Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Possibility of an Objective Morality

My friend, Doug Drake, in his competing post titled Of Morality, Objective and Subjective quotes many authorities to demonstrate his thesis that humans are emotional animals. Given the persuasive nature of his arguments I now live in despair. I now know that all of objective truths of physics and chemistry are but illusions constructed by the silly scientists who fail to acknowledge the subjective quality of their explorations. I now know that we can know nothing of the nature and distances of the stars we see in the sky. My passionate fondness for the postulates and axioms of geometry mean that it is impossible for me to break free of my subjective prison and objectively prove any postulates of geometry. Alas, all claims to an objective understanding of anything has been demolished by Doug's impressive analytical onslaught.

Obviously, Doug in his essay did not say that his analysis proved that the domains of physics, chemistry, astronomy and geometry held no objective truths. However, The above paragraph is making a serious point. His failure was that he made no attempt whatsoever to look at truths which are universally acknowledged to be objective and ask if similar techniques could also be applied to moral reasoning.

I do not want the reader to take my argument as a flip dismissal of the point that Doug legitimately makes. I would assert that all valid dismissals of false claims of are in fact made within the context of our emotional nature as animals. We have learned about critical thinking and the scientific method. Actions and thinking that conform to what works by those criterion become associated with a positive emotional valance. As we learn about how to identify logical errors and unscientific thinking those become associated with some degree of negative emotional feeling. Thus we become rational beings while still being emotional animals.

I not only accept my emotional side, I celebrate it. We should feel free to bring the same joy of battle over the big questions of life as the marauding Vikings of centuries past. We should be free to use our tools of critical inquiry to wage war on any weak and unsound ideas that invade our social spaces. If a given understanding about our world survives the onslaught of our various tools of inquiry, it is much more likely that we can have confidence in it.

I would go even farther and suggest that much of the failure of secular humanists, atheists, agnostics and other secularists to have a political impact is due to the unfashionable style of discourse assumed by scientists as they make presentations or carefully hone the wording of their published papers. Our respect for the scientific method seems to convey an equal respect for the passive, third person, voice that is typically used in their communications. If we constrain ourselves to this type of stylistic “objectivity” then we will not resonate with the wider public. That said we obviously need to use the techniques of science to insure that our passions do not define or distort the findings of an objective inquiry.

Doug differs with Sam Harris when Harris asserts, “…most right-thinking, well-educated, and well-intentioned people – certainly most scientists and public intellectuals, and I would guess, most journalists – have been convinced that something in the last 200 years of intellectual progress has made it impossible to actually speak about “moral truth.” Not because human experience is so difficult to study or the brain too complex, but because there is thought to be no intellectual basis from which to say that anyone is ever right or wrong about questions of good and evil. My aim is to undermine this assumption, which is now the received opinion in science and philosophy.”

Unfortunately Sam Harris is correct and Doug is wrong on this point. This is most certainly the received opinion in science and philosophy. Doug did not include in his list of references to support his case G. E. Moore and his 1903 book Principia Ethica. In it Moore coined the phrase 'naturalistic fallacy' to describe any attempts to equate the term good with any natural property. As with all the other opinions cited by Doug G. E. Moore never proved any general principle. All he did was show that specific historical attempts to equate good with a naturalistic property such as pleasure did not work. He conceded in his book that it was entirely possible for someone to find a valid equivalence between good and some naturalistic property at some point in the future.

Doug did correctly include David Hume in his list of philosophers supporting his position. However, he left out the major argument made by Hume. Hume was famous for his conceptualization of the is-ought problem as a category error. Hume asserts that an ought or an ought not were entirely different from statements about what is. According to Wikipedia this complete severing of "is" from "ought" has been given the graphic designation of Hume's Guillotine.

This principle was communicated in a single, somewhat off the cuff paragraph, by Hume in his A Treatise of Human Nature. This was quite extraordinary because to me there is a simple and obvious mechanism to link the is and the ought. From a prior essay of mine, “Presume that we know that if we perform action A then we will have a consequence B. If we wish to achieve B then we can say that we "ought" to perform action A. The ought derives from the goal.” If there is to be some reason to select a given description of facts as an "ought" there must be something such as the seeking of a goal to provide the reason for that selection. I note that Wikipedia now has something very similar in its entry on the Is-Ought Problem.

All life has evolved over hundreds of millions of years. We have the goal to live and prosper in our ecosystem. The Darwinian principles of this process has honed every aspect of our existence including the goal seeking behavior implicit in all subjective understandings of moral value. Note that there is a substantial difference between the goals of an individual and the moral principles that are agreed to by a society of people working together. Any such wider agreement within groups of people on principle is still honed by the millions of years of evolutionary history. It is not arrived at by a purely subjective process even if subjectivity appears to be a central element of all of our moral responses.

Doug decries Sam Harris's use of emotion in his presentations when that is irrelevant to the central question that must be addressed. We know that many fields of science and mathematics have well defined definitions for objects of inquiry and the methods to determine the truth or falsehood of given propositions concerning those objects. The question then becomes whether or not Sam Harris and others who wish to develop a scientific analysis of the moral landscape can present the formal structure and tools so that others can replicate their findings. If findings can be replicated in a way that is analogous to fields we accept as objective then we have a new domain of objective inquiry.

I consider Sam Harris to be a bit of an amateur at the game of moral reasoning. He has done a remarkable job in publicizing the possibility of an objective morality. I commend him for that. However, Doug was able to read him without getting the salient principle that morality is an attempt to codify the goal seeking behavior implicit in human life itself. Doug cannot suggest that goal seeking is not objectively real. Doug suggests that Harris is saying “Anyone who doesn’t agree with him is consigned to outer darkness, without appeal, certainly a good way to deflect criticism if rather dubious as a means of approaching the truth.” However, Doug is the one that is doing this. He assumes without any justification that if he can point to any subjective experience in the cognition of those who claim moral principles that then he has demonstrated that absence of an objective reality. He does not realize that physics and chemistry are not real sciences by this criterion. All findings of objective fact rests on underlying emotions which value the tools which make those findings.

Yes human life does have goals. “Human flourishing” is a decent first attempt at a general term to capture that general goal. And yes those who somehow reject that goal seeking behavior as an objective fact worthy of systematization in a science of morality fully deserve the outer darkness they earn by that rejection. Such people are denying both the physical reality of the built in goal seeking behavior or the possibility to understand and systematize it into a system of morality. There is a very real link between the is and the ought.

Let's take the next step and demonstrate the required nature of any investigation of morality based on “human flourishing.” I think a needed first step is to recognize the limits of our cognitive tools to understand complex systems. I have gratitude to Gary for his excellent post titled Towards Understanding Rationality and its Limits Regarding Complex Issues. He presents cogent reasons why we need to limit the scale of the questions we ask to those where empirical evidence is either available or possible. That does not mean that we cannot ask complex questions but to be objective we need to reconstruct and document the extremely complex networks of causation that are needed to fully understand complex social systems.

Is it moral to use vaccinations against influenza viruses? We have empirical data to answer this as a moral question using the human flourishing criterion. Humans are not flourishing when they are sick and they certainly are not flourishing when they die. We have the objective evidence to demonstrate that vaccinations reduce instances of both sickness and death.

Doug had the legitimate concern that “(Secular delusions) in their most pathological manifestations, they can spawn secular religions such as “scientific” Communism, whose adherents believed just as fondly as Sam Harris that it would lead to a future of unprecedented 'human flourishing.'” We can dismiss this as a possibility if we respect the limits of our tools to assess objective facts as suggested in Gary's essay.

That does not mean that we cannot or should not push back when right-wing or left-wing ideologues propound positions that are not supported by the facts. It does mean we should do it with a bit of humility and the knowledge that we will not be able to unambiguously prove the morality of complex actions that should be taken.

I have a more robust treatment of a formal approach to ethics in my essay A Theory of Ethical Value published on-line here:

I do want to express my gratitude to Doug Drake for his very literate and informed essay starting this discussion.  My hope is that our discussion of the issues will bring a deeper understanding to our community.

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