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Absolute Morality

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Cyper
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#1

Posted 10 July 2013 - 07:18 PM

I came across an article on Daily Mail. It' about teenagers and youngster's being stoned to death for wearing 'western clothes' which have relations to Satan himself!

It is interesting how superstitious beliefs really can make people to horrible and irrational things. All which comes from holy writings such as the Koran or the Bible. I have been reading the Bible and the Koran a bit. Not only does it go against scientific evidence, but it takes irrational beleifs to the extreme and is a direct threat (and have been for a long time) to our morality. It is indeed scary that there is still people who believe that the Bible or the Koran is a good source for moral and ethical teachings.

For those who have actually read the whole Bible, or just some of it, it becomes obvious that the morality we can trace from it is not very sound. Some people will of course claim that we don’t believe in things from the old testament anymore. Of course we don’t because moral philosophy and science have shown that we shouldn’t. Times changing, and so does this ‘’absolute’’ morality in these holy writings. Because it isn’t absolute. It’s changing, like everything else. If we conclude that we leave out the bad bits from holy writings then that makes absolutely no sense. If these writings are absolute, then there is no need to argue that we should leave anything out, because they were true from the very beginning! But also, if we pick what we like, and reject what we don’t like, then it is totally subjective, and then we have the same problem as atheists: how are we to arrange our moral principles? But also, if we can ''pick and throw'', then that means we are already using some sort of moral compass to do so.

Absolute morality is horrible.

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Tyler
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#2

Posted 10 July 2013 - 10:44 PM

There is no morality that is based in anything absolute. All that we value is baseless and subjective, and dependent on the person or groups of people creating that morality. To try and find reason in something like that is an impossible task.
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Chunkyman
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#3

Posted 11 July 2013 - 12:00 AM

I'm fairly confident morality can be objective.

To begin, you have to establish what morality is. Morality is entirely a function of human beings existing and interacting with each other. While this does make it a construct, and therefore not as concrete as something like physics, that does not mean it's inherently subjective and that all thoughts/actions are equally valid.

The "function" of an ethical system is to allow humans to interact with one another with fairly definitive rules applicable to the parties involved. To make such an ethical system, you obviously have to make it fairly compatible with human nature (i.e. humans must be reasonably capable of following this ethical system). There is a checklist of things any proposed ethical system must contain to avoid either conflicting heavily with human nature or resulting in logical inconsistency. This includes:


-Must be universally applicable (No "I'm a king/cop/congressman, so I get magical moral properties that you peasants don't have!")

-Logically consistant (Otherwise you're likely making arbitrary statements of preference, which has nothing to do with morality)

-Must be compatible with the reality that humans recognize their own individual sovereignty (i.e. most humans view themselves as the rightful owner of their person, barring brain damage or other mental issues stopping this)

-Must pass the basic litmus test where things like rape, murder, and theft is considered immoral


The only ethical system that passes these foundational requirements for a valid ethical system is voluntarism, which boils down to respecting voluntary transactions, allowance for self-defense and defense of others, and a respect for the property rights of others.


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sivispacem
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#4

Posted 11 July 2013 - 06:41 AM Edited by sivispacem, 11 July 2013 - 06:47 AM.

There seems to be some confusion between morality and ethics. Moral codes- whether interpreted as objective or subjective (to be honest, it's impossible to argue for a truly objective moral framework as it is abundantly clear that different societies possess different moral standards) can be used to justify unethical things- like genocide. Ethics is the determination of what is right or wrong, and cannot itself be used to justify anything; it's a form of philosophical study. An ethical code is this philosophical concept applied. Chunkyman does this in the post above by discussing an ethical system based on mutual voluntary relationships, and one could make the argument that the ethical values he outlines are universal (though I still think you'd struggle to), but there could be numerous, varied moral codes employed by that ethical system, not all of which might result in activity which viewed objectively could be seen as "ethical", even if their intent is the same.

That said, whilst I can see the appeal in voluntarism from an ethical point of view, I think moral systems based upon it have a propensity to violate your first and third tenets. Societies are naturally hierarchical; power gathers at the top and in order to provide security for the citizens and therefore pass the basic litmus test for protection of participants, limits need to be made on individual sovereignty for a societal good. Systems of this nature assume that the actions of all those involved are benign and designed to inflict mutual benefit; they don't deal well with outliers who are part of the system but wish to exploit it, particularly if you start developing cabals of individuals working together for disproportionate mutual gain.

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#5

Posted 11 July 2013 - 07:14 AM Edited by Rown, 11 July 2013 - 08:08 AM.

Off-topic:

One of the greatest faults in the English language today is the habit of words to take multiple meanings. It makes semantic pitfalls all but inevitable. Once ensnared, it's not too hard to end up in a seemingly infinite loop of argument and counter argument as neither side really addresses the other since they aren't talking about the same thing but are still using the same word(s).

On-topic:

I'll try to expand on this when we've sorted our vocabulary, but until then: I believe the sort of action that is taking place in Iraq against Emos or other perceived homosexuals is wrong. To not want to associate with them is one thing, to kill them to facilitate that disassociation is another. I feel Typhus-y saying so (not intended as a pejorative), but they should be offered a path of exile into another group. Then the skills and qualifications of the two groups will determine their longterm survival. I understand that the Bible, at least, doesn't offer exile as a choice for too many of its moral transgressions, but it is here that I finally have unraveled my opinion on the subject.

My take on the Bible and Biblical morals is to pick and choose. I try to respect the first Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, but the several hundred after that I have troubles incorporating. I try to respect Jesus's preachings on peace and good conduct as being evident of a more fundamental absolute morality. So, I guess by the measure set forward by the opening post, I fall short of believing in the Bible as an absolute moral source, but I am still looking, using my "moral compass" as you suggest. It's there, we just haven't found or recognized it yet. smile.gif

Rown rampage_ani.gif

P.S. I rather like my rambling 2 AM voice.

EDIT: sivis has made some changes so I'll try to sneak in and do the same. I think voluntarism, the other various strains of libertarianism, anarchism and what I believe Marx meant by communism all share a common trait: they all seem best suited for small societies. Think tribal scale. Hierarchy isn't as apparent at that level. Power gathers more at the edges than at the top or center because the distinction between them is blurred. I'm fading pretty fast now. I'll try to coherently tie this together tomorrow.

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#6

Posted 11 July 2013 - 05:06 PM Edited by Chunkyman, 11 July 2013 - 05:10 PM.

QUOTE (sivispacem @ Thursday, Jul 11 2013, 06:41)
(to be honest, it's impossible to argue for a truly objective moral framework as it is abundantly clear that different societies possess different moral standards)

I don't think so. The wide range of moral standards that various societies believe/practice does not constitute proof that morality is subjective (I would argue it's more a testament of people's moral retardation caused by sh*tty parenting).

For example, say there were two societies on earth, A and B. Society A holds that rape, murder, etc. is morally wrong and completely unacceptable. Society B holds raping women as a virtue, and murder as acceptable. With this stark contrast in moral standards adopted by these societies, it's certainly tempting to assume that there is no objective morality.

What if society A and B also had stark differences in their understanding of how mathematics works? People in Society A hold that 21 / 3 = 7, while people in Society B hold that 21 / 3 = 5. The fact that they have different answers does not constitute proof that mathematics is subjective.

The objectivity of mathematics is not dependent on whether all societies/people agree on it. Mathematics is objective whether 99.999% of people believe 2 + 2 = 4, or only 0.01% of people believe 2 + 2 = 4. In other words, the objectivity and validity of a proposed idea or logical framework is independent of the beliefs people hold about it, with this holding true on morality as well.
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sivispacem
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#7

Posted 11 July 2013 - 07:50 PM

Mathematics is tangible, though. An understanding of it can be gained from static observation. Hence why you can train animals, which have no linguistic understanding of mathematics, they can still do the puzzles. The issue with your mathematics example is that implies that it is fallacious to claim mathematics is subjective (which it isn't), and yet the fallacy it presents is a linguistic one, not a technical one. Mathematics is empirical and demonstrable; ethic and morality however are not. A far more sensible comparison would be to compare linguistic aspects of mathematics to each other, because neither ethics nor morality is tangible like mathematics. Allow me to explain a little better:

The factual answer to a mathematics puzzle which asks someone to split twenty-one objects between three groups evenly will always be seven in each group, but that doesn't preclude "5" or for that matter any other symbol, figure, word or representation from being correct also. The aspect of the puzzle you imply is objective- that is, the "correct" answer, is in fact linguistically-based and therefore entirely subjective. Even if you ignore this and apply it to the "hard" example above, an answer of five in each group (incorrect) cannot be compared to a moral statement without committing a logical fallacy because the primary tenet of the argument demands that one believe morality to be objective. It is fallacious because it assumes that the thing it tries to demonstrate is correct, is correct- if that assumption is not held, then it makes no logical sense. Effectively, it is circular reasoning. There's nothing about this example that implies the objective nature of morality, which it tries to demonstrate, is actually the case. It rests on an unproven precondition which also happens to be the conclusion. You must understand that that is completely illogical?

The objectivity of basic mathematics is not dependent on societal agreement, but that goes absolutely no way to explaining why morality or ethics is not or cannot be. It's a false equivalence.



Also, doesn't the entire concept of objective morality or ethics rather rest on the assumption that the person making the moral or ethical statement is the one who is objectively correct? I mean, take your dismissal of differentiation in moral behaviour as "moral retardation caused by sh*tty parenting". That makes the unfounded assumption that your own moral views, which you deem to be objective, are not only so but are also empirically and measurably superior to the views of others. Not only does this come across as nothing more than moral jingoism of the highest and most vile sort- in fact, the sort that is often used to justify genocide- it's completely unfounded as the only person to which this concept is abundantly clear in its objectivity is yourself. The fact that your moral code effectively demands you demean anyone with a different standpoint to yourself as morally inferior rather contradicts several of the underlying tenets in the philosophical study of morality and ethics, most crucially the ethic of reciprocity. From a subjective standpoint like mine, I actually find this attitude narcissistic, derogatory and morally repugnant.

Tyler
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#8

Posted 12 July 2013 - 01:21 AM

sivis, I agree with your point of view to a degree. Specifically the subjectivity of it. I find that it's very hard for me to justify pushing my own beliefs on someone else, especially when I know I am a self-centered person. It'd be dishonest for me to say I'm doing what's best for anyone else, I would only be trying to complete some egocentric vision I have of the world around me. That said, I realize the blandness of this viewpoint. I don't really think it's justifiable, but that doesn't make the whole thing more appealing to try and argue for your side, and people will do just that if it means reaching their goals with the help of society.

In the end I feel philosophy of this degree falls to the individual, though. Utilitarianism is flawed. There is always a minority to be prejudiced against.

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#9

Posted 12 July 2013 - 03:11 AM

QUOTE

The objectivity of basic mathematics is not dependent on societal agreement, but that goes absolutely no way to explaining why morality or ethics is not or cannot be. It's a false equivalence.


The above example was not an attempt to prove that morality is objective, it was a counter to the very specific line of reasoning you seemed to use that dismissed the existence of an objective moral system because people were diverse in their personal views on this issue.



Melchior
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#10

Posted 12 July 2013 - 05:06 AM

The thing with morality is that it's arbitrary. Even the closest things we have to universally agreed upon moral tenets, the belief that killing and stealing are wrong, are arbitrary. What if killing or robbing someone benefits people more than not doing so? What if killing one person saves several other lives? What about robbing the rich to feed the poor?

Take your belief system, Chunkyman. You believe that stealing is wrong, but exploitation isn't, because you believe manipulation is fine but physical coercion is not, even if they lead to the same result? Is that not completely arbitrary?
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Chunkyman
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#11

Posted 12 July 2013 - 05:57 AM

QUOTE (Melchior @ Friday, Jul 12 2013, 05:06)
Take your belief system, Chunkyman. You believe that stealing is wrong, but exploitation isn't, because you believe manipulation is fine but physical coercion is not, even if they lead to the same result? Is that not completely arbitrary?

Care to lay out a precise definition of exploitation? Too my understanding, it's a broad definition and relies on your understanding of economics.

I'd like to note that I'm obviously against the use as fraud, as it constitutes a form of theft.


Melchior
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#12

Posted 12 July 2013 - 06:55 AM

Economically, the most commonly accepted definition would be to create unfair conditions through manipulation, usually marked by some measure of callous disregard. Basically any method of forcing actors that doesn't involve physical force- manipulating markets to give consumers and workers the short end through psychological conditioning, cartel economics, or using advertising to undermine market forces.

sivispacem
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#13

Posted 12 July 2013 - 07:01 AM

QUOTE (Chunkyman @ Friday, Jul 12 2013, 04:11)
QUOTE

The objectivity of basic mathematics is not dependent on societal agreement, but that goes absolutely no way to explaining why morality or ethics is not or cannot be. It's a false equivalence.


The above example was not an attempt to prove that morality is objective, it was a counter to the very specific line of reasoning you seemed to use that dismissed the existence of an objective moral system because people were diverse in their personal views on this issue.

It's still false equivalence, because you are comparing something empirical, tangible and demonstrable to something which is none of these. There's no reason to rationally assume that the two would share any characteristics.

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#14

Posted 12 July 2013 - 07:27 AM

QUOTE (sivispacem @ Friday, Jul 12 2013, 07:01)
It's still false equivalence, because you are comparing something empirical, tangible and demonstrable to something which is none of these. There's no reason to rationally assume that the two would share any characteristics.

False equivalence or no, you aren't addressing the central point of my argument, that people holding a wide range of beliefs on a topic does not make the topic itself subjective, which is what I take as your argument in the following line.

QUOTE

(to be honest, it's impossible to argue for a truly objective moral framework as it is abundantly clear that different societies possess different moral standards)

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#15

Posted 12 July 2013 - 08:14 AM Edited by sivispacem, 12 July 2013 - 08:17 AM.

QUOTE (Chunkyman @ Friday, Jul 12 2013, 08:27)
QUOTE (sivispacem @ Friday, Jul 12 2013, 07:01)
It's still false equivalence, because you are comparing something empirical, tangible and demonstrable to something which is none of these. There's no reason to rationally assume that the two would share any characteristics.

False equivalence or no, you aren't addressing the central point of my argument, that people holding a wide range of beliefs on a topic does not make the topic itself subjective, which is what I take as your argument in the following line.

QUOTE

(to be honest, it's impossible to argue for a truly objective moral framework as it is abundantly clear that different societies possess different moral standards)

No, I am addressing that point. The existence of a wide range of differing beliefs in relation to an intangible concept with no clear basis in empiricism is evidence of subjectivity. That's a far cry away from saying, as you imply, "anything on which people hold differing views must be fundamentally subjective". Nowhere have I made the argument that differing belief translates to fundamental subjectivity in relation to anything other than morality. Arguing morality is objective is like arguing God is objective.

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#16

Posted 12 July 2013 - 08:34 AM Edited by Chunkyman, 12 July 2013 - 08:42 AM.

QUOTE (sivispacem @ Friday, Jul 12 2013, 08:14)
No, I am addressing that point. The existence of a wide range of differing beliefs in relation to an intangible concept with no clear basis in empiricism is evidence of subjectivity. That's a far cry away from saying, as you imply, "anything on which people hold differing views must be fundamentally subjective". Nowhere have I made the argument that differing belief translates to fundamental subjectivity in relation to anything other than morality. Arguing morality is objective is like arguing God is objective.

Humans exist, and humans interact. There are various forms of interactions amongst humans. Humans have brains perfectly capable of weighing various options in reference to abstract standards. This is (mostly) the empirical basis for morality, with basically all of the rest being a concept derived through logic.

Significant value can be derived from categorizing these actions into acceptable and unacceptable, when one has a "right" to use violence and when one doesn't, and in matters of distinguishing property rights so as to avoid conflict.

As outlined in my first post, to create a moral system requires at a minimum logical consistency and a handful of other things to have any sort of validity.

If the premises and logical extension derived from them are all correct, the conclusions are objective. The objectivity of morality is not derived from observing things in a beaker, it's objectivity is derived from whether all of the conclusions were derived from valid logical analysis of the foundations on which it stands, with the foundations of moral systems being very briefly mentioned in the first few lines of this post.

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#17

Posted 12 July 2013 - 09:10 AM

Your response, whilst valid, fails to acknowledge where the "abstract standards" to which the ethical value of actions can be compared are derived. Also, it makes the assumption that logic is entirely objective and therefore morality based on logic must be. The term "logic" does not implicitly or explicitly tie in to objectivity. Instead it refers to the validity of reasoning. Validity also does not imply objectivity-it is perfectly possible for two valid arguments based on the same evidence and initial premise and entirely contradictory to be both valid in their reasoning and logical. Indeed, the perception of what might constitute valid reasoning is itself shaped by societal pressures, common understanding and the whims of the observer.

Your argument relies on the basic, but untenable, premise that logic is objective. It effectively enters a downward spiral- the objectivity of morality is based on logic; the objectivity of logic is based on validity; the objectivity of validity is based on...well, this is where the train of thought ends because validity as a philosophical concept isn't actually objective. It's subjective and personal.

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#18

Posted 12 July 2013 - 10:19 AM

QUOTE (sivispacem @ Friday, Jul 12 2013, 09:10)
This is where the train of thought ends because validity as a philosophical concept isn't actually objective. It's subjective and personal.

Validity, in and of itself, is not inherently objective. As you pointed out, two logically valid arguments with different conclusions can be made, and both of them cannot obviously be objective. But this begs the question of what brought about this decoupling in the first place, detaching the valid arguments and their logical conclusions from objective reality. For lack of a better term, this is a function of "inadequate information". For example, too little information in figuring out the culprit's motive in a murder case would allow for valid logical arguments to be made that were not consistent with the objective reality of the situation (i.e. his actual motive for murder). If, instead of having inadequate information to base your further logical extensions off of, you had every facet of knowledge pertaining to this case at your disposal, the validity and objectivity would be inherently linked.

In the case of discussing morality, the foundations from which the logical extensions derive from do not suffer from the inadequate information problem that would cause valid logical arguments to become potentially detached from the objective reality, hence morality can be considered objective.

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#19

Posted 12 July 2013 - 10:46 AM

Isn't the claim related to the adequacy or otherwise of information on which to judge the valid of moral arguments also subjective, though? The whole thing strikes me as an exercise in deprecation and fragmentation. Given that adequacy is relative (because it doesn't possess objectivity in and of itself unless all relative information is known, which due to the subjective nature of relation would entail everything in existence to be known in order to mitigate the requirements of subjectivity) how can anything built on this tenet be objective? The simple answer is I don't think it can be.

Also, I question whether it is, would be or can be physically or philosophically possible to have all information requires to make an objective moral statement that could be deemed applicable in all circumstances. Even the great historical maxims of philosophy- "do to others as to yourself" and three like, are not universal because it is possible to envision circumstances in which these cannot be applied whilst remaining ethically positive. And I would argue that these values are far closer to universal in their application than any other.

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#20

Posted 12 July 2013 - 12:22 PM

Chunkyman, you've kind of ignored the crux of my argument. Aside from my critique of your moral ideals, what about my critique of the very concept of moral ideals? Namely, that they're arbitrary. I gave some pretty good examples: killing to save lives and robbing from the rich to feed the poor. In both those instances you have to throw morality to the wind in order to make the right decision... and isn't the purpose of morality to guide people into making the right decision? Doesn't it become a hindrance when it leads people to making the wrong decision?

Morality makes no sense. It's a self-validating concept. In order to be moral something has to be validated and all morality derives its validation from peoples' arbitrary beliefs; in other words, it derives it from morality itself. Unless we accept that morality doesn't require validation, in which case it's an invalidated concept, which is just as bad. I don't understand how there can be any opposition to consequentialism. If we aren't concerned with consequence then what are we concerned with?

The only argument I can think of for moral absolutism is the notion that ostensibly arbitrary morality upholds ethics. For instance, if we hold that it's always wrong to kill or steal- and won't even kill to save lives or steal to feed the hungry- then people are less likely to kill or steal for their own profit. But the slippery slope fallacy is a fallacy for a reason, and is that even a deontological position?

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#21

Posted 12 July 2013 - 10:23 PM Edited by Chunkyman, 12 July 2013 - 10:28 PM.

QUOTE (sivispacem @ Friday, Jul 12 2013, 10:46)
Isn't the claim related to the adequacy or otherwise of information on which to judge the validity of moral arguments also subjective, though? The whole thing strikes me as an exercise in deprecation and fragmentation. Given that adequacy is relative (because it doesn't possess objectivity in and of itself unless all relative information is known, which due to the subjective nature of relation would entail everything in existence to be known in order to mitigate the requirements of subjectivity) how can anything built on this tenet be objective? The simple answer is I don't think it can be.

The issue you brought up is an interesting one.

Adequacy of information is a cornerstone for every claim of objectivity (empirical or otherwise). For instance, I assume you would hold that the computer you type on objectively exists. But doesn't this claim rely on the assumption that you have adequate information? One could argue that your computer doesn't objectively exist because you're in something along the lines of "The Matrix" and in reality that computer you're typing on is a figment of your imagination. The conclusion this reaches is that essentially everything is subjective. This conclusion is also completely worthless and results in intellectual paralysis, so it becomes necessary to modify the standards for what proves objectivity to avoid the underlying problem of potentially inadequate information that all claims of objectivity suffer from. Realistically, it has to be assumed that adequate information can be achieved on certain things, which allows them to potentially reach the level of objectivity. To show that something is not objective (even when it's reached through logically valid reasoning), it requires one to point out an area of inadequate information that could lead to a decoupling of valid reasoning and the objective truth. For example, in the murder case mentioned before you can see that even with valid reasoning, the conclusion might not be objective because you can point out how you lack some of the information needed and could therefore have a divergence between the objective reality and your valid reasoning. For many empirical claims, like proving the computer you're typing on existing, this problem does not present itself (i.e. you can't show deficiencies in information that would bar you from making an objective claim) so it becomes acceptable to hold this knowledge as objective. Similarly, I have yet to see where there is a lack of information in the premises of the objective moral system I (briefly) outlined that would potentially decouple valid logical reasoning from objective reality, and therefore hold that morality is indeed objective.

@Melchoir I enjoy talking about arguments from effect, after all I'm a big fan of studying economics, but I don't want to derail the thread with my economic views or other related matters unrelated to discussions about morality.

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#22

Posted 12 July 2013 - 11:13 PM

Your response basically summarised why it is philosophically acceptable to make the argument that nothing "exists" outside of what is in your mind- that's a basic tenet of philosophical subjectivism. To dismiss it is only to really dismiss it from your own subjective view, though. I know in principle it isn't very helpful in addressing issues of this nature seen as the value of any judgement is limited by its subjective and personal nature, but that's an unfortunate side effect of accepting the subjectivity of reality. Either you have to accept the idea that nothing exists and you could effectively be a consciousness living in a dream world in which nothing is truly tangible, or you must take everything in the universe at face value, in which cases morality isn't just subjective- it's effectively non-existent. The only way to put a moralistic slant on your interpretation of reality is to accept subjectivity in my view. The alternative- that, is, the enforcing of one set of predefined moral values arbitrarily on another, is in its very nature immoral- because it refuses to accept the probability of these values being demonstrably wrong and therefore a negative development.

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#23

Posted 26 December 2013 - 08:08 PM Edited by Criѕtian, 26 December 2013 - 08:31 PM.

I recommend everyone who is against the idea of objective morality to watch this talk by Sam Harris. I think he refuted all of the arguments against it presented in this thread.

 

 

 

 

The thing with morality is that it's arbitrary. Even the closest things we have to universally agreed upon moral tenets, the belief that killing and stealing are wrong, are arbitrary. What if killing or robbing someone benefits people more than not doing so? What if killing one person saves several other lives? What about robbing the rich to feed the poor?

Take your belief system, Chunkyman. You believe that stealing is wrong, but exploitation isn't, because you believe manipulation is fine but physical coercion is not, even if they lead to the same result? Is that not completely arbitrary?

Just because we can't say that killing or stealing are always wrong it doesn't mean that there is no basis for objective morality. You don't get the same kind of criticism for medicine for example. Medicine is based on the idea that health is important\good, and health has something to do with not always feeling sick. You don't hear people say stuff like "who are you to say that being sick is unhealthy?" The only assumption you have to make in support of objective morality is that the well being of conscious creatures is good\important. Sciences and empiricism can show us how to maximize that well being.

 

Edit: In my mind, to say that there is no basis for objective morality is really to say that suffering isn't real, and we have no reasons to think that.


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#24

Posted 27 December 2013 - 08:01 AM

Want to summarise the YouTube video and all the salient points for those of us who don't have two hours to waste?


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#25

Posted 27 December 2013 - 01:36 PM Edited by Criѕtian, 27 December 2013 - 01:41 PM.

It's really only one hour long, the rest is a Q&A. I am going to try and summarize his view below. If you think he's wrong about this you can participate in the challenge linked to in my signature (though you should read his book to address his view properly).

 

He begins to talk about the difference between facts and values, and how people seem to think that science can say nothing about values (he thinks that this is a false assumption). He says that values can be reduced to facts about the well being of humans\animals and we will increasingly know more about human and animal well being. Knowing this, it's not too soon to say that a culture like what we see in Afghanistan under the Taliban is bad in any sense of the word we can invoke. Forcing women to wear burqas is bad. Bad in the sense that it is clearly not a strategy for producing happy, healthy, confident people. The moment you see that wrong relates to questions of human and animal well being, then you see that this is not a way of maximizing it. He gives a clearer analogy later. Imagine a universe where every conscious entity experiences the worst possible suffering for as long as possible. That's bad. Do we have to wonder if that's really bad? If there's something worse? This is the only thing you have to buy, that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad. If the word bad means anything, it applies there. If the word evil means anything, it applies to someone who would put us all there.

 

The division between facts and values falls apart here. The worst possible misery for everyone is clearly the worst state of affairs, and then there's all the other state of affairs. Everything else is better. The moment you admit that, there's this continuum, and clearly, given that experience is arising out of the laws of nature, given that experience is at every level constrained by whatever gives rise to consciousness, to mental life, and to subjective changes, then there are right and wrong ways to move across that continuum. There may be several different ways to reach the same space, but there aren't infinitely many ways to reach that same space. So there are right and wrong answers with regard to the question of how to avoid the worst possible misery for everyone, and we have many intuitions about right and wrong, for instance when we think of our ethical obligations with respect to the rest of the world, clearly we are more concerned about how we treat chimpanzees than ants. Is that an accident? No. There are ways to be mislead. We hate rats but we think that squirrels are cute because they have fluffy tails say, but we have a sense that the richness of experience somehow relates to the complexity the organism. We could be wrong about that, it could be true that it doesn't matter how complex your brain is, you could with the brain of an ant appreciate music better than anyone. It could be true (no reason to think it's true), but we are talking about truth claims that fall into the purview of science.

 

Many think that this concept of well being is so elastic that it's problematic to anchor morality and human values to it. By analogy, consider physical health. Physical health is a genuinely loose notion and clearly changing. We have very different expectations of health now than when life expectancy was around 25-30, and our expectation could change totally in the future. Our descendants could live in a world where you would be expected to be able to regrow a lost limb like a salamander. That's biologically possible given certain breakthroughs in science. Does that obviate the difference between health and disease? Is it impossible for us to have a science of health because the very notion of health is difficult to tie down? No, not at all. We have the science of medicine and no one ever attacks the philosophical underpinnings of medicine. How can you say that smallpox isn't healthy? Maybe terminal smallpox is another way of being perfectly healthy. What would you say to a man dying of smallpox who thinks he's as healthy as you are? How could you convince him? This is really a non-problem. You don't have to convince him. Some people are crazy, some people are not up to the conversation, but so too on questions of human well being and questions of what we should value in this life.

 

The notion that facts and values are distinct breaks down again when you look at how we describe our most basic understanding of the physical universe. Take water. Water is two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen. We've known this for about 150 years. What do you do when someone doubts this proposition? What do you do with a skeptic about water chemistry? How do you change their mind? You have to appeal to certain values. The person has to want to understand the world. What would you say to someone who says: "My chemistry doesn't have much to do with understanding the world. I just want to make everything fit the book of Genesis. That's my version." That person can use the notion of chemistry as much as he wants, but it's not chemistry. No real chemist can be burdened to say that if he can't convince that guy, maybe there's no truth to chemistry. We have to value evidence. What do you say to someone who doesn't value evidence? What evidence could you provide that would suggest that he should value evidence? What logic could you use to show the necessity of values and logical consistency?

 

Note: This is just about half of the talk. I quoted a lot of sentences verbatim from that video and he presents more arguments in the rest of the talk, but I don't really have time right now to post everything. I also think those arguments are good enough to get a sense of what he's saying.


sivispacem
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#26

Posted 27 December 2013 - 03:11 PM

Thanks, some interesting points there.

However I take issue right from the start with his categorisation in relation to the Taliban. He's right in that one can reasonably argue that by pretty much every standard and metric you care to name forcing people into subjugation is a bad thing. But he then frames this in the context of a "healthy, happy society" which is what I take issue with here; it assumes that the basis of all societies' cohesion and proper functioning is based upon these factors. Which by and large they are but that's not necessarily the case.

What's objectively the best thing for society isn't always the same as what is morally right. Also I don't see much of what's being discussed much as an argument against the principle of subjective morality; he seems to be arguing that from a practical standpoint most societies hold the same things as subjectively morally good which makes them practically objective. I don't disagree with this argument but I don't feel it is rational to extrapolate this to morality in general. When you discuss issues around,say, the ethical fairness of taxation, it becomes abundantly clear that there is no objective moral right or wrong. The libertarian argument from individualistic freedom against societal taxation is as morally absolute or concrete as the third-way liberal concept of developing social cohesion through the provision of public services. Neither is objectively right or wrong despite them being incompatible.

TL;DR- basic societal concepts are uniform enough to say that in purely practical terms some semblance of absolute morality exists but there are numerous ethical questions to which there are no objective answers so on that basis morality as an entire concept cannot be absolute.

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#27

Posted 27 December 2013 - 04:51 PM

I read most of the replies here and I thought that the discussion was changed to objective morality. I'm not arguing for absolute morality (which is to say that something is always wrong, with no exception).

 

Well, what does morality even mean then (if not what's objectively best for society, but establishing this by weighing our options)? The taxation example doesn't invalidate the idea of an objective morality. Both of those points of view on taxation could be equally valid (i.e. we could someday have equally thriving societies that impose taxation and others that do not), or it could be that we can't tell which one is superior because we don't have sufficient information, but the solution should be more research.

 

I don't quite understand what you mean by subjective morality. I think that on the most important issues of morality, it's quite obvious (to people who are willing to understand reality) which option is objectively better. Take for instance homosexuality. Is it just as right to kill homosexuals or send them to prison (see this) as it is to give them equal rights? If morality is truly subjective, then the answer should be yes, we really have nothing to say about that and all the other important issues. It's just a matter of opinion, but that's not true because those views have real life consequences that need to be considered. When you say that killing or imprisoning homosexuals is wrong, you are basing this statement on facts, observations, and reason. You don't simply tell others what your personal tastes are (or whatever truly subjective aspect about people you could talk about).

 

(I might have botched the last paragraph because I'm in a hurry; my friend is coming over)


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#28

Posted 27 December 2013 - 10:17 PM

Objective morality, by it's very definition, is absolute. If something is objectively and therefore inarguably correct, it is also absolute. Something that is not absolute cannot be objective- either it is subjective and circumstantial and your definition is too broad in summarising it, in which case it isn't objective, or it is something about which not enough is known to conclude whether it is objective or subjective, in which case it is improper to conclude it is objective. In fact, moral objectivism in normative ethics is called absolutism specifically.
 
The crux of my argument boils down to the idea that concepts of morality in non-critical circumstances are fluid and changeable based on social and historical circumstance. Moral absolutism dictates that every moral or ethical circumstance has either correct (morally positive) or incorrect (morally negative) answers, which simply isn't the case because the assessment of whether the outcomes of circumstances are interpreted as positive or negative is dependent on a myriad of factors, and because in some situations, particularly, as I've already alluded to, non-critical complex problems, there's often multiple answers that can be simultaneously good and bad. That doesn't, however, mean as you suggest that subjectivity and relativism in normative ethics leads to the idea of anything becoming acceptable. That's a slippery slope fallacy- it isn't reasonable to claim that subjectivism holds that all ethical circumstances must be at least acceptable. Progressive and Negative Utilitarianism and consequentialism, for instance, are morally objectivist in that they hold that one can contradict moral norms if there's a legitimate case that doing so is less harmful that not doing so- which entirely contradicts absolutism or objectivism. But by the same token these theories would hold that it is morally right to award equal rights to all individuals and prevent discrimination based on defining characteristics. 

 

Now, addressing the question of objectivity versus absolutism in moral universalism- yes, you can preach meta-ethical universalism (as opposed to normative absolutism) without being absolutist but doing so dilutes the basic principles of the theory on a normative level. The distinction comes with the confusion many people seem to experience in differentiating between normative and meta-ethical discussion of absolutism and universalism. Incarnations of meta-ethical universalism aren't necessarily normatively absolutist even if they are universalise and meta-ethically objectivist. They can accept that several philosophical and ethical responses to the same situation may all be equally correct and yet contradictory, and these ideas aren't fundamentally contradictory to objective interpretations of normative ethics. They merely dictate that, when discussing individual rights and the morality of decisions surrounding the subject, issues of personal harm and degradation trump social convention- that is, that (in the case of, say, Negative Utilitarianism) the rights of individuals to be free from measurably physical and perceivably psychological harm supersedes the rights of societies to enforce their own subjective moral standards. That's a very different thing from claiming morality is objective.


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#29

Posted 27 December 2013 - 11:36 PM Edited by Criѕtian, 27 December 2013 - 11:38 PM.

I don't think that's quite true, although I am aware of the difference between normative and meta-ethics. I also don't think Sam refers to this as "objective morality" in the same sense you suggest. From what I recall he talks about "objective right and wrong", but it seems that by objective he means "uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices" and "based on observable phenomena; presented factually" (those are two definitions for the word objective). His view is more comparable or almost identical to utilitarianism.

 

It is objective in the sense that all sane rational people could in theory reach common ground when it comes to answers of right and wrong to the most important questions about morality. I think it's the best we can possibly have, and while we currently don't have all the answers to those questions, I don't think that this suggests the truth isn't out there. This viewpoint also admits that there may be many equal ways for humans\animals to thrive (Harris compares this to a landscape of peaks and valleys). The more grey area of morality that you alluded to (in your taxation example) doesn't seem to include the most important questions. Also, referring to your example, if voluntary taxation and coercive taxation really lead to the same outcome (if done properly), then there's no moral contradiction there. They aren't really in opposition if they both do the same amount of good, or we simply don't know yet which is better. Could you think of a better example where truly opposing ideas are not subject to this sort of examination?


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#30

Posted 28 December 2013 - 11:26 AM Edited by Melchior, 28 December 2013 - 11:27 AM.

Christian, I suppose an action can be objectively moral if you define "morality" as "doing the right thing" and define "the right thing" as "the best consequences for the most sentient beings" but that's just an argument from semantics. Universally speaking, even "the best consequences for the most sentient beings" is quite subjective, for instance, is it better to be free or safe? Or is it better that everybody is equal, or that everybody is able to further themselves? Questions like these are where objective logic ends and subjective morality begins. The fact that the former overlaps with the latter isn't really an argument in support of moral absolutism, it only means that there are possible circumstances in which actions can be called "objectively moral." But morality as a concept isn't absolute or objective. 





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