Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Meta Ethical Subjective Relativism, part 2

Part 1: What is Meta-Ethical Subjective Relativism?
Part 2: Arguments for Meta-Ethical Subjective Relativism
Part 3: Meta-Ethical Subjective Relativism in Practice

In part 1, I discussed what meta-ethical subjective relativism (MESR) says:
Statements about ethics have an absolute truth-value if and only if they are stated relative to some subjective entity or property.
This formulation can also be termed strong MESR. Weak MESR just replaces "if and only if" with just "if":
Statements about ethics have an absolute truth-value if they are stated relative to some subjective entity or property.

Weak MESR is uncontroversially true[1]: people do in fact have mental states (subjective properties) with ethical content.

The truth of weak MESR allows us to hold strong MESR on a skeptical basis: Absent a compelling argument for an objectivist alternative, weak MESR would entail strong MESR as the only understood way of establishing the truth value of statements with ethical content. If it makes you feel better, you can recast strong MESR as epistemic MESR:
Statements about ethics have an absolute truth-value which can be presently known if and only if they are stated relative to some subjective entity or property.


Thus the task of this essay is to undermine arguments for moral objectivism.

I'm going to talk about objectivism vs. subjectivism instead of relativism and absolutism because it is really the first distinction which critics who condemn "relativism" are addressing. Classical moral realism[2], for instance, is still "relative" a the trivial sense[3]: An ethical statement under moral realism is true relative to how reality actually is. Critics of "relativism" are, I think, really criticizing holding ethical statements true relative to subjective states.

Moral objectivism entails that there are ethical statements which are true or false stated without implicit or explicit relation to subjective entities and their properties, i.e. minds and states of mind. Moral objectivism does not deny that we can indeed have mental states with ethical content, or that the process of knowing the truth of an ethical statement does not involve subjective participation.

"The earth is (more or less) spherical," is an example of a physical objectivist statement. This statement is truth-apt as it stands, and actually true even if anyone or even everyone were to believe the contrary. It's still objectivist even though people can in fact know it. It is still objectivist even though a person can discover the truth of the statement only by appeal to subjective observational experience. It's even still objectively true even though it is stated in a natural language: the concepts of "earth" and "round" are not joined in one's subjective language processing.

I want to set a low bar for moral objectivism, at least as low as for objective physical reality. Even set this low, however, there is a strong epistemic argument that we cannot know if any moral statement is objectively true.

In The Scientific Method, I discuss various epistemic bases for knowledge about objective physical reality: axiomatic foundationalism, coherentism, and evidentiary foundationalism. Like Goldilocks, we have to exclude the first two: axiomatic foundationalism is too narrow and coherentism is too broad; the third, evidentiary foundationalism is just right.

Axiomatic foundationalism holds that we somehow establish the absolute perfect truth of some premises, after which we know that all of our logical deductions will preserve the truth of those premises. Because we have to construct perfectly axioms without even a good basis, Axiomatic Foundationalism fails as a fundamental epistemic method.

Coherentism (as best I can determine) holds that we gain knowledge merely by keeping our belief system coherent, that is avoiding mutually contradictory beliefs. Coherentism seems to be too broad, with many internally coherent but mutually contradictory belief systems that would satisfy its criteria.

So the evidentiary foundationalism of the scientific method would seem to be our last resort. It works for science, why not for ethics?

Evidentiary foundationalism needs uncontroversial statements to act as an evidentiary foundation. But ethical philosophy by its nature is about controversial statements. We don't need an ethical system to determine what everyone agrees upon, we need it to solve disagreements. We need laws against theft because thieves do not agree that stealing (at least their own) is wrong[4]. We need laws against murder because murderers do not agree that killing is wrong.

Another feature of perceptual statements as an evidentiary foundation is that they are occasion statements: an individual speaker will assent on some occasions and dissent on others. Moral intuitions, on the other hand, are typically standing sentences: speakers typically always assent or dissent. The fact that multiple speakers consistently assent or dissent to occasion statements argues directly that their mutual assent is caused by an objective reality. No such direct argument can exist for standing sentences.

We could just exclude such dissenters; we do, after all, exclude people (e.g. schitzophrenics) from scientific discourse on their inability to assent to perceptual facts. But only a tiny fraction of people are excluded on their inability to see light and dark bands in a diffraction pattern compared to those who are skeptical (or were in the 1920's) about the Schroedinger wave equation.

Essentially, standing moral intuitions talk about exactly the same sort of thing that we want an ethical system to prove. An "objective" morality which by definition proves with everything we already think is not useful. In science, we are not trying to prove that that the rock will fall--we already know that rocks fall--we want to discover why they fall. An ethical system that depends on moral intuition for evidence cannot, by definition, ever contradict our moral intuition.

Another problem with both axiomatic and evidentiary foundationalism is that both tell us what is impossible. It is impossible under ordinary arithmetic that 2+2=5. It is impossible in the real world for a rock not to fall when you drop it[5].

But our moral beliefs are always about what is possible, but bad. It's possible to steal from people, it's possible to kill people. We don't have any ethical beliefs governing the proper use of telepathy precisely because it's impossible to read people's minds.

There just isn't any sort of epistemic basis for knowing the truth of a statement of ethics that doesn't discuss what someone believes about ethics.

But people do have ethical beliefs, and MESR explicitly recognizes those beliefs; MESR is therefore not a nihilistic theory. I'll talk about how we can and do use MESR in important philosophical and practical ways in part 3.


[1] No statement in philosophy is utterly without controversy: There are those who would deny that mental states exist, i.e. that any sort of subjectivism is entirely fictional, even to the extent of abstract properties supervening on physical neurological properties. But that's an argument for another day.
[2] Technically, MESR is a "realistic" theory because it references subjective entities, which are real. Classical theories of moral realism, though, tend to refer to objective (non-minded) entities.
[3] See The Vacuity of "relativism".
[4] See Psychological Egoism for an argument showing why this formulation is not tautological.
[5] For the annoyingly particular, it's impossible for gravity not to accelerate the rock.

9 comments:

  1. Larry,

    So far as I can tell, your argument in this post is not an argument for relativism about moral truth -- it is an argument for moral skepticism. You seem to be saying that disagreement about moral matters undermines the reliabily of our intuitions, apparently our only source of moral knowledge.

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

    Epistemological difficulties in finding moral truth is not evidence for that; it is evidence for our being unable to find the objective moral truths.

    Again, to emphasize the point, you say, "There just isn't any sort of epistemic basis for knowing the truth of a statement of ethics that doesn't discuss what someone believes about ethics." It does not follow from this that statements about ethics have an absolute truth-value if and only if they are stated relative to some subjective entity or property.

    Secondly, you write, "An ethical system that depends on moral intuition for evidence cannot, by definition, ever contradict our moral intuition." Our conscience, or whatever is the source of our moral intuitions, is, like our other cognitive faculties, fallible. As a result, it is possible for a single individual to have divergent intuitions. We can criticize our own conscience by trying to identify veridical moral intuitions from erroneous ones, very much in the way we do with perception. Would you want to say that because our perceptual faculties are fallible that we cannot use perceptual judgments to criticize other perceptual judgments? Of course not: think about a stick which is apparently bent when placed in water.

    When studying normative ethics, one should not take all of their intuitions as bona fide insights, but simply as data with limited reliability. Philosophical analysis of this data is meant to answer the question: What are the principles, if there are any, under which our conscience is trying to operate?

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  2. It has always seemed to me that most criticism of "moral relativism" is based not on whether or not there are moral "truths," but on how those "truths" are arrived at. MESR seems to be a useful meta-ethical tool for the acknowledgment that people can arrive at the same conclusion about a moral judgment through a variety of reasonings.

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  3. Timmo:

    So far as I can tell, your argument in this post is not an argument for relativism about moral truth -- it is an argument for moral skepticism.

    That's a fair cop. "Relativism" by itself is vacuous; everything's relative in a trivial sense. I wrote a whole post on this subject.

    And I say explicitly that the argument is based on principled skepticism about the epistemic basis of objective moral truths. This kind of argument is required because there isn't anything logically contradictory about moral objectivism.

    The subjective/objective dualism is complete (everything is definitely mind-dependent or not-mind-dependent), therefore if the objective is excluded, then all that's left is the subjective.

    Perhaps the above paragraph should have appeared in the original essay.

    If our moral intuitions are fallible, then it must be the case that there is some objective truth for these intuitions to be fallible about. But there isn't such truth. (Or if there were, we have no way of knowing it, and an unknowable truth is no truth at all.)

    Our moral intuitions are neither accurate nor erroneous: They simply are what they are.

    You have the analogy to perception backwards: It is precisely because our perceptions are correctable that we can know they are fallible, and therefore represent objective truth.

    Since we have no objective basis to correct our moral intuition, we cannot consider them "fallible", and therefore there is no basis for believing them to represent any objective truth.

    I think we can still ask your question: "What are the principles, if there are any, under which our conscience is trying to operate?" even under MESR; I'll address this topic in part 3.

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  4. Since we have no objective basis to correct our moral intuition...

    should read

    Since we have no epistemic basis...

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  5. Larry,

    Your argument takes the form:

    (1) We are unable to agree on propositions pertaining to topic T.

    (2) Therefore, propositions pertaining to topic T are not true or false simplicter.

    This inference is a non sequiter: (2) does not follow from (1). We can see this through a parody:

    (1*) We are unable to come to agreement about propositions pertaining to philosophy.

    (2*) Therefore, propositions pertaining to philosophy are not true or false simplicter.

    The fallibility of our philosophical intuitions -- and our inability to step outside them -- does not motivate the view that philosophical propositions, like meta-ethical subjective relativism, are not true or false simpliciter. Disagreement in philosophy does not motivate thinking the truth/falsity of philosophical propositions are somehow relative to philosophers and their mental states. Why think the same thing about ethics?

    Also, you argue "You have the analogy to perception backwards: It is precisely because our perceptions are correctable that we can know they are fallible, and therefore represent objective truth."

    Perceptual judgments are correctable, but only by appealing to other perceptual judgments! (Indeed, appealing to what other people perceive depends on our perception of them -- just more perceptual judgments.) The same thing goes with ethics. Ethical judgments are correctable, but only by appealing to other ethical judgments, precisely like perceptual judgments. Philosophical reflection, or simply life-experience, is one such correcter.

    From this, I conclude the disagreement about ethics, like disagreement about anything else, does not preclude the possibility ethics is about a factual matter. The suggestion made by widespread disagreement is that we can never know what is the good life, or what we ought to do, or what constitutes a good character. There are such facts, but perhaps they are not reliably accessible to us. I think that is the hardest line you can push.

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  6. You are eliding important parts of my argument:

    If the truth or falsity of a statement cannot be known, the statement is not truth-apt.

    If the truth or falsity of a statement is not presently know, its truth is irrelevant.

    There is presently no epistemic basis for knowing the truth or falsity of any objective ethical statement, and there is a good argument that no epistemic basis actually exists.

    The first conclusion: Since no epistemic basis presently exists, it therefore follows that the truth or falsity of objective moral statements are irrelevant to our moral decision making. Since the truth or falsity of subjective can be known and are known, subjective moral statements are relevant. Since objective and subjective are a completed dichotomy (i.e. they follow the law of the excluded middle), the truth of only subjective ethical statements are relevant to our ethical decision-making.

    The second conclusion: Since there is a good argument (lack of foundation) against any epistemic basis for the truth-aptness of any objective ethical statement, the belief that it is actually true that objective ethical statements are not truth-apt is rationally warranted; absent a counterargument, the inverse belief is not rationally warranted.

    It is logically possible that you or anyone else might present me with a plausible epistemic basis for moral objectivism. In the meantime I still have to make ethical decisions, and until I find an actual epistemic method for ethical objectivism, it is rational to employ MESR.

    In simpler terms, it is logically possible that Santa Claus actually exists. But until I see some evidence, my belief that he does not exist is warranted.

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  7. Larry,

    I do not mean to omit any part of your argument; I am contending that there is no justification for the premise that "If the truth or falsity of a statement cannot be known [by us], the statement is not truth-apt." Can you provide a persuasive argument there are no evidence-transcendent truths?

    Also, "If the truth or falsity of a statement is not presently known, its truth is irrelevant." Why think that? We can imagine ourselves located in a scenario portrayed in a horror movie -- is the murderer upstairs? We do not presently know the truth or falsity of "the murderer is upstairs", but it is clearly not irrelevant!

    Similarly, ethics is about what we should do, who we should be, and what a good life is. Those kinds of things are never irrelevant. If we can't know what these things are, then it is not the case they are irrelevant to our decision making, but that we are are unfortunately acting blind, unable to decide on a principled basis what course our lives to take.

    Lastly, you write, "Since there is a good argument (lack of foundation) against any epistemic basis for the truth-aptness of any objective ethical statement, the belief that it is actually true that objective ethical statements are not truth-apt is rationally warranted". I do not think this is correct either. We can distinguish between semantic questions about ethics from epistemological questions. We may be able to resolve the semantic questions about the subject matter of ethics, but not be able to provide an epistemology that lets us know which ethical propositions are true.

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  8. Timmo,

    I am contending that there is no justification for the premise that "If the truth or falsity of a statement cannot be known [by us], the statement is not truth-apt."

    You have correctly identified the crux of the biscuit. I think the answer requires a separate essay. If you accept the premise then the rest of the essay holds together, but the premise is obviously controversial.

    Also, "If the truth or falsity of a statement is not presently known, its truth is irrelevant." Why think that? We can imagine ourselves located in a scenario portrayed in a horror movie -- is the murderer upstairs? We do not presently know the truth or falsity of "the murderer is upstairs", but it is clearly not irrelevant!

    The truth or falsity of the statement, "The murderer actually is upstairs," is indeed irrelevant to our decision making by virtue of being unknown, in the sense that the actual truth or actual falsity does not affect our actions. What is motivating our action is the truth of the related but different statement, "The murderer might be upstairs," belief in which is presumably warranted by earlier events.

    In other words, if we knew the murderer were upstairs, we would act in one way (not going upstairs); if knew the murderer were not upstairs, we would act in another way (going upstairs casually). Since we don't know one way or the other, we act in a third way (going upstairs suspiciously).

    In other words, since I don't know the truth or falsity of an objective moral statement, it's actual truth or falsity cannot affect my behavior, my choices, or my actual decision making (although it's definitely the case that my knowledge of my lack of knowledge might affect my decision-making).

    Similarly, ethics is about what we should do, who we should be, and what a good life is. Those kinds of things are never irrelevant. If we can't know what these things are, then it is not the case they are irrelevant to our decision making, but that we are are unfortunately acting blind, unable to decide on a principled basis what course our lives to take.

    But I do know what I should do, who I should be and what a good life is: I know introspectively im-mediately and properly basically what my subjective beliefs about such things are, and I know scientifically what others' subjective beliefs are. I'm not flying blind at all.

    Indeed by rejecting the manifest truth of MESR and subjective ethical statements and insisting on employing an absent and arguably impossible epistemic system, it is the objectivist who is flying blind.

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  9. Indeed by rejecting the manifest truth of MESR...

    should read

    Indeed by rejecting the manifest truth of weak MESR...

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