Moral ontology

A while back I wrote a post titled “What is a moral claim” that did not do a good job of getting at the heart of the topic I was actually aiming to address. So I wanted to recalibrate and go beyond asking “what is a moral claim” by offering an answer. That has turned into a rather thoroughgoing presentation of what I now consider to be the moral ontology which is most likely true. Sorry for the length, but I hope its worth the effort.

First, some moral epistemology

This is what your conscience looks like

I am of the opinion that epistemology should inform ontology (and vice versa). In other words, understanding how it is that we know about something should play a role in defining what we think that something is. Likewise, our understanding of what something is should play a role in defining how it is that we know about it (I covered this more generally in My Ontology – Part 1). I have found that the discussion of morality, particularly in the God debate, often focuses on moral ontology – we like to talk about what morality is without giving too much thought to the epistemology. By asking “What is a moral claim?” in that post last year I was aiming to explore how moral epistemology might inform our moral ontology – contra William Lane Craig, who suggests we should just posit our desired moral ontology and then define our epistemology as a follow-on.

My assertion in that original post was that we can recognize moral claims, and distinguish them from other claims, and that this tells us something about the nature of morality. As was noted by several commenters, this supports nothing more than the notion that morality is at minimum a distinct mental concept. However, I was aiming for something more…

The moral referent

In one of the comments on that original post Dave compared morality to beauty, to which I replied by noting that:

“This is the question of the referent. For beauty, we can generally link the shared concept to ‘the way we feel about certain sensory perceptions’, like sunsets, music, etc…. There is a class of experiences which trigger a similar response in us and so we call those things beautiful.”

This gets to the heart of the matter. As with beauty, there must be some referent which shapes the concept of morality and, as with beauty, it appears that the best we can do is to introspectively trace this to a particular feeling. Just as the concept of “tree” is informed purely by the phenomenal experience of trees (and not through some special metaphysical access to the abstract ideal tree) the concept of beauty is informed by the phenomenal experience of conditions which trigger a particular feeling. Isn’t it most reasonable – perhaps even obvious – that morality is no different?

But there are trees out there in the real world which are separate from our phenomenal experience of them. What is the corresponding reality which feeds into the concept of morality?

When I presented my ontology, I identified universals as mental concepts which are constructed as generalizations of our experience of particulars. The particulars which inform a universal need not be mind-independent, objective entities. Despite the connotations of our language (e.g., “that’s a beautiful sunset”), most of us are not inclined to actually assign beauty as an intrinsic property of the object of our perception, but we rather accept it as a subjective component of our experience; beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Likewise, we’re all familiar with the concept of sadness, but not because it exists ‘out there’ in some sense, but because we are all human and have been able to relate a similar internal state to a common idea which we can communicate. My proposal is that morality is like beauty and sadness. Morality is informed by my phenomenal experience of the feelings and intuitions which arise under certain circumstances.

I take it that the view I have presented for sadness and beauty is fairly uncontroversial, but for some reason morality is a different beast. We struggle against the prospect that the subjective experience of the feelings and intuitions which have informed our conception of morality might be wholly subjective – it’s uncomfortable to suppose that there isn’t an objective reality against which we can hold others accountable and point to and say “No! You’re wrong!” How do we account for this relatively unique property of the moral experience?

 The social theory of moral origins

I have been hesitant to adopt the standard naturalist explanation for the origin of morality as an evolutionary product of our social heritage. Regardless, I have since come to accept that the evolutionary development of a moral faculty driven by social selection pressures is quite plausible. In the following sections I attempt to summarize the key evidences and reasoning behind this conclusion.

Prosociality in non-human primates

If morality is an evolutionary product then there should be traces of it in other species and, in fact, morally relevant sociality is a characteristic of our closest evolutionary relatives (and beyond). This is perhaps best described by just about anything that Frans de Waal has published or, more immediately, his TED talk (below) offers a quick and accessible overview:

Social factors strongly influence our morality

If a social heritage was a key element in the development of our moral intuitions then we would expect to see that social forces have a continued impact on the expression of that morality. This appears to be the case:

  1. surveillanceSocial Awareness: A multitude of studies have demonstrated that even subtle awareness of “watchers” impacts our moral behavior. This may reflect a biological predisposition, but when we allow that our moral sense is in part a development that arises through our life experience, the social dimension of that development also corresponds nicely with this data point.
  2. Social Compliance: Setting aside survival instincts, ‘peer pressure’ is perhaps the most capable mechanism for getting us to act in opposition to our moral sense. The Milgram Experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment, Nazi Germany and, more recently, Derren Brown’s “Push” program serve as some of the more extreme negative examples. However, this applies equally in reverse, where our tendency to realize an arduous moral good is substantially bolstered by encouragement from peers and anticipation of “other-praising” emotions.
  3. Social Feedback in Moral Development: From a developmental perspective, feedback about character and a disapproving response (a social consequence) is more influential on the formation of our moral sense than is feedback about the moral status of the action itself and a punishing response (a physical consequence).
  4. Social Comprehension: Our moral intuitions tend to calibrate moral culpability in accordance with the moral agent’s capacities and intentions. This feature depends on an interpersonal judgment built on a theory of mind, such as would be inherent in a socially developed morality where other agents inform that development.

In the end, it is clear that the social environment is a primary factor in our moral behavior even when the social consequences of our behavior lie well beyond our perception. This is consistent with the theory that social pressures have guided the development of our moral sense.

The rider and the elephant

elephant_and_riderThe long-standing traditions of moral philosophy and ethics infer that moral judgment is primarily a rational endeavor, but this appears to be a flawed conclusion. Jonathan Haidt has famously compared our moral sense to a rider on an elephant – the rider being our reasoning process and elephant being our emotionally driven intuitions. There is an extensive body of constantly growing literature on this topic, so for a deeper dive on the role of emotion in morality I will simply refer to the writings of Joshua Greene and Jesse Prinz in addition to those of Haidt.

Regardless, the proposition that our moral sense is predominantly emotional only lends support to the social theory of moral origins when we consider empathy and the explanations on offer for the causal link between morality and emotions. Claus Lamm is one of the more prolific researchers of empathy and is a cautious voice at a time when many are hailing mirror neurons and empathy as the underpinnings of our moral intuitions. Despite this caution he affirms that “there is compelling evidence that similar neural structures are activated when empathizing with someone and when directly experiencing the emotion one is empathizing with” (here) and that “There is some support for the above-mentioned role of empathy in morality, although the direct link between empathy and morality remains rather unclear and requires further investigation” (here).

I hope to heed Lamm’s concerns but I also cannot help but step back to view the big picture and see a tidy set of links wherein our moral intuitions are largely dictated by an emotional elephant whose course can be directed by the neurological capacity to take on the perspective of others – a definitively social faculty. The cohesive picture this paints is compelling and when one considers the implications for moral origins, the social theory seems a natural fit.

Moral agreement

bonobo_hugThe last piece of evidence I wish to present for the social theory of moral origins is the very concern which instigated this discussion – the apparently innate drive toward moral agreement. The desire to hold others and ourselves accountable to a particular moral standard has led many to conclude that morality itself is objective (in fact, this is the only non-pragmatic reason I am aware of for the claim of objectivity) but this phenomenon is also explained if our moral sense was developed through social pressures. To say that selection occurred through social pressures is to imply that there is a social dynamic to the evolutionary pathway. This, in turn, requires that there be some sort of reproductive advantage to the selected pro-social tendencies. However, a lone altruist among a band of free-riders is unlikely to realize any advantage. The advantages which arise from prosocial behavior are then also dependent on reciprocity and cooperation. This means that the development of prosocial behavior is most readily accomplished in coordination with the development of proclivities which favor agreement and reject disagreement with respect to those behaviors. The end result is not only a tendency toward prosocial behavior, but a tendency toward favoring agreement on those behaviors.

Some will object here and suggest that our intuitions regarding the objectivity of morality are more like the intuitions we have regarding the veracity of a proposition (e.g., I am sitting on a chair) than they are like a drive toward agreement with others. I’m not sure this is a proper assessment, but I do agree that on the spectrum of intuitions about an entity’s objectivity, our moral intuitions are generally weighted closer toward the ‘objective’ end compared to more broadly subjective claims like beauty, ice cream flavors, etc… This is perhaps most evident in the language we tend to employ in moral discourse, where objectivity is often inferred (though not always – and this inference is certainly also frequently employed in other domains that are generally regarded to be subjective). That said, I’ll offer two thoughts in response:

  1. As noted above, morality is deeply entangled with emotion. The majority of other subjectively informed claims do not carry the same emotional weight, and this is a significant component of the perceived difference and the drive toward absolutes. That is, the strength of the underlying emotions compels us toward an unwavering perspective. There may even be some degree of a subconscious post-hoc rationalization informing an intuition of moral objectivity. The emotional elephant leads the way and the rider can only make sense of the world by rationalizing the course it’s taking as if that is simply reflecting the objective facts about the world. Neuropsychology is replete with examples of how our cognition engages in this kind of post-hoc rationalization and confabulation.
  2. Though speculative, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the evolution of our moral sense may have incorporated the same faculties which bear on our sense of objective veracity if this improves the effectiveness of morality as a motivating factor. Despite the protests of anti-realists, the data does seem to indicate that moral realism is more conducive to moral compliance than is anti-realism (see one, two, three). This makes intuitive sense – if we think that our moral judgments do not have any subjective wiggle room and we can thus be held objectively accountable to those judgments, then we are more motivated to align our behavior with those judgments. So if our moral sense evolved to incorporate some of the same cognitive machinery that helps us judge the veracity of non-moral propositions then the moral sense would be more effective in eliciting the advantage of moral behavior. The net result would be the subjective perception, to some degree, that our moral judgments are in fact objective. Subjective preferences like beauty wouldn’t carry the same selective advantage and so wouldn’t bear the same character in this regard.
Social origins objection #1: Widespread non-social moral intuitions

ralphiesoapSo what about those pervasive moral claims which are devoid of social impact? For example, why have so many cultures moralized purity and why has disgust been shown to influence our moral judgments? How does the social theory of moral origins explain this?

The first point to make on this topic is to note that whereas some moral claims are devoid of a direct social impact, they are typically not insulated from social feedback. In particular, the anticipation of shame is a significant factor in motivating against non-social behaviors which have been moralized.

Second, there may very well be an indirect social impact. In the case where purity or disgust is linked to the non-social moralized behavior we can note that an inadequate avoidance of pathogens is not only detrimental to the individual but also to that person’s social circle. The germ theory of disease converts a seemingly non-social disgust instinct into a socially relevant behavior, such that social judgment that accompanies moralization may in fact be efficacious.

Lastly, if our moral sense is largely an adaptive product of evolution then the evolutionary path is predicated on the behavior which corresponds with our moral sense (because the feelings themselves offer no selective advantage apart from behavior). Evolution favors efficiency, so it is likely that the neurological systems which serve to guide our behavior in general (through the feelings which motivate and inhibit) are also involved in our moral sense, such that there is some level of commonality in our interoception of the morally relevant motivations and the motivations which influence other aspects of our well-being. This would imply that there isn’t a ‘moral’ category that cleanly distinguishes moral interoception from other interoception. So even if the majority of the intuitions that we have categorized as ‘moral’ carry a social relation, it is reasonable that other, non-social intuitions may seem to fit that category as well.

Social origins objection #2: Culturally constructed morality

Many anthropologists have argued that morality is memetic, not genetic. That is, they suggest that the moral sense is learned and acquired from one’s environment – specifically, one’s cultural influences. I think there’s some truth to this perspective, but I don’t see that it is mutually exclusive with an evolutionary explanation. It seems quite evident that cultural influences serve to inform our moral intuitions but this alone does not explain the aforementioned ‘moral referent’, that distinct component of our interoception. I do not doubt that one’s moral compass is informed by their environment but it’s the compass itself that is primarily of interest here, and culture does not explain it’s existence in the first place.

This is an important concept when it comes to the discussion of moral progress. If morality is defined to be nothing more than a cultural construction then the realist is correct to suggest that there is no such thing as progress. However, if there is a biological basis for the moral sense then progress can be assessed relative to that faculty. Even if there is variability across persons, there is still a common origin that fosters some level of agreement at a fundamental level. Here anthropology re-enters the picture to support the notion of an innate moral nature, as elucidated in the work of Donald Brown and Richard Shweder. This is not to suppose that we can necessarily determine right and wrong answers to individual moral claims by reference to that nature alone, but rather to say that there is a general bent which our species shares.

What is a moral claim?

This was the question I asked long ago and hoped to also answer here. In case the preceding discussion has not made it clear, I am arguing that morality is the concept which refers to a particular set of feelings and intuitions that arise as a result of predispositions which developed in our species through social pressures and are shaped and influenced by our development, experiences and reasoning. As such, a moral claim is simply a claim which implicitly or explicitly refers to those feelings and intuitions (or their absence) as if they were properties of an action, person, object or event. This perspective entails a particular moral ontology, namely …

Moral relativism

So it seems that in adopting this view I have officially joined the moral relativist camp. I am quite comfortable with the epistemology and ontology this entails (as outlined above) but these are not informing my conclusion in isolation. Other considerations include:

  1. Dependence on biology:  Though I have already touched on this to some degree, there is much more that could be said. Neuroscience has increasingly demonstrated how variations in our neurology bear on our morally relevant judgements and behavior, as most famously illustrated by the classic cases of Phineas Gage and Charles Whitman (also see Patricia Churchland’s ‘Braintrust’ and, more briefly, David Eagleman’s article in the Atlantic for overviews). While this state of affairs is not logically inconsistent with moral realism, it is more parsimonious with a relativistic ontology.
  2. Moral diversity:  In accordance with the biological dependence noted above, we observe that these variations manifest themselves in widespread moral disagreement. Though it is true that there are many claims where moral agreement abounds, and even some fundamentals that are nearly universal, it is also the case that moral disagreement is more rampant than is found in objectively arbitrated claims. That is, we are more likely to disagree about a moral claim than to disagree about a claim that is based on empirical observations. As before, though this condition is not incompatible with moral realism, it highlights a divergence from the ontologies we posit for most of the entities that we identify as objective and so it is in that sense unexpected. Conversely, such diversity is entirely expected under a relativistic framework.
The implications

Epistemology and ontology aside, relativistic normative ethics is admittedly troubling. Not because I am forced to subscribe to Dostoyevsky’s “all things are permitted” – the shallow characterization of relativism which completely abandons both normative ethics and moral discourse and is often parroted by theistic apologists. No, the trouble is that normative ethics are inherently social and even when we employ frameworks which seek to satisfy our moral intuitions about fairness and reciprocity, such as social contract theory, we are unable to realize the ideal. The application of a normative ethic at the social level will require some level of subjugation wherever there is genuine moral disagreement. Perhaps this is simply an inescapable tension which is intrinsic to our moral sense; a consequence of the unavoidable competition between the benefits of both freedom and cooperation. Just as the realists must concede the inability to objectively arbitrate the moral truths to which they subscribe, perhaps the relativist must concede that the implementation of normative ethics cannot escape the morally distasteful act of imposition. Thrasymachus made a similar observation 2500 years ago and as far as I can tell we’re no closer to a solution. It’s worth continued discussion, but I have grown increasingly skeptical that it will ever be resolved.

Moral relativism also does not mean that we surrender our ambitions of moral progress. There is a human nature and even pervasive moral intuitions are sometimes inconsistent, or in conflict with our nature, or uninformed or misinformed by errant beliefs. Moral discourse and experience can elicit change so that our moral judgments are more accurately aligned with reality and with our inherent nature. Relativism does not mean that we accept all moral claims as equally true. It does not entail pacifism, complacency or anarchy. It does not ask us to ignore our sense of indignation and stand idly by. No, none of these strawmen are true if you’re willing to scrutinize your moral judgments. Can a moral relativist tell somebody else that their behavior is wrong? Yes, but be ready to expose the inconsistencies and faults in their reasoning. Can a moral relativist promote or discourage social policy? Yes, but be ready to use evidence to justify your position, preferably with reference to fulfillment of human nature. Can a moral relativist fight back or intervene when they perceive wrong? Yes, of course. I’m not sure I understand why I even feel the need to answer that question but the rhetoric around this issue suggests that I do.

The big objections

hitlerWhich leads to the big question. It was going to happen eventually, so I might as well put Godwin’s law into effect now: “Relativism, huh? So the Nazis weren’t wrong?” Under relativism I am able to say that the Nazis were wrong according to my intuitions and those of everybody I know, but I’m not making an absolute claim. Notice that the framing of the objection begs the question for moral realism, so it’s a bit of a trap that tries to force a response within the bounds of that assumption, pushing one to grapple with the intuition toward objective morality that was the focus of the prior discussion. That said, it seems to me that it’s also very reasonable to argue against the legitimacy of the Nazi program on the grounds of errant beliefs and an inconsistency with the moral nature of those who carried out the program. Furthermore, as noted above, there is nothing about relativism which entails inaction or ambivalence toward those with whom we disagree.

“and there’s nothing wrong with torturing babies for fun?” Again, I am perfectly able to say that this is wrong according to my intuitions and those of everybody I know, but I’m not making an absolute claim. However, this is a bit more difficult because there isn’t any reason in this case to also object on the grounds of errant beliefs or conflicts in human nature. If an individual were to be biologically disposed so that they did not find this behavior morally abhorrent then I have nothing but disagreement to offer (though I would argue that in a practical sense, the realist is in the same position). As before, this does not entail inaction or ambivalence.

The last word

In the end, moral relativism is neither pacifism nor a blank check. It requires introspection, reasoning, evidence and discourse. We sometimes act in ways which are in opposition to our true values and intentions; we experience regret. Relativism suggests that you take a hard look and try to understand those values and intentions – to consider whether they actually align with your nature and to examine how they are best achieved – and then to direct your life accordingly. You will still mess up, but at least you are trying and that diligence can eventually shift the underlying feelings and intuitions into closer alignment with reason and, hopefully, reality.

“Ha! Caught you. That’s self-defeating! You can’t say that moral relativism requires scrutiny of our moral judgments! That’s an absolute moral claim!”

I have indeed made a normative assumption, but that assumption was not moral. It was an assumption about the reliability of cause and effect. So allow me to rephrase: moral relativism is most rational and most able to accurately satisfy our morally relevant desires when coupled with introspection, reasoning, evidence and discourse.

I embarked on this truth-seeking pilgrimage four years ago and in doing so devoted myself to following the evidence wherever it leads. Accordingly, I have refrained from aligning with any particular moral theory for most of that time. It is an incredibly complex, confounding, divisive and emotionally draining topic. Evidence is difficult to gather and interpretations abound. So while I have finally taken the step of adopting a moral ontology, it is perhaps more tentative and provisional than any other position that I have staked, even as I recognize that this hesitancy is almost entirely emotionally motivated. Regardless, if you disagree with the conclusion then you are welcome to try and change my mind. That’s why I’m here.

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80 thoughts on “Moral ontology

  1. Thanks Kevin. I don’t recall seeing your post earlier this summer so I’ll definitely take a look at it, and the Tetlock paper as well.

  2. Hi Travis, thanks for putting so much thought and research into this. I don’t want to change your mind (I’m not even sure what my own mind is!), but I do think this is worth discussing – ethics may be an area where those with different metaphysical beliefs can agree or at least discuss without quickly reaching an impasse. So I’d like to have a go, superficially at first, because there is so much to assimilate in what you have written), but maybe at greater depth later (if I am up to the challenge!).

    To get something out of the way at the start, I don’t at this stage have any problem accepting that ethics have been developed through evolution. I think it is obvious that rationality has occurred that way, so I can’t see a problem with ethics.

    I want to start by looking at the definition of morality. You say at the start that “Morality is informed by my phenomenal experience of the feelings and intuitions which arise under certain circumstances.” Later you say “the development of prosocial behavior is most readily accomplished in coordination with the development of proclivities which favor agreement and reject disagreement with respect to those behaviors.” If we take prosocial and moral to be approximate synonyms, then I think these statements are as close as you get to defining a moral statement or behaviour.

    I want to explore this a little.

    Most behaviours that develop through natural selection and are informed by feelings and intuitions would not be called “morality”. So what is it that makes one a moral statement, behaviour or feeling, and another not? I can’t see this clearly from your discussion, but I’m guessing you may say it concerns behaviours we generally approve of as beneficial to the group or tribe. But a person’s survival until they could breed would have benefitted ancient societies, but I doubt we’d say breathing, eating or having sex were particularly moral activities. Or maybe you would.
    Many definitions of morality are based on responsibility or obligation – using words like “ought” and “should”. We can have feelings and intuitions about many things, but I think they only become morality when we ought to act in certain ways. We can have opposing feelings, like a married man may be attracted to a woman, and he may feel both attraction and reticence, but morality (I think) only comes in when he decides he ought to behave in a certain way. But I don’t think this is in your definitions.
    I think morality requires the ability to choose. Many things in our make-up from natural selection are instinctive, natural or unconscious, but I think it is only when we choose that ethics are involved. Are you a determinist? I’m not sure how morality works if there is no real choice.

    So that is just a few thoughts and questions about your definition of morality. I wonder what you think. Thanks.

    • Hi Eric,
      First, to address the question of definitions:

      So what is it that makes one a moral statement, behaviour or feeling, and another not?

      My proposal is that a feeling or intuition is moral simply by virtue of our categorization as such according to the distinctions apparent from our introspection, where the boundary between moral and not-moral isn’t always clear. A statement or behavior is in the moral domain if it stands in reference to those feelings and intuitions, even if stated as a projection of the moral category onto something external.

      Many definitions of morality are based on responsibility or obligation – using words like “ought” and “should”. We can have feelings and intuitions about many things, but I think they only become morality when we ought to act in certain ways.

      The aforementioned feelings and intuitions can be alternatively defined as desires for a certain state of affairs, which means they are like any other goal-oriented desire, such that the ‘ought’ is simply whatever action brings about that state of affairs and thus fulfills the desire. Not all goal-oriented desires – those for which an ought can be specified – are generally considered to be moral (e.g., hunger, comfort, knowledge, etc…). So the definition goes back to the subjectively grounded categorization above.

      Note: I edited the comment to remove ‘sex’ from the list of non-moral desires. Not sure how I overlooked that.

      • I’m a little unclear here, I’m sorry. What makes desires such as helping others or murder “moral” issues, but not hunger or comfort? I understand you say there will be fuzzy areas, and I have no problem with that, but I can’t see how you choose between moral issues and other issues.

        (For me, I think it would be when there’s an obligation from a moral code, but you are not now a moral realist, so I presume that answer won’t be right for you.)

      • In the interest of trying to cast a different light on my proposal, I’ll start with a discussion of hunger. The phenomenal experience of hunger is to have a desire that is directed toward obtaining a state of affairs in which that desire no longer exists, or is at least substantially attenuated. If somebody is hungry then there are certain actions which will eliminate or reduce that desire, so one could say that those actions define the ‘ought’ when one is in the state of hunger. The ‘ought’ is the description of how a desire is satisfied. But notice that I’ve avoided talking about eating. It would not be correct to say that hunger is the desire to eat foot because hunger could potentially be satisfied through a feeding tube directly to the stomach, or any other mechanism that elicited the same physiological response. Conversely, one could have a desire to eat food without being hungry – for example, if they were curious about how a new dish tasted. So the general point is that the response necessary to satisfy a desire is defined by reference to the desire itself, not by reference to something external.

        What makes desires such as helping others or murder “moral” issues, but not hunger or comfort?

        In our day to day life we know desires purely by their distinctive subjective properties. Even the empirically observable neurological data that could help inform the classification of a desire has only ever been established by virtue of correlations with subjective states. “Morality” is just a label that we have applied to a category of recognizably distinct subjective states. Now, we could try to translate that subjective state into a set of properties that we can communicate with others, but this is error prone and will never really be adequate. When somebody tries to claim that morality is all about “maximizing well-being”, they are substituting an imperfect description for the real thing, the subjective desire/feeling/intuition. I suggest that the same could be said for the claim that morality is defined by a sense of an obligation to an external standard. One can have the sense that an issue is in the moral domain without the accompanying sense of obligation, and vice versa (though I grant that both obligation and a concern for well-being are often coupled to the moral sense).

        I can’t see how you choose between moral issues and other issues

        I don’t make a choice but I do identify a distinction, and I identify that distinction the same way I distinguish between hunger and the desire for comfort – by relying on the classification that naturally associates with the subjective state. I think that nearly everybody usually identifies the distinction this way whether they acknowledge it or not (I say “nearly everybody” because there are pathologies in which the moral sense is muted such that the person relies more strongly on externally sourced associations – as typically driven by social influences – to define morality. And I say “usually” because even the neurotypical do this to a lesser degree). That is to say, even the most philosophical, analytical and rational perspective on morality is ultimately founded on the subjective desires, feelings and intuitions which informed that classification.

        Have I clarified or only added to the confusion?

  3. I’m sorry, but you’ve explained a little more, but I don’t feel you’ve clarified what I was asking. I’ll have a go at asking a little more precisely.

    You say morality (including the Hitler question) is founded on ” subjective desires, feelings and intuitions”, and with hunger, your action is also based on desires and feelings and (I guess) intuitions. So my question is, what makes the Hitler question a moral one and hunger something else?

    Put it another way, if someone said that there were no moral questions, for deciding to set up extermination camps is a desire based on feelings and intuitions just the same as hunger is, what would be your answer? My feeling is that your argument has removed the moral altogether, it is no longer a useful or meaningful distinction.

    Is that a clearer question?

    • Eric,
      It might help if I clarify that by referring to subjective desires, feeling and intuitions I am putting the moral sense into the category of qualia, and quale are notoriously difficult to communicate (some might say it’s even impossible). It might even be appropriate to echo Justice Stewart’s sentiment that “I know it when I see it”. So while I grant that things like a sense of obligation and concern for well-being are generally effective approximate descriptions, I don’t think that they fully capture the underlying quale. The concept of the “moral referent” is important because it is the construct that converts any issue into a moral issue. Earlier you said that you think an issue is moral “when there’s an obligation from a moral code”, and I am saying that the sense that there is an obligation from a moral code is a common facet of this quale of morality but it does not exhaustively define it. I recognize that I have now defined morality by way of qualia, desires, intuitions, feelings and cognition. It is complex and multi-faceted and I don’t think that any attempt to isolate morality to one particular feature is adequate. Certainly that contributes to the confusion as well, but it does not negate the notion that we have subjective experiences which we classify as moral and we can for the most part agree that we all have this, even if we cannot perfectly relate the experience to each other.

      So my question is, what makes the Hitler question a moral one and hunger something else?

      A question is moral if it refers to our moral sense and a question is hunger-related if it refers to our sense of hunger. Any question can become a moral question by placing it in relation to the moral referent, just as any question can become a hunger question by placing it in relation to hunger. If I ask “does Hitler make you hungry”, you can answer even though you may think it odd, but that is only because Hitler does not traditionally associate with the feeling of hunger. Similarly, I can ask “Is it wrong to be a strawberry” and you can answer despite the oddity by examining the relation to the moral sense.

      if someone said that there were no moral questions, for deciding to set up extermination camps is a desire based on feelings and intuitions just the same as hunger is, what would be your answer?

      That person is an error theorist, unless they consider intuitions to be non-cognitive and reasoning as morally impotent, in which case they would probably be better described as an emotivist. To the error theorist I would argue as above – that we have historically and globally been able to identify a moral category and that this traces to a subjective quale (the moral referent) which serves to inform the truth value of the moral claim. They’re welcome to disagree, and error theory is not an uncommon position to take. To the emotivist I would argue that while I agree that emotions and feelings are a substantial component of our moral sense, it appears that intuition and cognition is also implicated (even if emotion is the elephant).

      Perhaps I can better understand the difficulty with a question of my own. Many cultures and people will assign a moral status to objects, not just to actions. Do you think that they are making a category mistake? I am not willing to say that they are because I can see how one’s moral sense can relate to both objects and actions.

  4. OK, thanks, I think I’ve got a better handle on it now. I think you are saying that, just as you are now a moral relativist (i.e. moral values and statements are subjective), so you think that even the definition or categorisation of what constitutes a moral statement or value is subjective. That is, just as your experience of the taste of chocolate may be different to mine, so our judgments of what is a moral issue are subjective, internal and different.

    I think I can see how and why you get to this, and I think it is probably the logical outcome of naturalism. But I think it has three outcomes that I would find difficult (and you have said you find one of them difficult too).

    I think it inevitably leads to “the morally distasteful act of imposition”. Of course societies must always impose the majority decision on the minority, on some matters at least (e.g. which side of the road to drive on). But on your view, not only are the norms more arbitrary, but the decision of which matters might legitimately be turned into law is also more arbitrary.
    I think morality becomes another matter in which we disregard our intuitions, introspections and experiences in favour of a reductionist “scientific” viewpoint. I think most people feel that human life has real value (e.g. as expressed in the Universal declaration of human rights), we have genuine free will and some things really are right and wrong – to the extent that we seem unable to live as societies without believing in these things. I think we should trust our introspections etc more, not less, and I think reductionist views ignore that evidence.
    You have also observed, which I have read too, that believing we have free will and believing there is an objectively true morality tends to lead to people behaving “better”, which in this case may mean more prosocially.

    Anyway, it was interesting coming to understand your conclusion, even though I disagree with it. Thanks for explaining further to me.

    “Many cultures and people will assign a moral status to objects, not just to actions. Do you think that they are making a category mistake?”

    I’m struggling a little to think of what you mean here. Do you mean something like child pornography is “wrong” and nourishing food is “good”? My belief is that objective (christian) morality is based on Jesus’ command to love God and love neighbour, and all the rest is detail. I also believe that everything in the universe is able to be used for good or evil. So my feeling is that objects don’t have moral status, only what we do with them does. For example, child pornography may be photos of children, but photos may be used to evoke “good” responses such as love, protection, etc. But when those photos are used or obtained in ways that do harm, then that intention is what makes them evil, not the objects in themselves.

    Does that tell you anything useful?

    • Hey Eric,
      I think you might be close to understanding my proposal, but I’m not sure you’re there yet.

      so you think that even the definition or categorisation of what constitutes a moral statement or value is subjective

      As previously noted, anything can be made into a moral statement or value by placing it in relation to our moral sense. The moral sense is unique to each person but there is still a foundation for which much commonality exists. It’s kind of like fingerprints. There is a ‘fingerprint’ category on which we can all agree even though every fingerprint is unique, and we can do this because there are enough things that are generally common between people’s fingerprints to inform the category. The ‘moral sense’ category is just a lot more difficult to pin down because of the lack of empirical data points around which the category is structured, so we have to rely on coordinating our subjective reports of what it is like to experience the moral sense when we try to construct a coherent description that spans the population. As evidenced by our discussion so far, that isn’t always easy.

      the decision of which matters might legitimately be turned into law is also more arbitrary

      Moral epistemology is all we have to inform morally driven legislation so, from an epistemic perspective, please explain to me how realism is less arbitrary.

      morality becomes another matter in which we disregard our intuitions

      I don’t feel like I’m disregarding it. I feel like I’m trying to understand it and explain it as honestly as I can.

      I think we should trust our introspections etc more, not less, and I think reductionist views ignore that evidence.

      I think it would be more accurate to say that reductionist views are trying to reconcile conflicting evidence by giving preference to the evidence which has proven itself to be more reliable.

      You have also observed, which I have read too, that believing we have free will and believing there is an objectively true morality tends to lead to people behaving “better”

      Yes, I think one could make a pragmatic argument for adopting moral realism on the grounds that it is more likely to yield morally compliant behavior, but I would also suggest that it is an open question as to how that benefit weighs against the costs (e.g., conflicts which are due to the “moral dogmatism” that is also strengthened by a realist perspective). Regardless, that would be an argument for taking a particular stance rather than an argument for the truth of moral realism as an ontology.

      So my feeling is that objects don’t have moral status, only what we do with them does … intention is what makes them evil, not the objects in themselves

      OK. That would be a difference in our understanding of how morality interacts with the world. When one’s moral sense is engaged and placed in relation to something, I accept that status for what it is regardless of whether the relation is to an object or an action. How does non-human life fit into your moral realism? If you grant other lifeforms a place in that framework, does it include all lifeforms or is there an exclusionary line at some point?

  5. Hi Travis, thanks for this reply. I am really appreciating the opportunity to discuss this with you. We both understand where we differ on metaphysics/belief, so we can understand where each other is coming from and discuss without feel the need to be adversarial. Thanks.

    “I think you might be close to understanding my proposal” I’m glad of that!
    “but I’m not sure you’re there yet.” You win some and you lose some! 🙂

    ” by placing it in relation to our moral sense”

    Yeah, I still have problems, though I think it is more with agreeing than with understanding. If our moral sense is subjective, there is no objective measure to compare it to, and if we all differ, then it is hard to see how morality can be distinguished from our “regular” thinking. “Moral” is just a word that means whatever I happen to feel it does, and words like that are not very useful.

    Now your answer to that seems to be that we could (in principle) survey everyone in our country and ask what they mean by “moral”, and somehow hope to find something in common. On definition, I don’t think we’d find much commonality, but on specific matters (e.g. the obvious ones like pedophilia, rape, genocide, etc) we’d get good agreement. Which suggests to me that we know what is moral even though we can’t agree on the definitions. So maybe we have more of an objective moral sense than your theory suggests – our intuition reveals it, but reductionist thinking obscures it.

    “Moral epistemology is all we have to inform morally driven legislation so, from an epistemic perspective, please explain to me how realism is less arbitrary.”

    I think I just gave my answer there. People tend to feel that some things really are right and wrong (i.e. we are mostly natural moral realists), and they tend to agree on what many of those things are. I suggest we should take that as valid human experience and work out from there, which I think is what most people do. It is only when we subject morality to reductionist thinking that we get a problem. So realism works if we accept it, it is only moral relativism that needs a lot of work to keep it going (I think).

    “I don’t feel like I’m disregarding it. I feel like I’m trying to understand it and explain it as honestly as I can.”

    What I meant was (again) what I’ve just said. Our intuition and experience is that some things are truly right and wrong, free will is real, we are truly conscious beings who are more than just the physics and chemistry that we are made of. When we examine those things by science, it is harder to justify them or even understand them – because science assumes naturalism and has no tools to address anything else. So we face a dilemma as individuals and as a race – do we trust our experience and intuitions, or do we trust science?

    On most matters, I would agree we should trust science. If we are examining the external world, science is well equipped to deal with it. But when we are examining ourselves, science isn’t equipped to deal with it well, because it makes assumptions that are good for the external world, but arguably not good for examining ourselves when we feel like we are more than what science can address. Science becomes counter intuitive and ill-equipped for the task – much as most naturalists will be scornful of the idea. But all isn’t lost, because we know ourselves in different ways to how we know the external world – we know ourselves from within. We know what it feels like to be ourselves, to taste chocolate, to see the colour green, to make choices, to feel bad when we do something we know is wrong, to fall in love, etc.

    So I think you and I differ about morality because you have chosen to use the tool of science as your test, against which you judge the results of introspection. So you are indeed judging as honestly as you can, but using tools that I think are insufficient and inappropriate. So you get answers that are well thought out, logical, comprehensive, but even you know that they aren’t fully satisfactory, because believing in them will make the world a worse place, as we have already discussed. I, on the other hand, believe that our personal experience is the better judge of this matter, because science cannot do the job. So I accept that when we feel like we have free will, we often actually do, when we feel like something is truly wrong, it often actually is.

    I think this discussion is very helpful in bringing out some of these points as I grapple with understanding your viewpoint. I wonder whether you feel that last paragraph is a fair description of why we differ, ultimately?

    “How does non-human life fit into your moral realism? If you grant other lifeforms a place in that framework, does it include all lifeforms or is there an exclusionary line at some point?”

    Interesting question. I think everything is God’s creation, and we are responsible to him for how we use it, and mess it up. So nothing should be mistreated. But of course we have to live and eat, so some things have to be eaten. I am not a vegetarian (though I eat small amounts of meat only), but I have some sympathy with the argument that we shouldn’t kill animals for food. But if we do kill animals, we must do it humanely, and no more than necessary. I don’t think we should torture even cockroaches. And I certainly think we should be careful about how we treat all life that is plausibly sentient, capable of feeling pain, etc – whether that be aliens, porpoises or even fetuses. But I agree with one of the implications of your question, that there are grey areas that it is difficult if not impossible to adequately define.

    • Eric,
      I also appreciate the cordial discussion and expect that you are not alone in needing clarification on the proposal, so hopefully this addition to the post serves as a useful explication for others as well.

      If our moral sense is subjective, there is no objective measure to compare it to, and if we all differ, then it is hard to see how morality can be distinguished from our “regular” thinking. “Moral” is just a word that means whatever I happen to feel it does … we could (in principle) survey everyone in our country and ask what they mean by “moral”, and somehow hope to find something in common.

      I think this demonstrates that we’re still not connecting. You may already understand what I’m about to say, but I’m going to say it again because I think it reinforces the distinctiveness of the moral sense. I’m claiming that our moral sense is a faculty – a biological, neurological function. It is a subset of the broader class of functions that we label as desires, feelings, intuition and cognition. I think the fingerprint analogy is a good starting point because it forces us to ignore subjectivity for the moment. At this level of description, we are just recognizing a feature of biology that is potentially objectively identifiable. I would even suggest that just as some people can be lacking in fingerprints due to their genetics, so some people can lacking in a moral sense due to their genetics. And if we want to push the analogy a little further, we can note that the unique variation in our fingerprints is caused by our environment, but this pales in comparison to the environmentally imposed variation on our moral sense as a consequence of neuroplasticity. **

      From this foundation, morality might then be best defined as the output of that moral sense. And the moral domain – things to which we apply the label “moral” – is everything that is placed in relation to the moral sense. So I think you’re drastically overstating the difficulty of distinguishing the “moral”. Yes, it is not objectively identifiable in the same way that fingerprints are. The problem is that the recognition of semantic associations and the experience of the moral sense are both subjective, so we have no choice but to rely on subjective reporting to understand that relationship. But it is still a distinct component of our biology which translates into a distinct phenomenal experience, even if there are also grey areas (which I understand you to recognize and acknowledged under realism as well). To be honest, it seems to me that the rest of your comment actually stands in contradiction to your claim that this is a problem because you go on to point out that we do find a lot of agreement and that some things seem objectively moral. I’m saying that this recognition is itself derived from the moral sense. If you’re not confused about this recognition under realism, why think that would change if the ontological definition changed?

      we could (in principle) survey everyone in our country and ask what they mean by “moral”, and somehow hope to find something in common. On definition, I don’t think we’d find much commonality, but on specific matters (e.g. the obvious ones like pedophilia, rape, genocide, etc) we’d get good agreement. Which suggests to me that we know what is moral even though we can’t agree on the definitions.

      Based on the above, it is not that the definition of morality derives from opinion, but rather that our discovery of the biological “moral sense” function is informed by subjective reporting. In the morality labs that have been setup at various universities, this often entails engaging subjects in activities which are expected to interact with the moral sense while collecting data to find correlations with other functions andor monitoring brain activity.

      People tend to feel that some things really are right and wrong (i.e. we are mostly natural moral realists), and they tend to agree on what many of those things are. I suggest we should take that as valid human experience and work out from there, which I think is what most people do. It is only when we subject morality to reductionist thinking that we get a problem. So realism works if we accept it, it is only moral relativism that needs a lot of work to keep it going (I think).

      I don’t see a difference between seeking agreement on a relativistic framework and trying to arbitrate between competing realist claims. In the post, I said “Just as the realists must concede the inability to objectively arbitrate the moral truths to which they subscribe, perhaps the relativist must concede that the implementation of normative ethics cannot escape the morally distasteful act of imposition.”. Aside from the pragmatic argument of improving moral compliance, I don’t see the advantage that realism offers for normative ethics. And there is perhaps even a disadvantage in that realism is more likely to lead to gridlock.

      So I think you and I differ about morality because you have chosen to use the tool of science as your test, against which you judge the results of introspection. So you are indeed judging as honestly as you can, but using tools that I think are insufficient and inappropriate.

      I would argue that the scientific tools are additive and are working in concert with the subjective. Certainly you don’t think we should just ignore all non-subjective observations in our attempt to understand ourselves?

      In response to my question you answered about the human treatment of other species. Do you think that other species can act morally or immorally independent of humans, or toward humans?

      ** To be clear, I’m not proposing a “moral module” in the brain that is strictly dedicated to this one function. It’s more like a collection of interrelated functions that are also involved in other domains and can be partitioned into a particular configuration that we have labeled to be our moral sense. That may sound like weasel words, but it’s generally how we understand everything in the brain. We find that specificity and multiplicity are often intermingled.

  6. Hi Travis,

    Yes, I agree we are not connecting. These matters are very hard to get a grasp on. I read what you say, think I understand, but when I try to respond, I find it difficult to pin down what I think you are saying and what I think in response. I’m sorry if I’m not catching on quickly. I think that means I should ask a few more questions.

    ”I’m claiming that our moral sense is a faculty – a biological, neurological function. It is a subset of the broader class of functions that we label as desires, feelings, intuition and cognition. “

    I understand this, and I have no difficulty (I think) with your fingerprint analogy. But I still don’t understand how you define the moral sense.

    At the lowest level, everything you mention here is electrical currents in our brains, and apart from distinguishing which parts of the brain they occur in, science can’t really distinguish them (this is the interesting thing about qualia). So if we want to distinguish them in some way, we must talk about something not measured by neuroscience, e.g. intentionality or how things feel, such as desires are things we want, pain is something unpleasant that we feel, etc.

    So my question is again, what distinguishes moral brain processes from other brain processes? How can we tell them apart from other processes? Is it just that we label them differently because that is convenient?

    (Note I would say that, just as desires are things we want, so moral feelings are things we feel we ought to do, not necessarily want to do. Would you agree with that?)

    ”we do find a lot of agreement and that some things seem objectively moral. I’m saying that this recognition is itself derived from the moral sense. If you’re not confused about this recognition under realism, why think that would change if the ontological definition changed?”

    I agree that that recognition is based on a moral sense. I believe we all have a moral sense – innately we mostly believe some things really are right and wrong and that leads us to similar conclusions on many, possibly most matters. The things that change if we go from realism to relativism are (1) any logical basis for that innate sense, and (2) a basis for discussion and persuading – see next comment.

    ”Aside from the pragmatic argument of improving moral compliance, I don’t see the advantage that realism offers for normative ethics.”

    The fact that moral compliance is improved by believing in objective ethics is an example of the impact moral realism has, but the effects go wider than that I believe.

    We both agree that sometimes ethics have to be imposed – the rule of law in a democratic society is the obvious example – but we’d prefer ethics to be voluntary. In that case, how do we resolve ethical questions on which different people disagree? It seems clear to me that we discuss, and try to convince the other person.

    I think that trying to convince someone that they shouldn’t follow their own intuitive subjective ethic, but rather follow mine, is a difficult task. We can’t say my ethic is better because we have no objective standard to compare to. But if we agree that ethics are real and objective, we at least have a starting point. We are arguing about objective truth rather than comparing notes about our respective subjective ideas.

    Imagine if Harry Potter was real. A witch scientist could look to invent a certain spell, but a muggle wouldn’t even try. What we think affects what we do and how we do it.

    How would you argue against (say) a person who wanted to kill people of a different race or religion?

    I also think objective ethics means we have to put aside personal preferences for the accepted greater good, whereas with subjective ethics, personal preference or innate selfishness can be presented as if they were an ethic.

    ”Certainly you don’t think we should just ignore all non-subjective observations in our attempt to understand ourselves?”

    No, I certainly don’t think we should ignore any information. But I think it is the naturalists who are ignoring half the evidence, not me.

    ”Do you think that other species can act morally or immorally independent of humans, or toward humans?”

    There is no way I can know, because I don’t know if animals or aliens have a moral sense and feel any obligation (conscience) to that sense. What do you think?

  7. Hi Travis, I’ve been thinking more about this overnight, and thinking we may need something different to try to break through. Here’s a suggestion.

    I wonder if it would help if we each did 2 things. (1) Write down in very simple short statements, no explanations, examples or arguments, just basic statements, the main things we each think we are saying. (2) Describe how we would present a case against someone who help a moral view contrary to our own on an issue we feel strongly about – e.g. racial killing. I think that might clarify things a little. Here’s my answers.

    (1) What I think about the moral sense.

    All normal people have a moral sense.
    Most people have very similar core moral beliefs, though fuzzy around the edges and imperfectly applied.
    These core beliefs tap into genuinely true moral truths.
    All this is similar to how we tap into true logical truths, but use them imperfectly. The difference is that we can “prove” and correct logical perceptions but cannot prove moral perceptions.

    (2) I would argue that most people perceive killing as wrong unless for a good reason, and probably the other person believes this too, and I would try to explain why it is wrong. I would argue this is because some things really are wrong, and murder (generally) is one of them. Therefore the other person should allow themselves to be corrected by the human race and their own conscience, because they are teaching us true truths.

    I would e interested to see your statements here, and believe this exercise may help us see more clearly what each other is saying and where we differ. I hope you think so too. Thanks.

    • Eric,
      This is in response to both of your last two comments because I think there is opportunity for clarification in the first comment.

      if we want to distinguish them in some way, we must talk about something not measured by neuroscience, e.g. intentionality or how things feel, such as desires are things we want, pain is something unpleasant that we feel, etc. So my question is again, what distinguishes moral brain processes from other brain processes?

      OK, I’m going to build on your example definitions to try and make my point. I would say that we know what it means to “want something” by virtue of the experience of desire, and we know unpleasant feelings in part because of our experience of pain (among other feelings that we categorize as unpleasant). That is, before we ever have the semantic constructs of “wanting things” and “feeling unpleasant” we have experiences to which the words will be associated, and in this case we’re calling those experiences “desire” and “pain”. So the descriptions are essentially tautologies which are ultimately rooted in the fact that they map to a distinct experience. We do not recognize desires because we first understand the concept of “wanting things”, we understand the concept of “wanting things” because it has become associated with the distinct experience of desires. This is what I’m saying is equally applicable to the moral sense; but there is also value in finding words to communicate those experiences with others and I think that this is what you’re ultimately after.

      just as desires are things we want, so moral feelings are things we feel we ought to do, not necessarily want to do. Would you agree with that?

      I think it is often true that moral feelings are associated with a sense of obligation, but I don’t think this an exhaustive definition. I also think that moral feelings are highly correlated with a concern for well-being, but I don’t think that this is exhaustive either. I’ve been explicitly avoiding such pronouncements because I think that moral theories which employ such strict definitions tend to reach conclusions which end up running counter to the moral sense when they are logically exercised in thought experiments. You end up with a theory that claims to supersede the very foundation upon which the theory was based in the first place.

      So, if you want to explain the moral sense in terms of obligations, concern for well-being, right, wrong, good, bad, evil, etc… then that’s fine, but I don’t want to make those labels into necessary properties of the sense itself. They’re simply means for trying to communication the sense experience, and I agree that they are generally useful toward that end.

      To put this into context, let’s consider an extreme example where the neurology which yields the distinct experience of the moral sense is somehow activated in somebody whenever they see a computer keyboard. This has nothing to do with obligations, well-being, etc… despite the fact that it evokes the same type of feelings that arise when they contemplate assaulting somebody. Under my proposed framework, they are not wrong to assign a negative moral status to keyboards. Their moral sense simply carries one association which is extremely atypical.

      Write down in very simple short statements, no explanations, examples or arguments, just basic statements, the main things we each think we are saying

      I’m just going to mirror your response and change it were appropriate:
      * People typically have a moral sense.
      * Most people have very similar core moral beliefs, though fuzzy around the edges and imperfectly applied.
      * These core beliefs are motivated by a biological function that is rooted in a common heritage.
      * Moral beliefs can sometimes seem to have an objectively oriented truth value. This facet is reasonably explained by the social heritage of the moral sense.

      The things that change if we go from realism to relativism are (1) any logical basis for that innate sense

      Why do we want a basis other than the sense itself? I think the answer is that the moral sense often includes a drive toward agreement (which is part of the perception of objectivity), which is why the post spilled so much ink exploring the explanations for that.

      if we agree that ethics are real and objective, we at least have a starting point. We are arguing about objective truth rather than comparing notes about our respective subjective ideas.

      I don’t see how this helps. Either way, you’re probably going to have to demonstrate an errant belief or logical inconsistency in the person’s framework to elicit any sort of shift because in both cases you don’t have objective data to which you can appeal. Alternatively you could appeal to the fact that the person is diverging from a widely held position but this has the same net effect – under realism you would argue that this makes the widely held position more probably true and under relativism you would argue that the widely held position is more likely to be best aligned with their nature.

      How would you argue against (say) a person who wanted to kill people of a different race or religion?

      In the unlikely case that this person is open to rational moral discourse, I would engage in a Socratic dialogue that tries to show how their feelings about the out-group are not grounded in anything that accurately distinguishes them from their in-group in a way that the person actually values (e.g., they don’t actually care about skin color because they don’t value their wife differently because of her summer tan or her winter pale).

      I also think objective ethics means we have to put aside personal preferences for the accepted greater good, whereas with subjective ethics, personal preference or innate selfishness can be presented as if they were an ethic.

      “presented as if” – but if the moral sense is distinctly recognizable, and I think we agree, then that presentation is a false representation of the person’s true feelings. They aren’t actually acting morally by their own standard. The same situation can occur under realism. Moral behavior occurs whenever the moral motivations are stronger than competing motivations. I sometimes delay eating lunch because I want to finish the task I’m working on. Same principle.

  8. Hi Travis, I just wanted to give you an immediate response that I really appreciated this comment. I think I must have asked a couple of good questions, and you have definitely given some good answers. We certainly disagree, I may still not fully understand, and I may decide I think some answers are not consistent or logical, that’s as we both might expect. But this discussion has helped me understand your thinking better, and given me some things to think about, which I appreciate.

    I will need time to think about your responses, and we are currently preparing to go overseas in a couple of days, so I’m not 100% sure whether I’ll get to a reply in that time. But we will be connected while away, and I’ll certainly have time then, so just warning I may be delayed but am very interested. Thanks.

  9. Hi Travis and Eric,

    I hope the social dynamic here doesn’t change with your realization that I’m lurking along. I’ve really enjoyed the fact that this discussion has been geared more toward understanding rather than debating. I hope that ratio continues (and maybe even increases 🙂 ). No need to up the debate for me – I only use discussions like these as jumping points for further investigation elsewhere. Besides I learn much more when people are discussing rather than debating.

    I’ve been stymied time and again at how intricate this topic really is. On the surface it really does look so simple and so many people I talk with view it as such, but I don’t believe it is simple at all due to all the different angles it can be looked at. While I know a lot more on this topic than the average Joe on the street, I still feel like I am miles away from fully grasping all the issues, and that is not at all false humility – it’s a true self-realization. I have been trying very hard since my discussions with Joe earlier this year to try and figure out how the gap can be closed on understanding between all the different views (and that includes even more than just the theistic/non-theistic differences) and I really am still very far from figuring out a very clear way to do that. I think semantics has some to do with the disagreements, personalities and heartfelt feelings another part, and also just different ways to look at the issues. I am slowly starting to think that while there are definitely true core disagreements, they may be less dramatic than people think when looked at from a pragmatic standpoint (at least for most of the views).

    Travis, you’ve clearly done a lot of good research here. I have tons of thoughts, but want to restrict to a small amount:

    You’ve looked at this more toward the angle of defining what the moral sense is itself and where it comes from. A few of the things you’ve said have added new things I am going to think about. I think I am looking at this more from the practical standpoint of what is the best way to live ones life. However, I’m not sure this fact makes our views different or not.

    I can see from your post and comments how you are definitely a moral “anti-realist”. But I’m still not entirely clear that you are fully in the relativistic camp. While I do lean toward moral anti-realism and didn’t find much I disagree with in the post, I actually don’t think I am a moral relativist. You do mention that there are fundamentals that are nearly universal. Due to these pragmatically universal features of human nature I believe that there are objective things that we can discuss which relate to the ways in which humans should act toward others due to the awful consequences that not acting that way incur. It may not be the best example but the “boy who cried wolf” in my mind is something which people would agree relates to things which fall into the category of “ethics”. I don’t think one has to be a moral realist to recognize the importance of the teachings from it. That fable is a story of the awful consequences to both others as well as oneself due to lying. I remind my kids of it all the time. So from a pragmatic view of human beings trying to figure out how to live, I do believe there are objective things we could discuss at least “related” to the subject of ethics, and things that will apply across all human cultures. In that way I don’t feel I’m in the relativist camp. I’m curious what your ideas are on that. Am I looking at it wrong, or is it just a different way to look at it? Is my understanding of relativism just plain wrong?

    • Howie,
      I get it, and have struggled with that distinction for some time. Take a look at my conversation with Yuriy at his blog. It does seem like there’s a mismatch between the traditional understanding of “moral relativism” and my proposed framework. But ultimately I have found that the most consistent interpretation of moral realism requires a universally applicable grounding, which implies that it is independent of our particular biology. Many definitions of moral realism don’t explicitly require universal objectivity and would actually fit my proposed framework, but I’ve chosen to error on the side of what I perceive to be the philosophical majority opinion on the matter. Furthermore, I think that the “torturing babies for fun” thought experiment in the post is a strong demonstration of how this framework really is best labeled as relativistic. The person whose genetic and environmental influences have led to that atypical condition can only be compared to the majority, and if the rest of the world somehow mutated to share the same condition then there wouldn’t even be an ad populum argument for a type of objectivity. I recognize the discomfort this generates, but I don’t see that as sufficient grounds for overriding the rest of the evidence.

    • I should clarify. In re-reading my comment I see that I treated relativism as the only alternative to realism. As you’re aware, that isn’t the case because error theorists and noncognitivists are also anti-realists. I also just discovered this supplemental article at the SEP and if that is truly reflective of the philosophical opinion on the matter then I may have to update my understanding of the relation between moral realism and moral relativism.

      • Yeah, I was also wondering why you were using the word “realism” in the first comment reply when I was thinking more about the label of relativism. It is my understanding as your second comment maybe agrees, one could be a moral anti-realist and still be a moral non-relativist (is there a term for that?) I believe this aligns with thinkers like Aristotle and definitely David Hume, as well as Darwin (I think). Massimo Pigliucci (who in my mind is very consistent with standard philosophical discourse) is a modern example of this for sure. If you want to understand clearer, please watch at least the first 10 minutes of this video to see the distinction he makes between moral realism and moral objectivity (actually the whole video is extremely useful to watch):

        http://meaningoflife.tv/videos/31668

        Please note his analogy to math, which I personally thought was very instructive (and as he said, no analogy is perfect, but try to take the important parts of the analogy). Just like him, I am not a mathematical realist (i.e. I don’t believe numbers actually exist “somehow” “somewhere”, like Plato did), but I definitely believe we can be objective about mathematics because it clearly has application to things that I do believe exist in reality. In that sense it wouldn’t make too much sense to say that I am a relativist about mathematics, and at the same time I could say I am a mathematical anti-realist. He says some other important clarification points later on.

        While I’m still not sure my views are exactly like Pigliucci’s because I’m still learning and thinking, his views are probably the closest that come to my current thoughts on the subject (at least from the bits I’ve heard from him).

        I’m still wondering though if this is just a difference in definition only, or if there is truly something deeper to understand as a true difference in opinion rather than just definition. And if there truly is a difference, I’m not clear if it is vital to the pragmatic view of discussing objectively ways human beings should act that will improve both others as well as their own livelihood (at least as they currently exist now and not as they may be 10000 years from now). Because in the end, to me that is the most important point of the whole topic. While I suppose it’s logically possible that 10000 years in the future people may mutate so incredibly strangely such that everyone loves to torture babies for fun and everyone’s life will be fulfilled in a positive way by doing such a thing, but do we really think that this will happen? (I’m highly doubtful, and it seems that would entail the end of human existence anyway.) And even if it could it is definitely not part of our human nature right now. So I’ve also been thinking recently that there may be a philosophical and technically correct understanding of ethics which could be relativistic if we take into account other very strange imaginative alien types of creatures or weird scenarios that are impractical. But when we begin to look at the topic pragmatically we can actually adjust that understanding based on the facts about our human nature and our common desires to avoid suffering and to live positive, healthy lives. So this is the “different angle” problem I’m trying to explain which I’m not sure is a gap that can be overcome in understanding between realists and anti-realists (and apparently also between anti-realists and other anti-realists 🙂 ). From the technical zoomed in viewpoint it looks like there is a contradiction, but maybe there really isn’t if we realize that objective anti-realists are taking into account another variable – our human nature and common goals to avoid suffering (even the fundamentalist theist has a goal to avoid suffering – only they think that goal will be achieved after dying). Perhaps we need other words to describe these things. The problem though is that if one says “relativist”, immediately the pragmatic view that I espouse is no longer a possible view that could fit with that, but I am having a hard time seeing how the pragmatic view is something that we should not think about. No matter what your worldview it seems that would be the most important thing to think about. I also thought the Dalai Lama expressed this all beautifully in a book I listened to last week called “Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World”. He is trying to bridge the gap and include moral realists like himself who disagree with each other about the actual “rules” and also include moral anti-realists.

      • Howie,
        I’m very sympathetic to this perspective and spent a fair bit of time favoring the approach you’re advocating (as I understand it). The mathematical analogy is intriguing but I think that with scrutiny it shows itself to have drastically different characteristics. Math could be said to be founded on axioms that derive from empirical observations that have never even had the appearance of being false. We wouldn’t accord an objective, inviolable status to math if, on occasion, placing one object from each hand onto a table resulted in three objects instead of two. Morality doesn’t look like this. We regularly see variation and change and observe that variation is highly dependent on environment and biology. Despite the best efforts of utilitarian theories, the underlying subjective basis of morality doesn’t look anything like the core axioms and theorems of the formal system of mathematics.

        As to the pragmatic approach to ethics, I don’t understand how this is necessarily excluded from a relativistic framework. Could you further explain the comment that “if one says ‘relativist’, immediately the pragmatic view that I espouse is no longer a possible view”?

      • Hi Travis,

        This is a little strange because your first sentence of your last paragraph indicates to me that we really agree when we strip away semantics (in other words perhaps the only thing we aren’t connecting on is just definitions of words). But your first paragraph very clearly notes disagreement – the only problem is that it disagrees with the views of somebody other than myself.

        I’m wondering if it may be worthwhile for the sake of reaching better understanding to depart from quickly disagreeing immediately and try harder to see if we can understand what we’re saying.

        Your first comment reply to me misunderstood me as talking about realism, and it seems you’ve misunderstood me again in this comment. You mention utilitarianism but I am pretty confident that there is no way you can get utilitarianism from anything I’ve written here. I see several problems with utilitarianism (at least the more popularized version – I learned recently that there are a bunch of different flavors of utilitarianism so I’m unable to comment on all of them). It looks to me like you are jumping to the topic of normative ethics and assuming that I am stating a choice in that realm when I am still in the realm of meta-ethics. Interestingly, Pigliucci is also definitely not a utilitarian and has stated so very clearly in another podcast, so I’m not sure where your getting that from what I wrote. Just because some of the things I said may also be said by a utilitarian doesn’t mean that’s my view. I’d have to say quite a bit more than what I did to get there. As far as the math part I’m not sure we disagree there either (that isn’t as clear though) – the only intent that I had there was to show that it is possible to be an anti-realist about a subject but still be able to speak objectively about it.

        Since this has happened twice, I think it’s worth exploring why this is happening in the hopes of making the discussion easier. You seem like a pretty agreeable guy so I don’t see you as the type of person who likes to disagree immediately. Is it perhaps because the things I say sound very much like discussions you have had with other people about ethics? I wouldn’t be surprised because utilitarianism does seem to be a popular view. I am not the type of person that tries to follow the popular views. My goals in this are the same as yours – working hard to find out what is correct no matter what others feel or think. So any ideas why you are jumping to disagreement by assuming things I’m not saying? I hope I’m not being rude in asking that. I can see how it could come across that way.

        I can answer your question first if you want, but I thought maybe clearing this up would help.

      • Howie,
        Sorry for the confusion. I didn’t mean to suggest that you were advocating a utilitarian ethic. I was trying to say that utilitarian theories attempt to formalize morality in the same way that mathematics is formalized with axioms and theorems. My suggestion is that it is the inviolability of this formalization which makes mathematics objective and that we don’t see anything comparable to this in morality, so I don’t think that the analogy does much to support the proposition that morality is similarly non-real yet objective. The two domains are just too different unless one buys into utilitarianism from the start and imposes that formalism onto something that otherwise doesn’t appear to have it. I did not mean to imply that you were doing this.

      • No worries, I think I see your point now and how it applies. Do you believe that when it comes to anything related to ethics there is nothing objective we can talk about at all? If so then we should talk more about what objective means I guess and then we could hit the other stuff I mentioned before.

      • Good call. I probably should have laid down some definitions in the post. Maybe I’ll update it after we’re done here.

        Moral sense: A faculty which produces distinctly recognizable feelings, intuitions and judgments that we have come to label as ‘moral’.

        Properly calibrated moral sense: A moral sense that is not shaped by errant or incomplete information and does not yield logical inconsistencies.
        For the record, I think it is not uncommon for a person’s moral sense to be miscalibrated.

        Moral realism: The truth value of a moral claim is independent of the moral sense of all agents.

        Moral objectivism: The truth value of a moral claim cannot vary between the properly calibrated moral sense of all moral agents.

        We could theoretically impose a scope on the set of agents under consideration and get something objective within that scope that isn’t necessarily objective outside of that scope. For example, if we limit our scope to those people with achromatopsia then you could say that it is objectively true that there is no such thing as color. With regard to morality, I tend to see that the scope of moral agents is set to either “all moral agents in all possible worlds” or “all moral agents within our own species” (with the implication that we’re speaking about the present moment and not something 10,000 years in the future). My rejection of “objectivity” was primarily in the context of the first scope definition but I don’t think that I would accept objectivity under the second scope definition either.

        Do you believe that when it comes to anything related to ethics there is nothing objective we can talk about at all?

        I would suggest that there are some moral claims which are true in relation to the properly calibrated moral sense of nearly all agents but I don’t think that I am willing to go to 100%, even though I accept that it is possibly true for there to be 100% compliance. Furthermore, if we accept the definition of ‘moral objectivism’ above then the word “cannot” carries some significant implications. It would mean that if there are any claims for which moral objectivism is true then either (a) it is logically impossible for a person to have properly calibrated moral sense which does not correspond with the truth value of the objective claim, or (b) a person does not qualify as an agent if their properly calibrated moral sense does not correspond with the truth value of the objective claim.

      • You seem to be looking at this entirely from the perspective of a moral sense and I am looking at this from the perspective of considering desirable and un-desirable consequences that could occur given ways in which people act toward each other.

        I’m afraid I’m stuck Travis. Maybe I need to try another time, unless you have some other suggestions about how the 2 different angles could somehow relate.

      • I guess I would say facts about humans. For example if I stab myself in the hand I think most people would agree that is undesirable. There may be exceptions – some people may not have any nerve endings in their hand or maybe there may be a person who loves the feeling of being stabbed in the hand, but I don’t see people saying a stab in the hand is a good thing because of that.

      • That’s reasonable. First, regarding the role of desires – is morality about satisfying all desires (i.e., as with Alonso Fife’s desire utilitarianism) or only a subset of desires (i.e., some desires don’t fall into the moral domain, such as a desire to eat something when there are no other consequences of that action).

        Second, how does the possibility of exceptions impact the possibility of moral claims being objective?

  10. ok, those are excellent questions.

    I can definitely say I don’t see it as being about satisfying all desires. I’ve been having a hard time finding a clear way to put this into words: I see it as there being some consequences in life which end up relating to topics which have been typically defined as falling into the category of morality. In that way I’m not really defining the word morality, I’m allowing the colloquial understanding of the word drive that definition. I do this because I think it’s important that I communicate properly about the topic to others who already have something in mind when they hear the words ethics or morality.

    Actually your second question was a question I had for you also. I would say the possibility of exceptions means that morality is not 100% objective in the same way I would say psychology or oncology are not 100% objective. But I think objective things related to those fields can still be discussed across cultures. I think oncology is closer to 100% than psychology, and psychology is closer to 100% than morality (maybe the topic of morality is only 10% or even 1% – I’m not entirely clear on that part yet).

    I’m not sure I’ve made all that clear – if it isn’t I’d love to answer more questions you have to clarify.

    • I see it as there being some consequences in life which end up relating to topics which have been typically defined as falling into the category of morality. In that way I’m not really defining the word morality, I’m allowing the colloquial understanding of the word drive that definition

      I don’t necessarily disagree, but I take it a step further. I note that I recognize an ability in myself to make that categorization and that this seems to generally agree with the colloquial identification of the moral category – that is, this isn’t just cognitive assent to a categorization like the way the category of “fruit” is based on learned associations; I am largely drawing upon a subjectively experienced feeling, desire or intuition when I make that categorization (though I think that learned associations do also play a role in this, but I digress). Then, from this observation (among other data noted in the post) I infer the existence of a “moral sense” that is nearly universal to the species and which is the basis for that colloquially understood categorization. If you agree that this a probable foundation for the existence of the moral category, then I would suggest that we’re really talking about the same thing.

      I would say the possibility of exceptions means that morality is not 100% objective in the same way I would say psychology or oncology are not 100% objective. But I think objective things related to those fields can still be discussed across cultures.

      I agree. That’s why my post said “Moral relativism also does not mean that we surrender our ambitions of moral progress. There is a human nature and even pervasive moral intuitions are sometimes inconsistent, or in conflict with our nature, or uninformed or misinformed by errant beliefs. Moral discourse and experience can elicit change so that our moral judgments are more accurately aligned with reality and with our inherent nature. Relativism does not mean that we accept all moral claims as equally true. … We sometimes act in ways which are in opposition to our true values and intentions; we experience regret. Relativism suggests that you take a hard look and try to understand those values and intentions – to consider whether they actually align with your nature and to examine how they are best achieved – and then to direct your life accordingly.”

      Perhaps ours is simply a semantic disagreement. If it is objectively true that 99.9% of people have a moral sense that is in agreement about X, then I do not think that it is accurate to say that this objective fact makes morality into an objective endeavor. It simply says that there are objective truths about the relative status of a moral claim. The truth value of the claim itself is still relative to the moral sense, either on a population level, where we use percentages, or on the individual level, where 1 out of every 1000 will have a different truth value.

  11. ok, good, that was where I thought we were originally but I think I threw us off by saying some things that sounded a bit like something else. I appreciate you digging me out when I got stuck by asking all those questions – I just wasn’t sure of the words to say that would clear things up.

    I agree with your addition to the issue of moral categorization and to be honest I never had really thought of it that way. Yes, I do agree that is the probable foundation for the existence of the moral category.

    When I had read that quote of yours originally in the post I wasn’t completely sure if it was similar to my view but I’m glad you confirmed that.

    Ok, so now I can get back to that question you asked about what I meant about the impression that “moral relativism” gives. I’m not saying you have a wrong definition (in fact you’ve done a ton of research here so I am confident your definition is correct), but I am trying to suggest that the more common understanding of moral relativism is that absolutely nothing at all objective can be said in relation to ethics – in other words as long as a culture has an internally consistent moral code then it’s fine and that is what creates right and wrong – in some sense it’s almost arbitrary. Now I say this partially because it was my impression (having not studied enough detail to clarify the exact understanding of the label), but also because when I hear people who object to the view talk it seems like this is how they see it. So the concern is that if I were to use that label it would confuse people from truly understanding what I believe and the whole point of using labels is to properly communicate to others my view. So before this, have you ever gotten the feeling that the definition of “moral relativism” is misunderstood? I can’t help but wonder if it may be another part of the difficulty in communicating to moral realists (although there are unfortunately a lot of other difficulties to overcome as well).

    • Howie,
      I completely understand. I think there is a false dichotomy in what I perceive to be the colloquial understanding of relative and objective morality. As noted in the post, the relativistic view is often portrayed as 100% arbitrary and whimsical, ignoring the moral category and subject to all of the various passions of the individual or society without any regard for the possibility of correction against an innate nature, errant information or logical consistency. Furthermore, this characterization seems to be particularly prevalent in the God debate, where it is presumed to be the only option when God is removed from the picture. Of course, this characterization is almost certainly put forth because of the emotional power it carries as we experience the moral repulsion to the prospect of a world gone wild; but there’s a contradiction in that tactic. The force of the argument is itself assuming a shared moral sense that judges that world to be morally repulsive, which clearly shows that such a world is not actually the natural consequence of our following our own subjective moral guides. On the other end, I think that moral objectivity is typically understood to be something akin to a platonic, inviolable universal standard, without any regard for the possibility of objectivity within a constrained scope, or a pragmatic objectivity which adopts the language as a practical matter. As with most things, I think that truth lies somewhere between the two extremes that seem to dominate the discussion.

      In the end we’re stuck communicating with others using the shared language we have and though we can aim for clarity with detailed philosophical discussions, those aren’t particularly effective or practical in many situations. While I would agree that this framework doesn’t really fit the colloquial understanding of relativism, I don’t think it fits the colloquial understanding of objective morality either. So I’m willing to adopt the “moral relativism” label primarily because:
      (a) I see it as the more accurate label in the philosophical domain, and
      (b) I would rather “argue up” than “argue down”. That is, if you adopt the label of the option which is generally more palatable and then people come to find that your position doesn’t align with their understanding of the label, then you will be seen as a deceptive spin-doctor who was abusing the label for the sake of making your position look better than it really was – which instantly tilts their interpretation of your view toward the other extreme. Conversely, if you adopt the label of the option which is generally seen as less palatable and then people come to find that your position doesn’t align with their understanding of the label, then I think that they’re more willing to listen and give you the benefit of the doubt to understand what you’re really saying.

      Regarding your analogy to oncology and psychiatry, I’m not sure I’m completely following the argument. Though we may regard the moral sense as a biological function that could be objectively studied, we are still completely dependent on the subjective reports of the individual to establish any biological correlations and to thus define the moral category. Oncology doesn’t have any dependency on subjective reports and though psychology does, the psychological conditions are often defined at least in part by reference to empirical observations (e.g., behaviors). In cases where psychology relies solely on our shared understanding of purely subjective states I would say that it is relativistic in the same sense as discussed above for the moral sense, where the commonality of the subjective experience yields something that may be pragmatically treated as objective. Every category could be said to lie somewhere on the spectrum between the two extremes and psychology appears to me to be quite a bit closer to the objective side than does morality.

  12. Sorry, I remembered another thing. If it’s agreed that fields like psychology and oncology also have exceptions and variations (although to different degrees) and it isn’t usually typical for people to say they are relativists about those subjects then there seems to be a difference in terms across subjects. I think that’s another thing that’s troubling me.

  13. Hi Travis,

    I’m back on the air, and have read your interesting discussion with Howie. And I’m sorry to say I’m still struggling. As I said before, I appreciated your last reply, but the more I go over it, I increasingly feel like I am trying to grasp a phantom. I’ll have a go at explaining , but I think we may have to settle for mutual incomprehension.

    We both want to base what we think and conclude on evidence, and we both want to explain ourselves clearly. So the key to me is definitions. You have defined moral sense : ”A faculty which produces distinctly recognizable feelings, intuitions and judgments that we have come to label as ‘moral’.” But when I ask you what are those recognisable feelings, it doesn’t seem clear.

    You agree that they may often include a sense of obligation and a concern for well-being, but you say these are not the only possible moral feelings. (I don’t actually see that a concern for wellbeing is moral, I would use the word “empathetic” to describe that feeling – I think it only becomes moral when one thinks one ought to respond.)

    You use as an extreme hypothetical the thought that a ”moral sense is somehow activated in somebody whenever they see a computer keyboard”. But I don’t see any explanation how this could be.

    So having asked and probed, I’m sorry but I cannot yet feel that your use of the phrase “moral sense” has any meaning to me. If it is recognisable, how is it recognisable? If, as you say, desire is the word that describes our experience of wanting something, what is the experience that is described by our moral sense?

    So I feel like the child in the emperor’s new clothes story, unable to see anything of substance and wondering how anyone else can see something. So I can accept that for you morality is not objective (bearing in mind the subtleties which have come out in your discussion with Howie), that the things we might regard as moral issues may not be objective, and even that the definition of moral sense may not be objective, but I can’t see anything that is left after all that.

    So I’m not sure if you want to continue to try to explain – I am happy to continue or to finish up, as you see fit. But I will complete this comment by providing a few brief responses to other comments.

    Moral realism – I don’t think moral values (or numbers, or the laws of Physics) “exist” in some Platonic way, except as ideas in the mind of God, and now as ideas in human brains (and maybe alien brains for all I know). I don’t usually describe myself as a moral realist, rather I say morality is objective, that is, that some moral statements are objectively true or false.

    ”Why do we want a basis other than the sense itself?”
    If I as a christian said I had no basis for my sense of God, what would you think? I feel much the same (I’m guessing) about your beliefs about morality.

    ”I don’t see how this helps.”
    I was surprised at your response here. If we are to base our beliefs on evidence, then we need an evidential basis for those beliefs. For example, if a christian believes in Jesus because they have been brought up that way and it “feels” right, an atheist would likely criticise them. So why should an evidence-free feeling about a moral sense be any different?

    Further, in having moral discussions, it makes a difference whether we are discussing something that is objective and we are both aiming at finding the truth, or if we are discussing personal feelings, in which case we can only share what we both agree is subjective and on which we may legitimately differ.

    I note the discussion of the general consensus of the human race, but I think it still matters whether that is a statistical odd fact or a real insight into a real truth.

    ”Morality doesn’t look like this. We regularly see variation and change and observe that variation is highly dependent on environment and biology.”
    Again I disagree (I’m sorry). Morality to my mind is very clear. Jesus articulated it as “Love God and love your neighbour” and many other teachers have used similar definitions. The details vary of course, because circumstances differ so much, but the principle is the same.

    Thanks again for your patience, and the opportunity to discuss. I am learning all the time, but so far feel frustrated not to see a core to what you are saying.

    • Eric,
      I’m willing to keep trying but I’ll eventually run out of new ways to say the same thing!

      I cannot yet feel that your use of the phrase “moral sense” has any meaning to me. If it is recognisable, how is it recognisable?

      Let’s try approaching this through a simple exercise on a different subjective experience. Please explain to me how sadness is recognizable and distinguished from other feelings that you experience.

      Note that I’m intentionally disregarding the rest of the responses in your comment so that they don’t distract from the task at hand.

  14. Hi Travis, OK, I think an exercise like this is good.

    We all know what it is like to feel sad, and we know what the word means – Googling gives these synonyms: unhappy, sorrowful, dejected, regretful, depressed, downcast, miserable, downhearted, down, despondent, despairing, disconsolate, out of sorts, desolate, bowed down, wretched, glum, gloomy, doleful, dismal, blue, melancholy, melancholic, low-spirited, mournful, woeful, woebegone, forlorn, crestfallen, broken-hearted, heartbroken, inconsolable, grief-stricken.

    Clearly, sadness is NOT distinguishable from all those other feelings. They all overlap to a large degree, with some finer shades of meaning making some difference. But it IS distinguishable from happy, angry, proud, terrified, etc.

    I note that when I Google “morality” I don’t get synonyms, just these definitions: “conformity to the rules of right conduct”, “beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior” and “Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour. …. A particular system of values and principles of conduct.”

    • Am I correct to presume that the list of synonyms do not define sadness, they’re just a way to reinforce the understanding of sadness by adding further relations? If you had never heard all of those other words, you would still comprehend sadness by relation to the subjective experience that is recognizable and distinct from other subjective experiences, correct?

      Assuming the above statements are true, is it your contention that no analogous relation exists for the moral category?

  15. “Am I correct to presume that the list of synonyms do not define sadness, they’re just a way to reinforce the understanding of sadness by adding further relations?”

    I think that is a rather fine distinction. You asked how sadness is recognizable and distinguished from other feelings. I said that we all know the feeling, but to tell you I have to use words. There is no other way to talk about this – we need something in common, and we cannot share our experience of sadness directly, so we need to use words. I used the dictionary words because I think they are all ways of describing the experience we all know.

    It is the same with morality, except when I checked the dictionary I didn’t find any synonyms, just some definitions, which pretty much all had the same thing in common – morality is a sense of “ought”, feeling obligated to follow a moral code, whether that be an external one or an internal one. That is the only definition of morality that I have seen, and I’m still struggling to understand what you mean by it if you don’t accept that definition as being complete or basic.

    “If you had never heard all of those other words, you would still comprehend sadness by relation to the subjective experience that is recognizable and distinct from other subjective experiences, correct?”

    Yes, but I wouldn’t be able to speak about it with you unless I had words. And note that I have also pointed out that it is easily distinguishable from some other experiences (e.g. happiness) but not easily distinguishable from others (e.g. alienation).

    “Assuming the above statements are true, is it your contention that no analogous relation exists for the moral category?”

    I have never really thought about this question until now. It certainly wasn’t a point I was trying to make – I have been trying to pin down the core of what you are saying. But I don’t think I would agree to this. I think we all know what sadness and a moral sense feel like, even though our individual experiences will be slightly different, but we need shared words and definitions if we are going to talk about them. And I still think obligation to a moral code is what we all know the moral sense to be.

    I’m not sure if I’ve addressed exactly what you are aiming at here, but I’m trying to understand and not trying to be difficult. But my suspicion is that we are struggling with this because I think you are trying to find a system of thought that suits your worldview, and I don’t think that is easy, and (I think personally) actually impossible. Ethics are a very difficult area, very hard to pin down. I think theism makes it all a little easier, though not simple, but I think naturalism makes it a lot herder.

    • I think we all know what sadness and a moral sense feel like

      Great. That’s a big step toward mutual comprehension. This is sufficient for me, but you’re clearly wanting more.

      but we need shared words and definitions if we are going to talk about them. And I still think obligation to a moral code is what we all know the moral sense to be.

      Perhaps we have to agree to disagree here. I simply do not agree that the moral sense reduces down to a monolithic sense of obligation to a code. For example, if I bring Auschwitz to mind I am not struck only with a sense that this is something I should never do or that the Nazis should not have done, but more potently with the sense that it is an event, and to some degree a place, which is wrong and evil. The chills I perceive as I imagine strolling through the grounds don’t have any obvious relation to a sense of obligation. And I think that this expanded comprehension of the moral category rests not only on subjective experience but also on the data. The significance of emotion, the anthropological data, and the efficacy of sensory priming (e.g., the ability of a pleasant or foul smell to impact our moral judgments) point toward a moral sense which operates beyond a relation to duties.

      But I still haven’t identified “shared words and definitions” like those you offered for sadness, and you are seeking a definition that includes more than the reference to a subjective experience upon which we have as an English speaking society generally agreed to label as ‘moral’. OK, but I want to first reiterate that anything else is an imperfect attempt to communicate that experience and should not be taken as definitive. So here’s a list of words that are strongly correlated with the moral domain (note that the moral domain has both positive and negative directions – a bit like grouping happy and sad together into a category):
      good, bad, right, wrong, wholesome, evil, [un]ethical, should, ought, obligation, duty, [un]fair, [in]decent, [dis]honest, [dis]honorable, [un]just, harmful, helpful, kind, nice, mean, [un]righteous, upright, deceitful, virtuous, degenerate, [im]proper, [ig]noble, [im]pure, sinful, [un]forgiving, blameless, reprobate, respectable, corrupt, altruistic, selfish, vile, integrity, trustworthy, crafty, tyrannical, overbearing, patient, peaceful, aggressive, loyal, treacherous, gentle, harsh, [un]scrupulous, [un]principled, [un]conscientious, compassionate, indifferent, … need I go on?

      Perhaps you will object to the fact that many of these identify a subset of the moral domain. I agree, but that does not negate the effectiveness of the collection as a whole to reinforce the understanding of the moral domain by adding further relations, just as the sadness synonyms did.

  16. Wow, awesome post with allot of great information. Also a bunch of great comments from others. (I just stopped giving likes to all the comments because I was liking them all) I really think we have a nice group and should all get together sometime and hash all this out. It would be fun.

    I do not disagree with much of what you say regarding how we came to have moral inclinations, if we assume naturalism. Although I think you and I would agree reasonable minds can disagree on some of it.

    I would say though that, despite the evidence/points you raise, perhaps there is a moral reality. That is perhaps reality is such that there are things we really should (and should not) do regardless of our feelings. Moreover, by rejecting that belief you’re a choosing a belief system that will lead you to do more evil as per the three articles you cite on how meta ethics effects real world actions.

    This vein of thought is very much one which lead me to my own views. After all if there is no real morality then believing real morality, is not really morally wrong. But if there is a moral reality, it does appear believing there is not, does lead to weakened motivation. I had a hunch of this but now you gave me some studies. Add a few more steps and I think game theory dictates that rational people believe in a moral reality. In sum, I think you should consider the consequences of your beliefs based on both, the possibility that there is a real morality and the possibility that there is not a real morality.

    Alright that said I am sure you know where I am going to take issue. So let me get to it.

    “’and there’s nothing wrong with torturing babies for fun?’ Again, I am perfectly able to say that this is wrong according to my intuitions and those of everybody I know, but I’m not making an absolute claim. However, this is a bit more difficult because there isn’t any reason in this case to also object on the grounds of errant beliefs or conflicts in human nature. If an individual were to be biologically disposed so that they did not find this behavior morally abhorrent then I have nothing but disagreement to offer (though I would argue that in a practical sense, the realist is in the same position). As before, this does not entail inaction or ambivalence.”

    It may be true that the naturalist, realist, has nothing to offer, because we don’t seem to have any sort of empirical way to ultimately determine moral questions. (nor can we argue from self-evident truths such as in math) Hence we know that in order to access these truths we must look beyond our natural abilities. Theists have religions and scriptures which they believe transcend what we can learn from our senses. This is a big reason why I believe naturalism is meta-ethically challenged.

    “In the end, moral relativism is neither pacifism nor a blank check. It requires introspection, reasoning, evidence and discourse.”
    Does relativism about whether pickles taste good require “introspection, reasoning, evidence and discourse?”
    That is silly because for relative things there is no reality that gives us “evidence” that we need to “discourse” about. I wish I could produce evidence that pickles are really good to my wife. But that is simply not the way relative things work.

    When things are purely relative it is just a matter of what you taste or what someone else tastes. I might not like watching someone eat bugs but as long as they eat them when I am not looking that is fine by me. And indeed I can even say I wish I also enjoyed eating bugs. Yes the idea is somewhat revolting, but I wish that weren’t the case. In fact, I wish I found them to be delicious. It would save me some money on a grocery bill.

    That’s not at all the way most of us view moral issues. Most of us would not say “yes I wish I could find a way to enjoy watching children suffer. That way I could enjoy visiting a children’s cancer wards.” That is we don’t actually believe that these views are just relative, with no real truth. We think that if we were to change to that view we would be at odds with moral reality.
    BTW: I like to stick with tastes rather than beauty because it is a more purely relativist model. People will often find something beautiful or not based on moral inclinations. Eg., is it pornography? Does it advocate a certain political view? Etc. Using tastes usually does not blur these lines so I think it is a better example of something being purely relative.

    “Relativism suggests that you take a hard look and try to understand those values and intentions – to consider whether they actually align with your nature and to examine how they are best achieved – and then to direct your life accordingly. You will still mess up, but at least you are trying and that diligence can eventually shift the underlying feelings and intuitions into closer alignment with reason and, hopefully, reality.”

    I think you are starting to be a filthy moral realist here. Why do we need to change our feelings/intenrions/values to align with what we think our nature is? By your account our nature came about by a series of events that lead to our evolutionary fitness similar to how our other tastes developed. Our nature was not developed to act as a guide for what we should do. You seem to be suggesting a form of real morality where the morally correct thing to do is to follow our nature. (whatever you may mean by that) It seems odd to me, as there seems to be many things in my own nature that I do not think are good and there is no reason to think our nature is good if it simply evolved for fitness purposes.

    In the end I think you will find that at one level you do not believe in moral realism. But then, in life, how you act toward others, moral realism beliefs pop up. I believe the rational/reasonable person should eliminate these sorts of contradictory beliefs. Believing contradictions is on a very basic level what it means to be illogical.

    I agree that the line of thought you provide here leads to big problems for moral realism. Yet I find I pretty much can’t help believing in moral realism. Moreover, I think my beliefs about morality are important – and have more gravity than mere tastes because they are based in reality. So in order to preserve rationality and not believe contradictions (as well as pragmatic concerns) I chose to start my belief system (and we all have to start with some foundational beliefs) not with a basic belief like “I will trust in empiricism and follow wherever that leads.”

    Nor do I start with the belief like “I will only hold beliefs where some burden of proof is met and expunge all other beliefs” I found those lines of thought lead to contradictions and therefore to an illogical noetic structure.

    So at a point I ultimately decided on a foundational belief like “I want to act rightly.” “Acting rightly” even includes choosing my beliefs rightly. And from that starting belief I found that a whole different worldview develops. In my case, the naturalist worldview did not follow from that starting premise. The Christian one did.

    • Joe,
      Finally! What took you so long? I kid, but I would also be lying if said that our past interactions weren’t one of the influences behind this post.

      I think you should consider the consequences of your beliefs based on both, the possibility that there is a real morality and the possibility that there is not a real morality

      I agree, but there are two factors that I think you have implicitly excluded from that consideration. First, I’m not convinced that I can’t have the best of both worlds – both true beliefs and moral compliance. The studies which point toward increased moral compliance as a consequence of a belief in moral realism are revealing a statistical average, not an inviolable law of nature. So I might even agree with a general policy that avoids disabusing people of their naive realism while pursuing approaches the mitigate against that effect personally. But that would only matter if the consequences of a belief in moral realism are clearly demonstrated to have cumulative effect of improving moral compliance on a large scale. Though I am not aware of any supporting research, it seems intuitively probable that a belief in realism would also result in moral conflict that is more aggressive and/or more common as a consequence of a stronger conviction in the correctness of one’s beliefs relative to opposing convictions.

      It may be true that the naturalist, realist, has nothing to offer, because we don’t seem to have any sort of empirical way to ultimately determine moral questions … Theists have religions and scriptures which they believe transcend what we can learn from our senses.

      But my contention is that realism is not an advantage in the context of moral discourse, where you are trying to promote a particular view toward others, not yourself. The reliance on religion and scriptures just push the question back to a justification of one’s epistemology (unless your interlocutor already shares your epistemology).

      This is a big reason why I believe naturalism is meta-ethically challenged.

      Only if one presumes or wishes to adopt realism within a naturalist framework. There isn’t a challenge if anti-realism is allowed.

      Does relativism about whether pickles taste good require “introspection, reasoning, evidence and discourse?” … You seem to be suggesting a form of real morality where the morally correct thing to do is to follow our nature

      I suggest re-reading the concluding paragraphs of the post again (under “The last word” section). As I see it, you are raising the exact objection that I anticipated there and to which I responded. Please clarify if I’ve misunderstood.

      In the end I think you will find that at one level you do not believe in moral realism. But then, in life, how you act toward others, moral realism beliefs pop up.

      I wouldn’t say that “moral realism beliefs pop up”. I would say that I, like most others, am intuitively drawn toward a sort of naive moral realism in the absence of further consideration. I would consider that to be an innate tendency, not a belief.

      I believe the rational/reasonable person should eliminate these sorts of contradictory beliefs. Believing contradictions is on a very basic level what it means to be illogical.

      I think that’s exactly what I’m doing here. I was hesitant to adopt any particular moral ontology for a very long time in large part because I didn’t feel like I had an adequate explanation for how to reconcile all the data (including subjective experience). This post aimed to present such an explanation.

      I chose to start my belief system (and we all have to start with some foundational beliefs) not with a basic belief like “I will trust in empiricism and follow wherever that leads.”

      C’mon Joe. You know that this is a strawman. I am valuing truth but I am also willing to consider a pragmatic response that relies on accurate reasoning to achieve a greater value. This isn’t merely a commitment to empiricism at all costs. Furthermore, I don’t necessarily endorse the foundationalism you suppose here. I think it’s more accurate to see my beliefs as a web than as a scaffolding and if core elements in my web of beliefs are challenged by new data and experiences then I don’t want to resist the accompanying change.

      • Hi Travis
        I just wanted to say I will be posting. Its just that I believe that is really the crux of where you and I disagree and I want to take my time with my reply. So I have been mulling over how I will best express my thoughts regarding your position. Of course, I have to deal with the other annoying distractions from blogging, such as family and work. It’s almost as if the world not realize we are on the brink of solving the meaning of life.

        Anyway your patience is appreciated.

      • No worries. I can relate. I started the year by publicly declaring a goal of at least one post per month and that hasn’t gone as planned.

      • Hi Travis

        Sorry this post may not end up being worth the wait but I figured it was time to spit out what I had.

        Ok lets jump back to it.

        “I agree, but there are two factors that I think you have implicitly excluded from that consideration. First, I’m not convinced that I can’t have the best of both worlds – both true beliefs and moral compliance.”

        Ok I think we agree that what you mean as a relativist when you say something is “moral” is ontologically different than what I mean. So although we may use the same words “moral” or “good” or “evil” etc. We actually are meaning different things. And I would even say our two beliefs are mutually exclusive.

        I mean objectively real morality. I believe that reality has this objective moral feature. You believe reality does not have this objective moral feature. Therefore it is impossible that you can hold a true belief, if what I mean holds true. Likewise, if what you believe morality is holds true, I am wrong.

        In the end, I have decided that if morality is nothing more than what you describe as some creation of various feelings to provide evolutionary fitness, well I can easily shrug off the consequences of being wrong about it. (and indeed being wrong about anything) On the other hand if I am right about morality being an objective feature of reality I do not think it is so easy to shrug off, being wrong about it. The fact that it is rooted in reality to my mind gives it gravity. Where as if it is just something we partly concoct and is partly hardwired based on a bunch of emotions that lead to evolutionary fitness, it has no gravity.

        Reality yields gravity. Having someone commit a murder in a novel or a dream, does not have the same gravity as someone committing a murder in objective reality. If all this moral talk has no bearing on objective reality it loses gravity. And, by the way, I do not think I even need to appeal to additional consequences like heaven or hell. I think reality brings about a intrinsic importance that “made up” things lack.

        So perhaps you may be right that the evidence favors your view of what morality is. But I see no consequence to holding the belief I do in that case, even though it would be epistemically wrong. I do not think the converse is true. In sum I may be going for the long shot, but to my mind it is the only option worth pursuing.

        There are of course other problems with relativism that I have not gone into. Issues of whether it makes sense to believe in moral progress or justice and also whether your really do believe relativism or instead if your noetic structure is contradictory. But more on this later.

        “The studies which point toward increased moral compliance as a consequence of a belief in moral realism are revealing a statistical average, not an inviolable law of nature. So I might even agree with a general policy that avoids disabusing people of their naive realism while pursuing approaches the mitigate against that effect personally.”
        I think you make a reasonable point. I would further say that you are not necessarily claiming to be smarter than the average bear. The sample did not know about the results of this test before they participated like you do. So you may be able to further buttress your will to follow something you do not think is objectively real.

        BTW there have also been studies that suggest if people believe we do not have free will they act less morally.
        http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/theres-no-such-thing-as-free-will/480750/

        This is actually something that I had considered for a long time. (although your studies were new to me) I have found from my own experience that to the extent I think consequences are less real or remote I tend not to follow them. But I would be quick to add that “will power” has never been my forte. E.g., I overconsume the wrong food and drink and I can’t seem to get on the exercise regime I need. I need to utilize every tool I can to keep me on track. How well focusing my world view on one where morality really matters I believe helps me. But again its hard to say what I would be like if I did not have this worldview.

        Consider a nurse dealing with used needles. Yes it is unlikely the used needle has a contagious disease. But generally to do the job of disposing of it, there is nothing wrong with assuming every used needle does have a contagious disease. And it may be unwise to allow thoughts that it is unlikely the needle is contagious to creep into how we do things.
        But in the end I don’t think we will have a scientific study that can really track the effects of meta-ethical beliefs for people who acknowledge this may lead to less ethical practices and yet feel they personally can handle it better. And again even there different people have easier times than others. For me, sadly, I tended to draw the opposite conclusion you did. I tended to think I did fall into the same lack of concern for morality to the extent I thought it was less real. But even there did I really act better when I seemed more convinced it was real? I think I did but I wouldn’t call it a certainty.

        In the end, I see no downside to believing in moral reality to weigh against any potential reduction in my moral behavior. So, it seems the rational actor holds onto the belief.

        “But my contention is that realism is not an advantage in the context of moral discourse, where you are trying to promote a particular view toward others, not yourself. The reliance on religion and scriptures just push the question back to a justification of one’s epistemology (unless your interlocutor already shares your epistemology).”

        Indeed it often does push on epistemology. And the logic goes both ways. I think the rational person should understand this thoroughly before they start choosing basic beliefs. Because if you start by choosing a belief about epistemology you may find you lose many of your closely held beliefs about morality. What beliefs are more important to you?

        For me I decided that my basic belief that I wanted to act rightly (to the extent that is possible) was my most important basic belief. It was more important than thinking I should only believe propositions if and only if after some mental exercise, I determine that I should only believe something if it is more likely than not true. After I specifically thought about this it seemed to me to be even sort of silly to think I should base my life around believing things if and only if I have evidence that makes it more likely than not true and expunge any other beliefs. It was for this reason that I chose my basic/core beliefs (if you have a “web of belief” think of the central strands) based on morality rather than epistemological concerns.
        I said:
        “Does relativism about whether pickles taste good require “introspection, reasoning, evidence and discourse?” … You seem to be suggesting a form of real morality where the morally correct thing to do is to follow our nature”
        You said:
        “I suggest re-reading the concluding paragraphs of the post again (under “The last word” section). As I see it, you are raising the exact objection that I anticipated there and to which I responded. Please clarify if I’ve misunderstood.”

        I am suggesting that you are not being clear on whether you are embracing relativism or realism. When you resort to saying we should align with “our nature” that seems to be a realist view. For things that are truly relative such as tastes in food we tend not to think we are “require[d]” to engage “introspection, reasoning, evidence and discourse.” We appeal to these when we try tomake our beliefs fit an objective reality. Not the steps we take when deciding what foods we like.

        If you truly embrace moral relativism then you believe your own views as they are now are what morality is. If you believe A and someone believes not A, then moral progress is when they too believe A. Of course if you then change your mind and believe not A well what used to be moral progress ( the other person changing their mind to believe A) suddenly becomes moral regression.

        For the relativist/subjectivist what he thinks is moral is *by definition* moral. Just like when I say some food is delicious that means I think it is delicious. There is no reason to resort to evidence, discourse or introspection about my nature to establish what I think tastes good. And if someone disagrees with me on whether something tastes good there is no general reason to try to change their mind. Why? Because there is no objective truth about the taste of food. But if someone disagrees about something that there is an objective truth on, such as a scientific theory, or historical event, that is the sort of thing we appeal to evidence and discourse on.

        But again when you talk about following our nature – whatever you might mean by that – it seems you might be suggesting that following our nature is the objectively real moral good. If that is the case then yes we can bring discourse evidence and reason to bear.

        Now you say that you bring reason evidence and discourse to bear because 1) you want to be rational in your beliefs and 2) because that is how your desires will be satisfied.

        With respect to 1, I would ask about your concern that your other relative tastes are rational. Is your taste in music and food rational? Does that concern you? I remember my brother asked “how come you like ketchup and spaghetti sauce when you don’t like tomatoes?” I saw he was suggesting my tastes were somehow irrational. My answer was “because ketchup tastes different than tomatoes.” There is no objective good taste in food (or music) that I need to align my tastes with so who cares if there seems to be some inconsistency?

        With to your second concern of satisfying our morally relevant desires through reason and discourse and evidence, well I think that is far from clear. It may even be the more I think about my morally relevant desires and beliefs the less satisfied I am. But even if you are right, that’s just your view right? Maybe others think satisfying these urges and desires is not what it is about.

        But if you think fulfilling moral desires is all you need to do then let me ask something. Do you think if you could alter your moral desires so that you are now easily fulfilling them that would not be a good way to be moral? I think it is pretty clear that people can shape their consciences. So if a person tends to feel guilty about X perhaps they just need to change their conscience instead of their behavior. As a relativist I presume you would say they should change their conscience so their conscience matches your own beliefs. Since you define what is right and wrong yourself. I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense but rather as what seems like the logical conclusion of the relativists view.

        I said:
        “In the end I think you will find that at one level you do not believe in moral realism. But then, in life, how you act toward others, moral realism beliefs pop up.”

        You said:
        “I wouldn’t say that “moral realism beliefs pop up”. I would say that I, like most others, am intuitively drawn toward a sort of naive moral realism in the absence of further consideration. I would consider that to be an innate tendency, not a belief.”

        I think beliefs are tendencies. My second blog post I talk about what it means to believe something and on the whole I think Quines definition is a decent one.
        “[belief] is a disposition to respond in certain ways when the appropriate issue arises.”

        I go into it a bit more here:
        https://trueandreasonable.co/2014/01/09/do-you-belieeeeve/

        Now it is true that not every tendency is a belief. My GI tract tends to act a certain way and that does not have anything to do with my beliefs. But I do think my tendencies to react to moral issues are based on my beliefs. I would say your tendencies to act certain ways relative moral questions is indeed based on your beliefs about morality. And if those reactions contradict your other beliefs I think you are likely dealing with contradictory beliefs.

      • Joe,
        That is a substantial brain dump and I think there’s a lot of good discussion points, but I find myself getting lost in the weeds if I try to parse and respond to everything at once. So I’m going to try and focus the conversation by narrowing it down to what I perceive as the most salient points of your comment. The following is my attempt to briefly summarize my understanding of those key points:

        Point #1: The pragmatic argument – A belief in an objective morality is very likely to improve one’s moral compliance and if we truly want to live moral lives above all else then we should seek a belief in an objective morality because the positive consequences of that belief will outweigh the negative consequences regardless of whether morality is actually objective or subjective.

        Point #2: Inconsistent ontology – The proposed framework claims the label of relativism and implies relativistic features but also implies realist features by reference to our nature. These are mutually exclusive and their presence within the framework implies an inconsistent ontology.

        Point #3: Irrelevance of reason and evidence – If we grant point #2 and expunge realist features from the framework then reason, evidence and discourse become irrelevant because every moral claim is always true if it accurately reflects the claimants moral judgment at the time (i.e., the claimant is not deliberately lying in making their claim). There is no point in seeking or valuing changes because the truth value is not altered.

        Point #4: Contradictory beliefs – A belief is a disposition to respond in certain ways when the appropriate issue arises, so if one recognizes a disposition toward objective morality then they are holding contradictory beliefs to claim that morality is actually subjective; and it is irrational to hold contradictory beliefs.

        I want to give you a chance to weigh in on these summaries before I respond. Would you change anything about these statements (without adding too much complication)?

      • I think you list out some of the conclusions I reach. But of course your summary leaves out the reasons I reach those conclusions. There were different angles that I approached each of those conclusions from. For example on the pragmatic conclusion there is not only the issue regarding research. But there is also the point that I and the moral relativist are talking about 2 very different things when we talk about “morality”.

        It might be better if you just took some of the statements I made and and indicate which you disagree with. Or which ones you think lead to different conclusions. Its true there is allot to discuss but there is no rush.

      • Joe,
        If you don’t mind I’d really prefer to find some way to focus the discussion. I was trying to summarize the key points as honestly as I could and if I misrepresent anything then I welcome your correction. This is in part my attempt to do the best I can to ensure that I understand what you’re saying and in part because I find that “wall of text” style interactions often hinder the discussion. You’re welcome to modify my summary or present your own, but I would personally benefit from having a succinct set of talking points with which I can engage.

      • Ok that makes sense. And to be clear I do not think you were misrepresenting anything. I know you and I both strive to understand each other and not misrepresent each other because we are both more interested in sharing ideas than necessarily promoting our own.

        There is no obligation to hash out every point I tried to make. But I guess if I were to choose I would say I would like you to elaborate on some of your thoughts on the following:

        1) Do you agree that we are both talking about different things when we use the same term “morality.” Do you believe there is no objective feature of reality which corresponds with our moral beliefs? Sure your emotions and desires are real but they are subjective right? Do you think it is impossible that my view is correct or do you just think it is “more likely than” not false?

        2) Can you describe how moral progress works from your relativist view? As an objective moral realist I have a fairly straightforward description. People make moral progress when their beliefs correspond with objective moral reality. What does moral progress mean to you. Another relativist, that I know and respect, said moral progress is when people adopt his current view of morality. Is that your view?

        3) On perhaps a related note you mention our human nature. At times you seem to think we should be in tune with this. I am just unclear what this is supposed to mean in relation to morality. Do you think everyone has the same human nature in relation to morals? Does it matter to your view? Do you think people should strive for some idealized human nature? If our human nature arose from the same forces that gave lions their nature why think ours is better?
        4) If morality is relative should we try to shape our morality in any particular way? If so ,why, and how? Should we try to shape it in a way that provides maximum pleasure and the least pain? If so is it just for you individually or should we also care about others? Why care about others except to the extent it effects us?

        These are a few of the questions where I tend to find the relativist view of morality disappoints. And I say “disappoints” because it is not that I think it is impossible to give answers that aren’t contradictory. (although I do think some of the answers contradict other beliefs most of us hold) But rather the answers do not seem to be robust enough to support what I tend to mean by morality.

        I keep thinking of this sort of imagery.
        I’m hoping for cake but instead I feel like relativism offers moldy bread. Yes we can eat it and perhaps there are good reasons to think the cake will never come. But I think I will hold out for cake just the same. I feel like we have to really rule out the possibility of cake and even if we did, I still might decline that moldy bread.

      • Hi Joe,

        When you say “I feel like we have to really rule out the possibility of cake and even if we did, I still might decline that moldy bread” are you essentially saying that no matter what the truth is about this matter you may still stick with belief in moral realism? Words are slippery things so maybe you aren’t saying exactly that but it definitely reads that way.

      • I see what you mean. So if for whatever reason, I became convinced that moral realism was not true I don’t think I would still hold out for it. I think by definition that would seem to indicate I would not believe in it. I think instead of trying to redefine what morality means and saying it now means some relativist view, I would just adopt moral error theory aka nihilism. So I guess I would still pass on the moldy bread and starve?

        🙂

        Honestly it’s hard to say what I would do or believe if for whatever reason I came to believe there is no real morality. But in the mean time I do not feel that if I am irrational for living my life based on this guiding belief even if it is perhaps even likely untrue because:
        1) If objective morality is false that means nothing I am doing is objectively immoral. It’s all just a bunch of feelings handed down by random evolution that correspond to nothing real, even though my brain tricks me into thinking there is more to it.
        and
        2) I consider the alternative beliefs unsatisfying.
        So I suppose if I found out my first and primary concern – living an objectively moral life was not possible – then I would probably just go with my next most primary concern and that would be to pursue truth. I would not try to make sense of moral progress when I know there is no objective measure. I would not talk about justice as if it were real knowing it is just evolution playing tricks with my mind for evolutionary advantage.

      • Hi Joe,
        Sorry for the slow response. I apologize if this pace ends up being normal for the time being. Regardless, thank for putting together the talking points. That really helps.

        1) Do you agree that we are both talking about different things when we use the same term “morality.” Do you believe there is no objective feature of reality which corresponds with our moral beliefs? Sure your emotions and desires are real but they are subjective right? Do you think it is impossible that my view is correct or do you just think it is “more likely than” not false?

        I think we are talking about different things but maybe not in the way you think. In my proposal it would not be correct to say that “there is no objective feature of reality which corresponds with our moral beliefs”. That would only be true if I thought that the “hard problem of consciousness” was unassailable, and I’m inclined to think that it isn’t. The subjectivity of our moral epistemology is not necessarily a reflection of a purely subjective ontology, though that is largely the current state of affairs.

        2) Can you describe how moral progress works from your relativist view? As an objective moral realist I have a fairly straightforward description. People make moral progress when their beliefs correspond with objective moral reality. What does moral progress mean to you. Another relativist, that I know and respect, said moral progress is when people adopt his current view of morality. Is that your view?

        In the post I suggested that moral progress occurs under two situations: (A) When the information that informs the moral sense moves into greater alignment with reality and, (B) When a change in one’s moral sense results in greater moral satisfaction, which I generally referred to as “alignment with one’s nature”.

        Regarding (A), our moral sense is better aligned with reality if it is (a) informed by less errant data, (b) supplemented with additional relevant truth-directed data, or (c) subject to fewer internal inconsistencies. I think this is self-explanatory but let me know if you need me to expand on that.

        Regarding (B), our moral sense results in greater moral satisfaction when it produces judgements that we are more likely to “feel good about” (i.e., less regret, less moral anxiety, more contentment with the decision, etc…). This “feeling good” is generally not a choice and is partly affected by biological dispositions. As an analogy, it appears that “handedness” is about 25% genetic – meaning there is a genetic influence but that influence is not deterministic. If someone is predisposed to being left-handed but is trained to do everything right-handed then their performance is diminished relative to if their training had been aligned with their predisposition. I think something similar can occur with morality. Our environment can lead us to make moral judgments that run counter to our predispositions, but our resulting moral satisfaction will be less than if our environment had reinforced the predisposition.

        3) On perhaps a related note you mention our human nature. At times you seem to think we should be in tune with this. I am just unclear what this is supposed to mean in relation to morality. Do you think everyone has the same human nature in relation to morals? Does it matter to your view? Do you think people should strive for some idealized human nature? If our human nature arose from the same forces that gave lions their nature why think ours is better?

        I answered the first part of this above, but I’ll expand here. I understand how this could be interpreted as a sort of subjective realism (and maybe you would say that it is) but I do not see the nature as identical across individuals and I would suggest that it can and does change over time. I’m also not really sure whether every moral claim has one right answer that best aligns with one’s nature. I also think it is possible that truth and nature can stand in conflict with each other – that is, a judgment based on errant data may be the one that maximizes moral satisfaction. I don’t have a procedure for resolving that conflict if we detect it. I anticipate that my preference would vary on a case-by-case basis, generally favoring the truer judgment except where the moral sense is especially strong.

        Regarding the lion question, I want to note that this phrasing begs the question for an objective realism. The statement “why think ours is better” infers the ability to appeal to a standard that transcends lions and humans. This framework does not provide a way to do that, but that does not preclude our making such a judgment from a relative perspective.

        4) If morality is relative should we try to shape our morality in any particular way? If so ,why, and how? Should we try to shape it in a way that provides maximum pleasure and the least pain? If so is it just for you individually or should we also care about others? Why care about others except to the extent it effects us?

        I think my discussion in #2 about the concept of “moral satisfaction” may address this. Let me know if you want further clarification on that.

        Regarding your closing statements, I can appreciate the preference for an objective, transcendent standard to which we can hold everybody accountable, but I don’t share your perspective on the dramatic difference between the two. Upon reflection I find that they are epistemically indistinguishable and that alone does a lot to temper any enthusiasm for realism.

      • Hi Travis
        Thanks for the response. You actually anticipated the question I was immediately thinking: what if goal a) truth, and goal b) satisfaction, are at odds. I think your response is about as fair as a relativist can give.

        Your response regarding the lion situation I think really highlights my concern. Yes I do assume a objective moral realism to say we shouldn’t kill a female’s Young so we can ourselves reproduce with that female. For me That tends to demonstrate that omr is really the only game worth playing.

        That said a moral realist could say for example that we could measure individual moral traits in an objective way. So we could perhaps say honesty, or loyalty, or sympathy are on the rise. (And vices on the decline such as cruelty greed etc) But the weight to give each would still be seemingly impossible to work out. Is reducing one to a nominal concern justified by advancing another?

        I think when we talk morality we will find the devil in the details where horrible regimes ( regimes we both would agree we would detest) can be justified by focusing on a few virtues at the expense of others.

        I know the nazis are a trotted out often. But I also think they can help draw out the logic of these positions. I’m reading a book on the “white rose.” How these meta ethical views might have effected them may have room for doubt. But in reading about them and their diaries it is clear they were omr. Their situation is thought provoking on many levels, but I will try to consider how relativism may have served them.

      • Joe,
        Could you expand on your concern with my response to the lion question? How does this demonstrate that objective moral realism is the only game worth playing?

      • I will try.

        Again lets focus on the difference in our view of morality. I look at our emotional and intuitive responses to actions as *indicators* that something really is objectively morally good or evil. You say there is no objective moral reality. So the emotions are basically all there is. Some people have emotions that killing young would be wrong. But if someone was like the lions we couldn’t really say we are objectively “better” since it just has different emotional responses which also indicate nothing about moral reality.

        Consider the Vietnam Service Medal. Now to me if I see someone with that it indicates that they served the Unites States during its military conflict in Vietnam. It gives me a certain emotional or intuitional impulses that make me see this person in a more positive light. After all they likely demonstrated they were willing sacrifice for others.

        Now let’s say someone says the United States was not involved in a military conflict in Vietnam at all. So the medal could not possibly indicate that this person served the US in its military conflict in that war. All the pictures were doctored or whatever (think holocaust denial). But for purposes of this example let’s say they actually convince me that the US was not involved in a military conflict in Vietnam.

        So there was no Vietnam war. So the medal does not really indicate anything. It’s just a fancy piece of medal hanging on a ribbon. My emotional response would be different to it then. But it seems like you are telling me – no its fine to have that same emotional response and still consider the medal important.

      • Joe,

        But if someone was like the lions we couldn’t really say we are objectively “better”

        Agreed. That was the answer I gave in the post with regard to somebody who is truly predisposed to “torture babies for fun”. That said, it also seems to me that the realist is only better off in that they feel entitled to a sense of moral superiority and grounding for their judgment. Whether that feeling is actually warranted is not resolved by realism – the natural born baby killer may also be a realist and convinced that their position is superior. I think maybe you acknowledge this, so then I would want to know why this feeling of entitlement is sufficiently valuable to make objective moral realism “the only game worth playing”.

        Consider the Vietnam Service Medal … So there was no Vietnam war. So the medal does not really indicate anything. It’s just a fancy piece of medal hanging on a ribbon. My emotional response would be different to it then. But it seems like you are telling me – no its fine to have that same emotional response and still consider the medal important.

        First, I think that the statement that “the medal does not really indicate anything” mistakes the framework for nihilism. Second, as I see it, the more accurate version of the analogy is not just that one comes to believe that the Vietnam War never occurred, but to believe that the medals themselves carry all the valued meaning without reliance on the existence of the war. That’s a bit difficult to imagine but that’s the best way I could think to translate this particular analogy. The key is that I’m not expunging morality from the universe; rather, I’m locating it in a sense that is currently only subjectively knowable.

      • Let me first try to clarify the analogy:

        1) The medal = our emotions or intuitions to act morally
        2) The Vietnam war = objective moral reality
        3) Our response to the medal = our response to our emotions and intuition to act morally

        Travis:
        “That said, it also seems to me that the realist is only better off in that they feel entitled to a sense of moral superiority and grounding for their judgment. “

        First to be fair, It seems to me that you as a relativist can claim a grounding. The grounding is in our emotions and tuitions etc – which I agree is real. The problem as I see it is the further grounding. That is on your view these emotions and intuitions are not indicators of anything real. They were just developed for fitness purposes or random or some combinations of similar forces which obviously were not effected by any omr because omr is false. On your view there is not omr so unlike my belief that I am sitting in a chair these moral beliefs just developed even though they do not correspond with objective reality.

        I to a large extent share the first step of grounding with you. I think our moral actions are grounded in our intuitions and emotions etc. But I believe those emotions and tuitions are *indicators* of the moral truth. I think you agree they (at times at least) seem to present themselves as indicators of some objective moral reality.

        I hope I am your position correctly. So not let me address the overall gist of your comment:

        First, I think we need understand that omr either is true or it is not. Just because someone offers a story – even a plausible story – as to how omr might be false and the world appear as it is, that does not mean omr is actually false. If it is not true then we are not acting immorally in any omr sense at all. So neither of us could claim any advantage in that sense – i.e., then sense of omr.
        But what if omr is true? First I would say it seems to me we do have some volition in shaping our conscience. And if omr is true then we would want to try to shape our conscience to fit it. It seems to me that if it is true then we can rationally see that there are different ways we might be able to find out what it requires. Living with a relativist view point in which you believe omr is false then you have no reason to really focus on what omr might require. But if you accept omr as true then you will try to see how we might know what it requires. So I think that is one important real difference that stems from our 2 views.

        Other implications are that the person who believes in omr is trying to have their beliefs/inclinations match reality. I think in itself is a value we tend to strive for. Like I said in my very first blog post. Even at a very young age my kids wanted to know what was real. They would frequently substitute “In real life” for the word “true”. So I might tell them something and that would amaze their young minds and they gawk and ask “In real life?” As opposed to “is that true?” So I think there amy be some inherent value in pursuing something that is real as opposed to something that is just in our mind.

        Additionally there is the fact that we really don’t know what the implications are for violating omr – if it exists. Religions have various teachings and even outside that we can’t say for sure. So I wouldn’t say that “the realist is only better off in that they feel entitled to a sense of moral superiority and grounding for their judgment.” I think that last makes a few unjustified assumptions.

        Travis
        “Whether that feeling is actually warranted is not resolved by realism – the natural born baby killer may also be a realist and convinced that their position is superior. I think maybe you acknowledge this, so then I would want to know why this feeling of entitlement is sufficiently valuable to make objective moral realism “the only game worth playing”

        Sure it could be that immoral behavior is thought to be moral by moral realists. So saying there is moral realism doesn’t mean everyone will agree on what it requires. But it does give us a starting point. From there we can ask how each believes they know what omr requires and from there they may be able to try to sort out the truth.

        I said:
        “Consider the Vietnam Service Medal … So there was no Vietnam war. So the medal does not really indicate anything. It’s just a fancy piece of medal hanging on a ribbon. My emotional response would be different to it then. But it seems like you are telling me – no its fine to have that same emotional response and still consider the medal important.”
        Travis:
        “First, I think that the statement that “the medal does not really indicate anything” mistakes the framework for nihilism. “
        I think you agree with the nihilist that omr is false. (i.e., you both would agree there was no Vietnam war) The difference between the relativist and the nihilist in this example is the nihilist would say – yep it doesn’t make sense to continue to have the same emotional/intuitive response to the medal if there was no Vietnam war. The relativist says its fine to have the same emotional/intuitive response to the medal.

        Travis:
        “Second, as I see it, the more accurate version of the analogy is not just that one comes to believe that the Vietnam War never occurred, but to believe that the medals themselves carry all the valued meaning without reliance on the existence of the war. That’s a bit difficult to imagine but that’s the best way I could think to translate this particular analogy. The key is that I’m not expunging morality from the universe; rather, I’m locating it in a sense that is currently only subjectively knowable.”
        Ok I understood your position (perhaps from other discussions we had as well) as agreeing with the nihilist that 1) omr is false. But then you also 2) redefine morality such that what is moral is simply whatever we decide is right or in line with our emotions/desires etc. (As such *perhaps* some extra value/weight should be given to these emotions or intuitions?) As I see it the nihilist takes only the first step with you. But he refuses to take the next step.

        Now I realize my saying you “redefine” morality may not be correct in the sense that perhaps you always thought of morality that way. I am just saying from my perspective adopting moral relativism would require a redefinition of what morality is.

      • Joe,
        To start, let me point out a relationship between our moral sense and our value judgments. These are tightly coupled, such that a strong valuation correlates with a strong moral sense and vice versa. So when you say

        Living with a relativist view point in which you believe omr is false then you have no reason to really focus on what omr might require

        I agree, but there’s a subtly misleading inference in there with which I disagree, namely that an absence of reason to focus on what OMR might require also entails an absence of reason to focus on moral goodness at all. Our value judgments guide our actions and we are disappointed when we discover that the object of our value isn’t what we thought it was, or when we obtain a goal only to discover that we really didn’t value the result that much. If we want to avoid this then we should take the time to try and understand what we truly value and given the tight coupling between our values and our moral sense, this same principle applies in the moral domain. That is the top-level principle underlying my call to employ reason in a relativistic framework.

        Other implications are that the person who believes in omr is trying to have their beliefs/inclinations match reality. I think in itself is a value we tend to strive for.

        Hopefully the previous paragraph shows how I think that same motivation is present in relativism. Given that we’ve already covered this ground, I think this may simply come down to a disagreement about the magnitude of difference that OMR makes in that motivation. As before, I don’t see how we could arbitrate that.

        Additionally there is the fact that we really don’t know what the implications are for violating omr – if it exists.

        I think that my response to Pascal’s Wager is equally applicable here.

        saying there is moral realism doesn’t mean everyone will agree on what it requires. But it does give us a starting point

        I think that the content of my first paragraph can also serve as a starting point. In the moral domain, this comes down to something like the maximization of moral satisfaction \ minimization of moral regret, as previously discussed.

        Ok I understood your position …

        Yes. I think your closing paragraphs are fairly accurate.

      • “To start, let me point out a relationship between our moral sense and our value judgments. These are tightly coupled, such that a strong valuation correlates with a strong moral sense and vice versa.”

        It is somewhat difficult to follow you because you keep talking about “moral” things when I think we both agree that we have completely different definition of what a “moral” thing is. It’s like if I say, I am going to define “sheep” as things with 4 wheels and and internal combustion engine. And then you say well then your sheep don’t produce wool. And I say oh yeah we all think sheep produce wool. The notion of sheep and wool producing are closely coupled. The question is, whether we would be justified in believing they are closely coupled if my definition holds true.

        I agree that our value judgments correlate with our moral sense when we think there is omr. (As I believe most people do) But if we agree that there is no omr and instead believe that our moral beliefs/feelings just came about through random evolution to achieve some other goal beside tracking the truth then they should lose their coupling with what we value. Indeed, we may have just as likely developed views that we should kill another father’s young so we can have children with that mother. (I.e., lion example) If we had that feelings that we should do that should we value that? Changing the definition of “morality” may mean we are no longer justified in valuing those feelings. IMO we are not justified to value a medal or a trophy as much if it is just a piece of metal or plastic that we own rather than truly representing some real event or occurrence.

        But I do agree that in the end I with respect to the differences in our views I tried to explain why omr morality would have more value than relativist morality. But I do agree that in the end whether my points are persuasive is a subjective thing. And I think they have been made and understood, which hopefully allows us to understand each other better if not agree.

        I have a few more questions though.

        It seems to me that it was your decision to base your beliefs on an empirical model that lead to your redefining morality. If that is the case do you see why a rational person who decides that their belief in omr is more important than their belief in epistemic empiricism might therefore reject epistemic empiricism. That is do you see how the logic works both ways? That is how I looked at things. I decided that the basis for epistemic views where uncertain enough that I was not willing to jettison what I consider very core and important beliefs.

        It does seem to me that many people in philosophy do something like this. That is they adopt a certain view about epistemology and then refuse to reconsider them even in light of the fact that they produce consequences that fly in the face of perhaps more important beliefs. I mean if I look at your reasons to adopt an empirical epistemology I might agree that on the whole you perhaps make that view look better than various alternatives. But I think you would agree you are doing the best you can in a relatively uncertain endeavor rather than presenting a case that that is air tight. So to me it seems unjustified to throw out omr based on that case. Instead the if that view leads to me throwing out something so core as omr I think it is time to re-examine that epistemic view. It’s shooting a cannon ball through my noetic web, and there really isn’t that much evidence to support it.

        Finally, although we discussed the issue of motivating value in a relativistic view we really didn’t address too much about what relativism does to notions of “moral progress” or “justice.”

        Does societal moral progress = society adopting your moral views?

        Does Justice = whatever you think should happen?

        I said:
        “Additionally there is the fact that we really don’t know what the implications are for violating omr – if it exists.”
        You said:
        “I think that my response to Pascal’s Wager is equally applicable here.”

        I admit I am not sure what the upshot of that was supposed to be. (I will post a bit more on that in that blog post) But I did not think it would apply outside of beliefs in God.

        I said:
        “saying there is moral realism doesn’t mean everyone will agree on what it requires. But it does give us a starting point”
        You said:
        “I think that the content of my first paragraph can also serve as a starting point. In the moral domain, this comes down to something like the maximization of moral satisfaction \ minimization of moral regret, as previously discussed.”

        The link to “previously discussed” didn’t work. And anyway this seems to imply moral realism. On your definition of moral only you could know what moral satisfaction is and only you could know what moral regret is. In light of your definition of what is moral they are defined by your own personal feelings.

        But even so I think saying this is so vague it seems more a stumbling block than a starting point. E.g.,, if minimizing moral regret is a goal then it would seem the psychopath is the gold standard.

      • It is somewhat difficult to follow you because you keep talking about “moral” things when I think we both agree that we have completely different definition of what a “moral” thing is.

        Ontologically, yes, but we do agree on a moral sense at the root of our epistemology, and I think that’s sufficient for the consideration at hand (that is, whether one can be adequately motivated to pursue good without a belief in OMR) and for many other points of discussion.

        I agree that our value judgments correlate with our moral sense when we think there is omr … But if we agree that there is no omr … then they should lose their coupling with what we value.

        I simply disagree with this. To probe this further, allow me to pursue a parallel path. What is your view on the ontological status of happiness? Are happiness claims (claims about whether something yields more or less happiness) objectively true in a way that is independent of the mind?

        Regarding your comments about the overriding importance of OMR, I think we have a substantial divergence on how moral objectivity impacts our perspective. I once had a discussion with Brandon where he described the nihilistic consequences of his period of unbelief and I see a less dramatic version of that in the way you respond to the prospect of a non-objective morality. I told him then that “I hope you don’t talk yourself out of belief again if this is what the world looks like without it” and I that could also be true for you. The pragmatic argument for belief is certainly not uniform across all individuals and I can accept that in some cases a belief in OMR is simply too critical to surrender without overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

        Does societal moral progress = society adopting your moral views?

        Progress at the societal level operates on the same criteria as I previously outlined in my response to your question #2. Let me know if that needs further unpacking.

        Does Justice = whatever you think should happen?

        I see justice as a component of our moral sense, so it’s just a subset of the question above.

        Regarding the applicability of Pascal’s Wager to the implications of violating OMR, the issue is that you don’t have any way to tell me that the implications are better for you than they are for me. Maybe the true version of objective moral realism places the utmost value on our willingness to respect individual moral judgments and this trumps all other moral considerations, such that moral relativism yields the best outcome.

        this seems to imply moral realism. On your definition of moral only you could know what moral satisfaction is and only you could know what moral regret is

        I can accept that my proposal could also be seen as a subjective realism. I’ve adopted the convention of calling this relativism on account of the lack of objectivity, but perhaps that is adding to the confusion? See my previous discussion with Howie in this thread.

        But even so I think saying this is so vague it seems more a stumbling block than a starting point. E.g., if minimizing moral regret is a goal then it would seem the psychopath is the gold standard.

        I think people can generally relate to the experience of “feeling good” or “feeling bad” about their moral decisions. We can’t quantitatively assess those things but I still don’t see why OMR is thus a better starting point for moral discourse.
        With regard to the psychopath, note that I offered two sides – maximizing moral satisfaction and minimizing moral regret. Psychopathy is generally a muting of both sides of that coin, just as one who lives their life in a bubble may be minimizing harm while missing out on joys that are only realized by taking some risks.

      • Hi Travis you ask some good questions and raise some interesting points. Let me give you my thoughts.

        Joe
        “It is somewhat difficult to follow you because you keep talking about “moral” things when I think we both agree that we have completely different definition of what a “moral” thing is.”

        Travis
        “Ontologically, yes, but we do agree on a moral sense at the root of our epistemology, and I think that’s sufficient for the consideration at hand (that is, whether one can be adequately motivated to pursue good without a belief in OMR) and for many other points of discussion.”
        I do not think a moral sense is the root. The sense is just an indicator of what reality is. Reality is the root for me. I guess we could say a moral sense is the root for you but that moral sense is rooted in fitness/random variation. I think this is a critical difference.

        Joe
        “I agree that our value judgments correlate with our moral sense when we think there is omr … But if we agree that there is no omr … then they should lose their coupling with what we value.”

        Travis:
        “I simply disagree with this. To probe this further, allow me to pursue a parallel path. What is your view on the ontological status of happiness? Are happiness claims (claims about whether something yields more or less happiness) objectively true in a way that is independent of the mind?”

        I think the term “Happiness” is used in both ways. I might say I am happy to sit down and watch college football bowl games all day. That would clearly be subjective. I don’t think my wife is wrong in any objective way just because that does not make her happy. On the other hand the word “happiness” is often the translation of the Greek word “Eudaimonia” that Aristotle uses. Here I think it could have a more objective sense. The feeling is sometimes warranted and sometimes not. But I do not think morality is simply pursuit of the feeling of happiness. I think people can learn to be happy with immoral situations.

        I just did a blog on Willi Graf. He was a member of the White Rose. They were a group of young people who resisted the Nazi Government. And in reading about them it was pretty clear that at least Hans Scholl and Willi Graf were not made happy by doing the right thing. The reports demonstrate that it In fact made them upset. But I think being upset was the proper response to the circumstances they found themselves for the small remainder of their lives. I don’t think it would have been moral for them to try to shrug off what they knew to be wrong in order to try to be happy. I think they could have taken that route and I think they knew it too. So I think saying pursuing happiness might not entirely capture what morality is. I am not anti-happy. But I would need some convincing that morality boils down to pursuing happiness. I think we may need to redefine happiness to mean something more than just a feeling and then we would likely be getting into objective notions.

        Travis:
        “Regarding your comments about the overriding importance of OMR, I think we have a substantial divergence on how moral objectivity impacts our perspective. I once had a discussion with Brandon where he described the nihilistic consequences of his period of unbelief and I see a less dramatic version of that in the way you respond to the prospect of a non-objective morality. I told him then that “I hope you don’t talk yourself out of belief again if this is what the world looks like without it” and I that could also be true for you. The pragmatic argument for belief is certainly not uniform across all individuals and I can accept that in some cases a belief in OMR is simply too critical to surrender without overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”

        I think this is really the heart of the dispute. Just as you seem not to understand why Brandon and I see this as such a big deal I can not understand how you think the loss of omr is a mere flesh wound. To think that child molestation and holocausts are not really wrong but instead a matter of taste is a big deal.
        I do think there are people who are religious by nature and I fully admit I am one of them. I have chosen to be a lawyer in part because I dislike injustice. I see injustice and I believe it is really unjust and not just my feelings.

        I am not even sure I could believe omr is false. I would liken it to thinking there is not a real world, but instead that we are just living in a dream. It could explain all our experiences and it would not require actual real things to exist. But even if I tended think I should believe it’s all just a dream based on principles of parsimony or whatever, I am not sure I could actually believe it.

        “Progress at the societal level operates on the same criteria as I previously outlined in my response to your question #2. Let me know if that needs further unpacking.”
        I think there are a few problems with your explanation.

        You say correctly believing the relevant facts and accumulating more true beliefs is moral progress.

        First. It seems odd to just add up the number of facts. So a Nazi might learn all sorts of facts that he thinks are relevant to his racist views. Maybe he would learn many more such facts about skulls or other features than any non-racist. Is his gaining these facts really moral progress even if they just serve to increase his racism?

        Second: But how do we know what facts are “relevant” when there is no objective fact of the matter. What is relevant to the race issue? Is it whatever facts make us feel better or worse about our position? If there is no fact of the matter then it seems pointless to bother with this exercise of collecting facts.

        “I see justice as a component of our moral sense, so it’s just a subset of the question above.”

        I am not sure the two could work the same. I mean I think justice is better done when the judge or jury finds the guilty guilty, and the innocent not guilty and each gets their right deserts. Now after every murder trial you are usually going to have the victims family be happy if the person is found guilty and the defendant happy if he is found not-guilty. Generally this is true regardless of actual guilt. So on the feeling based justice it seems you will always end up pretty even no matter how the verdict comes in.

        But are you saying that if the state or defense correctly proves more facts that are relevant to the question of guilt or innocence then that means there is more justice done? That is regardless of whether the verdict is right or wrong. You see that sort of seems to be your position on moral progress. There is no right or wrong answer so its just a matter of accumulating facts.

        I really don’t see how justice is done in that way. No matter how long the trial is and how many exhibits are entered justice is not done if, for example, the innocent are found guilty. The same seems true with respect to moral progress. No matter how many facts about skulls the neo nazi thinks are relevant and supports his feelings that his race is superior it is still not moral progress.

      • Joe,
        There are some misunderstandings here so I’m primarily going to focus on trying to get us back on track.

        First, I understand that you don’t think that our moral sense is the root of morality. My suggestion was that we agree that it is the root of our moral epistemology – that our moral knowledge is rooted in our moral sense, regardless of whether that sense is directed toward an independently existent reality. My original point was that this agreement on epistemology – if we in fact agree – is sufficient grounding for many elements of the discussion.

        Second, my question about happiness was not intended to go in the direction you took it, but you did give me enough to get started. You suggested that happiness in the colloquial sense, distinct from Eudaimonia, isn’t dependent on some objective entity. So the follow-on question is whether we are warranted to value and pursue happiness?

        I think this is really the heart of the dispute … To think that child molestation and holocausts are not really wrong but instead a matter of taste is a big deal.

        I agree that this is the heart of the dispute but I also see you consistently using language that I wouldn’t use and leads me to believe that you really don’t understand the perspective I’m offering. To say that something is “not really wrong” stands in opposition to the subjective reality of the framework, and to equate it with something that is a “matter of taste” – as in food and art preferences – denies the distinct qualitative difference between the moral sense and those other senses, especially in regard to the differences in the valuations we place on fulfillment of those desires.

        You say correctly believing the relevant facts and accumulating more true beliefs is moral progress. First. It seems odd to just add up the number of facts.

        This doesn’t really capture the intent of my claim but I agree that an unbalanced dataset can skew our perspective. This is true of anything. To see what I’m really trying to get at, let’s start with the premise that there is a near infinite set of information regarding all of the reality surrounding a moral situation. A moral judgment is maximally informed if all of that data feeds into the judgment. My general claim is that if we have an predisposition toward certain moral judgments then those judgments are, on average, going to be more accurate in relation to that predisposition when they are more informed. A skew in the data, or errant data, can have the effect of biasing a judgment away from what it would be if it were maximally informed.

        Second. But how do we know what facts are “relevant” when there is no objective fact of the matter

        Everything that impacts the moral judgment is relevant. The color of my carpet is unlikely to be relevant to your assessment of the moral status of the US role in Aleppo.

        I am not sure [morality and justice] could work the same. I mean I think justice is better done when the judge or jury finds the guilty guilty, and the innocent not guilty and each gets their right deserts

        The determination of guilt and innocence and the assigned consequence of that determination are, in my view, facets of a moral judgment. That is what I meant. I don’t see justice as something that is informed independently from our moral sense.

      • Hi Travis
        BTW before we dive in to the deep philosophy, I hope you and your family had a great holiday season.
        Your too fast I haven’t even been able to write a response to the second part of your post. I just posted the last because I started to forget what I was thinking, and thought I better post it already.
        Ok now to dive in:
        Travis:
        “First, I understand that you don’t think that our moral sense is the root of morality. My suggestion was that we agree that it is the root of our moral epistemology – that our moral knowledge is rooted in our moral sense, regardless of whether that sense is directed toward an independently existent reality. My original point was that this agreement on epistemology – if we in fact agree – is sufficient grounding for many elements of the discussion.”

        Ok I do not think it is the root. But I would say with a properly formed conscience it is an intermediate indicator. But consciences are not always properly formed. Any student of history or the legal system can see that. And from your position it seems you basically say there is no objectively proper way to form a conscience. Sure you say each side should collect facts that may buttress or undermine their feelings. But this collection of facts will never establish any moral truth. It’s just collecting facts for the feeling of it.

        “…You suggested that happiness in the colloquial sense, distinct from Eudaimonia, isn’t dependent on some objective entity. So the follow-on question is whether we are warranted to value and pursue happiness?”

        In the colloquial sense, it would depend. If it makes you happy in the colloquial sense to have sex with children then no we are not warranted to pursue that happiness. If you think you would be happy to have allot of money it is not ok to pursue it by killing someone. This is true even if the killing does not bring them pain and you think your happiness outweighs any happiness they might have in the future. Of course some people really do have consciences that I think are not pointing to the truth but they simply disagree.
        Joe:
        “I think this is really the heart of the dispute … To think that child molestation and holocausts are not really wrong but instead a matter of taste is a big deal.”
        Travis:
        “I agree that this is the heart of the dispute but I also see you consistently using language that I wouldn’t use and leads me to believe that you really don’t understand the perspective I’m offering. To say that something is “not really wrong” stands in opposition to the subjective reality of the framework, and to equate it with something that is a “matter of taste” – as in food and art preferences – denies the distinct qualitative difference between the moral sense and those other senses, especially in regard to the differences in the valuations we place on fulfillment of those desires.”
        Ok so the relativist is the one who puts the value of moral feelings on the same level of tastes by reducing morality to feelings. (feelings that we know were brought about by the blind process of evolution no less.) Feelings of enjoyment from a good meal are present and immediately palpable. It would be quite easy to not have concern for moral injustices that do not effect us. And I think if we all have had times where we think tou ourselves – hey wait I should care more about this injustice that is happening or happened in a remote area. But why? If there is nothing objectively wrong about it. The chances of that sort of injustice occurring in my situation is extremely remote. So why should I develop empathy with their plight – which is really just pain? So I do not think you can appeal to any quantitative difference in feeling.

        As for a qualitative difference, I am not sure why one would value one over another, since they both come from blind evolution. From a scientific perspective it seems superstitious to value one feeling over another when they are both the product of the same process.

        Consider sometimes people would say if you don’t help the jews who will help you later. I never found that view persuasive. Our requirement to fulfill moral obligations has nothing to do with whether we think it will be self serving. Even if we think the opposite. Even if we think removing a group will make us more secure that does not ordinarily justify removing them. (If it goes to the extreme situation of self defense or justified war that is the exception)

        Joe
        “You say correctly believing the relevant facts and accumulating more true beliefs is moral progress. First. It seems odd to just add up the number of facts.”
        Travis:
        “This doesn’t really capture the intent of my claim but I agree that an unbalanced dataset can skew our perspective. This is true of anything. To see what I’m really trying to get at, let’s start with the premise that there is a near infinite set of information regarding all of the reality surrounding a moral situation. A moral judgment is maximally informed if all of that data feeds into the judgment. My general claim is that if we have an predisposition toward certain moral judgments then those judgments are, on average, going to be more accurate in relation to that predisposition when they are more informed. A skew in the data, or errant data, can have the effect of biasing a judgment away from what it would be if it were maximally informed.
        Second. But how do we know what facts are “relevant” when there is no objective fact of the matter
        Everything that impacts the moral judgment is relevant. The color of my carpet is unlikely to be relevant to your assessment of the moral status of the US role in Aleppo.”
        But my point is that on relativism the moral status in Aleppo = my emotional feeling about the situation. There is no fact of the matter that this or that is immoral. So when you talk about relevant facts or evidence you are talking about simply how these various data effect my feelings. But this is very different than when we normally talk about relevant facts or evidence – as when we are trying to establish a fact.
        Lets take two foods A and B. Assume neither is really healthy or unhealthy so you don’t have any underlying motive to like or dislike it. And someone said by doing this process X (collecting data or tasting different things or taking a pill whatever) you will like food A more and food B less. Why do this? Again don’t think well maybe food A is cheaper, more plentiful, or healthier or anything that could tap into a reality. The only thing that this would do is change your reaction to the taste of these foods. That is how I see your collecting data if there is no truth to morality and it is just whatever we feel. That is why reducing morality to subjective feelings reduces the value of these feelings.

        Joe:
        “I am not sure [moral progress and justice] could work the same. I mean I think justice is better done when the judge or jury finds the guilty guilty, and the innocent not guilty and each gets their right deserts”
        I changed “morality” in brackets to “moral progress”. As I don’t see that your view of moral progress could work the same for justice. Ok so I don’t think it does a good job explaining moral progress either, but I really don’t see how we retool it to fit justice.
        Travis
        “The determination of guilt and innocence and the assigned consequence of that determination are, in my view, facets of a moral judgment. That is what I meant. I don’t see justice as something that is informed independently from our moral sense.”

        Is justice also subjective? For the victim’s family justice was done since that is their feeling, but for the convicted person justice was not done. But as with morality there is no objective fact of the matter?

        I think you are going to want to say, we should get the facts straight. But the only reason to do that is if there is some fact of the matter we need to address. Facts just to change feelings for the sake of changing feelings seems quite pointless. If the whole world is flooded and there is no land then it seems silly to say with any urgency we need to rearrange the sails. Unless we can say those feelings need to correspond with some underlying reality, it is hard to see why we should bother changing them.

        But once we start believing that *maybe* there is actually land and a direction we should be going, then we need to start looking for evidence of what direction that is. That is where I will go if you start to say maybe omr is true. And, perhaps you would agree, that the evidence “proving” omr is false is fairly insubstantial. I’m not saying there is no evidence against omr, but it hardly rules out the possibility that omr is true. Wouldn’t you agree?

      • Joe,
        I also hope you and your family enjoyed the holidays. Sorry there wasn’t a Notre Dame bowl game for you to enjoy. My team was the one that was steamrolled by Alabama on New Year’s Eve. A good season nonetheless.

        This thread is becoming a bit too unwieldy for me, so I’m going to respond by narrowing the focus again. I think that one of the most promising paths is this question of the value of happiness.

        First, let me remind you that this particular line of questions isn’t directly addressing morality. I’m pursuing a tangential path to see if I can reach an understanding on the relationship between value and objective reality. We agreed that there is a colloquial sense in which happiness is subjective and I then asked whether we are warranted to value and pursue that kind of happiness. You responded by pointing out ways that the pursuit of happiness could conflict with morality. I agree. All desires are in competition and sometimes non-moral desires can override moral desires. That is beside the point. If you gain a substantial amount of happiness by watching Notre Dame play football and there are no foreseeable moral consequences to this, then this would seem to give you reason to take actions that enable you to watch the game. In other words, you are valuing the happiness that derives from that experience despite the fact that the happiness is subjective. Agreed?

      • Yes I do think I value that sort of happiness and generally satisfying my appetites. After all I will pay money to get espn during the football season, and I will pay more for filet than I will for a sirloin because I like the taste better. On the other hand if all of a sudden I no longer liked filet or Notre Dame football I don’t think I would pay money so that I started liking them again. So in that sense I don’t value them.

        Now lets say I am told that switching from cheering for ND to cheering for Washington (Which I think would be similar to switching from Filet to Sirloin) I would get more happiness. You would then say see you are getting more of what you value. I agree that makes some amount of sense in theory. Let me know if I got this wrong.

        But by and large I have to say that I do not care enough about changing my purely subjective reactions enough to undergo this process. I mean if all of a sudden I stopped enjoying ND football or Filet – well that would be fine. If I no longer liked it then I no longer liked it. I doubt I would say “darn I am missing out on all that happiness I used to get from the way that satisfied my appetite. I need to figure out how to start liking that again.” That would seem odd. So in a way I value it but in a way I don’t value it. If I looked at morals the same way, I would have to say all of the urgency we attach to moral feelings seems *way* out of proportion.

        Moreover when we think about how striving for moral progress would actually work it is very hard to explain. Why would I think you are right to say I would get more happiness by doing some process that makes me convert to a Washington fan. After all subjective feelings are if nothing else subjective. So it seems very unlikely that you would know more about how much happiness I get from filet or cheering for ND than I do about your enjoyment of Washington and sirloin. And what if we find that often such conversions do not lead to more happiness but rather decrease it? Would then moral progress be to entrench my moral beliefs and refuse to look at facts that might upset the applecart?

        Washington had a good run. I thought they played pretty well against Bamma. I was shocked with the amount of time the Husky QB had, yet none of the Husky receivers could get open! Honestly I have to blame the receivers there. Generally they are fast enough that if they hustle and are given that amount of time they should be able to get a step on someone. I am rooting for Clemson and think they have a decent chance.

      • First, I think there’s some circularity in the hypothetical where you suggest that you may not really value X because you wouldn’t seek to restore a loss of like for X. I propose that valuations are more riders than elephants. They’re the cognitive manifestations of desires and so follow from desires more than they direct desires (though I would not deny a feedback loop – it’s all quite entangled). So if your desire goes away it naturally follows that the valuation also goes away and I suggest that it would work the same way in the moral domain. It’s not that unusual for somebody to change their stance on a moral claim, going from strong proponent or opponent to switching sides or becoming apathetic. Certainly you wouldn’t say that this cannot happen?

        Second, at this point I think we can now agree that your previous comment that “if we agree that there is no omr … then they should lose their coupling with what we value” was an exaggeration. The happiness dialog shows that it is possible to attach value to something subjective. So if I understand correctly, the issue you’re actually raising in this regard is that the value attached to our moral judgments is disproportionately strong compared to everything else that we recognize as subjective, and that this is indicative that morality is objective. Is that fair?

        I recognize that, all else being equal, the disproportionate valuation could count as evidence for the objectivity of morality by virtue of the dissimilarity with the valuation attached to other things that are generally recognized to be subjective. My first response is to ask why a strong valuation is an indicator of objectivity. If we turn this around, can we establish a categorical property by identifying other objective things to which we attach strong valuations, such that we can make a generalized claim that subjective = weak valuation \ objective = strong valuation? I think this would be necessary for the argument to hold any weight.

        Regarding the moral progress question – yes, in the absence of factual errors or logical contradictions in one’s moral reasoning, there is certainly ambiguity and difficulty in establishing that somebody would have greater moral satisfaction if they changed their view, but if they are open-minded about the possibility then they can put some mental effort into examining the claim and maybe even test the waters to see how they respond. I don’t see that realism offers a superior technique for identifying whether one’s current stance is “wrong”.

      • Travis:
        “First, I think there’s some circularity in the hypothetical where you suggest that you may not really value X because you wouldn’t seek to restore a loss of like for X. I propose that valuations are more riders than elephants. They’re the cognitive manifestations of desires and so follow from desires more than they direct desires (though I would not deny a feedback loop – it’s all quite entangled). “

        I don’t think it is circular. So with filet or watching ND football I might not mind losing that. But I do really want to enjoy eating things that are better for me. I wish I loved vegetables as much as ice cream. I also wish I enjoyed running on a tread mill as much as I like sitting on a couch watching football. So the difference is these things would have a connection to reality. Exercise and eating vegetables would have an effect on my health. That is why I would like to develop a liking for them.

        So what we are talking about is valuing the value. I don’t really value the value I put on things that make me happy but have no connection with reality. Or if I do it is very slight.

        “So if your desire goes away it naturally follows that the valuation also goes away and I suggest that it would work the same way in the moral domain. It’s not that unusual for somebody to change their stance on a moral claim, going from strong proponent or opponent to switching sides or becoming apathetic. Certainly you wouldn’t say that this cannot happen?”

        Yes it can happen. And with omr if this change happens such that your feelings better correspond with reality then you made moral progress. If it is all just relative then we are just shifting around.

        “Second, at this point I think we can now agree that your previous comment that “if we agree that there is no omr … then they should lose their coupling with what we value” was an exaggeration. The happiness dialog shows that it is possible to attach value to something subjective.”

        I think I have been vacillating between saying very little value and no value. I think the example of the medal is fitting. If it says it is an Olympic medal from 2016 olympics then ok even if there was no 2016 olympics and it is just a piece of shiney medal it might have some value. It could be used as a play prop or something like that. But that is not really what we value about an Olympic medal.

        Would you agree that the value we place on moral feelings should suffer some diminution if we change views from omr to relativism?

        “So if I understand correctly, the issue you’re actually raising in this regard is that the value attached to our moral judgments is disproportionately strong compared to everything else that we recognize as subjective, and that this is indicative that morality is objective. Is that fair?”

        Ok I agree with everything you said except I don’t think this is indicative that morality is objective. I don’t think this is evidence that omr is true. I do think it supports a belief in omr. Let me explain.

        Every argument you need to start with premises. Even if your argument is sound (all premises are true and the premises necessarily lead to the conclusion) that doesn’t mean your argument will persuade anyone. That is the premises have to be believed by the person you are speaking with. So arguments and “proofs” are actually subjective. And the way they generally work is you tell the person you are trying to convince that if they want to disagree with your conclusion then they probably will need to throw out certain other beliefs they hold. Now how willing they are to throw out those beliefs is going to matter as to how convincing your argument is for them.

        Here I think we agree that we and people generally do not treat moral beliefs like they are just subjective feelings. We tend to treat them like omr is true. Now I think this treatment is because we tend to believe in omr at one level even if we deny it at another level. If we were truly consistent in our belief that omr is false I think our treatment of moral feelings should change and no longer reflect the belief that omr is true. In other words I think at a deep level it is incoherent to just try to move along thinking you do not believe in omr and still treat these moral feelings the same.

        Now how big of a deal is it to reduce all of our moral beliefs to that status of being like other subjective tastes that have no real right or wrong answer? For my noetic structure it is a very big deal. For you it may not be such a big deal. I have tried to show you that you generally do not view all of your other subjective feeling in the same way and likely if you started thinking of your moral views the same way as you view the others then it would be a large change. But I think at this point there are at least 2 different ways you can go:
        1) Is to say there really is not a big difference between how you view moral feelings and other subjective feelings. Or if there is a difference it is not sufficient to overcome the reasons that lead you to reject omr. I have been mostly arguing this point.
        2) You can say the difference is due to something else. But again if these feelings were brought to us by the same evolutionary vagaries that lead us to like ice cream more than vegetables and lead lions to be disposed to killing young lions they did not sire then it seems hard to see why these beliefs should have some special place. Like I said it seems almost superstitious to continue to put some big value on these subjective beliefs even though they were produced by the same mechanism that produced other subjective feelings we don’t really care about.

        Travis:

        “I recognize that, all else being equal, the disproportionate valuation could count as evidence for the objectivity of morality by virtue of the dissimilarity with the valuation attached to other things that are generally recognized to be subjective. My first response is to ask why a strong valuation is an indicator of objectivity. If we turn this around, can we establish a categorical property by identifying other objective things to which we attach strong valuations, such that we can make a generalized claim that subjective = weak valuation \ objective = strong valuation? I think this would be necessary for the argument to hold any weight.”
        I think there is indeed this correlation. People do not think it is important that people like certain foods or certain music or certain types of clothes or art or any other thing that is viewed as just a matter of subjective feelings. I am not sure of anything where we are dealing with subjective feelings yet we place a high value on it. And yes I think they put a weak importance on it because it is subjective. People don’t think its important that everyone start to like eating pickles or listening to jazz precisely because there is no right or wrong on these issues.

        As to whether objective = strong valuation I would say objective is necessary for high value but it is not always sufficient in itself.
        Travis:
        “Regarding the moral progress question – yes, in the absence of factual errors or logical contradictions in one’s moral reasoning, there is certainly ambiguity and difficulty in establishing that somebody would have greater moral satisfaction if they changed their view, but if they are open-minded about the possibility then they can put some mental effort into examining the claim and maybe even test the waters to see how they respond. I don’t see that realism offers a superior technique for identifying whether one’s current stance is “wrong”.

        Testing the waters to see what suits us best is perfectly fine if omr is false. But if you go on the assumption that omr is true then it seems we should look for evidence as to what omr requires and not just try different beliefs to see how it suits us.

      • I don’t think it is circular … So the difference is these things would have a connection to reality … So what we are talking about is valuing the value.

        What you call “valuing the value” I call indirection. It’s not that you value exercise and vegetables in themselves, it’s the personal experience they bring which is valued. I could probably argue that everything you value is ultimately an indirect way of valuing a subjective state (i.e., desire fulfillment). But subjectivity does not equate to non-real.

        Would you agree that the value we place on moral feelings should suffer some diminution if we change views from omr to relativism?

        Should? No. “are likely to”. Yes. But I also don’t think that’s a necessary condition. I could probably be best described as a naive moral realist 5 years ago (meaning I was like most everybody else and hadn’t really given it any critical thought) and I don’t introspectively see much of a change in my valuation of moral conditions from then to now. I see myself being more open to changing my mind, but not more apathetic. If I had to guess I would suggest that I’m actually less apathetic. All the time I’ve invested in trying to understand morality over that time has not led me to the “naive relativism” view that I tried to argue against in the closing paragraphs of this post. I think that makes a big difference because I don’t see morality as whimsical, imaginary, impotent or any of the other deprecatory adjectives that are often leveled at relativism. Of course, most people aren’t going to go through that exercise, which is why I’ve suggested that at the social level we may very well be better off by not frustrating people’s naive realism.

        I don’t think this [(that the value attached to our moral judgments is disproportionately strong compared to everything else that we recognize as subjective)] is evidence that omr is true. I do think it supports a belief in omr … If we were truly consistent in our belief that omr is false I think our treatment of moral feelings should change and no longer reflect the belief that omr is true. In other words I think at a deep level it is incoherent to just try to move along thinking you do not believe in omr and still treat these moral feelings the same.

        As before, I think this argument only holds weight if we have reason to believe that it is in some sense errant for the moral sense to be strong (and thus carry a strong valuation) in the absence of OMR. I don’t see why that would be the case, but it appears you’re offering a reason when you say

        if these feelings were brought to us by the same evolutionary vagaries that lead us to like ice cream more than vegetables and lead lions to be disposed to killing young lions they did not sire then it seems hard to see why these beliefs should have some special place. Like I said it seems almost superstitious to continue to put some big value on these subjective beliefs even though they were produced by the same mechanism that produced other subjective feelings we don’t really care about

        So now I think we’re just back to two different underlying perspectives. Your explanation here implies a foundationalism that slips into nihilism if there isn’t some grand ultimate explanation that underlies everything. While I will admit to having had some sense of that in the midst of the deconversion process, it didn’t take long for that to subside as I began to think more deeply about what was going on and question the assumptions which informed that perspective.

        I am not sure of anything where we are dealing with subjective feelings yet we place a high value on it. And yes I think they put a weak importance on it because it is subjective. People don’t think its important that everyone start to like eating pickles or listening to jazz precisely because there is no right or wrong on these issues. As to whether objective = strong valuation I would say objective is necessary for high value but it is not always sufficient in itself.

        Might love and happiness and peace be subjective experiences to which we attach a high value? Could it be that the order of operations is reversed – that our tendency toward objective assignments derives from our high valuation and our desire for intersubjective agreement on those valuations? We know that it is possible for love to be one-sided yet I am inclined to treat the love between me and my wife as something real that we share. There is an air of offense to suggest that we actually are just agreeing on our intersubjective experience. Might morality be the same?

        If I understand your previous arguments correctly, then I would predict that you will say that the error is on my part for neglecting these tendencies and predispositions – that I am setting myself up to hold an incoherent noetic structure by placing these proclivities in tension with a belief in a subjectively grounded morality. That it’s irrational to accept the feelings while rejecting the intuitive beliefs to which they are generally associated. But I don’t grant that these are an inseparable unity. I do not find myself struggling to accept the feelings as they are while simultaneously understanding them to be subjectively grounded byproducts of the physical universe. This, I think, goes back to my earlier comment about our underlying perspectives, which I think is largely dictated by innate personality traits. I am content to admit the not everybody is like me, and that a lot of people are only able to make sense of the world if there is an ultimate explanatory foundation. I apologize if you feel like any of this is a mischaracterization, but I can’t help but think that maybe this is the primary reason we don’t agree on the strength of these arguments.

      • Hi Travis
        Again I realize this is late. I was going to go more in depth on the issues of justice and moral progress but decided to just post what I had left on what I would call the value argument since that is what we have been focused on. I think we can leave the moral progress and justice arguments for another blog unless you want to delve into them more here.

        Joe
        “Would you agree that the value we place on moral feelings should suffer some diminution if we change views from omr to relativism?”

        Travis
        “Should? No. “are likely to”. Yes. But I also don’t think that’s a necessary condition. I could probably be best described as a naive moral realist 5 years ago (meaning I was like most everybody else and hadn’t really given it any critical thought) and I don’t introspectively see much of a change in my valuation of moral conditions from then to now. I see myself being more open to changing my mind, but not more apathetic. If I had to guess I would suggest that I’m actually less apathetic. All the time I’ve invested in trying to understand morality over that time has not led me to the “naive relativism” view that I tried to argue against in the closing paragraphs of this post. I think that makes a big difference because I don’t see morality as whimsical, imaginary, impotent or any of the other deprecatory adjectives that are often leveled at relativism. Of course, most people aren’t going to go through that exercise, which is why I’ve suggested that at the social level we may very well be better off by not frustrating people’s naive realism.

        I don’t think this [(that the value attached to our moral judgments is disproportionately strong compared to everything else that we recognize as subjective)] is evidence that omr is true. I do think it supports a belief in omr … If we were truly consistent in our belief that omr is false I think our treatment of moral feelings should change and no longer reflect the belief that omr is true. In other words I think at a deep level it is incoherent to just try to move along thinking you do not believe in omr and still treat these moral feelings the same.

        As before, I think this argument only holds weight if we have reason to believe that it is in some sense errant for the moral sense to be strong (and thus carry a strong valuation) in the absence of OMR. I don’t see why that would be the case, but it appears you’re offering a reason when you say”

        Joe
        “if these feelings were brought to us by the same evolutionary vagaries that lead us to like ice cream more than vegetables and lead lions to be disposed to killing young lions they did not sire then it seems hard to see why these beliefs should have some special place. Like I said it seems almost superstitious to continue to put some big value on these subjective beliefs even though they were produced by the same mechanism that produced other subjective feelings we don’t really care about”
        Travis:
        “So now I think we’re just back to two different underlying perspectives. Your explanation here implies a foundationalism that slips into nihilism if there isn’t some grand ultimate explanation that underlies everything. While I will admit to having had some sense of that in the midst of the deconversion process, it didn’t take long for that to subside as I began to think more deeply about what was going on and question the assumptions which informed that perspective.”

        Joe:
        “I am not sure of anything where we are dealing with subjective feelings yet we place a high value on it. And yes I think they put a weak importance on it because it is subjective. People don’t think its important that everyone start to like eating pickles or listening to jazz precisely because there is no right or wrong on these issues. As to whether objective = strong valuation I would say objective is necessary for high value but it is not always sufficient in itself.”

        Travis:
        “Might love and happiness and peace be subjective experiences to which we attach a high value? “

        Happiness is vague and in common parlance could mean the satisfaction of appetites and urges. But yes we might have appetites for love and peace as well. Just like many certainly have appetites for hatred and violence. It’s hard to deny this is not also part of “human nature.” Of course, we in the Christian west have been taught for centuries that indulging some appetites is right but others are wrong. But if there is no wrong or right of the matter then, I suppose we should keep an open mind. If we assume naturalism, the satisfaction one might get from heaping vengeance on a transgressor – even if it is out of proportion with the transgression – likely also has a rational basis in our evolution.

        Travis:
        “Could it be that the order of operations is reversed – that our tendency toward objective assignments derives from our high valuation and our desire for intersubjective agreement on those valuations? “

        Sure it’s possible I think I granted that from the start. It’s possible our mind is sort of playing a trick on us to think these feelings correspond with something beyond our mere appetites when they really don’t. You argue this fiction would lead us to follow these rules more closely making us more fit in an evolutionary sense. But I were to see this as a fiction I think I would have a hard time putting weight on them.

        Travis:
        “We know that it is possible for love to be one-sided yet I am inclined to treat the love between me and my wife as something real that we share. There is an air of offense to suggest that we actually are just agreeing on our intersubjective experience. Might morality be the same?”

        I’m not sure what you mean. I have no reason to doubt that you and your wife have feelings for each other and you may get satisfaction from acting in accordance with those feelings. But for me it somewhat debases these feelings if I believe they were brought about by a sort of mind trick to make me place more value on them just so I could be more “fit”. In which case it’s not different than the lions urge to kill the young he did not sire. I find that different in important ways than the belief that love is a good feature of the universe put there by an infinitely wise God to which my nature (and my wife’s nature) is properly drawn.
        On the converse I do not think holocausts are wrong because they upset me, and my upset feeling is just a quirk of evolution. I think it was wrong because human life is a sacred gift from God. I admit I can not provide a proof that will convince everyone this difference is important. As I have always maintained arguments/proofs are inherently subjective.

        Just like I may not be able to convince someone it is not very important that everyone learn to get happiness from eating pickles. If someone decides that is so valuable that there should be a law passed requiring people to do things which lead to liking pickles (assuming such things are possible) then ok. I mean I can say “look there is no right or wrong about liking pickles.” I can say “our tastes are just a byproduct of evolution where some like pickles and some don’t.” But they can say “yes I know all that but despite that it is still super important that everyone learn to value pickle eating.”

        Travis:
        “If I understand your previous arguments correctly, then I would predict that you will say that the error is on my part for neglecting these tendencies and predispositions – that I am setting myself up to hold an incoherent noetic structure by placing these proclivities in tension with a belief in a subjectively grounded morality. That it’s irrational to accept the feelings while rejecting the intuitive beliefs to which they are generally associated. But I don’t grant that these are an inseparable unity. I do not find myself struggling to accept the feelings as they are while simultaneously understanding them to be subjectively grounded byproducts of the physical universe. This, I think, goes back to my earlier comment about our underlying perspectives, which I think is largely dictated by innate personality traits. I am content to admit the not everybody is like me, and that a lot of people are only able to make sense of the world if there is an ultimate explanatory foundation. I apologize if you feel like any of this is a mischaracterization, but I can’t help but think that maybe this is the primary reason we don’t agree on the strength of these arguments.”

        I agree with everything you say here. And I think from the start I recognized that this value argument had limits , and I think I have exhausted my ability to argue that case above. I think we do understand each other on this and I feel you fully understand all the points I tried to make. If you think I understand your points, I would be fine with moving on to some of the other issues. If you still think there is a point I am missing to understand your perspective that is ok too.

        I am not sure that the value argument is the primary reason I reject subjectivism. I also think arguments from moral progress and justice play an important role. Moreover, I am still not sure how you see these things would be understood in a subjectivist view. I raised several of the problems above. As someone who basically committed his career to doing justice the arguments you make about how this works fall far short. I realize in your original blog you just dedicated a paragraph or two to this issue and patched together some comments but I think we should really zoom in on these issues and see if what you say is workable – with any common sense understanding of these terms. I think you will find that in order to adopt this view (which you are doing to accommodate your original epistemic foundation) you have to jettison other beliefs people tend to hold. I think you acknowledge this in that you say most people accept this naïve realism and likely can see that their sense of justice and moral progress and our legal system are based on that. It’s unclear how our noetic structure will be able to bend to this new ontological view and still accommodate these strong beliefs.

      • Hi Joe,
        I think I agree that we understand each other with regard to the value argument and there probably isn’t much to gain by pushing that further. I will say this – if I believed that the there was some fundamental teleological foundation to the universe and also believed that morality was completely disassociated from that, then I agree that the value argument would have weight. But I don’t foresee that we’re going to convince each other about the existence or absence of a foundational teleology.

        I’m open to continuing the discussion with regard to progress or justice. I’ll leave it to you to get the ball rolling on that front.

  17. Hi Travis,

    “That’s a big step toward mutual comprehension. This is sufficient for me, but you’re clearly wanting more.”

    Yes and maybe. If I am understanding you better, then that is good. And maybe enough. But I am a little dissatisfied because I think either your understanding is incorrect, unworkable and unrealistic, or else I don’t fully understand you yet. Best to look at some examples.

    “I simply do not agree that the moral sense reduces down to a monolithic sense of obligation to a code. For example, if I bring Auschwitz to mind …. The chills I perceive as I imagine strolling through the grounds don’t have any obvious relation to a sense of obligation.”

    I think they do. Not, if you express it that way, but if we analyse what you feel, and what I would feel if I ever went there, I think we feel deep grief and revulsion because what happened was inhumanly horrible, wrong, and had terrible repercussions. These are moral judgments, made perhaps intuitively, but nevertheless real. We can see this by comparing our feelings if we visited Indonesia after the terrible tsunami a decade or so back. The loss of human life would evince a great grief, but it would not have the same revulsion, because it wasn’t caused by human evil.

    I think your approach is confusing two very different emotions. In your list of definitional words, there are actually several distinct thoughts. Some words express one of these thoughts, some the other, and a few both, but I think they are distinct. Here’s a quick list (of course I’m sure we could argue a little about some of my categories):

    A. A sense of failure to live up to a code that one “should” live up to: good, bad, right, wrong, wholesome, evil, [un]ethical, should, ought, obligation, duty, [un]fair, blameless, reprobate, [in]decent, [dis]honest, [dis]honorable, [un]just, [un]righteous, sinful.

    B. A description of character or behaviour without a significant sense of failure to meet a moral obligation: harmful, helpful, kind, nice, mean, deceitful, crafty, tyrannical, overbearing, patient, peaceful, aggressive, loyal, treacherous, gentle, harsh, [un]conscientious, compassionate, indifferent.

    C. A description of character or behaviour with some sense of moral judgment: upright, virtuous, degenerate, [im]proper, [ig]noble, [im]pure, [un]forgiving, respectable, corrupt, altruistic, selfish, vile, integrity, trustworthy, [un]scrupulous, [un]principled.

    My point is that there are several elements to a moral judgment: (1) our description of an event or character trait (with no moral judgment) – e.g. aggressive, (2) our feelings about same – e.g. I feel threatened by aggressive people, and (3) our moral judgment of same – aggression is bad. These are all different emotions or assessments, and (1) or (2) don’t necessarily lead to (3). Some examples.

    If a defenceless person (say a child or a granny) was being attacked and I had a gun, I may need to choose whether to shoot the attacker. I would have an emotional reason to defend the person, but also an emotional reason to want to avoid killing – I’m not yet talking about ethics, I’m simply saying I feel upset when I see someone getting hurt, and I feel even more upset at the thought of causing someone to die, and at the sight of a body being broken and bloody whether I did it or not. In this case, my emotions about killing and blood would likely be stronger than about someone being beaten, but my moral judgment might nevertheless be to assist the person being attacked because they are an innocent victim. (Or I may not, because I am a pacifist.)

    I am not a vegetarian, I don’t eat a lot of meat but I eat some. But emotionally, I don’t think I could ever kill an animal – I struggled to kill a fish the only time I caught one. So my emotions would prevent me from slaughtering a sheep, but my ethics don’t prevent me from eating lamb.

    I could go on. I think your list and your thinking is confusing two different things – the emotions we feel sometimes support our ethical sense, and sometimes don’t. They are two separate but often connected things (IMO). I think all this is quite different to sadness.

    So not sure whether it is worth continuing or not (I don’t want to be a guest who stays on too long), but I’m happy to continue if you think it is still worthwhile. Thanks again.

    • Eric,
      It appears that we’ve narrowed down the comprehension issue to one of semantics, in which you only accept a subset of what I am calling the moral domain as being suitable for the ‘moral’ label. Where you see distinct yet “often connected things”, I see a multi-faceted subjective experience. I don’t expect that we will be able to reconcile this difference, but I do think that we now have a better understanding of the nature of the disagreement. So in response, I will only offer two brief observations:
      1) Many of your examples offer distinctions which implicate subjective experiences that I would agree do not neatly fit into the moral category – but even then, I would propose that you are underestimating the role of non-cognitive forces in what you perceive as the true moral faculty.
      2) The cognitively focused moral definition I see you offering is the type of conception that I think Haidt and others have forcefully argued to largely be a post-hoc rationalization that is layered on top of the emotional elephant which is actually running the show, where the causal link serves to inform the category.

      So unless you see opportunity to move beyond this semantic disagreement, I think it might be time to wrap up the discussion on this front. I’m open to discussing other aspects of the topic if you have anything else you want to offer.

      • One more thought
        3) I reject the proposal that competition and arbitration between two feelings excuses the “lesser feeling” from the moral domain, which is what I perceive you might also be implying with the gun example.

      • As far as a distinction between emotions triggered by death generally and emotions trigged by murder, that brought 911 to mind. At first I saw a plane crashed into a building and I thought it was terrible. But then when I heard a second plane also crashed (Clearly suggesting this was intentional) that really changed matters.

        But I do tend to agree with Travis that both were likely mostly emotional responses – although, at least subjectively, of a different nature. The question is whether these emotional responses are just byproducts of evolution as Travis suggest. Because if they are it is hard to see why they should be developed or given any great weight. People can numb their consciences. Why not do that? Would it be just a good to follow our conscience if it was developed like lions? Their instinct is to kill the young of a lioness that reproduced with a different male lion so that she can then have his cubs.

  18. Hi Travis, yes I think it might be a good time to stop. These are difficult issues, regardless of the metaphysical beliefs we each hold, and I have profited from the discussion and still have some thinking to do.

    In brief response to your three points, I will only say that I think most people have held the view that morality is about things we ought to do, and it seems your enlarging of that definition by marrying two (or more) types of feelings comes more because it may be the only way for a naturalistic view to resolve ethics, than because the definitions work best that way. But I will continue to ponder, maybe even write my own blog post on this.

    Thanks again, it has been enlightening and a pleasure.

    • it seems your enlarging of that definition by marrying two (or more) types of feelings comes more because it may be the only way for a naturalistic view to resolve ethics, than because the definitions work best that way

      Or maybe the proposal I’ve offered is just what I think is closest to truth. I’m not interested in finding the definition of morality that best aligns with some traditional philosophical definition. I’m trying to understand the roots of the moral category – the ontological basis for all the things which we as a species classify as moral.

      You and Joe have now both ended your most recent comments by implying that I am so committed to the naturalist framework that I am ignoring the best answer. Maybe you’re right. People do that. But it could also be you who are blinded by your commitments. Or maybe we all are. This has been a good discussion in large part because it was focused on coming to an understanding rather than speculations about each other’s motives. Hopefully we both have both expanded our horizons as a result of this and can appreciate that sometimes reasonable people simply disagree.

What do you think?

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