Monday, November 29, 2010

What the Pope really said

George Weigel quotes Janet Smith, a professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, who has an interesting analogy to further explain what the Pope was explaining when he was talking about how the use of a condom by a male prostitute might be a sign that the man was taking some kind of basic responsibility for his actions--in contrast to what the theological illiterates in the media said he was saying:
If someone was going to rob a bank and was determined to use a gun, it would be better for that person to use a gun that had no bullets in it [for that] would reduce the likelihood of fatal injuries. But it is not the task of the Church to instruct potential bank robbers how to rob banks more safely and certainly not the task of the Church to support programs of providing potential bank robbers with guns that could not use bullets. Nonetheless, the intent of a bank robber to rob a bank in a way that is safer for employees and customers of the bank may indicate an element of moral responsibility that could be a step towards eventual understanding of the immorality of bank robbing.
Read the rest here.

HT: Francis Beckwith

68 comments:

Singring said...

I agree Martin. This is what the Pope was saying. In some instances using a condom is more moral than not using one. Turns out the Pope is a moral relativist that can run with the best of them. Who'd a thunk it?

Martin Cothran said...

If you equate making important moral distinctions with relativism, I guess I can see how you would say that.

Singring said...

'If you equate making important moral distinctions with relativism, I guess I can see how you would say that.'

The pope was not making a moral distinction. He was stating that in some instances, wearing a condom is the moral thing to do. This means that the moral rule 'condom use is immoral' has been relativised (i.e specified to apply in some situations but not others) to an albeit very slight degree. Baby-steps is the best the Catholic Church can do, sadly.

It still is moral relativism.

Martin Cothran said...

So if someone believes absolutely in the Ten Commandments, including "thou shalt not steal," and finds himself in a lesser of evils situation where a member of his family will literally starve and he chooses the stealing to the starving, he's a relativist?

Singring said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Singring said...

So if someone believes absolutely in the Ten Commandments, including "thou shalt not steal," and finds himself in a lesser of evils situation where a member of his family will literally starve and he chooses the stealing to the starving, he's a relativist?'

No. HE is not a moral relativist. HE is amoral absolutist because he believes morals are absolute. He simply does something he knows is wrong.

But take note of two things here:

1.) The Pope is not the one doing things here (I doubt you are tryong to say he is the gay, HIV-positive prostitute he was using as an example). He is making a moral judgement about someone else. And he is saying that in some instances, someone using a condom is acting more morally than someone who is not. That makes him a moral relativist.

2.) By giving your example, you are implying that you believe it would be the right thing to do to steal to feed the family. So yuou do not believe in moral absolutes.

Absolute moral values (or objective moral values) apply always and in any situation - I mean, that's why they are called absolute, after all. If you steal when your family is starving it is as wrong as when you are doing it when you are a rich magnate. Read your Bible - God's command is the eternal law and if he tells you not to steal and you do it anyway, you're going to hell (unless you have Jesus take the responsibility off your shoulders, that is).

Relative moral values are what you seem to be advocating (no surprises there, we've already established that you are a moral relativist like us atheists). They are relative to the situation you find yourself in. In some situations, stealing is morally right, in some it is morally wrong. Even if you think it is morally wrong in both cases, only less so if there are mitigating circumstances, you are still a moral relativist, because there is a quantitative difference in how wrong it is depending on the situation.

The fact that you even choose the fact the language 'lesser of two evils' implies that you use exactly the same standard I use to derive my morals: act in such a way that minimizes harm.

How utterly ironic that this is so excellently illustrated just a few blog posts after you denied so vehemently.

Francis J. Beckwith said...

Singring writes:

"The Pope is not the one doing things here (I doubt you are tryong to say he is the gay, HIV-positive prostitute he was using as an example). He is making a moral judgement about someone else. And he is saying that in some instances, someone using a condom is acting more morally than someone who is not. That makes him a moral relativist."

Moral relativism is the belief is that there are no objective moral norms that apply to all persons, in all times, and in all places. So, in fact, the Pope is not a moral relativist, since he is making the judgment that it is always, everywhere, and at all times more moral than not to use a condom while engaging in immoral sex.

If I provide medical assistance to a person I torture, that is better than not providing medical assistance, but it does not mean the torture is now good. In the same way, using a condom to prevent disease is a moral thing to do while committing an immoral act. But the moral component does not change the intrinsic wrongness of the sexual act. It just means that the actor tried to mitigate physical harm, which is a good thing to do.

If I steal a car and tell my accomplice to put on his seatbelt, I have protected his life, which is good, but I've not turned theft into entitlement.

This is so simple that it really exposes our culture's inability to follow a moral argument. Compared to the ancients and the medievals, we are moral retards.

Singring said...

'So, in fact, the Pope is not a moral relativist, since he is making the judgment that it is always, everywhere, and at all times more moral than not to use a condom while engaging in immoral sex.'

Ouch.

Think twice before shooting own goals like that.

Your statement in and of itself is already a morally relative statement, because you have to qualify the moral rule 'it is right to wear a condom' with another moral rule. As you say yourself, the moral rule 'it is right to wear a condom' only applies to couples having 'immoral sex', not to those who have 'moral sex' (I presume you mean married couples). That hardly makes it a moral absolute, wouldn't you agree?

An absolute moral statement would be something like:

'It is morally right to wear a condom.'

A statmement like yours:

'It is morally wrong to wear a condom IF X applies but not if X does not apply.'

Is a relative statement because how and when the rule applies depends on X.

You even have included a second qualifier, just to make things even more relative (whether or not a disease may be tarnsmitted)!

So you are also a moral relativist as you have very nicely elaborated yourself. Welcome to the club.

'This is so simple that it really exposes our culture's inability to follow a moral argument. Compared to the ancients and the medievals, we are moral retards.'

LOL.

Says the person who does not even realize he is making a statement of moral relativism when trying to denounce it. Priceless.

Francis J. Beckwith said...

Singring, all that you need to be an anti-relativist is exceptionless norms. So, for example, if I were to say, "it is wrong to kill persons unless one has sufficient justification," I would be holding a non-relativist view. The fact that the norm includes an "unless" does not make it less of a norm. Consider this: "marital intercourse is a good unless it is coerced and/or motivated by treating the other as a means to an end." This too as an exceptionless norm that takes into consideration the fullness of an act: motive, means, its end, and its intrinsic nature.

The pope's claims is very much like this example. If I steal a car and tell my accomplice to put on his seatbelt, I have protected his life, which is good, but I've not turned theft into entitlement. In the same way, if a male prostitute requires his male client to wear a condom, it is like having him put on seatbelt in the commission of a crime. It's still a crime. In the same, sodomy is still immoral, though mitigating its physical harm shows a moral sense.

Your comments are just strange.

Joe_Agnost said...

Francis wrote: "Your comments are just strange."

Say what?!

You're the one (Francis) who is claiming to be a absolute moralist while giving ample evidence and examples that you're actually a moral relativist. THAT is strange.

Singring said...

'Singring, all that you need to be an anti-relativist is exceptionless norms.'

Indeed. But if said norms already include a subjective qualifier they are not norms at all.

Let's take your example:

'So, for example, if I were to say, "it is wrong to kill persons unless one has sufficient justification,"'

Superb! Great! Even I could agree with that as an 'exceptionless norm'.

But hold on...

What is 'sufficient justification'? That is a qualifier of epic proportions an one that I doubt we would agree upon. That would mean we would arrive at very different conclusions as to when it is and is not right to kill. So how can your rule be an absolute norm if it contains internally subjective and arbitrary components?

Not only is 'unless you have justificuation' a qualifier in and of itself, which makes the act of killing morally right or wrong depending on the situation - it is also a wholly subjective one. A Muslim Mujahedeen will think that me giving his wife a funny look is justification for him killing me, whereas I would certainly not!

If you want to play word games here and claim that norms that include qualified, subjectively derived components are synonymous with a system of 'absolute morals', then I'll be more than happy to accurately describe myself as a moral absolutist. But that would make Charles Manson, Adolf Hitler and Mao Tse Tung moral absolutists no better or worse, no more or less consistent, no more or less moral than myself or yourself.

And guess what that means?

That our neat little internally consistent structure of absolutism that you have just conducted is externally utterly subjective and relative.

You are a Catholic. Martin is a Catholic.

In the Bible, the Commandment is:

'Thou shalt not steal.'

Period. Now that's what I call a moral absolute. No qualifier, no situational, temporal or any other relative claptrap. The tablets did not say: 'Thou shalt not steal unless you have justification.', they did not say: 'Thou shalt not steal unless your family is starving.', They didn't even say 'Thou shalt not steal unless Jesus tells you something else.'.

Now let us go back to Martin's example of the man with the starving family and let me ask you this direct question, Francis:

Based on the Ten Commandments, is it morally right or morally wrong for him to steal to save his family from starvation?

If the Ten Commandments do not apply - fair enough. Why not?

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

The Bible also says "Thou shalt not kill," but there are obviously exceptions to that, since God commands the Hebrews to do exactly that on other occasions. So, clearly there are implicit qualifiers, even though they are not stated.

In fact, what your view amounts to saying is that there literally are no moral absolutist views, since they all, at some point, admit of qualification. Your example of the embryos and the child on another thread is a case in point.

Singring said...

'In fact, what your view amounts to saying is that there literally are no moral absolutist views, since they all, at some point, admit of qualification. Your example of the embryos and the child on another thread is a case in point.'

Precisely.

'The Bible also says "Thou shalt not kill," but there are obviously exceptions to that, since God commands the Hebrews to do exactly that on other occasions. So, clearly there are implicit qualifiers, even though they are not stated.'

Whether or not the exceptions indicate implicit qualifiers or contradictions is another matter, of course, but if they are qualifiers, they would again indicate a relative morality.

I do want to dispell one thing here which I believe always seems to be assumed by the religious side in these moral debates:

As a moral relativist I am of course not claiming on any metaphysical or transcendental level that my system of morality is any better than that of those who claim to be moral absolutists. All I am trying to argue in these debates is that (so far) all of the supposedly absolute or transcendental (or whatever term you want to label it with) systems of morality that have been offered by religion or philosophy are either internally inconsistent or at some point rely on precisely the same subjective and/or relative starting points that my system of morality (and everyone elses does) does.

The very fact that what all of us consider to be the most intellectually enlightened and advanced nations on the planet have societies that operate based on relative morality should be an indication to that effect.

We are all in the same boat here. What I object to is one side (religion) claiming that it isn't, but that it in fact has some special access and divine authority to tell everyone else what to do (a claim implicit in the very idea of absolute morals).

Francis J. Beckwith said...

Singring, you are suggesting that one can only be a moral absolutist if one has sufficient justification, if I understand you correctly. In that case, your own case admits what you would call an arbitrary and subjective exception, and thus on your own (very strange) grounds you ought not to believe your own position.

On the matter of killing, what would be sufficient justification? Here are some: self-defense, since I have a right to defend myself from unjust aggression. Just war, since a community has a right to defend itself against unjust aggression.

If you want to play the subjective game, what precisely counts as killing? Suppose I stick a knife into Mr. Jones. How do you know I killed him. All you saw was my body and hand moving in his direction and the knife in my hand piercing his skin. But do you really, really know it was me? Perhaps determinism is true. In that case, my body is merely a transitive conduit of prior non-agent causes. Then, you didn't see me do anything, since there is literally no me to see. What's worse, there's no you to do the seeing, since you too are a mere conduit of prior non-agent causes.

So, nothing's simple, nothing at all. If moral absolutism is so frail, what of sense experience and the final causes of agents? These are not entitled to epistemic privilege.

If you want to play the "say's who" game, it's a game with two paddles.

Singring said...

'In that case, your own case admits what you would call an arbitrary and subjective exception, and thus on your own (very strange) grounds you ought not to believe your own position.'

What exception would that be?

'self-defense, since I have a right to defend myself from unjust aggression. Just war, since a community has a right to defend itself against unjust aggression.'

This is not an answer at all. Can't you read your own words? You have just defined what is 'justified' by giving two examples of what is 'unjustified'! This is ridiculously circular reasoning of the shoddiest kind.

'What does 'round' mean.'

'Well, it means that a thing is not 'unround'.'

Do you think I'm going to swallow that?

Adolf Hitler believed he was justified in killing Jews in self-defense (i.e. to protect the German 'Volkskorper'). Therefore, he was not only a moral absolutist, but also absolutely right in his actions according to your system of morality. How are you going to tell someone like Hitler what they are doing is absolutely wrong?

'All you saw was my body and hand moving in his direction and the knife in my hand piercing his skin. But do you really, really know it was me?'

I agree. I don't 'know' it was you. Nor does anyone else, including yourself. But thanks to medical and forensic science we can make a very, very good empirically founded case that it was you. This is precisely what happens in court cases, of course. We don't sentence people based on what we 'know' them to have done, we sentence them on what the preponderance of evidence suggest they have done. I always thought this was obvious, but apparently not so.

'Perhaps determinism is true. In that case, my body is merely a transitive conduit of prior non-agent causes. Then, you didn't see me do anything, since there is literally no me to see. '

Determinism does not mean you physical body or consciousness magically disappears. I personally think there is rather strong evidence that determinism is most likely true (though it may not be). What impact does that have on our lives, though? Everyone would agree that even if everything is predetermined, we have the illusion of free will and therefore should behave accordingly. Moreover, even if someone was predetermined to kill someone else, this does not mean he would not do it again, so we are (in my opinion) justified in locking that person up to avoid more harm being caused.
Finally, just one little point:

I will not be lectured on determinism and its evils by someone who believes God already knows the end from the beginning and has therefore already determined everything that has, is and will ever happen. Talk about determinism...

'If you want to play the "say's who" game, it's a game with two paddles.

I completely agree. Only that I admit and openly profess that my paddle is a subjective one, whereas you insist on denying that it is.

Singring said...

'In that case, your own case admits what you would call an arbitrary and subjective exception, and thus on your own (very strange) grounds you ought not to believe your own position.'

What exception would that be?

'self-defense, since I have a right to defend myself from unjust aggression. Just war, since a community has a right to defend itself against unjust aggression.'

This is not an answer at all. Can't you read your own words? You have just defined what is 'justified' by giving two examples of what is 'unjustified'! This is ridiculously circular reasoning of the shoddiest kind.

'What does 'round' mean.'

'Well, it means that a thing is not 'unround'.'

Do you think I'm going to swallow that?

Adolf Hitler believed he was justified in killing Jews in self-defense (i.e. to protect the German 'Volkskorper'). Therefore, he was not only a moral absolutist, but also absolutely right in his actions according to your system of morality. How are you going to tell someone like Hitler what they are doing is absolutely wrong?

'All you saw was my body and hand moving in his direction and the knife in my hand piercing his skin. But do you really, really know it was me?'

I agree. I don't 'know' it was you. Nor does anyone else, including yourself. But thanks to medical and forensic science we can make a very, very good empirically founded case that it was you. This is precisely what happens in court cases, of course. We don't sentence people based on what we 'know' them to have done, we sentence them on what the preponderance of evidence suggest they have done. I always thought this was obvious, but apparently not so.

'Perhaps determinism is true. In that case, my body is merely a transitive conduit of prior non-agent causes. Then, you didn't see me do anything, since there is literally no me to see. '

Determinism does not mean you physical body or consciousness magically disappears. I personally think there is rather strong evidence that determinism is most likely true (though it may not be). What impact does that have on our lives, though? Everyone would agree that even if everything is predetermined, we have the illusion of free will and therefore should behave accordingly. Moreover, even if someone was predetermined to kill someone else, this does not mean he would not do it again, so we are (in my opinion) justified in locking that person up to avoid more harm being caused.

Finally, just one little point:

I will not be lectured on determinism and its evils by someone who believes God already knows the end from the beginning and has therefore already determined everything that has, is and will ever happen. Talk about determinism...

'If you want to play the "say's who" game, it's a game with two paddles.

I completely agree. Only that I admit and openly profess that my paddle is a subjective one, whereas you insist on denying that it is.

Singring said...

'Singring, you are suggesting that one can only be a moral absolutist if one has sufficient justification, if I understand you correctly.'

Let me explain. Let's take the example of 'Killing is wrong.' This statement would be one of a moral absolute. Easy. It could also be applied, easily: Never kill anyone. Unfortunately, neither you nor me nor Martin nor almost anyone else believes that it is always, eevrywhere and at all times wrong to kille someone.

We therefore all have to include a qualifier into this rule that - on the face of it - makes it a relative moral rule (one that depends on time, place and person, e.g. the situation).

There is a way you relative moral statement above could be a moral absolute - if you have some absolute, unambiguous way of deciding when it is justified and when it is not to kill a person.

I maintian that it so far, nobody has ever come up with any way of doing this. Martin has tried and tried to show how his knowing the 'purpose' of genitalia allows him to make an absolute statement about how the genitalia are therefore exclusivley to be used. You can read through the recent threads on the Sam Harris post and the morality post on sex to see how he did trying it.

So, to sum up: You are a moral relativist because you are qualifying your moral rules based on relative standards. This will be illustrated below.

'In that case, your own case admits what you would call an arbitrary and subjective exception...'

What exception would that be?

Singring said...

'self-defense, since I have a right to defend myself from unjust aggression. Just war, since a community has a right to defend itself against unjust aggression.'

This is not an answer at all. Can't you read your own words? You have just defined what is 'justified' by giving two examples of what is 'unjustified'! This is ridiculously circular reasoning of the shoddiest kind.

'What does 'round' mean.'

'Well, it means that a thing is not 'unround'.'

Do you think I'm going to swallow that?

Adolf Hitler believed he was justified in killing Jews in self-defense (i.e. to protect the German 'Volkskorper'). Therefore, he was not only a moral absolutist, but also absolutely right in his actions according to your system of morality. How are you going to tell someone like Hitler what they are doing is absolutely wrong?

'All you saw was my body and hand moving in his direction and the knife in my hand piercing his skin. But do you really, really know it was me?'

I agree. I don't 'know' it was you. Nor does anyone else, including yourself. But thanks to medical and forensic science we can make a very, very good empirically founded case that it was you. This is precisely what happens in court cases, of course. We don't sentence people based on what we 'know' them to have done, we sentence them on what the preponderance of evidence suggest they have done. I always thought this was obvious, but apparently not so.

'Perhaps determinism is true. In that case, my body is merely a transitive conduit of prior non-agent causes. Then, you didn't see me do anything, since there is literally no me to see. '

Determinism does not mean you physical body or consciousness magically disappears. I personally think there is rather strong evidence that determinism is most likely true (though it may not be). What impact does that have on our lives, though? Everyone would agree that even if everything is predetermined, we have the illusion of free will and therefore should behave accordingly. Moreover, even if someone was predetermined to kill someone else, this does not mean he would not do it again, so we are (in my opinion) justified in locking that person up to avoid more harm being caused.
Finally, just one little point:

I will not be lectured on determinism and its evils by someone who believes God already knows the end from the beginning and has therefore already determined everything that has, is and will ever happen. Talk about determinism...

'If you want to play the "say's who" game, it's a game with two paddles.

I completely agree. Only that I admit and openly profess that my paddle is a subjective one, whereas you insist on denying that it is.

Singring said...

'In that case, your own case admits what you would call an arbitrary and subjective exception...'

What exception would that be?

'self-defense, since I have a right to defend myself from unjust aggression. Just war, since a community has a right to defend itself against unjust aggression.'

This is not an answer at all. Can't you read your own words? You have just defined what is 'justified' by giving two examples of what is 'unjustified'! This is ridiculously circular reasoning of the shoddiest kind.

'What does 'round' mean.'

'Well, it means that a thing is not 'unround'.'

Do you think I'm going to swallow that?

Adolf Hitler believed he was justified in killing Jews in self-defense (i.e. to protect the German 'Volkskorper'). Therefore, he was not only a moral absolutist, but also absolutely right in his actions according to your system of morality. How are you going to tell someone like Hitler what they are doing is absolutely wrong?

'All you saw was my body and hand moving in his direction and the knife in my hand piercing his skin. But do you really, really know it was me?'

I agree. I don't 'know' it was you. Nor does anyone else, including yourself. But thanks to medical and forensic science we can make a very, very good empirically founded case that it was you. This is precisely what happens in court cases, of course. We don't sentence people based on what we 'know' them to have done, we sentence them on what the preponderance of evidence suggest they have done. I always thought this was obvious, but apparently not so.

Singring said...

'Perhaps determinism is true. In that case, my body is merely a transitive conduit of prior non-agent causes. Then, you didn't see me do anything, since there is literally no me to see. '

Determinism does not mean you physical body or consciousness magically disappears. I personally think there is rather strong evidence that determinism is most likely true (though it may not be). What impact does that have on our lives, though? Everyone would agree that even if everything is predetermined, we have the illusion of free will and therefore should behave accordingly. Moreover, even if someone was predetermined to kill someone else, this does not mean he would not do it again, so we are (in my opinion) justified in locking that person up to avoid more harm being caused.
Finally, just one little point:

I will not be lectured on determinism and its evils by someone who believes God already knows the end from the beginning and has therefore already determined everything that has, is and will ever happen. Talk about determinism...

'If you want to play the "say's who" game, it's a game with two paddles.

I completely agree. Only that I admit and openly profess that my paddle is a subjective one, whereas you insist on denying that it is.

Thomas said...

"You are a moral relativist because you are qualifying your moral rules based on relative standards."

Since you're attempting to correct a scholar who has actually written a book on moral relativism on the meaning of moral relativism, perhaps you should cite to scholars who use the term in the way you do, in a way that excludes any qualifications (i.e., universal statements that has the form x is wrong, save in cases a, b, and c). Otherwise you will just look silly.

Joe_Agnost said...

I'd love to hear Thomas, or anyone really, explain how an "absolute" can ever contain qualifiers. It goes against the very definition of "absolute"!!

Don't kill. <--- absolute

Don't kill unless it's deserved is NOT an absolute.

Singring said...

'Since you're attempting to correct a scholar who has actually written a book on moral relativism on the meaning of moral relativism, perhaps you should cite to scholars who use the term in the way you do, in a way that excludes any qualifications (i.e., universal statements that has the form x is wrong, save in cases a, b, and c). Otherwise you will just look silly.'

I don't care about people's credentials. I care about the soundness of their arguments. If credentials were any measure I'd expect you to become an atheist this instant, Thomas, since as you must know the majority of academic philosophers are atheists.

I also don't care about accurate philosophical terminology as long as the point I am trying to make is clear. Martin seems to understand what I'm saying. Yous eem to understand what I'm saying. So why on earth would you worry about how other philosophers use certain terms? If I was writing an academic work on morality I would accept this criticism of my lack of terminological accuracy, but I am not. We are having a casual debate on a blog.

Let's see now:

'i.e., universal statements that has the form x is wrong, save in cases a, b, and c'

As I have said above, if a, b and c are absolutes, then Francis would of course be a consistent absolutist. However, Francis made the following statement:

'Killing is always wrong unless it is justified.'

Now IF he can prove to me that he has an absolutely applicable rule as to what is justified and what is not, he would have demonstrated that he is a consistent absolutist. Until he can do that, I will have to assume he is a relativist because what Pol Pot thought was justified is very different from what Francis thinks is justified, I would imagine.

Singring said...

P.S.:

Thomas, you may want to read my earlier remarks on terminology:

'If you want to play word games here and claim that norms that include qualified, subjectively derived components are synonymous with a system of 'absolute morals', then I'll be more than happy to accurately describe myself as a moral absolutist. But that would make Charles Manson, Adolf Hitler and Mao Tse Tung moral absolutists no better or worse, no more or less consistent, no more or less moral than myself or yourself.'

So, as you see, I have already conceded that if all Francis and you want to do is play word games here, I'm up for that. I'll call myself a moral absolutist by Francis' terminology. No problem.

But then every single person on the planet, no matter what their particular moral view is, woudl become a moral absolutist by definition. Not only that - all of their 'absolute moralities' would be of equal validity.

I hardly think that si what your position is, Thomas.

Singring said...

Finally, I have taken this definition of moral relativism from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

'The term ‘moral relativism’ is understood in a variety of ways. Most often it is associated with an empirical thesis that there are deep and widespread moral disagreements and a metaethical thesis that the truth or justification of moral judgments is not absolute, but relative to some group of persons.'

Now I beg of you Thomas, to point out how exactly Francis' moral system differs from thsi definition.

Remember, his example of a moral rule was:

'Killing is wrong unless it is justified.'

Thomas said...

Singring,

It's not hard to come up with a principle in that format that holds true in every case.

For example, one could formulate a moral principle in this way: killing is wrong when done intentionally in every case save in self-defense (defined as responding to lethal force in kind), in a just war (defined as when a nation defends itself from immanent aggression), or with the authorization of a court where a defendant has been convicted of first degree murder.

Whether true or not, one could hold this principle to be true in every case. That person would be consistently holding to an absolute principle. The only way one could deny this would be if one is bone-headed enough to forget that the full principle in question isn't just "one must not kill", but "one must not kill except in circumstances a, b, or c." But, so long is bright enough to realize what is included within the principle, there's no problem.

Singring said...

'For example, one could formulate a moral principle in this way: killing is wrong when done intentionally in every case save in self-defense (defined as responding to lethal force in kind), in a just war (defined as when a nation defends itself from immanent aggression), or with the authorization of a court where a defendant has been convicted of first degree murder.
'

So from this absolute moral principle I can derive the following moral judgements:

a) A cop would be morally absolutely right for shooting a man who was assaulting him with a baguette because the cop thought at the time he was being attacked with lethal force.

b) Iran would morally be absolutely right to launch a nuclear attack against the US in the event of the US invading that country.

c) It is morally absolutely right for a US citizen to be sentenced to death in a Saudi court for first degree murder (despite him not having been given access to a lawyer).

Thomas said...

Using that example of what one might think of as a moral principle, which does not account for jus in bello, or for procedural justice, (b) and (c) are correctly drawn inferences. (a) is not, unless the assailant was in fact using lethal force.

Singring said...

'(b) and (c) are correctly drawn inferences.'

Great. Assuming that you hold to the moral principle you outlined there, I expect you to come out in full support of Iranian troops should the US ever act militarily against Iran.

'(a) is not, unless the assailant was in fact using lethal force.'

How would you know if it was lethal force or not?

Thomas said...

Singring,

You continue your tradition of attacking your misunderstandings of what other say. I introduced that principle in this way: "For example, one could formulate a moral principle in this way ..." and then said "Whether true or not, one could hold this principle to be true in every case." The principle was an example that one could apply to every case and consistently believe in an absolute moral principle that holds always and everywhere. Obviously that principle was not one I put forward as my own, nor was it one that others would believe, since I had simplified it so that you could better understand how a principle having the format "x is true save in cases a, b, and c" could be held by a person consistently in every case. Obviously anybody who does moral philosophy this way would have more elaborate reservations, but the logical form would be the same.

Singring said...

'Obviously anybody who does moral philosophy this way would have more elaborate reservations, but the logical form would be the same.'

That is what I was getting at.

How 'elaborate' would they be? As I have said previously, I have no qualms calling myself a 'moral absolutist' by your definition if what we end up with is a system of moarlity that is entirely situational, which is exactly what you are referring to here by 'elaborate reservations'.

How come when I say that my moral system is based on a utilitarian approach (minimization of harm) that is situational I get called a 'moral relativist' (quite accurately too, in my opinion), yet when the Pope or Francis adopt the same moral system in principal, they somehow claim it is a system of moral absolutes? It becomes mere semantics.

You have now come out and stated that a system of absolute morals can be based on 'elaborate reservations' that are all situational and subjective in nature (for example if you believe that teh Saudi justice system is a good as just as the American one).

Yet this is the very essence of moral relativism (see the definition I gave). Francis and other theistically motivated philosophers just like to call it 'absolute morals' because that is what they need to reconcile their morals with the idea of an absolute lawgiver.

I'll say it again: The Bible says: 'Thou shalt not kill.' It does not say 'Thou shalt not kill unless x, y pr z.'

So I can only assume that Francis and the Pope do not think the Bible is a very good source for moral rules, as the rules that are given therein are very clearly not situational or based on 'elaborate reservations'.

Thomas said...

Two points:

1. Context matters. If the Bible says: do not kill, it has to be taken in both the immediate context and in context with the whole Bible and the interpretive traditions surrounding it (at least for Catholics). For example, when a teetotaling mother tells her children "don't go out drinking", the context makes it clear she means them not to drink alcohol. If the remark were taken out of context, the remark would mean simply not to drink anything. Likewise, if the context of the command not to kill makes clear it means not to murder (a certain kind of killing), then the language should be taken in context, just as we should take the mother to only be proscribing drinking certain things.

2. In my view, moral relativism and moral absolutism (at least in some forms) are two sides of the same coin. Both think of ethics as the practice of finding certain universal laws that apply always and everywhere, much in the same way as the positive sciences tries to find universal laws of nature.

Classic virtue ethics regards this approach to ethics as fundamentally flawed. Aristotle takes great pains at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics to remind the reader that the discipline of ethics is not about finding universal laws, and can attain certainty, at most, to what is generally the case. Aristotle calls the ability to recognize exceptions to the rules of thumb the virtue of "decency".

This follows from the fact that Aristotle conceives of ethics not as following rules. The point of ethics is developing good character so that one might be an excellent human being. The study of ethics seeks to show the general ways a person develops good character in order that individuals may know how to do this in their particular circumstance.

I suppose both moral absolutists and relativists will consider this some form of relativism. It is relative in a way: as always, Aristotle is focused first and foremost on particular individual things rather than general principles (Hegel was simply echoing Aristotle when he declared that "philosophy is war on abstraction"). But it's not a flee-floating relativism in which people's subjective opinions are all that matters. For virtue ethics, there is an objectively right course of action in every case, but in order to know it one can't just apply a universal principle, one must be attuned to the circumstances.

Singring said...

'I suppose both moral absolutists and relativists will consider this some form of relativism.'

Then we are agreed.

'For virtue ethics, there is an objectively right course of action in every case, but in order to know it one can't just apply a universal principle, one must be attuned to the circumstances.'

There may well be an objectively right course of action - but so far no one has been able of providing any good evidence or argument for this being so.

That is why, for teh time being, I will remain unconvinced and I will most certainly object to anyone who fields supposed objective morals in any policy discussion.

Thomas said...

"[S]o far no one has been able of providing any good evidence or argument for this being so."

Have you read Aristotle's Ethics, or Plato's Socratic dialogues dealing with virtue? Maybe Aquinas? Or perhaps more recent virtue ethicists like MacIntyre or Nussbaum?

I'm just trying to figure out whether you have any good evidence or argument for this being so.

Singring said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Singring said...

'Have you read Aristotle's Ethics, or Plato's Socratic dialogues dealing with virtue? Maybe Aquinas? Or perhaps more recent virtue ethicists like MacIntyre or Nussbaum?'

No.

If any of them has posited empirical evidence or a sound, rational argument to suggest that objective moral values or principles exist, point me toward them please.

I suspect what I will find is a lot of assertion and a lot of arguments based on 'self-evident' truths.

If any of thise texts avoids those problems do let me know and I will readi it.

Singring said...

Well, it si as I expected...

I just read a portion of this summation of MacIntyre's major work 'After Virtue':

http://lyceumphilosophy.com/?q=node/15

And within a few paragraphs I already came upon this tidbit:

'It is here that MacIntyre offers a ray of hope, a suggested way forward out of the moral morass we are in. He suggests a return to some form of Aristotelian moral thought in which the virtues play a key role. “If a premodern view of morals and politics is to be vindicated against modernity, it will be in something like Aristotelian terms or not at all.” (After Virtue, 118) It is the concern of the second section of After Virtue to develop the concepts of telos and virtue, and to present an alternative to our contemporary, emotivist morality. '

So MacIntyre wants to go back to Aristotle and other mataphysicists. Why? Because he doesn't like relative morals (what he calls 'emotovism').

So we're back to the 'telos' again.
Now quite frankly, neither you nor Martin have been able to give any salient or even coherent argument for the existence of any 'telos', nor how we could ever identify the 'telos' if it actually existed.

Martin never even attempted to give supporting argument as to how he know how a man 'ought to be'.

I doubt MacIntyre can. If he in fact can, please point me toward the section of 'After Virtue' where he does because quite frankly, I don't have time to wade through 1000 pages of what I consider to be rambling nonsense.

One Brow said...

Singring,

To the point where "absolute morals" means "the same moral system should apply to every person", as opposed to "every person/population must decide their own morals" (which would be relative), I agree with Thomas/Francis/Martin that such a system can exist without giving a clear answer in every conceivable situation.

Of course, I also agree with you that any such absolute system is based upon arbitrary judgements specifically chosen to support said system, which limits the context in which "absolute" can be used.

Singring said...

I agree with you 100 % OneBrow. As usual, you are better at articulting these points.

As I pointed out above, I am more than happy to refer to myself as a 'moral absolutist' in the sense Francis and Thomas have laid it out - but I have to question how such an internally consistent 'absolute' system (in the sense that it should apply to everyone) is any more valid or even useful to one that does not make this claim if the outcome is essentially the same: A moral system that is utterly situational. After all, why any one moral system should apply to everyone else is - as you say - based on arbitrary preconceptions.

Thomas said...

Singring,

So you declare that "so far no one has been able of providing any good evidence or argument for this [i.e., that there are objectively right courses of action] being so." And you make this statement about the whole of moral philosophy on your reading of an online essay (that does not even appeared to be peer reviewed) that offers a summary of one work by one moral philosopher?

Explain to me how this is different than a creationist who proclaims there is no evidence for evolution and bases this on a secondary account of one piece of research by one biologist.

One Brow said...

Thomas,

Allow me to answer the question you posed to Singring for myself, by making a comparison.

It's not just that I have never seen a unicorn. It's that humans have traverse every square mile of this globe looking for strange and new animals, and none has occured.

Similarly, it's not just that I have not happened to come across good evidence for objective morality. It's that I have actively searched for it, including within sources that promised to provide evidence it existed, but failed in that promise.

I assure you, if I ever see something more unicornish than a goat whose horns have fused into a single horn, I'll believe in it. I won't say that the goat is a unicorn, though.

Thomas said...

So you have adequately studied the basics in moral philosophy? This includes, at a minimum, Plato's dialogues on justice, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Aquinas' discussion in the Summa of virtue, Kant's Critique of Practical Reason, Mill's Utilitianism, and Hegel's Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Those are required just to touch the basics of the moral theories of virtue ethics (in its Pagan and Christian forms), deontology, and utilitarianism. And there are other moral theories as well.

Anyone who proclaims there is no basis in reason for moral philosophy, but who hasn't read even the basics of moral philosophy, simply demonstrates his own ignorance not only of moral philosophy, but even of how one goes about discovering what moral philosophers have to say.

The better comparison is the creationist who declares there's no evidence for evolution, without even knowing how to go about finding such evidence.

Singring said...

'And you make this statement about the whole of moral philosophy on your reading of an online essay (that does not even appeared to be peer reviewed) that offers a summary of one work by one moral philosopher?'

Of course not. I read that essay since you suggested MacIntyre had produced evidence of objectibve morals. A cursory reading of a summation of one of his works shows that he has done the opposite: he is arguing for objective morals simply because he doesn't like the current moral discourse.

I base my understanding of current moral philosophy on the many lectures, articles and debates I have read and watched and my high-school philosophy education, all of which indicate that moral philosophy is currently dominated by moral relativism precisely because the argument for objective moral values has failed.

I mean - we have two thousand years of moral philosophy arguing for objective morals based on little more than people struggling to reconcile their notion of God with the world and we have the enlightenement which summarily destroyed this way of thinking (thank goodness) and came out victorious - as much as Catholic philosophers who adulate Aristotle and Aquinas such as yourself might like to imagine otherwise.

Just look at the most popular defender of Christian morality in the world today: William Lane Craig. You probably don't think very highly of him - but he certainly is the poster boy for Christian philosophy and apologetics in the US at least.

His best argument for objective morals? 'Deep down we just know they exist.' If somene as vehement and fundamental in their philosophy as Craig cannot dredge up a better argument after 2000 years of his side ruling the moral philosophy debate, I'd say the game is up.

'Anyone who proclaims there is no basis in reason for moral philosophy, but who hasn't read even the basics of moral philosophy, simply demonstrates his own ignorance not only of moral philosophy, but even of how one goes about discovering what moral philosophers have to say.'

I admit that I am ignorant of vast swaths of the history and the source texts of moral theology.
Your analogy with a Creationist is not apt, however.

For example, if a Creationist asks me for evidence of a transitional fossil, I can give several peer-reviewed publications with physical evidence and a theoretical background that should prove my point in two, maybe three paragraphs.

When I ask you for evidence of objective morals, you reference works of 1000 pages plus. MacIntyre openly states that his reason for arguing for objective moral values is that he does not like subjective ones! That is just pathetic! The other modern philosopher you mentioned (Nussbaum) even admits that her moral system includes moral relatives!

I quote the SEP:

'Nussbaum acknowledged that there are disagreements about these virtues, and she raised an obvious relativist objection herself: Even if the experiences are universal, does human nature establish that there is one objectively correct way of living well with respect to each of these areas? In response, Nussbaum conceded that sometimes there may be more than one objectively correct conception of these virtues and that the specification of the conception may depend on the practices of a particular community.'

You just can't make this stuff up.

Singring said...

'The better comparison is the creationist who declares there's no evidence for evolution, without even knowing how to go about finding such evidence.'

If a Creationist asks me for a transitional fossil I can name it, I can tell him what museum to go to to see it, what peer-reviewed publciations to read to find out about it and I can give a two to three paragraph summary of how and why it is evidence for evolution.

When I ask you for evidence on objective moral values you cite authors, but give no indicationas to where how and in what context they give any evidence for objective moral values.

In fact, when I check them, this is what I find:

MacIntyre admits right off the bat that the reason he likes virtue ethics (based on objective moral values) is not because he has any evidence they exist - its because he dislikes the current moral discourse.

And Nussbaum - we'll, she's just a doozy. I quote the SEP:

'Nussbaum acknowledged that there are disagreements about these virtues, and she raised an obvious relativist objection herself: Even if the experiences are universal, does human nature establish that there is one objectively correct way of living well with respect to each of these areas? In response, Nussbaum conceded that sometimes there may be more than one objectively correct conception of these virtues and that the specification of the conception may depend on the practices of a particular community.'

Yeah - she's not a moral relativist at all, in fact she's so much of a moral objectivist she thinks there are multiple - yes, *multiple* - objectively correct versions of virtues.

You just can't make this stuff up.

Thomas said...

Singring,

Have you or have you not read and understood the basic works I listed above (that is, the foundational works for to three most common moral philosophies)? Your original claim was that no moral philosophy had provided a basis for objective moral judgments in particular situations, so I'm just trying to establish whether you've even read and understood the basic works for three particular moral traditions.

Singring said...

'Your original claim was that no moral philosophy had provided a basis for objective moral judgments in particular situations, so I'm just trying to establish whether you've even read and understood the basic works for three particular moral traditions.'

No I have not. I am familiar with their basic tenets though. Do the works you mention contain evidence for objective moral values? Wow! I'd love to read those parts.

Which pages are we talking about here?

Where exactly in Kant's 'Kritik der Reinen Vernunft' does he lay out his evidence for objective moral standards?

Thomas said...

Singring,

So we've established that despite your grand claim to know that no moral philosopher has provided an objective basis to make concrete moral decisions you haven't actually read any of the basic works of moral philosophy. So to be more accurate you should have said: "I don't believe any moral philosopher to have shown this, and my belief is based on my not having read any of them and relying on secondary sources instead."

So you don't know whether or not the primary text contains the relevant arguments, the only thing you can comment on with any reliability is whether these arguments are in the secondary materials. To establish how good your basis is for your claim (which is now limited to secondary literature), we have to ask about the quality of your secondary sources. The better the quality, the better basis you have for your claim; the worse... you get the idea.

Since your claim is that no secondary literature contains arguments that show an objective basis for certain moral judgments, in order for this to have a good basis you will have read respected scholarly treatises on virtue ethics, utilitarianism, and deontology. So which treatises have you read, and by whom? Once we figure that out, we can determine your basis for claiming no moral philosopher has shown there to be objective moral judgments depending on the accuracy and quality of your source material.

One Brow said...

Anyone who proclaims there is no basis in reason for moral philosophy,

Thomas,

I can give you a great basis in reason for the projective plane. That doesn't mean I can produce something that is objectively a projective plane (the same is true for Euclidean, Riemannian, Lobachevskian, etc.) planes. I have every confidence that there is much good reasoning on morality and ethics. That's does not make they are objectively determined.

One Brow said...

So we've established that despite your grand claim to know that no moral philosopher has provided an objective basis to make concrete moral decisions you haven't actually read any of the basic works of moral philosophy.

Well, I haven't listened to every work of Beethoven. Should I think that perhaps he colored one of his symphonies red?

Philosphical systems, including those metaphysical and ethical, are at heart formal systems, requiring starting points that can not be determined from within the system they discuss. Claiming to establish objective facts through a process involving arbitrarily chosen beginnging is indeed compareable to painting a symphony read.

Also, if reading "at a minimum, Plato's dialogues on justice, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Aquinas' discussion in the Summa of virtue, Kant's Critique of Practical Reason, Mill's Utilitianism, and Hegel's Elements of the Philosophy of Right" would convince me that there are objectively based morals, do you therefore claim that professional philosophers who do not accept such exist have not read these works?

Singring said...

'So to be more accurate you should have said: "I don't believe any moral philosopher to have shown this, and my belief is based on my not having read any of them and relying on secondary sources instead."'

Yes, that probably would have been more accurate, I agree. My apologies.

'Since your claim is that no secondary literature contains arguments that show an objective basis for certain moral judgments, in order for this to have a good basis you will have read respected scholarly treatises on virtue ethics, utilitarianism, and deontology. So which treatises have you read, and by whom? Once we figure that out, we can determine your basis for claiming no moral philosopher has shown there to be objective moral judgments depending on the accuracy and quality of your source material.'

Sure, we can play this game all the live long day.

I'll skip a few stages on our way, though - just to save us some time.

I'm also assuming it will lead us at some stage to the point where you will actually show me where I'm wrong and where exactly in the works you pointed out we will find those delightful truffles of evidence on whence objective morals spring.

As to my sources:

They are basically three main sources:

1.) My high-school education in philosophy. I don't remember much I'm afraid, but I do remember us discussing the major works of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche. Since I thought they were all pointless, circular drivel I made no effort to remember any of it (though I do recall Plato's cave analogy - simply because it was so charmingly useless).

2.) Popular articles on philosophy and theology that I have read through the years, many of them in German publications - but again, don't ask me for names because I really don;t take notes on such things.

2.) Various lectures and debates by philosophers, theists, atheists on morality. My particluar favourite argument for how objective morals are real is from William Lane Craig - apologist and Christian philosopher extraordinaire. He has stated in several lectures and debates that objective morals exist because 'deep down we know it's true' and because 'human moral exoperience has showed us that'.

Now I'm really sorry, but if that is the very best a man with a doctorate in Philosophy from a respected German University and who's argument depends on objective morals can come up with, I am pretty confident that my view of moral philosophy is correct.

But now we know how woefully inadequate my education in moral philosophy is (I make no secret of it). I have admitted it before, I'll gladly admit it again. I am basically illiterate when it comes to moral (or any other) philosophy. I debate propositions on their merit.

So here's your big chance. If I'm wrong I want to know. I want the truth. I honestly want to hear your very best case.

So go ahead. Sock it to me. Give me the ultimate philosophical smackdown of all time. Embarass me. Humiliate me with your philosophical knowledge.

WHERE in any of the texts you have cited is there any coherent argument or empirical evidence to support the existence of objective morals?

I mean - it must be somewhere in there, right? Kant or Hegel or Aristotle must have had a chapter or passage or dialogue on 'this is why objective morals exist' somewhere in there, right?

So where is it? I promise to high heaven I will read it.

Singring said...

'So to be more accurate you should have said: "I don't believe any moral philosopher to have shown this, and my belief is based on my not having read any of them and relying on secondary sources instead."'

Yes, that probably would have been more accurate, I agree. My apologies.

'Since your claim is that no secondary literature contains arguments that show an objective basis for certain moral judgments, in order for this to have a good basis you will have read respected scholarly treatises on virtue ethics, utilitarianism, and deontology. So which treatises have you read, and by whom? Once we figure that out, we can determine your basis for claiming no moral philosopher has shown there to be objective moral judgments depending on the accuracy and quality of your source material.'

Sure, we can play this game all the live long day.

I'll skip a few stages on our way, though - just to save us some time.

I'm also assuming it will lead us at some stage to the point where you will actually show me where I'm wrong and where exactly in the works you pointed out we will find those delightful truffles of evidence on whence objective morals spring.

Singring said...

As to my sources:

They are basically three main sources:

1.) My high-school education in philosophy. I don't remember much I'm afraid, but I do remember us discussing the major works of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche. Since I thought they were all pointless, circular drivel I made no effort to remember any of it (though I do recall Plato's cave analogy - simply because it was so charmingly useless).

2.) Popular articles on philosophy and theology that I have read through the years, many of them in German publications - but again, don't ask me for names because I really don;t take notes on such things.

2.) Various lectures and debates by philosophers, theists, atheists on morality. My particluar favourite argument for how objective morals are real is from William Lane Craig - apologist and Christian philosopher extraordinaire. He has stated in several lectures and debates that objective morals exist because 'deep down we know it's true' and because 'human moral exoperience has showed us that'.

Now I'm really sorry, but if that is the very best a man with a doctorate in Philosophy from a respected German University and who's argument depends on objective morals can come up with, I am pretty confident that my view of moral philosophy is correct.

But now we know how woefully inadequate my education in moral philosophy is (I make no secret of it). I have admitted it before, I'll gladly admit it again. I am basically illiterate when it comes to moral (or any other) philosophy. I debate propositions on their merit.

So here's your big chance. If I'm wrong I want to know. I want the truth. I honestly want to hear your very best case.

So go ahead. Sock it to me. Give me the ultimate philosophical smackdown of all time. Embarass me. Humiliate me with your philosophical knowledge.

WHERE in any of the texts you have cited is there any coherent argument or empirical evidence to support the existence of objective morals?

I mean - it must be somewhere in there, right? Kant or Hegel or Aristotle must have had a chapter or passage or dialogue on 'this is why objective morals exist' somewhere in there, right?

So where is it? I promise to high heaven I will read it.

Thomas said...

Singring,

Although I don't think it's unfair in any way to point out that your basis for your claims is remarkably weak, I am trying to make two points.

The first is that you tend to draw grand conclusions (e.g., not a single philosopher has demonstrated the possibility of objective moral judgments) from very thin evidence. In order to have a basis for that claim, you would have to have mastered at least the main schools of ethical thought. Mastered them, not read the wikipedia page.

The wider problem is that you seem to assume that moral philosophies are the sort of thing one can understand without much effort -- reading articles here and there, having a high school class on the subject, etc. It may not be convenient, but moral philosophy, like any other branch of philosophy, takes time, work, and patience.

If you're looking for arguments that can be boiled down to a page or two without losing their substance, you are going to be disappointed. If you want to understand deontology, you will have to read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, and probably the Groundwork too. You may want to pull a couple pages out, but that's simply a way to ensure you won't understand the argument. And if you attack an argument you don't understand, you're simply attacking your own misunderstandings.

Like Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is a sustained argument. The whole thing. And actually more, since it is really not distinct from the Politics, and it invokes many arguments from On the Soul and the Physics. You can't understand Aristotle by googling around and reading a web page here and there about him. You have to be patient, concentrate, and realize the subject matter will take work to master.

I suppose I can boil all that down to this: you must understand something to criticize it. To understand something you must not reject it before you know what it is. And philosophy is hard.

Singring said...

'Although I don't think it's unfair in any way to point out that your basis for your claims is remarkably weak.'

It is not unfair and I never said it was. I completely admit my ignorance. You can call me anything you want - most of it would be accurate. But unless you can come up with the goods - that's all your doing.

So if my argument is so weak - it should be very easy to knock it down, no? All you need is to give me one section of any philosophical work that deals with the evidence or direct arguments for objective morals. I think we both know why this is not forthcoming.

'It may not be convenient, but moral philosophy, like any other branch of philosophy, takes time, work, and patience.'

Here we go. The smokescreen goes up as usual.

Listen Thomas: I agree with you completely that understanding all of moral philosophy is not easy, that it takes hard work and time.

The same would be true of evolution, for example.

But we're not talking about an entire field of academia here, for crying out loud!

To show me up for the ignoramus I am, all you have to do is give ONE coherent, direct argument or piece of evidence in support of objective morals. You don't even have to do that - all you have to do is point me to any part of any philosophical work that does so.

This would be analogous to me giving evidence of one transitional fossil in support of evolution - something that can easily be achieved in the space of your latest post.

But instead of doing that you whaffle on and on with these pointless, vapant defenses: 'It's hard. It takes time. You wouldn't understand it anyway.' - as if you were rquired to give me an epic course on moral philosophy.

No. All I need is one little shred of evidence. So how about it?

Singring said...

'If you want to understand deontology, you will have to read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, and probably the Groundwork too.'

This is precisely the reason I have so little time for philosophy. I make a claim, you tell me I'm sorely mistaken, yet when pressed about where exactly I can find a concise, clear argument in support of a PREMISE of one moral philosophy (we're not talking about the full system of deontology here!) - the best you can do is say: 'Well, you have to read two full volumes of philosophical ramblings to get any kind of answer on that.

A biologist, physicist, chemist, mathematician is able to present an introduction, hypothesis, data on the test of that hypothesis and a discussion of results in its context in the space of five pages. A philosopher even of Kant's stature apparently needs two books to support a premise of his moral philosophy (never mind the philosophy derived from it - I guess that's covered in volumes three through sixteen?). It is laughable and it is precisely why Feynman and many other scientists have such a low opinion of philosophers.

You're wlcome to call me an ignorant fool for that comment, by the way - I know that it must make me look like one in the eyes of a philosopher.

'I suppose I can boil all that down to this: you must understand something to criticize it. To understand something you must not reject it before you know what it is. And philosophy is hard.'

Great. So no answer. Instead a long elaboration on why you can't give me an answer.

Martin Cothran said...

So now, in addition to making sweeping statements about particular philosophical positions about which he admits he knows very little, Singring is impugning the whole field of philosophy about which he knows even less.

Singring, is it really the obligation of the people who disagree with you on this blog to have to run around trying to disprove every ill-informed claim you make just because you're too lazy to do the intellectual work involved in even understanding the relevant issues?

Singring said...

Listen, Thomas - let's be frank about this.

You know as well as I do that Kant as well as every other moral objectivist starts with the assumption that objective moral values exist. Sure - they then build some rather elaborate, sometimes elegant constructs around that assumption.

Please stop pretending that they are anything other than that - you have an education in philosophy and I'm sure you know this better than I do.

This is illustarted so beautifully by MacIntyre, the moral philosopher you cited as a prime example of someone arguin for objective moral values.

This author baldly states that he wants to go back to virtue ethics because he doesn't like the relativistic tone of current moral discourse. That is not evidence for objective morals - in fact it is the complete admission that there is none (or was none when he wrote 'After Virtue').

I haven't read the whole work. I haven't studied it. But don't insult my or your intelligence by pretending that the author is actually giving any evidence for objective morals when his agenda is quite clear: he wants to build a moral framework on the basis that he thinks objective moral values are more useful than relative ones.

Singring said...

'Singring, is it really the obligation of the people who disagree with you on this blog to have to run around trying to disprove every ill-informed claim you make just because you're too lazy to do the intellectual work involved in even understanding the relevant issues?'

Of course not.

Also, I never asked for 'disproof'. All I asked for was one section of pa philosophical writing which lays out a clear, direct argument or any evidence for objective moral values.

If you fell that is too much to ask, so be it. This will be my last word on the matter.

I;m sure readers can make up their own minds.

Thomas said...

Singring,

Do you think one must understand an argument before one declares it to be wrong?

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

Again, good idea.

Singring said...

'Do you think one must understand an argument before one declares it to be wrong?'

I most certainly do.

As I said before, Thomas, my claims have left me wide open to being ripped apart, embarassed, humiliated, shown up for the impertinant little fool I am.

If you have an argument for the existence of objective morals, that is...

So where is it? Or are you going to pass up this chance at putting me in my place?

One Brow said...

Certainly. For example, I understand that philosophical constructs are created on arbitrarily chosen premises, so are not capable of providing an user-independent objective morality.

Maybe I'm wrong, there. Perhaps you could provide an a counter-example?

Thomas said...

Singring,

I don't want to embarrass you, or even "win" an argument. I do want to be able to have a productive discussion so that we can come away better off for it, even if we don't agree.

If you agree that one should understand a position before rejecting it, do you agree that to understand an individual argument bound up in a more comprehensive argument, one should understand the larger argument? To put it another way, do you agree it's reasonable to have to understand the whole of an argument to understand one of its parts?

Thomas said...

Onebrow,

I'm actually having trouble thinking of a single philosopher that arbitrarily chooses his premises. Do you have one in mind?

Singring said...

'I do want to be able to have a productive discussion so that we can come away better off for it, even if we don't agree.'

Great, I actually have the same objective. And I have been trying to tell you that I would vome away the better if I were given any reason to consider the possibility that objective moral values exist. Quite frankly, I wish there were objective morals. I wish there was an objective moral rule upon which to base an imperative like 'raping children is wrong'. I really wish that were so. So I would welcome any evidence you have to that effect.

Unfortunately, it has not been forthcoming. Simply building a moral system that says 'raping little children is always wrong' derived from the assumed premise that there is an objective moral standard is not the same as actual evidence for such a standard. You seem to insist that it is.

'I'm actually having trouble thinking of a single philosopher that arbitrarily chooses his premises. '

If I may answer for OneBrow: I believe there is a misunderstadning of terms here (we had this earlier with Martin too). When OneBrow says 'arbitrary' he does not mean that premise A is chosen 'at random', but rather that is it chosen 'without any reason to think it si any more accurate or true than premise B'.

For example: MacIntyre chooses his premise that the telos exists and should be a guide to moral behaviour for a perfectly valid personal reason: He believes he can build a useful system of morality on it. However, he does not choose it because it is any more true than the premise that the telos does not exist, simply because he has no way of demonstrating this.

Axioms used in mathematics are also chosen 'arbitrarily' in this way. They are chosen in a way that allows the deduction of a useful model of reality, but not because they can be proven to be true.

Thomas said...

Singring,

Most philosophers don't rely primarily on deductive proofs, as does mathematics (though there are some exceptions, like Spinoza). Instead they typically employ dialectic.

There are different forms of dialectic, but let's look at the Platonic/Aristotelian form as an example. That dialectic begins by examining the things people are confused about; in moral philosophy, these are moral concerns. It then begins to catalog common opinion, "common sense", and learned opinion.

This serves two purposes: the first is to intensify the original curiosity by showing how common opinions and learned opinion lead to contradictory conclusions, and cannot both be right. This heightens the curiosity and gives it more precision. The second is to critically examine one's own assumptions before going further, to find what beliefs we have that may be wrong, or may conflict with other beliefs, or may even be true but too vague.

Finding all the contradictions and assumptions and listing them clearly allows one to get a better grip on the original question or sense of curiosity one started with. It gives more specificity to the question, and without this specificity, a rush to find an answer would be premature, since one wouldn't fully understand what it is the answer to. It also provides a mechanism where one can bring one's own assumptions out into the open, to make sure they won't be an impediment to figuring out the truth of the matter.

Once one has an understanding of common and learned opinion and the contradictions that arise, one can start to critically evaluate those opinions to see what holds up and what doesn't. Some opinions are self-contradictory, some facially absurd; these can be set aside. This means the set of arguments we are now dealing with is more reliable (though of course not certain) than what we started with. However, there will still be contradictions, and some opinions seem to be beneficial in one way but not others.

Where the dialectic goes from here depends on the particular arguments. It may turn out that one argument that was in the original set was right all along, but I don't remember this ever being the case in any work by Plato or Aristotle that I have ever read. More often, the juxtaposition of the arguments shows that something was off about the way the question was asked in the first place, and a better way to pose the question emerges. The more determinate the question, the more the direction the answer lies comes into focus, and the further up the dialectic one can move. The process continues gradually, refining the arguments, re-framing the question, and increasing the understanding of the inquirer more at each step.

You could argue this process never ends with an absolutely certain answer, in the way mathematics provides certainty. That is true, of course. What it does give is an increasingly certain answer, and the path to an even more certain answer, much as a spiral may move toward the centermost point without ever reaching it. The more dialectic, the more knowledgeable the inquirer is about the subject, and the more certain his knowledge is.

This method isn't subject to demonstration in the way geometrical proofs are, one has to see it in action and get the hang of it. But it does explain why even if the starting point was chosen arbitrarily in the sense of not being absolutely certain, this isn't problematic for dialectic; dialectic is designed precisely to rid oneself of beliefs that one previously had that turn out to be false, and it gives an apparatus for testing them.

Singring said...

That's a loveley post, Thomas. It really is, I mean it. I think it is as concise a summation of a philosophical approach as one can give and I appreciate you taking teh time in explaining it.

However, it does not solve the problem. Let's take a look at some of the steps in the dialectical pathway you describe:

'the first is to intensify the original curiosity by showing how common opinions and learned opinion lead to contradictory conclusions, and cannot both be right.'

I fail to see why common opinions and learned opinion have to automatically be assumed to be contradictory in every instance, but that's just a minor quibble.

'However, there will still be contradictions, and some opinions seem to be beneficial in one way but not others.'

Just because an opinion is 'beneficial' (and I'm not certain if you are using the word in the context of being beneficial to answering the question or beneficial to the world at large) does not mean it is true. Also, how would one decide that an opinion is 'beneficial' to answering the question or not? This, again, suggests an arbitrary element in the method.

Unless there is some rigorous, logically or evidence based method of evaluating how 'beneficial' an opinion is, I would say this is a massive flaw in the method.

I would even go so far as to say that the dialectic method you sketch reminds me very much of the scientific method - but in science, how 'beneficial' an opinion is is judged against hard, empirical evidence and observation. I would argue that this makes it vastly more accurate than any mere mental method could be.

Singring said...

'You could argue this process never ends with an absolutely certain answer, in the way mathematics provides certainty.'

I don’t need a certain answer. In fact, as I have stated above, mathematics is a working model – we have no way of verifying it externally, so any philosophical method that is analogous to mathematics could not provide us evidence of objective standards or the telos by definition.

However, the way you have described it, the dialectic method seems to do just that: it is designed to derive an internally consistent model (if I ask question X, the best way to answer it is answer Y) that does not necessarily have anything to do with reality.

Just because I can tune and retune a question to eliminate possible answers by a process of elimination and vice-versa does not tell me at all whether the question or the answer represents truth. It just means that I have whittled the question and possible answer and any intermediate steps by which I arrive at that answer down to an internally consistent model of answering a question I have decided to pose.

In other words, my question is this:

Where in the dialectic method is the question or the answer tested against reality - if ever? How can we find out whther they reflect reality and are not just the result of idle mental acrobatics, Sudoku of the mind if you will?

This is a crucial question, especially if you want to make a claim like this about the dialectic method:

'What it does give is an increasingly certain answer.'

Certain in what way? Certain in that it more accurately reflects reality or certain in that it more accurately follows from the question?

'...and it gives an apparatus for testing them.'

Testing them against other opinions for consistency or contradiction, perhaps. But I fail to see where the test against reality is incorporated.

I also fail to see how one would go about supporting the existence of anything objective using this method.