Friday, February 23, 2007

MESR, a response to a critic

In the comments to my essay describing Meta-Ethical Subjective Relativism, Craig brings up some interesting objections. His comment in full:
I don't see the usefulness of this at all. Of course one can make meta-ethical statements with reference to a particular subject; one can do that in any ethical system. "Jeffrey Dahmer approves of cannibalism" is as true under Confucian or Hindu ethics as it is under Christian ethics.) The logic is sound. But lacking a point of reference, MESR can't arrive at any ethical system.

All ethical systems need a point of reference. That point of reference logically must be either oneself or something that is not-oneself.

If the former, it is indeed solipsism, or at least narcissism.

If the latter, then something outside of oneself becomes the small-g "god" that determines the ethical import of a thing. That proxy deity can be the State, or the Market, or Democracy, or the Avant-Garde, or the Fuehrer, or Natural Selection, or what you will -- but in every case it is infallible under its own ethical system and can only be criticized by erecting an alternative ethical system in its place with its own other point of reference.

To say one will tear down an ethical system and have no ethical system in its place is nonsense -- it simply cannot happen. A statement renouncing ethical statements altogether, is itself an ethical statement! In this case Nihilism becomes the new proxy for God.

So the idea that MESR is sufficient apart from an ethical system is sophistical.


Weak meta-ethical subjective relativism (i.e with "if" replacing "if and only if" in the essay's definition) is perhaps too uncontroversially true to be interesting, but this point will come up in part 2 as a justification for accepting MESR on a skeptical basis.

I find quite odd the characterization of something outside oneself as any sort of "god" or "deity", capitalized or not. I definitely do believe that objective physical reality exists outside myself (and I have good scientific justification for believing so), but I don't construe physical reality as in any way "godlike" except on rare occasion in the broadest of poetic metaphor.

I'm also puzzled by the characterization of MESR as "solipsism".

Solipsism canonically means
A form of subjectivism or relativism which claims that one cannot know if physical reality or other human beings even exist -- one can know only one's own consciousness. [emphasis added]
I'm certainly not denying the existence of physical reality or other human beings, although MESR does entail moral anti-objective-realism.

My formulation of MESR cannot even be accurately described in even the loosest sense of solipsism as "anti-external", since it specifically includes the minds and mind-dependent properties of people in general, all but one of whom are external to one's own mind.

If we were to interpret solipsism in what I consider the unacceptably loose sense as simply anti-objective-realist about something, then the charge of "solipsism" has no more persuasive force than it would to attempt to rebut anti-objective-realistic conclusions about the content of hallucinations. One should not be particularly surprised that a theory which is explicitly described as subjectivist is not in fact objectively-realistic.

I'm not at all able to locate a specifically philosophical interpretation of "narcissism"; the dictionary definition seems unproductively pejorative and the Freudian interpretation simply makes me blush.

Like any theory which talks about the truth, especially a theory that talks about knowing the truth, MESR does indeed have a "point of reference", in other words it is foundational: The foundation of MESR is the set of beliefs that people do in fact actually have, beliefs which can be adduced with the ordinary application of scientific epistemology or simple common sense.

The penultimate paragraph seems especially problematic:
To say one will tear down an ethical system and have no ethical system in its place is nonsense -- it simply cannot happen. A statement renouncing ethical statements altogether, is itself an ethical statement! In this case Nihilism becomes the new proxy for God.
A statement about ethical statements is not itself an ethical statement; hence the distinction I draw between ethics and meta-ethics in the original essay. Such a distinction has a degree of philosophical respectability dating back at least to Russell and perhaps as far back as Aristotle.

It seems curious too that one could talk about making Nihilism--which is nothing--a God or even a proxy for god, although as an atheist I must say that the analogy is amusingly apt.

It's good, however, to see my remarks about framing and caging relativism receive such rapid empirical confirmation.

16 comments:

  1. "I find quite odd the characterization of something outside oneself as any sort of "god" or "deity", capitalized or not."

    Not anything outside oneself is a god, only that which is taken as a point of reference for ethics. This is old and uncontroversial; any guide to examination of conscience will encourage the Christian to consider what things, ideas, desires he has elevated above God in importance, violating the First Commandment. If I base my choices of action upon my excessive love for football, drink, avoidance of conflict, the little red-haired girl, etc., in violation of the ethical imperatives of Christian doctrine, then God has been supplanted temporarily by that other thing: it has become a god-substitute.

    You are correct that solipsism in the classical definition is an unlikely outcome of MESR, but I qualified that earlier to include "at least narcissism" -- in short, if I am the measure of all things, then I am my own god, figuratively speaking.

    "No absolute point of reference exists on which to base ethical statements" is an unprovable assertion (applying MESR rules). A corollary of this is that no ethical statement can be considered true in a frame of reference outside its own, except as the accidental intersection of the two frames of reference (i.e., where they agree on particular facts). Of course, if the two do not agree on any facts, there can be no ethical statements true (and thus morally obligatory) to both; the intersection is the null set. That this is equated with nihilism is only to be expected.

    "It's good, however, to see my remarks about framing and caging relativism receive such rapid empirical confirmation."

    Happy to be of service.

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  2. Craig

    I have just one free moment, so I'll address your remarks.

    Just so you know, I'm an atheist. I don't label anything as "god". I don't express any positive aspect of my philosophy or personal beliefs in terms of "god". You can speak in any sort of metaphor you choose, but if your metaphor has "god" in it, you can rest assured I'm going to skip over it.

    "No absolute point of reference exists on which to base ethical statements" is an unprovable assertion (applying MESR rules).

    Presumably, you're using scare quotes here. Even so, I'm still not sure how you can derive your formulation from the formulation that appears in the original essay:

    Statements about ethics have an absolute truth-value if and only if they are stated relative to some subjective entity or property.

    Perhaps if you could show the connection in simple steps so my poor engineer's mind can follow along, I would be able to relate the remainder of your comments to my writing.

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  3. Keep in mind also that MESR is not in any way an epistemic method. MESR does not talk in any way about how we acquire any knowledge about anything.

    Fundamentally, MESR rests on scientific epistemology, which I will discuss further in my next post on the subject.

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  4. "You can speak in any sort of metaphor you choose, but if your metaphor has "god" in it, you can rest assured I'm going to skip over it."

    Fine. Call it "the purest and most attractive good" if it helps you understand. That was an aside, anyway -- I was explaining in a common idiom where small-g "god" is used metaphorically, but if it causes you to stick your fingers in your ears, forget about it.

    "...I'm still not sure how you can derive your formulation from the formulation that appears in the original essay..."

    1. Under materialism, "no absolute point of reference exists on which to base ethical statements" is a true MESR statement. A qualifying a priori commitment to materialism is required to make it true.

    2. "Under materialism no ethical statement can be taken as absolutely true", is a restatement of #1 above.

    3. An ethical statement, by definition, is something that relates human actions to an underlying order of true relationships between people and things. "Because I'm your daddy and I said so" expresses an inequality in roles between father and child; "because how would you like it if he did that to you?" expresses an equality of dignity.

    4. "Under materialism no true relationships exist", is a restatement of #2 above. "No true relationships" expresses a moral anarchy. As far as I can tell, all other MESR subjects assert the existence of true relationships and a moral order, therefore the intersection of a materialist frame of reference with all other frames of reference is the null set.

    5. Therefore Dostoyevsky's famous statement, "if there is no God, all things are permissible" is another restatement of #1, #2, and #4.

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  5. Sir Bum,

    I suspect those of us you've engaged from the Mere Comments blog won't be satisfied until you finish the essay series. How do you choose your ethical point of reference? How do you form an ethical system based on MESR? You've torn into various authority structures that you assume we hold, while we tear into reference points that we assume you hold, and it's not getting anywhere fast.

    If you're getting hung up on specific terms (god, solipsism), those aren't the main point.

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  6. If might interject for a moment...

    Isn't the idea that an ethical system must have a point of reference simply an excuse? What is a "god" but a representation of something profoundly internal? Just because it is characterized as something outside the body (tradition, culture, the metaphysical embodiment of uncertainty), it is no less reliant upon internal determiniations. All forms of ethics are, ultimately, self-referential. The only honest basis for such a system are the things that set man apart from animals: intellect, reason, empathy, and projection. A point of reference in ethics is merely a useful tool to aid cognition, a semantic utility, or a delusion.

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  7. Mr. Elliott: I completely disagree.

    The only difference between personal preference and an ethical system is precisely that an ethical system has a point of reference outside oneself; if it does not occasionally bind me to do what I would prefer not to do (or not do what I would prefer to do), it isn't making any claim upon me, merely acting as yes-man to my own wishes.

    Likewise, a "god" must be external for the same reason: all men over the age of two learn they are not the center of the universe. Fortunately, the Christian believes God is personal, not merely conceptual; God is a He, not an it. All kinds of ethical implications fall out from that simple fact of revelation. Of course, the personal characteristics of God are knowable only from revelation; Aquinas may have deduced a formal cause of the universe using reason alone, but nothing beyond deism can be inferred from that by itself.

    "The only honest basis for such a system are the things that set man apart from animals: intellect, reason, empathy, and projection."

    These things have zero value apart from a teleological understanding of man. What qualitative difference do intellect or empathy make, unless by them man fulfills some intrinsic purpose?

    Moreover, men obviously possess these qualities in varying amounts. Barring an external point of reference for deriving a teleology common to all men, what is there about any other man that imposes an ethical claim upon me personally? What, if one is to base ethics upon intellect, and the best science of 1850 holds that blacks possess less of it than whites, is wrong with saying in 1850 (as in Dred Scott) that "the Negro has no rights any white man need respect"? It seems to me that your theory empowers society to designate classes of untermenschen, and even lebens unwertens leben.

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  8. Mr. Elliot,

    Ethics is, by its very nature, a way for me to figure out what I should do, so in that sense it is obviously self-referential. The fact that I am choosing an ethical system based on my conscience and understanding of the world could also make it self-referential.

    But these seem rather trivial. I still need a standard for my intellect, reason, empathy and projection to work with. What standard do you propose? Utilitarianism? Libertarianism? Conscience/ natural law? Personal preference or whim?

    Furthermore, unless you want to dive headfirst into the nihilist position that we religious folks like to pin you into, you also need to explain why others should adopt your ethical standards. MESR so far fails in this category. So far, it is simply descriptive of what an individual believes, without any guideline for me to figure out whether I should believe the same thing.

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  9. Barefoot Bum - I've found all your essays that I have read so far fascinating and I think (perhaps unsurprisingly) your arguments are fairly close to my point of view. You have a talent for this philosophy lark and I look forward to the conclusion of your series.

    Do you think your meta-ethical theory can surmount belief scepticism? You may have the phrase - "The Barefoot Bum violently disapproves of killing people for fun" yet how do you find its truth? We can ask the Barefoot Bum. He will say "Of course I violently disapprove...". Yet how do we trust this judgement because he may well be either lying or deluded? He may have one strongly-held belief this is correct, yet occasionally he may feel killing someone is indeed, good fun. He may recoil at this thought as soon as it has flashed across his consciousness. - Yet it may well be the case at some moments "The Barefoot Bum approves of killing people for fun."

    Both these statements could have been true of the BB at different times and worryingly for rationality and the law of the excluded middle I'm tempted to say they could both be true at the same time if the idea of a divided self is plausible. Your theory is very interesting, but the truth in such cases will be very difficult to ascertain because belief is a veritable puzzle and it may well be that moral propositions assigned to people have a variable truth value.

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  10. Craig: The most critical issue on which our thoughts are diverging seems to be the insistence that ethics must be fundamentally based on something outside one's own self, call it "god" or the "purest good" or whatnot.

    MESR denies this view at a fundamental level. MESR states that there isn't any external standard, that statements about ethics are, at the level of truth, statements about the internal subjective mental states of people.

    This is obviously a controversial view, and I don't expect you to believe it for a moment before I offer some substantiation, which will have to await part 2.

    MESR is only objectively morally "nihilistic": There are no objective (mind-independent) moral truths. However, it is not at all nihilistic in the sense that people do in fact make moral judgments.

    Point (3) of your second comment highlights the fundamental differences in our view: "An ethical statement, by definition, is something that relates human actions to an underlying order of true relationships between people and things."

    MESR denies that this definition is accurate. Indeed, it entails that an ethical statement that does relate human action to objective truths is either (a) not fundamental (is a statement of means, how to achieve a more fundamental subjective value) or (b) erroneous.

    MESR references a looser class of ethical statements, i.e. any statement which expresses the rightness, wrongness, approval, disapproval, exhortation, "betterness" or "worseness" of some action or state of affairs.

    Keep in mind that Dostoevsky formulation, "If there is no God, then all things are permissible," is vulnerable to Euthyphro.

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  11. Yaknyeti: You are, of course, entirely correct. But the readership of Mere Comments strikes me as an intelligent, thoughtful group, and I hope they will have the patience to await the rest of my series in the fullness of time. So much philosophy, so little time!

    I don't think we're "getting nowhere fast". We've at least established a dialog, which ain't chopped liver. And I also think that this dialog is helping to clarify what it is I'm talking about with MESR.

    These sorts of philosophical issues have been on the table for two thousand years (or more); I think that a less than breakneck pace is acceptable.

    In regards to your second comment, I would dispute that you need (in the philosophical sense) "a standard for [your] intellect, reason, empathy and projection to work with." Of course, it appears to be the case that you want one, but that's a different matter.

    If you did need such a standard, would you not then need a standard to choose that standard? And a standard to choose the standard to choose the standard? And so on ad infinitum. At some point you have to make an existential choice, a choice predicated on nothing but your own subjective nature. Even if you believe in the actual existence of a God, you must still make an existential choice to obey.

    And, of course, there's always Euthyphro: If God is a He (or a She), that is a person, then MESR would still be true, albeit referencing the subjective states only of God.

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  12. Toby Lewis:

    You ask: "'The Barefoot Bum violently disapproves of killing people for fun' yet how do you find its truth? We can ask the Barefoot Bum. He will say 'Of course I violently disapprove...'. Yet how do we trust this judgement because he may well be either lying or deluded?"

    Discovering particular mental states is a prosaic, commonsense task, entirely justifiable under scientific epistemology. We cannot have absolute certainty, and knowing even our own subjective nature is a nontrivial task, but there doesn't appear to be any special epistemic difficulty.

    I think you're correct that MESR entails the complexity and difficulty of working out things like legal systems, social and institutional ethical codes and suchlike. I can say only in my defense that such tasks have indeed proven complex and difficult in real life.

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  13. Readers interested in a preview of part 3 of this series can turn to my earlier essay, Propaganda and Negotiation.

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  14. Sir Bum,
    I'm quite happy if others and I can further develop your arguments by tearing them apart before they are complete. There are some places where it appears that we need more information, but we'll see what we can hash out now. For example, I'm quite happy with the idea of God as most important/ only reference for MESR. This makes the system unoriginal and takes it in a direction you seem to dislike, so I assume there's something more to work out.

    Regarding infinitely recursive choices, I agree I have to choose somewhere. At the highest level, I have to choose what to believe as truth, and tend to choose that which conforms best to the world I see and creates a coherent system through which to interpret the world. I'm sure such an over-arching statement could be finessed, of course. I also acknowledge that there's a lot of self-reinforcing feedback in such a truth view. If I get on a false track, I can often fit new data into the false system.

    Understanding this personal fallability leads me toward seeking a coherent system, particularly in ethics, that relies on something outside myself. There are plenty of systems to choose that have some insights into ethics (or life in general) but that fail some critical check of coherence or conformance. Christian ethics - heck, Christianity as an overarching system that transcends ethics - is the best system I've found so far.

    This also requires the presuppositions of (1) some sort of order to this world and (2) that there exists some ethical "oughts" that apply to everyone. If you don't accept those, I see no reason not to pigeon-hole you as a nihilist and continue on my contented way. ;-)

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  15. Yanknyeti

    I'm quite happy if others and I can further develop your arguments by tearing them apart before they are complete.

    You can't tear apart any arguments, because I haven't made any yet. Before I can construct an argument, I think it's a good idea to stake out a position to argue for. You could, however, note any inconsistency, inaccuracy or vagueness in my position.

    I'm quite happy with the idea of God as most important/ only reference for MESR. This makes the system unoriginal and takes it in a direction you seem to dislike, so I assume there's something more to work out.

    Perhaps there is something more to work out about this "God" business; You're most welcome to elaborate further. I note only that simply labeling something as "god" because it takes the place of the Christian God is not a strategy designed to appeal to an atheist such as myself, even if I were to hold moral objectivism. I'm not concerned in the least whether or not I have any god--literal or metaphorical--before the Christian God.

    At the highest level, I have to choose what to believe as truth, and tend to choose that which conforms best to the world I see and creates a coherent system through which to interpret the world. I'm sure such an over-arching statement could be finessed, of course.

    I'm not particularly interested in "finessing" your statement; I pretty much agree with it in principle. I want to understand the world, a goal which is not at all furthered simply by winning arguments, much less winning with clever rhetoric.

    Christian ethics - heck, Christianity as an overarching system that transcends ethics - is the best system I've found so far.

    I understand this. Obviously, I myself have come to different conclusions.

    This also requires the presuppositions of (1) some sort of order to this world and (2) that there exists some ethical "oughts" that apply to everyone.

    I don't think your phrasing is precise, so my response has to be somewhat equivocal. Yes, I do think there is order to the world, but no I don't "presuppose" (in the metaphysical sense) such order. Much depends on how you view scientific hypotheticals, which have some but not all of the characteristics of metaphysical presuppositions.

    Yes, I do have moral beliefs which I consider universal: I apply them to all sapient beings. No, I don't believe that I can determine that these universal standards are objectively (mind-independently) true.

    If you don't accept those, I see no reason not to pigeon-hole you as a nihilist and continue on my contented way. ;-)

    Let me be blunt: I want to please as many readers as I can, but I can't please everyone. I do the best I can, but if you don't consider my work enjoyable, interesting and/or important, I do not hold you to any obligation to read it.

    On the other hand, I don't insist that my readers agree with everything--or even anything--I have to say. Agree or disagree, you are most welcome to follow along and comment as you please.

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  16. Sir Bum,
    I don't think your phrasing is precise, so my response has to be somewhat equivocal.

    I can handle what you've written. General acceptance in light of the impossibility of absolute proof is fine.

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