Friday, May 04, 2007

Naturalistic ethics

Underneath the Deacon's pose of why-can't-we-all-just-get-along meekness lies an ideologue just as uncompromising as any atheist. And good for him: It's nice to see him take an actual position. He's wrong, of course, but it's nice to see him at least definite enough to be wrong.

The Deacon makes a few obvious errors in his post. He says without substantiation, "[A]theists believe that... the absence of God releases humans from metaphysical bondage and opens wide the gates of possibility." This is an over-generalization. Atheists—apart from not believing in God—don't all believe anything, any more than Christians all believe anything. It's not even the case that atheists mostly believe that the lack of a God "open[s] the gates of possibility". It is an actual fact that most atheists have very prosaic and respectable ethical beliefs.

The Deacon, in his usual intellectually lazy manner, speaks as if it were obviously the case that everything good comes from God: He does not even bother to grace us with any sort of an argument or substantiation, just a series of bare assertions and assumptions. His argument is technically kind of correct: If there were none of the things that he enumerates, our ethical beliefs would be minimal indeed. He's incorrect, though: Not even the jackboot and the straitjacket would then be entailed, just pure law-of-the-jungle individualism. (Unsurprisingly, we see exactly law-of-the-jungle individualism in non-human animals, more-or-less thinking creatures without much capacity for abstract or self-referential thought.)

But take a look at the things he throws in the middle of his list conflating them with disbelief in God: "no unveiling beauty in creation that reveals ever deeper layers of meaning; no darkly brilliant mystery to existence that defies our mind but illumines our spirit; no moral intuition through which to name the good and condemn evil". These are, of course, things that exist in fact. People do have a sense of beauty we do find layers of meaning. We do apprehend mysteries which excite the mind. (We atheists do tend to want to solve mysteries, and we reject the spiritual benefits of ignorance.) Most importantly, we do have ethical intuition. These are ordinary human feelings. It's typical of the Deacon's arrogance and unjustified self-righteousness that he truly believes that someone who doesn't make a fetish of ignorance and superstition can have actual human feelings or believe them to be important.

The Deacon makes both a scientific and a philosophical mistake as well (he's packing a lot of error into a short post). Philosophically, he's deriving an "ought" from an objective (not a mind or a property of a mind) "is": If the physical universe is not fundamentally ethical, then we ought not to have ethical beliefs. This position was adequately rebutted by Hume[1]. The scientific mistake is, of course, that we're "governed by chance." Even speaking rhetorically, this is a howler: We are, of course, governed by physics, which has no small few non-chance-like components.

Most rational people—including the Deacon himself—reject scriptural literalism (of any scripture) as a complete axiomatic ethical foundation. It is only the scripturalists (whether that scripture is the Bible, the Koran, or the works of Marx, Rand or even Kant) who are in "metaphysical bondage". The Deacon adequately proves in other comments that this task is at least partially possible to theists; Communists and Randians prove that even atheism by itself is not sufficient to release one from metaphysical bondage. It is not disbelief in God that releases humans from this bondage, it is disbelief in the fundamental ethical authority and veracity of scripture—any scripture.

Lacking the authority of scripture, talk about ethics must cast about for a new epistemic authority for this talk to be about something. And that epistemic authority is, of course, ethical intuition. (Keep in mind the difference between authority and veracity; authority entails only that the whole statement ("I believe that 'torturing babies is wrong'") is true by definition; veracity entails that the content of the statement ("I believe that 'torturing babies is wrong'") is true.)

If ethical intuition is our epistemic authority, then any ethical belief system must therefore account for our ethical intuitions; It is irrational to adopt any ethical belief which contradicts the authority of our ethical intuition. If your ethical system entails that you do not believe that 'torturing babies is wrong' and you actually believe that, then your ethical system is false-to-fact and irrational. Secondly, Occam's razor entails that the veracity—in some sense—of our ethical intuitions is the simplest hypothesis, and should be abandoned only if accepting the prima facie veracity entails a contradiction or over-elaboration.

There are a lot of different ways of discussing what it means for an ethical intuition to have "veracity", but these ways are side issues. Just looking at ethical intuition as an epistemic foundation shows the fallacy of the Deacon's argument. For his argument depends on contradicting moral intuition. There's nothing false-to-fact about jackboot and the straitjacket; the Deacon is not making a physically evidentiary argument. He's trading on the actual fact that the jackboot and the straitjacket offend our ethical intuition. But if ethical intuition is any sort of epistemic basis, then the fact that some ethical system would severely contradict our intuition is itself a sufficient argument against that ethical system.

I think the Deacon has a fundamentally misguided view about atheism and naturalism. This post reveals the Deacon's own metaphysical bias of ontological priority: We make certain presuppositions about how the world is, and then reason from those presuppositions to what we know and what we approve of. But that's simply not the case. Metaphysical naturalism has a bias of epistemic priority. We make presuppositions about what we know directly, and then construct a view of the world which explains that direct knowledge. We know perceptual experiences as experiences directly; the physical sciences are a set of ontological theories which account for those perceptual experiences. We know our ethical intuitions as intuitions directly; naturalistic ethics are a set of theories which account for those intuitions.

Update: (20 May 07) The Deacon has deleted the contents of his blog; the post I criticize here is no longer available.


[1] The short version of the argument is that ethical choices, in the way that humans uncontroversially talk about ethics, always choose between physically possible alternatives. Both alternatives of an ethical choice reference—in a loose sense—that which is. Therefore, we cannot derive an ought from an is in this sense.

11 comments:

  1. How nice it would be to have a conversation with you, BB, without having to endure personal insults. Sigh. Perhaps one day...

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  2. I think you're being hypocritical, Deacon. Your post is not only lazy and sloppy, it's very insulting.

    I can play the game either way. Write neutrally, and I'll respond neutrally. Write insultingly, and I'll respond in kind. I'm following your lead here.

    I think you're using a common rhetorical tactic: make digs at the opponents and when they respond in kind, act all aggrieved. It's a great tactic because if your opponents don't respond in kind, they look weak and defensive.

    We are both arrogant, opinionated, intelligent people, and we're on opposite sides of a real ethical division. Even if only by virtue of an ethical belief about truth, we must both, if we are to be sincere, consider the other not only mistaken, but ethically wrong to persist in that mistake.

    Our disagreements are not just rarefied intellectual game playing: They really matter, and we're both ethically and emotionally invested in the outcome.

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  3. jeff.maynes5/4/07, 7:36 AM

    I can say, based on a substantive body of evidence, that "usual intellectually lazy manner" produces a false sentence with predicated of the Deacon.

    "if we are to be sincere, consider the other not only mistaken, but ethically wrong to persist in that mistake."

    Whether we are ethically responsible for our beliefs is a real and lively debate! I do not know the Deacon's stance on this issue, but he isn't necessarily committed to thinking atheists are ethically wrong for their beliefs. It was in fact William James, who argued against the Clifford view that we are ethically responsible for unfounded beliefs, in large part to secure a place for religious beliefs!

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  4. I think almost all blogging philosophers are intellectually sloppy to some degree on their blogs, in the manner I point out in a further post.

    Perhaps it's just me. I know it's difficult to be really precise in natural languages (which is why I know any number of artificial languages) but I'm extremely anal-retentive about clarity, precision, and explication. Perhaps I'm idiosyncratic in this regard, but idiosyncrasy is often indistinguishable from creativity.

    The Deacon is not the first to receive my ire, nor do I restrict harsh criticism to only theists.

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  5. I also have a much different attitude towards being insulted. Even an entirely unsubstantiated personal attack will end up on the front page of my blog with a substantive rebuttal.

    I'm as much about just expressing myself as I am about any particular project. I'm a mercurial, opinionated person. I get mad. I like getting mad. That's why I blog instead of going to college to get a PhD in philosophy.

    If you don't like what I have to say, don't read the blog. There are 6,000,000,000 - 100 people who don't read my blog; one more isn't going to kill me.

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  6. And if you have substantive criticism of what I say, you may express it here as offensively as you please. If you're right, I'll admit it, regardless of whatever offense you give.

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  7. I think, reluctantly, it's time for us to go our separate ways. Your unpredictable mood swings and tantrums are just too wearing. You throw around invective as if you're in a street fight instead of a conversation. Yet curiously, you're so incredibly sensitive that you take philosophical disagreement as personal affront. No matter how many times I try to explain a position, you ignore what I say and run through the same script that you've repeated over and over. I actually like you, BB, and I respect your curiosity and your intelligence. But your anger and your unpredictability are just too much for me. As you say, my not reading your blog won't kill you. Have a good life.

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  8. The only meaningful, relevant sense in which we can go our separate ways is for me to not comment on your blog, which I will refrain from doing in the future.

    The contents of our respective blogs are part of the public discourse and are open to public criticism. Furthermore, I won't ask you to not comment here. Whether you read my blog or not, or comment here or not, is, of course, entirely your choice.

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  9. Philosophically, he's deriving an "ought" from an objective (not a mind or a property of a mind) "is": If the physical universe is not fundamentally ethical, then we ought not to have ethical beliefs. This position was adequately rebutted by Hume[1]. The scientific mistake is, of course, that we're "governed by chance." Even speaking rhetorically, this is a howler: We are, of course, governed by physics, which has no small few non-chance-like components.

    While the positivist line is that a statement such as "torturing the innocent is wrong" is meaningless, I don't think moral realists, even secular ones have to grant that. Besides, you are begging the question of whether naturalism is an adequate account of, well, reality. What is a word, or statement to a strict materialist? Neurologists have not mapped out how semantics and syntax function, or consciousness as a whole. Many humans assume that Mind/consciousness is a bio-chemical brain function, but that really has not been established. And really, human thinking--including ethics---is a sort of a unique feature of reality. Chimps don't produce a Republic, nor do they calculate integrals. So the uniqueness of consciousess is an issue, as many critics of Skinner and the behaviorists pointed out years ago. Neither strict Darwinism nor behaviorism really accounts for those unique features.

    Anyway, even if values (and politics) are constructed to some degree, that doesn't necessarily mean they are subjective. "Subjective" is not easily defined. Humans do make reference to objective "Justice": they don't just say "Bush is wrong for me but not for you", they say Bush is Evil! SO in a sort of institutional sense, Justice often is used in an objective sense, and that is not explained away by just saying it is a commonplace or contrivance.

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  10. Chimps don't produce a Republic, nor do they calculate integrals.

    And yet they express guilt and remorse, love and hatred, mocking and compassion; form complex social politics complete with inter- and intra-group rivalries and alliances; and problem solve to the extent of creating weapons of war and industrial aids. Their brains might be rounder and smoother, but there's a lot of complexity there to give us food for thought. The animal/man dichotomy is not so easily embraced any more.

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  11. Perezoso:

    While the positivist line is that a statement such as "torturing the innocent is wrong" is meaningless...

    Good thing I'm not a positivist, or at least not a radical positivist.

    "Subjective" is not easily defined.

    "Subjective" is too easily defined: There are a dozen competing definitions. I've taken care to be explicit about the definition I use: minds and properties of minds.

    Anyway, even if values (and politics) are constructed to some degree, that doesn't necessarily mean they are subjective.

    You're correct. Naturalistic science is constructed based on subjectivism, and it is uncontroversially objective, in the sense that scientists uncontroversially say they're talking at some level about objective reality.

    The problem is that an objective, mind-independent theory of ethics quickly fails to account for ethical intuition.

    ReplyDelete

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