Thursday, September 23, 2010

In Response to the Vulgar Moralist: Moral Psychology Is Not Moral Philosophy

The Vulgar Moralist has weighed in on the ongoing debate concerning the rational justification for morality. His response contains the same basic errors as those that have been advanced in the comments section on this blog. To clarify the issues, I will address them systematically.

I. The Category Mistake: Moral Psychology Is Not Moral Philosophy

The Vulgar Moralist remarks that
[t]he primacy of genetics and emotions in morality is somewhat controversial – but at this late hour, not all that much. On the one side stands 2,500 years of moral philosophy exalting the 'rational life'; on the other, a growing body of research." Thus, the moral philosophy that exalts the rational life stands in opposition to the body of research that has illuminated the emotional and genetic factors that effect the moral choices of human beings.
This opposition is founded upon a category mistake. The question of why people believe in certain moral principles belongs do the discipline of moral psychology; the question whether those moral principles are true belongs to moral philosophy. Obviously people can believe in true things for false reasons: just because one's belief that Caesar existed is predicated upon the belief that the television show "Rome" is a documentary does not make the historical arguments any less valid. Further, people often believe in true things on the basis of beliefs that don't have much to do with the truth or falsity of the subject: people might believe in relativity theory because Stephan Hawking believes in it, but the fact that Hawking has an opinion on the subject doesn't bear on the truth or falsity of relativity theory. The process of evaluating the truths of beliefs is distinct from the process of evaluating how different people come to their beliefs.

The Vulgar Moralist's category mistake is, therefore, at the same time an ad hominem argument, because it focuses on the person making an argument in a way that ignores the argument itself.

II. Nature and Teleology

The Vulgar Moralist answers the question of whether human nature negates teleology by saying that
[g]rounding morality in human nature strips away any purpose inherent to the world: but not, let it be noted, human purpose while acting in the world. Every morality is erected on ideals. Every ideal is an unattainable model of behavior. Every good person is inching toward an ideal vision of himself: that person-as-he-could-be.
There are a few obvious problems with this answer. The assertion that "[e]very morality is erected on ideals" is vague enough that it doesn't mean much of anything. Or again, the assertion that "[e]very ideal is an unattainable model of behavior" is manifestly false: many ideals (such as the ideal that people ought not murder each other) are more attained than not.

The more fundamental problem appears to be an unfamiliarity with what an Aristotelian means by nature. As I've written about before, "nature" for an Aristotelian does not mean primarily the picture we get from the physical sciences, nor the geographic locations that are relatively free from human dominion. Nature is the intrinsic principle of motion in a thing (as I've also written about before). A tree is natural while a wooden statute is not, because the wooden statue does not move itself from within -- what form it has is the result of external force -- whereas the tree does move itself.

This internal principle of motion strives towards realizing the form proper to the thing. A tree, provided it has all the nutrients and sunlight it needs, will of its own accord grow and blossom. Human beings too have an internal principle of motion: no one imposes growth on them from without. But human beings additionally possess the capacity of reason, the ability to direct their activity towards those things perceived as desirable. The inquiry into what constitutes human flourishing and what activities tend toward this flourishing is the science of ethics proper.

III. Final Thoughts

Several aspects of the Vulgar Moralist's arguments are particularly outlandish. For instance, the Vulgar Moralist argues:
In a liberal democracy, there will always be a plurality of contradictory religious beliefs, and standing on one to the exclusion of the others – that is, absolutely and uncontingently – will eliminate all common ground.
This isn't even plausible prima facie. There are plenty of examples of generally accepted moral propositions: most people in the United States believe that murder, for example, is wrong. Further, if a certain political system disintegrates a society's moral fabric, that seems a good reason to reject it as a bad political system. If liberal democracy creates moral chaos, then down with liberal democracy.

And finally, when one boldly declares that X is without a rational basis, then one ought at least to deal substantively with the best argument for the rational basis of X. For example, if I argue that Godel's theorem is indemonstrable by mathematical methods, I had better demonstrate that I have a grasp of the basic methods of mathematics, of the theorem itself, and of the arguments surrounding it. Or if I assert that no evidence exists that Al-Queda is involved with terrorism, I ought at least deal with the arguments for the other side. Likewise, when the Vulgar Moralist declares that no rational basis for morality exists, one would expect that he engage seriously and substantively with the arguments to the contrary.

26 comments:

Adam Gurri said...

The error is not VM's, but yours. You write off his argument as moral psychology, and state that what is at issue is whether or not moral rules are true, therefore VM's argument does not apply.

But it does apply, you simply have not seen how. The argument is over the nature of morality, whether it exists, and in what form it exists. The Vulgar Moralist argues that it does exist and has outlined the form he believes it to exist in. Ignoring this by simply saying it is a "categorical mistake" is a failure to take his argument on its merits.

Second, his argument concerning ideals is not vague at all, in the context of the post. He uses as an example the American ideal of equality, something that is perhaps unattainable in an absolute sense but something that we can strive towards and even get closer to--whether or not the absolute is "man as he can be", some level of equality greater than we we are today is certainly something that we "can be".

Singring said...

'For example, if I argue that Godel's theorem is indemonstrable by mathematical methods, I had better demonstrate that I have a grasp of the basic methods of mathematics, of the theorem itself, and of the arguments surrounding it.'

Martin, just in recent weeks you have written several posts not only criticizing Hawking's model of the origin of the universe as insufficient, but also lampooning it by implying that Hawking's ideas are in line with those of woomaster Deepak Chopra.

In line with your above statement, I expect you to post an extensive series of posts in the next few days outlining the mathematical equations, models and theorems at the basis of modern cosmology that Hawking's position is based upon.

After all - as you say yourself - if you argue that Hawking is getting it wrong, you better 'demonstrate that you have a grasp of the basic methods of mathematics, of the theory itself, and of the arguments surrounding it.'

Finally, on a side note, I have yet to receive word from you on what arguments you have that support the notion of a contingent universe. You specifically asked me on that point in an earlier thread, but neglected to give any argument yourself in support of your proposition. I was really hoping to get an answer on that.

Again, this seems to be inconsistent with the stringent criteria for rational discourse you lay out above.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

I did write the posts on Hawking, but I did not write this post. If you look at the bottom of the post, you will see that Thomas, my co-blogger, wrote it. You know, just like Benedict wrote De Delictis Gravioribus, but not Crimen Sollicitationis?

In any case, my critique of Hawking was not of Hawking's science, a subject which I do not have training in but he does, but his philosophy, a subject which I do have training in but he doesn't. That and the simple logical consistency of his public statements, which anyone can critique without any training at all. He wasn't writing for scientists, after all, but the intelligent public.

I will hopefully have some time to deal with several outstanding issues, among which the one you mention, this weekend.

Singring said...

My apologies for assigning the wrong author to this post. However, since this is all flying under the same blog banner, I think its only fair to assume that the two authors endorse the posts of the other, or am I wrong?

'In any case, my critique of Hawking was not of Hawking's science, a subject which I do not have training in but he does, but his philosophy, a subject which I do have training in but he doesn't. '

I'm sorry, but that's just not correct Martin. Hawking claims to have a self-contained, naturalistic model that explains the universe without the need of a God.

Simply saying 'well that doesn't take into account philosophy so it just can't be right!' as you did in your posts does not quite cut it.

First you have to demonstrate that in fact, his model is not sufficient. As Thomas argues using the example of Godel's theorem, it is (in his opinion) not valid to criticize a model without having intimate expertise in the field. A silly position in my opinion (and you seem to agree), but that's what Thomas is saying.

This is all aside from the fact that you did adress specific scientific positions in those posts on Hawking, for instance the validity of string theory and how it was arrived at.

If you want to show that a mere self-contained model with the explanatory power to account for all of nature as we know it (and as Hawking proposes it) is insufficient, then you need to show how existence is contingent and not necessary. Which brings us back to the question for which I am waiting on an answer.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

Is the question of whether science is, by it's inherent nature as a discipline, able to even answer the question of whether God exists a scientific or philosophical question?

Singring said...

I could have guessed it...

Instead of adressing points raised, you once again resort to asking a counter-question.

'Is the question of whether science is, by it's inherent nature as a discipline, able to even answer the question of whether God exists a scientific or philosophical question?'

You know, I could be really smarmy and ask you this in return:

''Is the question of whether philosophy is, by it's inherent nature as a discipline, able to even answer the question of whether God exists a scientific or philosophical question?''

...but that's just too easy.

It all depends on how you define 'philosophy' and 'science'.

The definition I have found for 'philosophy' is this:

'1 : the study of the basic ideas about knowledge, truth, right and wrong, religion, and the nature and meaning of life'

So the question is not 'is science able?' - the question is: 'philosophy or science - which is better suited as a tool for finding truth?'. You see, the question you asked me is loaded: It assumes that philosophy is somehow a way of finding truth that is greater than science. In other words: you simply assert that the set of things that can be investigated by philosophy is greater than the set of things that can be investigated by science. You simply assert that there is somthing called X (in this case 'God') that is 'beyond' the natural world and then turn around and say: 'Tee hee, natural science can;t adress X! I WIN!'

Using the word 'God' in this context and just asseting that this is a question that must be answered is utterly pointless. You can define a God that would be beyond the remit of science, I can define a God that is beyond the remit of philosophy. These are silly, childish parlour games, Martin. You must know this.

Singring said...

Which is the path to truth? Philosophy or science? That is exactly the issue we are wrestling with at this very moment!

Hawkings says: 'Science is all I need to give me the ultimate truth at the root of the universe!'

You say: 'Oh no it isn't!'

Yet so far you have done nothing more than ASSERT that it isn't. So why should I even consider the possibility that what science can and cannot answer is a philosophical question?

As fas as I can tell, science is the ONLY way we are able to arive at truth (as far as we can tell at the moment).

You disagree. But WHY? What argument can you possibly present that will give me or anyone else a good reason to believe that we need anything OTHER than science (philosophy, for example) to account for everything there is?

I've been trying to get an answer from you now for days (weeks in the case of Thomas) - but so far NOTHING.

I asked you for a good reason why we should think the universe is contingent.

Your response: Silence.

I asked Thomas what secondary, ontological causes he thinks are necessary to explain the formation of a hydrogen molecule.

His response: Silence.

And yet here we are again, with you simply ASSERTING that science is not enough, that science cannot explain some things, that science is less of a path to truth than philosophy is.

All of our posts in this matter have been nothing but exercizes in begging the question.

I keep answering your questions...

when will you answer mine?

Thomas said...

Adam,

Certainly the debate concerns the nature of morality and whether it exists. The Vulgar Moralist is arguing that “[n]o compelling logical reasons impose [moral] propositions on us,” but that instead “[w]e have chosen them as moral ideals ....” As a logical consequence, despite the fact that different societies have believed in, say, the inherent inferiority of certain races and attempted to exterminate them, [t]hey were no less rational than we are.” There we have the conclusion of the argument, but what is the reasoning that supports the conclusion.

So where is this argument? The Vulgar Moralist tells us that evolutionary genetics sheds some light on why people make the decisions they do (though why this would be superior to a careful phenomenological analysis is not addressed). He tells us that “the shapers of morality are human nature and the history of a particular community,” and that he “feel the wrongness of child abuse with a delicacy that, say, an ancient Spartan would have lacked.”

But nothing in the post supports the proposition that “[n]o compelling logical reasons impose these propositions on us.” I’ll grant, arguendo, the premises of the arguments. But it does not follow from the fact that genetics and emotion, as a practical matter, play a heavy -- or even determinative -- role in moral decision-making that the moral principles people adhere aren’t true, and aren’t capably of being established by rational argument.

The argument can really be boiled down to this: people choose moral principles for non-rational reasons, and therefore moral principles are not logically compelling. But this is precisely the category mistake I describe in the main post. It does not follow from the fact that people believe in in a proposition for the wrong reason that the proposition is therefore false. It’s a non-sequitur. And, again, it’s ad hominem.

Thomas said...

As to the second point:

You say: "his argument concerning ideals is not vague at all, in the context of the post. He uses as an example the American ideal of equality, something that is perhaps unattainable in an absolute sense ...."

He says: "Every morality is erected on ideals. Every ideal is an unattainable model of behavior."

Unless every morality contains the American ideal of equality or some similar unattainable ideal, you're misinterpreting his comments. He obviously doesn't limit his argument to his own particular moral ideals, but those from "[e]very morality".

Adam Gurri said...

Thomas,

I see the point you are making, and again extend the invitation that I made in our last discussion: show me an example of a line of logic or rational argument that demonstrates the truth of a moral proposition and we can go from there. Since I cannot imagine such a proposition I am not sure how to advance the discussion any further.

From what you have said, I infer that you believe such propositions to exist--so I was hoping you could help me out by providing an example. Sans example, I can't see how this discussion can continue productively.

Adam Gurri said...

Thomas,

I didn't say he was limiting himself. I said he wasn't vague.

Thomas said...

Adam,

That's easy. Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics should get you started if you just want one work (I highly recommend the Joe Sachs translation). It helps if you have a basic understanding of the way dialectical reasoning works, for, as Aristotle says, it's a mark of education to know what sort of demonstration is appropriate for a given inquiry. A grasp of the basic method (which Aristotle systematically discusses in the Topics) will fill this requirement.

And it's very important not to lose sight of the basic structure of Aristotle's ethics. Aristotle's ethics are hypothetical rather than categorical. That is, they take the form: "if one wants to be happy, then one must ...." This is in contradistinction to a categorical ethics that states simply "one must ...." Of course, the concept of happiness must be clarified through dialectic; it's not the banal sort of happiness that's convertible with mere pleasure.

For a preliminary discussion, the Stanford Encyclopedia has a helpful entry. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-virtue/

Thomas said...

Singring,

I would have responded to you, but these squirrels keep popping into existence (out of thin air!) and distracting me. At least you'll believe me, no-one else seems to.

Adam Gurri said...

Thomas,
Perhaps I will read it and continue our discussion at some later date, then, when I can provide a more substantive argument by having the example on hand.

Thomas said...

Do you mean until you have a copy of one of the primary texts for virtue ethics or have time to read the Stanford Encyclopedia entry?

Adam Gurri said...

Well I didn't think it'd really be fair to go after his reasoning based on an encyclopedia entry. Unless you thought it would get his argument across suitably?

Thomas said...

Well, it gives an introductory example of virtue ethics. If you're asking whether it's exhaustive, the answer will be no, but that goes for any book (Aristotle's Ethics included).

The reason for this is that dialectical reasoning is always capable of refinement, and that Aristotle's idea of ethics leads into further fundamental truths about human nature. For Aristotle, ethics is not science of discovery a system of moral rules that always hold true. It's the practical inquiry into how human beings manifest their nature as human beings.

The Stanford Encyclopedia article is enough to get the conversation started, and will be better than me trying to type up an ad hoc summary (though I can do that if you prefer). What I think you'll find is that virtue ethics has no problem with your critique of Enlightenment ethics, because virtue ethics does not start from axiomatic principles. Virtue ethics seeks to discover what it is that motivates us to act, and how we might act in a way that better gets at what we ultimately want.

Singring said...

'I would have responded to you, but these squirrels keep popping into existence (out of thin air!) and distracting me. At least you'll believe me, no-one else seems to.'

Bad jokes in lieu of a topical response.

Not at all surprising.

Martin Cothran said...

If you think it's a bad joke you should try articulating it as an actual position some time.

Oh, wait, you have.

Nevermind.

Singring said...

When you two are done chuckling about your comedy gold, perhaps you can get around to adressing the issue.

The longer you refuse to answer the questions raised, the clearer it becomes that your entire position is built on nothing but bald assertion and wishful thinking.

So go ahead...

I can wait.

P.S. I stand by that statement about the squirrels it was made in the wrong context, but it is still factually correct.

Singring said...

...crickets

Adam Gurri said...

Hey Thomas,

Do you have an e-mail address or some other manner you would prefer to conduct a conversation? I'd like to run some questions/thoughts about Virtue Ethics in general by you, and the comment section for this specific post doesn't seem like the right place for it.

My e-mail address is adam.gurri@gmail.com if you'd like to drop me a line.

Joe_Agnost said...

singring wrote: "The longer you refuse to answer the questions raised, the clearer it becomes that your entire position is built on nothing but bald assertion and wishful thinking."

DING DING DING... we have a winner.

They (Martin/Thomas) never finish with you singring - they always ditch the discussion after doing nothing to further their case. They reply to your questions with more questions - never answering a thing!

Look back at archived comments - they often end with you begging them to back up their statements which is met with silence.

And they're still harping on about that squirel example you used a while back. I remember that comment - they took your perfectly logical (and correct) statement and after ignoring the context and final part of your statement ridicule a position that you don't even hold!!

It's pathetic... nothing more.

Thomas said...

The "Magical Squirrel Brigade" strikes again...

Joe_Agnost said...

And Thomas weighs in with his usual intellectual thoughts. Typical Thomas...

Adam Gurri said...

Hello! I actually have another contribution to this discussion, five years later: http://sweettalkconversation.com/2015/12/20/forgive-me-my-humean-trespasses/

How's that for a long play?