Category Archives: Philosophy

The CARM rejection of subjective morality

I’ve been pointed by a reader to a critique of the idea that morality is subjective written by the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry. CARM is the website of Matt Slick, a conservative Christian who believes in the infallibility and literal intent of the Bible, and thus, for example, in the literal existence of Adam and Eve.

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What struck me about Slick’s arguments against morality being subjective is that he doesn’t really address whether it is true that morality is subjective, he discusses whether he wants it to be the case that morality is subjective. He then sort of assumes that what he wants to be the case must then be the case.

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This is, of course, a hallmark of Christian apologetics, but is also symptomatic of those arguing for objective morality more generally. Having discussed the matter with many people, the main objection to the idea that morality is subjective is simply dislike of the idea or its consequences, coupled with an intuitive insistence that there must be some way in which we can regard morality as objective.

Slick argues:

But, we can justify our absolute morals that apply to all people; they [moral subjectivists] can’t. The Christians absolute morals are rooted in the character of God, not the subjective preferences of individual.

Of course rooting morals in the subjective preferences of the Christian god is just as subjective as rooting them in the preferences of Fred Blogs from Little Rock, Arkansas. Slick gives no reason why God (as opposed to anyone else) gets to be the one whose opinion counts. “Might makes right” is not an argument. And it doesn’t get you around Euthyphro: if a God were a sadistic monster who enjoyed torturing children for the fun of it, then — according to Slick’s account — torturing children would be the objectively moral thing to do.

Slick then gives six reasons for rejecting subjective morality:

1. Without absolute morals, nothing is really right or wrong

By “really” right or wrong, he means objectively right or wrong independently of anyone’s opinion. And he’s entirely right. But all he’s done is restate what morality being subjective means. He’s given no actual argument against moral subjectivity or non-cognitivism (the idea that moral claims do not have truth values). He is, it seems, assuming an implicit: “… and because this conflicts with my intuition and because I don’t like that idea therefore it is untrue”.

2. Moral values are assigned [by] individuals who often contradict each other

Again, he is entirely right. Again, though, this does not constitute any sort of argument against morality being subjective. People so often just misunderstand subjective morality. They are so intuitively wedded to the idea that moral claims have objective truth values that they then get all baffled as to how one gets objective morality and objective moral truth values out of subjective morality. The answer is of course, that one can’t, and the quest is misconceived. But Slick asks:

It would be a problem to determine what actually is right and wrong when morals are subjective and people disagree all the time

Yep! And that’s because there is no such thing and because the very phrase “what actually is morally right and wrong” has no meaning, it being the delusion of a preference that is objective and independent of anyone doing the preferring.

Furthermore, if people were to appeal to something “just being wrong”, then they are not appealing to the subjective preferences but to a standard outside of themselves. This would be inconsistent with the idea of subjective morality …

Again, that’s entirely correct! And yet none of this is an argument against non-cognitivism being the truth about morality. Slick is just giving his emotional reaction to the idea and rejecting it for that reason.

3. If moral values are subjective, there can be no moral absolutes

Yes indeed Mr Slick, well spotted! Slick is just re-stating the same thing again and again.

4. Moral subjectivity would work only in a world where people are nice

By “work” Slick presumably means “… lead to a world in which everyone was nice”. Again, indeed so! Slick correctly points out that only in a world where everyone was nice would everyone be nice. Subjective morality will indeed not automatically produce such a world. But, you know what, we don’t live in such a world! In asserting that morality is subjective, I’m trying to state the truth about how things actually are, not dreaming of a Utopia about how we’d like things to be.

5. History condemns moral relativism

Slick makes the usual apologetic claim that subjective morality leads to mass murder, pointing to Stalin, Mao and Hitler. But, he’s simply wrong. Hitler, for one, believed in an objective morality ordained by God, just as Slick does. It was precisely because he believed that objective moral standards ordained by God mandated the removal of Jews from society that he decided to kill them. After declaring that the Aryan race were the “highest image of God among His creatures”, Hitler stated in Mein Kampf that the state had: “a very high mission indeed to preserve and encourage the highest type of humanity which a beneficent Creator has bestowed on this earth”. Thus he declared that: “In opposing the Jew I am doing God’s will”.

Similarly, Stalin and Mao believed that they had an overriding moral duty to impose their system on society. It is the person who believes in objective morality, who considers that he has an absolute moral mandate, regardless of what other humans think, who is dangerous. A person who considers that morality is subjective, and that his moral opinions are his own individual moral opinions, and that he does not have objective or Divine backing to impose them on others, is much less dangerous.

Finally, Slick argues against the idea that:

6. Morals are based on reducing Harm

Slick says that:

… when reducing harm is the standard all that people have to adhere to, then the moral relativist is appealing to a universal moral standard. But that means they are appealing to something outside of themselves which contradicts their subjective morality.

Again, I agree, but there he is arguing against the objective system of utilitarianism. Many atheists, recoiling intuitively from the idea that morals are subjective, do indeed attempt to construct an objective utilitarian morality (Sam Harris is a prominent example). I consider all such attempts to be misconceived, and suggest that morality makes much more sense once we accept that it really is subjective. Thus morality is often about reducing harm simply because that’s the sort of society most of us want to live in.

There really are no problems at all associated with subjective morality — Slick has not pointed to a single one, other than his intuitive rejection of the idea.
Yes, one cannot start from subjective morality and then map it onto an Absolute Shouldness Scale, but that’s because the very request is a misconceived mashing together of subjectivism and objectivism. Many of Slick’s comments are actually entirely correct, but are in no way arguments against morality being subjective.

On Stephen Law on Scientism

scientism It’s good to see philosophers taking scientism seriously, and not just using the term as a bogey word. Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry are editing a forthcoming volume on scientism (Total Science, University of Chicago Press) and some of the essays are appearing on the internet.

I’ll discuss here the draft chapter by Stephen Law (Heythrop College, University of London) who writes, discussing the proper scope of science:

stephen_law

As a philosopher, you might expect me both to want to carve out some intellectual territory for philosophers to occupy, and also to resist the thought that philosophical questions and problems are either non-questions and non-problems or else questions that will be answered and problems that will be solved, if at all, through an application of the scientific method. I won’t disappoint. However, while I acknowledge that there are limits to science, I will argue these limits typically offer little comfort to religious, New Age, and other folk looking for ways to immunize their beliefs against scientific refutation.

As that last sentence suggests, science has been so successful in generating knowledge that it can be threatening to other beliefs. Do other belief systems have an independent validity, in domains of knowledge that are simply not the business of science, or can a scientific approach prevail in all domains? As Law says, the desire to limit science often originates from a desire to indulge beliefs that derive from wishful thinking, without feeling any need to supply science-grade evidence to back them up.

Law discusses Stephen Gould’s proposal of “non-overlapping magesteria” of knowledge, of which science would be only one. In contrast, scientism is the wholesale rejection of NOMA and the declaration that knowledge is a unified whole, and that the basic ways of finding things out that we refer to as “science” apply universally.

Let’s also be clear that scientism is not the claim that science can answer all questions, it’s the claim that there are no independent “ways of knowing” that can answer questions that science cannot. It is easy to think of questions that are meaningful but which we will never be able to answer (I’ve previously given some examples, including: What did Julius Caesar eat on the day three days before his eighth birthday, and did he stroke a dog on that day?).

Law is sympathetic to much of scientism and I won’t address the many parts of his chapter with which I agree. I’ll focus only on two areas where Law dissents from scientism: Continue reading

Telling science from pseudoscience and the demarcation problem

demarcPhilosophers of Science have long puzzled over what they call “the” demarcation problem, of how to distinguish science from pseudoscience. In the early 20th Century the Logical Positivists proposed the verification principle, that a statement was meaningful and scientific only if it could be empirically verified. Karl Popper then proposed a similar idea, that a scientific idea is one that can be falsified.

There is a lot of truth in both proposals, but neither can be interpreted too narrowly. The problem is that no statement can be verified or falsified in isolation. Science constructs whole webs of ideas, and it is the whole construct that is then compared to empirical data, to be adjusted and improved as necessary. Further, a statement such as Newton’s law of gravity can never be verified in the general sense, all we can say is that it worked well enough — as part of the wider web of ideas — in the particular instance we tested. Nor is it straightforward to falsify such a law. If our overall model is inconsistent with an observation then we could indeed alter one of the laws; but we might also overcome the inconsistency by altering some other part of the overall model; or we might doubt the reliability of the observations. Continue reading

The evolutionary argument against moral realism

Having abandoned Divine Command Theory around the age of 12, when I realised that I was an atheist, I then read John Stuart Mill at the impressionable age of 14 and instantly became a utilitarian. I remained so well into adulthood; it seemed obvious that morality was a matter of objective wrong and right, and that utilitarianism — the greatest good of the greatest number — was the way to determine such facts.

Of course I also became aware of the unresolved problems with utilitarianism: there is no way to assess what is “good” except by subjective judgement, and there is no way to aggregate over sentient creatures (should a mouse count equally to a human?) except, again, by subjective judgement. Both of those rather clash with the desired objectivity of the scheme.

Periodically I would try to fix these flaws, but never succeeded. Such mulling led me to the realisation that I didn’t actually know what moral language actually meant. “It is morally right that you do X”, can be re-phrased as “you ought to do X”, but what do those mean? I realised that I didn’t know, and had been proceeding all this time on the basis that what they meant was intuitively obvious and so didn’t need analysis.

But that’s not good enough if we’re trying to solve meta-ethics and understand the very foundations of morality. And so, I eventually arrived at the realisation that the only sensible meaning that can be attached to the moral claim “you ought to do X” is that: at least one human, likely including the speaker, will dislike it if you do not do X. “It is morally right that you do X” then becomes a declaration that the speaker will approve of you doing X and disapprove of you not doing X. Continue reading

Reductionism and Unity in Science

One problem encountered when physicists talk to philosophers of science is that we are, to quote George Bernard Shaw out of context, divided by a common language. A prime example concerns the word “reductionism”, which means different things to the two communities.

In the 20th Century the Logical Positivist philosophers were engaged in a highly normative program of specifying how they thought academic enquiry and science should be conducted. In 1961, Ernest Nagel published “The Structure of Science”, in which he discussed how high-level explanatory concepts (those applying to complex ensembles, and thus as used in biology or the social sciences) should be related to lower-level concepts (as used in physics). He proposed that theories at the different levels should be closely related and linked by explicit and tightly specified “bridge laws”. This idea is what philosophers call “inter-theoretic reductionism”, or just “reductionism”. It is a rather strong thesis about linkages between different levels of explanation in science.

To cut a long story short, Nagel’s conception does not work; nature is not like that. Amongst philosophers, Jerry Fodor has been influential in refuting Nagel’s reductionism as applied to many sciences. He called the sciences that cannot be Nagel-style reduced to lower-level descriptions the “special sciences”. This is a rather weird term to use since all sciences turn out to be “special sciences” (Nagel-style bridge-law reductionism does not always work even within fundamental particle physics, for which see below), but the term is a relic of the original presumption that a failure of Nagel-style reductionism would be the exception rather than the rule.

For the above reasons, philosophers of science generally maintain that “reductionism” (by which they mean the Nagel’s strong thesis) does not work, and on that they are right. They thus hold that physicists (who generally do espouse and defend a doctrine of reductionism) are naive in not realising that.

“The underlying physical laws necessary for the mathematical theory of a large part of physics and the whole of chemistry are thus completely known, and the difficulty is only that the exact application of these laws leads to equations much too complicated to be soluble.”     — Paul Dirac, 1929 [1]

The problem is, the physicists’ conception of reductionism is very different. Physicists are, for the most part, blithely unaware of the above debate within philosophy, since the ethos of Nagel-style reductionism did not come from physics and was never a live issue within physics. Physicists have always been pragmatic and have adopted whatever works, whatever nature leads them to. Thus, where nature leads them to Nagel-style bridge laws physicists will readily adopt them, but on the whole nature is not like that.

The physicists’ conception of “reductionism” is instead what philosophers would call “supervenience physicalism”. This is a vastly weaker thesis than Nagel-style inter-theoretic reduction. The physicists’ thesis is ontological (about how the world is) in contrast to Nagel’s thesis which is epistemological (about how our ideas about the world should be). Continue reading

Hume’s subjective morality: Making value judgements about value judgements

One theme of this blog has been my arguments — as a disciple of Hume — that morality is subjective, thus rejecting that idea that moral claims can be assigned truth values and that they are independent of human judgement on the matter. (For example, see my posts: Six reasons why objective morality is nonsense and Science can answer morality questions.)

This idea, though, often meets strong intuitive resistance. A common complaint is that, if moral claims are “merely” people’s opinions, then one cannot say that the morals of a virtuous man, living a blameless life and esteemed by his fellows, are any better than those of a delinquent mass murderer.

The suggestion is that, if morals are human sentiments, rather than being objective statements of fact, then we must value everyone’s sentiments and morals equally.

This, however, is a non-sequitur. There is nothing to stop us making value judgements about value judgements. Indeed we commonly do so. There is nothing at all preventing us from respecting and lauding someone we regard as a moral paragon, or from deprecating someone we regard as a delinquent.

Stated like this the point is perhaps obvious, yet many objections to the idea that morality is subjective amount to the idea that one needs permission to make value judgements, permission that can only come from a reference to an objective standard, and that in the absence of such a standard one must regard everyone’s opinion as “equally valid”. Continue reading

On explanations and causality within physics

I recently watched a video by philosophers Massimo Pigliucci (City University of New York) and Daniel Kaufman (Missouri State University) discussing differences in styles of explanation between the natural sciences and the social sciences. There’s a lot in the video that I agree with, but I want to dissent on one issue. That is, I don’t agree that causality is as central to explanations within physics as the video suggests, and thus the differences with the social sciences are less pronounced than suggested. (Though, having said that, I do agree that there is one very big difference in that biological entities exhibit purpose and intention, whereas physical entities do not.)

Pigliucci and Kaufman suggest that “explanations” within the physical sciences are typically in terms of causation, and thus are of the form of pointing to antecedent causal events that are sufficient to explain subsequent events. They also discuss “laws of physics” as being “widely generalisable causal relations”.

I would instead say that physical laws are often not about causes and are just descriptive. They would thus be “widely generalisable descriptive relations”. The meaning of “explanation” within physics is also much broader than just causal explanations. More generally, “explanations” are linkages between descriptions of different aspects of the system. All systems, simple or complex, can be (partially) described in different ways, and if we show how those descriptions link together then we “explain”. Continue reading