Morality

Grumps: There is no generally agreed upon moral system that can bind humans together.

Optimist: There is a deep agreement amongst most humans about core issues of morality such as murder, rape, and robbery.

While there is widespread disagreement about such issues as abortion, affirmative action, and capital punishment, there are no serious disputes about the desirability of such things as murder, rape, and armed robbery. The former sort of issues receive much more attention than the latter, simply because we don’t normally discuss what everyone already knows. This leads to an exaggerated view of the prevalence of controversy. 2

Grumps: Even if there is some general agreement about core moral issues, there is no objective moral system underlying them.

Optimist: Ethical intuitionism is an objective moral system without any of the failures of other moral systems.

There are five broad views about the nature of morality: non-cognitivism, subjectivism, naturalism, nihilism, and intuitionism. [All but intuitionism] face grave difficulties.

Some basic principles about good, bad, right, and wrong are self-evident, such as "suffering is bad."... We are justified in believing these propositions for the same reason that we are justified in believing observations of the external world: namely, because they seem to be the case and we have no serious grounds for doubting them... We form justified beliefs about the physical world on the basis of sensory appearances... Similarly, we form justified beliefs about certain abstract truths... on the basis of intellectual apperances ("intuitions"). Intuitions are mental states in which something appears to be the case upon intellectual reflection (as opposed to perception, memory, or introspection), prior to argument.

[For example], goodness is an objective property; that it depends on but is not reducible to the natural properties of a thing; that it comes in degrees; that awareness of it intrinsically provides us with reasons for action; that it is the opposite of badness; that things which have it are appropriate objects of such attitudes as approval and admiration; that it is a property that such things as happiness, knowledge, benevolence, and honesty have in common.

The [ethical] intuitionists view... [that] evaluative statements assert propositions, which can be true or false (non-cognitivism is false). They are not always false (Nihilism is false). The truth of an evaluative statement is not subjective or relative (subjectivism is false). Evaluative facts cannot be reduced to non-evaluative facts, nor can they be known solely on the basis of observation (naturalism is false). From these points, it follows that some evaluative statements are true; some evaluative statements are objectively true; there are irreducible, objective, evaluative facts, which cannot be known on the basis of observation.

Intuition is our means of cognizing moral truths. It does not create moral truth, any more than perception creates truths about the physical world. 2

Grumps: Even if ethical intuitionism can withstand argument, why should we behave morally?

Optimist: Ethical intuitions are evaluations, thus they are sufficient reason to act morally.

Why should we behave morally? The ethical intuitionist's answer is [that] our intuitions render us prima facie justified in adopting certain moral beliefs. Provided these moral beliefs survive any challenges from potential defeaters, they are justified tout court. These beliefs in themselves constitute reasons for action, in virtue of their evaluative content... it is simply the nature of evaluation that it answers questions about what to do. To accept an evaluative judgment is to judge something as a reason for action- to accept the judgment that stealing is wrong, for example, is to accept another person's ownership of x as a normative reason not to take x without their permission. 2

Grumps: Moral intuitions allow someone to arbitrarily declare something moral that coincides with their beliefs.

Optimist: There are many examples of moral intuitions conflicting with beliefs.

Moral intuitions are not in general caused by antecedent moral beliefs, since moral intuitions often either conflict with our antecedently held moral theories, or are simply unexplained by them:

A doctor in a hospital has five patients who need organ transplants; otherwise, they will die. They all need different organs. He also has one healthy patient, in for a routine checkup, who happens to be compatible with the five. Should the doctor kill the healthy patient and distribute his organs to the other five?

Some [utilitarians] hold that the morally correct action is always the action with the best overall consequences... but even these philosophers, when confronted with the example, admit that their answer is counter-intuitive, that it seems wrong to kill the healthy patient and harvest his organs. One's intuitions do not simply follow along with what one believes about morality... The point that intuition is often independent of belief is important, since it enables intuition to provide the sort of constraint needed for adjudicating between competing moral theories.

Not all intuitions are equal - some are more credible than others... One reason for this is that some intuitions are simply stronger, or more clearly seem true, than others. Another reason is that some intuitions are more widely shared than others; other things being equal, an intuition that many disagree with is more likely to be an error than is an intuition that nearly everyone shares. Another reason is that some intuitions have simpler contents than others, and are therefore less prone to error. And there are various reasons why some kinds of intuitions may be more open to bias than others. These facts point to the conclusion that intuitions should not be embraced uncritically, and that conflicting intuitions should be weighed against each other taking into account our best judgments as to their relative levels of reliability. 2

Grumps: Deep moral disagreements show that ethical intuitionism is a flimsy basis for a moral system.

Optimist: Disagreement is exaggerated, disagreement is common with many objective questions, humans are subject to many causes of error, and moral issues are more likely to be contested.

Some claim that intuitionism makes it impossible to understand how moral error and moral disagreement can occur... that there is more error and disagreement than one would expect if intuitionism were true... While there is widespread disagreement about such issues as abortion, affirmative action, and capital punishment, there are no serious disputes about the desirability of such things as murder, rape, and armed robbery. The former sort of issues receive much more attention than the latter, simply because we don’t normally discuss what everyone already knows. This leads to an exaggerated view of the prevalence of controversy.

Second, human error and disagreement are common with respect to many objective, factual questions. People sharply disagree about such things as... whether a particular individual is smarter than another, whether there is a God, and virtually every major issue in philosophy. Furthermore, throughout history, almost everyone who has held any views at all about them has held radically erroneous views about such things as: the causes of health and disease, the structure of the cosmos, the origin of the human species, the existence of disembodied spirits, the composition of the physical world, and the workings of the economy, to name a few. But no one concludes that these matters are all ‘subjective’ or that human beings lack any legitimate cognitive faculties capable of knowing about them.

Third, in general, even when we have available a valid means of cognition, human beings are subject to a great variety of causes of error. These include bias, oversight, miscalculation, confusion, false or incomplete information, and logical fallacies, among others... There is no obvious reason why the problems that lead to errors and disagreements about so many other things would not occur when people think about values.

Fourth, if we consider what sorts of issues people generally disagree about the most and make the most errors about, it is easily predictable that moral matters would be among them. For people tend to disagree and make errors the most about (a) issues they are strongly biased about, including but not limited to those in which their own interests are at stake, (b) issues on which their beliefs are largely based on cultural indoctrination, (c) issues on which their beliefs are largely based on religion, and (d) philosophical issues in general. This is true of whether the issues in question are evaluative. Since moral issues fall into all four of these categories, it is to be expected that disagreement and error would be common with respect to moral issues. 2

Grumps: Ethical intuitionism cannot be proven using science or reason.

Optimist: No other process of cognition demands a separate cognitive process to support it.

Some say that we cannot know moral truths by means of intuition unless we can first verify that intuition in general is reliable... No such verification can be produced. But this is not a problem, for at least two reasons. First, because no such verification exists for sense perception, memory, introspection, or reason in general, either. No one can prove that sense perception is generally reliable, using only non-perceptual evidence. No one can prove that memory is generally reliable, using only information gathered at the present instant in time. No one can prove reason to be reliable, without using reason. But we do not declare all of these forms of cognition illegitimate. To do so would land us in the pit of universal skepticism... Second... Why should any process of cognition demand a second cognitive process directed at the first one? Why not instead hold... that our cognitive faculties are presumed innocent until proven guilty? This avoids dogmatism by leaving us open to the possibility of revising our initial beliefs if new evidence should appear defeating them. 2

Grumps: Ethical intuitionism does not provide a way to resolve moral disagreements.

Optimist: Some intuitions may cohere better than others, our knowledge of likely biases may help evaluate intuitions, and even if some disputes are unresolvable, this does not refute intuitionism any more than disagreements in other fields proves them wrong all else equal.

Some object that intuitionism gives us no reasonable method for resolving moral disagreements... First, some ethical intuitions may cohere better or worse with the rest of our intuitions. Thus, moral philosophers commonly argue for positions on controversial moral issues by appealing to our intuitions about allegedly analogous cases.

Second, we can use our knowledge of the factors that tend to affect the reliability of people’s beliefs to determine which intuitions are most likely to be correct. We may reason to believe that certain moral intuitions are unduly influenced by bias, indoctrination, religion, and so on. This is true, for example, of many moral attitudes pertaining to sexuality and reproduction.

Third, even if some moral disputes turn out to be unresolvable, it is obscure how this is supposed to refute intuitionism. There are many disputes, about both moral and non-moral matters, that appear for all practical purposes unresolvable... no other fundamental knowledge source [has] an algorithm for resolving all disputes.

Finally, all versions of the ‘disagreement’ objection appear to be self-refuting... Many intelligent people continue to disagree with the argument from disagreement, and with each meta-ethical theory. 2

Grumps: Ethical intuitionism allows someone to morally justify anything.

Optimist: Some intuitions may be mistaken. Having a hallucination does not prove that perception is wrong.

Compare the 'method' by which we arrive at many physical-object beliefs: we perceive things, and then we believe things are the way we perceive them to be. This is a very simple 'method', but that does not impugn the objectivity of perceptual knowledge; no more, then, does the comparably simple intuitionst 'method' of coming by moral knowledge impugn the latter's objectivity... Many of the objections to the use of ethical intuitions would, if consistently applied, require abandoning sensory perception as well as renouncing all knowledge of the world.

Some intuitions may be mistaken, in which case they do not constitute direct awareness of moral facts. But this does not prevent the remaining intuitions, those that are true, from constituting direct awareness of moral facts. Compare: hallucinations do not constitute awareness of physical objects, but this does not prevent normal perception from constituting such awareness. 2

Grumps: What's wrong with ethical subjectivism?

Optimist:

Ethical subjectivists say that ‘x is right’ is a statement about someone’s attitude towards x. Here are three common versions of subjectivism: Individual subjectivism: I (the speaker) approve of x. Cultural relativism: Society approves of x. Divine Command Theory: God approves of x.

Each implies that if the specified individual or group were to change their attitudes, then seemingly horrible things would suddenly become moral; “If (I/society/God) were to approve of torturing and killing children for the fun of it, then it would be right to torture and kill children for the fun of it.”

Individual subjectivism implies, absurdly, that I am morally infallible: that in general, if I approve of something then, automatically, it is morally correct. Cultural relativism similarly implies that society is morally infallible.

The main arguments [for subjectivism] seem to consist of pointing out either that people have many conflicting moral beliefs or that many people form moral beliefs in irrational ways. It is obscure how either of these things could support subjectivism. The arguments make about as much sense as arguing that if three gamblers all believe, for emotional reasons, that different horses are going to win a race, then the race won’t have an outcome in reality, or it will have different outcomes ‘relative’ to different people. 2

Grumps: What's wrong with ethical non-cognitivism?

Optimist:

Ethical non-cognitivists say that ‘x is wrong’ does not assert anything that can be true or false. Instead, it just expresses an emotion or issues an imperative. It is thus comparable to ‘Boo on x!’

There is no linguistic evidence to support this. Every objective test that anyone has come up with for distinguishing assertions from imperatives or expressions of emotion gives the result that ‘x is wrong’ is an assertion.

There is little psychological evidence to support non-cognitivism either. The non-cognitivist can point to the fact that emotions often accompany and even cause our moral judgments. But this is equally true of many non-moral, factual judgments, such as people’s beliefs about their own intelligence... Furthermore, the strength of our emotions bears little relationship to our moral beliefs. You can know that Nero’s execution of Agrippina was far more wrong than your roommate’s eating of your ice cream, but still feel more outrage at the latter than at the former. You may indeed feel nothing at all about Agrippina’s fate... All of the reasonably direct and objective evidence is against non-cognitivism– moral claims and judgments act in every discernible way just like assertions and beliefs. 2

Grumps: What's wrong with ethical naturalism?

Optimist:

Ethical naturalists hold two beliefs: 1) Moral properties are reducible [without evaluative expressions]; analytic reductionists say that some expression containing no evaluative terms is synonymous with wrong; synthetic reductionists say that some expression containing no evaluative terms explains what it is to be wrong, even though it does not have the same meaning as wrong... and 2) moral truths can be known, ultimately, on the basis of observation.

Analytic reductionism was refuted by G. E. Moore. If two expressions have the same meaning, then it should be possible to substitute one expression for the other in any sentence, without changing the meaning of the sentence.

Synthetic reductionists grant this point. They say that moral properties are reducible in a way analogous to how water, for example, is reducible: water is H2O; however, the word ‘water’ is not synonymous with the word H2O... The first [problem] is that evaluative properties seem, on their face, to be radically different in kind from natural properties. Being good, for instance, is obviously a different kind of thing from... weighing 200 pounds... The second problem is that synthetic reductionists cannot explain moral knowledge. We do not know about wrongness in the way we know about water– we cannot observe with the five senses that an act is wrong. 2

Grumps: What's wrong with ethical nihilism?

Optimist:

Nihilists believe that all positive evaluative claims are false... Abortion, the nihilist would say, cannot be wrong, because in order for it to be wrong there would have to be such things as objective values. This view has such implications as the following: murder is not wrong; the most excruciating pain is not worse than the greatest ecstasy; the Holocaust was not bad; and so on. 2

Grumps: Why is ethical intuitionism so rarely discussed if it's so good?

Optimist: Ethical intuitionism has probably been avoided because of general trends of cynicism, political correctness (some people act immorally), and scientism (requiring mathematical or reducible proof).

I believe that intuitionism was rejected because it does not fit with the spirit of the modern age. There are at least three important tendencies of modern, Western culture that are relevant here: cynicism, political correctness, and scientism.

In the twentieth century... psychologists sought to show that [a human], once considered ‘the rational animal,’ was fundamentally irrational; Freudians found us filled with lust and socially destructive impulses; Marxists found human history dominated by greed and exploitation; sociobiologists found all aspects of human life dominated by ‘selfish’ drives to reproduce... [all finding that] human beings [are] massively self-deceived and considered such supposedly spiritual pursuits as art, religion, and philosophy to be covers for something shallower and far less noble than they appear... Many philosophers, who had once seen their discipline as a rational pursuit of fundamental truths about the nature of reality and our place in it, now denied that philosophy could tell us anything of such truths, if such truths even existed... My point here is that, whatever else may be said about [the preceding paragraph], all those cultural developments have at least one thing in common: cynicism... Subjectivism, non-cognitivism, and nihilism have been popular, in short, because they offer the modern mind the perverse pleasure of debunking morality.

Political correctness... [is] the imperative to avoid giving offense... [and] entails an extreme egalitarianism. To be politically correct, one must avoid saying that anyone is better than anyone else in any significant way... If there are real moral requirements, then presumably not everyone is satisfying them: sometimes, people do wrong. Some people might even have to be judged evil... In any case, if there are virtues and vices, then some people will surely turn out to have more virtues and fewer vices than others: won’t we then have to call these people ‘morally better’ than the others? But to say such a thing would surely offend those judged to be worse. Indeed, there are few more reliable ways of offending a person than calling him immoral.

If we judge, for example, that men and women really have equal rights, would we not be forced to conclude that Islamic culture is bad in a very significant respect– it embraces false moral beliefs and treats women wrongly? To say such a thing would surely offend Muslims... My purpose here is not to discuss Muslim culture, the nature of evil, alcoholism, and so on. My purpose is to explain the ascendance of moral anti-realism in modern times: the popularity of anti-realism, I believe, is in large part due to the perception that moral realism would force us into uncomfortable positions that would cause offense to certain groups.

Scientism... is a sort of exaggerated respect for science... Modern science is an excellent thing: it has given us unprecedented understanding of the world and unprecedented ability to modify the world to satisfy our needs and desires... Ethics is not part of hard science. Neither physics, nor chemistry, nor biology studies such things as ‘rightness’. Neither the theory of the big bang, nor quantum mechanics, nor the theory of evolution can explain why murder is wrong. The most that science might do is to explain the causes of human moral attitudes. Therefore, surely, the attitudes are all there is... Intuition is, putatively, not part of the scientific method. I think this is actually quite false– I think intuition is essential to science 1 – but it is widely believed to be true... If there were such a thing as intuition, then some knowledge would be different from scientific knowledge; therefore, surely there is no such thing as intuition.

The influence of such attitudes as scientism, cynicism, and political correctness is more subtle and insidious: these attitudes operate as biases, rather than explicit premises... That is why so many who hear about ethical intuitionism just consider it implausible on its face, for reasons they cannot articulate... The fact that moral realism causes some people to feel offended or hurts people’s feelings constitutes no evidence against it. The fact that science is good and science does not study value is no evidence against the reality of value.

Moral anti-realism undermines our sense of meaning in life, and this brings me to one of the reasons why I find anti-realism unbelievable. I think anti-realism really boils down to the view that nothing matters... [that] life has no meaning, because ‘meaning’ is one of those ‘spooky’, non-natural properties that anti-realists do not believe in.

Modern philosophers have tended to see science and mathematics as the paradigms of knowledge, and cases of unprovable knowledge as peripheral exceptions to the rule. But this, I realized, was severely skewed: unprovable knowledge is the norm. This is to say nothing against scientific or mathematical knowledge, but they are the exceptions — an ordinary person may live an entire life and never do one mathematical proof or scientific experiment. But each of us constantly comes to know [various unprovable knowledge].

I [accept] that in the moral realm, things are, after all, essentially the way they appear. I have moral intuitions, just as nearly everyone else does. They seem to be cognitions of moral truths. It seems that such things as murder, torture, and theft are really wrong– and not just because I personally don’t like them. I lay no claim to infallibility, either for myself or for the human community; it is logically possible that I and the rest of humanity are radically deceived (it is also ‘possible’ in the same sense that we are all brains in vats). But shouldn’t we first see whether it can be maintained that everything is more or less the way it seems, before jumping to schizoid theories about radical delusions and errors? A plausible theory of morality cannot simply ignore our moral intuitions. Wouldn’t it be simplest to say that the reason why we have the intuition that pain is bad is because pain is, in fact, bad, and our intuition is our awareness of that fact? 2


Last Updated: Monday, Sep 04, 2017 8:19:13 PM