Ethical Realism

June 17, 2010

Morality, God, Relativism, and Nihilism

Although most people have no idea what philosophers have to say about morality that doesn’t deter them from discussing philosophical ramifications of morality. In particular many people want to argue for one of the following:

  1. Objective morality requires God.
  2. Morality is relative.
  3. Nothing really matters.

Most philosophers disagree with any of the above claims, but for some reason many other people seem to easily agree with them.1 I will briefly describe how I view morality and why I personally disagree with the above claims.

How I view morality

Morality is about making good choices that promotes certain goods rather than impedes them. Most people accept that certain goods, such as human life and happiness, are the sorts of goods that should be promoted and shouldn’t be impeded.

Ethics is the philosophy of morality. It is through ethics that we can reason about morality and justify moral beliefs. For example, we can reason about which goods are worthy of morality and the best way to accomplish such goals. How to accomplish our goals can be a scientific endeavor (i.e. drinking water is necessary to healthy), but deciding which goals are worthy is more difficult.

I believe that moral beliefs, if true, refer to facts about the world.
An example of a moral fact is that “torturing people willy nilly” is wrong because we know that pain is bad from our personal experiences of pain.

Additionally, I endorse intrinsic values. What can make a goal morally worthy is somewhat controversial in the academic world, but I believe that morally worthy goals promote intrinsic values. I not only know that pain is bad, but I know that pain really matters. I shouldn’t cause others pain even if it would benefit me to do so because everyone’s pain has negative value.

For more information about how I view morality and intrinsic values, you might want to take a look at my ebooks, Two New Kinds of Stoicism and Is There A Meaning of Life?

Objective morality requires God.

I’m not exactly sure what most people think “objective morality” or “objective value” refers to, but the main idea that most people seem to have in mind is that we have moral rules that apply to everyone. Morality in that sense is universal.

To say that “objective morality requires God” is pretty much synonymous with saying that “universal moral rules would be meaningless unless God exists.” God is taken to be a supernatural foundation for morality. Either God is an ideal person that manifests perfect virtues or God is a law maker who makes the moral laws for us to follow.

Why do I disagree that “God is necessary for morality?”

One, as far as I can tell, the fact that pain is bad has nothing to do with God’s virtues or commands. If I found out that God doesn’t exist, I would certainly still think that torturing people willy nilly is wrong because I would still accept that pain is bad.

Two, as far as I can tell, I don’t know anything about morality from God’s virtues. I have never seen God and I don’t know anything about his virtues. It seems to me that I can’t learn about morality by observing God. Even if I did observe God and somehow decided that God has a virtue of causing pain, I would still think that pain is bad. God’s so-called nature and perfection couldn’t convince me that pain isn’t bad.

Three, as far as I can tell, I don’t know morality through God’s commandments. If God didn’t command us not to cause pain, I would still think torturing people willy nilly is wrong. If God commanded me to torture people willy nilly, I would still think it would be wrong to do so.

For more information about why I don’t think objective morality requires God, you might want to take a look at my ebook, Does Morality Require God?

Morality is relative.

Many people accept that God is necessary for “objective morality” but they reject that God exists. The result for some is that they think morality is relative or subjective rather than objective.It might be that pain is bad for me, but it’s good for someone else. This tends to mean two things: (1) We can’t reason about morality because it’s just a matter of taste. (2) Morality is merely indoctrinated behavior regulation.

When we say that pain is bad for me but not bad for someone else, it could merely mean that I dislike pain and someone else likes it. Reason is then irrelevant to morality. We can’t say that I’m right and you’re wrong because there is no objective truth to morality. There are no moral facts that we can try to learn about.

Why do I disagree that “morality is relative?”

One, we know that we can reason about morality, but relativists deny that we can reason about morality. For example, I can reason that your pain is bad for the same reason that my pain is bad.2 I can also reason that to say that “my pain is bad, but no one else’s pain is bad” is absurd.

It is not controversial that moral reasoning is possible as is illustrated by the fact that (1) we accept that moral progress is possible and (2) we accept that our moral beliefs can be false. We can have moral progress, such as outlawing slavery. We can find out that our moral beliefs are false, such as the belief that slavery should be legal when we now know that slavery should be illegal.

Two, there are uncontroversial universal moral facts, but moral relativists must deny that there are such facts, such as the fact that torturing people willy nilly is wrong.

Nothing really matters.

Many non-philosophers are content to be moral relativists, but relativism requires that we accept that nothing really matters (which is often called “nihilism”).3 In other words they reject intrinsic values. I think this is one of the main reasons that theists are not satisfied with relativism. If nothing really matters, then what’s the point in being moral? There isn’t any.

Much of the debate involving morality and God is the idea that atheists can’t be moral. Certainly atheists can act morally just like anyone else, but theists then insist that atheists can’t be moral in the sense that morality itself is delusional for the atheist. The atheist couldn’t be rationally moral. Being moral would not longer be rational and could even be irrational.

I agree that it is rational to be moral because something really matters, but I don’t think that has anything to do with God. I think pleasure is intrinsically good and pain is intrinsically bad because I have first hand experience with these things, not because of God’s virtuous ideal nature or commandments. If God commanded us to hurt each other, then I would think God was wrong to do so. I would think that pleasure has intrinsic value and pain has intrinsic disvalue no matter what God is like.

Why do I disagree with the proposition that “nothing really matters?”

One, I have already briefly described why I think pleasure and pain involve intrinsic values. I don’t think that pleasure is merely desired, but I think that pleasure is desired because we know it’s good. I also discuss many arguments in favor of intrinsic values here.

Two, some of our commitments concerning morality seem to require us to accept that intrinsic values exist. Consider the following:

(1) We are committed to the fact that one should choose to care about people if given the choice not to care. If morality isn’t objective, then we could imagine that we could find out that our feelings delude us into caring for people. We might be able to learn to stop having empathy for others and stop allowing our moral feelings to control us. We could then learn to live without morality. There would be nothing irrational with doing such a thing because morality would be delusional to begin with.

(2) The word “ought” itself seems to indicate that morality is objective because it indicates that one action is right or wrong no matter what I personal believe or desire. If I ought to do something, then it is good to do it. However, if morality is just a group of arbitrary rules that people tend to care about, then the word “ought” would merely indicate that some behavior follows those rules better than others. But so what? In that case I ought to help others only in the sense that I have a tendency to like people to help others. That wouldn’t be any more important than following rules of etiquette.

Conclusion

All three of these views seem to give God’s connection to morality too much credit, and many people reject objective morality almost entirely because they reject God’s existence. However, that’s not to say that any of this makes any sense. This isn’t an issue for many contemporary philosophers at all. Almost no philosophers agree that morality requires God or that morality is relative. There are some philosophers who think that nothing really matters but philosophers will usually insist that we can reason about morality. Morality might be objective even if nothing really matters.

My understanding of morality involves reasoning and worthy goals, and these elements seem easy enough to understand with common sense alone. God doesn’t seem to help the situation, and relativism fails to consider that we reason about morality. People who reject intrinsic values can often reason about morality, but they must reject certain non-controversial facts concerning the nature of morality, such as morality’s importance.

Notes

1 Some contemporary philosophers do endorse moral relativism, but their view is still much different than the relativism endorsed by most non-philosophers. For example, a philosopher might think that we can reason about moral goals, and moral goals are maximally worthy when they are based on maximal non-moral knowledge. People who know everything about the world can certainly make the most informed moral judgments, but philosophical relativists insist that moral judgments could be different for each person.

2 Atheism and ignorance are not the only motivations for moral relativism. Some people also endorse relativism because they think such a position is “tolerant” and will help them get along with others. Instead of saying, “I’m right and you’re wrong,” the relativist can say, “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.” I am not impressed with this line of reasoning because it gives up too easily and decides not to argue about morality just because it can help make friends and so forth. The position is ultimately against philosophy itself because it tells us not to think too much about morality and just take things at face value.

3 The view that “nothing really matters” is accepted by some contemporary philosophers, but such philosophers are not relativists as relativism is described above, and such philosophers almost unanimously believes that we can reason about morality.

69 Comments »

  1. Good read.

    I don’t think when we say nothing really matters, we literally mean it. We just mean that in the big scheme of things, my pain or your pleasure will seem unsignificant.

    I agree with Epictetus that pain is as painful as I want it to be: I can be pained at a close friends death, or I could just say it is a shame, but considering that I can not do anything about it, I will not get angry, cry, or become depressed.

    Comment by ultimateserge — June 17, 2010 @ 11:58 pm | Reply

    • I think you are right that for the most part people believe in intrinsic value, but some people really do want to deny that intrinsic value exists. When push comes to shove they might still seem to believe. Of course, they might then argue that they have some sort of instinctual response that seems to make us deluded into believing in intrinsic values and it could be hard to fight off our delusion.

      Comment by James Gray — June 18, 2010 @ 4:35 am | Reply

  2. We can know right from wrong through conscience. So I agree that there are intrinsic values. Natural and personal law are reasonable. Of course I believe that you are ontologically way off track not believing that these values come from God and that all comes from God. How do we have these intrinsic values, our own existence, or the existence of the universe? They are a gift from Divine Persons.
    Although right and wrong can be known through reason without God the person lacks motivation. If actions have not only temporal consequences but eternal ones that adds weight to them. Also a person may fail to act in a good way, such as laying down their life for someone else, if they believe their existence will end if they do so instead of believing that there is an eternal existence.
    In questioning why there is intrinsic values by faith we can come to the reasonable answer is that we are called to love and be loved. That what it means to be a person is to be other-centered instead of self-centered. Atheism and nihilism are self-centered in that they are based on a belief of self as the cause of existence. They have no explanation of how existence came to be or why we exist.
    Arguing for morality based on pain and pleasure principles will lead you way off track. A doctor causes pain to a patient to heal them. Certainly pleasure can be wrong if it uses people. It is also morally wrong not to help someone in need. Sins of ommission and sins of commission.

    Comment by Tim Cronin — June 18, 2010 @ 10:21 am | Reply

    • I agree that as an athiest, I have no serious motivation to be good. But, I think your maping a huge jump just stating that these intrinic values come from God. They come from somewhere, but I do not think it is correct to suddenly jump and cite God as the giver of these intrinsic values.

      Also, as an athiest I may help someone in need, but because I have no external motivation, I believe my act of kindness is more genuine than the Muslim or Christian. Religious people, in many ocassions, commit good deeds not mainly because of the person they help, but because of God, to be blessed by him as a result. I may have no motivation to act good, but if I am good as a non-believer, my goodness is all the more majestic and great. I have no external motivation for doing the good, and still I do it.

      Comment by ultimateserge — June 18, 2010 @ 9:33 pm | Reply

      • Either intrinsic values originate from nature or from a Divine Person. If from nature then everything is determined by nature. If everything is determined by nature then there is no freedom over nature (which is a major aspect of personhood) and therefore no right and wrong. We can only do what our nature determines us to do. Therefore even reasoning is impossible, we are just reacting naturally to natural phenomena. Yet what (or the questions is better phrased who) is the cause of nature?

        My motivation to help someone can be both love of them and of God. Looking at things eternally I can better love someone if I can give myself to them eternally then just for a moment.

        Comment by Tim Cronin — June 18, 2010 @ 11:16 pm

    • Tim,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I will respond to your comments.

      We can know right from wrong through conscience.

      I actually disagree that we know it from our conscience. Some people’s conscience makes them feel like sex is wrong even after they get married, some people’s conscience makes them feel like it’s wrong to renounce Buddhist superstitions, and so on.

      The evidence that pain is intrinsically bad is based on reliable experiences.

      So I agree that there are intrinsic values. Natural and personal law are reasonable. Of course I believe that you are ontologically way off track not believing that these values come from God and that all comes from God. How do we have these intrinsic values, our own existence, or the existence of the universe? They are a gift from Divine Persons.

      If everything comes from God, then of course I agree that morality would also come from God. However, scientists don’t have to talk about God when discussing the natural world and I don’t think we need to talk about God when discussing morality.

      Many Christians believe that morality and God are intimately tied and morality must at all times rely upon the supernatural. This is wrong.

      Although right and wrong can be known through reason without God the person lacks motivation.

      I disagree with this, but it is another issue that was not discussed above. Consider that 342+1=343. We don’t know much about a motivation to believe such a thing, but it seems pretty much impossible to not believe it. When I find out that my actions “really matter” I find that highly motivating. To think that our lives are meaningless and that nothing matters is highly dispiriting. I see no reason to think that intrinsic values can’t be motivating. Our motivations are not just about seeking pleasure, etc.

      If actions have not only temporal consequences but eternal ones that adds weight to them. Also a person may fail to act in a good way, such as laying down their life for someone else, if they believe their existence will end if they do so instead of believing that there is an eternal existence.

      From the selfish point of view you are correct, but then why should a theist be selfless? Selflessness makes sense from the intrinsic value point of view whether God exists or not.

      Many theist also decide that killing people isn’t such a big deal because they all go to heaven or hell (wherever they belong) anyway. No big deal.

      In questioning why there is intrinsic values by faith we can come to the reasonable answer is that we are called to love and be loved. That what it means to be a person is to be other-centered instead of self-centered. Atheism and nihilism are self-centered in that they are based on a belief of self as the cause of existence. They have no explanation of how existence came to be or why we exist.

      Yes, love makes perfect sense if people have intrinsic value. I don’t see how God is relevant there.

      I don’t understand why you think atheism has to be self-centered. I am not the cause of existence, and I don’t know why you think that has something to do with being self-centered. The universe exists independently of me. I do not think that I give things value just by caring about them. I believe intrinsic values exist, and therefore pleasure, pain, and human existence all really matter. I can’t choose for them not to matter.

      Arguing for morality based on pain and pleasure principles will lead you way off track. A doctor causes pain to a patient to heal them. Certainly pleasure can be wrong if it uses people. It is also morally wrong not to help someone in need. Sins of ommission and sins of commission.

      I never said that causing pain is always wrong and causing pleasure is always right. That is a distortion of my view and/or a complete misunderstanding about intrinsic values. I discuss this issue here: https://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/01/07/mischaracterizations-of-intrinsic-value/

      Comment by James Gray — June 18, 2010 @ 10:09 pm | Reply

      • Hi James,

        Conscience, I don’t think, is a list of what is right and wrong. I think it gives us an intuition of what would be wrong to do before we do it and convicts us afterward with guilt if we do it. It also needs to be formed properly. Therefore a misguided conscience can make us think sex is evil or wrong to renounce Buddhist supersitions.

        I agree that pain is bad, it is a lack of health, but it is not neccesarily morally wrong. Otherwise an athlete would be wrong to work out because that can be painful, etc.

        As far as atheism being self-centered: it lacks gratitude. You have no one to be grateful to for the universe and all that is good.

        As far as selflessness goes I don’t think we would have the ability to be selfless if nature determined everything. We would always act to preserve ourselves.

        I agree that “doing what matters” can be motivating. Yet I think since we know that we ultimately die that plays a major role in everything. If we think we die for good that can play a major role in how we live now. We may choose pleasure over what is good.
        I agree that we can know right and wrong by reason.

        Comment by Tim Cronin — June 18, 2010 @ 11:32 pm

    • Tim,

      Conscience, I don’t think, is a list of what is right and wrong. I think it gives us an intuition of what would be wrong to do before we do it and convicts us afterward with guilt if we do it. It also needs to be formed properly. Therefore a misguided conscience can make us think sex is evil or wrong to renounce Buddhist supersitions.

      I’m not exactly sure what you think conscience is or how we can rely upon it given that it can be formed improperly. If it tells us x is true, but it can be formed improperly, then we don’t know if x is true or not.

      However, I agree that something like intuition can be reliable.

      I agree that pain is bad, it is a lack of health, but it is not neccesarily morally wrong. Otherwise an athlete would be wrong to work out because that can be painful, etc.

      That is exactly what I think. Intrinsic values should not be confused with right and wrong. They are related but not equivalent.

      As far as atheism being self-centered: it lacks gratitude. You have no one to be grateful to for the universe and all that is good.

      I can appreciate existing and I can be grateful to my parents. I can appreciate the entire universe but I might not have anyone to be grateful to. If God didn’t make the universe, that is simply a fact and I don’t see any problem there. I think part of the problem is thinking we have no reason to feel appreciation, but I think we do. The fact that things intrinsically good exist is a good thing. You can call a recognition and emotional elation relating to that fact “appreciation.”

      As far as selflessness goes I don’t think we would have the ability to be selfless if nature determined everything. We would always act to preserve ourselves.

      This is another issue. We can admit that intrinsic values exist, even if we lack free will. We can use intrinsic values to make better decisions even without free will. It is simply false that we would have to be selfish if nature determined everything. Some people behave altruistically and others don’t. However, I would agree that without free will we might have to admit people aren’t evil and they wouldn’t deserve suffering or revenge.

      Without free will punishment could still make sense as long as punishment promoted intrinsic value and either helps people learn to behave better or protects us from dangerous people.

      Finally, it isn’t really clear what it means for “nature to determine everything.” It is true that nature would be the cause of everything in the natural world. No miracles would happen. No divine intervention or supernatural events. However, free will and altruism could be “caused” by the natural world.

      Part of the problem is that many people think, “Either God exists or a completely reductionist world exists.” Eliminative reductionism is incompatible with free will and intrinsic value. You aren’t going to find free will or value in atoms or a description of physics. But almost no atheists are eliminative reductionists. The natural world is sometimes more than the sum of its parts. This view is supported by the theory of emergence.

      I agree that “doing what matters” can be motivating. Yet I think since we know that we ultimately die that plays a major role in everything. If we think we die for good that can play a major role in how we live now. We may choose pleasure over what is good.
      I agree that we can know right and wrong by reason.

      I’m not sure exactly what you want to argue here. If belief in God is motivating, then God might still not exist.

      There is no guarantee that people will be moral whether or not God exists. Selfishness has been the main problem either way. If someone is raised properly and is treated with respect, then I think there is a good chance that they will be moral.

      The thought that God is watching us every moment might motivate people to behave in a better way in some situations, but that is a coercive and disrespectful way to get people to behave properly. (The idea of heaven and hell is even more disrespectful in that regard.) Truly moral people don’t need it. A general lack of privacy and lots of hidden cameras would probably be even more effective, but we know such a motivation would be immoral.

      Also, people often have doubts about God’s existence. If someone is going to be moral just because God is watching, then they might change their mind as soon as they have their doubts.

      I discuss many arguments that God is required for morality in the sense of motivation and so on in my ebook: https://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/06/17/2010/06/09/does-morality-require-god-free-ebook/

      I agree that it might be motivating in some ways, but it don’t think it is ever necessary for moral motivation.

      Comment by James Gray — June 19, 2010 @ 12:00 am | Reply

      • I don’t see how nature can give us an ability to determine our nature instead of be determined by it. When we start to talk about causation that raises the question of a First Cause of all nature. I believe God is hidden because He is humble and will not force us to have a relationship with Him. Hell is eternallly seperating ourselves from Him who is an eternal communion of Persons.

        Comment by Tim Cronin — June 19, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

  3. An analogy of how being motivated to love someone both for their sake and God is this: I can love one of my children both for their sake and because it is pleasing and loving to my wife for me to do this. I think by loving additional persons my love is not less genuine and also is more expansive.

    Comment by Tim Cronin — June 18, 2010 @ 11:42 pm | Reply

  4. I also don’t think we are capable of fully loving (moral perfection) without the help of other human and divine persons.

    Comment by Tim Cronin — June 18, 2010 @ 11:46 pm | Reply

    • Tim,

      I’m not sure what exactly you are saying about love, how God is relevant, or how love shows that God is necessary for morality.

      If people have intrinsic value, then they are worthy of being valued for having worth. We then should help them in various ways because they deserve the help. We can also have emotional attachments to people in part because of their value. Their existence can be a reason to be elated and spending time with people can confirm their value to us. If we don’t spend time with people, then we can feel alienated and people might no longer present themselves to us as “real.” We might need to remind ourselves of their value and existence from time to time.

      Comment by James Gray — June 19, 2010 @ 12:07 am | Reply

  5. Tim,

    You said the following:

    I don’t see how nature can give us an ability to determine our nature instead of be determined by it.

    That way of phrasing it does make it seem impossible, but free will could be part of nature. You can’t just decide that nature is a non-free will part of reality or you’ve already stacked the deck against the scientific worldview. In that case you would be right “by definition.” What exists in the natural world is not up to us. It is what it is and we need to investigate to find out more.

    We have minds that are more than the sum of their parts. The mind isn’t just the brain, but the mind is intimately tied to the brain. If you make changes to the brain, you can make changes to the mind.

    The mind is able to make decisions. Either those decisions are “determined” by other mental phenomena (such as motivation and reason) or some mysterious sort of libertarian free will exists. (Go to http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/incompatibilism-theories/ for more information)

    Whether libertarian free will exists or not, Searle’s explanation for the mind-brain connection can help us understand how decisions can be made in a fairly satisfying way. This is speculation because we simply don’t know everything about the natural world at this time, but speculation that “God is somehow involved to give us free will” is not an acceptable answer in philosophy. My understanding of Searle has been posted here: https://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/01/22/searles-philosophy-of-the-mind/

    When we start to talk about causation that raises the question of a First Cause of all nature.

    Yes, but the universe might have always existed or it might have just popped into existence. I discussed this issue here: https://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/05/12/the-theological-worldview/

    I believe God is hidden because He is humble and will not force us to have a relationship with Him.

    First, that is another issue and isn’t very relevant. Second, your answer is not satisfying to me. Don’t you think God was was available to us as Jesus? Why make an exception then but not when babies are dying from some disease and need his help? We are extremely ignorant about the world and could have used more of his help.

    Hell is eternallly seperating ourselves from Him who is an eternal communion of Persons.

    Obviously I disagree. Relatively few highly educated people (such as academic philosophers) are theists and they would also disagree. So, you are basically saying something incredibly controversial instead of actually giving me evidence to support a claim. If you want to say that God is necessary for morality, first tell me how my arguments have failed. I think that we would still think that torturing willy nilly is wrong even if God told me otherwise or even if God enjoyed torturing people. I think we know torturing is wrong from common sense and personal experience with pain. If I’m wrong, then why am I wrong?

    If I am wrong about how we attain moral knowledge, then we will need to know how moral knowledge is possible (if it is). That would be a good time to give me an argument to tell me why God is necessary for morality. What are your premises and why should I believe them?

    I have already taken a look at several arguments that morality requires God and I posted them in the ebook that I already mentioned. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this and have taken a close look at the arguments. I am not impressed by them.

    Comment by James Gray — June 20, 2010 @ 4:04 am | Reply

  6. If God is not involved in our freedom that we are not ontologically free. We will succumb to natural death. However if God is involved in our freedom then we can transcend death.
    If the universe is eternal then it is your god. The only being who can create something from nothing is God.
    If God was fully visible we wouldn’t be able to reject him with atheism.
    Why do we put people in solitary confinement or why is rejection and break-ups so painful. They are the opposite of a communion of persons – a foretaste is some sense of hell. Why do people take such joy at the birth of children and at marriage. They point to heaven.

    Comment by Tim Cronin — June 22, 2010 @ 10:53 am | Reply

    • Tim,

      If God is not involved in our freedom that we are not ontologically free.

      You are repeating yourself. I already objected to this assertion. What makes you think God is intimately tied to free will? You should read more about free will. This is a serious philosophical issue and almost no philosophers would agree that God is necessary for free will.

      We will succumb to natural death. However if God is involved in our freedom then we can transcend death.

      This might be right, but so what? In that case murder wouldn’t be such a big deal.

      If the universe is eternal then it is your god.

      No, then the natural world just never had a beginning or end.

      The only being who can create something from nothing is God.

      I never said anything could create something from nothing.

      If God was fully visible we wouldn’t be able to reject him with atheism.

      Then why did non-Christians see Jesus and continue not to believe?

      Why do we put people in solitary confinement or why is rejection and break-ups so painful. They are the opposite of a communion of persons – a foretaste is some sense of hell. Why do people take such joy at the birth of children and at marriage. They point to heaven.

      Is this supposed to be an argument? I obviously disagree with what you are saying here and I know of no reason to agree with it.

      An argument has premises and a conclusion. For more information, go here: https://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/02/22/what-you-need-from-formal-logic/

      If you want to be able to say something meaningful, then I need to know why I should believe what you are saying. So far you just keep telling me what you personally believe. Something isn’t true just because you believe it.

      Comment by James Gray — June 22, 2010 @ 10:07 pm | Reply

  7. I guess you are going to believe in nature. Nature can not save you though.

    Comment by Tim Cronin — June 23, 2010 @ 1:46 am | Reply

    • Tim,

      Almost everyone believes in nature. It exists. I never said nature could “save me.”

      I am not convinced that you understand the arguments or theories involved with the relevant debates. You seem to assume that God is needed for morality just because you see things one way and no other way makes sense in your mind. Well, that’s probably because you haven’t taken the time to learn about how other people see things.

      Comment by James Gray — June 23, 2010 @ 2:18 am | Reply

  8. “‘If God is not involved in our freedom that we are not ontologically free.’

    You are repeating yourself. I already objected to this assertion. What makes you think God is intimately tied to free will? You should read more about free will. This is a serious philosophical issue and almost no philosophers would agree that God is necessary for free will.”

    Tim:

    Premise 1: God is an all knowing being.
    Premise 2: Since God is all knowing, he must know my entire life, else he would not be omniscient
    Premise 3: If God knows my future before it happens, I do not have a free will because I am not able to act otherwise, as God would then not be omniscient.
    Premise 4. A belief in God constitutes the negation of free will as God’s omniscience limits our actions.

    Of course that all assumes God exists 😀

    James: I don’t see pain and pleasure as an accurate lens into any moral reasoning, as such feelings are completely subjective. Thus, how are we to come up with any legitimate normative moral theory?

    Comment by Evan — August 10, 2010 @ 10:01 pm | Reply

    • Evan,

      James: I don’t see pain and pleasure as an accurate lens into any moral reasoning, as such feelings are completely subjective. Thus, how are we to come up with any legitimate normative moral theory?

      First, the fact that you don’t see your reasoning that way either means (a) your reasoning is very flawed or (b) you don’t know how you are reasoning about morality.

      Why is it wrong to cause people intense pain? Doesn’t it have something to do with pain being bad?

      Why take an aspirin when in pain? Isn’t it because your pain is bad?

      Why give a stranger an aspirin? Isn’t it because their pain is bad?

      Why entertain friends or strangers? Isn’t it because their pleasure is good?

      Why try to have mutual sexual benefits in a sexual relationship? Isn’t it because both people count and their pleasure counts in both cases?

      Calling pleasure and pain “completely subjective” doesn’t mean pleasure and pain don’t exist. Yes, pleasure and pain are part of our mental activity, but so what?

      You reject that pleasure and pain have moral relevance offhand as though you have put no effort into understanding my position. You don’t actually take a look at my arguments and show how they fail. I have already suggested the following:

      For more information about how I view morality and intrinsic values, you might want to take a look at my ebooks, Two New Kinds of Stoicism and Is There A Meaning of Life?

      If my arguments succeed, then yes, pleasure and pain have moral significance. One of the most commonly shared moral principals is against “causing others suffering.” Suffering is the worst sort of pain.

      Comment by James Gray — August 10, 2010 @ 10:52 pm | Reply

  9. “pain is bad” – naturalistic fallacy.

    Comment by Evan — August 17, 2010 @ 6:46 pm | Reply

    • Evan, I already explained why it’s not committing the “naturalistic fallacy.” First, a fallacy concerns faulty reasoning. Observation is not faulty reasoning.

      There are different meanings to the words “naturalistic fallacy.” To think you “can’t get an ‘ought’ from ‘is'” is not even a fallacy. To conclude that something ought to be the case just because it’s natural IS a fallacy, but that’s not what I am saying about pain. Pain is natural, but we know it’s bad because we experience it as such, not because it’s natural.

      G.E. Moore’s naturalistic fallacy is also not really a fallacy, but it is a conclusion to an argument, and Moore concludes that we shouldn’t DEFINE something as good or bad. For example, he doesn’t think we should say “pain” MEANS “bad.” What would happen if that was the case? Then the word “bad” wouldn’t mean much of anything. I want to describe a property of pain — it’s badness. I don’t want to merely define it as bad because that would miss the point entirely. There can be bad things other than pain or there might not be. A definition makes something true no matter what we “observe,” but pain could potentially be observed as “good.” In fact, some people seem to have faulty observations about it from time to time. In fact, I could even admit that I could be wrong that “all pain is bad.” Perhaps only most pain is bad.

      I am saying that “pain” has a property of “intrinsic badness.” Intrinsic value is a metaethical position that does not merely define one thing as meaning “good” or “bad.”

      Comment by James Gray — August 17, 2010 @ 8:50 pm | Reply

  10. “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.”

    It seems to me that you are using pain as such. I quote the most important line. “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.” Is not pain factual? Are you not using it to support an evaluative conclusion? I guess perhaps you are making an evaluative statement about pain, but then, does not your argument rest in suggesting that pain being bad is factual?

    Comment by Evan — August 18, 2010 @ 6:08 am | Reply

  11. Evan,

    It seems to me that you are using pain as such. I quote the most important line. “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.” Is not pain factual? Are you not using it to support an evaluative conclusion? I guess perhaps you are making an evaluative statement about pain, but then, does not your argument rest in suggesting that pain being bad is factual?

    First, Moore was a moral realist who believed that pain is intrinsically bad. His main issue was defending “value pluralism” — the view that multiple things could have intrinsic value. Consider the following quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

    One of this chapter’s larger aims was to defend value-pluralism, the idea that there are many ultimate goods. Moore thought a key bar to this view was the naturalistic fallacy. He assumed, plausibly, that philosophers who treat goodness as identical to some natural property will usually make this a simple property, such as just pleasure or just evolutionary fitness, rather than a disjunctive property such as pleasure-or-evolutionary-fitness-or-knowledge. But then any naturalist view pushes us toward value-monism, or the view that only one state is good. — http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moore-moral/

    Second, Moore was an intuitionist, so he thought we could know that “pain is bad” because of an intuition. I don’t entirely disagree with that position. Is intuition factual? If so, then Moore will agree that moral knowledge can be attained from facts.

    I think we can attain moral knowledge from observation. If observation is a fact, then we can know moral knowledge from facts.

    Third, I think we know that pain is bad because of a fact “pain is bad.” It is the value that gives us the knowledge of the existence of a value. I don’t want to suggest that we can know the existence of intrinsic values without intrinsic values causing our belief in them. I don’t want to suggest that we can know about the existence about values purely from reason or purely through non-moral reality.

    Fourth, “how we know about moral facts” is not necessarily what Moore was talking about. He was saying that premises of a conclusion concerning right and wrong must also involve values. In other words, consider the following argument:

    1. Pain is bad.
    2. Therefore, causing pain for no reason is bad.

    The first premise “pain is bad” involves values, so Moore’s rule is not being violate.

    Now consider another argument:

    1. Punching people causes pain.
    2. Therefore, it’s wrong punch people for no reason.

    Moore would say that this argument is incomplete because it is missing an evaluative premise (i.e. Pain is bad.)

    Fifth, “How can badness exist?” was not what Moore is talking about. Morality could arise from physical reality. Moral reality interacts and depends upon physical reality. This is known as “supervenience.”

    Consider this quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

    As he puts it in the preface he composed for the second edition of Principia Ethica, but never actually published, a thing’s ‘intrinsic value’ depends on its ‘intrinsic nature’, and he glosses this dependence in terms of the relationship which we now call ‘supervenience’ (though Moore does not use the term): things with the same intrinsic nature, or natural properties, must have the same intrinsic value (see ‘The Conception of Intrinsic Value’ 286). — http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moore/

    Comment by James Gray — August 18, 2010 @ 6:35 am | Reply

  12. I think there might be some objective facts underlying the use of the terms “good” and “bad” in these discussions that I often think about and would be curious to hear others’ feedback on. [Let me also comment that, as a first-time poster, I’m happy to have stumbled across this blog. I’ve been searching for exactly this kind of philosophical work and discussion for years.]

    Isn’t what is really being said when you claim that “pain is bad” is that pain could potentially be a precursor to death, and that the condition of death (or even chronic pain) frustrates an apparently factual, observable, objective aim or function of biological systems to metabolize energy and replicate (that is, to survive)?

    It doesn’t seem, stepping outside of ourselves, that there is a factual basis by which to evaluate whether the continued survival of biological systems in the universe can be said to be good or bad. It doesn’t seem you could say that the universe as a whole holds biological systems to have value. For example, the physical processes taking place in the sun will eventually change in a way that makes our continued survival on the planet impossible.

    BUT, it seems obvious that we, as one such biological system, hold our continued survival to be of value to us in the sense that we seek to sustain it. And, further, our survival depends on the continued survival of a number of other biological systems as well as a certain amount of stability in the inorganic systems in which we are immersed, and we can’t merely tend solely to our own needs.

    So it seems some observable, objective, facts are:

    1) That biological systems seek to metabolize energy and replicate. This process is an end-in-itself of such systems.
    2) That humans are a biological system
    3) That when such systems cease either function, they eventually dissipate into their inorganic surroundings and cease to exist.
    4) That practices which, when executed on large scale, will tend to sustain and promote the ability of humans to survive, given a stable host environment, are judged by humans to be morally good.
    5) That practices which, when practiced on large scale, will tend to frustrate or make impossible the ability of humans to survive, are judged by humans to be morally bad.

    We are a biological system – it is not even necessary to establish whether or not our continued existence is a universal objective good or not, but it can objectively be shown that some practices will tend to have a negative impact on our ability to continue to survive, and others will positively influence it. We certainly value our survival, and that is a brute fact. It seems to me that all moral goods can be objectively derived from this foundation.

    Yet, this proposal seems never to have gained much ground in philosophy. So, where are the flaws?

    Comment by James — September 16, 2010 @ 9:18 am | Reply

  13. James,

    Thanks for the comment.

    Isn’t what is really being said when you claim that “pain is bad” is that pain could potentially be a precursor to death, and that the condition of death (or even chronic pain) frustrates an apparently factual, observable, objective aim or function of biological systems to metabolize energy and replicate (that is, to survive)?

    No, pain exists and can be observed. When I feel a horrible headache there is no question that something bad is happening to me no matter what other people think. Even if pain does not lead to death, it’s still bad. Is death also bad? I think it is, but not all philosophers think so.

    It doesn’t seem, stepping outside of ourselves, that there is a factual basis by which to evaluate whether the continued survival of biological systems in the universe can be said to be good or bad. It doesn’t seem you could say that the universe as a whole holds biological systems to have value. For example, the physical processes taking place in the sun will eventually change in a way that makes our continued survival on the planet impossible.

    Why would we have to step outside of ourselves to decide if something has value? That sounds like the wrong way to find out what has value. The universe as a whole has no opinion about value, but valuable things can exist within it anyway. To think that the universe or God or people have to value something for value to exist is exactly what I am disagreeing with. Value isn’t a matter of opinion. We can be wrong about what has value. Someone can tell me that my headache isn’t bad, but she would be wrong.

    BUT, it seems obvious that we, as one such biological system, hold our continued survival to be of value to us in the sense that we seek to sustain it. And, further, our survival depends on the continued survival of a number of other biological systems as well as a certain amount of stability in the inorganic systems in which we are immersed, and we can’t merely tend solely to our own needs.

    I agree with that.

    So it seems some observable, objective, facts are:

    1) That biological systems seek to metabolize energy and replicate. This process is an end-in-itself of such systems.
    2) That humans are a biological system
    3) That when such systems cease either function, they eventually dissipate into their inorganic surroundings and cease to exist.
    4) That practices which, when executed on large scale, will tend to sustain and promote the ability of humans to survive, given a stable host environment, are judged by humans to be morally good.
    5) That practices which, when practiced on large scale, will tend to frustrate or make impossible the ability of humans to survive, are judged by humans to be morally bad.

    I don’t know if I agree with all the above, but I currently have no major objections to it.

    We are a biological system – it is not even necessary to establish whether or not our continued existence is a universal objective good or not, but it can objectively be shown that some practices will tend to have a negative impact on our ability to continue to survive, and others will positively influence it. We certainly value our survival, and that is a brute fact. It seems to me that all moral goods can be objectively derived from this foundation.

    Yet, this proposal seems never to have gained much ground in philosophy. So, where are the flaws?

    It is a similar view to some philosophers, but it sounds like an anti-realist view — a view that states that there are no moral facts in reality. Most philosophers believe that there are moral facts because they take our moral experiences seriously and our experiences seem to require that moral facts exist.

    Your hypothesis could be right, but it seems to rely on the fact that evolution gave us moral instincts, but such instincts would actually contradict some known moral facts. For example, our genetic code wouldn’t be preserved by sacrificing ourselves to save the lives of strangers even though that is a morally good act. Evolution should mainly support selfishness and speciesism, but morality is not about being selfish and we know that nonhuman animals count for something.

    I have discussed these issues at some length, but a good starting point might be — Does Evolution Adequately Explain Morality? https://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/07/09/does-evolution-adequately-explain-morality/

    I have also had a lengthy discussion in the comments concerning the issue.

    Comment by James Gray — September 16, 2010 @ 8:41 pm | Reply

  14. > To think that the universe or God or people have to value something
    > for value to exist is exactly what I am disagreeing with. Value isn’t
    > a matter of opinion. We can be wrong about what has value.

    This is an idea that interests me. If no conscious entity shows that a given thing is in some way valued by them, how would you go about demonstrating that this thing has value? What is the criteria for establishing that something has value? Can you identify something that exists but yet has no value (Wal-Mart, maybe)? Or, something that has no value yet is valued by some people (again, Wal-Mart)?

    Comment by James — September 18, 2010 @ 5:35 am | Reply

    • This is an idea that interests me. If no conscious entity shows that a given thing is in some way valued by them, how would you go about demonstrating that this thing has value?

      First, you have to know something has value to demonstrate that it has value. Second, some people are wrong about what has value. A person who has never felt pain might just have to take our word for it (that it’s bad). Physical pain could be compared to emotional pain, and everyone I know has felt both at one point or another.

      What is the criteria for establishing that something has value? Can you identify something that exists but yet has no value (Wal-Mart, maybe)? Or, something that has no value yet is valued by some people (again, Wal-Mart)?

      One way of looking at that was answered here: https://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/01/14/how-to-find-the-meaning-of-life/

      This strategy was used to establish the fact that at least one intrinsic value exists here: https://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2009/10/07/an-argument-for-moral-realism/

      I organized many of my thoughts about intrinsic value in this free ebook: https://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/01/21/is-there-a-meaning-of-life-free-ebook/

      It’s not non-controversial, either:
      http://www.boston.com/news/science/articles/2008/11/10/eo_wilson_shifts_his_position_on_altruism_in_nature/

      Holldobler and Wilson seems to agree that instincts would endorse speciesism. Holldobler also does not purport that morality is rational (or even that altruistic behavior based on genetics is rational). Take a look here:

      Bert Holldobler, argue that natural selection operates on the group, not just the gene. The lavishly-illustrated volume examines the complex systems that help insect societies survive, from an intricate array of communication signals to the elaborate architecture of nests. But Wilson – though not Holldobler – goes further, saying altruism occurs not because animals share family ties, but because certain altruistic acts have become useful for the overall survival of insect groups.

      He makes it clear that instincts could possibly arise based on the needs of a community. Dawkins has argued that altruism could be based on time our ancestors spent in small groups, which encouraged altruistic behavior to help the group. The fact that we are willing to help strangers might be based on the fact that strangers pretty much didn’t exist for our ancestors.

      Does evolution fully account for how we understand intrinsic values? It is possible, but I am not convinced.

      More importantly, does any of this rationally justify altruism or morality? No. It just explains from an instinctual standpoint why people sometimes behave altruistically or why they are capable of behaving altruistically. People are also capable of behaving in horrible ways. Read what I had to say about evolution and morality because all of this misses the point. Of course we had to evolve in a way that makes morality possible; but what makes something “good” or “right” or “morally rational” is not something evolution explains.

      However, I’m not sure I’m a believer in the idea that the truth of moral statements is something that is a function of evolutionary change. I think it is more likely the case that altruism is good for people whether they are willing to accept the idea or not.

      What does it mean to say that altruism is good for people? Is it always good to help endangered species?

      Comment by James Gray — September 18, 2010 @ 7:14 am | Reply

      • In answer to the following:

        > What does it mean to say that altruism is good for people?

        So, recall that my thinking has been that biological life (defined by the physical processes of metabolization and replication) is one fact that can be convincingly shown to have intrinsic value. You can demonstrate that a) life exists and that b) all entities that could be said to possess life act to sustain it, regardless of the biological sophistication of the entity being considered. In this we have strong, objective, cross-species, culture-independent evidence of intrinsic positive value obtaining in life. [ Note that in this view, the experience of pain is seen as having instrumental value, and not as an end-in-itself. Pain leads to actions that preserve life, where life is the end-in-itself. ]

        My belief is that this is at least one value-fact from which many (or possibly all) other moral truths are derived. Not all truths that derive from this truth may be accepted or practiced by a specific individual or group, but their opinions or actions in these matters can, in principle anyway, be demonstrated to be incorrect.

        Another objective fact about life is that it cannot continue indefinitely. Life processes in biological entities deteriorate over time and the organism’s constituent matter dissolves away into their environment. The existence of life-in-general cannot be sustained without a means of replication, and in many organisms (humans included), replication requires cooperation with other organisms.

        Even though there are organisms where the continuation of life does not require cooperation, I think the fact that life possesses intrinsic value entails that actions taken by a given organism upon another (or itself) to damage or terminate their life processes works against the good of that organism’s life (can be said to be in some way bad), even if the action might be necessary to sustain life-in-general.

        To say that altruism is good for people to me means that cooperation can be shown to contribute to the sustaining of life-in-general for a group (at least), such that practicing it amongst people (at least) can further the goal of sustaining or improving the lives of people (at least). If such cooperation entails the injuring or killing of one’s self, that action can rightly be said to be acting against the good of one’s life, but to the extent that the action prevents or limits injury or death to the group, the action can be said to be good on the whole because it is serving to sustain life-in-general.

        I do not mean that altruism is good only for people, to the exclusion of other species.

        > Is it always good to help endangered species?

        In general, my instinctual response is that it is. However, I suppose there might be some corner cases where assisting an endangered species meant the introduction of suffering or extinction among some other species. I suppose actions taken to help an endangered species should be taken in a way that each such species with a stake in the repercussions of the actions continues to thrive. This again goes back to the derived goodness of cooperation.

        Is this consequentialist thinking? I don’t consider myself a consequentialist, in the sense that I would still say that the suffering or extinction of another species or individual is bad, even if the good of sustaining life-in-general is being served. In my view, the obliging killing of an individual who wants to be killed is morally wrong.

        Comment by James — September 18, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

  15. > For example, our genetic code wouldn’t be preserved by sacrificing
    > ourselves to save the lives of strangers even though that is a morally
    > good act. Evolution should mainly support selfishness and speciesism, but
    > morality is not about being selfish and we know that nonhuman animals count
    > for something.

    This isn’t as cut and dried in evolutionary theory as it might seem:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kin_selection

    It’s not non-controversial, either:
    http://www.boston.com/news/science/articles/2008/11/10/eo_wilson_shifts_his_position_on_altruism_in_nature/

    However, I’m not sure I’m a believer in the idea that the truth of moral statements is something that is a function of evolutionary change. I think it is more likely the case that altruism is good for people whether they are willing to accept the idea or not.

    Comment by James — September 18, 2010 @ 6:02 am | Reply

  16. […] attitude is absurd, and most anti-realists strongly disagree with it. This sounds like an amateurish sort of cultural relativism that basically says that we can and will force people to behave how the majority desires no matter […]

    Pingback by Joel Marks’s Moral Anti-Realism: A View that Morality Requires God « Ethical Realism — September 18, 2010 @ 10:10 am | Reply

  17. James,

    So, recall that my thinking has been that biological life (defined by the physical processes of metabolization and replication) is one fact that can be convincingly shown to have intrinsic value. You can demonstrate that a) life exists and that b) all entities that could be said to possess life act to sustain it, regardless of the biological sophistication of the entity being considered. In this we have strong, objective, cross-species, culture-independent evidence of intrinsic positive value obtaining in life. [ Note that in this view, the experience of pain is seen as having instrumental value, and not as an end-in-itself. Pain leads to actions that preserve life, where life is the end-in-itself. ]

    I don’t think that is evidence that life has intrinsic value because it sounds like you are just saying that each being values its own life. If you believe that all life has intrinsic value, then there would be a cross species reason to help other life forms, but valuing one’s own life doesn’t force us to accept that position.

    Another objective fact about life is that it cannot continue indefinitely. Life processes in biological entities deteriorate over time and the organism’s constituent matter dissolves away into their environment. The existence of life-in-general cannot be sustained without a means of replication, and in many organisms (humans included), replication requires cooperation with other organisms.

    We don’t have to cooperate with other kinds of animals, but it might be beneficial to cooperate with ourselves.

    To say that altruism is good for people to me means that cooperation can be shown to contribute to the sustaining of life-in-general for a group (at least), such that practicing it amongst people (at least) can further the goal of sustaining or improving the lives of people (at least). If such cooperation entails the injuring or killing of one’s self, that action can rightly be said to be acting against the good of one’s life, but to the extent that the action prevents or limits injury or death to the group, the action can be said to be good on the whole because it is serving to sustain life-in-general.

    That could be right, but I would still expect people to be speciesists. Altruism doesn’t have to extent to other animals, but I think that it should.

    I do not mean that altruism is good only for people, to the exclusion of other species.

    > Is it always good to help endangered species?

    In general, my instinctual response is that it is. However, I suppose there might be some corner cases where assisting an endangered species meant the introduction of suffering or extinction among some other species. I suppose actions taken to help an endangered species should be taken in a way that each such species with a stake in the repercussions of the actions continues to thrive. This again goes back to the derived goodness of cooperation.

    That is too restrictive. We should help animals even when it doesn’t help us. That’s why it’s “altruistic.”

    Is this consequentialist thinking? I don’t consider myself a consequentialist, in the sense that I would still say that the suffering or extinction of another species or individual is bad, even if the good of sustaining life-in-general is being served. In my view, the obliging killing of an individual who wants to be killed is morally wrong.

    This is not easy to answer, but what you have said so far seems compatible with speciesism (an irrational bias against other animals), and speciesism seems incompatible with moral realism (and the view that other animals count for something in particular).

    Comment by James Gray — September 18, 2010 @ 6:24 pm | Reply

    • > I don’t think that is evidence that life has intrinsic value
      > because it sounds like you are just saying that each being
      > values its own life. If you believe that all life has intrinsic
      > value, then there would be a cross species reason to help other
      > life forms, but valuing one’s own life doesn’t force us to accept
      > that position.

      I was trying to say more than that, though apparently with limited success. Consider life-in-general against your stated criteria for a test for intrinsic value:

      1. We experience X as good (or bad).
      2. We know X is good (or bad) for everyone.
      3. X’s intrinsic value explains our moral experiences.
      4. Our experience of X’s value can’t be fully accounted for as a
      “final end,” usefulness, and/or a pre-existing desire.

      I find it difficult to argue that life (all life, life-in-general) does not satisfy each of these criteria. I don’t see how it could be argued that life-in-general is a means to something else (though I suppose it’s possible some theists might argue that life is a means to an “afterlife” of some kind). The fact that a given species appears to treat other life forms as having instrumental value cannot, in my view, be construed to mean that life-in-general does not have intrinsic value.

      There is very little different between any two organisms in terms of the processes and components that constitute their biology, so unless someone is willing to argue that the presence or absence of some collection of alleles is what bestows intrinsic value to one life form or the other, any one life form having value

      I said:
      > I suppose there might be some corner cases where assisting
      > an endangered species meant the introduction of suffering
      > or extinction among some other species.

      …to which you responded:
      > That is too restrictive. We should help animals even when it
      > doesn’t help us. That’s why it’s “altruistic.”

      I am agreeing with you, but I am also saying that actions that would help other species by destroying yet another species should be rejected in favor of actions that promote or sustain the ability of each affected species to thrive. If such a solution does not exist, then there’s nothing for it, and you should proceed with the action that causes harm to the other species (including yourself).

      Comment by James — September 18, 2010 @ 8:54 pm | Reply

      • Oops:

        “…so unless someone is willing to argue that the presence or absence of some collection of alleles is what bestows intrinsic value to one life form or the other, any one life form having value…”

        Completing the thought:

        …entails that other life forms have (intrinsic) value.

        Comment by James — September 18, 2010 @ 8:57 pm

      • There is very little different between any two organisms in terms of the processes and components that constitute their biology, so unless someone is willing to argue that the presence or absence of some collection of alleles is what bestows intrinsic value to one life form or the other, any one life form having value

        It might be that only sentient life has intrinsic value. I don’t know that insects have sentience or value, and it seems even more questionable that bacteria do.

        I am agreeing with you, but I am also saying that actions that would help other species by destroying yet another species should be rejected in favor of actions that promote or sustain the ability of each affected species to thrive. If such a solution does not exist, then there’s nothing for it, and you should proceed with the action that causes harm to the other species (including yourself).

        I’m not sure exactly what I think about this, but I have no major objections to it.

        Thank you for your clarifications. We have no major disagreements at this time.

        Comment by James Gray — September 18, 2010 @ 9:00 pm

  18. Some thoughts about these comments:

    > First, you have to know something has value to demonstrate that it has value.
    > Second, some people are wrong about what has value.

    Is this epistemologically sound? If one can be wrong about what has value, and value is not a property that can be directly measured, how can it be said that it is ‘known’ whether a thing has value without an objective demonstration of some kind? It seems at best one could hold a belief in the value of something, present some evidence or argument in support of the belief, and defend against counter-arguments.

    It seems one would be hard-pressed to establish that it is ‘known’ that something has value, beyond establishing that most everyone says it does. But if people can be wrong about what has value, even this level of agreement doesn’t seem like it would necessarily count for much as far as knowledge goes. Everybody used to agree that the world was flat, for example. It sure does look flat from my perspective most days. Even some things that we say we “just know”, like 1+1=2, have proofs (http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=umhistmath&cc=umhistmath&idno=aat3201.0002.001&frm=frameset&view=image&seq=126), and so can be said more confidently to be in the realm of knowledge.

    > It might be that only sentient life has intrinsic value.
    > I don’t know that insects have sentience or value, and it seems
    > even more questionable that bacteria do.

    I’m not sure this idea is any more defensible than a speciesist point of view. I would agree that humans may in general not hold insects or bacteria to have much instrumental value to them directly, but these life forms are essential to a stable biological ecosystem, and certainly that can be said to count for something. Would an absurdity arise from the assertion that insects and microbes have intrinsic value? How would you show that they do not have value?

    And yet…

    It’s also not entirely clear to me through all this that ‘value’ isn’t just something conscious beings do, as opposed to a property that obtains in things. It certainly seems that you need conscious agents to cite evidence of something being valued, so how could you detach the idea of value from the presence of consciousness in the universe? If the two things can’t be treated independently, isn’t that an indication that ‘value’ is possibly a verb that describes our attitudes, and not a noun that represents a property?

    It seems self-evident that you can objectively say that a thing is ‘valued’ by conscious beings, and that this fact should still be a viable basis for ethical realism, even if it maybe can’t be said with much confidence that these things hold a property called ‘value’. What is your point of view on this?

    Comment by James — September 24, 2010 @ 5:35 am | Reply

    • Is this epistemologically sound? If one can be wrong about what has value, and value is not a property that can be directly measured, how can it be said that it is ‘known’ whether a thing has value without an objective demonstration of some kind? It seems at best one could hold a belief in the value of something, present some evidence or argument in support of the belief, and defend against counter-arguments.

      It is possible to have knowledge without demonstrating it. I don’t have to know how to demonstrate knowledge to have it, and my knowledge is not defeated until I demonstrate it.

      The context to the quote is lacking, so I can’t remember the purpose of the statements.

      It seems one would be hard-pressed to establish that it is ‘known’ that something has value, beyond establishing that most everyone says it does.

      It is necessary for us to examine our experiences, and to hope other people have had similar experiences to establish that something such as pain has value. A person who hasn’t felt pain will have a hard time knowing why it’s bad.

      But if people can be wrong about what has value, even this level of agreement doesn’t seem like it would necessarily count for much as far as knowledge goes. Everybody used to agree that the world was flat, for example.

      Yes, agreement isn’t a good justification.

      It sure does look flat from my perspective most days. Even some things that we say we “just know”, like 1+1=2, have proofs (http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=umhistmath&cc=umhistmath&idno=aat3201.0002.001&frm=frameset&view=image&seq=126), and so can be said more confidently to be in the realm of knowledge.

      Not everything “has proofs.” All arguments have assumptions and not everything can have absolute demonstrations of truth. Furthermore, the fact that a proof exists doesn’t defeat the fact that I have knowledge when I am unable to give a proof.

      I’m not sure this idea is any more defensible than a speciesist point of view. I would agree that humans may in general not hold insects or bacteria to have much instrumental value to them directly, but these life forms are essential to a stable biological ecosystem, and certainly that can be said to count for something.

      It would count for instrumental value, but so what? Why would we think that such life forms have value?

      “Life” could be seen as an arbitrary criteria for intrinsic value. Our experience of our own lives as having value is based on our own consciousness. People often decide they would prefer death if they become braindead because they don’t really exist anymore at that point.

      I spoke of this issue in more detail in my master’s thesis: https://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/02/08/two-new-stoic-ethical-theories-free-ebook/

      Would an absurdity arise from the assertion that insects and microbes have intrinsic value? How would you show that they do not have value?

      If you can show that consciousness has value and that life probably donesn’t have value in and of itself; and if such organisms don’t have consciousness. They might have some consciousness, but it might be of lesser value as well.

      It is quite possible that human life is “better” in some ways than the life of other animals. This isn’t speciesist because an alien life form might be god-like and have more value than we have for the same reason that we have value. There might be better qualities of life of consciousness that can have more value.

      It’s also not entirely clear to me through all this that ‘value’ isn’t just something conscious beings do, as opposed to a property that obtains in things. It certainly seems that you need conscious agents to cite evidence of something being valued, so how could you detach the idea of value from the presence of consciousness in the universe? If the two things can’t be treated independently, isn’t that an indication that ‘value’ is possibly a verb that describes our attitudes, and not a noun that represents a property?

      This is why an argument for moral realism/the existence of intrinsic value is helpful. As I told Evan,

      For more information about how I view morality and intrinsic values, you might want to take a look at my ebooks, Two New Kinds of Stoicism and Is There A Meaning of Life?

      It seems self-evident that you can objectively say that a thing is ‘valued’ by conscious beings, and that this fact should still be a viable basis for ethical realism, even if it maybe can’t be said with much confidence that these things hold a property called ‘value’. What is your point of view on this?

      There are values that aren’t self-evidently intrinsic. We value money, but money doesn’t have intrinsic value. We have to “discover” that things have value to have a good reason to think that the value is intrinsic.

      My view is that human consciousness is part of the universe and is not a hallucination. What exists in the mind is real insofar as it is part of the universe. Even hallucinations are real, but they are deceptive in that they are easily misinterpreted. If I see a person that doesn’t exist, I’m not actually seeing a person at all. I’m just having some experience that is “like seeing a person” in a potentially deceptive way.

      Pain is felt as “bad” in a way that is best understood to be a real non-deceptive part of the universe.

      Comment by James Gray — September 24, 2010 @ 7:44 am | Reply

  19. terrible, you didn’t even rationally explain why it is you think suffering is intrinsically bad, you just more or less asserted that it is. You might feel pain and experience pain but why is pain inherently evil? what is so bad about pain?
    Secondly, consider that, if there were no intelligent life in the universe, then nothing could be ‘good’ or ‘bad’. In other words, ‘morality’ is the mere conception of intelligent life forms, it is only perceived by the subject and can not exist externally to him/her/it in the objective world. That is to say, morality can only be subjective, not objective, within this system.
    Relativism is more or less the assertion that, because morality is subjective, everything is true. Nihilism is seemingly the exact opposite: nothing is true.
    However, If everything is equally valuable (relativism) then everything must also be equally valueless (nihilism). That is to say, if human life is equally as valuable as the act of murder, then the two are mutually valueless.
    Relativism is nihilism; the relativist is a nihilist in denial.
    It seems that dividing the world up in terms of “objectivity” and “subjectivity” hasn’t gone very well, has it?

    Comment by studdert — May 2, 2012 @ 3:36 am | Reply

    • terrible, you didn’t even rationally explain why it is you think suffering is intrinsically bad, you just more or less asserted that it is. You might feel pain and experience pain but why is pain inherently evil? what is so bad about pain?

      I do not need to explain or argue for all of my beliefs in everything I write. I have written about why I think it’s intrinsically bad elsewhere, and it seems like it’s barely worth “debating” since everyone seems to agree that it’s intrinsically bad.

      I find it intuitive that I am rational in disliking pain. It feels bad. It seems rational for me to realize that pain is bad for everyone else as well.

      Secondly, consider that, if there were no intelligent life in the universe, then nothing could be ‘good’ or ‘bad’. In other words, ‘morality’ is the mere conception of intelligent life forms, it is only perceived by the subject and can not exist externally to him/her/it in the objective world. That is to say, morality can only be subjective, not objective, within this system.

      What does the word “subjective” mean here? How is it a problem?

      Relativism is more or less the assertion that, because morality is subjective, everything is true. Nihilism is seemingly the exact opposite: nothing is true.

      However, If everything is equally valuable (relativism) then everything must also be equally valueless (nihilism). That is to say, if human life is equally as valuable as the act of murder, then the two are mutually valueless.
      Relativism is nihilism; the relativist is a nihilist in denial.

      It seems that dividing the world up in terms of “objectivity” and “subjectivity” hasn’t gone very well, has it?

      Thoughts are subjective, but they are perfectly real and not everything we can say about thoughts are true. I think the same thing is true of morality — we can say true and false things about it, even if it depends on mental activity.

      It is false to say that pain is intrinsically good. Anyone who says that would seem to misunderstand what either pain is or what “intrinsically good” means.

      What is your alternative you find to be the best? How good are the arguments in favor of that view?

      Comment by JW Gray — May 2, 2012 @ 3:55 am | Reply

  20. Terrible, you couldn’t even give a rational justification for your assertion that pain is intrinsically bad. You might feel unpleasant when you are in pain but what is so inherently bad about that? What is intrinsically evil about pain?
    Imagine a godless universe completely devoid of intelligent life, would ‘morality’ still exist in such a place? Of course not, how could it; the stars are governed by the laws of physics, not morality.
    Therefore, morality can only be the conception of intelligent life forms, it can not exist objectively outside of the subject.
    That is to say that, within such a system, morality is subjective (relativism).
    The relativistic perspective of morality/value is that, because value is subjective, all things are equally true; all things are equally valuable. Nihilism is seemingly the exact opposite: for the nihilist, all things are equally valueless.
    However, if all things are equally valuable (relativism) then it must follow that they are equally valueless (nihlism). If human life is equally as valuable as is the act of murder, then the two are mutually valueless.
    The equality of all value is essentially the absence of all value.
    Relativism is nihilism; the relativist is a nihilist in denial.
    Dividing the world up in terms of ‘objectivity’ and ‘subjectivity’ hasn’t turned out very well, has it?

    Comment by studdert — May 2, 2012 @ 4:18 am | Reply

    • I have written a great deal about intrinsic value and why I think pain is intrinsically bad. If you look, you can find my FAQ on intrinsic value. I also wrote this ebook: https://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/01/21/is-there-a-meaning-of-life-free-ebook/

      I can’t guarantee that my arguments are the best available. There are other philosophers who write about these things that are probably more qualified than I am.

      Imagine a godless universe completely devoid of intelligent life, would ‘morality’ still exist in such a place? Of course not, how could it; the stars are governed by the laws of physics, not morality.

      Would it also be false that dinosaurs are animals in that universe? In a sense it would still be true. Moral facts are like that. They are facts that are only relevant when there are minds, but that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be true statements about morality.

      Therefore, morality can only be the conception of intelligent life forms, it can not exist objectively outside of the subject.

      Thoughts would not exist with a universe devoid of life. That does not mean that thoughts can only be the conception of intelligent life forms. And thoughts can’t exist objectively outside the subject.

      Comment by JW Gray — May 2, 2012 @ 5:18 am | Reply

      • By intelligent life form I merely mean any ‘thinking’ life form; yes, there woudl be no dinosaurs, no cats or dogs, no fish, just pure matter. If the universe were devoid of life, it must be devoid of what we would call ‘thought’ and therefore devoid of what we would now call ‘morality’. Your second point, that thoughts can’t exist objectively outside the subject, is correct; that makes thought subjective.

        Comment by studdert — May 2, 2012 @ 5:57 am

    • I think the idea of objecting to the existence of moral truths on the basis that, if there were no conscious beings in the universe there would be no right/wrong, is flawed. The fact that consciousness might be (or is) antecedent to morality doesn’t imply that morality is a fiction or an invention of conscious beings.

      Imagine a universe where stars don’t form – you would never find black holes, but that doesn’t imply that black holes in this universe are a fiction.

      Comment by James — May 2, 2012 @ 8:46 pm | Reply

      • There’s a difference between a black hole being unseeable and a black hole not existing at all. In any case, you’ve missed my point entirely, I said that morality can exist, but not objectively. There is no external, inherent value in anything. The question then is one of whether we can logically justify our subjective moral values. If we can not, then they are arbitrary and therefore meaningless. That would lead to relativism which, as I said before, is essentially nihilism ‘in denial’. If this is the case, then it would seem that we have not done ourselves any favours by dividing the world up in terms of ‘objectivity’ and ‘subjectivity’. Being able to neither discover any objective value nor develop any reasonable subjective value, it would seem that it is this dualism in itself which has left us in our current predicament.

        Comment by studdert — May 2, 2012 @ 9:16 pm

  21. By intelligent life form I merely mean any ‘thinking’ life form; yes, there woudl be no dinosaurs, no cats or dogs, no fish, just pure matter. If the universe were devoid of life, it must be devoid of what we would call ‘thought’ and therefore devoid of what we would now call ‘morality’. Your second point, that thoughts can’t exist objectively outside the subject, is correct; that makes thought subjective.

    We can say true and false things about thoughts. There are facts about thoughts. In the same way there can be facts about morality.

    My point about dinosaurs is that there need not be any dinosaurs for there to be dinosaur facts. It is true that dinosaurs are animals, even though there are none in existence.

    Comment by JW Gray — May 2, 2012 @ 6:35 am | Reply

    • No, it would be true to say that dinosaurs were animals and that they are no longer in existence, it would not be true to say that they are animals. Thoughts can be reasonable or unreasonable, but are you willing to follow your reason to its logical conclusion? If you are, you’ll find that many of our highest values break down at such a point. Dualism is useless.

      Comment by studdert — May 2, 2012 @ 12:04 pm | Reply

      • I think dinosaurs will still be animals, even if they no longer exist. The point is that the standards we use to determine right and wrong are based on facts about flesh and blood people. Those standards are relevant when flesh and blood people are around. If there are no life forms in existence, then morality will be irrelevant.

        That does not prove that nihilism is true or relativism is true anything like that. It is true that dinosaurs “were” animals and that dinosaurs (if we clone them) will be animals again. Morality can be “mind-dependent.” There is no problem with that claim as far as I can tell. Moral facts can be mind-dependent just like psychological facts can be mind-dependent.

        Comment by JW Gray — May 3, 2012 @ 1:39 am

  22. studdert:

    Sorry if I misunderstood your argument:

    > Imagine a godless universe completely devoid of intelligent life, would ‘morality’ still exist in such a place? Of course not, how could it; the stars are governed by the laws of physics, not morality.

    > Therefore, morality can only be the conception of intelligent life forms

    You seem to be saying that because morality is dependent on the existence of intelligent life, therefore it can only be the conception of intelligent life, but that conclusion does not follow from the premise. It appears to me that the argument misses a step in transitioning from “morality doesn’t exist without consciousness” to “morality must therefore be a conception of intelligent life”.

    In your followup to my question, you assert again that morality can’t be objective, but you haven’t provided an argument in support of that conclusion except to say that it has no meaning without intelligent life, so I don’t think the argument is valid.

    Comment by James — May 2, 2012 @ 9:59 pm | Reply

    • would you care to explain how value or ‘morality’ could possibly be ‘objective’ then?

      Comment by studdert — May 2, 2012 @ 11:09 pm | Reply

      • Morality can be objective if there are moral statements that are true (or false) whether or not people believe them to be true (or false). I don’t agree that objective means that such statements must also have meaning in universes where conscious beings do not exist, which is what I understood your argument to be saying. To say that moral statements only have meaning in universes where there are conscious beings is not the same as saying they can only be subjective in universes where conscious beings do exist.

        For example, the statement “the speed of light is slower when it passes through water” is an objectively true statement that only has meaning in universes in which there is such a thing as water. Because it doesn’t have meaning in waterless universes does not imply that it therefore has no meaning or is only subjectively true in universes where water does exist.

        Comment by James — May 2, 2012 @ 11:49 pm

      • Except that light exists independently of water, morality doesn’t exist independently of intelligent life. That which is objective is anything existing independently of perception or an individual’s conceptions. That which is subjective is anything proceeding from or taking place in a person’s mind rather than the external world. In your analogy, light does first exist objectively; are you suggesting that light is to water what morality is to humanity? Are you suggesting that essence precedes existence?

        Comment by studdert — May 3, 2012 @ 12:25 am

    • What you more or less seem to be suggesting is that essence precedes existence.

      Comment by studdert — May 2, 2012 @ 11:13 pm | Reply

  23. I didn’t mean for this to be about physics, but while it is true that light exists independently of water, water cannot exist in the absence of light (photons are the mediators of the forces that permit water to form and interact with other matter), so I suppose the analogy would be that light is to water as consciousness is to morality. Without light, there is no water, but it does not follow from this truth that there are no objective facts about water.

    Comment by James — May 3, 2012 @ 2:00 am | Reply

    • So are you saying that morality exists in the universe externally to our consciousness but that it can only be perceived by conscious beings or are you saying that morality exists from and within our minds and that it therefore does not exist unless conscious beings exist?

      Comment by studdert — May 3, 2012 @ 2:21 am | Reply

      • I think it is probably true that moral statements are meaningless in a universe where there are no conscious beings. Is that your question?

        Comment by James — May 3, 2012 @ 2:41 am

  24. > Morality can be “mind-dependent.” There is no problem with that claim as far as I can tell.

    You are not saying that moral statements have different truth values depending on the mind that is considering them though, correct? Only that moral realism is compatible with a requirement that minds must exist as a precursor?

    Comment by James — May 3, 2012 @ 2:26 am | Reply

    • Yes, moral realism is compatible with the view that morality is mind-dependent. We often say, “it’s just in your head!” when we want to say that we are delusional, but what’s in our head isn’t always a delusion. Some things in our head are real and factual.

      Comment by JW Gray — May 3, 2012 @ 2:38 am | Reply

    • I am not saying that morality does not exist just because it is ‘mind-dependent’, I’m saying that morality can exist but it is ‘mind-dependent’. That is the definition of subjectivity: anything which is mind/subject-dependent, anything proceeding from or taking place in a person’s mind rather than the external world.

      This is not yet to say that a subjective value held by one person can not be logically proven to be more reasonable or truthful than another subjective value held by another person, it is only, so far, to say that value/morality is not something which can be observed in the universe but rather something which proceeds from the mind and is therefore subjective.

      That which is dependent on the mind/subject is subjective, that which is not dependent on the mind/subject is objective.

      This is all I’m saying so far, do you follow?

      Comment by studdert — May 3, 2012 @ 11:33 am | Reply

      • Thank you for the clarification.

        I don’t see how the words “subjective” and “objective” are helpful here. The word “subjective” tends to be tossed around to dismiss various things.

        It is possible that moral facts can be observed. Some philosophers say we can observe our own thoughts and experiences. Perhaps we can observe that pain is intrinsically bad. (That is what at least one meta-ethical philosopher argues.)

        Comment by JW Gray — May 3, 2012 @ 8:01 pm

      • Yes, many people do think that ‘subjective’ is synonymous with ‘taste’ or ‘opinion’ and that ‘objective’ is just another word for ‘impartial’, but this is not the case at all.
        The subjective-objective dichotomy is just a way to distinguish between the ‘realm of thought’ and the ‘world of pure, physical matter’.
        In saying this, do you at least agree, so far, that morality/value is subjective?

        Comment by studdert — May 3, 2012 @ 8:43 pm

      • Yes, I agree that morality is mind-dependent. I see no value in anything that doesn’t have a mind.

        Comment by JW Gray — May 3, 2012 @ 8:48 pm

      • So then the world is, by itself, inherently without value and we, being conscious beings, see or rather impart value upon that world and upon ourselves, correct?

        Comment by studdert — May 3, 2012 @ 9:04 pm

      • *So then the world is, by itself, inherently without value and we, being conscious beings with the faculty of reason, see or rather impart value upon that world and upon ourselves, correct?

        Comment by studdert — May 3, 2012 @ 9:06 pm

  25. *So then the world is, by itself, inherently without value and we, being conscious beings with the faculty of reason, see or rather impart value upon that world and upon ourselves, correct?

    We are part of reality/part of the world. I do not agree that the universe is inherently without minds or that we see or impart psychological facts upon the world and upon ourselves. I do not think moral beliefs are just made up by us or anything like that. I think there are moral facts.

    Comment by JW Gray — May 3, 2012 @ 10:14 pm | Reply

    • So there are pre-existing moral facts and they would exist with or without intelligent life? Are these moral facts absolutely fixed or can they be evolved?

      Comment by studdert — May 4, 2012 @ 12:55 am | Reply

      • I think it is irrelevant to moral realism whether moral facts are meaningful in the absence of intelligent life. What matters is whether there are moral statements that are either true or false in the universe we know, regardless of what people’s individual opinions on those statements are. If moral statements have no meaning in the absence of intelligent life, I do not see how that could have any bearing on whether moral facts exist in a universe with intelligent life.

        Comment by James — May 4, 2012 @ 2:55 am

      • I’m convinced it is somewhat relevant; if you think you are literally ‘discovering’ your morality and that it pre-exists, that it is a standard that exists outside of you, then you are essentially basing all of your morals and values on and in nothing because this simply is not the case.

        Comment by studdert — May 4, 2012 @ 7:17 am

      • I’m convinced it is somewhat relevant; if you think you are literally ‘discovering’ your morality and that it pre-exists, that it is a standard that exists outside of you, then you are essentially basing all of your morals and values on and in nothing because this simply is not the case.

        Comment by studdert — May 4, 2012 @ 7:17 am

  26. Moral statements have to do with actions that conscious beings should take or not take. I don’t see how they could be considered pre-existing in the sense of being meaningful prior to the emergence of consciousness in the universe. I also don’t believe that pre-existence of moral truths in this sense is a criterion for the viability of moral realism.

    Comment by James — May 5, 2012 @ 4:22 am | Reply

  27. Regarding the other question you are asking about whether I think moral standards ‘exist outside of people’, I believe moral truths are independent of what people think of them, they don’t depend on any specific person’s existence, and they don’t have different truth values for different people, though different people will certainly hold differing beliefs about them (and those beliefs can be right or wrong).

    I also have a belief that is apparently controversial in that I think all life has intrinsic value – is an end in itself – not just conscious life. I base this belief on the empirical observation that all life seeks to sustain itself, cooperates with other life forms, defends itself and other life forms from harm, and clearly appears to exist in a manner indicating that life down to the cellular level is valued. I think morality is a system for sustaining and improving the quality of life, and there are objectively true statements to be made regarding the behaviors and actions that will sustain this goal. There may be many many different strategies for achieving these goals, and I think this is likely the root cause of what people call The Persistence of Moral Disagreement when they argue against the existence of moral facts.

    Comment by James — May 5, 2012 @ 5:47 am | Reply


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