Terry and Andy on Morality

A discussion between Terry Lewis and Andy Ryan on comment section of post here:

Andy
Terry Lewis destroys his own argument.

1) “Belief in, or lack of belief in a truth claim does not make the claim true or false. You may not believe that our town has a speed limit; you can still be given a citation in spite of your lack of belief. What the claim addresses is whether these moral categories exist in reality, not in someone’s belief system.”
2) “Yet, atheists commonly make moral demands; for example, that theists “stop imposing their morality”. This demand certainly assumes that theists “ought” to act in a particular way. Yet, without objective morality, no such “ought” can exist.”

Terry’s claimed evidence for objective moral truths is the way that atheists act, or what they believe, yet he says himself that any individual’s belief on the matter has no bearing on whether it is true.

Thus even by Terry’s own argument, it’s irrelevant whether atheists behave as if they believe objective moral truths are real or not.

“In an amoral universe, one is hard-pressed to determine how the idea of moral categories would come to be”

Pro-social behaviour in intelligent pack species appears to aids survival, it’s rather unlikely that such behaviour wouldn’t be selected for over many generations. This is backed up by both biology and math, in the form of game theory.

Terry
Andy, I’m not arguing that belief precedes existence, but that existence precedes belief. Objective moral categories do not exist because we believe in them; we believe in them because they exist.

If I walk through my office building and notice that everyone is wearing raincoats and/or carrying umbrellas, I am justified to believe that it is raining outside. The reality of the rain alters the behavior of my coworkers. But, it is not raining because my coworkers believe that it is, and came dressed appropriately for rain.

I’ve met several people who claim to believe that objective moral categories do not exist, yet every single one of them will sooner or later make a statement or comment that assumes a moral framework. I’ve met no one in my 47 years who lives as if objective morality does not exist.

Belief in the existence of an object is irrelevant to the existence of that object; that is not to say it does not provide evidence for the existence of that object.

Anything that evolves, including morality (or in your words, pro-social behavior) must exist. Evolution is not a creative force, but an adaptive force. While I can understand one preferring certain actions over others in an amoral universe, this is not the same as a prescriptive moral code. Evolution cannot account for the transition from simple reaction (attempting to stop the unwanted actions of another by force or by removing oneself from the situation) to the concept of the unwanted reaction being morally wrong.

Andy
“I’ve met several people who claim to believe that objective moral categories do not exist, yet every single one of them will sooner or later make a statement or comment that assumes a moral framework.”

They assume a moral framework, sure. But you’re arguing for an OBJECTIVE moral framework. The two are not the same. It’s simply not true that a framework has to be objective to be meaningful or workable. The rules of soccer aren’t ‘objective’ except in the sense that the players and spectators agree on them. They’re subjective rules agreed upon for mutual convenience and enjoyment.

I know lots of people who’ll argue about what film is better than some other film, but that doesn’t mean they believe one film is ‘objectively’ better than another. It just means it’s better than another GIVEN a particular set of criteria that groups of people TEND to subjectively agree on. There’s no reason for a person to hold that the merits of a film can be wholly judged by the number of nude scenes it has – they’re not OBJECTIVELY wrong to do so. But most people don’t hold that view, so groups of people can have meaningful conversations about comparative merits of a films, based purely on them sharing subjective ideas on what constitutes a good film, without it implying that they believe the ideas are ‘objectively’ true.

Andy
“Evolution is not a creative force, but an adaptive force”

That doesn’t actually mean anything in this context. The end results of evolution can and generally DO trump the solutions that man can come up with ‘creatively’.

“While I can understand one preferring certain actions over others in an amoral universe, this is not the same as a prescriptive moral code.”

Indeed it isn’t. But it explains the strong instincts we have towards pro-social behaviour, which was the phenomenon being offered as evidence for ‘objective moral truths’. It is simply not true to say ‘one is hard-pressed to determine how the idea of moral categories would come to be’ when evolution is clear answer. One can breed more social behaviour into wolves or foxes in just a dozen or so generations, simply by breeding from the friendlier or more social animals in each litter. That this is artificial selection rather than natural is beside the point – it can either arise through selection or it can’t, and it demonstrably can.

“Evolution cannot account for the transition from simple reaction (attempting to stop the unwanted actions of another by force or by removing oneself from the situation) to the concept of the unwanted reaction being morally wrong.”

The two are the same. We’ve evolved a visceral disgust at rotting food or excrement. Most people would say that those things are ‘objectively disgusting’ – they wouldn’t say it’s simple a matter of personal preference. These are strong instinctive taboos. They wouldn’t work as evolved taboos protecting the species if they were ‘simple reactions’ that we could easily talk or reason ourselves out of.

Terry

It’s simply not true that a framework has to be objective to be meaningful or workable.

Objectivity is implicit in the assumption that others should find the same framework meaningful. If morality is subjective, then your opinion of the morality of my beating you about the head with an iron rod is just as “meaningful” to me as your opinion of the superiority of chocolate ice cream to vanilla. I happen to prefer butter pecan to either of them; I don’t expect anyone else to hold the same view, and I certainly don’t consider them “wrong” or “immoral” if they do not.

If the rules of soccer were subjective, then a player could play a soccer game according to their own personal interpretation of the rules… perhaps they like rugby better, so they wish to play by the rules of rugby. It doesn’t work that way. A player doesn’t get to follow her own subjective rules of play. That would lead to nothing but chaos. Even in pickup basketball games, we always set the “house rules” (take-it-back’s required; make-it–take-it, etc.) before the game started. You didn’t get to play by your own rules.

You seem to argue here more against the origin of the rules than the objectivity of the rules. That is outside the scope of this post, but will be addressed later.

By arguing for objective morality, I’m not saying at all that subjective likes and dislikes do not exist. I find little (if anything) in your last paragraph that I disagree with. In fact, I think it actually supports my point.

As you point out, if we can truly say that one film is better than another, then we must have a standard by which to judge them. How then shall we say that one action is better than another without a similar standard? You say that you and your friend can “agree” on a standard for films; but what happens when your friend insists that the standard must include the number of times the lead actor cries, and you think the idea to be simply absurd? What happens when you cannot agree on a standard?

You see, when you have the ability to choose the standard, you only push the problem back a level, for now, you have to justify… not the standard, but your choice of standards… which requires a standard itself. For by choosing your own standard, your standard is still subjective… it’s your preference!

The implication that the standard must be objective in order to meaningfully compare one thing or action to another is inescapable. John Moore says that “the objective morality is not ‘out there’, but it’s within us.” If by this, he means that it originates from within us, then I think we can safely conclude that he is mistaken.

One can breed more social behaviour into wolves or foxes in just a dozen or so generations, simply by breeding from the friendlier or more social animals in each litter.

I have no doubt that aggressive tendencies can have a genetic component. I don’t question that we might prefer our companion and service animals to be less aggressive. What you have demonstrated is a variance in the predisposition to aggression. We don’t have to invoke moral values to prefer one over the other; nor do we require moral concepts to work toward breeding toward the traits we want to reinforce.

In other words, your example says nothing about whether one ought or ought not to be aggressive. You are presuming that the “is” of aggressive vs. non-aggressive behavior can derive an “ought” in a materialistic universe with no grounding for “oughts”. This is an invalid leap in logic.

Andy
“Objectivity is implicit in the assumption that others should find the same framework meaningful”

No it isn’t. It just has to be agreed upon – or even just shared in an unspoken way – by the people having the discussion. If you’re saying those unspoken shared values make them ‘objective’ then you’ve removed the need for a God to make them objective.

“If morality is subjective, then your opinion of the morality of my beating you about the head with an iron rod is just as “meaningful” to me as your opinion of the superiority of chocolate ice cream to vanilla.”

No, that doesn’t follow in the slightest. If you value human life – which A) most people do (including you) and which B) doesn’t require morality to be objective – then you will obviously see far greater consequences in beating someone over the head with an iron rod than choosing chocolate over vanilla.

Terry, any discussion here is going to be hard if you make such baseless assertions, simply because it wastes time dealing with each one. I don’t mind spending time replying to you, it’s just wearing replying to points like the one above that surely you wouldn’t make if you gave them a little bit more thought.

“If the rules of soccer were subjective, then a player could play a soccer game according to their own personal interpretation of the rules”

No. A group of people just have to agree to play by the SAME set of rules. There ARE many different sets of rules to soccer and there’s nothing ‘objectively correct’ about any of them.

“Even in pickup basketball games, we always set the “house rules””

Exactly, you actually agree to my point. How those particular sets of rules came to be is irrelevant – the important thing is simply that everyone’s playing by the SAME rules.

So to say meaningful discussions about morality cannot take place unless the ‘rules’ of morality are ‘objective’ is not true – the important thing is simply that those involved agree on the same basic set of ‘rules’. Obviously there are disagreements about how exactly those rules play out, but that’s analogous to the Supreme Court discussing how exactly to apply the Constitution.

Again, how the rules originated doesn’t affect whether or how people can discuss them, or whether they can be meaningful for those involved. The accepted rules IFAB rules of football (soccer), as backed by FIFA may have arisen by a combination of convention, tradition, and simple convenience – it doesn’t matter. What matters is everyone’s playing by the same rules.

Likewise, the generally accepted morals of our society could be a mix of tradition, mores, laws, combined with our natural taboos and social instincts – rather than ‘objective moral truths’ reflecting the nature of a God. You’ve said nothing that makes the former explanation impossible, incoherent or even unlikely.

“What you have demonstrated is a variance in the predisposition to aggression.”

And also a predisposition to be more maternal, more caring of others, more altruistic etc. My point stands.

“You are presuming that the “is” of aggressive vs. non-aggressive behavior can derive an “ought” in a materialistic universe”

I did no such thing at any point, in any of posts.

“What happens when you cannot agree on a standard [on films]?”

I’ve never come across a situation when it happens. Most people DO agree on these basic standards. The analogy to that is what if you meet a psychopath – who perhaps has no value for human life – and the answer is that in such a situation quoting ‘objective moral truths’ at such an individual is no help! The fact is that most people DO agree on these things and pointing out anomalies is no more help to your argument than mine.

Terry

[TL] “Objectivity is implicit in the assumption that others should find the same framework meaningful”
[AR] No it isn’t. It just has to be agreed upon – or even just shared in an unspoken way – by the people having the discussion.

I’m sorry, but this is simply incorrect. If you have to agree, decide, or choose for it to be true, then it is by definition, subjective. In your scenario, the “people having the discussion” are the truthmaker, and they must agree on what morality will mean for them. I was not arguing against this type of subjective morality; but, objective morality must exist for subjective morality to work.

My statement above points out that while this may work well for persons inside the discussion, it cannot address outsiders to the discussion in any meaningful way. If I’m not a part of your discussion, then why should I respect the choices made by your group?

It gets worse; your example of subjective morality implies a notion of honor, which is a moral concept. For your example to work, the group must assume that if someone is a part of the agreement, that they ought to follow through and honor the agreement. Where do you get that “ought”?

If you value human life… you will obviously see far greater consequences in beating someone over the head with an iron rod than choosing chocolate over vanilla.

First of all, I did not equate the two actions. I said without objective morality, your opinion of my brutal attack on you is of equal value as your opinion of ice cream flavors. This is true by definition–without objective moraltiy, all moral “truths” are subjective… you can define them however you want. I could care less which ice cream flavor you prefer… why should I care which of my actions you prefer?

I’ve had this conversation with many who recoil in horror when I make a statement that sounds this callous. What they forget is, given the worldview they are defending, “right” and “wrong” do not exist. They may even suggest that I’m a horrible person, but in their worldview, “horrible” is meaningless. So if what you are defending is true, why should I care what you think about my actions? Because I want to be “good”? Good has no meaning in an amoral universe.

Secondly, even if one does not value human life, they can still see a difference in the consequences. The premise, “If you value human life” has nothing to do with the conditional part of your statement. I completely agree that the consequences are different, and that the magnitude of the consequences are also different.

So, are you saying that I ought to value human life? Where do you get that “ought”?

Thirdly, are you saying the consequences of one action is worse than the other? By what standard?

This is a blatant “appeal to consequences” fallacy. The example on logicallyfallacious.com (www.logicallyfallacious.com/index.php/logical-fallacies/26-appeal-to-consequences) includes this example: “If there is no objective morality, then all the bad people will not be punished for their bad behavior after death. I don’t like that; therefore, morality must be objective.”

What’s the difference in that and, “I don’t like the consequences of beating someone with iron rods; therefore that must be evil”.

So to say meaningful discussions about morality cannot take place unless the ‘rules’ of morality are ‘objective’ is not true – the important thing is simply that those involved agree on the same basic set of ‘rules’.

Let’s assume that you’re right: who made the rule that we must “agree on the same basic set of ‘rules’” in order to be involved in this meaningful discussion? Are you suggesting that an anarchist who doesn’t agree to these rules has no right to be heard in the discussion? Ought he to live by these rules anyway? What is the truthmaker for your answer; your own opinion, or something that applies to everyone?

What matters is everyone’s playing by the same rules.

Why? Are you saying that one “ought” to play by the rules? Where did… oh, you know the question! 😉

Every argument you have made smuggles in an objective morality. In a truly amoral universe, one can play or not play, as they choose. They can play by the accepted rules, or their own rules, or no rules. The word “ought” is meaningless; any sentence that implies “oughtness” is meaningless.

Likewise, the generally accepted morals of our society could be a mix of tradition, mores, laws, combined with our natural taboos and social instincts – rather than ‘objective moral truths’ reflecting the nature of a God.

Actually, I didn’t argue for the source of these objective categories in the post, although I did briefly mention it in a comment. I’ll address that issue when I write on that topic.

You’ve said nothing that makes the former explanation impossible, incoherent or even unlikely.

At the risk of being repetitive, can you explain how to describe color to a man blind from birth? You live in a universe with color. You have experienced what it’s like to see color. Yet, your friend has no point of reference to even understand what sight is… much less color!

You are proposing something much more difficult. You are suggesting that, in a universe where good, evil, right, and wrong exist, one (or several, but that’s more unlikely) of our ancestors invented these categories, and was then able to describe them in such detail that everyone now understands exactly what they mean. This would require the invention of several new concepts beyond these four: “ought”, “responsibility”, “obligation”, “shame”, “honor”… all of these are moral concepts that have no basis in reality in your proposed universe. How, in a world where nothing “ought” to be, do you describe to another what “ought” means?

Actually, this is closer to what you’re suggesting. Imagine a world with no vision; all the inhabitants are blind. Then, someone comes up with the idea of “sight”. He invents concepts like “color”, “light” “brightness”, “shadow”, and “vision”. Then, he convinces practically everyone on the planet that such a phenomonon as vision actually exists, even though no one… including our inventor… has any point of reference for what these words mean! What’s more, almost everyone starts behaving as if they actually have this ability! A few holdouts don’t believe; so they remain blind.

Is this scenario possible? No. Why? Because in this world, vision does not exist! Acting as if it does wouldn’t make it so. Even if one could make the idea of sight comprehensible in a sightless world, behaving as if you could see would be insane, and not to mention very detrimental to your health!

This is what you’re asking us to believe; that in a universe where morality doesn’t truly exist, moral concepts were invented (meaning “created by men”… not that someone sat down and designed morality), and somehow made comprehensible to the entire population without any point of reference in reality. Then practically everyone on earth became convinced that morality is real, and lives accordingly, although it seems completely impossible for them to even understand what they claim to believe. A few holdouts (psychopaths, sociopaths) don’t believe, but they are the ones who actually have it right! It’s the rest of us who are crazy.

I challenge you to come up with the idea of something that does not exist… one with no analogue at all in reality and that no one has ever heard of before… and try to explain it to us.

“You are presuming that the “is” of aggressive vs. non-aggressive behavior can derive an “ought” in a materialistic universe”
I did no such thing at any point, in any of posts.

In that case, you have given no explanation for moral behavior at all. You have explained a continuum in the levels of aggression and altruism shown by organisms. You have not demonstrated that one “ought” to land anywhere on that continuum. Being fully aggressive and totally non-altruistic is no better or worse than being completely non-aggressive and altruistic.

What then are you trying to demonstrate with this point?

Andy
“I was not arguing against this type of subjective morality; but, objective morality must exist for subjective morality to work.”

I’m equally sorry, but THIS simply isn’t true.

That’s like saying ‘objective rules to soccer must exist for subjective rules of soccer to work’, with the objective rules being rules that have always existed, or exist whether anyone believes in them or not. This is nonsense. You and I can make up a game right now – the rules will be subjective, perhaps arbitrary, but we can play the game as long as you and I agree on them and play by the same rules. This doesn’t make the rules objective. Unless you think that a group of people agreeing on societal rules makes those rules ‘objective’.

“In that case, you have given no explanation for moral behavior at all.”

Go back to my previous posts if you believe that. I gave clear explanations for pro-social behaviour in animals, including humans. They are there – whether or not you read or accept them.

“Are you saying that one “ought” to play by the rules? ”

No. Read my post again. I said that all that matters for the discussions (or in the analogy, the game) to be MEANINGFUL is that everyone plays by the same rules.

“Every argument you have made smuggles in an objective morality.”

I think you’re confusing my posts with someone else’s, Terry.

Terry
Andy:

“…objective morality must exist for subjective morality to work.”

…That’s like saying ‘objective rules to soccer must exist for subjective rules of soccer to work’, with the objective rules being rules that have always existed, or exist whether anyone believes in them or not….

You and I can make up a game right now – the rules will be subjective, perhaps arbitrary…

But what you give with one hand, you take with the other. You say that we can do this with no objective rules at all. But then you add a requirement (in other words, an objective rule)… “as long as you and I agree on them and play by the same rules.” Are you saying that we must agree on the rules? Are you saying I ought to follow the rules? These are not in-game concepts, but metagame concepts. Where do these meta-game rules come from?

You cannot complain that I’m not playing “fair” if I refuse to play by our agreed-upon rules. You may not like my using a different set of rules, but how do you claim that I “ought” not do so?

Unless you think that a group of people agreeing on societal rules makes those rules ‘objective’.

As I said above, if you have to agree to it, then it is by definition subjective. What you are not explaining is why one ought to keep their word when they agree to these rules. That’s an underlying assumption that you’re making without warrant.

But then you deny this assumption?

“Are you saying that one “ought” to play by the rules? ”

No.

So which is it? If you can’t even say I “ought” to play by the rules, then any subjective “rules” we create are meaningless… thus my statement that subjective morality requires objective morality.

I said that all that matters for the discussions (or in the analogy, the game) to be MEANINGFUL is that everyone plays by the same rules.

What do you mean by meaningful in this context?

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