by Massimo Pigliucci
Similarly with ethics: we need an evolutionary understanding of where a strong sense of right and wrong comes from as an instinct, and a neurobiological account of how our brains function (or malfunction) when they engage in ethical reasoning. But it is the moral philosopher, not the evolutionary biologist or the neurobiologist, we should check with if we want to know whether a particular piece of ethical reasoning is logically sound or not.
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.Nowhere does Hume say that there is an in principle unbridgeable gap between is and ought. He is simply, very reasonably, pointing out that one cannot “imperceptibly” slide from one type of consideration to the other without providing explanations and reasons.
Thank you for this concise article, Prof Pigliucci!ReplyDelete
Two points, if I may:
1. "More broadly, no philosopher since Heidegger has indulged in writings aimed at showing that tyranny is better than democracy"
This is not entirely correct (depending on what you mean by 'tyranny'), since Hans-Hermann Hoppe has argued both against democracy and in favour of hereditary absolute monarchy.
2. Hume's conclusion that "the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason" implies that there is no logical nor even reasonable mechanism by which prescriptive statements can be derived from descriptive statements alone. This amounts to "an in principle unbridgeable gap between is and ought." Hume's Law stands. Whether descriptive statements might have normative preconditions or presuppositions is of no consequence for the principle itself.
...there is no logical nor even reasonable mechanism by which prescriptive statements can be derived from descriptive statements alone.Delete
Is an expression of value not a descriptive statement?
If so, then its inclusion would seem to complete the prescriptive argument (though not necessarily to everyone's satisfaction).
"I bet dollars to donuts that the overwhelming majority of scientists has never heard of the is/ought problem"ReplyDelete
I'll take that bet with 100 donuts. I haven't looked into it at all yet. Shall we stipulate "overwhelming majority" is 75% or will you insist on 67%? And does "heard of" just mean something like name recognition of politicians? That is, they don't have to state the problem in a full sentence or know it originated with Hume.
thanks for your comments. I think one can read Hume (“founded merely on...”) as stating that there is a connection btw values and facts, but not an obvious one, one that doesn’t require argument. Indeed, this would seem to be in synch with his naturalistic approach to morality. But I’m not Hume scholar, I simply wanted to point out that skeptics often invoke the is/ought “fallacy” without actually haven’t read any philosophy.
I’ll take the bet, 75% sounds good. But sorry, as a matter of principle I never bet more than one donut at a time...
Good post. Shermer and Harris both seem fond of an approach we could call Reductio Plus Handwaving.ReplyDelete
In Harris' case, it starts by saying that the vagueness of the term "well-being" should not deter us from thinking that there are facts of the matter about well-being, because obviously a world of total and utter suffering is better than a world of bliss. Therefore, everything in between is pinned down by empirical evidence (handwave, "fMRI," handwave) and ethics is a science.
Shermer seems to be doing a similar thing: a liberal market democracy is better than an economically backward kleptocracy; therefore, everything in between is pinned down by empirical evidence ("Should fairness trump aggregate utility? Bring in the fMRI!") and ethics is a science.
However, to be charitable for a minute, they are sort of gesturing in their somewhat scientistic way in the direction of a true (although somewhat trivial) point. Economists talk a lot about Pareto improvements. Pareto improvements are improvements that make no-one worse off, while making at least one person better off. Economists sometimes say that they can't tell you how to weight fairness and other difficult problems, but they can unabashedly recommend Pareto improvements, which are in a sense indisputably good since they benefit someone at no-one's expense.
So if I were re-working Shermer & Harris' argument into something better, I'd say that there are *some* limited but genuine facts about well-being (under any plausible construal of the term), which are basically facts about possible Pareto improvements to some situation.
Hume famously said that it wouldn't be irrational to prefer a thousand deaths to the pricking of one's little finger. He is right in a sense - you can weight your own interests as much as you like, and narrowly construed "rationality" won't contradict you. But note that he phrased it in terms of avoiding a small harm to yourself by allowing a big harm to others. It wouldn't make much sense to allow a pinprick to yourself if avoiding it would *save* thousands, unless you're a masochist.
So in this sense Harris is right; you don't need to do much philosophizing to admit that a world where everybody gets their eyes gouged out is better than one where they don't. But although that particular ranking is objectively right, many other rankings require additional & controversial philosophical premises.
So the "science" of ethics gives us a ranking of possible worlds that contains little chains of Pareto improvements. But the chains aren't connected to each other at all.
>obviously a world of total and utter suffering is better than a world of bliss.Delete
>a world where everybody gets their eyes gouged out is better than one where they don't.Delete
Strike 2. Um, I'm not evil. Trust me.
Shermer also has two racialists, Vince Sarich and Frank Miele, on the masthead at Skeptic. And I have no problem pointing that out everywhere I can. He's got little moral standing in general in my world.Delete
And, I had no problem 1-starring The Believing Brain, for other reasons parallel to my 1-starring The Immoral Landscape, to riff on Massimo and Harris.
If I understood you correct you said Pareto should be uncontroversial in ethics. I am not so sure about this, as they contain the phrase "better off". I know this term only from very basic economics, so the "better off" there means a higher profit. In ethics I'm not so sure how one would define that
I could imagine a scenario were from a consequentialist point of view everyone would be better off but virtue ethics would disagree.
Looks like Vince Sarich died in October. I was not aware of this.Delete
Doctor Atlantis, I was unaware of that, too. That still doesn't excuse Shermer for keeping him on the masthead so long, and for Miele still being there.Delete
For those not familiar with his background, his Wiki bio gives you a touch of it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vincent_Sarich
And, my review of "Race" gives you more: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1647247.Race
Why on earth is it so surprising that there are human races? Humans aren't unique amongst species in having patterns of variation arising as gene flow was restricted between groups. As Lahn & Ebenstein write in Nature:Delete
"Anatomically modern humans first appeared in eastern Africa about 200,000 years ago. Some members migrated out of Africa by 50,000 years ago to populate Asia, Australia, Europe and eventually the Americas9. During this period, geographic barriers separated humanity into several major groups, largely along continental lines, which greatly reduced gene flow among them. Geographic and cultural barriers also existed within major groups, although to lesser degrees.
This history of human demography, along with selection, has resulted in complex patterns of genetic diversity. The basic unit of this diversity is polymorphisms — specific sites in the genome that exist in multiple variant forms (or alleles). Many polymorphisms involve just one or a few nucleotides, but some may involve large segments of genetic material2. The presence of polymorphisms leads to genetic diversity at the individual level such that no two people's DNA is the same, except identical twins. The alleles of some polymorphisms are also found in significantly different frequencies among geographic groups1, 5. An extreme example is the pigmentation gene SLC24A5. An allele of SLC24A5 that contributes to light pigmentation is present in almost all Europeans but is nearly absent in east Asians and Africans10.
Given these geographically differentiated polymorphisms, it is possible to group humans on the basis of their genetic make-up. Such grouping largely confirms historical separation of global populations by geography5. Indeed, a person's major geographic group identity can be assigned with near certaintly on the basis of his or her DNA alone (now an accepted practice in forensics). There is growing evidence that some of the geographically differentiated polymorphisms are functional, meaning that they can lead to different biological outcomes (just how many is the subject of ongoing research). These polymorphisms can affect traits such as pigmentation, dietary adaptation and pathogen resistance (where evidence is rather convincing)10, 11, 12, and metabolism, physical development and brain biology (where evidence is more preliminary)6, 8, 13, 14."
'Let's celebrate human genetic diversity' Bruce T. Lahn & Lanny Ebenstein Nature 461, 726-728(8 October 2009
Interesting, Ian, I'm getting a different picture of you in that response than I had from your previous writing. :)ReplyDelete
And thanks to Ian and to Massimo for digging a little deeper into this problem. Even after reading some philosophy, in an attempt to avoid pointless depth in a discussion or argument about this, it's very easy to get reduced to "there's absolutely no clear line here for a purely scientific morality, and Harris, et al, are clearly on the wrong side of that line!"
I understand where Harris is coming from, and Shermer; it reminds me somewhat of the heady days (I'm pretty sure it was plural) when I loved Ayn Rand and knew that everything would be right if EVERYBODY WOULD JUST LISTEN TO ME.
But the more I read of Harris, the more I am convinced that his ideas reduce to "Yes, there is a purely scientific morality, and it will require this Scientismist Star Chamber Court to help us all judge things the _proper_ way. I can't tell if he's reasoned through his ideas to see the fundamentally anti-libertarian idea contained therein, to put them in practice.
Shermer was answering Brockman's annual question of "what we should fear." I think what we should fear is the usurpation of ethics by scientism-inclined thinkers à la Shermer and Harris!ReplyDelete
I understand the temptation to claim more for science than is in reality warranted. For one thing, science has been fantastically successful at discovering "the way things are" in physics, chemistry and biology (and for the sake of argument, I'll even concede some of "soft" sciences to it.) And secondly, I appreciate the desire to combat the religious worldview - and the "facts" of science force believers further into the irrational domain of faith, if they want to retain the confidence of their worldview.
But it seems like an over-compensation on the part of people like Shermer and Harris; it's almost as if they want to combat religious worldview hegemony so badly that they think if they insist strongly and loudly enough that scientists can answer the questions heretofore claimed exclusively by theologians, that they will therefore win - game, set, match - and (eventually) settle the issue of morality once and for all. Again, I understand this temptation, especially since I was ensconced in the religious worldview for half my life. But in the long run it's not going to work.
And there's really no way around the fact that "well-being" or "human flourishing" are impossible to pin down with accuracy (or even agreement). Time and again we've been shown that we can only say very general things about what it means for humans to flourish. And if you agree with Nietzsche that the truly great human beings have advanced the species and moved it forward spiritually, ethically, or even technologically (a separate, more modern argument to be made), then you might have to admit that these great specimens have "flourished" under circumstances that are very different or even antithetical to the circumstances that allow the "herd" to flourish. From Nietzsche's perspective, should we value the herd or the exceptions? Science can't answer that question.
Personally, I like Owen Flanagan's conception in his book "The Problem of the Soul" where he has a chapter called "Ethics as Human Ecology." He has a much more reasonable idea of the relationship between science and philosophy as it pertains to morality. Harris said he consulted with Flanagan when writing "The Moral Landscape", but clearly he insisted on going his own way with it. Unfortunately for moral philosophy, Flanagan has gone off on a tangent into the project of naturalizing Buddhism instead of elaborating on ethics as human ecology. Hopefully he'll return to it.
One thing that science do not do is to fall under authoritative fallacies, i swear i love Nietzsche but philosophers are bound to just say things without necessarily corresponding that to reality.Delete
Please let me make this review: Massimo compares morality to maths, and he makes the case for guys like Harris and Shermer better than they can, since maths (the one that we use since it is useful) is compulsory correlated, at least at it most basic axioms to real world. We could make the case for a algebra in which 2 + 2=5, but that would not correspond at all to what we see on the real world. In morality, we can state that beating people on the face every time you see one is a moral thing to do, but when we know by empirical thought that that does not correlates with morality in the real world. So, in synthesis, Is true that in the realm of morality we depend on axioms, and the coherent and congruent and logical consequences derived from them, but those very axioms has to be in same way related to reality, and what better way that understanding reality, connecting the real world with our understandings by the means of words and formulas than science itself.
Btw, there is an article ("The Folly of Scientism") in The New Atlantis by a biologist who takes issue with the likes of Harris:ReplyDelete
I'm very grateful to philosophers like Massimo for engaging with people like Shermer.ReplyDelete
And I'm grateful to Shermer (and Harris) for demonstrating the importance of philosophy today.
(...in case it wasn't clear, Shermer and Harris are either willfully ignoring philosophy in favor of what they feel makes for a simply stronger attack (on the surface, better rhetoric) against religion or they're just philosophically ignorant and in an ironic way, anti-intellectual. Science! Science is our god! It gives All meaning.)Delete
Both Harris and Shermer seem to use the straw man of a scientist who thinks science can't say anything about morality. But scientists don't think this at all; they just usually think that science doesn't determine moral values.ReplyDelete
And both seem to think that morality = utility is a point so obvious it can be elided rather than argued. But I've harped against this point on Massimo's blog so many times I scarcely need repeat myself here.
However, I am still unclear on Massimo's comparing values to mathematics. I know he has repeated many times that this is merely a metaphor of sorts, that he does not think math and values are bedfellows. But even so, in this post he places values along side abstractions like "math" to make it sound like the chief difference between scientific facts about moral behavior and moral philosophy is their degree of abstractness. Although moral philosophy is indeed more abstract (usually) than scientific studies of morality, the ontological difference of "ought" vs. "is" stands out even more. Science and pure math have in common that they trade in "is." But moral philosophy deals in "oughts," and it is an explanation of what "oughts" really could stand for that I, as a moral skeptic, have always pressed for. The problem is not that moral claims are abstractions.
my analogy btw math and ethics is just that, an analogy. The point is to argue that ethics is about applying logical reasoning to certain premises (some of which are our values, some that may be provided by empirical facts). That is, ethical thinking is largely about articulating the implications of different and sometimes conflicting premises or priorities. But of course you are right that the "premises" in ethics are of a very different nature from those in math (though I'm not at all sure that the latter ones are closer to the "premises" of scientific discourse, I guess that depends on whether you are a mathematical Platonist or not).
I am reminded of Richard Rorty's argument against E.O. Wilson ("Against Unity", http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/40260489). It is true that we will have increasing knowledge of neurobiology and how our brains evolved, but it isn't clear how this will (or should) constrain the cultures (in which our morals, laws, and politics take form) we create.ReplyDelete
The Mathematical SolutionReplyDelete
The mathematical value of morality is the same for justice, truth, Einstein's unified field equation, certainty, the absolute, the resolution of quantum mechanics, and the answer to Socrates' questions.
God does not play dice, = simply is!
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr and all who have fought and died for equality or freedom, as is One as is All.
As Massimo suggested in the OP, it seems a basic mistake made by advocates of a scientific morality is the assumption that what they have in mind is in some sense an alternative to what moral philosophy does. I have no problem with the Harris-type idea of a science that takes certain obvious human values as primitive and seeks to garner insights about we should live on the basis of them. The problematic part is the notion that such a science would be doing what moral philosophy does - only scientifically. This is simply a matter of not knowing what moral philosophy, and perhaps philosophy generally, (properly) do. Philosophy's relation to empirical facts is like fish to water, as opposed to, say, rabbits to water. All that a rise in empirical facts means for philosophy is that there is more water to swim in, as opposed to less land to walk on. The relevance of this is that I think people like Harris are under the (silly) idea that a growth in science must necessarily mean a diminishment in the scope of philosophy. The reality is that if Harris and Shermer actually built their science of morality, rather than wasting time miseducating the public about moral philosophy, and philosophy generally, that would be just another boon for philosophy. The philosophy of the science of morality might be a fascinating field. I'm skeptical, however, that a science of morality could work in practice. Any supposed scientific moral dictate would have as a barrier to its acceptance as science the meanings of all the wiggly words that would necessarily be involved. I would guess that long before any scientific moral dictate were established as scientific, relevant scientists would realize that they had merely reinvented the wheel of moral philosophy.ReplyDelete
Regarding the supposed blur between fact and value mentioned toward the end of the OP, I think there are some subtleties here to be considered. The relevant blurring occurs only on the level of human language and does not undermine the conceptual distinction between fact and value, nor the existence of a value-free factuality (reality). In fact, we need the concept of a value-free fact in order to explain what it means for a factual statement to be value-laden. Though we may have a difficult time talking about it without importing values, surely factuality - the way the world is - is value-free. ~ What the relevant blurring means, regarding the is/ought distinction, is not that there is no clear distinction but rather that we have a hard time making the distinction clear in our language. ~
"But “fairness” is a complicated — philosophical! — idea, which requires a sophisticated conceptual analysis before we can even begin to measure anything at all."ReplyDelete
This ought to be on billboards. A lot of them.
Has it ever been evidenced that Hawking hasn't read the philosophical literature on cosmology?ReplyDelete
If he has read it, there is no outside sign of it...Delete
Well don't you think that makes the accusation a little unfounded. Hawking said that philosophers haven't kept up with the science in cosmology, Ladyman makes a similar claim in "Everything must go" but about metaphysics - although he then dedicates the book to explain why. Hawking has to spend 5 minutes wiggling his cheek to say anything at all.Delete
PS: I actually don't know enough about cosmology to judge that myself.
"But it is the moral philosopher, not the evolutionary biologist or the neurobiologist, we should check with if we want to know whether a particular piece of ethical reasoning is logically sound or not."
Not the traditional evolutionary biologist perhaps, but it's a different story with the ones who have discovered that morality is a cuitural rules system that has evolved from the first social group of communicative animals (all animals in fact) to the newer human groups of animals with diversified cultures.
The goal of "human flourishing" is logically fuzzy to say the least, as in fact you seem to be confusing purposes for goals, and flourushing in any case requires different moral rules in each different animal culture anyhoo.
Not that Shermer has any more of a logical position on this than you, however. Because a good evolutionary biologist, or anthopolgist, might advise you philosophically that all morality comes down to what we can all be trusted by our cultural members to do right, and distrusted if we do it wrong. And in that sense all beings with a form of culture have moral rules and standards to adhere to. And seldom if ever can they all be in their particulars the same.
And you have no dea what I'm talking about in any case.
Remarkably, I *think* this time I understood what you meant, maybe. But I still think you are confusing evolutionary biology with moral philosophy. As I said in the post, the former can help answering the (interesting) question of how morality came about as a human practice. But try asking any evolutionary biologists whether gays should marry, or if universal health care should be a right or not. She would have no clue.
And no, I don’t confuse goals and purposes, though whenever you talk about purpose I do get confused again...
I think you are correct about Pareto. My understanding is that it isn’t even quite as uncontroversial in economics as Ian makes it to be, but it wouldn’t really be very helpful in ethics because there are so many hard to quantify concepts, like “rights,” well-being, etc. Indeed, straight from the Wiki entry: “Pareto efficiency is a minimal notion of efficiency and does not necessarily result in a socially desirable distribution of resources: it makes no statement about equality, or the overall well-being of a society.”
> We could make the case for a algebra in which 2 + 2=5, but that would not correspond at all to what we see on the real world. <
It is a common misunderstanding that math is grounded in its correspondence with the real world. Yes, that’s true for simple cases like the one you bring up, but it does not apply to the overwhelming majority of mathematical work, which is entirely abstract and independent of empirical correspondence. If anything, what seems “miraculous” is that mathematicians merrily go their theoretical way for decades and then suddenly it turns out that something they did does have applications for science. This phenomenon is often referred to as the “unreasonable” effectiveness of mathematics, and it’s perhaps the strongest argument in favor of mathematical Platonism.
> those very axioms has to be in same way related to reality, and what better way that understanding reality, connecting the real world with our understandings by the means of words and formulas than science itself. <
Correct, which is why no moral philosopher would dream of saying that science has nothing to say of interest to moral philosophy. The issue is, as I pointed out in my response to Shermer, that scientific facts grossly underdetermine human values, so that we still have to have philosophical discussions about how priorities and their implications. Facts are useful, but not exhaustive or conclusive.
> Well don't you think that makes the accusation a little unfounded. Hawking said that philosophers haven't kept up with the science in cosmology, Ladyman makes a similar claim in "Everything must go" but about metaphysics <
No, it doesn’t, in my opinion. Hawking statement is simply false, which indicates to me that he has not actually read the pertinent literature (either that or he is just lying...). Ladyman is attacking a particular subset of metaphysicians, not all of them, since he is himself a metaphysician...
Massimo, If evolutionary biologists are intelligent members of a human culture, they might be an excellent source of information as to how gay marriage would improve the moral posture of that culture. Or would you just ask those who purport to be gay marriage experts for an acceptable opinion?ReplyDelete
Also, we choose particular goals to serve broader purposes, although we can't really do the opposite all that well.
So the difference can be that we serve purposes but we don't serve goals. In other words purposes are our reasons for goal seeking; goals are not usually the reasons for purpose seeking.
I don't understand the confusion on Shermer or Harris's stance on morality. Sure there are going to be questions that science may never answer, but that doesn't mean there's no answer. Let's say for example that doctors now have the right to practice euthanasia. One might say it would be morally right to do it at any instance of suffering, because we want to relieve suffering and pain, but you also have to take into account every person associated with that practice. The families, the doctors themselves, and society as a whole. Would we want to live in a world where doctors have this power? The problem with determining moral values with science is that there's so many variables involved. And I believe what Harris is saying is that we need science to help us determine those variables. How else would we decide on such values? Of course complicated ideas require sophisticated conceptual analysis, but where do you get your analysis from? Ultimately it's science at the level of the brain. Our brains are the ones releasing oxytocin when we experience compassion and altruism. We may never find out the quantitative difference between the two, and which one is better, but we can find out how to best help maximize these values in relation to everyone.ReplyDelete
> If evolutionary biologists are intelligent members of a human culture, they might be an excellent source of information as to how gay marriage would improve the moral posture of that culture. <
In a word: no. In more words: I don’t see why.
> Or would you just ask those who purport to be gay marriage experts for an acceptable opinion? <
I would ask moral philosophers, who have been thinking about the intricacies of ethical reasoning for a while. If you had a toothache who would you ask dentists or evolutionary biologists?
> purposes are our reasons for goal seeking; goals are not usually the reasons for purpose seeking. <
No disagreement there, though no particularly deep insight either, as far as I can see.
> Harris is saying is that we need science to help us determine those variables. How else would we decide on such values? <
It isn’t just a matter of (empirically determinable) “variables.” It’s also a matter of values, which are not empirically determined (though they better be empirically informed).
> Of course complicated ideas require sophisticated conceptual analysis, but where do you get your analysis from? <
Philosophy, which is *the* business of carrying out sophisticated conceptual analysis on complex issues, empirically informed, of course.
> Ultimately it's science at the level of the brain. <
No, it isn’t. Brain science can tell you how your brain thinks about values. It tells you precisely nothing about those values. Go back to my example of neuro-mathematics, the point should be clear.
> we can find out how to best help maximize these values in relation to everyone. <
If all you want is to maximize release of oxytocin you can simply hook people up to a drug machine. It has nothing whatsoever to do with morality.
The whole point is where do you get your subjective morality from? It has to do with your experiences with the world, and that's all that matters. Sure you can say "why is suffering bad?", but in relation to conscious creatures with the mental capacity to understand they are living among other conscious creatures that are flourishing, it is bad. Is this what you mean by empirically informed?ReplyDelete
Also my point about oxytocin is that there might be other values that trump just being IV'd to an ecstasy drip. It's not irrational to think that we prefer a life of hardwork, fairness, and fulfillment.
On a side note, I enjoyed your talks especially in the Moving Naturalism Forward workshop. I can only hope for a future of moral experts such as yourself, Harris, etc. to help answer life's most important questions.
Massimo, you seem to be pumping out counterarguments with no real thought involved at all. Is it your argument then that moral philosophers are not there for the most part to interpret the rules of the culture they grew up in? Or do you really think you can all get together and somehow rewrite rules for a world full of other learned professional with facts at their disposal you've never known of? Kant tried it, Schopenhauer objected and neither have prevailed.ReplyDelete
And so wasn't one purpose of this post to disagree with those who have also appointed themselves as cultural arbiters? And don't Harris and Shermer consider themselves as good or better at moral philosophy than you?
And again you come up with a nonsensical little homily to the obvious, as yes, I'd go to a good dentist for a toothache before I'd go to a poor philosopher for advice that a good anthropologist would have the facts about.
This one was equally cute: "No disagreement there, though no particularly deep insight either, as far as I can see." And yet you've continued to mix purposes with goals.
> The whole point is where do you get your subjective morality from? It has to do with your experiences with the world, and that's all that matters. <
No, it’s a bit more complicated than that. There is an unavoidable element of subjectivity in morality, because morality is something that pertains to and is articulated by human beings (i.e., it’s not a cosmic law). But then we need to reason about its many complexities, and that’s where philosophy comes in.
> my point about oxytocin is that there might be other values that trump just being IV'd to an ecstasy drip. It's not irrational to think that we prefer a life of hardwork, fairness, and fulfillment. <
Actually, that was precisely my point, so we agree! And thanks for your kind comments about the naturalism workshop.
> you seem to be pumping out counterarguments with no real thought involved at all. <
I know, I like to spend hours thinking up new ways of bullshitting my readers.
> don't Harris and Shermer consider themselves as good or better at moral philosophy than you? <
No, they — particularly Harris — reject the whole idea of moral philosophy as a useful exercise. You haven’t done you homework, obviously.
> before I'd go to a poor philosopher for advice that a good anthropologist would have the facts about <
And what would you do with those facts? The anthropologist would tell you that some cultures engage in genital mutilation of young women and other cultures don’t. Now what?
Massimo, we could go back and forth all day on this silliness, but clearly, although I admittedly can't read Harris without a brain freeze, he thinks he's better at moral philosophy than you simply because he doesn't believe yours is a useful exercise. The way you're summarily dismissing your critics here seems to make his case. Do you really think a good anthropologist would answer a question about morals as simplistically as you've put it? Because if you do, I've made my case.ReplyDelete
"Do you really think a good anthropologist would answer a question about morals as simplistically as you've put it?"
Well, maybe she/he would also say something about the values and norms, rites, social structure and (possibly) also metaphysical beliefs of those cultures, and how they interrelate with the practice of genital mutilation of young women. So far, I would agree with you.
But I do not see how this could be a valid objection to Pigliucci's point. Even if we had this knowledge about the rites, the values and norms etc. these cultures embrace, it would not say much about the ethical question if genital mutilation is morally right or wrong, and why (especially since most anthropologists, like ethnologists, often accept moral relativism as part of their methodological self-understanding, i.e. do deny that there are moral principles etc. that can be universally true for all humans - or even for humans and animals, and so on).
Then, the only thing one could say on basis of the "facts" is more or less what Pigliucci already pointed out: that some cultures do it and find it morally acceptable (because of this or that), and other cultures do not (because of this or that). How could this settle the systematic, not historical or hermeneutical question about the moral rightness or wrongness of the practice of genital mutilation?
Facts alone do not say anything about that; you have to presuppose a moral principle or a hierarchy of values or the like before any facts may give answers to such a question. It might be that one is not really aware that one already presupposes such a thing without critically examining it beforehand (I think Harris is a good example for this). But that does not make a difference to the fact THAT such a framework is presupposed (and has to be logically presupposed, I may add). (In fact, one could further argue that also meta-ethical assumptions are regularly presupposed, such as the possibility of ethics altogether, for example).
Of course, if you, for example, accept some kind of an utilitarian framework, say, preference utilitarianism, you are (among other things) interested in facts about preferences and their fulfillment, as you need them in order to decide which action will maximize utility (since the utilitarian moral principle says, simplistically summarized, that the action that most maximizes utility for all moral beings is the most moral action).
But such a framework is not a "given" that you get just from looking at facts - it's a philosophical theory that has to be mainly philosophically justified (and philosophically criticized). Which is not to say that there is never empirical knowledge that might be of relevance for such a task; but the latter is miles away from the claim that science alone will be able to show that a certain ethical framework with its moral principle etc. is true.
"but the latter is miles away from the claim that science alone will be able to show that a certain ethical framework with its moral principle etc. is true."Delete
I made no claim that any ethical framework with its moral principles us true, that was the point.
"I made no claim that any ethical framework with its moral principles us true, that was the point."Delete
You're embracing moral relativism or skepticism, then? That's o.k., but these are philosophical stances as well, and nothing that is just a fact of the world.
What I don't understand, in this case, is the following you have written:
"If evolutionary biologists are intelligent members of a human culture, they might be an excellent source of information as to how gay marriage would improve the moral posture of that culture"
If moral relativism or skepticism is correct, then there is nothing to say about a "improvement of the moral posture of that culture" (nothing that can be justified philosophically or scientifically, at least). For: what would be the "valid" criteria for "improvement" if all criteria have the same epistemic status, or the epistemic status of a criterion can generally not be assessed?
And as soon as you say, for example, that anthropologists or evolutionary biologists are in a better position to say something about some "improvement" of "moral posture" in a certain culture, you seem to concede that there are better and worse ways of doing ethics (means: engaging in normative arguing, prescribing, not just in describing).
Or would just say ethics has to be constrained to instrumental reasoning (= what are the best means for reaching a given goal in a given historical and societal setting)?
Of course I'm "embracing" moral relativism. Because for one thing, and contrary to your opposite assumption, all criteria don't have the same epistemic status.Delete
And ethics don't have to be constrained to instrumental reasoning, but it would be a good place to start the determination process.
"Is it your argument then that moral philosophers are not there for the most part to interpret the rules of the culture they grew up in?"
If I may add my two cents to this question: No, most moral philosophers would arguably not just want to interpret the rules of the culture they grew up in - they possibly would leave such work to sociologists or the like - , but want to either (i) find out if morality can be universal, if moral knowledge and moral justification is possible and how, what is special about the language we use for moral claims etc. (so-called Metaethics), or (ii) they want to find out what's the "core" of morality, i.e. what makes actions or rules moral, according to what principle we can decide what is moral and what not (so-called Normative Ethics), or (iii) want to find answers to pressing ethical questions in different fields, such as medicine, climatic change, journalism, war etc.(so-called Applied Ethics) - e.g. they want to find out if active euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide is moral or immoral and should be done (allowed) or not be done (not allowed), respectively, and especially why it is so (= the reasons for it, incl. the evaluation of these reasons, means if they are argumentatively well-founded).
You seem to be agreeing with me by showing why you don't agree. To "not just want to interpret the rules of the culture they grew up in" seems to be agreeing that in part at least they would. And all of the rest of what you'd have them doing seems to require a comparison be made with effective rules of other cultures, not to mention the professional cultures within cultures that you've singled out.Delete
"To 'not just want to interpret the rules of the culture they grew up in' seems to be agreeing that in part at least they would"Delete
As there are many moral philosophers, of course some will do (perhaps those who prefer reconstructive accounts of ethical theories). You will seldom encounter a situation in any discipline where actually all members are doing and thinking exactly the same.
Anyway, I don't see why exactly this is relevant. The crucial point is that most moral philosophers would say that their interest lies not in the interpretation of the rules of the culture they grew up, but for example in finding out what should be moral (and not only what is deemed moral in contemporary society).
"And all of the rest of what you'd have them doing seems to require a comparison be made with effective rules of other cultures, not to mention the professional cultures within cultures that you've singled out."
Why would someone engaging in metaethics, say moral epistemology or moral ontology, be necessarily required to make comparisons with effective rules of other cultures? Can you please elucidate this?
"Why would someone engaging in metaethics, say moral epistemology or moral ontology, be necessarily required to make comparisons with effective rules of other cultures? Can you please elucidate this?"Delete
Because I must point out again that 'morality is a cuitural rules system that has evolved from the first social group of communicative animals (all animals in fact) to the newer human groups of animals with diversified cultures.'
And I'm presuming that the purpose is to discover which rules might work best for humans overall, and more importantly why they do well in one setting and not another. If scientists have found it helpful to make comparisons, why shouldn't philosophers use their analytical talents to make those scientific comparisons meaningful?
I agree that Hume was saying that much care must be taken when deriving 'ought' from 'is'.ReplyDelete
I believe that most of the confusion about connecting 'is' and 'ought' comes from mixing of senses.
I explain my position in this thread.
I wish Shermer and Harris would at least try make their arguments using an existing moral theory such as Parfit's reason implying sense.
Thank-you MP, for this take-down of MS's over-reaching.ReplyDelete
Although I think the pro-Philosophy camp itself might also be confused about whether ethicists have excellent arguments for the way 21st century morality IS (right now), or excellent arguments for the way they (right now) would prefer 21st century morality to be.
The rightwing seems not to "want to know whether a particular piece of ethical reasoning is logically sound or not". They don't even want to ask ethicists their well-reasoned preferences. Their are highly-compelling echoes around their chambers that confirm their gut instincts about the credibility of "liberal" academia. That is, their 2st century teachings of Ivy League philosophers, ethicists, scientists, etc.
I suspect that one day philosophy will just be seen as a subcategory of the study of language - Massimo, just about everything you talk about demonstrates that you're not really talking about much, except the limitations of human language as model for understanding subjective human experiences and their entanglement with the world.ReplyDelete
The beauty of psychics, biology chemistry, biology, economics is that they aren't strictly bounded by the limitations of language and this is why traditional bins of science are fields which tell us useful things about the world (where useful can mean how we got here or where we want to go).