July 12, 2020

The Council

A modern day council!

Is Christian Ethics Subjectivism?

Jimmy Stephens:

Each of these consequences can be rephrased as a precondition. We might start with the first consequence, “No person determines moral facts.” This is more or less the is-ought gap. If there are moral facts, they must be conceptually linked to personal agents whose moral qualities, behaviors, effects they concern. Moral facts are person oriented facts. For example, it is unintelligible to say of a universe without any persons, “It is good to be charitable,” since the terms lack any applicable referents. The trouble is that without a Creator God, you’re stuck with impersonalism. The ultimate nature of reality is not a person, but an impersonal set of laws, forces, or units, from which can be derived no values, no obligations, no personal facts whatsoever.

Atheist:

Okay, so I agree with you that no person determines the foundational moral truths. That’s the objectivism I think we both want to be able to justify. By extension there are objective moral facts (we’ll set aside if there are also subjective moral facts since it’s tangential to our debate). I also agree that no person rules humans in love, though that doesn’t seem necessary to me for things and persons to have objective value. As for no person motivates human moral activity it would seem to me that human moral activity is motived in complex psychological ways, but if you mean no person determines them from the top down I agree.

I think we need to clarify the is/ought gap here as it is often used as an argument for moral antirealism which is not how I read Hume as meaning it. In the famous passage all Hume is saying is that people make moral arguments with implicit moral premises that they never make explicit. It wasn’t meant to show that moral arguments can’t be made, just that we need to be clear on the moral premises as well as the empirical premises. He also argued that we gain knowledge of what is “the proper object of our moral sentiments” which only makes sense if morality is objective.

This and other things leads me to reject the early modernist notion that morality can’t be part of the objective universe merely because it isn’t knowable in the same ways as the empirical sciences. The conflation or objective with scientifically verifiable is what lead to the mistakes of behaviorism in psych.

There is nothing wrong with moral facts being both objective and both context and person sensitive in various cases. It is just the moral foundations that apply universally, their application can be very pluralistic.

It seems to me an impersonal foundation is exactly what we want for objective morality. It can take into account the personal when assessing what is good for real people, but the truths themselves should be true irrespective of any personal perspective. The alternative inevitably collapses into subjectivism. Instead I think we just have to be careful not to assume without argument that value and moral significance only exist when they’re actively assigned by a person.

Jimmy Stephens:

so I agree with you that no person determines the foundational moral truths. That’s the objectivism I think we both want to be able to justify.

That is wide of the mark. You and I have quite different conceptions of objectivity, and the challenge put to you is exactly that yours ends up without moral facts. We touched on this a bit previously. The idea of objectivity I hold is of moral facts not reducing to mere individual human preferences. They must be transcendent, universal, unchanging, and so cannot be grounded in human minds. This is perfectly compatible with a transcendent Tripersonal Creator, since God’s law would not be subject to time, space, human preference, etc. Hence, objective. What you want is actually impersonalism, not objectivism. However, on impersonalism, there is no moral objectivity because there cannot be moral facts in the first place, so my argument goes. So it is utterly mistaken to say, “we both want” the same thing.

Do not take this as dismissive, but I am not interested in exegeting Hume’s guillotine dilemma. Whatever Hume meant, I have introduced the is-ought gap as a dilemma on your metaphysics. It is a problem that arises because you have no Personal Creator, regardless what Hume wanted to say.

It seems to me an impersonal foundation is exactly what we want for objective morality. It can take into account the personal when assessing what is good for real people, but the truths themselves should be true irrespective of any personal perspective.

I do not know what it means to say impersonal facts “can take into account” something. That’s anthropomorphic language, but there’s no epistemic bridge between the language and whatever facts you have in mind. This is like pointing at thin air and referring to it as a person in the room.

On the contrary, if reality is ultimately impersonal, then reality simply lacks the metaphysical categories required for moral facts. Saying otherwise is like saying we don’t need persons for the reality of social contracts, that we don’t need minds for the reality of memories, or some other spooky metaphysical something-from-nothing.

We already touched on this. When I asked you what makes it the case that suffering is wrong, you had no response. You are reduced to saying, “It just is,” and if, “It just is,” is game, I’m happy to say, “It is just the case that Christianity is true, and Aaron’s worldview is incoherent,” and call it a day. Instead, I think the job of philosophy is to avoid it-just-is’s and come up with reasons remarkably less like a child’s playground fantasy.

Again, none of this is meant with disrespect, but the modern attitude of moral realists to be philosophical sloths and not do the hard job of actually accounting for things is as rotten as the modernist empiricism or the postmodernist antirealism.

Atheist:

Okay, then I have in mind a more robust kind of objectivism than you are looking to defend, which makes for an interesting distinction. I don’t love calling it impersonalism since there are kinds of objective moral truths and facts that apply to persons in virtue of their contingent natures, and so in that sense is both personal and objective. But with that caveat in mind we can use impersonalism to mean the stronger form of objectivism.

Saying an impersonal fact can be context sensitive doesn’t seem very controversial to me. For example, it’s a fact of the matter how many calories I need vs how many you need. Those facts are objective though they may be different numbers for each of us. It’s an impersonal fact that we should promote the well being of people we care about, but who those people might be would depend on who we care about (there’s a separate truth that we should also care about the well being of strangers just in case you thought I was denying that).

I think moral facts precede the social contract. Take natural rights for example, We have them in virtue of our nature and they are correctly cognized by just societies.

I did have a response to why suffering is wrong, that it is a non-instrumentally negative mental state, which is to say it’s a state that has “too be avoidedness” as part of its essential nature. You may not find that personally satisfying as an answer but I’ll need you to present an argument for why it’s insufficient. Remember that a sufficient conceptual analysis is going to be tautological, but not necessarily in a vicious way. So it is with my analysis of suffering.

No offense taken. I’ve been working hard on these problems for about fifteen years and they remain hard problems. Please don’t confuse my hard earned and honest answers with sloth, and I’ll avoid thinking the same about appeals to god. I’m still not seeing an argument against secular moral realism, just the repeated assertion that reality can’t just be value laden.

Jimmy Stephens:

The argument, previously introduced, against “too be avoidedness” is that we can substitute it for “to be sought” without any intellectual consequence. Nothing about suffering, per se, priviledges belief that it is bad or a “negative mental state.” Therefore, this meta-ethic makes ethics unknowable, and that is a good reason alone for rejecting it.

As a separate objection, we can raise the old is-ought problem. There simply is nothing about suffering that obligates its avoidance. Suffering is merely a sensation that violates the personal prefernces of its recipient. So what? Why do their preferences get to dictate anything for the rest of humanity? We can see, peeling back the verbage, this is really subjectivism hiding under a veneer of objective values.

I agree moral facts precede social contracts (and are, in fact, a precondition of them). However, I have no idea what it means to say human beings have rights apart from divine bestowal. Ants, dolphins, waterphals, dirt molecules, and viruses don’t have rights. Whence human rights?

To say that we could just as easily assign “to be soughtness” to suffering or “to be avoidedness” to flourishing is just to not understand these concepts.

If so, that ruins your justification. It turns your concepts of suffering and flourishing into deepities. If suffering means a preference/comfort-violating experience, then you have to establish why it is encumbent upon us to avoid those experiences. However, if you’ve just defined suffering to mean experiences we should avoid, you’ll have to show why the morality-bear version of the term counts as an instantiation.

I don’t think this makes metaethics unknowable because we have both reason and the ability to experience value laden states directly.

Equivocation. We have the ability to experience states we value. Our evaluation of them does not constitute extramental value. That would be subjectivism.

[T]he “is-ought” problem isn’t an argument, since it. . .assumes a kind of naive physicalism. . .

I do not see where my argument assumed physicalism. It hinges on the idea that non-transcendent, spatiotemporally limited, individuals whose preferences can be alethically indifferent are not sufficient grounds of transcendent, unchanging facts that hold quite apart from a human individual’s preferences. God satisfies that criterion. Human phenomenology falls short. It’s that simple.

If I locked you in a room and. . .it would harm your objective flourishing.

If it violates the law of God, sure. You keep borrowing the law and neglect to proffer a substitutionary ground for it. Sure, we both agree it’s cosmically illegal to violate someone’s well-being. But you’re additionally saying that notion doesn’t require a Legislator. Okay, I’m game. What’s the alternative that makes law possible without a Law Writer?

All sentient beings have some right. . .

Says who? Belief in human rights is perfectly warranted on Christian Theism. Why do humans have rights apart from divine bestowal?

Vincent Ransom:

Beyond even that (adding another angle to the last bit Necessitarian wrote on), should we jail or execute animals that rape, unjustly kill, steal, etc.? In essence, if the rights of one animal have been violated by another animal, should the transgressing animal suffer legal/punitive consequences? (all animals in these questions are sentient, of course)

Atheist:

I do not think my concepts of suffering and flourishing are deepities, if you mean that they are trivial. I think I can give substantive accounts of both that include as part of their features this property of “too be doneness” and “too be avoidness”. Those features are not sufficient accounts of the concepts though. Remember that any conceptual truth is going to be a tautology but not all tautologies are trivial, some can form key premises (like with the law of identity) in substantive arguments. If you’re concerned that I’m cheating with my moral foundations though, we can talk about the moral foundation “all things being equal, one ought to reduce inequity”. Inequity as a concept is clearly not equivalent to “too be avoidness”, and is arguably objectively, non-instrumentally valuable. I just use suffering and flourishing as my go to examples as they’re the easiest for folks to understand. I hope that addresses your deepity concern.

Founding objective moral claims in part on mental states we experience isn’t subjectivism on my view, because subjectivism is a claim about the grounding of moral truths not a claim about our access to those moral truths. My access to all truths is subjective (as is yours) but I can be justified in believing some of those subjective experiences track objective truths. We do this with objectively true claims about the external world and a substantive argument is needed to prove we can’t do this with objective moral truths as well. I don’t see any of this as an equivocation unless you conflate grounding and access questions, which I’m not.

Can you please explain to me what you mean by the is-ought problem and how you see it applying to our debate. Generally it is combined with physicalism in an attempt to show that claims about non-physical things aren’t groundable in reality. Or is it just a restatement of your subjectivism accusation? If locking you in a room didn’t violate the law of god, would it still be immoral?

As for “laws require lawgivers”, this just strikes me as a category error/projection fallacy where you take the kinds of laws that make up society and assume all laws must be like them without giving an argument why that is the case. There’s no reason I can see to conclude the laws of logic or the natural world require lawgivers, but I’m open to seeing one if you have such an argument.

As for rights, they are descriptions of what we owe to one another in virtue of our nature. They are true in virtue of our nature combined with the laws of logic. There is no one who “says who” because that would make them subjective and contingent when they are not.

We should not jail or execute animals that act immorally any more than we should jail an infant that acts immorally, not because it didn’t do something wrong, but because it doesn’t understand what it did and so the punishment is pointless and unjustified. We should lock up entities that persistently cause harm to prevent them from causing that harm to others, but that is an unfortunate last resort option. This is comparable to saying animals have rights to bodily autonomy and freedom from suffering but would not be given the right to vote as they would not understand the concept.

Jimmy Stephens:

Founding objective moral claims in part on mental states we experience isn’t subjectivism on my view, because subjectivism is a claim about the grounding of moral truths not a claim about our access to those moral truths

Exactly, and since the ground is the transient preferences of a spatiotemporal agent, whose preferences aren’t truth-tracking, you have no metaphysical foundation for unchaning, transcendent moral truths. Whatever a moral fact is on your metaphysic, if its built on a foundation subject to change, location, and perspectival indifference to truth, then you don’t have moral facts at all. You just have preferences projected authotheistically, and probably violently, on others.

I think I can give substantive accounts of both that include as part of their features this property of “too be doneness” and “too be avoidness”.

I am very interested to read said account.

If locking you in a room didn’t violate the law of god, would it still be immoral?

Of course not – that is exactly the point in dispute, friend. If God is necessary for morality, what does it even mean to say, “Quite apart from God, this or that is immoral”?

Asking why you cannot have the law with the Legislator is like asking why you cannot have a story without an author. The question verges on levels of frivolity where we might just have to leave them to be disproven bare facedly.

There’s no reason I can see to conclude the laws of logic or the natural world require lawgivers, but I’m open to seeing one if you have such an argument.

On the contrary, I have no idea what it even means to describe the universe in anthropomorphic terms of lawlikeness if there is no personal Lord sovereignly governing the cosmos. The term “law” as used in science emerges from a robustly Christian past. If you want to refer to nomological laws as a counterexample to my law-lawgiver point, you’re just going to meet the same challenge of cogently accounting for laws without God in that domain as well.

They are true in virtue of our nature combined with the laws of logic.

Okay, how does a fact of responsibility toward another follow from facts about human nature combined with the laws of logic, on your view?

There is no one who “says who” because that would make them subjective and contingent when they are not.

Repeating a correction I have made several times now, not if the Sayer is not contingent and the arbitrator of reality.

Complaining that reality would be “subjective” to God is like complaining that a story is subject to the author. Yes, it is precisely because such things are subject to their respective, upper-case-vs-lower-case creators that there is an objective fact of the matter about said reality/story.

Atheist:

“Exactly, and since the ground is the transient preferences of a spatiotemporal agent, whose preferences aren’t truth-tracking, you have no metaphysical foundation for unchaning, transcendent moral truths.”

This is an inferential jump that went out of style post Plato. The idea that our concepts have to track some transcendent platonic forms in order to be tracking objective truths doesn’t seem to follow from any sound argument (that I’ve seen). It can be true that “in all times and places, it is wrong, all things being equal, to promote inequity” even if the entities who experience the inequity are flitting into and out of existence. Just like the laws of nature can be true even if they only apply to contingent beings.

Flourishing: A state of growth/development where an entity is challenged in the right ways and overcomes those challenges in such a way that they achieve their projects of worth and move towards being the best version of themselves they can be. In humans such a state is achieved through the habituation of virtues. Flourishing is an end in itself and so is not achieved as a means to any further end, and it is objectively valuable for any being that can flourish to do so, and so it has “to be doneness” built into it.

If by god’s law you just mean the moral law that god consistently tracks that’s fine. If by the god’s law you mean something that is determined only by god’s will then as I’ve said that remains subjective (but we’re trying to avoid going back to the god side for now so I’ll hold off here)

Asking how you can have a law without a lawgiver is not a frivolity, if you understand laws as just accurate descriptions of the way things are or ought to be. Such accurate descriptions like the speed of light can be true even if there is no one there to discover them, as they were for thousands of years. There’s no problem I see accounting for such consistency without appeal to a creator.

If we should treat all like things equally (basic principle of logical consistency), and various sentient beings are relatively similar, they ought to get equal consideration in our moral judgments. Singer is particularly good on this with his animal liberation paper. His argument there is sound.

Since I’m defending my metaethics rather than attacking the christian one, I’ll just close by saying I see no reason to conclude “laws” as described above require lawgivers. I think it’s good to avoid analogies to things like stories here, though I would also argue that a story can exist without a storyteller, if a story is just an accurate account of events.

Jimmy Stephens:

It can be true that “in all times and places, it is wrong, all things being equal, to promote inequity” even if the entities who experience the inequity are flitting into and out of existence.

This misses the objection. The objection is not that a universal about particular experiences cannot hold. The objection is that a universal grounded in particular experiences cannot exist. In order for a fact to be transcendnet, universal, unchanging, it cannot be true in virtue of a located, transient particular. Metaphorically, your meta-ethic has us building castles in the clouds: not a good foundation. Your definition of flourishing is a good introduction, but it does not entail that suffering should be avoided and it is not itself entailed by acquaintance with or notions of suffering. Instead, abstract ideas of “growth,” “development,” “overcoming,” “best version,” unbound to the idea, “avoid suffering” are used. Without further reason, we are free to define “growth” as “stepping on frogs because it’s funny” or “development” as “learning how to subjugate women,” contrary to your contension.

If by the god’s law you mean something that is determined only by god’s will then as I’ve said that remains subjective

I have responded to this sufficiently, ad nauseum. Unless you can introduce a reason why my rebuttal fails, and not just repeat the same assertion, it is unfruitful to continue this point.

. . .if you understand laws as just accurate descriptions of the way things are or ought to be.

1.) This trivializes the word. We ought to substitute “description” since it better conveys the concept. Law is a term suited for things legislated. Already this should

– Already this view asks from us superfluous semantic inaccuracy. 2.) Saying moral/nomological laws are true descriptions is trivial. What is significant is what they describe. The challenge here is how there are even law-like entities/relations to be described without a Legislator. You’ve confused the map and the territory.

Atheist:

I gotta go teach but if you perfere “objective description” to “law” I can use that from now on if it clears up this semantic confusion. I think I made the case against god just fine but we’ll leave that for folks to read back through.

If a universal can be instantiated in particular events it can be instantiated in particular experiences a well, since experiences are just events. Your argument, were it to work, would undermine all objective knowledge including belief in your own religious text as our experiences of such things are also entirely particular in nature.

I gave you a definition of flourishing. How that definition is applied in various contexts is the work of ethics as a lifelong project. That is not the same as showing that some particular accounts of flourishing can’t be better or worse than others.

We don’t need a determinor for determinism to be true. I don’t think I’m confusing the map and the territory here at all, I’m just not buying the assumption that regularity can only arise from a divine creator.

Jimmy Stephens:

If we should treat all like things equally (basic principle of logical consistency), and various sentient beings are relatively similar, they ought to get equal consideration in our moral judgments. Singer is particularly good on this with his animal liberation paper.

Ironically, I think Singer is on the level of Sennacherib, Attila, or Hitler in terms of his moral teaching, but we can analyze his arguments apart from his character.
1.) That we should treat all things equally is no law of logic with which I’m familiar.
2.) It is not logical to confuse apples and oranges, humans and ants, stardust and persons. Once again, metaphysical considerations have been confused with logical. Whether things share some common nature belongs to the former, not the latter.
3.) That things should be treated equally would not tell us how they should be treated in the first place. Rapists, arsonists, and psychopath killers would all be happy to embrace this doctrine of equality: nihilism for everyone.
4.) This smuggles in the concept of rights in “moral judgments.” There are no moral judgments to make regarding my question unless first there were rights to consider. The cart is tripping the horse.

if you perfere “objective description” to “law” I can use that from now on if it clears up this semantic confusion.

I appreciate it. At the very least, it relieves your position of historical objection based on word use and correlative concept formation.

If a universal can be instantiated in particular events it can be instantiated in particular experiences a well, since experiences are just events.

But it cannot be grounded in those experiences. Being instantiated by and being true in virtue of are two different relations.

How that definition is applied in various contexts is the work of ethics as a lifelong project. That is not the same as showing that some particular accounts of flourishing can’t be better or worse than others.

That is what has been shown. There is no reason implicit in your definition that favors altruism over egocentrism, to use one example.

We don’t need a determinor for determinism to be true. I don’t think I’m confusing the map and the territory here at all, I’m just not buying the assumption that regularity can only arise from a divine creator.

Determinism does not account for order. Things can be exhaustively determined and exhaustively incomprehensible.

Cathmoelic:

It would be silly to say that something is red because we all agreed that it is red.
If it wasn’t red without us, how would we identify it to be red?

Jimmy Stephens:

Well, it’s worse than that. The idea is more like grounding the claim that red is a color incompatible with brown regarding clothing. And the grounding for the claim is the experience people have when the two are put together, whether they agree about it or not.

It just doesn’t make any sense to say something transcendent, unchanging, and universal is true in virtue of something transient, spatiotemporal, and particular.

Vincent Ransom:

We should lock up entities that persistently cause harm to prevent them from causing that harm to others, but that is an unfortunate last resort option.

OK, so we should lock up and try to feed carnivores with something other than animals that are alive. We allow other animals to die of natural causes, then feed the recently dead to the carnivores. This would prevent the carnivores from persistently causing harm to other animals. This provides freedom to flourish for the herbivores and the bodily autonomy to not be killed and eaten. Oh, I suppose we would have to include omnivores who persistently kill and eat other animals, as well. And have to ensure the carnivores don’t kill and each each other… Or are we prioritizing the wrong group of animals in this example? Also, are we being immoral for not doing something about all these violations of flourishing and bodily autonomy? (I know the conversation has somewhat moved on, but I’m still interested about the finer details of your statements about this topic.)

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