February 2011 archive

Why Moral Subjectivism Doesn’t Imply Moral Relativism

I seem to spend an awful lot of time defending my moral anti-realism from claims that without objective moral values, then morality is merely subjective.

However, this equivocates over two possible senses of ‘subjective.’

Given I don’t believe there are objective moral values, I do subscribe to a subjectivism of sorts. However, it’s not the subjectivism that says ‘what is right and wrong is entirely down to what I believe is right and wrong at the time.’ This kind of subjectivism slides easily into mad-dog moral relativism, a kind of free-for-all where the justification for any moral norm is that I believe it to be so.

That’s not the kind of subjectivism I’m in to.

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Of Metaethics, Error Theory and What Morality Really Is

I’ll say it again: doing metaethics is a dreadful way to spend one’s time. Yet, here I am. Doing metaethics. For, like doing tax returns and scrubbing the bathroom, there are some unsavoury endeavours that are necessitated by our chosen course of life. And as my chosen course involves walking the paths of ethical theory, I’m forced to wade through the swamps of metaethics from time to time. So, don your galoshes and on with the show.

I stated recently that Sam Harris ought to be a moral anti-realist, and in shifting to such a stance, he’d lose little and gain much. Namely, he’d lose the mad-dog moral naturalist realism that insists that science can determine human values – and in doing so, evaporate the ire of the manifold philosophers who’ve criticised this aspect of his approach.

What he’d gain is an ability to talk about moral facts, or facts that pertain to making a moral judgement. This has got me into some metaethical strife, according to Richard Wein. Why? Because I’m getting all error theorist on Harris’ realism, yet I’m still talking about moral facts. But, if error theory and anti-realism are to be taken seriously, then moral statements are all false. The only point in continuing to talk about them as if they’re real is to pretend they’re real, a la moral fictionalism.

Let me elaborate. And brace yourself, this is going to get metaethical.

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Morality, Health and Sam Harris

There’s a lot to like about Sam Harris‘ views on morality. In fact, I suspect that even his most vocal critics agree with him on a vast majority of what he has to say. His advocacy for a scientific engagement with morality is warmly welcome, as is his commitment to go beyond the old God versus no-God debate to suggest a positive agenda to build a secular morality devoid of supernatural meddling.

But there’s one sticking point  – one to which Harris continues to apply glue – and one against which people like myself and Russell Blackford continue to rebound. That is Harris’ commitment that science can describe morality all the way down.

Harris suggests that science doesn’t stop at the descriptive waters edge, but that it extends as far as being able to establish our fundamental values. His brand of bald naturalistic realism is not only extreme but, in my opinion, overshoots his objective. And in doing so receives criticism that distracts from the merits of his view.

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Moral Rules or Moral Strategies

I’ve been struggling to articulate an aspect of my unfolding story of morality as shaped by evolution, and one of my key criticisms of moral realism. And I think I might have stumbled on a metaphor that expresses this point.

Moral realists often talk about the reality/objectivity of moral facts. ‘It is wrong to kill an innocent person’ is true or false, and moral enquiry is about figuring out which of these moral facts is true, and then translating them into norms, like ‘you should not kill and innocent person.’

Cricket is almost as complex as morality.

Moral anti-realists often suggest that the facts and their corresponding rules aren’t real/objective, just like the rules of cricket: there’s nothing written in to the fabric of the universe that necessitates that a ball caught on the full by a fielder gets the batsman who struck it out. But all the players tacitly agree on the rules before engaging in the game, so one can still make meaningful assertions about whether someone ought to be out or not after being caught on the full.

I’m sympathetic to this anti-realist response, but I don’t think it captures precisely my objection to moral realist talk.

Instead of talking about moral norms as the binding rules of the game – the inescapable rules to which one must adhere if they’re to play – I prefer to talk about norms as strategies for winning the game.

The rules set the winning conditions, and I agree they are tacitly agreed upon before playing, although there’s still room for debate about them in detail and there will likely always be borderline cases and ambiguities that can be argued over.

These rules might set the conditions of play, but the bulk of moral norms constitute strategies of play. And there’s no one strategy that works best in every circumstance. Even if we could come to total agreement on the rules, there’d still be room for diversity of strategies.

That’s not to say that some strategies are measurably worse than others. And some are downright appalling and are clearly unlikely to help you succeed. There are also some that break the rules, and they’re just not on.

But there will inevitably be a diversity of strategies to choose from, and which one succeeds depends not only on the strategy itself but the environment in which it’s played – and that environment includes the strategies employed by the other team, if you will.

Some moral realists would balk at this notion. Take Judith Thomson’s Moral Assessment Thesis:

Moral Assessment is pointless unless it is possible to find out about some moral sentences that they are true. I take the idea that morality is ‘objective’ to be, at heart, the idea that this condition is met. (Judith Thomson in Harman & Thomson, 1996, p.67).

Strategies aren’t true or false. But that doesn’t make talking about them pointless. There’s nothing true or false about putting in a fourth slip or employing a right-arm pace bowler around the wicket against a right-handed batsman, but it’s not pointless talking about doing so.

We’re all playing the game of life, and we tacitly accept the basic goals and rules of the game – that we’re all attempting to advance our interests within the broad framework of the laws of nature – but there are many strategies we might employ to advance our interests. Cooperation is one, and a bloody good one at that.

So, instead of talking about moral facts and moral norms as being these fixed and immutable things, if we talk about moral strategies we open the door to talking more fluidly about them.

Granted, one might be able to construct a version of realism that sets a few basic factual ground conditions, like declaring some fundamental intrinsic values, and then allows a pluralism of strategies to promote those values. I don’t think it’s necessary or helpful to do so, but you could.

So yeah. Not sure if the metaphor of cricket is terribly helpful, but I find I’ve long been thinking about morality as a system of strategies for enhancing cooperative and cohesive behaviour rather than about moral facts of binding norms, and this could be one way to make that point. Dunno. You tell me.

The Problem with Revolutions

We’re all holding our breath watching the events in Egypt unfold. Many commentators are ebullient. Some are more cautious. In fact, I think Mark Colvin makes an important point about the dangers of revolution, and how quickly the unity in deposing a despot can turn into fractious in-fighting to fill the political vacuum.

United a group may be in their opposition of something, but that doesn’t say much about what they do stand for. Those holding hands today might be wielding clubs tomorrow.

Furthermore, it is precisely in times of instability and unrest – such as those immediately following a revolution – when people are more inclined to turn to a strong authoritarian leader to keep the peace. It’s precisely when people feel the most threatened, either bodily or in a more abstract sense by feelings of uncertainty about the future, that people lean to the right.

And it’s precisely when a nation is undergoing unrest, with multiple political ‘tribes’ vying for power, that trust in ones’ fellow citizens is eroded – “I don’t know whether that person is part of my tribe or the other.”

This kind of tribal mentality is devastatingly destructive to democracy, where trust in your state and trust in other citizens is paramount to making democracy a success. Democracy only works when I’m confident that if the ‘other tribe’ get elected and take power, they’re not going to embark on a pogrom targeted against myself and my ‘tribe.’ It’s this distrust in the system that spelt doom for democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In situations like this the trust required for bottom-up democracy is so lacking that a strong top-down authoritarian government is virtually required to keep the peace. However, top-down governments are only good for keeping the peace or defending against invaders. Oh, and they’re good at being corrupt, at entrenching power, at embezzling the nation’s wealth and taking the nation straight back to where it was prior to the revolution.

Democracy is remarkable not because it’s inevitable, but because it’s so difficult to get off the ground. It often takes a unified vision, a population with a largely similar culture and value system, and a stable environment in terms of economic prospects and absence of threat from invaders.

If a state can satisfy all those conditions, and if the people genuinely want democracy – which means they buy in to a system where they might vote for their entire lives and never see their candidate in power – then democracy can flourish. And once established, it’s hard to shake.

Egypt might yet become such a democracy. I’m not conversant enough in recent Egyptian history or ethnography to say whether it does satisfy all these conditions, but I think it stands a chance. The recent restraint shown by the military, and the apparent lack of military ambitions to take over from Mubarak, are positive indications.

But, while the protests underway in Egypt this week are exhilarating  – and cause for optimism for a brighter, more open, more inclusive, more democratic Egypt – we should be mindful of the lessons of history and of political psychology and hope that authoritarianism doesn’t block out the sunlight before democracy has a chance to grow.

Why Moral Philosophers Aren’t More Moral Than the Rest of Us

Brace yourself. Or sit down. Or both. Eric Schwitzgebel and compatriots have uncovered a startling revelation: professional ethicists don’t behave any more morally or courteously than non-ethicists.

Full abstract of their paper:

If philosophical moral reflection tends to promote moral behavior, one might think that professional ethicists would behave morally better than do socially comparable non-ethicists.  We examined three types of courteous and discourteous behavior at American Philosophical Association conferences: talking audibly while the speaker is talking (vs. remaining silent), allowing the door to slam shut while entering or exiting mid-session (vs. attempting to close the door quietly), and leaving behind clutter at the end of a session (vs. leaving one’s seat tidy).  By these three measures, audiences in ethics sessions did not appear, generally speaking, to behave any more courteously than did audiences in non-ethics sessions.  However, audiences in environmental ethics sessions did appear to leave behind less trash.

I love it. But it’s actually not a startling revelation at all. In fact, it just lends weight to a point that myself and many others have been making for quite some time, that abstract moral reasoning is quite far removed from the nitty gritty mechanisms that govern and steer moral behaviour.

It’s like saying that couch potatoes who studied a booklet on the rules of basketball were found to be less proficient at shooting hoops than individuals who have practised shooting hoops.

Moral behaviour is a practice. It is knowledge-how, not knowledge-that. One can know that lying to cover up a misdeed is wrong without being very good at putting that knowledge into practice.

Certainly, an increased awareness of the knowledge-that and being practised in moral deliberation might help with particular moral conundrums, such as moral dilemmas, where various positions need to be weighed up. But these moral dilemmas often pit one value against another, or one morally undesirable outcome against another – like whether to kill one innocent individual to save five. A knowledge of moral philosophy might help someone navigate this difficult conceptual terrain.

However, even with moral dilemmas, there’s no guarantee that a moral philosopher, once they’ve come to their conclusion about the most moral course of action, would be any more inclined to carry it out. Say they decide the moral thing to do is sacrifice one innocent to save five – could they do it? Could they kill an innocent person in ‘cold blood’? Could they act contra to their deep-seated emotional proclivities?

The situations observed in the paper above are also different from the moral dilemmas that philosophers love oh so much. These situations observed are simply where a moral – or socially desirable/responsible – action is pitted against a self-interested or lazy action. If asked, many of the professional ethicists at that conference would probably agree that slamming the door or leaving trash is not morally ideal behaviour. But what they lacked was either the willpower to prevent their actions or the desire to act morally in that situation.

Moral behaviour is directed by very different psychological mechanisms than moral deliberation. We should no more expect professional ethicists to be virtuous as we would a gymnastics coach to be able to pull off a flawless floor routine.

God is Dead. Now What?

Atheism is a negative thesis: it only asserts that there is no God or gods. It doesn’t, however, put forward a positive thesis on how to live life. Yet the religion that atheism challenges does provide a positive thesis on how to live life (flawed though it might be in many cases).

Abandoning religion because of accepting an atheist argument often means divorcing oneself from the practice of religion, and that can have negative consequences, such as eroding community bonds, making us feel isolated, encouraging a turn towards empty hedonistic individualism and leaving a void in our lives.

As atheism is only a negative thesis, it cannot fill that void. The fact I’m an atheist does little to determine my positive beliefs about how to live a good life. We need a positive thesis on top of atheism – something that isn’t stressed by the ‘New Atheists’ or gets discussed much in atheist circles.

Even secular morality, while centrally important, is often couched in the language of dry reason and abstract philosophy. Humanism and other secular worldviews tend to be something you believe in rather than participate in.

In a column of mine that ABC Religion posted today, I argue that one possible way forward is to appropriate the tropes of religion to build a secular institution (or institutions) that gives a positive vision of how to live a good life and actually helps people to live that good life by participating in a secular culture. It’s religion sans God.

Already the comments are flowing – and, not unexpectedly, there’s criticism coming from both sides. I’m interested, though, to see whether this idea resonates with many people, particularly those who are quietly atheists yet are not quite ready to turn their back on their religion. I’ve already received a couple of messages from readers of the column that have expressed as much.

I’ve also set up a dedicated email address – secular dot morality at gmail dot com – if anyone wants to share their thoughts with me about secular religion. I’ve been talking to a few people locally about starting a small group to discuss secular religion and start practising what it preaches (if that’s the right term…). If you happen to be in Sydney, perhaps you can join in.