Ethical Realism

April 17, 2014

Can We Reason About Ethics?

Filed under: epistemology,ethics — JW Gray @ 7:51 am
Tags: , ,

I think we can reason about what is good and bad (or right and wrong).

Let’s start off with a simple example. We have a choice to give to a charity that helps people or a charity we find out doesn’t really help people. Which charity should we give to? I think it is obvious. The one that actually helps people. There is no point to giving to a charity that doesn’t help anyone.

Well, what does it even mean to help people? Can we reason about that? We might think that the concept of helping people involves the concept of goodness or value. Can one person be better off than another? Is a person better off who is being tortured or who is sitting down eating lunch? I think it’s obvious. The guy eating lunch is better off than the one being tortured.

How could we know that? I think we know that people who are being tortured are being harmed—either mentally or physically. Either they are put in mental or physical pain. But what’s wrong with pain? No big deal, right? Wrong. Anyone who has actually experienced pain knows that we call it “pain” precisely because of how we experience it. We experience it as something bad. The concept of pain already involves the concept of being bad, and we can know that pain really exists (and why it is bad to some extent) precisely because we have experienced it before. Not all of us have been tortured, but I suspect everyone has experienced pain.

Some people have told me that they don’t agree with how I use the word pain. Perhaps the term suffering might be more appropriate and most people seem to agree that suffering might be a better term than pain for these discussions. But is the concept of pain so different from the concept of suffering? I am not convinced. Some people think pain involves the experience of the body being damaged or something, but I don’t think it is really pain unless there is some suffering involved—unless we would say it was a bad experience.

Some people told me that we can’t really know anything about good and bad. Well, perhaps there is always some room for doubt. Perhaps the evidence we use to justify our beliefs about good and bad are always based on limited information. There’s a chance we could be wrong. However, I don’t think it makes sense to say we don’t know something unless we are certain that it is true. I define knowledge as justified true belief. If a justified belief is true, then I would say we know it. (I must then admit that there is some luck involved with our knowledge, and we can’t always know what we know.)

Some people have told me that we can’t really know anything about good and bad, but insist that God is good and can tell us the answers to these questions. They will trust what God tells them. How do they know what God has to say about it? Some people say the Bible tells us, but I think that is far from obvious. Also, even if the Bible was written by God, I think we would still have no choice but to try our best to reason about what is good or bad because the Bible does not answer every question we need answered about ethics. Did God say not to give to a charity unless it helps people, or that we should prefer charities that help people more than others? Even if God did answer that question, did God also tell us exactly what it means to help someone? Does giving to a political campaign that opposes same-sex marriage count as helping people? I think that is far from obvious (and I actually think it would end up hurting people).

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12 Comments »

  1. “Some people told me that we can’t really know anything about good and bad. Well, perhaps there is always some room for doubt. Perhaps the evidence we use to justify our beliefs about good and bad are always based on limited information. There’s a chance we could be wrong.”

    Agreed. Robert Audi, the eminent rationalist intuitionist says, “If an account of the notions of knowledge, justification, objectivity, and other central notions in the theory of rationality does not make clear why skepticism is at least plausible, it is missing something. Our normative practices are complex and subject to fallibility. [...] But to grant that this [what we ought to do] is not always obvious is by no means to grant that we never know it, or never even have justified beliefs to this effect, or never act for adequate reason” (Moral Knowledge and Ethical Character, 82).

    Comment by ausomeawestin — April 17, 2014 @ 2:59 pm | Reply

  2. I’m not sure the question of the title was answered.

    But even pain/suffering is bad at the time of it’s being experienced, it could lead good results. Not, as comes to mind, the extraction of information, as torture implies, but unknown good results. In other words, the temporal fixation of immediacy in the above argument, offers nothing for an experience of pain that leads to future good. A good example is learning not to touch fire: without that pain would we not continue harm ourselves? And therefore, is not pain, in some way, beneficial? And therefore, does it not imply that pain may be good?
    There are experience that may be painful which obviously good: take, for example, what Kant terms the ‘sublime’, or as Berkley similarly mentions, a ‘pleasant horror’. Whilst these experiences may not be accepted as painful, they are types of suffering. To stand at the awesomeness of the nature we contend with, to have our mental capacity challenged, and exceptionally limited, and confused, to write in meaningless riddling: that is a type of suffering, and fortunately, a joyful suffering which leads to generally good results.
    So, I am unsure whether we can reason about ethics, but part of the ethical framework could not wholly accept pain/suffering as bad.

    Comment by Keegan Eastcott — April 25, 2014 @ 12:13 am | Reply

    • I’m not sure the question of the title was answered.

      There are obvious cases when we can reason about ethics. I gave some examples. More could certainly be said about it, though.

      But even pain/suffering is bad at the time of it’s being experienced, it could lead good results. Not, as comes to mind, the extraction of information, as torture implies, but unknown good results. In other words, the temporal fixation of immediacy in the above argument, offers nothing for an experience of pain that leads to future good. A good example is learning not to touch fire: without that pain would we not continue harm ourselves? And therefore, is not pain, in some way, beneficial? And therefore, does it not imply that pain may be good?
      There are experience that may be painful which obviously good: take, for example, what Kant terms the ‘sublime’, or as Berkley similarly mentions, a ‘pleasant horror’. Whilst these experiences may not be accepted as painful, they are types of suffering. To stand at the awesomeness of the nature we contend with, to have our mental capacity challenged, and exceptionally limited, and confused, to write in meaningless riddling: that is a type of suffering, and fortunately, a joyful suffering which leads to generally good results.

      Correct. One question is if we can reason about good and bad, and another question is how those things are related to right and wrong. Something bad could lead to something good, and I think most people accept that it can be right to harm people in certain contexts.

      So, I am unsure whether we can reason about ethics, but part of the ethical framework could not wholly accept pain/suffering as bad.

      I would like you to explain this a bit further.

      Reasoning about good and bad is a way to reason about ethics.

      Comment by JW Gray — April 25, 2014 @ 1:12 am | Reply

      • I’d be happy to agree reasoning about good and bad (right and wrong) is to reason about ethics. But the concern still remains, how is it possible to discern what is good or bad? Even the trivial (I use that not in a pejorative sense, just that the examples given seem obvious) examples above cannot intimate certainty; they simply prima facie offer evidence that we make moral judgements. That we make judgements, and some are classed moral, does not get us anywhere. Perhaps this dissolves any deontological project, for any general system of ethics offering immutable rules would forestall what may come from ‘infractions’ of such rules.
        If we cannot be sure about what good and bad is, then isn’t ethics, and reasoning about it, just reasoning about a fiction? A fiction because ethics itself is a product borne of moral judgement, not informing those moral judgements.

        Comment by Keegan Eastcott — April 27, 2014 @ 12:36 pm

      • how is it possible to discern what is good or bad?

        This is a different question. It is a question of moral epistemology. However, I do think observation/experience is quite relevant and I explained why.

        Even the trivial (I use that not in a pejorative sense, just that the examples given seem obvious) examples above cannot intimate certainty; they simply prima facie offer evidence that we make moral judgements.

        I don’t know that anything gives us certainty at all. Science itself requires us to come up with hypotheses and once a hypothesis is consistent with a great deal of our experiences (more than any other), we often say it is true. Well, there could actually be millions of hypotheses that are all completely consistent with our experiences.

        Philosophy almost never offers anything like certainty. Maybe logic is an exception. I think logic does warrant more confidence than about anything else (at least in some cases).

        How do we do logic differently than ethics? No matter what the topic is, we use premises we think we know to be true to reach conclusions. We can wonder how we can know the premises to be true, and yet how we know it to be true is often controversial and somewhat unclear. Some speculation could be involved.

        I don’t think anything I said here would debunk deontology. If you think deontology requires self-evidence, then maybe ethics can also involve that. I am not sure what exactly self-evidence is all about and it is not always clear how to know when it is involved (if ever).

        I think even deontologists have to admit that consequences do matter for moral reasoning.

        If we cannot be sure about what good and bad is, then isn’t ethics, and reasoning about it, just reasoning about a fiction? A fiction because ethics itself is a product borne of moral judgement, not informing those moral judgements.

        I am a moral realist, so I don’t think it is a fiction. I think anti-realists shouldalso want to be able to reason about ethics, so they can also come up with reasons to explain how we can reason about ethics and tell us why we should want to even do such a thing.

        I don’t know why you would say it can’t inform moral judgments. Even if it is a fiction, I think moral judgments can be informed. There is not necessarily a big difference between moral realism and anti-realism.

        Comment by JW Gray — April 27, 2014 @ 5:01 pm

      • Consider what it means to make good art or make a good game. We say that these things are “good” insofar as we enjoy them or something like that. We can reason about what makes people enjoy things like that and figure out what makes good art/good games.

        Can we be informed about these things? I think so.

        Do we have to be realists about the goodness of art or games? Saying it is based on something like enjoyment is no problem at all for anyone. It could be that games really are good based on enjoyment, or it could be that it is just a human way of talking about games. It isn’t clear that being a realist or anti-realist about it would make any difference to the reasoning process or how much the reasoning process could help.

        We could be realists or anti-realists and say that ethics is about happiness, and that goodness will then relate to making people happier/suffer less. The realist might say that happiness has intrinsic value, but the anti-realist could argue that it has to do with happiness due to our interest in happiness.

        Comment by JW Gray — April 27, 2014 @ 5:07 pm

      • I think art is a good example. It is, for Kant, that we make judgements about beauty, and expect that if ‘I think something is beautiful’, there we make a claim that everyone ‘ought’ think that thing is beautiful. He is saying, the faculty of judgement, when judging the beautiful, calls forth a universal judgement (the ought), but it is just a judgement which is a subjective universal claim. Kant is attempting to make evident a grounding for his earlier, more weighty moral oughts (the categorical imperative).
        So with that which we are claiming to be beautiful, we are only acknowledging that I find it beautiful, and that others ought to as well. This ought is not sustained as wholly universal.
        This is one of the problems I would have with morality: whilst it may be acceptable to make the claim, similarly, I think this is the right thing to do, and with confidence express it as a universal claim, how do I then expect that others ought agree? It is art which with this precise question alights the problem (and perhaps Kant set out his critique of judgment in order to dispel some objections to his moral philosophy, at least attempting to ground the types of claims he wanted to make with his moral philosophy).
        This aside, my stance on morality, although I am not one really attuned to the Anglo metaphysics of the day (being of the continental persuasion), is one of subjective relativism.

        Comment by Keegan Eastcott — April 30, 2014 @ 10:35 am

      • So you would say that slavery is right for certain people as long as it is consistent with their overall moral view? I think relativism has been proved wrong.

        It might be consistent for some people to have no interest in protecting animals either, but I think it is wrong to torture animals and so on.

        Comment by JW Gray — April 30, 2014 @ 6:48 pm

      • I agree those acts are wrong, but others might not. I can only put forward reasons I believe they are wrong to those that do not. I may even be angered and sickened and not understand how they could not think it wrong. I can only try and convince them otherwise. I could even hold those positions indefensible, and accept they have no good reasons for their actions… But why ought they agree, or alter their behaviour.

        Comment by Keegan Eastcott — April 30, 2014 @ 9:50 pm

      • The only reason anyone ought to agree with anything is if you can give premises they agree with using a good argument. That’s true for everything in philosophy. Does everyone have to agree that aliens exist somewhere else in the universe? No. Does that mean we should be relativists about it? — that it is true for some people and false for others? No.

        Sometimes it is impossible to get agreement from other people. Sometimes that is because they are being irrational and sometimes it is because it just isn’t clear what we should believe.

        Comment by JW Gray — May 1, 2014 @ 6:19 am

  3. I think you might be on more solid ground when talking about pain rather than charity, because everyone has personal experience in pain. Even then, I have no real idea how anyone other than myself experiences pain, and can only guess that it must be more or less the kind of experience that I have when I experience pain. But someone may experience greater or lesser pain than I do, and I can’t tell the difference.

    Still, I can agree that preventing or minimizing pain is a good thing for other people, because I think it’s a good thing for me. It’s better to experience less or no pain than it is to experience more pain. But what about being charitable to others? It might seem like a good idea, but what is the benefit to helping other people? Good karma is a rather fuzzy, nebulous benefit of helping others. People appreciating the help you give them is a bit more substantial, and the possible reward of them helping you later on when you need help is even more substantial.

    In other words, I don’t believe we help other people merely because it’s a ‘good’ thing to do. Instead, we expect some benefit to come from it, be it quid pro quo, or just helping out our community or society in general. It’s a good thing to do because we expect good to come from our charity. Charity is a means to an end, and not an end in itself.

    So, as I said elsewhere, I don’t see ethics as being intrinsically objective, only objective within the context of a desired (subjective) end. This does not have to mean that everything is relative. It means that we have to have an understanding and agreement about what we are trying to achieve, and then seek the best and most appropriate means to achieve that end.

    Comment by macsnafu — July 31, 2014 @ 9:02 pm | Reply

    • macsnafu,

      I think you might be on more solid ground when talking about pain rather than charity, because everyone has personal experience in pain. Even then, I have no real idea how anyone other than myself experiences pain, and can only guess that it must be more or less the kind of experience that I have when I experience pain. But someone may experience greater or lesser pain than I do, and I can’t tell the difference.

      We don’t have to know everything about pain to have a pretty good idea about how it should figure into our decision making process for the most part. Punching someone just because they make us angry is a bad idea because it causes pain, even if no serious physical damage is involved.

      Ethics is not an exact science, but we can figure out that there are reasons to do certain actions and reasons against doing certain actions.

      Still, I can agree that preventing or minimizing pain is a good thing for other people, because I think it’s a good thing for me. It’s better to experience less or no pain than it is to experience more pain. But what about being charitable to others? It might seem like a good idea, but what is the benefit to helping other people? Good karma is a rather fuzzy, nebulous benefit of helping others. People appreciating the help you give them is a bit more substantial, and the possible reward of them helping you later on when you need help is even more substantial.

      Well, one obvious reason to have charity is precisely to help people avoid needless pain. Feeding the hungry is one example. Giving charity as food to rich people doesn’t help achieve the goal, which is why we don’t have charities to help feed rich people. The benefit is supposed to be for the person we give charity to.

      In other words, I don’t believe we help other people merely because it’s a ‘good’ thing to do. Instead, we expect some benefit to come from it, be it quid pro quo, or just helping out our community or society in general. It’s a good thing to do because we expect good to come from our charity. Charity is a means to an end, and not an end in itself.

      It is a means to an end, but that doesn’t mean we should only act to benefit ourselves. You are likely to feel good about helping others, though. Most people have empathy for others. We feel bad when others suffer. We care about other people.

      So, as I said elsewhere, I don’t see ethics as being intrinsically objective, only objective within the context of a desired (subjective) end. This does not have to mean that everything is relative. It means that we have to have an understanding and agreement about what we are trying to achieve, and then seek the best and most appropriate means to achieve that end.

      What do you think ethics would be like if it where intrinsically objective? I didn’t actually use the term “intrinsically objective.” We can reason about ethics. We can figure out that certain actions lead to good results. The term “good result” can be understood as something objective, but ethics would not necessarily exist if no minds exist. Things like happiness and suffering seem like they have to be involved. If no happiness or suffering can exist, then morality won’t exist either.

      Also, note that reasoning about ethics does not even require moral realism to be true. Even if there are no moral facts, we can reason about ethics. There are anti-realist philosophers who still argue that certain laws are a good idea, others are a bad idea, and so on. Every anti-realist I know still has strong opinions about ethical issues.

      Comment by JW Gray — August 1, 2014 @ 2:58 pm | Reply


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