Ethical Realism

June 22, 2010

Can We Reason About Morality?

Filed under: epistemology,ethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 5:14 am
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One common objection against just about any philosophical argument is considered by philosophers to be amateurish – Philosophy can’t give us the truth. The implication is supposed to be, “Philosophy can’t give us the truth, so we might as well give up on arguing about such things.” This is especially a popular objection to moral philosophy in general, but it is little more than a declaration of one’s ignorance and distrust towards philosophy. The main problem with this argument is merely that philosophical arguments are usually not intended to actually give us the truth once and for all, and even natural science fails to do so. The point of philosophy tends to be to tell us what it is most rational to believe, or what is probably true given our current information.

I have already discussed knee-jerk skepticism against philosophy in my Introduction to Philosophy ebook, but it is probably worth considering objections against moral philosophy in general. The objections come in at least three major forms:

  1. We can’t know anything about morality.
  2. We can’t observe moral facts.
  3. We can only know about morality through God.

I will consider each of these and give an additional argument that shows that we can reason about morality.

We can’t know anything about morality.

I have briefly described that I think we can know about morality in part through our experiences. I can only know that pain is bad because I have experienced pain, and I know that torturing people willy nilly is wrong because I know that other people’s pain is bad for the same reason that mine is.

I have a much more in depth argument about how we can experience objective moral values in my discussion, An argument for Moral Realism, where I also consider various objections.

Many people reject philosophy and moral philosophy in general just because philosophers debate the issues for centuries and they don’t seem to give us the absolute truth once and for all. There are two ways that I will respond to this issue:

One, philosophers do sometimes make a great deal of progress and lead to uncontroversial truths, but once philosophy reaches sufficient progress it usually branches off into another discipline, such as physics and psychology. Morality could one day reach that high point and become a science.

Two, even uncontroversial scientific facts aren’t known for certain. I think we can “know” moral facts in a similar way to how we know scientific facts. We never know moral or scientific facts with absolute certainty, but it can be pretty silly in everyday life to say we don’t know that gravity exists and so on. The everyday common sense use of the word “know” only requires that the evidence is beyond a reasonable doubt. Many scientific facts are uncontroversial and we might as well say that we “know” they are true despite a lack of absolute certainty.

We can’t observe moral facts.

Whether or not we need to observe moral facts in order to reason about morality is a debatable issue in moral philosophy, but I think we can observe moral facts in quite the same way we can observe psychological facts:

One, many people want to argue that we can’t observe moral facts to prove that it can never become a science. However, we don’t directly observe everything in science. Germs were once unobservable and scientists pretty much knew germs existed before they were observed. Electrons might never be directly observable, but we know about electrons from the effect it has on other things. Moral facts might not be directly observable either, but moral facts might be found to exist in some indirect way instead.

Two, I have already explained how we can experience objective moral values. I know that I have pain and that pain is bad because I have experienced pain. This is the same way that we observe psychological facts. We have good reason to believe that other people have psychological facts and that other people’s pain is bad because other people have a similar biology to our own, and they behave in quite the same way we do. When I touch fire and feel pain, I quickly retract my hand and give a grimace. Other people have similar behavior when in similar situations indicating that they also probably feel pain for similar reasons that I do.

We can only know about morality through God.

If anything I have said about experiencing pain makes any sense, then I think it is already pretty clear that we don’t need to know about morality though God. For example, we aren’t necessarily born with divine knowledge that pain is bad. We can know pain is bad from actually experiencing it.

Some people also insist that we know about morality from the Bible or some mysterious sort of revelation. However, that is not how I know about morality and many people in the world know nothing about the Bible or God and still seem to know quite a bit about morality.

More evidence that we can reason about morality.

Perhaps the greatest argument in favor of the fact that we can reason about morality is the fact that many philosophers do it quite successfully. Actual moral philosophy (and in particular the progress found in moral philosophy) is a good reason to accept that we can reason about morality. There were short periods of time when philosophers weren’t so sure that we could reason about moral philosophy but this didn’t last long because philosophers who were successful about reasoning about morality presented us with a pretty undeniable fact that it can be done. John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice was a powerful argument that theorizing about political ethics could be fruitful, and Peter Singer’s essays of applied ethics have made a good case that we can reason about controversial moral issues.

There are many secular (non-religious) moral theories that have proven to be helpful tools to help us reason about morality and they are often applied to various situations to help us know what actions are right or wrong. I developed my own moral theory in Two New Kinds of Stoicism, and I have applied ethical theories to the ethics of homosexuality in my discussion, Is Homosexuality Immoral?

Conclusion

Most objections people have against philosophy and moral reasoning is a thoughtless knee-jerk reaction, and many objections reveal how ignorant most people are of actual moral philosophy. People want to insist that we can’t know anything about morality or that we can’t observe moral facts despite the fact that just about everyone engages in moral reasoning and observes moral facts in everyday life. There are, however, some sophisticated arguments against morality as I understand it to exist. I discuss many of these objections in my ebook, Is there A Meaning of Life? Even these more sophisticated objections might fall victim of overly abstract theorizing and ignoring our everyday experience of morality.

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6 Comments »

  1. See Sam Harris speak on “Science can answer moral questions” at the Ted convention. You can find it on youtube, good blog!

    Comment by moriahbethany — June 22, 2010 @ 4:46 pm | Reply

    • Yes, I have seen it. I don’t know that Sam Harris is really the right person to be talking about this issue and the video is pretty infamous because of “deriving an ought from an is.” Of course, the major problem might just be that major philosophical claims can’t (usually) be made in a 20 minute lecture.

      Comment by James Gray — June 22, 2010 @ 9:35 pm | Reply

  2. Can anything really be considered a fact? Neuroscience has shown that all perceptions, actions and other conscious thoughts originate from the limbic system, the emotional, animalistic part of the brain. They are then put through the frontal cortex. This is why pure reason alone cannot answer any questions. Thus, although language is universal, is everyone referring to the same thing?

    Comment by Evan — August 17, 2010 @ 6:45 pm | Reply

    • Reason alone doesn’t generally tell us about facts. Reason plus observation can be pretty accurate, which is pretty obvious considering the success of science.

      I don’t know why making use of an animalistic part of the brain is a problem for knowledge. My dog probably has some knowledge. It probably knows it gets food by chewing and swallowing even though it is automatic, for example. Not all knowledge is something you write in a book. Knowledge can involve our assumptions and facts we have a hard time proving through argument.

      It seems very likely that different languages can refer to the same thing. Ask a person for a cup of water in just about any language and you will get a cup of water. There might be times when we are wrong about referring to the same thing, but I see no reason to think we always are.

      Knowing a language is not an exact science. People teach infants how to speak and no one seriously worries that an infant will think “get a cup of water” refers to something else. Human interests and thoughts are very similar across cultures, which probably adds the possibility of translation. For example, even babies show a strong interest towards human faces. They know what a human face is (to some extent) right away. Not all knowledge is taught through language.

      Comment by James Gray — August 17, 2010 @ 9:02 pm | Reply

      • The idea is that since we are using the emotional, and inherently subjective part of the brain, we might reference the same object, but in doing so, have completely different emotional responses to it. Now, with the non-physical, such as morality, the brain has to do a lot more work.

        In addition, if we were to ask someone what a mountain is, we would not receive some unified response as to it’s identity. The same could be said of morals, could it not?

        Comment by Evan — August 18, 2010 @ 5:47 am

  3. Even,

    The idea is that since we are using the emotional, and inherently subjective part of the brain, we might reference the same object, but in doing so, have completely different emotional responses to it. Now, with the non-physical, such as morality, the brain has to do a lot more work.

    Animal brains are not purely “subjective.” Emotions tend to be appropriate responses given one’s beliefs and assumptions.

    In addition, if we were to ask someone what a mountain is, we would not receive some unified response as to it’s identity. The same could be said of morals, could it not?

    A mountain is a vague entity, but I don’t know that morality is vague. Even if morality is vague, that wouldn’t prove it doesn’t exist. Mountains exist.

    It is true that mountains are “nothing but” a heap of earth, but that doesn’t mean that morality is “nothing but” an emotional response.

    The “vagueness” found in morality is much like the “vagueness” found in rationality. It isn’t entirely clear when a belief is “irrational” or “rationally required,” but there are clear cut cases of “irrational” and “rationally required” beliefs. Compare that to “right” actions and “morally obligated” actions.

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


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