I was contacted by Neil Shenvi in part because I linked to his article regarding Objective Moral Values. He has esquired on my thoughts on his post. I had used it originally as an example of how the topic is treated in several basic ways. Neil makes a thoughtful case for the existence of objective morality. His comment and challenge to me can be found in the comments on my first post.
His is not a short post nor haphazardly written so I will attempt to give the reply at least as much care in return, in a point by point manner. Neil will probably think me a nihilist. I don’t claim the title. I only know what has come to make sense to me as I question what I’ve been told about the world and life. If you think I’m misrepresenting some ?-ists world view you are wrong. Here I represent only my world view. I’m not representing the atheist community, humanists, nihilists etc. I guess I’m a Z-ist. I don’t care to wear a label even though I understand how important they can be for conveying a lot of information quickly. Here we go….
In the first section Neil describes what he understands is the meaning of the second premise of the deductive form of ‘the moral argument‘. I don’t really have any problem with the definition of ‘objective’ as he describes it but there are a couple of nitpicks I’ll put forward as a premise to some of my later statements.
What we missed here is the definition of a ‘moral value’ so lets dive into that for a minute:
- merriam-webster.com – defines value as: something (as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable
- dictionary.reference.com – defines value as: Ethics . any object or quality desirable as a means or as an end in itself.
We might well then conclude that a value is some quality that is intrinsically desirable, or which is an end to itself.
The first major relativist philosopher was Protagoras (c.490 – c.420 BCE). His book Truth contains his most famous statement; “Humans are the measure of all things.” To measure something is to give it a value and Protagoras regarded all values – truth, good, beauty, even existence – as dependent upon the human observer. That is, the value of everything is relative to the observer. (Edit: forgot where I grabbed this statement from … mea culpa, but it is written well)
The moral relativist’s view matches up with a general definition of ‘value’ as we understand it. It is a quality of desirableness or worthiness of something as assigned by an observer, in as much as one can observe moral qualities. To be certain, the word value has many uses, and thus many contextual meanings. I’ve tried to stay focused on the context of morality here. I do not think that Neil is attempting to redefine ‘value’ in his post. That leaves us with: objective moral (subjective desired quality) going once again to the dictionaries we find that ‘moral’ is an adjective with the meaning of ‘relating to the principles of right and wrong in behavior. That might leave us with: objective principle of right/wrong behavior with a subjective desired quality. Objective and value are not words that fit well together. So lets just expand ‘moral value’ as a modifier of value: subjective desired quality. That leaves us with objective subjective desired quality. They don’t fit well that way either. I will state that the discussion is off to a bad start. We have a problem with definitions before the gun is fired. It troubles me but I think this is what Neil actually means: there is a subset of desired subjective qualities which are actually objective in nature. This is troubling for two reasons mainly. First, what tools do we have to separate subjective quality from objective quality? Second, if such a tool existed we would not be having this discussion. I believe that more aptly defines the framework for this discussion, so lets get on with it.
Neil’s first section: I. What are “objective moral values”?
Paragraph one jumps straight to Hitler. How awesome is that? Here he also discusses objective value as objective fact and uses some examples. Note that this is meant to be equal to the idea that 2+2=4 is an objective fact regardless of who does the addition, where they do it, or what they do it with. There is no contextual modifiers which will change this objective fact. Consequently we are now talking about an ‘objective subjective desired quality’ which is either always true or always false regardless of context. We can also note that ‘murder is evil’ is not such a thing. Context changes its evaluation. Murder is evil unless done in self defense, in which case it’s good unless you are defending yourself from police shooters because you robbed a bank. Murder is evil unless you are wanting steak for dinner. Context changes it. So we are looking for “objective subjective desired qualities” which do not change depending on context. Lets say ‘giving to charity is good’ and see how that pans out. Well, it is good unless you are giving away your rent money. Okay, context changes that. We begin to see the depth of the issue here because the only tools we have to judge with are subjective by their very nature. In paragraph 3 of section 1 Neil basically states that we don’t have any reliable tools to determine objective from subjective. I agree.
In paragraph 4 of section 1 Neil confirms that even if objective moral values do exist, they are not necessary for us to live our lives. We can be good without them, or choose to be bad even if we believe they exist. We both agree that if they do exist, they are not necessary for life or even for human happiness. At this point it would be easy to argue that it is difficult to then see what purpose such objective moral values would have. They are clearly superfluous to human existence if subjective values can over-ride them, or replace them. Please note that this is not practical for objective facts. We cannot replace 2+2=4 with something else at a whim or personal preference.If you are confused at this point, don’t worry. I don’t think there is any good understanding. Those claiming the existence of objective moral values don’t seem to make themselves clear on what they are, never mind if they exist.
On to section 2: II. Evidence that objective moral values exist
In this section Neil starts out by admitting that he will not prove the existence of objective moral values, but will instead attempt to show them more likely to exist than the evidence that shows them likely to not exist. This is a flee-flicker play. We do not have credible evidence for the existence of objective moral values, therefore those claiming that they exist bear the burden of proof. Neil himself admits this lack of credible evidence. I’m not responsible to prove they do not exist. I can only state my reasons for not believing his evidence that they do exist. If his evidence isn’t credible, then his claim fails. I do not have to do anything. The burden of proof is on the claimant.
Keeping these issues in mind, let’s look at the five pieces of evidence that objective moral values exist.
- The existence of objective moral values explains the near-universal existence of basic standards of morality, even those that disfavor personal or genetic benefit.
- The existence of objective moral values explains why those who explicitly deny the existence of objective morality still act as if objective morality exists
- The existence of objective moral values explains the nearly universal human intuition that certain things are objectively right or wrong.
- The existence of objective moral values explains why the majority of philosophers recognize the existence of objective moral facts.
- The existence of objective moral values explains why naturalists (e.g. Sam Harris ot Shelley Kagan) affirm the existence of objective moral facts, despite the problems inherent in grounding these facts in the natural world.
Oh, fun! Lets look at evidence #1 – The existence of objective moral values explains the near-universal existence of basic standards of morality, even those that disfavor personal or genetic benefit.
It doesn’t take super intelligence to observe that seemingly all cultures across the globe seem to adhere to a basic set of moral values. Neil expresses this with gusto but then goes on to talk about altruism as some special aspect of morality that is only human and is further special because it is found in all populations.
What puzzles me most is why –on this view– true altruism persists in the human race. Shouldn’t altruistic acts like self-sacrifice or adoption have been weeded out of the human population by natural selection eons ago? How could the pressures of natural selection have tuned the eye to detect single photons yet have failed to prevent people from rushing into burning buildings or diving into icy water to save others?
Well, clearly this is a question that many have asked or thought about. Neil seems unable to understand how evolution could have created such a situation. This also indicates that Neil is not arguing against evolution here. The evidence shows that all human populations and cultures are derived from a single human population and culture. It is not difficult to then understand that any useful and dependable value, tradition, action, or behavior would follow on to all other cultures and populations, being passed down from generation to generation without interruption. It befuddles me that altruism is such a difficult concept for Neil to understand. Defense of one’s ‘in-group’ does infer genetic self interest. Protecting your offspring is a biological imperative. It is easy to infer protecting the weak to ensure their survival. You should already know where I’m going with this. Protecting the weak is biologically programmed. The ‘accident’ part is transferring this from offspring to in-group members. Once that is done it’s easy to transfer it to other beings. From there we can now go to the Google: Lets see what the other animals on this planet have to say about altruism, shall we? Oh, there it is: Wild Animal Heroes! Altruistic behavior is not the sole purview of humans. This would give reason to hypothesize that such behavior is genetically derived via evolution.
Lets take Occam’s razor to this one. On the one hand we have an argument from ignorance and on the other we have a fact based process which shows evidence of producing this behavior in many populations derived from a much earlier one. Oh, wait for it… there is news about this. Scientists have discovered what might actually be the mechanism for passing on altruistic behaviors.
Lets look at evidence #2 – The existence of objective moral values explains why those who explicitly deny the existence of objective morality still act as if objective morality exists
Hold on, we started this discussion saying that objective moral values must be some subset of subjective moral values that are also objective, and that they are superfluous to human existence and happiness. That is to say that humans can live life as they do whether objective moral values exist or not, and they do live so. This point contradicts Neil’s earlier statements without reasonable justification. That many people choose to act a certain way does not mean they are compelled to do so. If it compelled them to do so, it should also compel all others to do so and this simply is not the case.This is not evidence. I don’t even think it qualifies as argument.
Lets look at evidence #3 – The existence of objective moral values explains the nearly universal human intuition that certain things are objectively right or wrong
Seriously? We covered this in evidence #1. Ok, we’ll do it again.
I have recently seen first-hand evidence of this fact in interacting with my two-and-a-half year old son. As parents, we have to teach him to share, to be kind, to be gentle, and to do what is good. Often, teaching him to do what is good is a difficult task. But he has not once asked me what I mean by “good”. Indeed, he takes it perfectly for granted that some things are objectively good and some things are objectively bad. He does not occasionally confuse “good” with “whatever Mommy and Daddy impose on me by force” or “what will eventually lead to my own benefit.”
The human brain is a decision making machine, taking in all available information, sensory data, and knowledge to make decisions which benefit the self. A child of 2.5 years has only two main sources of information and knowledge: self discovery and observation of those around them – normally only its parents. The child’s brain has not yet formed the neural pathways which could lead to questioning the truth or value of what the parents say. Another argument from ignorance. Childhood development and learning are well studied. The human mind progresses through steps to get to adult qualification. Neil’s supposition that a 2.5 year old child is equivalent to an adult brain is fallacious and misleading.
Another equally important point is that I can’t even begin to conceive of how a true moral relativist would raise a child. If a child asks his parent why he should not hit his sister, I find it hard to believe that the moral relativist would answer “Because of self-interest. If you hit her, then she might hit you back.” Nor would the parent say “Because I am bigger than you and will punish you if you disobey.” Even the most committed moral relativist will find himself answering “Hitting is wrong. Stealing is wrong. Love and generosity and kindness are good.” Now the moral relativist might console himself with the thought that he is merely introducing a fictional short-hand to be replaced with the bracing truth of moral relativism once the child is old enough to understand. But I find it extremely interesting that thinking in objective moral terms is nearly unavoidable for both children and parents.
The emphasis above is mine. I find it unthinkable that a parent might scold a child with threats from an invisible sky daddy to produce desired behaviors, or worse, resort to biblical child rearing techniques. In any case, “because I don’t want you to” or “it’s nicer to be kind” are better than “god doesn’t want you to do it” etc. Furthermore, neither child nor parent has to resort to thinking in objective moral terms. Remember, just a few short paragraphs ago we were in agreement that objective moral values are superfluous to human existence and happiness. They are also superfluous to child rearing. This evidence is neither evidence or credible argument. It was a non-starter.
Lets look at evidence #4 – The existence of objective moral values explains why the majority of philosophers recognize the existence of objective moral facts
This too is a fallacious argument. What constitutes a “majority of philosophers” ? Where is the score board? What does recognize mean in this case. If more than half of the US population believes in UFO’s does that mean they exist? That many people share a common value does not mean such a value is sourced from outside the human mind. Again, refer to my comments about evidence #1. Clearly evolution has a method to pass on biologically bound behaviors. Occam’s razor shreds this evidence #4 quite quickly as well. If the reader will remember, Occam’s razor is basically what Neil said was the test for the evidence to be believable. He did not mention Occam or the razor, but explained it in an equivalent manner, at least to my mind.
Lets look at evidence #5 – The existence of objective moral values explains why naturalists (e.g. Sam Harris ot Shelley Kagan) affirm the existence of objective moral facts, despite the problems inherent in grounding these facts in the natural world
Wow! Just because naturalists seem to agree with your hypothesis does not mean that they agree with your conclusion nor that your hypothesis is right. Another fallacious argument.
Here Neil asks the reader to question all the ‘evidence’ provided and think about and determine which possibility is more probable for each of the five presented evidences.
What I’ve seen here is not evidence. It’s nothing but rhetoric and fallacious argument. There is nothing in Neil’s arguments that seems credible never mind it being enough to make me think that he might be right about objective subjective desirable qualities. Sam Harris is wrong too. There are no moral values which are always true or always false regardless of context. Find one of those and Neil might have something to work with. This is just wishful thinking as far as I can tell.
Further, even if someone agrees with Neil, this does not posit authority to assume his argument proves the existence of a god. Even if it did prove the existence of a god, it does not posit that the god it proves is the one Neil believes in. Even if it did posit that Neil’s deity existed, it does not posit what that deity says is moral. Even if I give Neil a pass on all five points, there is no link between the supposed objective moral values and his deity of choice, nor that his deity is responsible for them.
What Neil has presented in his post is just wishful thinking. It fails to get anywhere near his stated objective. In fact, such argument augments my list of reasons to further doubt such argument from others. One bad apple may not spoil the whole basket, but if you see the bad apple before choosing one to eat, you’ll move on to another basket for your food.