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Moral Scepticism and Why It is Wrong

Discussion in 'Off-Topic' started by lovett, Aug 4, 2012.

  1. Global Skeptic

    Global Skeptic King

    Aug 3, 2012

    So what is the measurement standard of rational?
  2. Brighteye

    Brighteye intuitively Bayesian

    Jan 19, 2006
    The argument presented relies heavily on the 'evidence' that we have moral intuitions, and then goes on to say that morality needs to be reached rationally. These two parts of the argument do not cohere.
    Human beliefs do not make something true. For thousands of years humans all over the world, with no contact with each other, developed a concept of magic that said that if you mimic a natural event on a small scale you can make that natural event happen (e.g sprinkling water for rain or having sex to make spring come back).
    These actions have no power over those natural events.

    Humans also still believe that their moral intuitions, which are quite possibly indoctrinations rather than intuitions, describe something objective and external. It does not matter if the beliefs are evolutionary or cultural: that beliefs exist has absolutely no relevance at all to the question of whether they are true.

    Next, it is not just that disagreement exists that makes moral facts impossible. It is the nature of disagreement. It is possible to disagree on fundamental issues. Argument can attempt to tease out some other principle of another's morality and demonstrate incoherence in the hope of triggering a change (to coherence), but it is possible for two humans to disagree over whether something is right or not and have no recourse to a shared underlying principle.
    Without some shared moral principle by which to judge moral assertions, there can be no rational discourse. It is the nature of the disagreement, not its existence, which makes moral facts either impossible, or unknowable, since without an underlying principle we cannot judge which person is correct.
    It is a fundamental error to extend one's own moral code to cover others. It is a failing in the 'theory of self' that humans supposedly develop at about 6 years old. Just as we realise that others have different desires, we should realise that others have different rules. But for what seem mostly cultural reasons we insist that our rules necessarily apply to others.
    Given our preference for our own rules, it is understandable that we wish everyone to conform to our rules, but to imagine that one's own unchanging intuition is somehow more correct than someone else's (or correct at all) really beggars belief.

    If humans were perfectly rational they would not believe in moral facts.

    When humans do successfully argue about morality, it is because either some hypocrisy has been found which is a flaw in logic, and so someone has to re-think, or because there is a shared underlying principle and one person has less information or faulty logic.
    That such instances do occur in no way disproves the point that there can be coherent and different moral beliefs that do not share underlying principles, and that there is no way to choose between them or assume that any one of them is correct.
  3. Global Skeptic

    Global Skeptic King

    Aug 3, 2012
    Yes, that is maybe possible, but I doubt there can be any coherent understanding of reality.
  4. Ayatollah So

    Ayatollah So the spoof'll set you free

    Feb 20, 2002
    SE Michigan
    We just agreed that judgments of rationality are qualitative not quantitative. And now you want units of measurement? :confused:
  5. Global Skeptic

    Global Skeptic King

    Aug 3, 2012
    Sorry, I misread you. :) So what is qualitative aspect of "The meter is the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299 792 458 of a second"?
  6. Ayatollah So

    Ayatollah So the spoof'll set you free

    Feb 20, 2002
    SE Michigan
    None, that's just a definition. The qualitative judgments come when someone judges "this object is longer than a meter" or "that one is shorter than a meter".
  7. lovett

    lovett Deity

    Sep 21, 2007
    This post is structured mainly as a reply to Sill. Nonetheless, I hope to address several concerns raised by other posters whilst elucidating my arguments and broad position. I hope to address four broad topics. I shall start by defending and explicating the argument from moral disagreement. I shall argue that this argument stands, and I shall explicate precisely why disagreement, and the general presuppositions of our moral discourse, constitute an argument for moral realism. I shall then criticize Sill’s version of subjectivism. I shall argue it does not provide an adequate account of morality because it makes morality fundamentally arbitrary. Moving on, I shall explicate my notion of what value is, and argue that to say that value ‘depends on preference’ is to beg the question again me. I shall argue that value must be non-arbitrary, and that it can be. Finally, I shall explain how I believe valuing things gives rise to morality and concurrently defend (and refine!) my argument that acting immorally is irrational.

    For ease of reading, I put some less important comments in spoilers. These comments address points not central to my main arguments. I will often pick up a point and discuss it in these boxes alone I reference periodically throughout the post to quotes at the bottom. That is to say, I quote the posters to whom my comments apply especially at the bottom. This should give one an idea as to what it is I am replying. Because of the character limit, my post is split into two parts.

    Defending the Argument from Moral Disagreement

    As I have said, I shall begin with rationally argued moral disagreement (let it be understood that ‘rationally argued’ should be prefixed to my mentions of disagreement). Sill argues that we can have disagreement without concluding that there is a fact of the matter regarding the subject of disagreement1 . That we disagree about, and argue rationally regarding, the relative merits of a film or fashion does not lead us to conclude that there is a truth of the matter regarding whether how good a film is. It does not commit us to objective standards of film-quality. More starkly, I can disagree with someone regarding how tasty a meal was. We can argue rationally about it; I can say that it was far too spicy, my interlocutor can retort that this failed to outweigh the delicious aftertaste. But surely in this case we do not think there is a fact of the matter! There are no facts of the matter regarding how tasty something is. And, perhaps, there are no facts of the matter regarding how good a film or work of art is. Taste-realism is certainly false, aesthetic realism probably so.

    This argument is meant to undermine the prima facie argument regarding moral disagreement. We are meant to infer that the existence of disagreement, even rationally argued disagreement, does not entail that there is a fact of the matter –an objective fact- over which we are disagreeing. And certainly we should accept this! The aforementioned disagreement doesn’t entail said objective facts, as the taste case shows clearly. But more fundamentally, Sill’s attack misses it mark. Or, at least, it fails to contradict anything I have maintained. I have not said that such disagreements entails that facts of the matter exist. I have said that they provide prima facie evidence of such facts. Prima facie evidence is the type of evidence that can be defeated. I’ll give an example; seeing a stick as bent is prima facie evidence that that stick is bent. It (surely!) provides for me evidence that said stick is bent. But this evidence is defeated if I see that the stick is half submerged in water. Because of what I know of the science of optics, this new facts defeats the prima facie evidence of my eyes.

    I am maintaining that the existence of rationally argued moral disagreement, and by extension the other presuppositions of our moral discourse which require moral realism, provide prima facie evidence of moral realism. In the light of this, do the example of film and art and taste refute my claim?

    They do not. I can surely maintain that rational disagreement over these issues is also prima facie evidence that there are objective facts in the fields of aesthetics and taste. Indeed, I do so maintain. The difference is that in the field of taste and aesthetics we have conclusive evidence that there are no objective facts (I am much less sure about this claim in aesthetics!). In taste, the existence of truly irresolvable disagreement believes the prima facie evidence for taste-realism. The fact that, when you and I disagree about whether strawberry ice cream is delicious or disgusting and our disagreement is utterly intractable defeats said evidence. In discussing film, that our disagreement is similiarly irresolvable (if it is) also belies the evidence for film-goodness realism. As I said in my opening post, if moral disagreement were irresolvable this would be strong evidence against moral realism. But I do not believe that we have any evidence that such disagreement is irresolvable. For a defence of my views here, I refer you to the last section of said OP.

    That Moral Disagreement is Resolvable

    I will recap that argument here, for conveniences sake. Succinctly, my argument is two pronged. Firstly, I contend that the presence of moral disagreement occurs against a much larger background of agreement. We agree in the vast majority of our moral judgements; we agree that killing our neighbour’s is wrong, supporting our friend’s right, betraying our children reprehensible and helping the needy commendable.

    Spoiler :
    Sill puts all this down to the fact that these kinds of actions are the sort that we see as useful in others. This is a good point, certainly. The idea is to explain our agreement in a way that does not appeal to any objectivity in morality (but rather, what is useful in a collective). But it does not explain the evidence fully. We don’t just see treachery as bad in others, we see it as bad in ourselves. There would be no grounds for this if we accepted evaluative judgements only because they deemed good qualities which were useful in others. Sill’s point supports a sort of two-faced morality; morality we apply to others but not our own conduct. But this is not the sort of morality we try to apply to ourselves; we think that immorality that we perform is still immorality. It is still wrong for us to kill someone.

    The best response to this appears to me that we hold this view because of social pressure. But this doesn’t ring true. If we applied the edicts of morality to our own conduct because of social pressure alone, although it was irrational to do so, the more educated (and, one assumes, capable of rational thought) one got the less oral one would be. But this is not the case. Education does not make people personally immoral, or make people stop thinking treachery is bad both in themselves or others. The conclusion is that the background of moral agreement still supports the belief that full agreement is possible. It does so inductively; if we can agree about the vast majority of things, it seems reasonable to infer that we could agree about the others.

    The second prong of this argument attempts to explain the lack of agreement. I contend that non-religious ethics is a remarkable young science. That disagreement still exists in ethics is only to be expected. The rational debate and discussion which I am contending can resolve such disagreement has only existed for, very generously, the last century. Even then it has occurred largely against a background in which authority – the word of God- was deemed sacrosanct. We can explain the current instances of moral disagreement, at least partially, be talking about these facts.

    So the background of moral disagreement supports the conclusion that moral disagreements are rationally resolvable and the existence of outstanding moral disagreement does nothing to imperil this conclusion (it can be explained in other ways). That is the argument recapped. I should be at pains to explain this is an epistemic argument. From our current epistemic position –what we know about the current level of disagreement- we have no reason to believe moral disagreements irresolvable. But our epistemic position could change; if non-religious ethics were to persist for hundreds of years and all that occurred was the arrival of new, deep and unresolved disagreements we would have reason to conclude that realism was false. What I am saying is that our current position is not as described; our current position supports realism. I shall later argue that a position like that just described is what obtains in tastes and, perhaps, aesthetics.

    The Argument Thus Far

    My claim so far is thus; rational disagreement in other fields does not entail realism in said fields. But it provides evidence for such realism. It provides a prima facie case for realism. This is all I claim it did in morality. The difference is that in these fields that evidence is defeated, in morality it is not.

    So the argument from rationally argued disagreement still stands. Nonetheless, the argument Sill advances might shake our faith in the prima facie argument. Precisely, if we think that the disagreement in morality is not so different from that in taste or aesthetics we might think that the prima facie evidence such disagreement provides is not very much at all. After all, it didn’t prove objectivity in these other fields.

    To an extent, this response is irrelevant in the ways I have already explained. The fact is this evidence is defeated in those other areas, but not in morality. But I shall go further than this. I shall say that the disagreements in these other fields work in quite different ways to morality. Precisely, I shall argue that once we accept that different people have different standards for taste or beauty our disagreements in these fields resolve with little trouble. We realise we weren’t disagreeing about anything, at least nothing objective. When we are involved in moral disagreement we are much more reluctant to make this claim. We think we are most definitely disagreeing about some objective matter of fact. I shall, however, save the exposition of this argument until the next section.

    In the rest of this section I wish to explicate why the prima facie argument is an argument at all. In the specific case which I have been discussing, I wish to explicate why the existence of rationally argued disagreement about an issue is an argument that there is a fact of the matter as pertains to that issue.

    Why the Prima Facie Argument is an Argument

    The Prima Facie Argument which I have advanced rests on the idea that our moral discourse presupposes moral realism. The argument from rational disagreement works as follows:

    We do not have rational disagreements about an issue unless we think there is a fact of the matter regarding said issue. We have rational disagreements about morality. Therefore, we think there is a fact of the matter about morality. This is prima facie evidence that there is a fact of the matter about morality.

    The idea is that, if something seems to us to be the case or if we believe something to be the case then this is prima facie evidence that that is the case.

    Several posters (both Sill and Brighteye)3,4 have protested at this point. They have said that it can make no difference if we believe something to be the case as to whether we should accept that thing as being the case. That we believe X is not evidence for X! Many people believe in God, but that is not evidence that God exists! Similarly, (I assume) that it seems to some people that God exists is not evidence that God exists.

    *I deny these claims. That something seems to us to be so-and so is evidence that it is so-and-so and that we believe such-and-such is evidence of such-and-such. *

    This might seem absurd at first glance, so bear with me. I shall first note that it is prima facie evidence; it is evidence that can be defeated. If we can explain our beliefs fully and most simply in a way that does not commit us to the truth of the fact which our beliefs concern, that evidence is defeated. This means it has no weight. If our beliefs or ‘seemings’ can be explained perfectly be an explanadum unrelated to that which they concern, they provide no evidence. To take near death religious experience as an example; near death religious experience is evidence that God exists. But it is defeated (so I believe) by the numerous chemicals released in the brains of people near-death. These chemicals could easily cause religious experiences. This means that it seems to such people (those who experience NDREs) that God exists is not evidence God exists; that seeming can be explained through other means. This is why our beliefs or what seems to be the case do not always provide us with evidence of which we need to take account; sometimes the evidence is but prima facie and defeated.

    But when it is not defeated, so I maintain, it must provide us with evidence. This is because if it did not we would have no route out of scepticism. Let me explain this. As I am sure those who have read so far, scepticism is the view that we can know nothing about the external world. If beliefs or ‘seemings’ do not provide us with evidence about said world, I believe this view is justified. That is because if there was no way in which our beliefs about the world provide justificatory evidence about the world, we could never justify any of our beliefs. It is, after all, only from beliefs we can justify other beliefs. But if we can never justify any of our beliefs, we can hardly be said to know them. Unjustified beliefs are not knowledge (so I maintain). So if our beliefs do not give us (prima facie) evidence we have no knowledge about the external world.

    Spoiler :
    Note it does not merely provide us with evidence of our beliefs about the external world. This would provide no route out of scepticism. If our beliefs do not provide us with even prima facie evidence, evidence that we have beliefs provides no evidence about the external world.

    Concurrently, that we are pre-committed to moral realism does not merely provide evidence that about meta-ethical beliefs (as Sill contends), it provides evidence about meta-ethics. In the same way, that a scientist makes such-and-such measurement when he sees an electron pass through a cloud chamber does not provide us merely with evidence about what measurements the scientist believes he has taken. Nor merely that the scientist believes an electron has passed through the cloud chamber. It provides us with direct evidence that the measurements were such-and-such and that an electron has passed through the cloud chamber.

    Sill's argument here, if it were sound, could be extended to the scientist is the way now plain. We could say that all science tells us is about the beliefs of scientists. This is obviously fallacious. And its fallacious in ethics too.

    But this is false. We do know things about the external world. Famously, I know this is a hand (I am holding my hand out in front of my eyes). If this is true, our beliefs do provide evidence for the propositions which they concern. And if this is true, the fact that our moral discourse presupposes a belief in moral realism provides prima facie evidence for moral realism. This is exactly what I intended to prove.

    Spoiler :
    I suppose one could deny the falsity of scepticism. I would not have much to say to such a person. All that would be worth saying is that rationality, I believe, demands we assume scepticism to be false. Taking the contrary view is to forego our normal notions of rational justification, and thus abandon the debate we are having. Within our normal notions, those notions I am using to justify realism, we must deny scepticism.

    Sill’s Subjectivism

    So the argument from disagreement still stands. Hopefully, I have done some useful work in explicating and defending this argument. Nonetheless, Sill offers another account of rationally argued moral disagreement5 . His account is a kind of subjectivism. Sill believes that moral disagreement, and moral discourse is general, can be explained thus; all people have their own personal standards of morality (for simplicity, I shall refine my discussion to ‘goodness’). There is no such thing as absolute goodness. There is only hyphenated-goodness; ‘Goodness-according-to X’. When I say ‘Generosity is Good’ I mean ‘Generosity is Good-According-to-Lovett’. When Sill says ‘ Slavery is not-good’ he means ‘Slavery is not-good-according-to-Sill’. With this framework, we can judge things like moral progress and moral disagreement by standards, but our own standards. We can incorporate this aspect of moral discourse.

    So we can. Sill is right here. But I will argue that this is an unacceptable account of morality. It is so for two reasons. Firstly, it fails to capture the actual nature of moral disagreement. Discussing this will illuminate some previous passages. Secondly, it fails to account for the normative force of morality. This anticipates the next section. Because such an account of goodness makes goodness arbitrary, it robs it of normative force. But morality does have normative force. Hence, Sill’s subjectivism fails as an account of morality.

    The first problem is that of disagreement. My point here is simple; moral disagreement is deep. We cannot resolve moral disagreement by accepting that there was not disagreement at all; that we were just using the term ‘good’ differently. But this is what Sill’s view implies is precisely what we can do; if I say ‘Protecting the innocent is good’ and an Aztec priest says ‘Sacrificing the innocent is good’ we can resolve this by seeing that we simply don’t disagree. The Aztec priest means ‘Good-according-to-an-Aztec-priest’ when he says ‘good’ whilst I mean ‘Good-according-to-Lovett’ when I say good’. Our disagreement is purely lexical, it is as if he said I can get money from the bank and I disagreed, thinking he meant river banks.

    But this isn’t what moral disagreement is. Suppose in the above scenario I am a missionary. I will not be satisfied with his fey explanation of our disagreement. I will, in fact, insist that I do not at all mean ‘Good-according-to-lovett-the-missionary’. I mean good /absolutely/, unqualifiedly. I am disagreeing with him, and won’t be fobbed off by this lexical manoeuvre. On Sill’s view our moral disagreement should regularly be, in principle, resolvable by such a lexical manoeuvre. We should simply realise that we are using ‘good’ to mean a different thing. We are not actually disagreeing about anything at all. But this isn’t how moral disagreement works. Even cross-culturally (the Aztec and the Missionary) where such a response is most plausible this is not how disagreement works. We do not just see that our disagreement was illusory. We stick by it, and insist it was real. This is what I mean when I call it a deep disagreement. Sill’s account simply cannot capture this aspect of moral disagreement and this is unacceptable.

    We can contrast this with the case of taste realism. In taste, we do quickly accept our disagreement is no disagreement at all. In fact, we very rarely contradict someone when they say ‘Mint ice cream is tasty’. We accept people’s personal tastes as an expression of something personal to them. If we do disagree about how good a meal was, saying ‘Well, Liked it at least’ is usually enough to quieten our disagreement. We do genuinely think ‘tasty’ means something like ‘tasty-according-to-X’. To an extent, the same is true is aesthetics. When I say ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’ was a great film and my friend disagrees, we tend to resolve the debate by recognising our different standards of great. I mean ‘great for a bad film’ and he means ‘great for a well-made film’. There isn’t a lingering disagreement here. Simply, in these fields on which I have focused, we can and often do resolve disagreement by realising either there was nothing to disagree about or that we were using genuinely different stands (the subjectivist view). But the same is not true, as my example shows, in morality. Our disagreements in morality are deeper than those in taste or aesthetics. We do not resolve them by recognising we all ‘mean something different’ by the term ‘good’. Indeed, we specifically don’t resolve them this way; moral disagreement is deep. This means those disagreements ought be given more prima facie weight. The prima facie argument is more effective in morality than it is in other field! Evidently, this makes the argument from moral disagreement more powerful.

    That concludes my first point. The nature of moral disagreement is such that Sill’s account is unable to capture it and that the prima facie argument has special weight. But there is more. As I said, my second point anticipates the next section. Sill believes that morality depends on value and value depends ultimately on personal preference. But our personal preferences are largely arbitrary. It is arbitrary if we prefer strawberry or chocolate ice cream. It is arbitrary whether we prefer hard or soft beds, coke or pepsi so on and so forth. On Sill’s account, then, morality is an ultimately arbitrary set of rules by which we lead our lives. 6

    I contend that this is a deeply unacceptable account of morality. That is because it robs morality of its essential normative force. The characteristic normative force of morality is thus; everyone should follow the commands of morality. Morality claims universal scope in giving normative reasons; commands people should follow. But fundamental arbitrariness undermines this claim.

    Simply, if all I mean by ‘Good’ is ‘good-according-to-Lovett’ and all this rests on is a set of arbitrary preferences I have amassed there seems little reason for others to take account of my talk of goodness. What I see as good is arbitrary, based on arbitrary preferences. Why should others do as my morality commands? All my morality is some function of my personal preferences. Surely nobody would take my preferences as normative reasons. They hold no special status; I am not privileged in any way. They are fundamentally arbitrary; there is no reason for anyone else to follow the commands of my morality. This undercuts the universal scope which morality purports to have.

    The problem ramifies further. If my morality is fundamentally arbitrary, why should even I do as it commands? I have said that I do not believe my preferences are special. It is arbitrary that I have the preferences I do. And nor do all my preferences give me reasons; that I want to drink the liquid in front of me gives me no reason to drink said liquid when it is poison, and I think it is water. Preferences aren’t necessarily reason-giving, and it is not clear why morality-as-a-function-of-preferences could suddenly become reason giving. It is not clear why, merely because I judge something to be good, I should do that thing on this view (I use both prudential and moral senses of ‘should’ here).

    As I said, the problem is one of fundamental arbitrariness. The moral ‘should’ –the claim that we should all do as morality commands- is one that cannot be based on some arbitrary set of principles. We have no reason to accept an arbitrary set of principles. There isn’t a sense in which we should do as said principles demand. Arbitrariness is incompatible with normativity. I’ll give some examples. That someone was born into wealth does not mean they should live a better life than others. That someone was born handicapped does not mean they should be excluded from public life. The arbitrariness of accidents of birth precludes normative claims on their basis. If all of morality is based on arbitrary facts morality cannot make universal normative claims.

    But that is precisely what morality does purport to do. Morality purports to have universal scope. The demands of morality are demands we should all follow. If this is the case, no acceptable account of morality can make morality arbitrary. Whatever such an account is of, it is not an account of morality. This is my argument; Sill’s subjectivism makes morality arbitrary. Any acceptable account of morality must grant morality its characteristic normative force. But no account of morality-as-arbitrary can do this. Thus, Sill’s account in not an acceptable account of morality. Simply, it is not an account of morality as morality.

    It’s worth noting that I am making a conceptual claim here; I am saying that anything that works as an account of morality must grant morality the universal scope and normative force I have claimed it has. We might conclude such an account is empty; there is nothing with such normative force. This is what my arguments above, about the resolvability of moral disagreement, is intended to refute. But even if this argument fails it does not touch my point. Any account of morality as morality must accept this conceptual claim. If it does not, it is not an account of morality. Sill’s account is not an account of morality. It fails to grant normative force to morality and fails to capture the distinctive nature of moral disagreement.


    I have so far defending the argument from moral disagreement. I have argued that disagreement in morality is more indicative of objective moral facts than disagreement elsewhere. I have explicated how the argument from rationally argued disagreement, and the prima facie argument in general work. I have defended the resolvability of these disagreements in morality. I have then assessed Sill’s subjectivism as an alternative account of these things. I have found it wanting in its ability to explain oral disagreement. More crucially, I have found it incapable of accounting for morality’s normative force, and thus failing as an account of morality. I shall now discuss value. In particular, I shall argue that Sill’s conception of value begs the question and is, anyway, quite wrong.

    Value is not Arbitrary

    Sill says that values are ‘nothing but preference’ and ‘irrational’7 . As what I have written above should make clear, this makes value fundamentally arbitrary. I shall deal with this in the next paragraph. Right now, it should be quite clear that this position is question-begging. Precisely, in my OP I regarded value as that which we would prefer under conditions of full rationality. This is precisely to maintain that value isn’t irrational and that it is not based solely on the preferences we happen to have in normal conditions. Mere contradiction does not an argument make; it is to assume what one wants to prove. It is to beg the question.

    Sill attempts to support his point in his final section. I shall discuss this, appropriately, in my final section. But first I wish to make a similar conceptual claim about value as I have made about morality. Value cannot be arbitrary. That something is valuable means it has similar normative force as morality; if something is valuable we should all desire it. Valuable means ‘worth being desired’. But, as we have seen, nothing based on something so arbitrary as my current preferences could maintain this normative force. Hence, value is not based on our preferences alone. Value is not arbitrary.

    Spoiler :
    That our current preferences differ is really not an argument against this. I am arguing about what our preferences would be under conditions of full rationality, not what they are now. Talking about the differing levels of compassion people have right now is, to be blunt, irrelevant.
  8. lovett

    lovett Deity

    Sep 21, 2007

    The Role of Value in Morality

    Evidently, I think that value is not arbitrary. In this section I have two aims. Firstly, I want to explicate my notion of the role of value in morality. I shall argue that something is valuable if we would desire it were we fully rational. I shall then refine my notion of morality. I shall argue that morality concerns a subset of that which is valuable. Secondly, I will show how this means that that the fact that our ‘self-interest’ can conflict with the demands of morality does not mean moral reasons aren’t normative reasons. I shall expand this point by claiming the actual conflict between ‘self-interest’ and morality is minimal.

    In my opening post I am somewhat imprecise in how I deal with value and its relation to morality. I anticipate that refinement will be necessary. Here, I shall supply such refinements. That something is valuable means, so I assert, that it is worth desiring. It is clear that not all our desires are aimed at things worth desiring. I mention a poison case above; in this case I desire something because I have false beliefs. There are many other cases. A kleptomaniac has a compulsive desire to steal but stealing isn’t worth desiring. A heroin addict may have a pervasive desire for his drug, but heroin is not worth desiring. A stressed mother might have a fleeting desire to drown her crying baby, but this action is certainly not worth desiring.

    If something is worth desiring that means we would desire it if we were fully rational. If we were fully rational, but didn’t desire that which was worth desiring, our position would be rationally criticisable. Given how I am using the term ‘fully rational’, this is a contradiction. We cannot be fully rational and be in a rationally criticisable situation. My analysis of ‘value’ should now be obvious; something is valuable if and only if we would desire it if we were fully rational.

    This gets us quite far, but not far enough. Values conflict; certain things a more valuable than others. We want to be able to make comparative judgments of value; to say that although being a parent and being a good winner are both valuable, the former is more valuable than the latter. We can do this fairly easily; something is more valuable just in case we desire it more intensely when we are fully rational. Our desires can, after all, be more and less strong. That outcome which is most valuable in a situation is that which we would desire most strongly if we were fully rational and in that situation (or, advising ourselves how to act in that situation).

    This transfers to actions on Humean assumptions about the sorts of things which explain actions. Hume thought only desires could explain actions; ‘reason was always slave to the passions’. If we accept this account (and I think we should, but it should hardly damage my position if we didn’t) the action we perform under conditions of full rationality is just that action aimed at that which we desire most strongly in those conditions. The action we perform under conditions of full rationality is that action which results in the outcome we most desire under said conditions, and therefore the outcome which is most valuable.

    So that’s my account of value. It is an account of value where value is definitely not arbitrary and definitely not irrational. This is good. If my arguments work regarding the characteristic normativity of morality, and value by extension, no account of value could be fundamentally arbitrary. I am directly contradicting Sill’s account of value here, by putting forward a more coherent account of value.

    Am I committed to the claim that only the moral outcome is valuable? I am not. Precisely, I can maintain that fully rational persons might do a number of different things in identical circumstances. They might to one thing or they might do another. This is simply because both things are rationally permissible; both a jointly best-supported by reason. Reason is thus silent on the choice between them.

    Spoiler :

    Note that this does no violence to our understanding of reason. There are many decisions on which reason is silent. If I am choosing between Weetabix and Cornflakes and like both equally, I have no reason to choose one over the other. Reason is silent regarding the choice. All I am rationally required to do (I assume I want to buy a cereal) is choose one. I cannot be like Buridan’s donkey, starving between two equidistant bales of hay because I refuse to make a choice not supported by reason

    What I claim is that the moral choice is a sub-set of most valuable options. The moral choice is always rationally permissible, but not uniquely so. In certain cases, although we can always choose to do as morality demands, we can also not do so. We can have equally good reasons not to do as commanded by morality.

    An example is in order. I will take one from the real world. In WWII John Robert Osborn was awarded a Victoria cross for jumping on a grenade. It is a story we will all have heard before; a brave young soldier takes his own life to prevent the deaths of his comrades. He pays with everything, to protect his brothers-at-arms. Osborn is what we might call a heroic martyr.

    His action, on any plausible view of self-interest, was not in his interests. He lost everything! But I maintain it was rationally permissible. It was rationally permissible precisely because it is always rationally permissible to follow the commands of morality. But his action was not rationally obligatory; it would not have been irrational for him to have taken cover with everyone else. That is just because of the great personal loss he bore through his action. What we have is a situation in which there was multiple rational options open to so-and-so. He chose the moral one.

    Spoiler :

    Astute readers may notice that I am committed to a relative view of value at this point. If the most valuable option is that which we could choose under conditions of full rationality and, in certain circumstances, we could choose both moral and self- interested options under such conditions I must maintain that both options of superlative value. But I cannot plausibly maintain that my self-interest is valuable simpliciter; other people do not have superlative reason to promote my own interest. I must maintain that my self-interest, and by extension morality, is valuable relative-to- me. I must say that what ‘valuable means is ‘valuable-to-lovett’.

    Yet above, I write caustically against a not dissimilar hyphenated account of morality (Sill’s subjectivism). I say such an account can’t possibly explain the nature of moral disagreement. It gets worse. Surely what is valuable to me will depend on some arbitrary facts. My family is valuable to me, but I that I have exactly this family is arbitrary. My deepest goals are also, in a sense, arbitrary (one might have wanted to be a lawyer rather than a doctor), yet they are valuable-to-me. I have said that fundamental arbitrariness undermines both value and morality. This concept can be constructed out of fundamentally arbitrary circumstances.

    Am I here hoist by my own petard? I am not. I shall wait until the next spoiler box to deal with the first criticism, but shall engage the second now. I argued that it was fundamental arbitrariness that undermined ascriptions of value. The arbitrariness here is not fundamental. What is fundamental is that any fully rational agent in my particular situation would desire what I desire. This isn’t arbitrary; it appeals to necessary facts about rational agents. These are precisely the kind of facts which do have normative force. They are the kind of facts that allow us to give valuation and morality its characteristic normativity.

    That I must take account of my particular situation does not infect my reasoning with fundamental arbitrariness. It is no more arbitrary than taking account of the facts in any moral situation, and it is not arbitrary to take account of the fact that switching the trolley onto the left track will save five whilst leaving it on the right track will kill one. The fundamental grounding of what is valuable is what a rational agent would do in my situation, and this is not arbitrary.

    I shall deal with the first point in the next spoiler box

    So in many cases there is a set of rationally permissible options from which to choose. But however do we distinguish the moral options in this set from the non-moral options (note, I maintain that the former options will always be in this set; moral options are always rationally permissible). We do so by apply the formal principles of ethics to our set of rationally permissible options.

    These are principles like universalizability. This is the principle that moral action is universalizable; that one shouldn’t combine acting in a certain way in a given set of circumstances if one would not consent to that action being performed regardless of who one was in the specified set of circumstances. One should universalize one’s action; one should be prepared for that exact action to be performed regardless of how one was affect by that action.

    Another example is in order. Giving to the needy in universalizable. Not so giving is not. That is because, if one was needy, one would want the action ‘giving to the needy’ to be performed. One would not be prepared to accept that people did not give to the needy. This is how giving to the needy is a possible moral principle (it may not actually be one; I am only describing the formal limits of ethics, not their substantive limits). Killing those who annoy you is not a possible moral principle; if one was one of the people who happened to annoy you one would not consent to being killed. There are a host of principles of ‘formal ethics’. Plausibly, the golden rule is included alongside universalizability. The point of formal ethics is to set limits to what could possibly be morality.

    Spoiler :
    I can now answer the first point I discuss above. Moral disagreement is possible even if value is relative because moral judgements relate to the sub-set of our fully rational desires which obey formal ethical principles. Our disagreement is over which, of all those actions which fit the principles of formal ethics, we would perform under conditions of full rationality. Note that formal principles like universalizability go further in reducing the relevance of our arbitrary circumstances to what is moral. Indeed, they eliminate it.

    Note that Sill cannot make similar claims. There is no need, on his account, for anybodies personal account of morality to obey the principles of formal ethics. We can have whatever account of morality we want. Universability (for instance) need not feature. Thus, Sill is stuck when explaining the nature of moral disagreement.

    I have explicated my notion of value more fully, and of how value and morality interact. I should note that morality is still special; the moral option is (so I have claimed) always rationally permissible. That I have not claimed it must be uniquely rationally permissible does not vitiate this.

    I shall now deal with the problem raised by several posters ; the possible conflict between self-interest and morality. On the refined view I outline above, no problem arises from cases in which morality and self-interest conflict. We can accept that both would be rational. To re-iterate, this makes morality quite special; of all possible actions the moral action one which we can be sure is rationally permissible. Moreover, it retains the point of analysing morality in terms of our normative reasons; it retains morality’s nature as action-guiding. We always have reason to do that which is moral.

    Spoiler :

    I use ‘self-interest’ to refer to whatever is the correct theory about self-regarding rationality; that part of rationality which looks out how well our own lives go. I do not, in fact, believe that self-interest is a correct appraisal of this part of morality. It can be rational to do things not in our interests and irrational to do that which is in our interests. The self-interest theory is, however, very popular. Consequently, I shan’t defend this point here. Comments I make further will elucidate it somewhat, but don’t constitute a defence.

    Nonetheless, there are possible problems here. Precisely, the conflict between self-interest and morality was pervasive that would damage the plausibility of the account of morality I have given. We think that rationality does not uniquely determine the course of action we should take. But, I think, we are only willing to take this so far. Rationality allows some indeterminancy, but not vast swathes of it. Rationality is, at least to an extent, precise. If there were huge differences between morality and self-interest my account would be incompatible with this belief. Precisely, if rationality allows us to be very evil that would be such a difference.

    Such a difference would be that described in the dictator case; where a dictator is rational despite acting deeply immorally8 . I deal with this case explicitly so I’ll quote myself:

    My point is that it is very plausible that our life is not improved when we commit immense wrong. We simply don’t think it the case that people’s lives go better when they are evil. We think the evil makes their lives go worse. As long as these examples stand –and no one has so far contradicted them9- this provides good evidence that rationality and morality will not diverge all that much. After all, it is not in our interest to make our lives go worse. Should note that less distinct cases of divergence between morality and self-interest –such as that of the vehicular manslaughter Sill describes10- my theory is able to account for in full.

    I will offer one final argument in support of the claim that morality and self-regarding rationality will not conflict to an unsustainable extent. It is not necessary that I do so, as long as the counter-examples above are accepted. But it is expedient. It would be satisfying to have a reason why morality and self-interest do not diverge so. One can be found, and it lies in Parfit’s concept of personal identity.

    I won’t defend this here. Roughly, Parfit thinks that we have reason to look out for the interest of our future selves because of the psychological connection we have with our future selves. We have affected the psychology of that self in a number of ways. Our current actions affect our future temperaments, memories, beliefs so on and so forth. It is these connections which is what matter in personal identity and it is being with these connection whose interests we have a rational regard for.

    But it is not just our future selves who are connected in this way to us. It is everyone whom we affect. Those whose temperaments we affect, whose beliefs we change and whose memories we help form are all related to us, in lesser degree, in the same way we are related to our future selves. Our lives are not ‘sealed off’ from that of every other person. Our lives are contiguous with that of others. What matters is this contiguity. If this contiguity –these psychological connections- give us reason to regard the interests of our future selves they also give us reasons to regard the interests of others (perhaps friends and family most of all, but then we tend to think we do have special obligations to our friends and family).

    This explains (or, is one possible explanation of) why there is a connection between the interests of others and our own interests. It also reinforces the fact that the conflict between rational self-interest and morality will not be wide and pervasive. We have a direct rational interest in the interests of others, just as we have a direct moral interest.

    Spoiler :

    It might now be clear why I think self-interest theory a poor account of self-regarding rationality. Our own interests are tied personally to us; they are things like the supply of life’s necessities and life’s luxuries to us alone. But the self-regarding part of rationality includes more than this’ it also includes the interests of others. Acting self-interestedly ignores this, and thus self-interest is not supremely rational.

    This completes the argument of this section. Succinctly, I have given an account of value which entails that there can be some conflict between morality and self-interest (or, self-regarding rationality). As long as this conflict is not deep and pervasive, that is acceptable. I have argued that it is not deep and pervasive, so it is acceptable.


    In this post I have done several things. I have defends the argument from moral disagreement and shown how the prima facie argument is meant to work in general. I have criticized Sill’s subjectivist account of morality; I have argued it does not stand as an account of morality. Finally, I have shown how the conflict between self-interest and morality can be accounted for, but argued that this conflict is not as deep or pervasive as is commonly supposed.

    Correspondingly, there are three (as far as I can see) appropriate ways to criticize what I have said.

    1) Criticizing the argument from rationally argued disagreement: One could criticize my characterization of the epistemic situation we are in –that we have no reason to believe moral disagreement is irresolvable – , criticize my characterization of moral disagreement as rationally argued (this seems a difficult approach) or criticize my justification of the prima facie argument in general.
    2) Defending Subjectivism: One could argue that subjectivism is able to properly account for moral disagreement and/or that the fundamentally arbitrary grounding of subjectivism does not in fact undermining its claims to be an account of morality.
    3) The Conflict between self-interest and rationality: One could argue that I fail to properly resolve this conflict. Either my account of morality as a sub-set of our normative reasons fails in some way or I underestimate the extent and pervasiveness of said conflict. This latter point undermines said account.

    Nobody should feel compelled to attempt a comprehensive response on all these points, this was a long post. I write the above as a guideline to what (seems to me) like reasonable avenues of response. Hopefully, my writing will have done some convincing (or, at least, entertained).

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  9. Souron

    Souron The Dark Lord

    Mar 9, 2003
    I would say that the idea that our lives are made worse simply by doing evil is biased wishful thinking. We want it to be true, and so many people claim it to be true, but there is insufficient reason to believe it is true. Therefor we should treat the claim with extra skepticism to overcome our natural bias to believe it.

    Reciprocative justice is great, and it would be great if there were a natural law for it, but there's isn't such a thing.

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