Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Ethical reticence

SteveG wonders why there's "a reluctance on the part of smart, thoughtful, caring people to make clear judgments about the actions of others, even when the actions are clearly wrong." [emphasis added] The emphasized clause shows why he goes wrong in his answer:
One of the major sources of this hesitancy is a reaction to those who insist on moralizing, that is, those who claim to have access to an unambiguous moral truth that governs every situation. ...

The other primary reason for popular reticence is a confusion over what gets judged. It is actions, not people, that are morally right or morally wrong.
Committed as he appears to be to ethical objectivism (sympathetic as I am to his specific ethical beliefs) he has to dance around the periphery without actually getting to the heart of the matter. What gets judged (actions or people) is peripheral to fundamental ethical philosophy, as is the observation that some people's moral judgments might be oversimplified. The heart of the matter is how we make judgments, and more importantly, how we deal with moral disagreements.

Steve actually contradicts himself: He asserts that it is actions, not people that should be judged, and in the very next breath admits that, "This is not to say that we cannot get judged as people." Well, which is it?

At a deeper level, he admits that
[T]he act of judging itself is taken as problematic because it makes you like those who are not thoughtful, who do not allow that there will be deep, possibly insoluble disagreements about moral judgments.
Well, if there are "deep, possibly insoluble [moral] disagreements", then it indeed problematic to say that some action (or person?) is "clearly wrong". Depth and insolubility seem the very antithesis of clarity.

Given these blatant contradictions, it's unsurprising that he simply bullshits his way through the rest of the essay without saying much of anything.

Moral disagreements are always rationally "insoluble" because there are no objectively true moral beliefs: A moral disagreement results from differences in the internal nature between two different people (or two groups of like-minded people). There's nothing to "rationally" solve in a moral disagreement any more than one can rationally solve the problem of the coexistence of green and red apples: It is simply a fact that some apples are green and some red; in just the same way, there are people who (for instance) abhor homosexuality and some who consider it benign.

The philosophical community shares a big part of the blame. For millennia, they've insisted that ethics is a matter of reason, not opinion, but have never actually substantiated any reasonable ethics—or, rather, they've "substantiated" eight skitty zillion different ethics on the basis of "reason" but given no reasonable way to choose between them. It is no wonder that a reasonable person, brainwashed that one should not take any ethical position without a solid rational case, but having no actual solid rational case, would be reticent about making any ethical decision at all.

The problem, as I explain in more detail in Arguments for Meta-Ethical Subjective Relativism is that one cannot approach objective ethics in a scientific manner. One can scientifically examine the ethical beliefs we do have, but never the ones we should have, because there's no evidentiary basis for doing so. Of course Axiomatic Foundationalism and Coherentism fail just as hard for ethical objectivism as they do for scientific objectivism. We're left with no other way (until some philosopher invents a brand new epistemic method) to make objective ethical judgments.

Given that we know of no way at all of determining whether or not our personal judgments are objectively correct, it becomes meaningless to even talk about the objective correctness of our judgments: Our judgments (or statements about our judgments) simply do not have the property of correctness/incorrectness.

We (or so the philosophers have been telling us for millennia) must have a reasonable objective basis to make ethical judgments. But no such thing (or too many such things, with no objective basis to choose between them) actually exists. It is unsurprising, then, that reasonable people—people unwilling to bullshit themselves and simply assume that their individual ethical judgments must have some objective justification, even if they don't know it yet—are unwilling to make any ethical judgment.

Meta-ethical subjective relativism, though, gives us a way out of this dilemma. Because all ethical judgments are matters of opinion, not truth, each person's own ethical judgments are no worse than anyone else's. But, again because all ethical judgments are not matters of truth, but of opinion, each person's own ethical judgments are no better than anyone else's. As opinion, each person is free to be definite, but also constrained to a degree of humility.

MESR eliminates truth-finding (or, worse, truth-asserting) discourse, and introduces negotiation discourse. Since one can negotiate rationally, MESR reintroduces rationality into ethical discourse.

In negotiation, the most important criterion is to agree upon a framework for conducting the negotiation. Even in the degenerate case, where no agreed-upon ethical beliefs can serve, reality itself—who can coerce or kill whom—serves as the framework. It becomes in itself a rational decision: Am I better off conceding some points to negotiate non-violently, or am I better off fighting?

One very common ethical position in human society is the value of sincerity (speaking truthfully about one's own beliefs) and honesty (speaking truthfully about objective reality). Most people at least profess this value; even insincere and dishonest people promote this value because they desire to deceive[1].

Thus we have an agreed-upon ethical basis for distinguishing bad self-righteousness from good (or not as bad) passionate conviction: The self-righteous person is fundamentally dishonest, because he falsely asserts that his ethical position is a matter of truth—he may be sincere (sincerely deluded), but he is still dishonest. On the other hand, one who is just as passionately convinced as the self-righteous, but who does not insist that her beliefs are a matter of truth, is at least honest.

This particular point of honesty is critically important: One cannot—it is utterly preposterous—negotiate over matters of truth. The truth is, by definition, the truth whether you believe it or not, regardless of what you want. We cannot, for instance, change the laws of physics by any form of negotiation, even force of arms.

In his essay, Steve gives us a very vague, confused explanation of when we should, for good or ill, judge a person's actions, and when we should judge a person's character. His explanation, that we should judge actions as actions when they are inharmonious with a person's character, is trivially flawed. First, we cannot have direct knowledge of a person's character; we can only adduce character from a person's actions—actions are the only thing we fundamentally have to judge. Second, even "uncharacteristic" actions can entail a moral judgment of the person: Witness the otherwise blameless man who, in a fit of passion, murders his wife. Out of character, yes, but still we must judge and imprison the person, even though he is unlikely to repeat the crime. (It is, of course, vacuous to suggest we are imprisoning the person without judging him as a person.)

Again, MESR gives us a crystal-clear view of when we want to judge an action or a person: The distinction is the result of a negotiation process based on how we feel about certain outcomes. We strongly disapprove of people arbitrarily killing others, regardless of the reason, thus we thus categorically judge the character of the individual, because we approve of people who by character will never—not just not typically—kill other people other than in self-defense. On the other hand, while we disapprove of shoplifting, our disapproval is not so strong; we thus negotiate an agreement that, if an instance of shoplifting appears atypical, we will not strongly judge the person's character and be lenient in his punishment.

[1] It is, of course, logically possible that a society might not value sincerity and honesty, even to the extent of publicly encouraging insincerity and dishonesty, although such a society would definitely be strange. It might perhaps be physically impossible for any sort of sentient beings to have an ethical system which values insincerity and dishonesty, but we won't know until we explore more than our infinitesimal corner of the universe.


  1. Pakistanis encourage insincerity and dishonesty. They don't *say* so, but they reward insincere and dishonest behavior and punish the converse.

    Good essay.

  2. How do they reward dishonesty? And that is really strange... my other question is why anyone would encourage that.

  3. I am no ethicist, but I do think there is a reluctance among academics, either in the sciences, or humanities, to discuss that field of study known as "ethics." You are also correct in suggesting that ethics is all too often taken to be some lightweight type of virtue chat or character analysis, when it is really an analysis of actions--and the effects of actions. Which is to say, consequentialist ethics ultimately relates to physics, probability, measurable effects over time. And that is why it is so difficult: how does one trace the effects of certain actions, say a crime or political event? Good can come out of bad (I dont have time to bring up hypotheticals, but they are easy enough to imagine). Yet a pure consequentialism also has problems (as I think the utilitarians themselves grant)--as does of course any ethics by consensus (three's nothing, via ethics by consensus, from voting in the murder of certain minorities as law--as the fascists did in 30s more or less). At most the rational ethicist (at least a secular one) can sort of suggest, that act seems inconsistent or hypocritical, causes unwarraned pain, etc. Yet eventually even unjust acts could result in more good of some sort---------ethics thus is really far more complex than many realizes, and touches on many other issues, psychological and scientific..........

  4. Yet traditional ethics does seem to make many assumptions about freedom and intention which are hardly warranted, as even old ratchopper Skinner realized. Perhaps ethics cannot occur until there is some unified theory of intention and action, cognitively speaking--if not sanity (not really a given). So is it neo-behaviorism that should be on the table (which might tie into the writing of some contemporary deterministic writers, ie Quine Churchlands, etc) or is it perhaps Wilhelm Reich (at least the early Reich of masscult, not the vaguely occultist one), and other pathologists..............


Please pick a handle or moniker for your comment. It's much easier to address someone by a name or pseudonym than simply "hey you". I have the option of requiring a "hard" identity, but I don't want to turn that on... yet.

With few exceptions, I will not respond or reply to anonymous comments, and I may delete them. I keep a copy of all comments; if you want the text of your comment to repost with something vaguely resembling an identity, email me.

No spam, pr0n, commercial advertising, insanity, lies, repetition or off-topic comments. Creationists, Global Warming deniers, anti-vaxers, Randians, and Libertarians are automatically presumed to be idiots; Christians and Muslims might get the benefit of the doubt, if I'm in a good mood.

See the Debate Flowchart for some basic rules.

Sourced factual corrections are always published and acknowledged.

I will respond or not respond to comments as the mood takes me. See my latest comment policy for details. I am not a pseudonomous-American: my real name is Larry.

Comments may be moderated from time to time. When I do moderate comments, anonymous comments are far more likely to be rejected.

I've already answered some typical comments.

I have jqMath enabled for the blog. If you have a dollar sign (\$) in your comment, put a \\ in front of it: \\\$, unless you want to include a formula in your comment.