Tag Archives: metaethics

Quote of the Day – Wittgenstein on Value (spoiler: there is no value)

“In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value—and if there were, it would be of no value.”

~Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Sounds about right to me.

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A Simple Utilitarian Argument for Higher Pleasures

Arch-Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham controversially stated that “quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry”. Thus, if someone found immense intrinsic pleasure in counting blades of grass, we couldn’t hold it against them just because we prefer higher intellectual pleasures like reading or other “pursuits of the mind”. I agree wholeheartedly with J.S. Mill that it is impossible to conclusively establish by reason our “first principles” of valuation. I can no more justify why I seek happiness as an end in itself than  can the person who makes it his ultimate value to count all blades of grass.

What then licenses Mill to claim the higher intellectual pleasures are “more valuable” than mere pleasures of sensation? Isn’t this just elitism? Of course an elite intellectual is going to value reading philosophy and science over watching reality tv, but if someone finds more intrinsic pleasure in salivating in front of a TV over a frozen TV-dinner, who is Mill to judge? By what standard do we judge “ultimate ends”? In the end, we are left promoting values from a purely subjective perspective, for we have no choice except to value what we do in fact value and reason on the basis of those values.

But perhaps Mill was onto something. Take Bentham’s push-pin player. What if everyone in society was a devout push-pin player? From birth all anyone wants to do is play push-pin, much like Bobby Fischer’s famous remark that “All I want to do, ever, is just play chess.” This society would be radically different from ours. After all, if everyone played trivial games all day long and never bothered to learn anything, then no one would go to school to be an engineer or doctor. Without engineers and computer scientists our technological infrastructure would crumble until eventually the push-pin players couldn’t rely on the technological conveniences like supermarkets and computers to feed and entertain themselves with minimal effort. They would eventually be forced to begin hunting and gathering food in between push-pin playing, otherwise they would die of sheer starvation. The push-pin players might eventually realize that perhaps it would be good that at least some of them do things other than play push-pin so that they can have enough technology to keep a minimal segment of the population comfortable enough to devote themselves to playing push-pin all day.

The point of this thought experiment applies to all other “lower” pleasures like reality TV watching. If everyone just watched reality TV all day, no one would be able to maintain the TV-production-broadcast technological infrastructure that provides mindless pleasure to millions. Thus, people who value reality TV watching should actually desire that other people value something besides reality TV watching, otherwise there wouldn’t be technologically minded people producing the technological comforts that allow one to live comfortably watching TV and microwave meals without having to work hard to just stay alive.

Thus, the progressive accumulation of cultural and technological knowledge is predicated on the idea that the higher intellectual virtues are more valuable because the epistemic benefits of these higher intellectual virtues allows us to create a leisurely gulf between the hard facts of biological existence and our culturally acquired desires to engage in trivial but pleasurable pursuits like push-pin or television. Like Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, one could easily imagine that an ideal social utopia would consist in everyone devoted to the continual pursuit of game-playing. But that game-playing utopia would only exist on the basis of a hidden technological infrastructure that was built and maintained by people who valued something besides trivialities and sensation-seeking.


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Metaethical Testimony: Do Laypersons Really Believe in Moral Objectivity?

I’m increasingly convinced that Derek Parfit is right to claim there are only two ontologically serious positions in metaethics: Nonnatural Realism and Nihilism. Either there are true “moral values” or “moral facts” built into the fabric of reality, or there are just atoms in the void. Take your pick. Since Nihilists believe there are no mind-independent moral facts, any possibility of moral normativity – our habit of thinking/talking in terms “oughts” and “shoulds” – can only be justified on the basis of the contingent desires/needs of sentient creatures.

Another way to think about this is to consider the difference between hypothetical and categorical oughts. A hypothetical ought takes the form of “If you desire X, you ought to do Y”. For example, “If you want to play chess, you ought to follow the rules” or “If you are hungry, you ought to eat something”. Hypothetical oughts are never “binding” in the sense that you must follow them or that the universe “demands” you to. If you don’t want to play chess, then there is no sense in which the universe “demands” you to follow the rules. If determinism is true then perhaps you can’t help follow these hypothetical oughts. But that could be a case of acting in accordance with a rule as opposed to being “obligated” to follow a rule. To follow a rule, the rule must somehow make a difference to your behavior. The rule must act as a binding control input that gives you a plan or guide for action.

And to be categorical, a rule must somehow be “necessary” or “required”. You are bound to obey categorical oughts whether you want to or not. Plato’s story of the Ring of Gyges nicely illustrates the difference between hypothetical and categorical oughts. The Ring of Gyges is a magical ring that makes its wearer invisible. Suppose you find this ring and slip it on and now have the ability to get away with any crime without suffering any consequences that you don’t want. Suppose further that you have certain selfish desires as well as desires to help your friends and family. Now it occurs to you that if you commit a horrible crime against a neighboring and rival clan, you and all your friends and family will be much better off. With the ring on, you could easily get away with this act. Here’s the crucial question: do you have a binding reason to not commit the crime? If so, how does this binding work? In what sense will you be irrational if you do your act?

There are only two real answers to this question. The binding authority could come from the existence of Objective Moral Facts or it could come from the fact that in committing the crime you will really deep down be hurting yourself or your community in the long-run, so acting immorally is irrational. However, it seems downright weird to think that the reason why it’s wrong to commit genocide is because self-inflicted harm. Error-theorist Richard Joyce makes the point that it’d be bizarre to claim what was morally wrong with the Nazi’s is that they were really hurting themselves in the long-run.

So it seems like there are either binding Objective Moral Facts or no such facts at all. If there are no such facts, then any and all normativity can only ever be hypothetical. Without objectivity, the “binding-ness” necessary to categorical oughts is but a mere illusion and only stems from instrumental rationality (however complex and abstract).

Metaethical error-theory is a two-pronged view. The first prong is the claim that ordinary moral discourse is ontologically committed to the existence of Objective Moral Facts and the second prong is to claim that all such discourse is untrue due to a missing referent. When someone says “killing an innocent baby for fun is always wrong no matter what and you really ought not to do it”, they are committing themselves to the existence of Objective Moral Facts. But since error-theorists argue there really are no such facts (for various reasons), there are all committing an error. The metaethical error-theorist is akin to the atheist with respect to religion. When someone says “God loves you”, the atheist thinks this is untrue because the term “God” fails to correspond to anything in reality, like “unicorn” or “Sherlock Holmes”.

Error-theory has come under attack from two different angles. The first angle is to defend the existence of Objective Moral Facts and hence that people aren’t mistaken in making such judgments. The second angle is to argue that ordinary people aren’t really committed to strong forms of moral objectivity in the first place. In this post, I’d like to critically examine the second angle.

One way to go about defending the view that common sense morality is not deeply committed to Objectivity is to do some sophisticated philosophy-of-language and claim that apparent assertions of fact really mean something like imperatives, or expressions of desires (e.g. Boo stealing! Yay friendship!) or our thoughts about ideal hypothetical reasoners (constructivism). I think this is a deeply problematic approach for the same reason I think ultra-sophisticated theologians like Paul Tillich do not represent the religious views of ordinary people.

The other way people have argued for this view is through experimental philosophy. A representative example of this work is Shaun Nichols paper “After objectivity: an empirical study of moral judgment”, published in Philosophy Psychology (2004). In the study, Nichols asked undergraduates questions like:

John and Fred are members of different cultures, and they are in an argument. John says, “It’s okay to hit people just because you feel like it,” and Fred says, “No, it is not okay to hit people just because you feel like it.” John then says, “Look you are wrong. Everyone I know agrees that it’s okay to do that.” Fred responds, “Oh no, you are the one who is mistaken. Everyone I know agrees that it’s not okay to do that.” Which of the following do you think best characterizes their views? (Check one and give a brief justification for your answer.)

—It is okay to hit people just because you feel like it, so John is right and Fred is wrong.

—It is not okay to hit people just because you feel like it, so Fred is right and John is wrong.

—There is no fact of the matter about unqualified claims like “It’s okay to hit people just because you feel like it.” Different cultures believe different things, and it is not absolutely true or false that it’s okay to hit people just because you feel like it.

Nichols compared judgments in cases like these to cases about disagreement other physical facts like whether the Earth is flat. In contrast to the flat Earth case, “a sizable number of participants gave nonobjectivist responses to the moral case (17 of the 40 participants)”. Thus, Nichols concludes that error-theorists are wrong to think that ordinary moral discourse among laypersons is deeply committed to the existence of Objective Moral Facts. However, Nichols does admit that a commitment to objectivity is a “core” feature of morality, is universally present in young children, but is “defeasible” as evidenced by the diversity of opinion in his undergraduate polls.

Has Nichols “empirically refuted” the “armchair” reflections of error-theorists who naively thought common folk are committed to Objectivity? Hardly. First of all, the subjects of Nichols study were WEIRD, i.e. from Western Educated Industrial Rich Democratic societies. That’s a huge reason to be skeptical about over-generalizing from these results. Moreover, half of these subjects were from into philosophy courses. If there is any place on Earth where moral relativism is likely to be more over-represented it is in undergraduate intro philosophy courses. Nichols can hardly make the leap from WEIRD undergrads taking philosophy courses to “core features of everyday morality”.

But is there any empirical evidence to show that everyday people are in fact committed to moral objectivity? I believe there is. According to a recent survey of 1,000 Americans from across all 50 states, “the vast majority of Americans (87%) believe in the concept of sin.  “Sin” was defined in the research as “something that is almost always considered wrong, particularly from a religious or moral perspective.”

Maybe there is some hedging to be had with defining sin as something that is “almost always” wrong as opposed to “always wrong” but I’m pretty sure that the most natural way to understand the question is in terms of situations like the Ring of Gyges and Moral Objectivity. The concept of sin seems necessarily committed to objectivity given that sin stems from God’s moral authority, which certainly isn’t constrained by contingent human desires for well-being, happiness, and group cohesion.

Moreover, I am skeptical about Nichol’s “experimental” approach for the following reason. Almost all epistemologists agree that people believe things on the basis of testimony from their trusted peers. Moreover, it seems plausible that people also rely on moral testimony from people like Church leaders (e.g. A pastor telling their flock gambling is wrong). What I’m interested in is the concept of metaethical testimony. I think it’s very plausible that almost all mainstream religious Clergy are committed to some strong from of Moral Objectivity. When they teach their congregation about sin and God’s Moral Law, they are likely arguing for metaethical Realism of the strong sort committed to the existence of Objective Moral Facts “enforced” by God’s will or “flowing out of” God’s perfectly Good nature. On this view, God is the source of the “binding” power that secures the demanding-ness of categorical oughts like “One ought not to torture for fun even if you have the Ring of Gyges”.

So even if Nichol’s managed to get lay Church-going folk to answer a questionnaire seemingly indicating a nonobjectivist view, I think it’s likely that the answers would be very different if their Objectivist pastor was sitting right there next to them giving metaethical testimony and reminding them of the existence of God’s Moral Law and to think carefully about the nature of sin.

In conclusion, I reject the claim made by experimental philosophers that they have shown error-theory to be mistaken in assuming laypersons are ontologically committed to the existence of “binding” Objective Moral Facts.

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Should We Value Happiness? Subjectivism and Objectivism in Metaethics

This is another post inspired by the discussions we’ve been having in the Derek Parfit seminar. Metaethics seems to me to be a very difficult thing to talk about. So bear with me as I work this out in writing. The question debated in class today revolved around the distinction between Hard and Soft Naturalism. Hard Naturalism is the view that there are just natural facts, and that we do not need to talk using distinctively normative language; we can jettison normative talk and just use natural descriptions. Soft Natualism is the view that there are just natural facts, but we still need to use irreducibly normative language. Parfit thinks that Hard Naturalism makes normativity out to be trivial, and he thinks Soft Naturalism is incoherent because he thinks Naturalism is committed to a thesis about reduction. Just about everyone in the class was not satisfied by Parfit’s arguments against both Soft Naturalism and Hard Naturalism. Most people thought that we could somehow rescue normative language from purely naturalistic properties. That is, people were saying that we could dispense with talk about these spooky irreducible Non-Natural normative facts and be just fine in producing genuinely normative claims about what we ought to do.

Now, I’m certainly not endorsing any talk about spooky irreducible Non-Natural normative facts. But I’m not really sure a complete reduction of ought-statements is plausible. How does talk about atoms in the void getting you to ought-statements? Well, the thought goes, once you start talking about the biological and society level of reality, you can get statements about what’s most natural for humans to desire, and we can translate ought-statements into statements about how to maximize happiness in sentient organisms in virtue of well-known facts about the subjective preferences of organisms. This is basically the idea behind Subjectivism. Presumably, the thought goes, it’s rational to do what one ought to do. What is it that we ought to do? Subjectivism says we should satisfy the desires of ourselves and others under conditions of ideal information and deliberation.

Imagine a man who genuinely wanted to chop off his pinky finger. He had all the relevant information about what would happen to his subjective well-being if he cut off his finger, and he wasn’t deluded or out of his mind. He simply wants to cut off his finger because he has a genuine desire to do so. Here’s the question: would he have a good reason for cutting off his finger? The subjectivist position is this: the man would have a good reason to cut off his finger because that’s what would satisfy his desire, and rationality is about desire satisfaction. The objectivist would say that the man has no good reason to cut off his finger. Having a desire for something is not enough. One must have good reasons to want to do something.

Most people in class seem to think that Subjectivism is the right way to go, because it seems to be the only plausible theory compatible with naturalistic metaphysics. But I’m convinced there is a serious problem with Subjectivism and all other forms of noncognitivism, expressivism, quasi-realism, and any other desire-based, Humean story. The problem is this: all these theories assume the same thing: that all humans share the same values. Subjectivists make the following argument. They say that we can use naturalistic facts about what the average human desires, and use these facts to tell us what we ought to do. On this view, spooky nonnatural normative facts are just like regular natural facts, it’s just that these natural facts are about making animals happy or satisfying desires. But here’s the thing: Subjectivism does not seem like it is capable or even wants to give a rational justification for the desire for happiness, or any other bottom-level desire.

And here is where I think Parfit is really onto something when he says that for Subjectivism, nothing really matters. Notice in the subjectivist explanation of the man wanting to cut off his finger the justification looks like this: he wants to cut off his finger and it’s rational because he has a desire to do so. There is no need for the man to justify to Subjectivists why he desires to cut off his finger. He has thought about it long and hard, considered all the consequences, and he still desires to do so. Likewise with claims about happiness. Why ought we to promote happiness? The subjectivist says that we should promote happiness because we all fundamentally desire happiness. So the normative force of the moral principle “maximize happiness” stems from facts about what we, as typical humans, desire.

But why should we value happiness, as opposed to unhappiness? Why should we value life, as opposed to nonlife? If the suicidal person genuinely wants to end his life, how would appealing to the descriptive fact that most humans value life give the suicidal person a reason to not end his life? It just doesn’t seem to have any normative oomph to point to the descriptive fact about what typical humans under typical conditions value. The question is why should we value the things that we value. Should we value life? Should we value happiness? What reasons do we have for valuing such things?

This is why I do not think the complete reduction to preferences works. We cannot reduce the statement “One ought to value happiness” into statements about the natural fact that most people in fact value happiness. What if we just emphasized that, look, given that most people do in fact value happiness, doesn’t that provide enough reason to, say, prevent the killing of innocent life? Parfit’s answer is no. If rationality bottoms out at the level of desire satisfaction, and we can tell no justifying story about why we should have the bottom-level desires we have, then nothing really matters except the satisfaction of those desires. But take someone who happens to not have similar values to typical humans. Let’s say a man desires to kill an innocent person. Are we going to really just say that the only reason he is irrational is because he doesn’t have typical human preferences, that he is just biologically unusual?

I think Reason can do better than that. But as I emphasized in my last post, I think the Objectivist story about rationality only works with Human Rationality, which is distinct from the instrumental rationality we share with nonhuman animals. And this is why I don’t think evolutionarily inspired arguments for moral nihilism work. Such arguments would go through if the only form of rationality humans possessed was instrumental rationality. But humans are not limited to just that form of rationality. Human Rationality is capable of reflecting on the very bottom layer of human valuation and asking, yes we do in fact value happiness, but should we? Do we have good reasons for doing so beyond just appealing to the brute fact that we very often do in fact desire such things? Don’t we want more out of our moral theory than a translation of natural facts about what we already know we desire? Don’t we want our moral theory to tell us something above and beyond the natural facts? Don’t we want our theory to tell us what we ought to do, what we ought to value?

I don’t think any of this requires talk of spooky nonnatural properties. It requires only a proper understanding of what it is exactly that Human Reason is up to when it enables humans to augment their decision making and go beyond instrumental rationality.

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