a blog by josef johann

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Responses to Ophelia Benson, Russell Blackford, and B.E.

This post is the first in a two part "series" of responses to Ophelia Benson, B.E., and Russell Blackford in a now-ancient (in internet terms) thread from Ophelia's Notes and Comments blog. This first post responds first to Ophelia, mainly to set the context, and then to B.E., who posted there in the comment section. The second post will respond to Russell Blackford, in which I will assert that you can be wrong about your own subjective likes or dislikes, and wrong in an important sense. The reason I'm responding to an old thread is that I commented in it, and then had irregular access to the internet for a while and never had a real opportunity to respond to a subject that deeply interested me.

Response to Ophelia Benson

In the post, Ophelia Benson talks about whether there is objective morality, and without exactly seeming to answer whether she believes in it (but I think coming against it), she says:

We do strongly feel that murder is wrong, but that's because we're the kind of beings we are; a different kind of being wouldn't. Imagine for instance a being with thoughts but no feelings - literally no feelings. [...] A being like that wouldn't, by definition, strongly feel that murder is wrong, because it wouldn't feel anything, but it also wouldn't because it is feeling that makes it wrong. The putative objective moral sense actually cashes out as the feeling-capacity. It depends on things mattering. Without that, murder is no more immoral than unplugging a lamp.

The above could go two ways. First, if we grounded this in a form of moral solipsism, the above would, I think obviously be false. A sociopath might not think much of killing a human, but it's still morally wrong. But I don't think she meant that. If this feeling-wrongness Ophelia is referring to is more wide ranging than that (and it seems quite possible to me that this is the case), then this makes sense. On this view a sociopath committing murder is still guilty of a moral evil, precisely because of its in some sense "feeling" wrong to the person murdered, to that person's friends and family, and all those other people who similarly feel it to be wrong (the word "feeling" is admittedly doing a lot of work here, and I wouldn't choose that word myself, but I'm operating on the principle of charity).

Benson says this "cashes out" as the feeling capacity. But this is misleading- the fact of our having what she calls a feeling-capacity is an objective fact about humans. These "putatively" objective moral wrongs are literally objective moral wrongs, because we too, are objectively out there in the world.

Response to B.E.

Anyway, a commenter criticized the notion of objective morality, saying:

It's interesting that those who claim there is an objective morality like to talk in terms of laws. They'd have you believe that morality has law-like status such as the law of Gravity. But the law of Gravity is a description of empirical nature. It's inter-subjective but could in principle be different i.e. it's contingent. Morality is not this type of law. If the law of morality says murder is wrong I can still go and murder whereas if I jump off a cliff with intent to fly, I fall all the same on Earth. So morality has no universality in nature even if we hold that it's universal amongst ourselves.

Laws, of course, are also prescriptions or regulations of behavior. Perhaps moral law means this. But then law must have been prescribed. If it is prescribed by people or societies then it is not objective and subject to changes of mores in those societies. Perhaps the law was given unto us by a god. Of course then you get into Divine command view of morality and it's nemesis the Euthryphro dilemma. If morality is just doing the bidding of a tyrant then how is that moral? (How is that doing what's right instead of doing something arbitrary?) Also, how is that objective? It's subject to the whim of the god. If as Swinburne has it, it's part of the fabric of that god, with said god unable to be bad, then it falls onto the other horn of the dilemma and that god is no more the prescriber of morality than anything else. Is morality prescribed then by the universe, a contingent thing? According to theists the fine-tuning argument suggests that it could have all been very different, what then of morality? Seems like the idea of objective morality or law of morality is pretty lame.

To which I responded:

The law like character of morality wouldn't prohibit your being able to murder. It would prohibit your murder from having a moral justification, and this it would do with law like inflexibility. [...]

To which B.E. said:

Yet there are many a moral justification for murdering or what appears to some to be murder depending on the situation. Just War, self-defense, etc. They may not float your boat, but they do others. It seems to me that saying it has law like inflexibility is a bit weird. If "Murder is never morally justified" mixed with "This is murder" then completing the syllogism we get "This is never morally justified". Sure, but what's murder? If it has law like universality, why does it have this cultural subjectivity in some cases?

First, I want to deal very briefly, too breifly, with the last question: why [murder has] this cultural subjectivity in some cases? I'm simply going to assert that it doesn't. That might be unfair, but if you are criticizing a moral objectivist, they simply won't be convinced by the conventional references to variance in opinion on murder across cultures. It just isn't the type of objection a moral objectivist would recognize as problematic. Instead I'm going to focus on whether it is internally incoherent for a moral objectivist to assert that there can be moral laws.

Going back to "Yet there are many a moral justification for murdering or what appears to some to be murder depending on the situation". In a trivial sense, a moral condemnation is built into the meaning of the world "murder." So an action is either murder or it is not, and it is morally condemned accordingly. (Now, there are species of utilitarianism which say murder can be "right" if it saves more lives than are lost. In this case murder goes from being objectively wrong, to objectively having a net negative impact on the utilitarian calculus it is a part of. This doesn't seem to me to change anything fundamentally, because it still expresses the moral condemnation of murder.)

But suppose we replace murder with kill. If killing is wrong in a given state of affairs it is always wrong in precisely that state of affairs. If it is right in some other given state of affairs it is always right in precisely that state of affairs. The only way to weedle out of this is to try and sneak in some new fact (or remove some old fact, or rearrange the existing facts) to negate the original moral prescription, while insisting it was still in some sense the same "state of affairs".

This is where one might want to plead subjectivity. Killing a stranger who walks past me on the street might be wrong, but it might not be wrong if I recognize that that person is Osama bin Laden. But in every such case, you will find that the rightness or wrongness of the act obtains because of an objective state of affairs. If you replace random stranger with Osama bin Laden, clearly the switch from wrongness to rightness coincided with this substituation, and it turns out you've replaced a subject with certain attributes for a subject with certain other attributes. Insofar as someone is similar to Osama bin Laden in the right ways the act of killing that person tends toward being morally right. Clearly, this smuggles in a fact of the matter that completely changes the nature of the example.

One might try to subjectivize it from the other direction. Killing is not wrong for me if I'm Osama bin Laden and I see Josef Johann walking down the street. But this reduces the question to one of subjectivism vs. objectivism and does not reveal any internal incoherence in objectivism with respect to moral laws unless we assume (or successfully argue), that moral objectivism is just outrightly wrong anyway.

So, on the question of killing, yes, circumstances do vary from case to case. But this doesn't mean that "the moral law" pertaining to killing, whatever it is, is wavering under our feet. It would simply mean there is no such moral law pertaining to killing in and of itself. It would be a confusion about the nature of moral law, just as it would be a confusion about the law of gravity for someone to say that things don't always really accelerate toward the earth at 9.8 m/s^2 since since objects have terminal velocity.

It might be objected that moral law is only moral law in the sense I was previously defending, if it can prescribe conduct over a wide variety of situations. If the set of circumstances is too narrow, then it should not perhaps be a law. All this is fine. (I happen think "moral law" is, in truth, just a conceptual fiction that helps us explain the rightness and wrongness of our behavior.)

So we have two basic facts- that unwavering moral rights and wrongs seem as though they only be on solid footing when the state of affairs is fairly elaborate, and that moral laws are only moral laws when they can be true of a wide range of states of affairs. These facts threaten to eat each other. And I think this is where the challenge against moral law has full force.

This may mean that there are few, or even no, moral laws in objective morality, that even if there are objective moral facts, they are only truly captured by an impossibly elaborate catalogue of specificities. So, moral laws may present a problem for moral objectivists in that a moral objectivist is bewitched by language into mistaken use of the term "law" when they really mean something more mushy, like a regularity or norm that hovers about the truth but which has exceptions.

But there is a simple solution to this- to delegate out the judgment of moral law to parts of the statement that express the moral law. So "It's never right to murder" really is a moral law, because "murder" is defined such that it is always morally wrong. Then we don't need the moral law itself to be equivalent to some description of reality- that responsibility is passed on to the term murder, and by rigging the term with moral judgment, it stays water-tight, whereas a word like "killing" might admit of exceptions because killing is not inherently wrong.

Then we can expand "murder" to mean something like the "gratuitously depriving another human being of life" (or something else). We have partially completed the description of reality, and we distribute out the rest of the job to the term "gratuitous". And finally at the bottom of the hierarchy you have statements that are nothing but descriptions of states of affairs, without any terms laden in moral value in need of elaboration. Then, moral laws truly are moral laws with no exceptions, and yet are responsive to the near-infinite complexity of detail that would threaten to present exceptions to the moral laws.

This is not circular: a law formed this way is just as vulnerable to counterexample as any other law, and it is no more circular than a statement with self evident meaning like "killing is always wrong". It is just a way a moral objectivist can make simple, wide-ranging statements that are up to the task of making true statements that grapple with the infinite complexity of the world.


OB said...

'Feeling' is doing a lot of work there, but that was part of the point. It's kind of a Descartes' Error sort of point - that murder is wrong for humans not just because of thoughts but also because of feelings (and the two are entangled). After all, murder isn't wrong for other animals - there's no sense of wrong-doing and so on. (There may be some exceptions among the great apes - I don't know. It may be that a murderous chimp [and there are some] is resented by friends or relatives of the murdered chimps.)

There has to be feeling all around for murder to matter. If nobody has any feeling at all about murder, including the murderee - then how is it wrong?

Maybe I'm claiming something that could be called human-objective. I think murder is objectively wrong for humans - just not beyond that. That grizzly bear that ate those two people in Alaska - that bear wasn't doing anything objectively wrong.

josef said...

OB, thanks for stoppy by!

That sounds right to me. You might be interested desire utilitarianism, the outstanding blogger/moral theorist Alonzo Fyfe's take on how atheists can be ethical. Of course, there are lots of systems out there, but I find his to be by far the best.

OB said...

Yup interesting. Pretty blue sky, too!

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