Ethical Realism

May 26, 2013

Can ethics be a scientific domain?

Filed under: epistemology,philosophy — JW Gray @ 2:59 am
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Science has occasionally appropriated philosophical fields. Physics and psychology were originally discussed by philosophers rather than scientists. Right now ethics is considered to be a philosophical domain, but we could imagine science taking over the field. Will ethics ever be taught in a science class? Will we learn right and wrong from natural science?

People who reject that we could one day have a moral science generally do so due to skepticism, the gap between facts and values, and the is-ought fallacy. I will respond to these concerns and explain why I don’t think any of them are conclusive.

Science originally required scientists to only focus on nonmental and value-free parts of reality. The existence minds and values were both taken to be philosophical rather than scientific issues. But now psychologists tell us about mental activity and economists tell us that some ways of reasoning are economically better than another.

Economics is not value-free, so perhaps economics is close to what a moral science would be like. Economics is supposed to tell us that certain actions are rational in some sense. Given a certain view of a person as being purely self-interested, perfectly rational, and perfectly informed, economics will tell us that the person would buy the more affordable generic medication that is identical to the name-brand product. (Why spend more money than you have to for an identical product?) People are not really purely self-interested, perfectly rational, or perfectly informed. What it means to be rational is value-laden. A person who is irrational is not reasoning properly. It is better to be rational than irrational. If economics is allowed to tell us that some action is more economically rational than another, then perhaps ethical science will someday be allowed to tell us that some action is more ethically rational than another.

What is a moral science?

What exactly do I mean by a “moral science?”

By “science” I mean that the scientific method will be used and that we will have hypotheses and data that could falsify the hypotheses. I will consider economics to be a science, so the question is whether moral science could be as empirically justified as economics. I am not saying that moral science could be like physics, chemistry, or astronomy.

By “moral” I mean normative ethics—a field concerned with what we ought to do, with what’s morally rational, with what’s virtuous, or with what has intrinsic value. I am not talking about descriptive ethics, which is concerned with moral beliefs and attitudes. Descriptive ethics is already studied by anthropology and other scientific domains. Descriptive ethics tells us that people unanimously agree that murder is wrong. Normative ethics could tell us that murder really is morally wrong, that it’s morally irrational to murder, that virtuous people don’t murder, or that human life has intrinsic value.

I am also going to assume that a moral science will require moral realism—the idea that there is at least one moral fact. Anti-realists might say that there is a sense that murder is wrong insofar as we all agree not to murder each other, we all have an interest not to be murdered, we all believe it’s wrong, we care about others, etc. A moral realist will say that morality is not merely about what we believe or desire, and that there are moral facts we can discover. Moral realists will agree that murder really is wrong, and that torturing people is usually (or always) wrong.

Objections

Skepticism

One reason some people reject the possibility of moral science is simply because they reject moral realism. They think that morality is really just about our beliefs and desires. There are many types of anti-realism, such as subjectivism, relativism, non-cognitivism, and error theory. There are philosophers who support many of these, and I don’t think we can reject anti-realism right off the bat. The debate continues among philosophers, and I don’t think it would be appropriate just to dismiss anti-realist philosophy without taking several years studying it.

I am certainly not going to prove that moral realism is true here because it is a controversial issue that requires a great deal of argument. However, I do think we can understand the allure of moral realism when considering the following:

We experience that pain is bad in some sense. Pain can be useful to us (by being educational), so pain is not merely bad in the sense of undermining our goals. Some claim that pain is bad in the sense that we desire not to experience pain, but we have a good reason we don’t want to experience pain. It’s not just an arbitrary desire. Not wanting to experience pain makes sense. Also, it generally makes sense for us to prefer that other people avoid experiencing pain as well. It makes sense for us to care about other people and to want them to have good rather than bad experiences. (Go here for more information.)

One common argument given against moral realism is that people disagree about what’s right or wrong. Some cultures say that we are morally justified to punch others in the face for insulting us, and other cultures say it’s wrong to do that. If people don’t agree about right and wrong, does that mean there’s no such thing? No. Philosophers disagree about lots of things and we don’t think that means there is no fact of the matter. For example, some philosophers think the mind is identical to certain brain states and others think that certain mental states are caused by certain brain states. Perhaps we are not going to be able to know one way or the other, but there has to be a right answer. The disagreement in philosophy of mind does not seem to imply that minds don’t exist. I don’t see why moral disagreement would imply that moral facts don’t exist either. (Go here for more information.)

Even though people disagree about various moral issues, it should be mentioned that there is also a great deal of agreement. It seems plausible to think that some moral issues are easier to resolve than others. It is clear that torture is usually (or always) wrong, but it is not easy to know if we should legalize hard drugs that can cause a great deal of harm to people. (Especially if we agree that people should generally have the right to harm their own body.)

The gap between facts and values

David Hume talked about the is-ought gap, which is also called the gap between facts and values. There is obviously a difference between what is the case and what ought to be the case. There’s a difference between nonmoral facts and values. There’s a difference between nonmoral facts and moral facts. The question is—how can we know about what ought to be the case? How can we know about moral facts?

There are sometimes difficult questions to answer, but that does not mean that there is no answer (or that we don’t know the answer). How can we be sure that murder is wrong? I think we do know it, but how we know it isn’t entirely clear. Knowing that murder is wrong does not depend on proving to others that you know it.

Moreover, consider that there’s also an “is-thought” gap. There’s a difference between nonmental facts and mental facts. How can we know about our own thoughts and experiences? That can be a difficult question and I doubt psychologists have a philosophically satisfying answer to this question. Even so, it seems obvious that we do know certain mental facts about ourselves. We know when we see a yellow banana, when we experience pain, and so on.

My own view is that we know about our thoughts and experiences just by having them. We can observe them insofar as we know about them when we have them. In a similar way I think we can know that some experiences are intrinsically bad. We have the experience and we know what it’s like to have it. We know that pleasure is an intrinsically good type of experience and pain is an intrinsically bad type of experience.

Psychologists do talk about our thoughts and experiences. They seem to agree with me that we can know about them. They often rely on self-reports. The assumption is that we can generally trust people to know about their own experiences. If someone says something looks like a yellow banana, we trust them. We don’t require scientists prove that each of these people know what the color yellow looks like. It’s just considered to be obvious.

Economists also talk about economic rationality and state that some decisions are economically better than others. How do they know about what has economic value? They assume that satisfying desires has something to do with rationality. Why do they do that? They never proved it scientifically. But we just consider it to be obvious as well.

Perhaps it is also obvious that pain is intrinsically bad and pleasure is intrinsically good. Do we need to prove it scientifically? Not everything in science is proven scientifically. It could be taken to be an axiom or as a justified assumption.

The is-ought fallacy

A lot of critics seem to have the following fallacy in mind when criticizing the possibility of a moral science:

A deductive argument with nonmoral premises can’t have a moral conclusion.

For example:

  1. Punching Jack will cause him pain.
  2. Jill has no good reason to punch Jack.
  3. Therefore, it would be morally wrong for Jill to punch Jack.

The problem is that neither premise states that it’s morally wrong to cause pain for no good reason. The argument is logically invalid.

Of course, the argument could be missing a premise. If we add another premise, then we can make it valid:

  1. Punching Jack will cause him pain.
  2. Jill has no good reason to punch Jack.
  3. If punching Jack will cause him pain and Jill has no good reason to punch Jack, then it would be morally wrong for Jill to punch Jack.
  4. Therefore, it would be morally wrong for Jill to punch Jack.

Many people will say that scientists only deal with nonmoral facts, and they can’t use those nonmoral facts to get moral conclusions. Scientists can’t use the scientific method to know that pain is intrinsically bad, that it’s wrong to cause pain for no good reason, etc. There are certain moral facts that will have to be known before scientists can answer moral questions, so a moral science will be impossible.

I don’t find this argument to be persuasive because it’s not clear that scientists need to use deductive reasoning in this way to prove everything. Scientists often take something to be too obvious to worry about. They don’t scientifically prove that people generally know what the color yellow looks like, that everyone knows what pain feels like, or that there’s something rational about satisfying desires. Scientists take those premises to be too obvious to prove or believe they are justified assumptions for some other reason. Perhaps moral scientists will also take certain moral premises to be too obvious to prove or will assume them to be justified assumptions. Asking a moral scientist to prove that pain is intrinsically bad might be like asking an economist to prove that it’s rational to satisfy desires, or like asking a psychologist to prove that people know when they experience pain.

Also, consider the following is-thought fallacy:

A deductive argument with nonmental premises can’t have a mental conclusion.

For example:

  1. Jill has her eyes open facing a yellow banana in ordinary light.
  2. Jill says, “I see a yellow banana.”
  3. Therefore, Jill sees a yellow banana.

The above argument is logically invalid. Perhaps Jill is a mindless body that merely imitates human behavior. Scientists will assume Jill isn’t a mindless body. They will just sweep these skeptical worries under the rug and assume Jill really does have a mind. Isn’t that fallacious? Can we have a psychological science? Seems obvious to me that psychology does require certain assumptions, but those assumptions are perfectly reasonable. We think it’s obvious that Jill is a regular living person who has a mind and that the evidence of her having a certain experience (from a self-report) is a reliable way for us to know what’s going on in her head.

Once more, moral scientists might need to start with certain assumptions about moral facts. The demand that scientists prove every moral premise seems to imply that they prove all their premises. However, if scientists did need to prove all their premises, then they would never be able to prove anything. We would need an argument for every premise and conclusion. Every argument has a premise, so we would need an infinite number of arguments to justify any argument. It would lead to an infinite regress. (Go here for more information.)

Finally, it might seem obvious that we can know when we see a yellow banana or when we feel pain, but perhaps it is less obvious that murder is wrong or that pain is intrinsically bad. Perhaps that’s why we don’t have a moral science yet. It is often difficult to justify our values and it’s not entirely clear what moral premises we need before a moral science could be successful. Even if a scientist agrees that murder is wrong and pain is intrinsically bad, it’s not entirely clear what they could conclude using those premises. But if a scientist has an entire “moral framework,” then it might be much more possible for them to reach various conclusions. (Go here for more information about moral frameworks.)

Conclusion

I don’t know that we will ever have a moral science, and we might need to know which moral framework to accept before it will ever happen. Even so, I see no good reason to think it’s impossible. None of the objections against a moral science seem convincing, but many philosophers do find anti-realism to be plausible. I doubt there will be a moral science unless some of these skeptical worries will be resolved.

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I don’t know that we will ever have a moral science, and we might need to know which moral framework to accept before it will ever happen.

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28 Comments »

  1. If you want a lead on a scientific (or reason-based) morality, I recommend posts on my blog like this one: Values Are Relational But Not Subjective and the book, Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality by Tara Smith.

    Comment by Sword of Apollo — May 26, 2013 @ 3:20 am | Reply

    • There are many reason-based moral systems. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Do you think there can one day be a moral science? Do you agree with my arguments?

      Comment by JW Gray — May 26, 2013 @ 3:56 am | Reply

      • Well, I disagree with the Popperian idea that the broad, fundamental description of science is that it is a system in which we can falsify hypotheses. The experimental sciences are a subclass of inductive generalization. In the broad sense, “science” refers to a method of using inductive and deductive logic based on observation. So a “scientific morality” is not one in which we apply an experimental method, or one in which we falsify hypotheses. It is one in which we use logic fully and completely to make proper generalizations from the observation of a plethora of available facts.

        Comment by Sword of Apollo — May 26, 2013 @ 4:11 am

  2. One more book you may be interested in: Metaethics, Egoism, and Virtue: Studies in Ayn Rand’s Normative Theory.

    Comment by Sword of Apollo — May 26, 2013 @ 3:33 am | Reply

  3. Very nice work sir! I truly appreciate the effort you put into your argument, its structure, and delivery! I think it would be unwise to dismiss the idea of Moral Realism; however, I liken that kind of lack of wisdom to that which influences the dismissal or validation of the God concept. We simply have no way to truly validate either concept, nor can we find the evidence needed to render either false.

    On the foundation of your argument, at least that which you first present: I’m sure you might have failed to convey certain contextual information that might have made its clarity more accurate. Of course there is the possibility that I simply missed it. When you use Economics as that which could be integrated into the realm of Moral Realism, you bring something that is definitively based on numeric calculation and attempt to apply it to the intangible realm of which is actually your focus. 1 + 1 = 2 ……Presuming that more money equals the goal of Economics, that is, in its most rudimentary form; then we have numbers that represent the evidence of our logic. One can never have as definitive a measure as that related to morals. That is at least not yet. If we one day are indeed able to replicate the immense power of the human brain, then at the point I think moral realism could have more of a platform potential.
    In this case the formulas used to discern the correct all encompassing morals, would still have at least two concepts by which to calculate. What is right for the individual, and that which is best for the majority reality? I think a third could come into play also. Perhaps the greater good could surpass both the minority, as well as the majority realities.

    Another issue with morals is that they, as I think you began to touch on, are not clearly defined based on logic. There are far too many generalities and exception to whatever rules to expect any kind of implementation of morals, as facts. Moreover, when we consider the degrees to which morals might be experienced in an individual, the lines get very blurry. Case in point: The Milligram Experiment. In the 60’s I believe it was, a Harvard professor conducted an experiment to determine how profound Morals actually are, in the face of intense contradictory influence. See for yourself the details here: http://psychology.about.com/od/historyofpsychology/a/milgram.htm
    Just today in fact I was watching a documentary called the “Engineering of Evil”. In this they showed the humanity of the Nazi party, more specifically related to the actual soldiers that worked the concentration camps. It was indeed astonishing to see, based on photo albums that where studied; just how absolutely happy and joyous the soldiers were. Life for them carried on with absolute normality. It is argued that for them what they were doing was considered the right thing to do; and the demonizing of the soldiers is the most likely way we could cope with the realty based pain they caused so many.
    In any case I really enjoyed the questions raised by your post….Thanks!

    Comment by dlezcano1712 — May 26, 2013 @ 4:11 am | Reply

    • dlezcano1712,

      Thank you for the thoughtful reply.

      You said,

      Presuming that more money equals the goal of Economics, that is, in its most rudimentary form; then we have numbers that represent the evidence of our logic. One can never have as definitive a measure as that related to morals. That is at least not yet. If we one day are indeed able to replicate the immense power of the human brain, then at the point I think moral realism could have more of a platform potential.

      I wouldn’t say that is what economics is all about, but I get your point. Even if we know that pain is bad, it might would be harder to know what causes us more pain overall than what makes a productive society in terms of increasing the overall wealth.

      Keep in mind that we could print money all day and an economist would not be impressed. The economist will want to know if production is increased, the distribution of wealth, etc.

      Another issue with morals is that they, as I think you began to touch on, are not clearly defined based on logic. There are far too many generalities and exception to whatever rules to expect any kind of implementation of morals, as facts. Moreover, when we consider the degrees to which morals might be experienced in an individual, the lines get very blurry. Case in point: The Milligram Experiment. In the 60’s I believe it was, a Harvard professor conducted an experiment to determine how profound Morals actually are, in the face of intense contradictory influence. See for yourself the details here: http://psychology.about.com/od/historyofpsychology/a/milgram.htm

      I think the main idea that you are getting at here is basically why I mentioned moral frameworks. Ethics seems a bit complex. I don’t think it’s just about desire satisfaction.

      Comment by JW Gray — May 26, 2013 @ 4:23 am | Reply

  4. Sword of Apollo,

    You said:

    Well, I disagree with the Popperian idea that the broad, fundamental description of science is that it is a system in which we can falsify hypotheses. The experimental sciences are a subclass of inductive generalization. In the broad sense, “science” refers to a method of using inductive and deductive logic based on observation. So a “scientific morality” is not one in which we apply an experimental method, or one in which we falsify hypotheses. It is one in which we use logic fully and completely to make proper generalizations from the observation of a plethora of available facts.

    That is not really very important to me for this issue, but I don’t see how you are differentiating philosophy from science. Philosophy already does what you are talking about.

    I would be even more interested to know if you agree or disagree with the major arguments. What I said about science was not actually an argument. It was just a clarification.

    Comment by JW Gray — May 26, 2013 @ 4:15 am | Reply

  5. I only have a few concerns.

    You said: “disagreement in philosophy of mind does not imply mind does not exist.”
    Yes, in a way it does. Precisely, “mind does not exist” and “mind does exist” are not propositions we can validate without defining mind. A definition of mind is exactly a philosophy of mind. They disagree on the definitions, they disagree on what is mind, what is related to and how it is related with other concepts.
    Then you said: “I don’t see why moral disagreement would imply that moral facts don’t exist either”.
    Having moral disagreement raises the issue of what is a moral fact (for me, this question is ethical in the strong sense). You say you assume moral realism, but as it is, this realism is too vague.

    In physics, an evidence is some number output by a machine. The machine was built with a physics theory in mind, and the output number gets a meaning thanks to this theory. There is no absolute fact that we can read for free. Try to really observe an atom; a lot of time and hard-work is needed for setting an experiment that “reveals” the atom, and what we see are just numbers, or an image built from these numbers. This argument is not anti-realist. I haven’t said that the physical reality is a construction of our minds. I just say that, even if we assume the existence of a physical reality, the “factuality” of a physical fact has to be defined precisely if we pretend to use facts as evidences.

    I talk about physics, because I have the feeling that the “moral science” you think about is a sort of “physics of morality” (recall that physics come from the greek phusis, which means nature, but it’s another question …). I would be pleased to be proven to be wrong :)

    Comment by Scons Dut (@SconsDut) — May 28, 2013 @ 7:42 am | Reply

    • Scons Dut (@SconsDut),

      Yes, in a way it does. Precisely, “mind does not exist” and “mind does exist” are not propositions we can validate without defining mind. A definition of mind is exactly a philosophy of mind. They disagree on the definitions, they disagree on what is mind, what is related to and how it is related with other concepts.

      We can give examples of mental activity, even if we don’t know how to define it. We knew dogs exited before we knew how to define them. We knew water existed before we knew it was H2O.

      Then you said: “I don’t see why moral disagreement would imply that moral facts don’t exist either”.
      Having moral disagreement raises the issue of what is a moral fact (for me, this question is ethical in the strong sense). You say you assume moral realism, but as it is, this realism is too vague.

      Why does the nature of a “moral fact” seem like an ethical issue? Realism is too vague in what way? An realism is too vague for what?

      In physics, an evidence is some number output by a machine. The machine was built with a physics theory in mind, and the output number gets a meaning thanks to this theory. There is no absolute fact that we can read for free. Try to really observe an atom; a lot of time and hard-work is needed for setting an experiment that “reveals” the atom, and what we see are just numbers, or an image built from these numbers. This argument is not anti-realist. I haven’t said that the physical reality is a construction of our minds. I just say that, even if we assume the existence of a physical reality, the “factuality” of a physical fact has to be defined precisely if we pretend to use facts as evidences.

      Not sure how this relates.

      I talk about physics, because I have the feeling that the “moral science” you think about is a sort of “physics of morality” (recall that physics come from the greek phusis, which means nature, but it’s another question …). I would be pleased to be proven to be wrong :)

      I think a moral science would be more like economics. I would not think a moral science would be anything like physics other than them both being scientific domains.

      Comment by JW Gray — May 28, 2013 @ 8:00 pm | Reply

      • James, I think (perhaps contra dlezcano1712) that the point about physics is that what we accept as “facts” in physics are determined in substantial part by the theories about what counts as a fact.

        I think that description is kind of unfair, because it under-emphasizes what I think should be the elephant in the room: the fact that the whole point of theory making in physics is that we think the theories are true or at least approximate truth, converge on the truth, progress toward truth or whatever. Physical theories that guide how we design instruments in order to detect phenomena we take as confirming the existence of an atom, are physical theories that we believe to be true and so when they tell us they’ve found an atom we have a pretty good reason for believing it is true.

        Scons Dut didn’t say this explicitly, but I think the implication is that the theory-dependence of physical facts in some sense throws into question their truth, because under different theories different things count as facts. But the (aforementioned) elephant is the room here is that some theories win over others, and they win because they are better at accounting for the world’s phenomena and we explain this “being better” as the theory being more true. There may be different theories, but we’re not going to entertain them unless we think they have a better claim to being true. It’s true that any knowledge claim has a certain epistemological structure underpinning it, and that your knowledge claim “depends” on that structure in some sense, but your skepticism of the knowledge claim isn’t any more or less than the structural integrity (so to speak) of your underlying epistemology.

        To bring this back to morality, it is clearly more difficult to tell which moral theory has a better claim to being true than others. However, as James said, in absence of a theory, we can nevertheless look for meaningful things such as salient examples, semantic overlap in usage of terms, subjective reports, and convergences of agreement between moral theories. We can to a limited extent rule out certain moral theories if we can discover they are false even according to their own terms. I believe enough in philosophy to say we can additionally rule out certain moral theories that don’t survive rational scrutiny. Then, the test is whether or not you can posit some explanation that transcends intersubjective agreement, and the question is whether or not you think that explanation is satisfactory.

        I think sometimes people are too quick to move from the fact of semantic disagreement on moral terms to moral skepticism, before we have exhausted our resources for investigating and making sense of disputed terms.

        Comment by josef johann (@josefjohann) — June 1, 2013 @ 1:11 pm

      • I agree with Joseph Johann. Indeed, my first post have been a little bit unfair. Actually, reading at first, I thought that you (JW Gray) were looking for a reason-based moral system, but, given your reply to the first comment, it seems not to be the case. Whence my impression that you were looking for a moral science as a “physics of morality”, in the sense that the moral science would study the structures and properties of the moral reality (maybe, in this sense, economics can be seen as the study of the economical reality).

        I think I got confused with what you were trying to do when invoking facts. Simply because I didn’t understand what kind of propositions the (would-be) moral science would deal with. Could you list some examples you have in mind ?

        (although this thread is now more than half a year old ^^)

        Comment by sconsdut — February 5, 2014 @ 11:59 am

      • Let’s say we found out act utilitarianism is true — actions are right insofar as they maximize happiness and wrong to the extent that the fail to do that (and cause suffering). We could then look at the results of various laws and see if they are making people happier or not compared to the alternatives. Like laws that legalize marijuana, or keep marijuana illegal but send people to rehabilitation, or throw people who use marijuana to prison. Assuming utilitarianism is true, we could make a lot of progress in finding out which laws we should have by comparing our options. We could find out that some options lead to certain problems. We could do something like a cost-benefit analysis. Such a thing could be clear cut for some issues, but it can be pretty hard in other cases. Sometimes it’s hard to know if the cost is worse than the benefit and so on.

        Comment by JW Gray — February 5, 2014 @ 9:39 pm

  6. I see his point about Physics. If we were to bring science into an equation that is of the moral nature, then the mathematics would certainly require the kind of complexity only physics can address. It’s the notion of quantum computing; here be the first potential break through that will enable technology the same vast capacity as the human mind. What after all goes on in the mind; it can in theory all be captured as ones and zeros. In fact, one possibility in the future is that we will one day be able to read the code inherent to the human mind, and in that capture the totality of a person via the ones and zeros.

    Here is another issue I was thinking about: As it pertains to the issue of defining Morals; one can always determine a way in which any given definition could be circumstantially and subjectively detrimental.

    For instance: Treat others as you would have done onto you.

    This moral tidbit sounds good; however, it can be very damaging in certain dynamics. The concept of Morality is riddled with this phenomenon. Now if you think that Moral Science is the potential of a very distant future that’s one thing. That would make sense because the kind of calculating power needed to take into account all the parameters is likely to be 100’s of years away.

    You are implying that one can define proper Morals scientifically right; and by that you mean that there should be a way to calculate it? Otherwise, the question is raised; if it’s not calculated in a precise way, then who’s the one that gets to decide which morals are right? We have various law makers now, but there is nothing scientific about the way they do things; aside from taking into account statistics perhaps. Still, statistics cannot take into account the whole; it at best can only address the majority. So it appears there will always be, as it relates to the Moral Realism concept, an exception to whatever potential rule. However, there are rules within science that seem to have exception as well aren’t there?

    Would you say Moral Realism is a Utopian Concept? Just rambling some thoughts here; this is a great thread!

    Comment by dlezcano1712 — May 29, 2013 @ 4:38 am | Reply

    • dlezcano1712,

      Thank you for the comments. The way philosophers try to determine right from wrong is by using a “moral theory.” Look above for a link. Utilitarians think that there is a calculation involved, but other moral theories might be harder to use with any precision. Also, utilitarianism requires we measure things like happiness or pain, which is clearly hard to measure. Even so, every moral philosopher I know of would agree that causing pain for no reason at all is wrong. There are some limited conclusions we can reach using moral theories, and sometimes scientific research does inform our moral conclusions.

      I don’t see moral realism as anything like a utopian concept. A moral realist might think they know little or nothing about right and wrong. It’s hard stuff to figure out sometimes.

      Comment by JW Gray — May 29, 2013 @ 4:45 am | Reply

  7. James,

    Re: skepticism- I agree, moral disagreement doesn’t imply there are no moral facts. At least, it need not imply there are no moral facts. However, if a moral skeptic looks at all the possible explanations for the existence of moral facts, and finds them insufficient to explain away the presence of moral disagreement, they may be entitled to conclude that the best way to explain moral disagreement is that there are no moral facts. Moral disagreement doesn’t prove anything, but it may give good grounds for making the inference that there are no moral facts.

    You say: Perhaps it is also obvious that pain is intrinsically bad and pleasure is intrinsically good. Do we need to prove it scientifically? Not everything in science is proven scientifically. It could be taken to be an axiom or as a justified assumption.

    I think I agree with the thrust of this- that the experience of pain as bad and pleasure as good is enough to justify them as such. But the “justification” here is, I would say, for practical purposes. If morality can be explained scientifically, I think it’s very important not to merely take it as an axiom- for people concerned about the truth of morality, stipulating it as an axiom could be considered cheating. What’s necessary is an explanation of why this particular set of things (pain experiences, pleasure experiences) deserves to be called morality as opposed to some other thing. And I think, you can do that by saying it best accommodates the way we use language, makes the most sense of practices we typically call moral or perhaps some other reason.

    Re: the is/ought fallacy you say: I don’t find this argument to be persuasive because it’s not clear that scientists need to use deductive reasoning in this way to prove everything

    I completely agree, and I think this is similar to the point Pat Churchland made about is/ought in her book Braintrust (PDF page 5).

    Churchland says The whole point of Hume’s is/ought distinction was to dispense with a very crude form of deductive reasoning, such as “Husbands are stronger than their wives, so wives ought to obey their husbands,” or “We have a tradition that little boys work as chimney sweeps, therefore we ought to have little boys work as chimney sweeps,” or “It is natural to hate people who are deformed, therefore it is right to hate people who are deformed.”

    Hume wasn’t really trying to say that the factual world and the world of morality are distinct, only that you can’t bridge from the one to the other by means of purse deductive logic. Churchland says In a much broader sense of “infer” than derive you can infer (figure out) what you ought to do, drawing on knowledge, perception, emotions, and understanding, and balancing considerations against each other. We do it constantly, in both the physical and social worlds. [...] What gets us around the world is mainly not logical deduction (derivation). By and large, our problem-solving operations—the figuring out and the reasoning—look like a constraint satisfaction process, not like deduction or the execution of an algorithm.

    I think Churchland’s point at least overlaps with what you are saying- there is an obviousness about what our moral interests are, but figuring out their relation to the factual world can be complicated and does not get expressed in a deductive manner.

    James, toward the end of your post you say Once more, moral scientists might need to start with certain assumptions about moral facts. I have problems with this- I think this may be true for practical purposes, and also for the purpose of forming conjectures and hypothesis that can be investigated. But I think at the end of the day, if there is indeed a scientific bases for moral facts we need to be able to rise to the challenge of explaining why this is so.

    You say Finally, it might seem obvious that we can know when we see a yellow banana or when we feel pain, but perhaps it is less obvious that murder is wrong or that pain is intrinsically bad.

    I think the first two examples (seeing a banana, feeling pain) are obvious because they require nothing more than first person experiences. You see the banana, you feel pain, that’s all there is to it. But the second two (wrongness of murder, intrinsic badness of pain) have to be justified conceptually. Similarly you can see the sun- but you can’t see the fact that the sun has an objective existence- that’s something you have to figure out with science, intersubjective reports, etc.

    Comment by josef johann (@josefjohann) — June 1, 2013 @ 12:28 pm | Reply

    • josef johann,

      Thank you for the thoughtful replies.

      You said:

      James, toward the end of your post you say Once more, moral scientists might need to start with certain assumptions about moral facts. I have problems with this- I think this may be true for practical purposes, and also for the purpose of forming conjectures and hypothesis that can be investigated. But I think at the end of the day, if there is indeed a scientific bases for moral facts we need to be able to rise to the challenge of explaining why this is so.

      What kind of an explanation would be required of a moral science?

      You said:

      You say Finally, it might seem obvious that we can know when we see a yellow banana or when we feel pain, but perhaps it is less obvious that murder is wrong or that pain is intrinsically bad.

      I think the first two examples (seeing a banana, feeling pain) are obvious because they require nothing more than first person experiences. You see the banana, you feel pain, that’s all there is to it. But the second two (wrongness of murder, intrinsic badness of pain) have to be justified conceptually. Similarly you can see the sun- but you can’t see the fact that the sun has an objective existence- that’s something you have to figure out with science, intersubjective reports, etc.

      I think the fact that the sun exists is a scientific fact, but it requires philosophical assumptions. We need to know that an outside world exists. Science does not really prove all that, does it? There are assumptions. I think it would be wrong to think science or philosophy will ever be able to eliminate all assumptions. The question is what assumptions we are allowed to have and why.

      You said that the wrongness of murder and intrinsic badness of pain need to be justified conceptually. What exactly do you mean by that? Why do you think they need to be justified conceptually? We certainly need to know what those claims mean. We need to understand the concepts involved. I would agree with that.

      Comment by JW Gray — June 2, 2013 @ 7:39 am | Reply

      • What kind of an explanation would be required of a moral science?

        There are many different theories which claim to be theories of morality. They are not all compatible with each other. We could say we are going to assume Preferred Moral Theory X, take it to be an axiom, and go from there. But we could similarly assume Preferred Moral Theory Y or Z. You also say it could be a justified assumption that distinguishes X from Y or Z, which I guess is the right idea but of course people will debate whether or not the assumption in favor of X is indeed justified.

        I think an explanation of a moral science would require showing that our moral terminology is ultimately equivalent to a certain set of moral facts, and that this better accounts for the meaning of moral terms than any other explanation. People use moral terms in incompatible ways, so you have to explain why people’s usage of terms is wrong, and to what extent their usage is “correct” in a way that makes moral science a better explanation for moral disagreement than moral skepticism.

        Suppose I say morality is ultimately about brain states, about the nervous system, about pain and pleasure and any human interest that ultimately relates to pain and pleasure, there is always the possibility that someone will argue that morality is about “something more” than natural equivalents. Or that the choice to equate moral terms to natural stuff was arbitrary. But, once everything that seems to have had any relation to morality is shown to be infiltrated by naturalistic explanations (your brain states, your desires, what it takes to change your desires, what incentives and what ways of communicating could make people inclined to cooperate, that every desire refers to a factual state in the world to be fulfilled, etc), I would despair of discovering what else a person could possibly be reserving for the term “morality.” You can never prove there isn’t some extra thing that morality is about, but you can show that naturalistic explanations seem to exhaust all possible valid usages of moral terms.

        Comment by josef johann (@josefjohann) — June 2, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

  8. josef johann,

    Okay, you are saying we need to decide some meta-ethical issues, such as what the term “morality” means. Any such definition could be theory-laden, and I don’t think they will necessarily capture all possible uses of the term. You said it should capture all “valid uses of the term.” I don’t know what you mean by “valid use.”

    We need to know how to use certain moral terminology properly. There are some obviously correct ways of using moral terminology and I don’t know if we can ever know how to use them in exactly the right way. If we have a moral theory, then we should be able to determine if various actions are right or wrong without even worrying too much about the meta-ethical issue of how to define the terms perfectly.

    We know how to define nonmoral scientific terminology perfectly either. What does it mean to say the Sun exists? What does ‘exist’ mean in this instance? Is there a “theory of existence” that all physicists accept? That is doubtful.

    I do think that we will want a moral theory to have a proper moral science. We will probably want a little meta-ethics as well, but I don’t know how much we need to worry about all these philosophical issues. Not all the relevant philosophical issues were answered for other scientific domains either.

    I suggested in the post that we might need a moral theory to have a moral science. The theory could be taken by the scientists to be axiomatic, but that certainly doesn’t mean that scientists will just assume the moral theory to be true in some foolish way. The moral theory should be considered to be the best moral theory for a good reason. That doesn’t mean it will be proven to be true in some strong sense.

    Comment by JW Gray — June 2, 2013 @ 8:17 pm | Reply

    • Hopefully I’ve figured out blockquotes…

      You said it should capture all “valid uses of the term.” I don’t know what you mean by “valid use.”

      For instance, you might say a use of moral terms that grounds morality on god’s will is not valid if there’s no god. Or you might say usages of moral terms that depend on a sophisticated rule based variation on utilitarianism (or whatever else) is not valid because that particular variant of utilitarianism contains conceptual confusions. There are going to be some usages of moral terms that cannot be reconciled with ethics that is grounded in science (EGIS for short). An adequate explanation of EGIS involves explaining why certain usages of moral terms is invalid, or else they have to admit that there are valid ways to use moral terms that cannot be reconciled with a version of EGIS.

      There are some obviously correct ways of using moral terminology and I don’t know if we can ever know how to use them in exactly the right way.

      Yes- I think the way terms are used is in some sense arbitrary, but that they nevertheless are intended to be used in meaningful ways. I do think it’s fair to rule out certain kinds of moral terminology as invalid if it seems to cause confusion, or seems to be inconsistent with generally intended use, or seems to refer to things that do not exist. Certainly, despite our inability to be perfect, certain usages of moral terms will be more right than others, and I think it’s the responsibility of someone explaining EGIS to show that EGIS does a better job of accounting for moral terminology than other theories. My belief that these things need to be explained seems to be in contrast to your belief that it can be posed and accepted as an axiom (though you do alternatively describe it as a justified assumption).

      We [don't] know how to define nonmoral scientific terminology perfectly either. What does it mean to say the Sun exists? What does ‘exist’ mean in this instance? Is there a “theory of existence” that all physicists accept? That is doubtful.

      I agree with this. I think this is a point touched on in Sam Harris’ book, though I wish he made a more powerful argument on this point. As I have thought about this, I have come to the suspicion that the level of precision that philosophers require of moral theories is greater than the level of precision that is acceptable in the sciences. And also, I suspect that the moral error theorists/moral anti-realists conception of “objective” is an (unfairly) stricter form of objectivity than typical scientific objectivity. That is a digression, though.

      Comment by josef johann (@josefjohann) — June 2, 2013 @ 10:08 pm | Reply

      • josef johann,

        You said,

        My belief that these things need to be explained seems to be in contrast to your belief that it can be posed and accepted as an axiom (though you do alternatively describe it as a justified assumption).

        Right. I want to make it clear that an axiom is not supposed to be unjustified or foolish. Ultimately we might need to know what moral theory to accept, but we are probably not going to use science to prove that a certain moral theory is true. We would use philosophy to justify which moral theory to accept. Science would then use our philosophical results.

        Do you see it differently than I do? If so, how?

        And also, I suspect that the moral error theorists/moral anti-realists conception of “objective” is an (unfairly) stricter form of objectivity than typical scientific objectivity. That is a digression, though.

        Can you say a little more about this?

        Perhaps you are talking about something like the following:

        I do think people often confuse themselves with talk about what’s subjective and objective. Those terms need to be understood in some precise way. One issue is if morality is mind-dependent, but I think moral realism is compatible with morality being mind-dependent. Thoughts and feelings are mind-dependent, but they still exist. Saying that thoughts and feelings aren’t real just because they are mind-dependent seems quite strange to me, and we do study thoughts and feelings in psychological science. Searle talked about this distinction when talking about his philosophy of mind.

        Comment by JW Gray — June 3, 2013 @ 1:45 am

  9. James,

    Indulging further in my digression, my suspicion about what moral philosophers mean by “objective” morality was aroused in part by a blog post from Russel Blackford, (which I can’t believe is already two years old): http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2010/12/are-folk-objectivists-about-ethics.html. Blackford seems to be an anti-realist and error theorist about morality. On his blog seemed to describe a kind of moral objectivity that would transcend human concerns- because there could be other rational beings who aren’t humans who have different interests. Blackford used the example of humans finding Cleopatra beautiful, but perhaps other rational, sentient creatures would not because they would have different standards. Of course, his chosen example was about beauty, but it’s intended to be a close enough analog to morality.

    So the problem is that there isn’t a standard of beauty that’s “binding” on both humans and other rational sentient creatures that have different standards for beauty/morality. To me, this sense of objectivity desired by Blackford is even stronger than scientific objectivity. Because humans have particular brain structures, they share a common physiology and this tends to make us likely to find certain similar things beautiful/moral. This is a perfectly objective, scientific fact about human physiology yet it’s apparently not “objective” in his desired philosophical sense.

    Comment by josef johann (@josefjohann) — June 3, 2013 @ 3:50 am | Reply

    • josef johann,

      You said, “Because humans have particular brain structures, they share a common physiology and this tends to make us likely to find certain similar things beautiful/moral.”

      That’s where they will get their opinions from, but we still need to know if some opinions can be true or false. A moral realist will want to know if humans can somehow know that some moral statements are true or false.

      Someone might think, “We just believe certain moral beliefs are true because of our brain structure.” But that’s why we think any of our beliefs are true. We think some beliefs about physical reality are true, even though our beliefs about physical reality are based on our brain structure.

      And what about our beliefs about thoughts and other mental activity? We have those beliefs because of our brain structure as well. But that doesn’t mean there are no facts about thoughts or mental activity. I think it’s true that I can see certain things. That belief is based on my brain structure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

      I agree that the concern you mention doesn’t seem to be a problem for science.

      Consider the fact that aliens might have a different brain structure than us and have different opinions about psychology and physics than we do. Is that a reason to think our opinions about these issues are “subjective” or unjustified? I think not. But how will we decide who is right? We have our psychological science. So will they. But we don’t have to deal with that problem yet. We can deal with it when it actually happens.

      We already have a great deal of disagreement in science. The fact that people disagree about many issues never seemed to be a good reason to reject the existence of physical reality, psychological reality, or moral reality. The reasons were also illustrated in the piece I wrote.

      Comment by JW Gray — June 3, 2013 @ 5:30 am | Reply

      • That’s where they will get their opinions from

        I think it’s much more than that- in a very literal way you get your ability to experience beauty, or happiness, from the facts of your physiological makeup. At a higher level you can have opinions about these things, but at a fundamental level, the human inclination to experience certain things as beautiful is an immutable fact arising from our biology– an objective fact. It is similarly the case with things that cause us to feel pain, or temperature, or whatever else. We can have opinions about the way our biology is, about the way our bodies respond to things, and those opinions can be wrong, but there nevertheless is a fact of the matter.

        Consider the fact that aliens might have a different brain structure than us and have different opinions about psychology and physics than we do. Is that a reason to think our opinions about these issues are “subjective” or unjustified? I think not. But how will we decide who is right? We have our psychological science. So will they.

        I think the significance of the aliens not thinking Cleopatra was beautiful hypothetical wasn’t just that they had different opinions from us, but that they literally had differently structured brains that comprehend beauty differently, which is why they have differing opinions. And so they would “disagree” with us, in a sense, because they have different physiologies that induce them to have different responses than we do to the same stimulus. If they disagree with us, we can both be right, without that compromising the objective status of our respective judgments, or the scientific character of our respective ethics.

        Comment by josefjohann — June 3, 2013 @ 6:06 am

      • Yes, but aliens can comprehend psychology or physical reality differently from us based on their differently structured brains as well.

        If you want to say “both can be right” about beauty and morality, then I would think we are dealing with types of anti-realism. You are basically saying that there would be some very strong type of relativism.

        “X is right” and “not-X is right” leads to a contradiction. It is impossible for factual truths to form contradictions.

        However, you might be saying that what causes each person pain (or an alien pain) can be different due to different physical structures. Pain would still be bad. It would be wrong to cause one person pain who is allergic to peanuts by putting peanuts in her food, but the same act is not necessarily wrong if she’s not allergic to peanuts.

        Beauty experiences might merely refer to something like enjoyment or some sort of experience. What causes the experience is not objectively beautiful, but beauty experiences can exist from two different situations for two different people.

        Comment by JW Gray — June 3, 2013 @ 7:12 am

      • Yes, but aliens can comprehend psychology or physical reality differently from us based on their differently structured brains as well.

        They might, but their comprehension would be liable to error, and it wouldn’t be their comprehension of the matter that renders this or that moral belief true.. It’s perfectly possible for a person to be wrong about what is moral for them or what is beautiful for them. True answers here depend on their physical makeup, not on their opinions of their own physical makeup (though opinions can coincide with the truth, and can even play some cause and effect role on preferences; still one’s opinion on the fact of the matter is of course different from the actual fact of the matter).

        If you want to say “both can be right” about beauty and morality, then I would think we are dealing with types of anti-realism. You are basically saying that there would be some very strong type of relativism.

        If one person says “I am bald” and another person says “I have blonde hair” and I say they are both right, does that make me an anti-realist about hair? Or suppose someone says “my femur is 19 inches long” and another person says “my femur is 18 inches long” and I say they are both right. Does that make me an anti-realist about femurs? Of course not. Or take weather- a person in Florida could say “it’s sunny outside” and a person in Minnesota could say “it’s snowing outside” – they can both be right, and nevertheless I’m a realist about weather. In all of these cases there are objective parameters that can be understood scientifically despite contextual variation. What’s objective about weather, besides the phenomena itself, is the fact that we’re all subject to the same overarching physical laws, and even the means by which weather changes and expresses its variability is controlled by physical laws.

        If what is good or bad for humans transcends opinion and is determined by scientific facts, that seems strong enough to me to be a realist position.

        Perhaps what’s “objective” at the end of the day is some abstract, formal, (possibly computational) description of a certain kind of mental process that can be instantiated in any number of ways by any number of sentient creatures. And so you could describe that thing as being “objective” in a sense that doesn’t change depending on which sentient creature you’re talking about, and you’d have philosopher’s sense of objectivity. But even if we don’t get to that point, I think the scientists’ sense of objectivity is still strong enough that it has the character of transcending individual opinions.

        Comment by josefjohann — June 3, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

  10. James, I agree, there is a great deal of confusion about subjective/objective, and I agree that moral realism is perfectly compatible with thoughts being mind dependent as the mind is, after all, real.

    I think “subjective” needs to be understood as a subset of the objective, not as some parallel, mutually exclusive dimension.

    Comment by josef johann (@josefjohann) — June 3, 2013 @ 3:53 am | Reply

  11. josefjohann,

    Anyone who says that those people are disagreeing is highly confused. I can have two arms and another person might only have one arm. I can say, “I have two arms.” That other person can say, “I have one arm.” There is no disagreement in that example. A real disagreement with both people being right would result in a contradiction.

    The fact that a person who is allergic to peanuts does not mean health is an anti-realist domain. The fact that that person will experience pain for different reasons than other people does not mean health or pain is epistemically subjective (part of an anti-realist domain). Being objective does not mean it must be universal.

    Comment by JW Gray — June 3, 2013 @ 7:27 pm | Reply

    • Anyone who says that those people are disagreeing are highly confused.

      I agree. I think it’s just an unfortunate fact of the matter that people really are this confused in many (if not most!) debates about morality. People seem to despair of finding moral truths that transcend subjectivity because they (mistakenly) believe that this is the kind of agreement that is supposedly required to transcend subjectivity.

      Being objective does not mean it must be universal.

      Right. Well… there a sense in which One-Armed Joe’s having one arm is true for everybody. It’s a fact about the universe that everybody shares- there’s a guy named One-Armed Joe, and he only has one arm. It’s not universal that everyone has one arm just like him, but it is universal that in everyone’s world, One-Armed Joe is a guy who exists and he has only one arm. It’s not like some people see One-Armed Joe as having one arm, others see him as having two arms and still some others see him as having three arms. I think this is important because even objective truths that are particular to certain persons or situations still are universal, in a sense.

      Comment by josefjohann — June 3, 2013 @ 9:59 pm | Reply


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