Ethical Realism

August 6, 2010

10 Myths About Morality

Although philosophers disagree about many elements of morality, they agree about quite a bit as well. Philosophers disagree about whether capital punishment or the war on drugs are right, but they agree that slavery and torture are almost always wrong (if not always wrong). Philosophers also agree quite a bit about what views about morality are false, and for good reason. These myths are untenable views about morality, and they are often very popular among the nonphilosophers. I think it’s important that everyone find out that these views are untenable. I will discuss ten of these myths about morality:

  1. Morality is a matter of opinion.
  2. All opinions about morality are equal.
  3. It is impossible to reason about morality.
  4. It is impossible to have moral knowledge.
  5. There are no justified moral beliefs.
  6. The situation isn’t relevant to morality.
  7. Objective morality requires God.
  8. We have no reason to be moral unless God exists.
  9. Either morality comes from god or relativism is true.
  10. Either morality is relative or absolute.

Morality is a matter of opinion.

Many people think that “there are no moral facts, so moral opinions are just a matter of taste.” A fact is a part of the world. For example, my belief that I have a dog corresponds to the actual existence of my dog in the world. Many people think that morality is nothing like this. There is no wrongness or goodness in the world for my beliefs about wrongness and goodness to correspond to. Many people then conclude that morality is either delusional or is just based on people’s personal preferences. To say that slavery is wrong does not correspond to wrongness in the world, but it is an expression of my personal dislike of slavery instead. If saying slavery is wrong is merely to express a personal dislike to slavery, then it’s just like a personal dislike of broccoli.

However, philosophers at large strongly disagree that morality is just a matter of taste.

First, most philosophers think there are moral facts. When I experience suffering, it seems that the suffering really is bad. To think suffering isn’t bad is to completely misunderstand what the word even means. We say that something is wrong because it creates something bad, such as suffering.

Many philosophers argue that we can observe moral facts—such as the badness of suffering (of myself and others). I know that other people experience suffering just like I do and I know they experience suffering from intense pain. I know that similar things that give me pain (such as severe burns) also give other people pain. I know that the loss of a loved on can cause suffering in myself and others, and I can observe other people experiencing grief despite the fact that I can’t actually see inside of their mind. I know that their mind is similar to mine and will have similar experiences with similar expressions of their experiences (such as body language).

Many philosophers agree that to say something is “wrong” has to do with the harm caused by the action. For example, something can be wrong if it causes more harm than the amount of good that is done. (This is often compared to alternative actions as well. To kill a criminal might have some benefit to society, but a similar benefit might be attained merely by life in prison.)

Second, some philosophers agree that morality is a human invention, but they still agree that some actions are universally immoral and others aren’t. For example, moral actions could be those that will mostly help people and immoral actions can be those that mostly hurt people (with a consideration of alternatives), and this is true for everyone. Certain things really do help people and certain things really do hurt people. The words “hurt” and “help” could refer to things people agree to, even if they don’t refer to things beyond our interests (e.g. suffering is a form of harm).

Imagine that morality is just a matter of taste. In that case you could never reason with anyone and explain to them why it’s wrong to torture people or have slaves. We couldn’t explain why racism or sexism is wrong. Either the person likes torture and slavery, or they don’t. Either they like other racial groups or they don’t. And so on. This is not only false, but it is dangerous. To think that morality is just a matter of taste is to become unreasonable. If morality is a matter of taste, then we will decide that we have no reason to listen to moral arguments. We could then decide that slavery isn’t wrong no matter what anyone says (if we personally want slaves). If morality is a matter of taste, then we would have no reason to improve ourselves morally because improvement would be impossible. Hitler and Stalin would not be evil as long as they believed they were doing right.

However, morality isn’t a matter of taste and we have reason to listen to moral arguments.

All opinions about morality are equal.

Many people think that morality is a matter of opinion, which means “everyone’s moral beliefs are equal.” This view is false. All serious philosophers agree that some moral beliefs are better than others. The belief that slavery is wrong is a better belief than the belief that killing people is always right.

How can one moral belief be better than another? Because some moral beliefs have better justifications than others. We can explain why some moral beliefs are more likely to be true than other beliefs. The more likely a belief is to be true (given our current information), the more justified it is.

How exactly moral beliefs are justified is a matter of debate, but we seem to know certain moral beliefs are true—such as killing people willy nilly is wrong and slavery is wrong. We can try to understand how these beliefs can be known to be true. For example, slavery and killing people willy nilly are wrong because they treat people with disrespect and they cause suffering. We know it’s bad to be disrespected or to experience suffering because we have had personal experience in the matter, and we know that other people will also experience such things as bad.

Imagine that all moral beliefs are equal. In that case you would have no reason to listen to the moral arguments given by others and you would have no reason to seek to improve yourself morally. No one would really be immoral as long as they believed that they aren’t immoral.

But now that we know that moral beliefs aren’t equal, we have reason to listen to moral arguments and improve ourselves morally.

It is impossible to reason about morality.

Many people think that it is impossible to give us reason to adopt a moral belief. It is impossible to tell a person why slavery is wrong. In that case it would be impossible to justify our moral beliefs. However, philosophers agree that reasoning about morality is possible. The only reason to think that we can’t reason about morality is to blindly think that morality is a matter of taste, or all moral beliefs are equal. I have already explained why morality is not a matter of taste—because we agree about what harms and benefits people. I have also explained why moral beliefs are not equal—we know that certain moral beliefs are true and we can find out why they are true.

I wrote more about moral reason in my discussion, Can We Reason About Morality?

It is impossible to have moral knowledge.

Many people think it is impossible to have moral knowledge. This is either because they believe that there are no moral facts or because they think it is impossible to reason about morality. Some philosophers might agree that it’s impossible to have moral knowledge in the sense that there are no moral facts for our knowledge to refer to. However, most philosophers think there are moral facts and no one should blindly accept that moral knowledge is impossible. Before committing yourself to that view, you should know why most philosophers disagree with it. For example, suffering seems to be really bad and not just something we agree is bad. Suffering is bad no matter what people believe about it.

Additionally, philosophers almost unanimously agree that we can reason about morality and I have explained why. The superficial belief that moral knowledge is impossible quickly leads people to reject moral reasoning and the intention to improve themselves morally, but almost no philosophers think that. All philosophers I know of agree that we can reason about morality and improve ourselves morally.

Finally, it is not necessary to explicitly reason about morality to have moral knowledge. We don’t need an argument to know that slavery is wrong. Many things we know are not very easily explained. For example, it’s not easy to explain why “1+1=2” is true, but we still know it is true.

There are no justified moral beliefs.

In most cases the view that there are no justified moral beliefs is the same as the view that we can’t reason about morality. The belief that moral beliefs can’t be justified is baseless and rejected by almost all philosophers, and it is the main motivation behind the idea that “all moral beliefs are equal.” I have already explained why not all moral beliefs are equal—some are better justified than others. We can theorize about why some actions are wrong, such as the fact that it causes harm. We might be able to observe or confirm that our theory is correct if the explanation makes enough sense. For example, the theory that nothing is wrong unless I personally dislike it is undermined by the fact that I might personally like harming others despite the fact that such sadistic acts can be wrong. On the other hand a theory that acts are wrong when they cause needless and unjustified harm is greatly confirmed by our moral experiences and knowledge—such as the belief that murder, rape, slavery, and torture are wrong.

Additionally, no actual argument must be presented to have a justified belief. I might have good reason to think murder is wrong even if I can’t explain why. At one point I wasn’t sure why murder was wrong, but that doesn’t mean the belief was unjustified. I knew that murder was wrong, but I just wasn’t sure how to explain how I knew it.

Of course, we need to be able to provide arguments to persuade anyone else that we have knowledge. Sometimes our knowledge is hidden from others and they have no reason to trust us. We need to actually provide an argument to prove to others that our beliefs are justified.

Finally, it is true that two people can have different and conflicting justified beliefs. Some beliefs are highly justified and are the most justified beliefs we can have. The belief that torturing people willy nilly is wrong is incredibly more justified than the belief that it’s not. However, more controversial beliefs can be held despite a great deal of uncertainty. For example, some philosophers believe that capital punishment isn’t wrong and others believe it is wrong; and both of these beliefs can be justified to various degrees. It can be rational to have either belief once a person has a sufficient justification to hold the belief. Some justified beliefs can be rationally held and rationally rejected, but other justified beliefs are so highly justified that people would be irrational insofar as they reject the belief.

The situation isn’t relevant to morality.

Many people think that if anything is right or wrong, it’s always right or wrong. Lying, stealing, killing people, rape, and slavery are believed to be always wrong or never wrong. If an action always leads to suffering without an appropriate justification, then philosophers will agree that it is always wrong. However, it isn’t clear that all wrong actions are always wrong in this way. In fact, the situation is always relevant to moral reasoning. If the situation is one in which people are harmed with little to no expected benefit, then it is wrong. If the situation is one in which lying or killing a person is necessary to save hundreds of lives, then the action could be justified.

Ultimately the situation is necessary to understand why any action can be classified as “wrong.” Although rape might always be wrong, it is only always wrong (if it is) because it causes needless suffering in every situation possible.

It might be that goodness and badness, unlike right and wrong, don’t depend on the situation. The existence of harms are bad, and benefits are good, and that is nothing to do with the situation. The pleasure of sadism can have some goodness, even though the sadism can motivate wrong behavior. To harm someone to get pleasure is usually wrong despite the fact that the pleasure attained is good. The harms and benefits expected from an action are part of our cost-benefit reasoning and a single harm or benefit isn’t always sufficient to determine whether the action is wrong or not.

The belief that the situation is irrelevant to morality leads to simplistic and sloppy moral thinking. People decide that moral rules must be much more simple than they actually are, and people refuse to make use of moral reasoning because the subtleties of various situations are ignored even when they are necessary to determine which action is appropriate. Such poor moral reasoning can lead to immoral actions.

I have written about the relevance the situation has to morality is greater detail in my discussion, Moral Absolutism, Relativism, and the Situation.

Objective morality requires God.

“Objective morality” can mean different things, such as “there are moral facts” or “there are universal moral truths.” Almost all philosophers agree that there are universal moral truths, but some aren’t sure that moral facts exist. However, almost no philosopher thinks that God is necessary for moral facts to exist. If suffering is bad, then God doesn’t have a say on the matter. God can’t decide that suffering is good. The fact that God commands us not to cause needless suffering isn’t what makes an act wrong. If God has any commandments, then they are based on moral facts rather than the other way around. If God likes all morally right acts and dislikes all morally wrong acts, that is because they are right or wrong based on facts in the world.

The belief that God determines morality rather than moral facts in general is dangerous because many people with such a view will reject that we can reason about morality. They think that we can’t find out about moral facts on our own—we need to depend on God’s commandments and insight. It might be that God’s insight can be helpful, but moral reasoning and justification should not be ignored. To reject moral reasoning and justifications is dangerous because they can lead to poorly formed moral beliefs. Some religious fanatics decided that slavery and intolerance was endorsed or permitted by God and they refused to use any moral reasoning to know the truth.

I discuss the view that morality doesn’t require God is more detail in my discussion Morality, God, Relativism, and Nihilism and my free ebook, Does Morality Require God?

We have no reason to be moral unless God exists.

Almost all philosophers agree that we have a reason to be moral even if God does not exist. This is easy to explain for people who believe in moral facts—we have a reason to do things with good rather than bad consequences. There is real goodness and badness, and it is rational to try to cause good consequences and irrational to try to cause bad consequences. To have a reason to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that one has a motivation to do it. Self-sacrifice can be rational when it is done to significantly benefit many people (perhaps by saving hundreds of lives).

People who don’t believe in moral facts have a difficult task—to prove that we should be motivated to help others. To prove that it’s in one’s self-interest to be moral. This task isn’t necessarily impossible and it is a task that many philosophers have attempted to accomplish (such as Thomas Hobbes).

Either morality comes from God or relativism is true.

Relativism refers to the belief that morality is a human invention or is a matter of taste. The view that morality is a matter of taste has already been rejected, but some philosophers agree that morality is a human invention. However, almost no philosophers thinks that God has anything to do with the debate. I have already argued above that there can be moral facts, even if God doesn’t exist. If God exists, then he merely knows moral facts that would exist anyway.

This belief was explained in greater detail in my discussion, Morality, God, Relativism, and Nihilism.

Either morality is relative or absolute.

To say that morality is absolute means that the situation is irrelevant to morality. To think that morality is either a human invention (or a matter of taste) or absolute is completely baseless. I already explained how both of these claims can be rejected. Morality can be based on facts (such as the fact that suffering is bad) rather than a human invention, and moral facts have little to nothing to do with God. If God exists, then he might know moral facts rather than determine them.

This belief was explained in greater detail in my discussion, Absolutism, Relativism, and the Situation.

Conclusion

Many of these myths about morality have one thing in common—they stop philosophical thinking. They make sure that there is no reason to think anyone could have anything to teach us about morality. If anything is right or wrong, then I think we have reason to think that our moral beliefs can be false and we should try to learn more about it because so much is at stake. Moral philosophy has something to offer the world, but it’s been designated a marginalized position in our society for ivory tower elites.

Some of these myths about morality might actually be products of 100 to 200-year-old philosophy that have been passed down to the masses and corrupted by a lack of actual philosophical oversight. The beliefs that people have concerning morality can be dangerous because they prevent people from engaging in moral reasoning, listening to moral arguments, considering moral philosophy, and improving themselves.

Update 5/8/2011: Made minor changes to make clarifications.

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14 Comments »

  1. “However, philosophers at large strongly disagree that morality is just a matter of taste.”

    Can you name these philosophers

    “However, almost no philosopher thinks that God is necessary for moral facts to exist.”

    Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Hume?

    Comment by Evan — August 10, 2010 @ 5:52 pm | Reply

  2. Can you name these philosophers

    By “morality is a matter of taste” I am talking about an outrageous view that moral reasoning is impossible because morality is like our positive or negative reaction to Broccoli. Basically no philosopher I know of thinks that.

    I am not talking about the rejection of moral facts. Even people who reject moral facts will think we can reason about morality. If we can reason about morality, then morality isn’t just a matter of taste. There would then be some objective element to morality.

    Tell someone that they better start liking the taste of Broccoli and they probably can’t do it. It wouldn’t really make sense to do that. But tell someone that they better stop killing people, and that makes sense.

    Find me a person who thinks morality is a matter of taste and rejects moral philosophy, and you can probably do it. Find me a philosopher who thinks morality is a matter of taste and rejects moral philosophy, and you might not be able to do it. You certainly couldn’t find many.

    For example, Nietzsche, Hume, Marx, Mill, Kant, Hare, Socrates, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Epicureans all think we can reason about morality. That’s not all of them. I don’t know of a single philosopher who disagrees, but there might be one. I think even Mackie probably agrees that there is a reasonable way to be ethical despite the fact that he entirely rejects moral facts.

    Mackie would probably also deny that money has any “real value,” but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a wise way to deal with money.

    Hume and Hare are obvious anti-realists, but they still think we can reason about morality and some moral beliefs are better than others. They might think some desires are necessary for morality, but that doesn’t mean morality is “just a matter of taste,” which (as I described it) is one of the most foolish beliefs.

    The original non-cognitivists (such as A.J. Ayer) might sound a lot like the think ethics is impossible and they thought at one point that morality was merely an expression of feeling. I don’t know for sure what they thought, but just about all non-cognitivists now think we can reason about morality and some moral beliefs are more reasonable than others.

    Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Hume?

    Here we are dealing with the belief “moral facts would only exist if God exists.” We are not dealing with the belief “moral facts don’t exist.”

    Some philosophers reject moral facts, but that doesn’t mean they think that moral facts would only exist if God exists. First, they might realize that moral realism might be true even with a materialistic worldview. That is part of the debate. Intrinsic values, if they exist, make moral realism true.

    Second, they would probably think that moral facts could exist if Plato’s forms exist, or it might be impossible for them to exist entirely (so either they wouldn’t exist if God exists, or it is impossible for God to exist as well.)

    Third, it is a very reasonable position to think that if God doesn’t exist, then it’s impossible for God to exist. It would then be nonsense to talk about what would be true if God exists. Some philosophers think that everything or anything could be true (other than logical contradictions) if God exists because his omnipotence basically just makes that true by definition. But to say you win an argument by definition is to miss the point.

    Someone could define God as “whatever makes moral realism true” but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for moral realism to be true unless God exists, and it doesn’t mean it’s possible for God to exist.

    Fourth, it is hard to say what the above philosophers would say about God’s relation to morality because they probably didn’t discuss this issue specifically.

    Let’s consider Nietzsche for a moment. First, he was skeptical about metaphysics, so he probably wouldn’t think that rejecting moral facts would be a good idea. Second, his discussion of God’s death and the relation to morality was a cultural phenomenon. It had to do with people no longer believing in God and their belief that God is necessary for morality. Atheistic Buddhists (the Kind Nietzsche discussed) don’t have a “God is dead” issue or a problem with nihilism because they never had to believe in God. It’s only a group of people who believed in God for thousands of years and thought that God is necessary for morality that will have a problem with “nihilism.”

    Comment by James Gray — August 10, 2010 @ 7:54 pm | Reply

  3. Nice response, I appreciate it.

    I would like to post something written by Wittgenstein, then Nietzsche then G.E. Moore.

    “No statement of fact can ever be, or imply, a judgment of absolute value. Suppose one of you were an omniscient person and therefore knew all the movements of all the bodies in the world dead or alive and that you also knew all the states of mind of all human beings that ever lived, and suppose you wrote all you knew in a big book, then this book would contain the whole description of the world; and what I want to say is, that this book would contain nothing that we would call an ethical judgment or anything that would logically imply such a judgment.” Wittgenstein

    Does not Luti argue against moral facts in this thought experiment? How are we to derive what we ought to do if their are no facts about it?

    “Therefore I deny morality in the same way as I deny alchemy, i.e. I deny its hypotheses; but I do not deny that there have been alchemists who believed in these hypotheses and based their actions upon them. I also deny immorality not that innumerable people feel immoral, but that there is any true reason why they should feel so. I should not, of course, deny unless I were a fool – that many actions which are called “immoral should be avoided and resisted;, and in the same way that many which are called moral should be performed and encouraged ; but I hold that in both cases these actions should be performed from
    motives other than those which have prevailed up to the present time. We must learn anew in order that at last, perhaps very late in the day, we may be able to do something more : feel anew.” Nietzsche Daybreak

    Is Nietzsche not also maintaining that morality is nonexistent? It seems that he values certain things that would be called moral actions, but dismisses morality altogether. As to your point about his skepticism on metaphysics and your proposed inverse relation, I would disagree. It seems to me that someone who is skeptical about the physical world would completely dismiss morality.

    Finally, I quote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on G.E. Moore.

    “Moore famously claimed that naturalists were guilty of what he called the “naturalistic fallacy.” In particular, Moore accused anyone who infers that X is good from any proposition about X’s natural properties of having committed the naturalistic fallacy. Assuming that being pleasant is a natural property, for example, someone who infers that drinking beer is good from the premise that drinking beer is pleasant is supposed to have committed the naturalistic fallacy. The intuitive idea is that evaluative conclusions require at least one evaluative premise—purely factual premises about the naturalistic features of things do not entail or even support evaluative conclusions. Moore himself focused on goodness, but if the argument works for goodness then it seems likely to generalize to other moral properties.”

    Therefore, is not your argument as to the intrinsic goodness of pleasure culpable of committing this fallacy? It seems to me that pleasure, being a natural phenomenon and all, can’t be defined as intrinsically good.

    Comment by Evan — August 10, 2010 @ 10:56 pm | Reply

    • “No statement of fact can ever be, or imply, a judgment of absolute value. Suppose one of you were an omniscient person and therefore knew all the movements of all the bodies in the world dead or alive and that you also knew all the states of mind of all human beings that ever lived, and suppose you wrote all you knew in a big book, then this book would contain the whole description of the world; and what I want to say is, that this book would contain nothing that we would call an ethical judgment or anything that would logically imply such a judgment.” Wittgenstein

      Does not Luti argue against moral facts in this thought experiment? How are we to derive what we ought to do if their are no facts about it?

      I suspect that he is arguing against moral realism (moral facts), but I already admitted that not all philosophers believe in moral facts. Moral facts might not be necessary for morality or moral reasoning.

      Hume suggests we derive what we ought to do from feelings and he says that pain and pleasure are the “most ultimate ends” despite the fact that he denies that pain and pleasure have intrinsic value. In other words, philosophers might reason about morality in an identical way and disagree about various things, like whether or not intrinsic values exist.

      I have written about how I think anti-realists (people who reject moral facts) should reason here:

      http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2009/09/22/a-moral-anti-realist-perspective/

      However, I do believe in moral facts. I don’t think Wittegenstein’s thought experiment proves anything. It’s like saying, “Imagine that you know all non-moral facts. What you just imagined is that you know all facts!” That is unpersuasive.

      “Therefore I deny morality in the same way as I deny alchemy, i.e. I deny its hypotheses; but I do not deny that there have been alchemists who believed in these hypotheses and based their actions upon them. I also deny immorality not that innumerable people feel immoral, but that there is any true reason why they should feel so. I should not, of course, deny unless I were a fool – that many actions which are called “immoral should be avoided and resisted;, and in the same way that many which are called moral should be performed and encouraged ; but I hold that in both cases these actions should be performed from
      motives other than those which have prevailed up to the present time. We must learn anew in order that at last, perhaps very late in the day, we may be able to do something more : feel anew.” Nietzsche Daybreak

      Is Nietzsche not also maintaining that morality is nonexistent? It seems that he values certain things that would be called moral actions, but dismisses morality altogether. As to your point about his skepticism on metaphysics and your proposed inverse relation, I would disagree. It seems to me that someone who is skeptical about the physical world would completely dismiss morality.

      Nietzsche rejects “slave morality” and perhaps “master morality” but he says that slave morality could be good for slaves and master morality could be good for masters. He rejects these “hypotheses” just like he rejects just about every “hypothesis.” He is a skeptic and doesn’t think we can understand the universe very well.

      Nietzsche can reject “hypotheses” without saying he “knows they are false.” It’s more like saying you don’t believe in bigfoot. We know bigfoot might exist, but we simply don’t have a sufficient reason to believe in bigfoot at this time.

      Nietzsche also talks about his personal moral beliefs. These are beliefs mainly for himself because he doesn’t feel confident to say that they are really true. However, he does make it clear that his morality is really superior to other forms of morality. His is more justified (at least according to himself). To say that a moral belief is justified can be different than saying you know it’s true.

      Finally, I quote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on G.E. Moore.

      “Moore famously claimed that naturalists were guilty of what he called the “naturalistic fallacy.” In particular, Moore accused anyone who infers that X is good from any proposition about X’s natural properties of having committed the naturalistic fallacy. Assuming that being pleasant is a natural property, for example, someone who infers that drinking beer is good from the premise that drinking beer is pleasant is supposed to have committed the naturalistic fallacy. The intuitive idea is that evaluative conclusions require at least one evaluative premise—purely factual premises about the naturalistic features of things do not entail or even support evaluative conclusions. Moore himself focused on goodness, but if the argument works for goodness then it seems likely to generalize to other moral properties.”

      Therefore, is not your argument as to the intrinsic goodness of pleasure culpable of committing this fallacy? It seems to me that pleasure, being a natural phenomenon and all, can’t be defined as intrinsically good.

      No, Moore agrees with me. I’m not defining “pleasure” as “good.” I am realizing that different things can be good and pleasure is one of them. I can know what “good” means before knowing what pleasure means.

      I do not say that “pleasure is good” is true by definition. It’s an observable fact that can be proven false by other observations.

      Also, Moore’s argument is far from controversial. It is possible (according to some philosophers) that “intrinsic value” can be defined in terms of things that have it.

      Finally, “Moore embraces the consequentialist view, mentioned above, that whether an action is morally right or wrong turns exclusively on whether its consequences are intrinsically better than those of its alternatives.” — http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/value-intrinsic-extrinsic/

      Comment by James Gray — August 10, 2010 @ 11:29 pm | Reply

    • So you are saying that morality does not exist? Based on your conclusion, I could blamelessly kill someone. Because it can not be “absolute[ly]” defined as wrong. Things that can not be described, seen or felt by others are still real. For example, I love my brother. You can not feel the love I have for my brother, nor can you see it, and in any case, your opinion of love could be different than mine. In that case, in your mind, I could very well hate my brother. It seems that you are arguing for the side that moral values are simply opinions, or a projection of one’s ideas. As humans there are instinctual things that we know to be true, false, right, wrong. Why do you laugh when you are happy? I can attest that you do so, because every human being naturally does so. Why? As infants we know to laugh when amused because there are some things that as humans we just know. I believe moral values are one of them. You simply know that rape is wrong, and if you’d like to argue that it isn’t, or that it could be justified, then you would not be being truthful to your natural instinct on the matter. I don’t have to have some miraculous data or backup philosopher to say these things. It’s a fact, as simple as the fact that you need to breathe to stay alive.

      Comment by kristen — March 20, 2012 @ 2:45 am | Reply

      • kristen,

        Who are you talking to?

        Comment by JW Gray — March 20, 2012 @ 2:49 am

  4. Morality cant be absolute, because to be absolute there must be a categoric fundament for it, and thats impossible.

    You can have an hipotetic fundament for morality, like pain you said, but that cant be categoric. Why?

    If you do not consider the existence of spirits or God, i mean, if u consider only the objective reality, cientific, we are matter, physical process, for the world (matter) if humanbeings have pain or not, if humanbeings are alive or dead, doesnt change anything.

    So if there isnt a possibility to have a morality outside the humanbeings interest that cant be objective, moral is relativity to space-time and dependent of the human-being. (Unless you add God, that solves the problem but creates other one).

    Comment by Caio Mariani — August 11, 2010 @ 4:57 am | Reply

    • Caio,

      I am having some difficulty figuring out what you are saying here, but I will respond to your comments to the best of my ability.

      Morality cant be absolute, because to be absolute there must be a categoric fundament for it, and thats impossible.

      Morality is real similar to how the mind is real. Is the mind’s existence absolute? What do you mean by “categoric?” Do you mean categorical? I think that morality is categorical in the sense that it is overriding and of the greatest importance.

      You can have an hipotetic fundament for morality, like pain you said, but that cant be categoric. Why?

      Pain is bad. It’s a consideration when we decide what we ought to do. Pain in and of itself might be insufficient to fully understand how morality is categorical. However, if some action is wrong in a certain situation, then it is wrong for everyone in that situation (and can’t be overridden by desires etc).

      If you do not consider the existence of spirits or God, i mean, if u consider only the objective reality, cientific, we are matter, physical process, for the world (matter) if humanbeings have pain or not, if humanbeings are alive or dead, doesnt change anything.

      If life has intrinsic value, then death is bad and saving lives is good.

      If pleasure is good, then it is necessary to be alive for pleasure (an intrinsic good) to exist. That makes a difference.

      So if there isnt a possibility to have a morality outside the humanbeings interest that cant be objective, moral is relativity to space-time and dependent of the human-being. (Unless you add God, that solves the problem but creates other one).

      If morality requires human beings to exist, then God is irrelevant. It exists as long as we exist.

      However, I think that intrinsic values can exist in animals other than human beings. The life of a great ape or elephant could have intrinsic value. The experience of a great ape or elephant matters similar to how they matter for human beings.

      It might be that all intrinsic values must be manifested within physical reality properly. No minds will exist without brains, and no intrinsic values might exist without minds. It would be silly to say that the existence of minds isn’t objective just because minds exist in space-time and require brains to exist. For this same reason it is also silly to say that the existence of intrinsic value isn’t objective just because they exist within space time and require minds to exist.

      Comment by James Gray — August 11, 2010 @ 6:21 am | Reply

  5. Sorry, my english is not good.

    We ought to agree that pain is subjective, how to make objeticve something that is subjective?

    Comment by Caio Mariani — August 11, 2010 @ 11:46 am | Reply

    • “Subjective” and “objective” mean different things. One meaning of “subjective” is that “it’s just a matter of taste” or “it’s delusional.” Pain is not just a matter of taste or delusional.

      Another meaning of “subjective” is “it only exists in the mind.” Yes, pain only exists in the mind, but that is not a problem.

      Comment by James Gray — August 11, 2010 @ 9:11 pm | Reply

  6. “Every word immediately becomes a concept, inasmuch as it is not intended to serve as a reminder of the unique and wholly individualized original experience to which it owes its birth, but must at the same time fit innumerable, more or less similar cases—which means, strictly speaking, never equal—in other words, a lot of unequal cases. Every concept originates through our equating what is unequal” Friedrich Nietzsche – On Truth and Lie In a non-moral sense.

    This work by Nietzsche, and this passage in particular, suggests that language can give us no access to truth and has influenced the following argument:

    1: A fact is a statement of objective truth
    2: For the concept of statement to make any sense, language is required
    3: Language is intersubjectively created within particular societies.
    ————————————–
    4: Objective truth cannot be communicated through language.

    assuming that you accept the aforementioned definition of fact, here is support for premise 3 which is, I think, the most controversial premise. The first quote is supportive in that if languages among different groups of people have different structures even, then language cannot be discerned, but rather must be created. Such creation is done intersubjectively in that a word has meaning to a person only if they are made aware of such meaning, and the word becomes common usage.

    The conclusion follows in that categories, such as leaves or trees or fish, etc. are not universally discerned but rather are intersubjectively created. To say that categories are extra human is to suggest that categorization is a priori, which does not jive with newly created words, like bling.

    From The Reality Illusion by Ralph Strauch:

    “Some languages are structured around quite different basic word- categories and relationships. They project very different pictures of the basic nature of reality as a result. The language of the Nootka Indians in the Pacific Northwest, for example, has only one principle word-category; it denotes happenings or events. A verbal form like “eventing” might better describe this word-category, except that such a form doesn’t sound right in English, with its emphasis on noun forms. We might think of Nootka as composed entirely of verbs, except that they take no subjects or objects as English verbs do. The Nootka, then, perceive the world as a stream of transient events, rather than as the collection of more or less permanent objects which we see. Even something which we see clearly as a physical object, like a house, the Nootka perceive of as a long-lived temporal event. The literal English translation of the Nootka concept might be something like “housing occurs;” or “it houses.”

    In addition, Nobel Physicist Werner Heisenberg, creator of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle:

    “What we are observing is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning. And how do we question? All of our methods of interrogating nature depend on language—and it is the very nature of language to refer to things. We therefore think in terms of things. How can we possibly think of nonthings, nothings, nothing? In our very forms of thought we instinctively divide the world into subjects and objects, thinkers and things, mind and matter. This division seems so natural that it has been presumed a basic maxim of objective science.”

    The question, I guess, is that a. do you see any problems with this argument?(by the way, not suggesting that my statement is objectively true, just true given our lingual constructs of truth) and b. if true, must we accept moral anti-realism due to arguments you have made about supervenience?

    Comment by Evan — August 23, 2010 @ 10:35 pm | Reply

    • A fact isn’t a statement. A fact is what actually exists in the world. Truth is language used to represent facts.

      First, Nietzsche is basically just saying that words don’t point out essences. There is no such thing as “dogness” so the word “dog” is vague. People can disagree about borderline cases and it might be that there is no real answer. Consider how Scientists decided that Mercury is not a planet. They did that using arbitrary definitions, not through actual scientific discovery. (Although saying Mercury isn’t a planet was found to be a “useful” decision because we want planets to be sufficiently “special.”)

      However, it is still possible to use arbitrary definitions to communicate. Mountains exist, but “mountainness” doesn’t. He is endorsing a sort of nominalism.

      We could probably expand Nietzsche’s general skepticism to scientific theories. The theory will have a hard time matching reality and continually falls slightly short. In logic a statement is only true if it is completely true. That is a difficult feat for science to accomplish. Each situation science faces is unique but science must “generalize.”

      Werner Heisenberg seems to be suggesting that the language we arbitrarily accept might be a barrier to absolute scientific theoretical knowledge because our arbitrary definitions might divide the world in places that have less to do with reality than we would like. We might at some point come up with definitions that help us predict the universe better.

      I believe that the argument you present is invalid:

      1: A fact is a statement of objective truth
      2: For the concept of statement to make any sense, language is required
      3: Language is intersubjectively created within particular societies.
      ————————————–
      4: Objective truth cannot be communicated through language.

      Truth depends on arbitrary accepted language (definitions and generalizations) to communicate facts. That is “intersubjective,” but either the definitions match the facts or they don’t. I see no reason to accept the conclusion that a statement could never match the facts.

      The argument would be better formed as the following:

      1. If language is intersubjective, then there is no truth.
      2. Language is intersubjective.
      3. Therefore, there is no truth.

      However, this argument fails because the first premise is false.

      The argument should be something like the following:

      1. If language is intersubjective, then it might not represent “essences.”
      2. Language is intersubjective.
      3. Therefore, it might not represent essences.

      Again, moral realism is about facts, not language. I must admit that moral realism is best understood as allowing truth in the sense that we can sometimes say true (or at least accurate) moral statements. It might be that no scientific theory is absolutely true, but they are still accurate. The same goes for moral realism. Statements like, “pain is sometimes intrinsically bad” is vague but it is very accurate and it could be absolutely true. Why? Because the statement itself is vague — it doesn’t pretend to match the facts perfectly.

      In a similar way the statement “dogs must eat to live” is true. It is vague (what counts as a dog?) but it is general enough to capture reality well. Anything we consider a dog will need food to live.

      Comment by James Gray — August 23, 2010 @ 10:50 pm | Reply

      • I do not think Nietzsche was attempting to tear down science, but rather show that behind language is hidden value statements, and that language, and any description of reality, is based on the perspective of the perceiver. Therefore, when one makes the statement “I am in pain.” many different people with picture that differently. Is emotional pain, pain? What exactly is pain? If language can’t answer these questions, can it even make generalized statements about pain and have them be universally applicable?

        Comment by Evan — August 24, 2010 @ 10:37 pm

  7. Evan,

    I do not think Nietzsche was attempting to tear down science, but rather show that behind language is hidden value statements, and that language, and any description of reality, is based on the perspective of the perceiver.

    I didn’t say he was trying to tear down science. Nothing I said about what Nietzsche “might say” would even imply such a thing.

    What I said could be read as based on “perspective.” The perceiver probably can’t understand reality fully.

    Therefore, when one makes the statement “I am in pain.” many different people with picture that differently.

    They will define pain in their own arbitrary way and they will have different experiences they refer to.

    Is emotional pain, pain?

    That is how I define it and I think it matches how most people understand it. That’s why we have painful memories, we find it painful to lose a loved one, etc.

    What exactly is pain? If language can’t answer these questions, can it even make generalized statements about pain and have them be universally applicable?

    We don’t just depend on a pre-existing language to communicate. We clarify and explain what we mean when we talk. To say we can’t use language to communicate would be absurd.

    Of course we can make universal and generalized statements involving pain. Even vague definitions can be universal and generalized. You might want to know if a general or universal statement of something vague can be true. I already answered this question. The answer is: Yes. All dogs are mammals. All dogs must eat to live. “Dogs,” “mammals,” “eat,” and “live” are all vague concepts but they can be used form obviously true statements. The statements themselves must then be general as well.

    To say, “this is a dog” is a specific claim using a vague concept and it can therefore be difficult or impossible to determine. Nonetheless, whatever that “x” is, if it is pretty close to being a dog that is enough to be a “mammal” and to “need to eat to live.”

    Anyone who knows about pain has a pretty good idea that it can be very painful to have someone saw off your arm. It might be that people experience losing their arm differently, but “normal” people who are able to feel physical pain will all agree that it’s a bad experience to have. There is a lot of wiggle room here and it will be a “bad experience” even within that wiggle room.

    I think Nietzsche is against the idea that everyone experiences things the same. He is against the idea that “right and wrong” are exactly the same for everyone just like “eating too much chocolate” is different for each person. Health is different for each person. (A healthy temperature can be different, a healthy blood pressure can be different, etc.) But right and wrong, and health are all based on facts.

    Comment by James Gray — August 24, 2010 @ 11:54 pm | Reply


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