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Separating god from morality

About this god person.

I’ve been arguing about it with Michael Nugent on the Atheist Ireland Facebook group. It started from an aphoristic remark Michael made there yesterday:

Because theism is a statement about the nature of reality and morality, atheism is also a statement about the nature of reality and morality.

I said

I think both theism and atheism are statements about reality. I’m not sure either is necessarily a statement about morality.

There could be a theism that posited a “god” with no interest in humans and thus no interest in giving them moral instructions.

Michael’s view is that belief even in a god with no interest in humans is still a belief about morality.

I agree that it can be, but I disagree that it has to be. Believing that an infinite array of things have nothing to do with morality isn’t a substantive belief about morality (except in the attenuated sense that it’s a belief that some things are about morality while others are not). I don’t think the moon has anything to do with morality; that’s not really a belief about morality.

(Well I suppose you could make a case that it is, in the sense that it’s a belief that gravity isn’t the foundation of morality, that morality isn’t influenced by the tides, and faintly absurd notes like that. But I don’t think that’s what we mean by “about morality.”)

My objection to the idea (and I do object to it, as well as just disagreeing with it) is that it buys into the conventional assumption that god just is about morality, when instead we should realize that that’s a contingent belief, not an inherent aspect of belief in a god or some gods.

Comments

  1. iknklast says

    One of the first problems is defining morality. Just what is moral? This is a hot topic. Some people still believe it’s immoral to have sex with another consenting adult if you aren’t married yet. Some believe it’s immoral to allow two people of the same sex to love legally. They are entitled to believe that, but they act on those beliefs, with a great deal of damage to people who aren’t hurting anybody. That’s how I define immoral. But that doesn’t come from theism or atheism, as I have many theist friends who would agree that living and letting live is a more moral position than pushing your own views on people who don’t agree with you. So my atheism isn’t a statement of morality in this case (and I don’t get my morals from atheism at all, but from my philosophy, which is deeper than atheism).

  2. Blanche Quizno says

    Let’s not forget how the god of the bible routinely murders children, sends plagues on everybody ‘cuz someone did something that put its nose out of joint, strikes people dead for not forking over all their assets to the church, and damns those who don’t kiss up adequately to an eternity of screaming, writhing agony.

    Let’s also not forget that atheism only addresses whether the individual believes in gods or not. Beyond that, it explains/describes *nothing* about the individual in question.

    And on the topic of “love”, if someone desires to change a given person into someone else, someone more acceptable in whichever way, that someone does not love that person. Loving someone means accepting them exactly, precisely as they are, valuing them as is, and wanting to understand what their life circumstances and experiences were that led to them becoming who they are.

    Members of intolerant proselytizing religions don’t understand the first thing about love. It’s not about creating others in your own image.

  3. says

    Well defining morality is not quite the same as saying what is moral and what isn’t. The first is meta.

    I think one very useful quick heuristic is just the Hippocratic “first, do no harm.” It eliminates a lot of bullshit right off the top.

  4. Blanche Quizno says

    I forgot – the god of Christianity damns EVERYONE simply for having been born human. Beyond that, it doesn’t really matter what you do or don’t do – just having been born is enough to merit an eternity of punishment and torture, just God showing God’s majesty and glory, in other words. (Don’t laugh – I’ve heard and seen Christian defenses of “hell” to that exact effect.)

  5. Blanche Quizno says

    …and considering that what is considered “moral” differs from culture to culture, sometimes to an extreme degree, I think we’d be hard-pressed to attribute this clearly subjective and relativistic phenomenon we call “morality” to anything other than ourselves. We’re social animals, after all, and all social animals have norms and rules that the group teaches to the young, with those who don’t conform being punished, driven away, even killed. Sound familiar?

  6. MyaR says

    It’s just is/ought (or is/could be) another way. Sure, pretty much all religion we know about requires both belief in some sort of god(s) and adherence to some sort of moral system, but that’s religion, not the belief in god(s) itself. Religion is the commonality between the god(s) and the morality, but they are two separate things (maybe).

  7. MyaR says

    And I’ll add that the two have implications for each other (the moral beliefs affect the nature of the god(s), and vice versa), but are still separable. I think Michael’s using “theism” as a synonym for religious system, but you’re not.

  8. says

    I would argue that theism is not a statement about morality, and that the religious believer who think it so are mistaken. Even if there were a god, and even if that god had a moral view, that does nothing to establish morality. Plato knocked the wind out of that notion. See the Euthyphro dilemma.

  9. chigau (違う) says

    Most gods didn’t have anything to say about ‘morality’.
    They just wanted an occasional offering of goats or virgins.
    It’s only the Monogod who’s such a busybody.

  10. says

    Morality is such a human concept, it’s hard to see how it would apply to a god, anyway. What does “fairness” mean to a god? Or “honesty”? Can you “steal” from a god? Could a human and a god have a meaningful conversation about morality, especially given the vast power-differential between us?

    Epicurus touched on this in one of his sayings:

    A blessed and indestructible being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being; so he is free from anger and partiality, for all such things imply weakness.

    By the same token, I think the idea of a god loving a human (or all humans) makes about as much sense as loving your intestinal flora. Suppose I had moral expectations of my intestinal flora. What would those expectations look like, perhaps? And how could I communicate them to my intestinal flora in such a way as to transfer the moral burden of compliance to those bacteria? Let us imagine that I have a dictate I wish to make to my intestinal flora, namely that they not produce too much methane. Because, I their god, am an angry god when I fart in elevators. So, um, see the problem? I can hardly blame my intestinal flora for making methane when, after all, that’s how they work. And I didn’t really tell them “no hydrogen, either” but mostly the problem is that they are not equipped to understand the will of god so they can’t be blamed for just doing what bacteria do. Socrates let Euthyphro off lightly, really.

    Atheism is a statement about morality because it discards the “sky hook” that there is a divine moral expectation or some kind of external moral code. Atheism forces us to define “morality” in terms of purely human concepts, which is why we get mired down in moral nihilism: we can’t(*) Belief in a god is often used to sweep the whole question under the carpet.

    (* DIsclaimer, I am a moral nihilist, in that I am unconvinced that objective moral frameworks – other than self-referential/tautological definitions like Richard Carrier attempts – are possible or even desirable)

  11. says

    I think one very useful quick heuristic is just the Hippocratic “first, do no harm.”

    We could all agree on some simple rules (though it appears hard) but as soon as someone disagrees then we have to address the age-old question of whether or not those rules are “right” in any sense other than “most of us agree” If we adopt the position that “most of us agree” to the rules, therefore they are right, we don’t have an objective moral system, we just have a bunch of rules most of us agree to. If you say, “but that is morality!” then we can only talk about morality in a given time and space among those who agree with a given set of rules. I.e.: slavery was moral until it wasn’t. Etc.

  12. brianpansky says

    i’ve been on youtube at this one video with some “problem of evil/problem of suffering” stuff.

    and of all the dozens of arguments believers could try to use against it, one which i find surprisingly common basically boils down to “base your definition of good on god, then these problems just go away”.

    another is to focus on non-measurable criteria, like how much god subjectively “feels” love towards us.

  13. Chris J says

    @8

    The Euthyphro dilemma doesn’t say religions don’t make moral statements. Plenty of religions do, they just may or may not be wrong. The dilemma is about how to determine which morality is correct, and points out that something isn’t moral simply because a moral god commands it.

    @OP

    A non-answer is sometimes an answer when comparing world-views. I don’t think Christianity makes any claims about reincarnation, but that is taken to be an implicit rejection of it. Sometimes, however, a non-answer is purposeful. It opens the door for something other than the world-view to provide an answer. Religious folks like to conflate atheism with evolution, as if atheism’s answer to life origins was evolution. It isn’t. Atheism doesn’t say where life comes from; if evolution were randomly proven wrong, atheism doesn’t suffer. You need to look to something other than atheism to explore life origins.

    Morality is the same way. Perhaps you think that, because there is no god, there is nobody to tell you what to do so anything is moral. That is compatible with atheism. You may think that because there is no authority to tell you what is moral, you have to figure out what is moral yourself. That is also compatible. You may even find a myriad of tools or philosophies to use to figure out what is moral, and atheism won’t care. Atheism doesn’t provide an answer because it can’t; and no specific answer can be said to be atheism’s solution to where morality comes from. Therefore, it is inappropriate to say that atheism makes a claim about morality, except implicitly by rejecting some theistic answers.

  14. Menyambal --- making sambal a food group. says

    I built a wooden boat, once, that is now rotting out in a shed. I am sure the termites in it think that it was created just for them, and that I am their creator god. I do not give a damn about their morality.

  15. says

    brianpansky:

    and of all the dozens of arguments believers could try to use against it, one which i find surprisingly common basically boils down to “base your definition of good on god, then these problems just go away”.

    I guess those believers have no problem with genocide then…

  16. sawells says

    I think the idea that gods are about morality is an attempted refinement of the much older idea that gods are about _rules_.

    @brianpansky: please don’t assume that people who don’t _agree_ with Carrier’s argument on morality “don’t get it”. There are cogent arguments against several of his supposedly unassailable premises. I gave up arguing with him on his threads because I felt he was missing the obvious, he clearly thought the same in reverse, there was no point banging on about it. As a moral philosopher I think he’s an excellent historian.

    Just to recap briefly the issues, his argument depends on six heads:

    1. Moral truth must be based on the truth.
    –True in the sense that moral truth should not be false, but this doesn’t establish that moral truth must depend on any non-moral truth, nor does it establish that there is any such thing as moral truth. Flogwarbling sneegfluffles must flogwarble; so what?

    2. The moral is that which you ought to do above all else.
    –Entirely meaningless because of the “ought to do … in order to get what?” question. It assumes that there _is_ an “ought to do”; this is not a fact in evidence. It also sits poorly with the following head 3, in that it doesn’t specify the “in order to” part; it’s clearly not what you ought to do in order to survive at all costs, or in order to be popular… the moral is what you ought to do in order to be moral. Whoop-de-do.

    3. All imperatives (all ‘ought’ statements) are hypothetical imperatives.
    –Absolutely. This is why I am what is apparently called a “moral nihilist” (horrible term). I think all moral claims are ultimately preferences and we should own that.

    4. All human decisions are made in the hopes of being as satisfied with one’s life as one can be in the circumstances they find themselves in.
    –Laughable, it sounds just like the economic strategy of saying that everyone maximises their utility and then post-hoc defining their utility as whatever was maximised by whatever they did… among other problems, this head implies that people are unitary rational decision-making entities, whereas in fact we should be aware that we each typically have multiple potentially decision-making systems in play at once in our minds. People frequently do things that they immediately regret. Also I don’t believe it properly captures the factor of reducing one’s current satisfaction in the uncertain hope of increasing it in the future.

    5. What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances is an empirical fact that science can discover.
    –Possibly true but not necessarily; probably irrelevant in any case, because moral conflicts arise when two different human beings have incompatible wants or needs. Being certain about what they each want/need for Satisfaction Maximisation, if that exists, will not help make moral decisions if they can’t both have what they want/need. Usually at this point Richard starts appealing to game theory. I’m dubious that that’s a morality.

    6. There are many fundamentals of our biology, neurology, psychology, and environment that are the same for all human beings.
    –Also true but likely irrelevant for the same reason. If we all need food but there’s not enough to get us all through the winter, knowing exactly what we all need is not going to solve the moral problem of who eats whom.

  17. alqpr says

    Re: There could be a theism that posited a “god” with no interest in humans and thus no interest in giving them moral instructions.

    I thought that some people define “theism” as belief in a personal “God” who *is* interested in us and use “deism” for the other kind that you seem to be referring to.

    But regardless of how far it goes in the “adeistic” direction, any form of atheism denies the existence of a God who determines moral values. So regardless of whether the atheist believes in the existence of any moral values she must surely deny the existence of moral values determined by such a God.
    How is this not a statement about the nature of morality?

  18. sawells says

    @Marcus Ranum @11 : re the slavery example, my favoured resolution is to drop the “moral” term entirely and simply ask whether slavery was _harmful_ – which yes, it was, whenever you ask the question. Likewise, when people are arguing in favour of an actual harm for the sake of a supposed moral good, it’s helpful to focus on the harm, if only because it makes the pro-doing-harm people state their position openly so the rest of us can avoid them as far as possible.

  19. alqpr says

    @brianpansky – What @sawells said! esp#4
    The idea that our various drives are somehow combinable into an overall concept of “well-being” is made without any serious support and is opposed by masses of evidence. That’s part of what said I long ago contra Harris but I won’t feel slighted if sawells gets the prize instead of me.

  20. sawells says

    @22: Given that Ophelia has upped Marcus’ post to the front page, it seems you would be on topic (and faster) to copy your response here.

  21. says

    Or here. This is a good discussion and I really don’t care if it ranges – or to put it another way, I don’t see how that reply could be off topic.

  22. says

    I’m strongly tempted to elevate yours too, sawells, only I’m not sure I’m allowed (according to the made-up rules I haven’t spelled out to myself) to do that more than once per post.

  23. brianpansky says

    @24

    yay! ok:

    @sawells

    obviously mileage may vary because i am not richard carrier, but i think i can address a few things.

    @brianpansky: please don’t assume that people who don’t _agree_ with Carrier’s argument on morality “don’t get it”. There are cogent arguments against several of his supposedly unassailable premises. I gave up arguing with him on his threads because I felt he was missing the obvious, he clearly thought the same in reverse, there was no point banging on about it. As a moral philosopher I think he’s an excellent historian.

    you are a moral philosopher?

    also, i’m not sure where you have argued with him. i don’t see your name in the comments section.

    1. Moral truth must be based on the truth.
    –True in the sense that moral truth should not be false, but this doesn’t establish that moral truth must depend on any non-moral truth, nor does it establish that there is any such thing as moral truth. Flogwarbling sneegfluffles must flogwarble; so what?

    ya…totally correct.

    i can already see you misunderstand. you think the first point is supposed to provide something else.

    2. The moral is that which you ought to do above all else.
    –Entirely meaningless because of the “ought to do … in order to get what?” question. It assumes that there _is_ an “ought to do”; this is not a fact in evidence. It also sits poorly with the following head 3, in that it doesn’t specify the “in order to” part; it’s clearly not what you ought to do in order to survive at all costs, or in order to be popular… the moral is what you ought to do in order to be moral. Whoop-de-do.

    it assumes there is? no. it is a bare definition. if there is nothing that fits that definition, then nothing is moral.

    but if you read what he wrote, he does address this kind of objection in brackets in point 2.

    i’m not sure what other things you are attempting to say here.

    but parhaps some confusion is that you don’t quite get the definition (seems this way when you say ” the moral is what you ought to do in order to be moral. Whoop-de-do.”). here is how i would rephrase the definition:

    moral imperatives are any imperatives which are more imperative than all other imperatives.

    now i hope you can see that we can indeed judge whether something fits the definition, and it is not as empty as the “A = A” that you described it as.

    3. All imperatives (all ‘ought’ statements) are hypothetical imperatives.
    –Absolutely. This is why I am what is apparently called a “moral nihilist”[bla bla bla].

    so you say “absolutely”…good, you agree.

    this does not necessarily make someone a moral nihilist, though.

    these first three points are quite important, i think. i don’t see any real challenge that you have posed.

    hopefully you understand a bit better now. but i’ll go on to the next points just in case.

    4. All human decisions are made in the hopes of being as satisfied with one’s life as one can be in the circumstances they find themselves in.
    –Laughable, it sounds just like the economic strategy of saying that everyone maximises their utility and then post-hoc defining their utility as whatever was maximised by whatever they did…

    i don’t understand your sentence here, or why you think that.

    hopefully my writing above has sorted out some of the confusion here.

    among other problems, this head implies that people are unitary rational decision-making entities, whereas in fact we should be aware that we each typically have multiple potentially decision-making systems in play at once in our minds. People frequently do things that they immediately regret. Also I don’t believe it properly captures the factor of reducing one’s current satisfaction in the uncertain hope of increasing it in the future.

    hmm he did talk about our conflicting inner stuff in a debate he linked to.

    but i have to say, human minds are deterministic, and not exactly random. so i’m fairly sure what you say here can be classified as a difficulty, not an impossibility.

    5. What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances is an empirical fact that science can discover.
    –Possibly true but not necessarily; probably irrelevant in any case, because moral conflicts arise when two different human beings have incompatible wants or needs. Being certain about what they each want/need for Satisfaction Maximisation, if that exists, will not help make moral decisions if they can’t both have what they want/need. Usually at this point Richard starts appealing to game theory. I’m dubious that that’s a morality.

    hopefully my writing above has sorted this out a bit.

    6. There are many fundamentals of our biology, neurology, psychology, and environment that are the same for all human beings.
    –Also true but likely irrelevant for the same reason. If we all need food but there’s not enough to get us all through the winter, knowing exactly what we all need is not going to solve the moral problem of who eats whom.

    who eats whom? you are thinking in terms of some different morality than the one rc has presented.

    he has presented one in which no one is obligated to be eaten, i hope you have noticed.

    other than that, it seems you are just declaring the problem too difficult for you to reason through, and therefore not possible to reason through…or something.

  24. brianpansky says

    @21
    alqpr

    The idea that our various drives are somehow combinable into an overall concept of “well-being” is made without any serious support and is opposed by masses of evidence. That’s part of what said I long ago contra Harris but I won’t feel slighted if sawells gets the prize instead of me.

    richard carrier doesn’t use an overall concept of well being.

  25. sawells says

    @26: I think we are still talking past each other to some extent. Let me proceed a bit. I do not trust my nested blockquoting skills here so will try to excerpt and identify.

    I am not a moral philosopher; I was saying that reading Carrier on moral philosophy makes me think he’s an excellent historian, i.e. I am unimpressed with his moral philosophy compared to his history. I think the flat affect of blog-commenting meant the irony failed to come over.

    Since we agree on head 1, I don’t see in what sense you can claim I misunderstand it. Never mind, not important.

    On head 2, the rephrasing in which you define the moral imperatives as any which are more important than any others does not seem to me to rescue anything – we are still left with the case that, whatever I decide to prioritise, hey presto that’s morality – but this too is probably not important.

    On head 4, I don’t think you say anything in particular. On head 5 likewise. You are not grasping the fundamental point: even supposing we know what person A and person B each Really Should want and need, it may well be that they can’t both have it. So how does one decide who gets what? None of Carrier’s argument addresses how to weigh one person’s satisfaction against another’s.

    On head 6, you’re still not getting it. I know that Richard is a nice guy and does not want anyone to eat anyone. But we live in a world of finite resources in which on a daily basis not everyone can get what they want. Not everyone can get what they need. Not everyone can even get to survive. And nothing in this whole elegant framework of six heads seems remotely relevant to the task of deciding what to do.

    Suppose I granted for the sake of argument every single point in all six heads. Have we got anywhere? No. Even if we could decide the Objective Moral Truth about what I Should Do, and the OMT about what You Should Do, this does not help us decide what _we_ Should Do if our individual Shoulds are incompatible! Where is the Objective Moral Formula for weighing one person’s Life Satisfaction against another’s? Carrier’s argument _stops_ at the point where the important moral decision making _starts_.

  26. alqpr says

    @27-brianpansky
    Yes, I agree that Carrier does object to Harris’ use of “well-being” as open to a purely selfish interpretation:

    After all, isn’t pursuing solely your own individual well-being usually what we mean by immoral?

    But all he does is change the terminology to more clearly accommodate within “well-being” the sense of moral self-satisfaction that one gets from acting “appropriately” (which I give Harris credit for having had as his real intent anyhow) :

    4. All human decisions are made in the hopes of being as satisfied with one’s life as one can be in the circumstances they find themselves in…..what we must say is that if a person makes rational decisions, then they would make satisfaction-maximizing decisions…
    5. What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances is an empirical fact that science can discover….

    This does nothing to address the problem that there are many independent non-comparable factors which contribute to our “satisfaction”, which is therefore probably not a single scalar quantity and so cannot necessarily be ordered – and so which we cannot ever “maximize”.

  27. brianpansky says

    @28
    sawells

    I am not a moral philosopher; I was saying that reading Carrier on moral philosophy makes me think he’s an excellent historian, i.e. I am unimpressed with his moral philosophy compared to his history. I think the flat affect of blog-commenting meant the irony failed to come over.

    oh i see : P

    On head 2, the rephrasing in which you define the moral imperatives as any which are more important than any others does not seem to me to rescue anything – we are still left with the case that, whatever I decide to prioritise, hey presto that’s morality – but this too is probably not important.

    well, it’s not exactly what people just decide to prioritize. a lot of things that matter most to us are not our choice at all.

    You are not grasping the fundamental point: even supposing we know what person A and person B each Really Should want and need, it may well be that they can’t both have it. So how does one decide who gets what? None of Carrier’s argument addresses how to weigh one person’s satisfaction against another’s.

    indeed it may well be.

    you are not grasping a few things.

    first, (actually i don’t think this is quite the situation you are describing) if they *both* can’t have it, then it certainly cannot satisfy them most. they will have to move on to the next imperative down the list.

    second “None of Carrier’s argument addresses how to weigh one person’s satisfaction against another’s.”

    his point isn’t that he has the moral facts for you. his point is that any moral facts that there are can be discovered by science. he also has pointed out that IF the science comes back with the answer that there is an impossible situation or whatever, then that is what is true. deal with it. or be a denialist.

    On head 6, you’re still not getting it. I know that Richard is a nice guy and does not want anyone to eat anyone.

    um, what i meant to say had nothing to do with what carrier wants.

    what i meant is that no one is obligated to *allow others* to eat them against their own desire.

    basically what i was getting at is that the utilitarian monster problem DOES NOT OCCUR in carrier’s framework. i pointed this out because i thought you were proposing such a thing as a problem.

    But we live in a world of finite resources in which on a daily basis not everyone can get what they want. Not everyone can get what they need. Not everyone can even get to survive. And nothing in this whole elegant framework of six heads seems remotely relevant to the task of deciding what to do.

    yes, again:

    his point isn’t that he has the moral facts for you. his point is that any moral facts that there are *can* be discovered by science. he also has pointed out that IF the science comes back with the answer that there is an impossible situation or whatever, then that is what is true.

    Suppose I granted for the sake of argument every single point in all six heads. Have we got anywhere? No. Even if we could decide the Objective Moral Truth about what I Should Do, and the OMT about what You Should Do, this does not help us decide what _we_ Should Do if our individual Shoulds are incompatible! Where is the Objective Moral Formula for weighing one person’s Life Satisfaction against another’s? Carrier’s argument _stops_ at the point where the important moral decision making _starts_.

    that is basically right, same as above. this isn’t an objection.

    please note though, as with science, we use our best current model and reasoning until science gives us something better. for now what we have may be a mess, but it isn’t nothing.

  28. brianpansky says

    @29
    alqpr

    Yes, I agree that Carrier does object to Harris’ use of “well-being” as open to a purely selfish interpretation:

    After all, isn’t pursuing solely your own individual well-being usually what we mean by immoral?

    But all he does is change the terminology to more clearly accommodate within “well-being” the sense of moral self-satisfaction that one gets from acting “appropriately” (which I give Harris credit for having had as his real intent anyhow) :

    sorry i’m not sure what you are saying here.

    it seems like you are saying carrier still uses “well-being”…but includes one’s moral evaluation of their self as part of their well being? that isn’t actually quite what he did. he threw out “well being” as too vague, and instead uses satisfaction. all kinds of satisfaction.

    see my post #30 for response to stuff similar to the rest of what you say about measuring and balancing between people etc.

  29. brianpansky says

    though continuing about the utility monster, wikipedia does say:

    ” It can be shown that all consequentialist systems based on maximizing a global function are subject to utility monsters.”

    i’m not sure how this may play out in carrier’s model, i thought he mentioned it somewhere, i’ll have to look. but it is irrelevant to the truth of his conclusion.

  30. Al Dente says

    If we all need food but there’s not enough to get us all through the winter, knowing exactly what we all need is not going to solve the moral problem of who eats whom.

    The South Fore tribe in New Guinea spread Kuru amongst themselves through cannibalism. They would hold funeral feasts where the deceased was the main course. When it was discovered that eating granddad’s brains were infecting the people, health authorities tried to convince the South Fore to discontinue cannibalism. The tribe was horrified! It was immoral not to honor granddad by denying him a proper funeral feast. Which shows that morality is quite relative.

  31. alqpr says

    @31-brianpansky

    i’m not sure what you are saying here

    I’m saying that while Carrier threw out Harris’ term “well-being” as being too vague, I think that what Harris meant by “well-being” can reasonably be interpreted as the same as what Carrier means by “satisfaction”. If that is not the case then please indicate what particular kind of satisfaction was explicitly excluded by Harris and/or what aspects of well-being don’t contribute in some way to some kind of satisfaction.

    see my post #30 for response to stuff similar to the rest of what you say about measuring and balancing between people etc

    I didn’t say anything (here) about balancing between people, or even about measuring various kinds of satisfaction. What I did say is that there evidently *are* various different kinds of satisfaction and no apparent way of combining them into a single ordered quantity. Ergo no way to “maximize” satisfaction.

    Now you did say of Carrier that

    his point isn’t that he has the moral facts for you. his point is that any moral facts that there are can be discovered by science. he also has pointed out that IF the science comes back with the answer that there is an impossible situation or whatever, then that is what is true. deal with it. or be a denialist.

    and if that were true I would have no problem with him on this.
    But it isn’t really true because what he actually says is this:
    What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances is an empirical fact that science can discover.

  32. latsot says

    At school I wrote a short story for some assignment or other that was about a counterfactual world where the god most people believed in was a capricious, chaotic loki-style trickster god. The not very subtle point was that the world’s religions were pretty much the same as they are in this reality. Morality was more or less unchanged. People went about their daily lives mostly as they do in our world. The substitution of a chaotic god for an authoritarian one didn’t have much of an impact on human history.

    So – since this was an English class – discuss.

  33. brianpansky says

    @34
    alqpr

    i finally get what you are trying to say

    also, i’m glad we are basically on the same page.

    i’m occupied a bit right now, so i might respond tomorrow.

  34. brianpansky says

    at his comment here

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/4498#comment-53938

    he responds to someone:

    I would also be interested to know if your system is one of monist or pluralist moral values…

    As I’ve said repeatedly: that is for science to discover. The Harris thesis is compatible with either outcome and presumes neither. The very title of his book is based on his statement of exactly that.

    If you want more specifics on how a moral science could determine a number of type- or group-dependent systems of moral facts, read TEC, pp. 350-51.

    I suspect it will end up being monist with pluralist riders (one monist morality with variant add-ons for types, which add-ons can be called personal principles rather than morality in the universal sense). But that’s, again, an empirical question. It can’t be conclusively answered from the armchair. The case for its probability is in TEC, pp. 251-54 (formal demonstration on pp. 362-64).

    here is the article on pluralism, and it seems to be the topic you are referring to.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Value_monism

    if you think his main text contradicts what he says in this comment, maybe tell him.

  35. alqpr says

    @36&37-brianpansky
    Thanks for that link. From the Wikipedia entry it seems that “value pluralism” does accommodate the possibility of incommensurable competing values making it impossible to define any ordered measure of overall satisfaction for even just one individual at one particular time. So you and I may indeed be on the same page (along, I think, with Patricia Churchland for example).

    But I still think that Carrier and Harris are on a different page entirely.
    Interestingly, Carrier claims to admire Churchland but seems not to understand why she “shies away with some uncertainty over whether her conclusions warrant going all the way toward an actual full-blown science of normative morality”. I guess he never heard that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread”!

    Carrier’s reference to Harris’ title in the reply you quote (and in the body of his article) shows that they both understand the first year calculus concept of local extrema but not the fact that there probably isn’t a well-defined objective function to work with. I don’t know what’s in the book sections he references but my impression of the quality of what he has written on the blog does not prompt me to look any further.

    (And I would be disinclined to point out an error such as his point 5 “What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances is an empirical fact that science can discover”, because my experience is that he doesn’t respond well to criticism – and the more apt the criticism the worse his response)

    But I do agree in one sense with *your* assertion that “any moral facts that there are can be discovered by science”, and would be interested to see where Carrier really has “pointed out that IF the science comes back with the answer that there is an impossible situation or whatever, then that is what is true.”

  36. sawells says

    @brianpansky: it seems the maximum we can get from Carrier’s argument is that science might be the best way to tell you what would make you satisfied and what you could do to get it. I would have conceded that at the outset because I don’t think it’s either controversial or interesting. As I’ve said, even granting all his points for the sake of argument, there is nothing here to tell us how to weigh different people’s satisfactions against each other, and you seem to be shying away from confronting even the possibility of a clash.

    I think you should look again at your post 30. I asked you to consider the situation: “… even supposing we know what person A and person B each Really Should want and need, it may well be that they can’t both have it. So how does one decide who gets what?”

    In your response you said this:”first, (actually i don’t think this is quite the situation you are describing) if they *both* can’t have it, then it certainly cannot satisfy them most. they will have to move on to the next imperative down the list.”

    Exactly, that is not the situation I was describing, so why did you decide to address it? I am talking about the case where either A or B could have the mcguffin, but if one of them gets it the other one doesn’t. So far it seems that the Objective Moral Facts don’t give us an answer here, since nothing in the argument requires a person to take other people’s satisfaction into account if they don’t want to.

  37. brianpansky says

    @38

    But I still think that Carrier and Harris are on a different page entirely.

    that’s a topic i’m really not interested in.

    Interestingly, Carrier claims to admire Churchland but

    not interesting to me.

    but my impression of the quality of what he has written

    personally i’m more astounded by the lack of quality all the objectors have in his comments section and follow up post (which i just discovered).

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/4531

    because my experience is that he doesn’t respond well to criticism – and the more apt the criticism the worse his response

    sure, i believe you. not.

    and would be interested to see where Carrier really has “pointed out that IF the science comes back with the answer that there is an impossible situation or whatever, then that is what is true.”

    i thought i just gave you this.

    what kind of impossible situation were you thinking of, if it wasn’t the pluralist one i just gave you?

  38. brianpansky says

    @39
    sawells

    you are correct that it was pointless to provide that paragraph that addressed a point other than the one you made, i’m sloppy like that sometimes.

    you seem to be shying away from confronting even the possibility of a clash.

    i’m not shying away from that. get a grip.

    As I’ve said, even granting all his points for the sake of argument, there is nothing here to tell us how to weigh different people’s satisfactions against each other

    again, you are wondering why he hasn’t provided the moral facts to us, but this is not what he set out to do.

    his point isn’t that he has the moral facts for you. his point is that any moral facts that there are can be discovered by science. he also has pointed out that IF the science comes back with the answer that values are pluralist and can’t be compared or whatever, then that is what is true. deal with it. or be a denialist.

  39. alqpr says

    @40-brianpansky

    i thought i just gave you this

    Carrier’s description of his possible acceptance of moral pluralism in what you gave me refers only to “type- or group-dependent systems of moral facts” and “personal principles”. This allows for a “different strokes for different folks” kind of moral pluralism but does not acknowledge the possibility of what you call an “impossible situation” (which I am taking to include the possibility that there is *no* actual scalar measurable quantity corresponding to what he calls the “satisfaction” of an individual).

    If he did admit such a possibility, then he would have to admit the possible vacuity of his claim 5 “What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances is an empirical fact that science can discover”, and with that, he would also have to accept the consequence that science might not be able to resolve our moral conundra.

    For me it is almost tautological to agree with you that science is the best route towards determining moral facts (because I think of facts in terms of science and vice versa), and there are many interesting facts about morality that are well worthy of scientific investigation.
    But normative moral conclusions are not necessarily facts in that scientific sense.

  40. brianpansky says

    @42
    alqpr

    k i haven’t had time to finish a full response, but i think i should ask a few quick ish questions first anyways.

    also i recall he said something about point 5 somewhere (i’ll have to look). it is quite correct that point 5 may not be obviously true, but i think he said that he at least has support for considering it likely.

    Carrier’s description of his possible acceptance of moral pluralism in what you gave me refers only to “type- or group-dependent systems of moral facts” and “personal principles”.

    so, you are saying that carrier is only really seeing differences between people? and neglecting the important possibility of different base values/desires etc within one person’s brain?

    the possibility of what you call an “impossible situation” (which I am taking to include the possibility that there is *no* actual scalar measurable quantity corresponding to what he calls the “satisfaction” of an individual).

    well i cannot imagine there being *nothing* to measure (for one thing, this is because when i say that i am currently satisfied, i actually know what i am saying and it is not an empty statement, and i can compare it to not being less satisfied or quite dissatisfied). what i can imagine is that there may be *multiple things* to measure, and that adding them together into one may have some kind of difficulty. though i’m not sure i can imagine any such difficulty that would prevent moral progress.

    as for whether it is scalar, as opposed to a vector or a tensor, i’m not sure if that was an important problem?

    i may have to check exactly what kind of thing i was trying to say when i said “impossible situation”.

  41. alqpr says

    @44-brianpansky
    Thanks for the response.

    Re Carrier’s point#5: I haven’t read every comment word for word, but I can’t find anything in the Sep4 post itself where he acknowledges any lack of certainty with regard to its truth as stated.

    Re his understanding of Moral Pluralism: I am not saying anything about what he is actually seeing or considering, just that he does not (in that comment) *mention* the important possibility of different base values/desires etc within one person’s brain in that particular comment.

    To be fair though, on further reading in the follow-up post that you linked to, I do see that in response to Babinski’s rebuttal of Harris, Carrier does claim that “I formally address the question of competing interests (e.g. competing imperatives, as would derive from competing spheres of concern) in TEC, pp. 425-26 n. 33.” So perhaps he does. But I haven’t seen it and (as explained below) I doubt that he can really have done it in a way that saves his point#5 in the unqualified form that it is actually stated.

    The problem with having *multiple* things to measure is that, although when they “line up” there will be no difficulty in deciding what will make you most satisfied, when they conflict, as you point out, “adding them together into one may have some kind of difficulty”. This *may* not preclude some form of moral progress through science, but I strongly suspect that any such will have to be through something more complicated than just “maximizing” (as that implies having reduced the everything relevant down to a single number).

    Now one might argue that whenever we make an action our brain must have used some combination of the available inputs to make a selection and fire the appropriate action neuron, but that ultimately happens at a subconscious level and I have not seen any good reason proposed either for the choice to be more than essentially random (depending perhaps on blood sugar level or other morally irrelevant factors) or for there to be a conscious equivalent. In fact I have often had the uncomfortable experience of mixed satisfaction and regret with no stable sense in my mind of either one of them clearly dominating or cancelling out the other, so on the basis of that “scientific” observation I think I can say for sure that human “satisfaction” is not always reducible to a single number.

  42. sawells says

    brian, you say: “well i cannot imagine there being *nothing* to measure (for one thing, this is because when i say that i am currently satisfied, i actually know what i am saying and it is not an empty statement, and i can compare it to not being less satisfied or quite dissatisfied). what i can imagine is that there may be *multiple things* to measure, and that adding them together into one may have some kind of difficulty. though i’m not sure i can imagine any such difficulty that would prevent moral progress.”

    Just because you can’t imagine the difficulty here does not mean that it does not exist. If you cannot imagine an irrational number, that does not make root-2 rational.

    Carrier’s head 5 – “What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances is an empirical fact that science can discover” – is wrong in at least two major ways. One way, which alqpr is emphasising, is the absence of a single quantifiable “satisfaction” to be maximised.

    A second way is a basic problem of physics – there may be no such fact, and if there is, it may not be discoverable. Consider the following three points.
    (i) argument from chaotic dynamics: what will maximise your satisfaction if you’re going to live for a hundred years is clearly not the same as what will maximise your satisfaction given that you’ll die tomorrow. But nobody can possibly know, even in principle, if they’re going to be struck by lightning tomorrow, because that sort of event is governed by dynamics that are quite impossible to simulate or predict to the required level of accuracy.
    (ii) argument from relativistic causality: you will in the future be causally influenced by events which currently lie outside your last light cone, and about which it is therefore impossible even in principle for you to have any knowledge. This point, incidentally, means that perfect prediction is impssible even for a fully deterministic system, because you cannot possibly know its future inputs.
    (iii) argument from quantum indeterminacy: quantum events appear to be genuinely random and not predictable even in principle. Yet there are causal chains directly linking quantum events (e.g. the decay of a radioactive atom) to your life or death (because that radioactive decay damaged your p51 gene and now you have cancer).

  43. brianpansky says

    @sawells

    all you are showing me is that you have not read carrier’s answer to exactly these kinds of things (and that you can’t think them through yourself, of course). i’ll try to get back to you later.

  44. sawells says

    Carrier’s claim that X IS A fact which science CAN discover is false if X is not a fact or if science cannot discover it. It’s not my fault if that upsets you. Run along and think of a better answer.

  45. says

    @Marcus Ranum @11 : re the slavery example, my favoured resolution is to drop the “moral” term entirely and simply ask whether slavery was _harmful_ – which yes, it was, whenever you ask the question.

    I would agree, but the slave-owners in the past clearly did not. Thus, it is not as obvious as you make it sound, or slavery would never have happened at all.

    Any moral system that tries to bootstrap itself based on reduction of harm (that’s basic Bentham for you) or living in the kind of world you wish to create (Kant) has the same problem – namely – that historically there has been a great wealth of disagreement about these supposedly obvious things. Clearly, then, they are not that obvious and if people disagreed about some of them in the past, they’re going to disagree about some of them in the present and future as well. That’s what I’d call “opinions about morals” and not an objective morality.

  46. says

    @11 and anyone else curious about what actual true morality is, instead of it just being our opinion:

    I’m quite familiar with Carrier’s opinions about morality and I find his arguments to be unconvincing if not outright dishonest. I’ve explained why elsewhere. The short form is that Carrier presupposes we have an ability to accurately tell what is best in various situations, and rests his argument on that. Since that ability appears (throughout human history) to be lacking, and he doesn’t explain where it comes from, the rest of his argument is just smoke and mirrors.

    I think his argument is dishonest because I actually think Carrier knows better; he’s very familiar with presuppositional apologetics and ought to avoid using the technique in his own arguments.

  47. sawells says

    @49: not disagreeing with you substantially, though I would say that were plenty of cases where slavers were perfectly aware that they were harming people inasmuch as they were the ones doing the shipping, killing, flogging etc. They just didn’t think that it was wrong to do that, or didn’t care. Many of them thought they were doing a moral good; this indicates that their moral preferences were for things other than not hurting people, e.g. “order” or “salvation of souls”.

    My suggestion to focus on the harm is not an attempt to bootstrap a moral system. It is just a tactical suggestion; if other people are actually pro-harm, I’d like to know as soon as possible.

  48. says

    I do think it’s possible to establish as a matter of fact that someone claims to have a certain opinion about a moral question. If you ask me “is killing wrong” I will say “YES!” every single time. Because that is my opinion about that particular topic. If you count my opinion, and those of everyone else, you might come up with the fact that 99% of your subjects share that opinion. That would be a fact. It still doesn’t make it a fact that killing is wrong. See how that works?

  49. says

    I would say that were plenty of cases where slavers were perfectly aware that they were harming people inasmuch as they were the ones doing the shipping, killing, flogging etc. They just didn’t think that it was wrong to do that, or didn’t care.

    Agreed. And I agree with you about detecting the people who are pro-harm, that I and my friends can try to avoid them.

    I’m quite OK with the idea that we can call something “our collective morals” by basically agreeing that a sort of supermajority plus some good philosophical arguments plus impassioned dialogue allow us to collectively form an opinion about what’s right and wrong. It seems to me that that’s exactly what we do, in practice. And if someone simply refuses to get with the program and insists that, no, slavery(or whatever) is good, eventually we all tell him “you’re wrong, STFU.” To me, it seems that is actually stronger if we acknowledge that all of this is simply a matter of opinion and is dependent on our understanding of the time and place where we are, and how we learned to be, etc. If we accept it as all a matter of opinion(s) then we can tell that guy “yeah, you think slavery is right but that’s your opinion and the rest of us think you’re a nasty icky person for having that opinion so please change.” As soon as someone says “No, I’m right it’s a fact that slavery is wrong!” then I have to ask why it wasn’t a fact a mere couple thousand years ago.

  50. sawells says

    @53 it is an objective fact that I agree entirely with your position :)

    I think there’s also a sort of relativistic take on this. Whether two spacelike separated events are simultaneous is not an objective fact, but whether they are simultaneous in a particular frame of reference is an objective fact. Likewise whether an act is morally wrong is not, I think, an objective fact, but whether it is wrong according to a particular moral system (I.e. formalised set of moral preferences) can be an objective fact. I’m trying to get into the habit of never saying “that’s wrong” without adding a “because…”, so as to be clear on the frame with respect to which I am judging.

    Also because we have a smart 3 year old who always asks for the “because” if you don’t get it in first, anyway.

  51. brianpansky says

    @50

    The short form is that Carrier presupposes we have an ability to accurately tell what is best in various situations, and rests his argument on that.

    i’m really not seeing that anywhere.

    Carrier’s claim that X IS A fact which science CAN discover is false if X is not a fact or if science cannot discover it. It’s not my fault if that upsets you.

    yes i know.

    the premise you are referring to requires empirical support (carrier thinks it is supported).

    but let’s back away from the empirical claims for a bit here. look at those first 3 premises. do you agree with them?

  52. brianpansky says

    @45
    alqpr

    The problem with having *multiple* things to measure is that, although when they “line up” there will be no difficulty in deciding what will make you most satisfied, when they conflict, as you point out, “adding them together into one may have some kind of difficulty”. This *may* not preclude some form of moral progress through science, but I strongly suspect that any such will have to be through something more complicated than just “maximizing” (as that implies having reduced the everything relevant down to a single number).

    maybe, but i’m pretty sure if there are 5 different forms of satisfaction, that being satisfied with all 5 can be called “maximizing”.

    of course point 5 would then be claiming such a thing is in fact possible. i don’t exactly have the facts on hand to say whether it is. the answer to this is not just a curiosity though, discovering it (whether yes or no) would be one of the *most important* findings in all of science.

    i strongly dislike what i perceive to be indifference/defeatism in this thread.

  53. brianpansky says

    @46
    sawells

    Just because you can’t imagine the difficulty here does not mean that it does not exist. If you cannot imagine an irrational number, that does not make root-2 rational.

    indeed.

    Carrier’s head 5 – “What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances is an empirical fact that science can discover” – is wrong in at least two major ways. One way, which alqpr is emphasising, is the absence of a single quantifiable “satisfaction” to be maximised.

    actually, that is at least an open question unless you have the facts yourself.

    also, see what i said to alqpr in post 57.

    But nobody can possibly know, even in principle, if they’re going to be struck by lightning tomorrow, because that sort of event is governed by dynamics that are quite impossible to simulate or predict to the required level of accuracy….perfect prediction is impssible even for a fully deterministic system, because you cannot possibly know its future inputs….quantum indeterminacy

    this is the nuclear argument. “we can’t know for 100% sure”.

    as much as it applies to any other science, so too would it apply to the science of maximizing satisfaction.

  54. sawells says

    Have you considered that your emotional desire for there to be an objective moral system – you strongly dislike arguments to the contrary and describe them as “indifference/defeatism” – is blinding you to flaws in the argument?

    I am not indifferent to moral questions; I have some very strongly held moral preferences and am very interested in other people’s. I am not defeatist on moral questions, I have strong hopes for the advancement of things that I consider to be moral goods. It is just that on consideration of the evidence and arguments, I conclude that moral claims are preferences rather than objective facts. This position has been given the ugly title of “moral nihilism”. Do not confuse this with nihilism tout court!

    I have told you several important scientific grounds why head 5 as stated is not correct, and your only response is to say that Carrier thinks it is supported. He’s just wrong about that. Respond to my points on the science, please, or be prepared to either concede my point or at least to grant that it is arguable rather than a clear certainty as Carrier claims.

  55. sawells says

    @58: It is not my fault that Carrier makes the incorrect claim that such-and-such is “a fact that science can discover”. There is a very very large class of facts that science cannot discover – I’m speaking here as a professional scientist. Is the number of atoms in this grain of dust even or odd? There is a fact of the matter; there is absolutely no way for science to discover it. If Carrier had said “What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances might possibly be an empirical fact that science might be able to discover”, I would agree. But he didn’t say that. Don’t accuse me of some kind of nuclear skepticism when I’m just pointing out facts.

  56. brianpansky says

    @59
    sawells

    Have you considered that your emotional desire for there to be an objective moral system – you strongly dislike arguments to the contrary and describe them as “indifference/defeatism” – is blinding you to flaws in the argument?

    yes i’ve considered it. are you responding to something i said here, or just checking?

    I am not indifferent to moral questions; I have some very strongly held moral preferences and am very interested in other people’s. I am not defeatist on moral questions, I have strong hopes for the advancement of things that I consider to be moral goods. It is just that on consideration of the evidence and arguments, I conclude that moral claims are preferences rather than objective facts. This position has been given the ugly title of “moral nihilism”. Do not confuse this with nihilism tout court!

    sounds kinda similar to a position i was advancing just a few months ago, before i read carrier’s article.

    I have told you several important scientific grounds why head 5 as stated is not correct, and your only response is to say that Carrier thinks it is supported. He’s just wrong about that. Respond to my points on the science, please, or be prepared to either concede my point or at least to grant that it is arguable rather than a clear certainty as Carrier claims.

    sure, points 4-6 are empirical claims and i’d like to stay out of all empirical speculation.

    now we either have the facts to confirm/disprove 4-6, or we don’t. are you saying you have those facts/disconfirmation?

    if not, please please tell me you are in favor of alleviating that ignorance. with the use of science.

  57. alqpr says

    @57 -brianpansky

    maybe, but i’m pretty sure if there are 5 different forms of satisfaction, that being satisfied with all 5 can be called “maximizing”.

    Why “but”? Surely you understand that that is *exactly* what I meant by ‘when they “line up” there will be no difficulty in deciding what will make you most satisfied’.

    i strongly dislike what i perceive to be indifference/defeatism in this thread.

    If we were indifferent we wouldn’t still be arguing with you!
    Nor are we defeatist. I (and I suspect also Marcus Ranum and sawells) am very optimistic that real scientific research on how our brains work will lead to what I would consider improvements in the way we handle moral arguments – and that this may well lead to a world that I would prefer.

    Carrier apparently also believes that, and on that score I agree with him. But the deficiencies in his argument (compounded by his preening overconfidence in both himself and his conclusions) actually undermine the effectiveness of a message that needs to be understood (in order to build public support for the funding of further investigation).

    @55

    but let’s back away from the empirical claims for a bit here. look at those first 3 premises. do you agree with them?

    Mostly no. Not because they are wrong, like #5 is, but because they are “not even wrong” and so hardly worth arguing. But, assuming Ophelia still doesn’t mind, I will address them separately in further comments.

  58. brianpansky says

    @62
    alqpr

    Why “but”? Surely you understand that that is *exactly* what I meant by ‘when they “line up” there will be no difficulty in deciding what will make you most satisfied’.

    well you tacked on this part:

    as that implies having reduced the everything relevant down to a single number

    that seemed contrary to my “5 different forms of satisfaction” part.

  59. brianpansky says

    @60
    sawells

    Don’t accuse me of some kind of nuclear skepticism when I’m just pointing out facts.

    you were not “just” pointing out facts.

    you pointed out facts and declared the following conclusion to be true:

    “What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances is an empirical fact that science can discover” – is wrong

    as much as uncertainty applies to any other science, so too would it apply to the science of maximizing satisfaction.

    to use those facts (uncertainty) to conclude it is wrong to say that science can discover the fact is not a tenable position as far as i can see. (though i may have been using the term “nuclear argument” wrong)

    also, the “even or odd number of particles” is the same damn thing, requiring an arbitrarily low chance of error before you will admit science can tell us it. indeed for small objects, there are techniques to view the very molecules and count them (i’m in a material engineering course this semester, and viewing each individual atom in cyclic carbon chains was a real treat!). scaling this up is merely highly difficult.

  60. alqpr says

    @55 – brianpansky
    I actually did write up some comments expanding on my opinion of Carrier’s first three points, but I am not convinced that they are important.

    @63 – If for every possible set of constraints all 5 variables get maximized at the same choice of strategy then only one of them is necessary (and we can pretty much consider the others as just monotone functions of it). On the other hand, if there is any circumstance in which they don’t “line up” then before we can maximize we have to decide what we are going to be maximizing.

    @64 was not directed at me, but “What the sea creatures of Europa get their energy from is an empirical fact that science can discover” is wrong because (i) it refers with the definite article to an entity whose existence has not yet been established, and (ii) it uses an unconditional tense for a conditional statement.
    A corrected version would be “What any sea creatures of Europa would get their energy from would be an empirical fact that science would be able to discover”, or with less subjunctivitis “Whether or not there are sea creatures on Europa, and if so what they get their energy from are empirical facts that science can discover”

    P.S. Even counting all the atoms in an apparently static grain of crystalline salt is more than “merely highly difficult” compared to that of counting the six carbons in a benzene ring.

  61. brianpansky says

    @65

    I actually did write up some comments expanding on my opinion of Carrier’s first three points, but I am not convinced that they are important.

    well this is frustrating.

    If for every possible set of constraints all 5 variables get maximized at the same choice of strategy then only one of them is necessary (and we can pretty much consider the others as just monotone functions of it).

    obviously, yes.

    On the other hand, if there is any circumstance in which they don’t “line up” then before we can maximize we have to decide what we are going to be maximizing.

    not quite. if there are still some times when they can all be satisfied, then that would be referred to as maximizing. this occurs even if there is **no** way to choose one of them over the others.

    i think your response to 64 goes into “we don’t know yet” territory that is uninteresting to me unless you have the facts, at which point i hope you would hand them over.

    Even counting all the atoms in an apparently static grain of crystalline salt is more than “merely highly difficult” compared to that of counting the six carbons in a benzene ring.

    you don’t have to tell me that it’s difficult. my use of “merely” was in contrast to the claim of “beyond science”. “merely” was not supposed to mean it was feasible even within the next 10 000 years.

  62. alqpr says

    @66 I’ll grant you that “if there are still some times when they can all be satisfied, then that would be referred to as maximizing” but it wouldn’t make “maximizing” a viable general strategy – which is what is implied by Carrier’s “What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances is an empirical fact that science can discover”(emphasis added). For that to work, “satisfaction” has to be something which can always be maximized.

    re 64, the issue is that if “we don’t know yet”, then it is actually *wrong* to use language which implies that we do.

    re PS Given that the salt crystal is constantly exchanging water molecules with the air (some of which will always be in the midst of a process of binding or separating) it may well never be possible to get (or even make sense of) an exact count of atoms “in” the crystal (which is why I said “apparently” static).

  63. brianpansky says

    @68

    you are right, that word “any” does make a difference i suppose. premises 4-6 are empirical claims. i already said i knew that!

    the issue is that if “we don’t know yet”, then it is actually *wrong* to use language which implies that we do.

    but if he does know, then it is correct to use such language.

    now, there are only a few options here:

    a) the first three premises are correct, but we don’t know the answer to the empirical questions yet. in this case, we need science to go look!

    b) the first three premises are correct, and we do know the answer to the empirical questions. i’m not interested in speculating what those answers are, i’m only interested in what they have been actually found to be!

    c) the first three premises are incorrect.

    so unless you have the facts to present, the only continued discussion i would be interested in is any dispute over the first 3 premises.

    also notice that i’ve used the word “we”, which i suppose should refer to the scientific community actually? the previous “we” you responded to was written by me without clearly thinking about who i was talking about.

    re: the salt crystal, yes indeed.

  64. alqpr says

    @69

    if he does know, then it is correct to use such language

    And if he (or anyone else) ever provided convincing evidence for that, then I wouldn’t need 200 pages of “syllogisms” to convince me that we are on to something that looks very much like the foundations for a scientific understanding of morality!

    In the meantime *I* am “not interested” in Carrier’s mental contortions (though If you really want to see why they are “not even wrong” I have posted some comments in a footnote on my own blog).

    So let’s just agree that there’s lots of interesting science to be done – and give Ophelia her thread back!

  65. brianpansky says

    meh. points 1-3 don’t need much added on. carrier only added on what he thought was true, not what was logically necessary.

    after points 1-3 are accepted, everyday experience is enough to show that there is such a thing as satisfaction and dissatisfaction, and so from experience we already know that some outcomes are better than others, and so some actions are. (this was easy for me to forget in earlier posts, because people were getting ahead of themselves)

    that is all that is required to conclude that therefore moral facts exist. i’m even less convinced now that there are can be problems with this. none of the disputes of the details after this can undo it.

    alqpr, i’d like to see your points i guess, though clicking on your name doesn’t bring me to your blog, do you have a link?

  66. alqpr says

    everyday experience is enough to show that there is such a thing as satisfaction and dissatisfaction, and so from experience we already know that some outcomes are better than others , and so some actions are. (this was easy for me to forget in earlier posts, because people were getting ahead of themselves)

    So apparently you have now decided instead to “forget” the whole point of what we have been going on about for the last 50 odd comments?

    To refresh your memory: In *my* experience there are different kinds of “satisfaction” so it is not clear that I can always decide which of two outcomes is “better”. That some outcomes are better than others is of course true – we see it when the different kinds of satisfaction “line up”.
    Of course it is possible that some kind of scientific knowledge about the different kinds of satisfaction might help us when there is a real moral conundrum to resolve, and none of the commenters here has suggested that it would not be a very good idea to keep on looking for such knowledge. But no-one has provided me with convincing evidence that the kind of ordered overall satisfaction variable they propose really does exist. We can hope if we like but we do not know; Carrier and Harris claim to know, and in that they are wrong.

    P.S. http://qpr.ca/blog

  67. says

    I’m going to mash a few of your comments together, because maybe that will help you see what you’re doing…
    blockquote
    The short form is that Carrier presupposes we have an ability to accurately tell what is best in various situations, and rests his argument on that.
    i’m really not seeing that anywhere.
    i’m pretty sure if there are 5 different forms of satisfaction, that being satisfied with all 5 can be called “maximizing”.
    as much as it applies to any other science, so too would it apply to the science of maximizing satisfaction

    You’re not seeing it because it’s carefully hidden. That’s the trick. The idea that we have an ability to tell what is “maximum satisfaction” or “imperative” or that we have the ability to tell that one “imperative” is better than another is the part where Carrier presupposes morality. Because: if we had a certain way to do that, it would be a system of objective morality. Carrier is assuming his conclusion in his argument; he’s just hidden it so well he can fool you and maybe even himself.

    You’re even trying to dress it up with a bit of scientism, “the science of maximizing satisfaction” forsooth! My, that sounds nice. But …. hold on a minute! See, a “science of maximizing satisfaction” would have predictive power wouldn’t it? That’s what sciences do; indeed it’s how we know we’ve actually got science going on. That’s actually the problem that made me develop my concern that a true system of morality would produce the same results regardless of time. If you want to be sciencey, consider that physical law doesn’t change based on how much we believe in it. A science is resistant to opinion – not built on it.

    i strongly dislike what i perceive to be indifference/defeatism in this threat

    That’s your opinion. I am actually quite optimistic and – as you can tell from the effort that I and others have expended in arguing with you – far from indifferent.

    It is my opinion that historically, great problems have resulted from people having an unwarranted certainty about what is right! (in Marcus-land, I’d say “they mistake their opinion for a fact”) That is why I think Carrier’s assertions are counter-productive: they encourage people to place undue reliance on their opinion about what “maximizes satisfaction” or whatnot, and it seems to me to increase the likelihood that they are mistaken; having unwarranted certainty makes a person less likely to, um, ask everyone involved, “what do you think?” I see rejection of objective morality and adoption of a moral nihilist position as liberating because it defangs those who wish to assert their opinions as facts, and encourages all the stakeholders in a situation to speak in terms of their opinion about maximizing their own satisfaction. Democracy’s foundation is moral nihilism; that there is no objective morality or science of morality that can be leveraged onto people for their own good.

    Here’s what it boils down to:
    Q: How do you know what people should do in a given situation?
    A; They should do what’s best!
    Q: How do you know what’s best?
    A: It’s what maximizes satisfaction!
    Q: How do you know what maximizes satisfaction?
    A: It’s a matter of making the correct decision!
    Q: What is “correct”?
    A: “correct” is what’s best!
    (repeat)

    Hume’s famous is/ought chasm comes from an aside remark that he made about how many philosophers jump from making observations about fact, to prescriptions about what people ought to do, without covering the necessary ground that anchors their prescription in fact. Carrier, at least, isn’t saying what people should or shouldn’t do – but he’s making a rather circular claim that, pace Hume, it’s possible to build a prescriptive system that is correct based on observable facts. Go ahead, Richard – knock yourself out and use your logic to build us a prescriptive moral system based on your logic. I’m confident that it’ll be a mass of opinion – well thought-out and passionately argued opinion. Which to me, is just fine, because as a moral nihilist I’m comfortable with that. Because that’s where I start, already, anyway. So does everyone else, it’s just a question of whether they acknowledge it or not.

    conclude that therefore moral facts exist

    Great: why don’t you share a few with us?

  68. says

    everyday experience is enough to show that there is such a thing as satisfaction and dissatisfaction, and so from experience we already know that some outcomes are better than others ,

    Consider that satisfaction and dissatisfaction are a matter of opinion. It is a fact that Marcus is dissatisfied with his lunch; it is not a fact that Marcus’ lunch was “unsatisfactory” in general. To me, my ham sandwich was unsatisfactory (in my opinion) because it was just bread and cheese with no ham. To my vegetarian friend Mike, my ham sandwich sans ham was eminently satisfactory (in his opinion) and I should have been satisfied with it. From experience it is my opinion that a ham filled outcome is “better” than a hamless outcome and in Mike’s opinion it is not. That we have those opinions is a matter of fact. Are those opinions true facts? They cannot be, because they contradict eachother. Thus, the only way to have truth in the situation as I describe it is to acknowledge that “satisfaction” is a matter of opinion and is not an objective fact – though we can have plenty of facts about opinions, as this example shows pretty clearly!

    alqpr writes:
    Of course it is possible that some kind of scientific knowledge about the different kinds of satisfaction might help us when there is a real moral conundrum to resolve

    We could imagine a satisfaction-o-meter that interprets the data from an MRI and is able to accurately determine whether someone is satisfied or not. And we could imagine putting that satisfaction-o-meter on Hitler’s head and asking him “do you think you did the right thing?” and you’re going to measure high satisfaction. The problem is that “satisfaction” presupposes that we already have an idea of how the world should be, and we are measuring our comfortableness with that, not any moral facts. Let’s say that it’s a fact that Hitler registered a perfect 10 on the satisfaction-o-meter in 1935, and it’s a fact that he scored a 6 in 1944. How is this useful to us? It’s not.

  69. alqpr says

    Marcus: I have never considered the question of whether or not the 3rd Reich was overall a “good thing” to be a “moral conundrum”. But if you do find it hard to decide, I can *imagine* that applying your satisfaction-o-meter to everyone (or perhaps just to a substantial enough stratified random sample of all humans) in 1945 (or any time since) would give a substantial signal in the negative direction.

  70. says

    Another slightly tangential point to consider in this discussion …

    What if “right” and “wrong” are vague concepts? It’s my opinion that they are, since they behave that way in discussion. Can a prescriptive morality be built on vague concepts? I would argue that a legal system certainly can be, and that’s generally how it’s done.

    Let’s use “drunk” as an example of a “vague concept” – in order to be able to determine when someone is “drunk” the state uses blood alcohol content. At 0.05% I am legally drunk. At 0.04999999999999% I am not. Is there, at some point, a molecule of alcohol that makes me switch from “sober” to “drunk”? Of course it’s even more complicated than that – in some jurisdictions it’s 0.08%. In Israel it’s 0.024%. In the Cayman islands it’s 0.1% (no shit!)

    The point is that legalisms like BAC are attempts to remove the vagueness of a concept in order to make it practically usable as a matter of fact; “Marcus is falling-down drunk” is an opinion, but “Marcus’ BAC is 0.1%” is a fact, barring calibration and measurement problems. Legal systems associate these vague concepts into measurable facts using heuristics that allow them to be applied fairly and repeatably. I suspect this is less out of concern for fairness(*) than it is in order to prevent endless argument about what “is” is.

    In these discussions about “objective morality” we often neglect that the concepts we’re using to build “morality” out of are generally vague. That’s where opinion comes in; we can argue a lot about where something vague falls, based on opinion – and we see that happen all the time. We collectively can’t even seem to agree when someone is dead, or when a fetus is a “person”(**) or when someone is drunk or high or lying(***) – legal systems try to eliminate these all-important vague concepts all the time, and that they are highly arguable is attested to by the presence of lawyers.

    That’s another reason I am suspicious when someone talks about “objective morality” – it would propose being able to rule right/wrong should/shouldn’t on topics that we can’t even agree are topics at all. Indeed, right and wrong and should/shouldn’t are vague concepts, themselves. Imagine we have a scientifical way of measuring “satisfaction” – and we come to a situation in which two people’s satisfactions are opposed and the moral system must help us decide whose satisfaction trumps the other.(****) well, the cut-off point will be vague!! What if Alice’s satisfaction is .01% and Bob’s satisfaction is .0999999%? Is the ‘right thing to do’ found in the hundred millionths of units of satisfaction?

    Utilitarians talk a glib game about maximizing outcomes or reducing suffering but they are hand-waving past the fact that when dealing with vague concepts you’re going to inevitably have to weigh opinions. And the way humans have historically done that is to legalize them and establish cut-offs to make them less arbitrary. I don’t like Carrier’s argument because it seems to me that what he’s saying is “utilitarianism is not dead! because it can in principle be based on facts!” Maybe it can be based on facts about vague concepts, but that’s just facts about opinions.

    All this stuff about objective morality is a huge waste of time. We have seen that legal systems work: they turn vague concepts into measurable enough parameters that we can argue the facts surrounding those parameters. Was the blood alcohol meter correctly calibrated? How bad do your eyes have to be before you are “legally blind”? etc. In democratic societies we can even hope to make our legal systems subject to the will of the people, with certain parts of the system protected from the whim of a majority or disproportionate influence of wealth (although, in practice, we never seem to see that work). Accepting moral nihilism and focusing on our legal systems even allows us to be socially nimble – we can turn on a dime and say “OK, marijuana is now legal please don’t drive under the influence because it may be dangerous to others!” and we can remove the moral dimension entirely from important social decisions like LGBT marriage rights, substance abuse, and wearing mixed-fiber clothes. Throughout human history we have behaved as moral relativists even when we claimed to believe in “divinely inspired morals” which forced us to flout the will of the gods.

    Accepting moral nihilism is not a bad thing. It doesn’t mean we can’t live lives in which we are concerned about our fellow humans’ well-being. It simply means that we acknowledge we lack the certainty that we get by adopting philosophically untenable positions about absolute interpretations of vague concepts. That forces us to open the dialogue among our fellow humans and to listen to their opinions about what they want under the circumstances in which they find themselves. It frees us up to be able to say “it’s a fact that 99.9% of people don’t want to be killed; let’s define killing as illegal.” Not wrong. That’s too vague. How about “something that nobody wants to have happen to them, therefore don’t do it unless they ask you for it.” It also allows us to say “51% of people in this country are OK with gay marriage and the numbers are swinging more in that direction all the time. let’s start making it legal because it’s going to swing even further that way in the next decade and we, as a society, need to adopt new practices that fit with overwhelming opinion.”

    (* whatever that is)
    (** I say 18)
    (*** how self-aware does a lie have to be? a little? completely?)
    (**** I would call this “a difference of opinion”)

  71. says

    Marcus: I have never considered the question of whether or not the 3rd Reich was overall a “good thing” to be a “moral conundrum”

    Me either. The fact that a lot of people took up arms against it is way they expressed their opinion.
    The problem is that, obviously, there were some people who disagreed.

    There was way too much certainty about what was “right” and “wrong” coming from the nazis; that’s a danger sign to me.

  72. alqpr says

    If you have never considered the question of whether or not the 3rd Reich was overall a “good thing” to be a “moral conundrum”, then why did you introduce it in response to my concession that “Of course it is possible that some kind of scientific knowledge about the different kinds of satisfaction might help us when there is a real moral conundrum to resolve”?

    In fact you yourself have indicated that in borderline cases of other vague concepts (such as drunkenness) we often find it useful to find some precise measurable quantity and draw a line in terms of that. It is quite possible that new kinds of biometry might be used to help us understand and accept the extent to which an act of ours is likely to satisfy or distress another – where we might otherwise have rejected mere verbal testimony and outward emotional display (eg perhaps because, due to different genes and personal history, our own reaction would be very different).

  73. sawells says

    @brian: firstly, if you say “Look at Carrier’s argument”, which has six heads, it’s silly to subsequently say you only care about three of them, since all of them are needed for Carrier’s argument.

    Secondly, you are still talking as though Carrier’s head 5 is salvageable when I have given you solid physical grounds why it can’t be. It involves detailed predictions of the future state of a complex dynamic system, and we do not live in the kind of universe where that is actually possible in general. The only defence you or Carrier have offered to this is to say that the problem here is no worse than in other fields, but this is merely to say that a lethal objection in one field is a lethal objection in another; the logic is still dead.

    Thirdly, you’re now falling back to head 1-3, and I already told you that I don’t agree with head 2, partly because it conflicts with head 3. Carrier asserts as head 2: The moral is that which we should do above all else. Now, this sentence can be read two ways and they’re both either wrong or vacuous. Read one way, it says that whatever we must do above all else, that’s what is moral. This is vacuous as it’s undefined what we must do above all else and why, plus it means you can call absolutely anything moral if you say that it was what you had to do above all else. Read another way, it says that the moral imperative supercedes all other imperatives. But in head 3 we note that all imperatives are hypothetical, taking the form Must X in order that Y; so where is the Y for this X? The moral is what we must do above all else in order to be moral; big whoop. If being moral isn’t someone’s biggest priority then they will act immorally and when you tell them that’s immoral they will say yes and carry right on. And of course since we don’t what know what is moral, I can hardly grant you that this being-moral is the necessity that supercedes all others because I don’t know what I’d be granting.

    I think this is where we came in, so I’m bowing out. Cheers, it’s been interesting.

  74. says

    If you have never considered the question of whether or not the 3rd Reich was overall a “good thing” to be a “moral conundrum”, then why did you introduce it in response to my concession that “Of course it is possible that some kind of scientific knowledge about the different kinds of satisfaction might help us when there is a real moral conundrum to resolve”?

    That was a mistake on my part. In no way was I trying to imply that it was a “conundrum”!

    I introduced the Hitler aspect because (though we can’t really tell) Hitler appears to have not thought his actions were hugely immoral. It’s really the same issue as the hamless ham sandwich: what happens when two parties are both seeking satisfaction and disagree about what is most satisfying (or “best” in moral terms)? I would argue that if one has a moral system that purports to be useful at all, it will help resolve exactly that kind of question. Which is why I would expect any useful moral system to consistently view Hitler’s actions as wrong, slavery as wrong, etc.

    I note that my expectations, as voiced in the last sentence above, are my opinions about what a proper moral system would decide. I expect that most of us would agree, based on our education, surroundings, and how we are raised today.

  75. says

    Another problem with the idea of “satisfaction” is that it’s going to be self-reported. We really have no way of telling if someone is lying or not. Which means that, in some situations, someone other than the individual is going to decide whether or not they think that the individual’s reported assessment of satisfaction is correct or not. I.e.: an opinion about an opinion.

    Morality: it’s opinions all the way down.

  76. says

    I wrote:
    What if “right” and “wrong” are vague concepts?

    I should not have cast that as a rhetorical question; it weakens it too much. “Right” and “wrong” are vague concepts.

  77. brianpansky says

    there seems to be a misunderstanding about premise 2. people seem to think it is instructing our actions. it isn’t, it is just the semantics so that people can follow carrier’s usage of “moral”. if anyone wants to protest that “well we can obviously define moral as anything we want!” then i invite you to explain how moral can refer to something we should not do. which is to say that no, this usage isn’t arbitrary.

    @ marcus ranum:

    It is a fact that Marcus is dissatisfied with his lunch; it is not a fact that Marcus’ lunch was “unsatisfactory” in general.

    the fact you mentioned in the first part of the sentence is all that is required for moral nihilism to be untenable. that kind of fact gives a basis for hypothetical imperatives to run on, and therefore doing so is not “self referential” but rather based empirically.

    @ alqpr, as for the “simultaneously satisfied and regretting” thing:

    i don’t see the difficulty here at all. you have two variables, each of which may behave independently of each other, or have a dependence relationship, it doesn’t matter. compare one variation of them to another variation of them. if you prefer one variation to another, then that is your answer. if you don’t have a preference, then the two variations are equivalent and there is still no problem.

    i could go on and write similar things for more than two, or comparing between different numbers.

    hopefully that helps. if i misunderstood, please explain.

  78. alqpr says

    @brianpansky – Well, it does look to me as if you misunderstood, so perhaps people won’t mind if I take up space with further explanation. Your assertion that “if you don’t have a preference, then the two variations are equivalent and there is still no problem” is true only if I *do* have a well-defined valuation system with which to compare alternatives. But in the case of independent variables I may not. In the latter case not having a preference means that the two situations are not comparable (which is about as far as you can get from “equivalent”). Or putting it another way “equivalent” means nothing if it doesn’t mean having equal values of some property. Two things which do not share such a property can therefore clearly not correctly be called “equivalent”.

    Perhaps an example will help. Today I was skiing. A legitimate question in that context might be “do you prefer snowboarding or skiing?”. Another legitimate question might be “would you prefer the granola bar or the sandwich?” Anyone who asked “do you prefer skiing or granola bars?” would rightly be dismissed as nuts (or perhaps, even worse, a philosopher). If, when the respondent expressed confusion, the interlocutor would go on to say “Aha! so you think skiing and granola bars are equivalent”, then that would resolve the previous confusion in the less favourable direction.

  79. alqpr says

    Marcus:

    That was a mistake on my part. In no way was I trying to imply that it was a “conundrum”!

    But the more serious mistake was thinking or implying that it provided a challenge to the quote from me that prompted it.

    Personally, I am not in the business of defining a “proper moral system”. But if I were, then I think I could not with any self-respect say all three of ” I would expect any useful moral system to consistently view Hitler’s actions as wrong”, “Hitler appears to have not thought his actions were hugely immoral” and “Morality: it’s opinions all the way down.”

  80. brianpansky says

    @85
    alqpr

    your example is nice, yet does not present a problem/conflict between the choices of skiing or granola bar. i had presented two alternatives assuming there was a conflict. either a preference or no preference. a third option i could have added is “no conflict” or something.

    i don’t see how it presents a challenge to a satisfaction/preference model, please explain what the problem is.

    (i can imagine someone saying “if you take this granola bar, you can’t go skiing. if you go skiing, you can’t have this granola bar”. only in such a situation is there a conflict, at which point it does make sense to consider the two option i presented, either a preference, or no preference.)

  81. says

    alqpr:
    if I were, then I think I could not with any self-respect say

    Yeah, you and Sextus Empiricus.Have fun, just keep your vaseline off my sheets.

  82. alqpr says

    @brianpansky: The purpose of that example was just to show that, in general (ie without having to make an immediate choice), not having a preference between two things does not necessarily mean that they are “equivalent”, so I should not have phrased the granola bar vs sandwich question as an immediate choice between two mutually exclusive alternatives but rather should instead have put the question in the same general form as the others ie as “do you prefer sweet food or savoury?” or “which do you prefer, the flavour of clams or of oysters?”

    I understand that the case of general preference rather than making choices was not your primary interest, and I agree that a better example is needed in order to illustrate the fact that lack of preference in a conflict situation (where one has to choose between two mutually exclusive alternatives) does not imply equivalence of the alternatives. In the skiing vs granola bars situation, neither option is really exclusive, even in the way you present it, because I may not mind postponing my ski til tomorrow or paying for my own granola bar (if you are such a jerk as to attach a pointless condition to giving me one). A more challenging (but equally unrealistic) example might be having to choose between giving up either a favourite activity or a favourite food – either permanently or for a substantial period like a whole year. (Actually I suppose there are probably medical situations in which this is not quite so unrealistic after all!)

    But perhaps something like ‘Sophie’s Choice’ would be more appropriate – maybe with certain additional details like expecting the son to be a great musician and the daughter a great artist. Or the thought processes of a recovering addict faced with ready access to a substantial supply of free heroin. The point in all these cases is that whatever one feels in the virtual mental coin toss of an immediate decision can be doubted and reversed over and over in the mind thereafter – but not with any sense that the two alternatives are “equivalent”. Indeed one might at one time feel very strongly that one had made the right decision or received the best treatment and at another time feel quite the reverse about the same situation, but most often be completely unable to decide – not because the values are equal but because they are not of the same kind.

    Some addicts might feel great satisfaction of self-respect and independence by going through withdrawal to eliminate their need, but there would be satisfaction of a different kind from a guaranteed permanent supply of the drug. There may or may not be a way of comparing the satisfaction of independence from that of secure access to bliss, but if there is I haven’t seen it yet.

    In such cases we do not yet have any way of comparing the amount of “satisfaction” generated in a single individual, let alone the total amount of overall human satisfaction.

    But all of the above are only hypothetical. I have never claimed that it is not possible that there might be a way of combining all of our competing types of satisfaction into some overall measure whose values can always be compared with one another – just that it is also possible that there is not. (In my opinion it is almost certain that there is not, but you don’t need to remind me again that opinions are of no interest to you).

    If there is a single quantity which measures the total overall satisfaction of an individual at any given time, then the only way to prove that is to find it. So when you do find out how to measure such a thing (or compute it from other measurements), please let me know.

    And once you also show me evidence of how that measure can be combined across all present and future individuals to get a generally agreed measure of aggregate satisfaction of all humans, then I won’t need any extra “syllogisms” from such as Carrier in order to recognize its usefulness.

  83. alqpr says

    ok Marcus, if you think my responses are off-base, then perhaps you could explain again what you found wrong with my concession that “Of course it is possible that some kind of scientific knowledge about the different kinds of satisfaction might help us when there is a real moral conundrum to resolve”

    It can’t be that Hitler was satisfied because no-one here has suggested that one person’s opinion is all that counts (although I, perhaps wrongly, thought that “it’s opinions all the way down” could be interpreted as including that possibility as the opinion of the person doing the deciding).

    Were you just misreading me, or do you really think that there is no possibility of any kind of scientific knowledge about what causes and/or indicates “satisfaction” that would be useful in deciding how we “should” treat one another?

  84. brianpansky says

    @89
    alqpr

    not having a preference between two things does not necessarily mean that they are “equivalent”

    there are some problems with what you say here. first, it is an assertion, and your following examples do not support it, they merely re-assert it. second, preference or no preference is an exhaustive list of the possibilities, so your attempts to get around it are futile.

    since those two possibilities handle your measurement problem, the end of your post is then reduced to a demand for the facts (which is red herring), but i cannot see any way for you to hold moral nihilism (that there are no facts).

  85. alqpr says

    Thank you @brianpansky for pointing out where I should have been clearer.( I don’t know if anyone else is getting anything from this exchange but it is definitely helpful for me to explore all possible ways that the idea of “maximizing satisfaction” might possibly be interpreted.)

    The problem with saying that not having a preference is “equivalence” is that it is not transitive and so is not an equivalence relation. For example I like both salmon and steak, but if I had to give up one I’d drop the steak; but when it comes to choosing between a physical activity and a food type I can’t decide. So, according to you, I find salmon and skiing equivalent and I find steak and skiing equivalent. But I do not find salmon and steak equivalent.

    Any definition of value in terms of preferences runs into the problem that the value defined that way may depend on what the item is compared against, so it doesn’t necessarily give an overall quantity with a well defined idea of what it means to “maximize” it over all possible scenarios. IF there is a consistent pattern of preferences satisfying the properties (such as transitivity again) required for an order relation, then there may be a well defined quantity corresponding to the order of preference which we can talk about maximizing ; but otherwise the word “maximize” is being misused.

    To see that preferences can conceivably fail to be transitive it might help to imagine different neurons (or brain regions or whatever) “voting” according to different aspects of the situation with some algorithm for combining the votes to determine the overall choice – and then study some of the many paradoxical situations that can arise under different rules for combining preferential ballots.

  86. John Morales says

    alqpr:

    ( I don’t know if anyone else is getting anything from this exchange but it is definitely helpful for me to explore all possible ways that the idea of “maximizing satisfaction” might possibly be interpreted.)

    Interpreted?

    I find it simplistic. Dissatisfaction no less important than satisfaction.

    (Otherwise, Omelas would sound promising)

  87. alqpr says

    simplistic?

    Yes, it certainly seems that way to me!

    (Which is why I am interested in how people who don’t seem completely stupid can find it useful)

  88. brianpansky says

    this discussion doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. it seems i just have to repeat myself.

    @92

    is it transitive?
    is “equivalent” the wrong word?
    is “maximize” the wrong word?

    whatever turns out to be the answer to your questions cannot undo moral realism, because hypothetical imperatives still tell us what we should do.

    given options of what to do, there will always be a preference (do the preferred one) or no preference (do whichever option). this is an exhaustive list of the possibilities.

    there is no way around this.

    @93

    i’m not sure what makes you think that satisfaction does not include consideration of dissatisfaction. but whatever word you use, we have options of what actions to do, and what i just said above applies. even in omelas.

  89. alqpr says

    Yes, “maximize” is the wrong word – which makes nonsense of Carrier’s claim 5: “What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances is an empirical fact that science can discover”. That’s the end of the line for me, and I have no interest in jumping the tracks for a sideways trip into the land of his claim 3 about “hypothetical imperatives”.

  90. brianpansky says

    Yes, “maximize” is the wrong word – which makes nonsense of Carrier’s claim 5: “What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances is an empirical fact that science can discover”

    you assert it is the wrong word. like, i already knew you do. but you did it again. huh.

    you didn’t want to go to carrier and question him directly about his wording. so you tried to use me for that, i guess, which kinda feels gross, but i was here only to discuss the topic i started on, moral realism vs moral nihilism.

    I have no interest in jumping the tracks for a sideways trip into the land of his claim 3 about “hypothetical imperatives”.

    was alqpr purposefully talking past me this entire time, or just oblivious?

    i’m inclined to think it was the former, given that in his personal blog he also admitted the following:

    I would be inclined to work harder at saving [premises 1-3] with a more “charitable” interpretation if either I saw any hope of saving his #5 or I saw any evidence of similar charity in Carrier’s own handling of the arguments of others.

    ya, i’m totally done talking to him in particular.

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