religion where their dogma portrays those who differ as inferior, evil, immoral, of Satan or demon possessed, and against God.

    b) Someone not raised with dogma demonizing those who differ.

    Reply
  15. Ryedo40

    There doesn’t seem to be the ability to edit comments here, so to add:

    How would those of group ‘a’ react or behave in a situation where they encounter those who differ. And how would those of group ‘b’ react or behave when they encounter those who differ. Who has the most obstacles to overcome when learning to value those who differ.

    It seems obvious to me that those of group ‘a’ will behave far more hostile and, perhaps, violent towards those who differ than those of group ‘b’ – who have far fewer hurdles in the way when it comes to building-bridges and learning to value others.

    So I would suggest that those of a naturalistic bent are less likely to kill. And there seems to be an abundance of historical and contemporary evidence to suggest that’s the case.

    Reply

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