Friday, February 15, 2013

Are moral truths objective?

In the previous post, I have assumed myself and relied on a proof by the philosopher Dr. Michael Huemer that moral truths are objective, rather than subjective. For instance, I believe that Hitler was objectively evil and that murder is objectively wrong, not that they are so only in the eye of a particular beholder. As I wrote:
Hitler was evil in and of himself, independent of anybody perceiving him as such and not in definition of the targets of his evil acts. I.e., that Hitler killed a lot of Jews was certainly bad for them, but we also think that the fact that he caused all that harm was an evil event in itself, not just from his victims' point of view (and not just because we fear that he or someone else might do the same to us, chv"sh).
Otherwise, it would be nonsensical to argue that murder is wrong: after all, if it's only wrong subjectively, from the point of view of the victim, then the victim is no longer there! So, once the victim is dead, the murder is no longer wrong, as there is nobody anymore to whom it could be wrong. But a murder is by definition murder only after the victim has been killed.
The best one could say then is that it's wrong because it caused suffering to the victim's family, but that is not what we mean when we say that the act of murder is wrong independently of whatever side effects it caused. I.e., yes, murder is wrong because it causes suffering to the living, but first and foremost it is wrong because it eliminates life — even of a completely useless person who has no relatives or friends. Likewise, we must distinguish between wrongness of murder and that of threat of murder.
There are, of course, those who disagree that Hitler was objectively evil. In my opinion, they are objectively wrong, just like those who think that moon is made of cheese, but our disagreement is not subjective. My disagreement with my wife over whether fish tastes good is, on the other hand, subjective. Neither of us thinks that it is an independent property of fish to taste good or not; we think that tasting good/bad is a unique reaction that fish produces in our brains/minds.

Dr. Huemer attempts to prove objectivity of moral truths in his essay Moral Objectivism. I urge you to read it carefully to judge for yourself whether he is successful. But I also wanted to quote a summary of his argument from another paper on moral objectivism:
[Claim:] Moral values are objective. That is, they really exist, and are independent of observers.
I have discussed this issue at length elsewhere and do not wish to repeat myself (at least not very much), so I will just review briefly two general reasons for this opinion. First, and most importantly, I think it is essential to our common sense conception of morality. When we contemplate or discuss moral issues, we normally experience ourselves as exploring a subject, debating matters of substance, and trying to make the correct judgements about them. Nor do we think that our obligations (etc.) depend on our or anyone's beliefs about them. We do not, for example, think that one way to solve all the world's problems would be for everybody to get together and agree not to consider anything bad anymore. We don't think, for instance, that one way to eliminate all oppression would be for a sufficient number of people to say, "There's no oppression." 
Therefore, we think that the evil (and of course the same would be true of good) exists independently of what observers say or think. And I think that one always ought to assume that things are the way they appear, until they can be proven otherwise. [Emphasis added — AC.]
Second, moral objectivism (like objectivism in general) seems to be entailed by the law of excluded middle and the correspondence theory of truth, along with a couple of what seem equally obvious observations about morality:
(1) There are moral propositions. 
(2) So they are each either true or false. (by law of excluded middle) 
(3) And it's not that they're all false. Surely it is true, rather than false, that Josef Stalin's activities were bad. (Although some communists would disagree, we needn't take their view seriously, and moreover, even they would admit some moral judgement, such as, "Stalin was good.")
(4) So some moral judgements correspond to reality. (from 2,3, and the correspondence theory of truth)
(5) So moral values are part of reality. (which is objectivism)
I don't know if a typical subjectivist would try denying (3), but if so, then to resolve the dispute, what we have to do is weigh the plausibility of the most plausible moral judgement there is (since he claims it is false) against the plausibility of whatever argument he produces (assuming he has one). For instance, suppose that the most plausible moral judgement you can think of is "It is wrong to torture people just for the fun of it;" and suppose that the subjectivist claims that this is not true; and suppose he claims it on the basis that the existence of moral values is incompatible with logical positivism. Then what we have to ask is: Which do we find more plausible, that it is wrong to torture people just for the fun of it, or that logical positivism is true?
This is just an example of the sort of difficulty the subjectivist or skeptic will get into, which convinces me that no argument against objectivism could possibly discharge its burden.
In other words, what Dr. Huemer is saying is called phenomenological conservatism (in this context: phenomenological = pertaining to our observations; conservatism = taking stuff seriously). Which means: if you see that an apple is round, unless there is a good reason for you to think otherwise, you can assume it's round. If you think there are ten bottles left in a pack after you took out two of then, you should treat that thought as a fact, unless someone demonstrates to you that your math or knowledge of facts (e.g., someone taking a bottle without you knowing) are wrong.

The same goes for moral knowledge: if we know that Hitler was objectively evil (because we perceive him to be evil), then unless some other observations tell us otherwise, we should assume he was objectively evil: that he had a property of evil to him (or his actions). In Moral Objectivism, Dr. Huemer refutes a number of subjectivist arguments against objectivism: for instance, that our feeling that Hitler was evil is just an emotion. He says:

Call the first the appeal to introspection. The making of a normative judgement is experienced as just that — making a judgement: i.e., as a matter of good phenomenology, when one considers a moral issue, it seems clear, one is engaged in that mental process known as judgement; one is not primarily engaged in imagination or memory or perception or feeling (though those may accompany the process of judgement, of course). And I think that everybody can see this if they think about it — that is why moral judgements are, after all, called "judgements". 
If someone reports that when he introspects he does not ever detect a process of judgement going on where morals or practical matters (meaning matters of what to do) are concerned, then in the first place, I won't believe it, and in the second place, if I did then I would conclude that the unfortunate fellow is simply unable to grasp moral concepts and is therefore unable to think about them — I would conclude that he is moved by emotions and instincts rather than reason and morality. Moral concepts and arguments are as a rule highly abstract, and the existence of such people as cannot understand them is certainly not inconceivable. Animals are most likely all in that position.

In other words, upon introspection, moral judgments don't "feel" like emotions, projection, social norms that you liked, etc. They feel like judgments: perceptions about reality no different in principle from judgments like "there are ten bottles in the pack" or "apple is round". And, unless there is a good reason to disbelieve this introspection, then we should continue believing it.

You may ask: if moral truths are truly objective, then how do we come to know them and how to we verify that our knowledge is correct (after all, people disagree on morality — even  objective morality — all the time). And isn't there a pernicious is-ought problem that prevents us from deriving any ought statements from is observations of the world?

Dr. Huemer's answer is that we come to know the moral truths intuitively. In a sense, moral knowledge is the sixth sense. Dr. Huemer defends this view in this and some other essays, as well as one of his books, Ethical Intuitionism.

The famous libertarian-anarchist economist and legal philosopher David Friedman also touched on this subject:
Let me suggest an analogy that I find informative. Think of moral intuitions as playing the same role in our knowledge of normative propositions that sense data play in our knowledge of positive propositions. 
The way we choose scientific theories is precisely by taking our sense data as input and trying to make sense of what they tell us. And it would seem very odd to argue that "it is not clear why we need theories at all: we can just consult our sense data" for understanding the world. For one thing, having formed theories, we sometimes use them to conclude that we ought not to believe particular sense data. [...] 
For me, at least, the crucial step to making this account plausible was realizing how shaky the basis is on which we accept our senses' account of the physical world (to the extent that we do). While the grounds for belief in physical objective reality—more precisely, in an objective reality reasonably close to what our senses report--are not as strong as they might at first seem, they are, in my view strong enough. The grounds for belief in a normative objective reality are not, in my view, enormously weaker. [...] 
If you take the sixth sense analogy seriously, the next step is to ask why you believe the other five senses. The answer is not "because I understand how they work." To begin with, you probably don't, and even if you do, Aristotle certainly didn't—and none of us are willing to argue that he ought to have denied the evidence of the senses. 
You believe your five senses because you have imposed on them all the consistency tests you can think of, and they have mostly passed. You see something, your eyes tell you an object is there, you reach out and sure enough you can touch it. The thing is a bell. Last time you tried hitting a bell your ears told you there was a sound; you try it again and it still works. 
Occasionally there is an apparent contradiction—you can't touch a holographic image, and when you hit a holographic image of a bell it doesn't make a noise. But as you get farther and farther into the structure of the physical world revealed by your senses more and more of those contradictions turn out to make sense after all. 
A second set of tests occurs to you. Your senses tell you that other people are very much like you. If so, they should perceive the same physical universe. You ask them, and sure enough they almost always do—again with very rare exceptions such as color blindness, exceptions that turn out, on further examination, to make sense. 
Note, however, that what you are finding to be consistent is observation of very primitive facts—there is a table there, there is not a lion sitting on the table. About the patterns implied by those facts—for example, whether capitalism or socialism results in higher standards of living, or whether the earth goes around the sun or the sun around the earth, or whether paying enough money to the Church of Scientology will turn you into a superman—there is lots of disagreement. 
You conclude that your senses give you a reasonably accurate picture of the base facts of physical reality, consistent with that of almost everyone else, but that reasoning up from there is sufficiently hard, and/or depends sufficiently on the particular subset of facts observed, so that people disagree a good deal—and your confidence about your beliefs on that level should be appropriately weaker. You accordingly conclude that the physical universe is really out there, and the parts you have observed really have about the characteristics you observe. If someone tells you that there is a lion on the table you conclude he is a lunatic. If he is very convincing, you ask a few other people first and then conclude he is a lunatic. 
Now apply the same approach to moral reality. Replace sense perceptions with moral judgements—not grand theories such as "you should never violate rights" but "perceptions" such as "in the following well described situation, person X acted wrongly." Checking with other people you find, pace the ethical relativists, a very high degree of agreement. The disagreement either involves the sort of situation that, on consideration, you find morally difficult or (far more often) disagreement about the assumed facts, not the judgements. 
Some people will find this claim implausible. I offer as one of my reasons for it the following observation: 
I have been arguing politics for a long time. In arguing with people on the left, I find it is very hard to come to an agreement on the assumed facts surrounding the situations we are judging. My imaginary capitalist has capital because he worked hard clearing part of the boundless forest while his employee-to-be was being lazy and living on what he could gather—so it is entirely just that the capitalist gets part of the output of his land and his employee's labor. But the leftist doesn't like that hypothetical. His imaginary capitalist inherited his capital from a father who stole it. I don't like that hypothetical. I conclude that our moral intuitions are similar enough so that the same assumed facts push both of us in the same direction—and since we want to go in opposite directions we want so assume different facts. 
My (very tentative) conclusion is that the normative universe, like the physical universe, exists. Certain ought statements are true, certain ought statements are false. Torturing small children for the fun of it really is wicked. I cannot go behind that and explain "ought" as derived from "is"—or "is" from "ought." Both are undefined terms, which I am confident that normal human beings understand. I can observe "normative facts" and try to form theories about them, just as I can observe physical facts and try to form theories about them. But I should not be surprised if other people form other theories in both cases.

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