• ChatteringMonkey
    557


    I'm not singling out biology, it was just an example. I agree moral norms are entangled with non-moral facts.
  • fdrake
    4k
    To me there's two things going on here. There's the question of what is/isn't morally good. For a large number of questions I think there's a right answer to that question. It's a linguistic question, no different to asking "what is the correct way to use the term 'morally good'". In proper Wittgensteinian sense the answer is not clear cut, it's fuzzy at the edges, but this fuzziness cannot be resolved ever. Likewise with social contexts. When the grocer delivers potatoes, you 'ought' to pay him because that's the meaning of the work 'ought'. It means 'that action which the social context places an imperative on you to do'. So if someone were to say "When the grocer delivers my potatoes I ought to punch him in the face" they'd be wrong. That's not what 'ought' means.Isaac

    :up:


    Asking this question of morality is where questions of moral realism come in. The how of making moral decisions is not via any meta-ethic. We can prove that using fMRI scanning, we definitely do not need to consult areas of our brain responsible for things like meta-modelling to make moral-type decisions. There does seem to be some similarity in some moral decisions, there's also a lot of dissimilarity. So there's an interesting question as to what causes this. My preferred answer is long and complicated because I tend to think morality is a messy combination of numerous, often conflicting, models. The point is, though, that whatever model we come up with to explain the similarities/dissimilarities, it has no normative force for exactly the reason you gave.Isaac

    :up:


    With models about the physical world, the best answer is 'there's an external reality'. That's why I think that dropping my keys will cause them to land on the floor, and so does everyone else, because we're all interacting with the same external world which has patterns and rules.Isaac

    Hm. Looks similar to this:

    I don't think that what you are talking about here is the same as what the OP and the rest are talking about. I like to think of "objective morality," or moral realism, as a kind of correspondence theory. Just as with the non-moral correspondence theory, where the truth of a proposition is judged by its degree of correspondence to a putative true (physical) state of the world, a moral proposition is supposed to be true to the extent of its correspondence with some true normative state - this "objective morality." And this correspondence cannot be trivial; it cannot simply be implied by what the words mean - otherwise, of course, seeking moral truths would have been a trivial matter.SophistiCat


    Let me see if I can make an argument that consolidates both your points. You both seem okay with how I've used the terms "moral conduct" and "moral evaluation", broadly anyway.

    By moral conduct, I mean actions undertaken by agents which have intelligible proximate consequences for self and others that depend upon both what the act is and how the act is done. By moral evaluations, I mean any judgement concerning the adequacy of moral conduct by any standard.fdrake

    (1) In order for "moral objectivism/universalism" to be true, there would need to be true statements about moral conduct.
    (2) In order for a statement to be true, it has to correspond to some (physical or external) state of affairs.
    (3) A statement can be true or false when and only when it concerns some (physical or external) state of affairs.
    (4) Statements concerning moral conduct do not concern any (physical or external) state of affairs.
    (5) Therefore statements concerning moral conduct cannot correspond to some (physical or external) state of affairs (3,4, putting the negation through the when and only when).
    (6) Therefore statements concerning moral conduct cannot be true or false (5,3).
    (7) Therefore there are no statements concerning moral conduct which are true or false. (6, restatement)
    (8) Therefore "moral objectivism/universalism" is false. (7,1)

    Does that reflect what you both think?
  • Isaac
    2.8k
    Does that reflect what you both think?fdrake

    It's difficult to say. Largely because of the caveats about moral statements being somewhat definitional. "Hitting babies is morally wrong" can be true by virtue of the fact that 'morally wrong' is an expression in the English language and whilst it's meaning might be a bit vague at the edges, hitting babies isn't it. I'll try to answer each, but within this framework.

    (1) In order for "moral objectivism/universalism" to be true, there would need to be true statements about moral conduct.fdrake

    First hurdle. True statements about moral conduct might be definitional, as per my example above. It is true to say that hitting babies is not morally good. It's true by virtue of the meaning of the term 'morally good', which does not include hitting babies. But this does not lead to universalism. To borrow from Wittgenstein again. If I describe my teacup as a 'game' I'm wrong, that's not what a game is. But having established, say chess is a game, and so's badminton, opinion about which is most a game is not universal. Once the criteria is met for fluid communication, there's no further objectivity from a definition. Likewise with 'morally right'. Once two behaviours can both correctly be described as 'morally right' by definition, there's no further objective measure to determine which is more 'morally right'.

    (2) In order for a statement to be true, it has to correspond to some (physical or external) state of affairs.fdrake

    I don't want to sound like a stuck record, but I'd tackle this one linguistically too. 'True' is just a word and so it's correct use is governed by the community of language users. I think 'true' as used just means 'I really, really believe this', but for most people that's because believing it has the expected effect on external states of affairs, so yes, we could go with this one.

    (3) A statement can be true or false when and only when it concerns some (physical or external) state of affairs.fdrake

    See above. Yes, but with caveats.

    (4) Statements concerning moral conduct do not concern any (physical or external) state of affairs.fdrake

    This is the trickiest because you've said 'statements concerning', this could cover a lot of statements some of which might well concern external states of affairs. The accepted moral code of a culture is an external state of affairs (it's just not a universal one), the meaning of the term 'morally good' is also an external state of affairs (just not a clear one).

    "Abortion is always morally wrong" would be an example of a statement about moral conduct which does not concern external states of affairs. It's clearly beyond cultural reference, and the definition of 'morally good' is not specific enough to cover it.

    "Rape is morally wrong in modern society" would be an example of a statement which concerns external states of affairs on both grounds. Modern society certainly has such a moral code and rape is definitely outside of the modern definition of 'moral', you'd simply be using the word wrong. As such "Rape is morally wrong in modern society" is true.


    ---

    Essentially though I think the problem with universalism comes down to one of direction of fit. It's perfectly feasible (though not the case), for the term 'morally good' to be a very specific technical term with a clear meaning, and for all cultures to have identical moral codes. If that were the case then all moral statements would either be universally true, or universally false. But...the moment any of that changed, it would not be the case that the new culture was now wrong, it would be the case that we'd need to update our models to reflect this new reality. Like when a word changes meaning. For a while it's just being used wrongly, but after some time of coherent use it's the outdated dictionary that's wrong, not the language users.

    What we decide to do in moral dilemmas is determined by several mental models, some of which are virtually impregnable from birth, others resulting from culture and upbringing almost as difficult to shift. A few are flexible and responsive to discourse. Almost none are meta-ethical, by which I mean derived from some calculated algorithm for how to make such decisions. As such, any such meta ethic as 'universal moral laws' can only ever be descriptive at best. It has no normative force. If it concludes that something is morally wrong which is nonetheless described as 'morally right' by a community of language users, then it is wrong, not the aforementioned community.
  • SophistiCat
    1.3k
    Let me see if I can make an argument that consolidates both your points.fdrake

    I don't agree with Isaac that what is moral is
    ...a linguistic question, no different to asking "what is the correct way to use the term 'morally good'".Isaac
    But I probably shouldn't hijack the thread to debate the point. I don't have a problem with the rest though.

    (1) In order for "moral objectivism/universalism" to be true, there would need to be true statements about moral conduct.
    (2) In order for a statement to be true, it has to correspond to some (physical or external) state of affairs.
    fdrake
    ...
    (7) Therefore there are no statements concerning moral conduct which are true or falsefdrake

    It should be made clear that by statements being true in this context we specifically mean truth in the sense of correspondence with some external/objective state of affairs. There is an old-standing debate in moral philosophy about whether moral statements are truth-apt (moral cognitivism/non-cognitivism). I find that much of this debate is essentially over philosophical language and coherence with this or that analytical framework. I don't get exercised over such controversies; I am happy to use "true" in its ordinary sense, so that if I am willing to make an affirmative statement, I am also willing to say that the statement is true (otherwise we would find ourselves making Moorian paradoxical pronouncements like "It's raining, but it is not true that it's raining.") But when I say "Hitting babies is wrong" I don't mean it in the same way as when I say "It's raining." There is no referent implicit in the former statement. Its truthmaker is my moral attitude.
  • SophistiCat
    1.3k
    Continuing from above, it seems to me that often what motivates moral realism/objectivism is almost like a language confusion. When we affirm something, we must be referring to something "out there," right? So if you deny objective morality, then you deny that anything is moral - any thing is moral. For something to be moral, there has to be a moral thing out there. And if you insist that you do have moral beliefs, then the realist will say: "Oh, so you believe that what's moral is just a matter of opinion?" (Saying it in the same incredulous tone in which we talk about those "postmodernist" ditherers who think that nothing is true and everyone is entitled to their own facts.) When they say that, they still assume that there must be a thing that serves as a truthmaker for a moral statement, and they interpret you as saying that that thing is your (or anyone's) opinion.
  • Wayfarer
    9.9k
    (2) In order for a statement to be true, it has to correspond to some (physical or external) state of affairs.fdrake

    When we affirm something, we must be referring to something "out there," right?SophistiCat

    Isn't the difficulty with this the very point that Wittgenstein was driving at in passage at the end of the Tractatus that 'ethics are transcendental'?

    The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value—and if there were, it would be of no value.

    If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental.

    What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental.

    It must lie outside the world.

    6.42 Hence also there can be no ethical propositions. Propositions cannot express anything higher.

    6.421 It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed.

    Ethics is transcendental.

    (Ethics and aesthetics are one.)

    https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Tractatus_Logico-Philosophicus/6

    I think that's probably why considered as a 'mere theoretical proposition', such questions tend to become meaningless. They're only meaningful if you can see what makes them meaningful, and that looks suspiciously like what most people would call a faith, or a sense of value originating from over our cognitive horizons. (Which is why I say that Wittgenstein's acclaimed 'silence' is apophatic.)

    We can prove that using fMRI scanning, we definitely do not need to consult areas of our brain responsible for things like meta-modelling to make moral-type decisions.Isaac

    The problem with this is, that interpretation of fMRI scanning is a matter of judgement, and yet in this question, 'judgement' is the very faculty which you're attempting to capture, via an apparatus. Again, there's a circularity involved here. You have an assumption that technology - neuroscience, presumably - will be arbiter of what ultimately is objectively the case. Presumably some kind of brain state or configuration of neural matter. But again, all such judgements are exactly that: judgements. And judgement is precisely what is at issue in such questions. That is what I mean by saying that there are some judgements you can never get outside of. And yet we want to make the very nature of judgement something which can be explained scientifically 1.
  • Isaac
    2.8k
    I don't agree with Isaac that what is moral is

    ...a linguistic question, no different to asking "what is the correct way to use the term 'morally good'". — Isaac

    But I probably shouldn't hijack the thread to debate the point.
    SophistiCat

    I don't think this thread has a point as such (it's just a poll), so I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

    when I say "Hitting babies is wrong" ... Its truthmaker is my moral attitude.SophistiCat

    This seems at odds with

    When they say that, they still assume that there must be a thing that serves as a truthmaker for a moral statement, and they interpret you as saying that that thing is your (or anyone's) opinion.SophistiCat

    Is it that your moral attitude is not a 'thing', or is it that your moral attitude is not an 'opinion'. Absent either of those things it does seem as though you're agreeing with the latter statement. The thing which serves as the truthmaker for your moral statement would correctly be identified as your opinion.
  • Isaac
    2.8k
    The problem with this is, that interpretation of fMRI scanning is a matter of judgement, and yet in this question, 'judgement' is the very faculty which you're attempting to capture, via an apparatus.Wayfarer

    I don't understand what you're having trouble with. We associate certain areas of the brain with certain types of mental activity because they consistently correlate - the subject reports some type of activity, or is placed in some recognised situation and the same area consistently registers. We can also use lesion studies where damage to some part of the brain consistently results in absence or inadequacy in the same type of mental activity. Plus we can measure endocrine responses and test cellular reactions to those hormones.

    Obviously if I'm looking at an fMRI I have to use some judgement to assess it, but that's happening in my brain, not my subject's brain, so I don't see any cause for concern there either.
  • fdrake
    4k
    I am also willing to say that the statement is true (otherwise we would find ourselves making Moorian paradoxical pronouncements like "It's raining, but it is not true that it's raining.") But when I say "Hitting babies is wrong" I don't mean it in the same way as when I say "It's raining." There is no referent implicit in the former statement.Its truthmaker is my moral attitude.SophistiCat

    I'm a bit uneasy attaching right and wrong to arbitrary ought statements myself; I don't like ought statements to begin with. It construes "ought" as an operator on "is", and "is" contains all the truth conditions in that framing.

    I think that this comes down to an argument about the type of states of affairs, and whether that type excludes relationships between agents, dispositions and states of affairs.

    Truth conditions have to be a statement of an event. Characteristic instances of the type are like "it is raining" or "the ball fell through the hoop", physical facts like "an ionic bond occurs between sodium and chlorine to make salt", and descriptions like "snow is white". The motivating intuition for grouping these things together is that their truth conditions do not depend in any way upon a human's disposition toward them. This facilitates a sharp division between states of affairs (under a description) and attitudes agents have towards them. Morality is aligned with a pro attitude of judgement towards a state of affairs, like {Sally, thinks this is wrong, hitting a baby} - the morally valanced component is all in the middle term, rather than the state of affairs of baby hitting.

    I don't think the sharpness of this division between dispositionally dependent and independent content survives the enmeshment of social facts and dispositions. From the social facts side, consider the event "Sally and Lizzy are in love", this will be true when Sally and Lizzy are in love. However, Sally loves Lizzy is a disposition of Sally regarding Lizzy. Lizzy loves Sally is a disposition regarding Sally. If we must take dispositions regarding states of affairs as separate from states of affairs, then "Sally and Lizzy are in love" must either not be truth-apt or false as by assumption neither disposition corresponds to a state of affairs that can be included in a truth condition so their composition cannot either. Regardless, Sally and Lizzy are in love, so it should be true, no?

    I think this forces us to consider dispositions as a component part of states of affairs rather than parsing them simply as attitudes towards states of affairs. If moral evaluations are a type of disposition (as assumed above), this makes moral evaluation a state of affairs. This leaves room for an account of what it means for a moral evaluation to be a state of affairs.

    I take a pragmatic view of what it means to hold a disposition. A disposition has pragmatic consequences. So "Sally and Lizzy are in love" entails behavioural commitments which manifest as proximate consequences for both agents, and the type of behavioural commitments + proximate consequences depend upon the dispositions held and the agents.

    So for an agent to hold a moral evaluation is for them to commit themselves to behaving in a manner consistent with the moral evaluation they hold. However holding that commitment does not suffice for the proximate consequences engendered by holding the commitment being adequate for upholding the commitment's intended proximate consequences. Only the actions manifested in accordance with the commitment are adequate for it, as they are what yield the proximate consequences of the commitment. IE, there are moral errors (infelicities of moral conduct) that arise in the mismatch of a moral evaluation and the actions used to satisfy it, and moral skill (a good enough fit between the evaluation and the actions). If the actions do not satisfy the evaluation in virtue of being infelicitous in some way, then it is true that they do not satisfy the evaluation. And vice versa. The truth condition there isn't a type of disposition held by the agent, it's whether the actions were adequate for the disposition or not.

    The sense of adequacy is facilitated by the moral evaluations of engaged parties; those which really are affected by the proximate consequences of an agent's actions, including the original agent. Events concerning stakeholders to the actions and evaluations thereof. Objectivity (it really being true that one's actions can be in/felicitous in context) without universalism (contextual dependence of all moral conduct and evaluation).

    But when I say "Hitting babies is wrong" I don't mean it in the same way as when I say "It's raining." There is no referent implicit in the former statement. Its truthmaker is my moral attitude.SophistiCat

    So I don't think the moral attitude suffices; it doesn't give a good account of moral error and conduct being adequate. Whether the actions cash out the disposition. And I don't think the picture of dispositionally independent states of affairs is in accordance with moral conduct's immersion in social contexts, "external/objective" truth conditions break when considering the truth conditions of collective actions/institutional facts/social facts.
  • Wayfarer
    9.9k
    We associate certain areas of the brain with certain types of mental activity because they consistently correlate - the subject reports some type of activity, or is placed in some recognised situation and the same area consistently registers.Isaac

    The drawing of such implications from fMRI studies, especially psychological or ethical implications, is precisely where many major issues of replicability have been found in the ‘replication crisis’. See this review.

    But, step back a bit. Where fMRI and brain science is genuinely useful is in the diagnosis of disorders. It has immense therapeutic benefits. But here, we’re actually talking about ethical judgements. So saying that such technologies can say anything about moral judgement, or rational thinking, is of a completely different order to saying that they can help diagnose pathologies or neurological disorders. Reason is not a pathology. And saying that reasoned ethical argument can be isolated or analysed in terms of brain imaging is treating it as if it was. There is no ‘brain configuration’ that equates to judgement - or rather, if there were, you would have to be using the very faculty which you’re trying to ‘explain’, in order to explain it. You can’t see reason ‘from the outside’, as it were. That’s why it’s not something objective in itself - rather, it is reason that is the faculty that is used to determine what is objective.

    What you’re wanting to do is ground moral judgement in empirical science. But, read the quote from Wittgenstein again - this is saying that is precisely what cannot be done. ‘The sense of the world must lie outside the world’ - you’re not going to square that with naturalism.
  • Isaac
    2.8k
    The drawing of such implications from fMRI studies, especially psychological or ethical implications, is precisely where many major issues of replicability have been found in the ‘replication crisis’. See this review.Wayfarer

    As ever, a lack of certainty in the sciences is not a reason to accept even less certain conclusions from just 'having a bit if a think' about it.

    saying that reasoned ethical argument can be isolated or analysed in terms of brain imaging is treating it as if it was.Wayfarer

    How? You've not drawn any rational analogy between the correlation of brain activity with mental activity and pathology. Where's the link?

    There is no ‘brain configuration’ that equates to judgement - or rather, if there were, you would have to be using the very faculty which you’re trying to ‘explain’, in order to explain it.Wayfarer

    So. I'm using my faculty to identify the same in someone else. Where's the problem?

    For example, people with damage to the left inferior frontal gyrus have trouble with categorical syllogisms. How do you explain this if not via an assumption that this part of the brain is involved in that aspect of reasoning? I, in part, use my functioning left inferior frontal gyrus to reason about the correlation between this subject's brain damage and his inability to do exactly what I'm doing in assessing him.

    What you’re wanting to do is ground moral judgement in empirical science.Wayfarer

    Read what I've written rather than make lazy assumptions. That's exactly what I'm arguing against.

    read the quote from Wittgenstein again - this is saying that is precisely what cannot be done. ‘The sense of the world must lie outside the world’ - you’re not going to square that with naturalism.Wayfarer

    I don't think so. I think he's just saying that values cannot be of the world, they must if they exist at all (crucial contingent), be of outside the world. But the world is all there is, so they must be transcendent, ie nonsense. They might be important nonsense, but they are not sensical.

    “Neither the Tractatus nor the Notebooks contains any argument or reasoning to establish the existence of values or their absolute character."

    World and Life As One, Martin Stokhof
  • Wayfarer
    9.9k
    They [values] might be important nonsense, but they are not sensical.Isaac

    Where ‘sensical’ means....?

    That's exactly what I'm arguing against.Isaac

    I stand corrected.
  • Isaac
    2.8k
    They [values] might be important nonsense, but they are not sensical. — Isaac


    Where ‘sensical’ means....?
    Wayfarer

    Something about which propositions can be formed.

    Edit - I'm not saying I agree with Wittgenstein here. I'm just saying that standard interpretations do not have him saying that ethical values exist or are absolute. In saying their values must lie outside of the world, he's not saying they exist but in some other realm. He's saying they don't exist in the sense that we can talk about.
  • Wayfarer
    9.9k
    For example, people with damage to the left inferior frontal gyrus have trouble with categorical syllogisms. How do you explain this if not via an assumption that this part of the brain is involved in that aspect of reasoning?Isaac

    It is clear enough that brain damage can interfere with speech, thought and language - as I said, that is for question of pathology. I don’t think it says anything specific about the nature of reason, other than that a healthy brain is required to grasp it.
  • Isaac
    2.8k
    I don’t think it says anything specific about the nature of reason, other than that a healthy brain is required to grasp it.Wayfarer

    It does. It says that a healthy left inferior frontal gyrus is required to grasp that particular bit of it. Which is all I'm saying about using fMRI scans to tell us about how we process moral decisions. Particular parts of the brain are used for particular aspects of reasoning. This is the best, most well-supported theory of how we reach reasoned conclusions.

    The corollary of this is that if we see certain brain areas active/inactive during mental activities we can draw a very reasonable conclusion that certain aspects of reasoning are involved/absent.
  • Wayfarer
    9.9k
    Which is all I'm saying about using fMRI scans to tell us about how we process moral decisions. Particular parts of the brain are used for particular aspects of reasoning. This is the best, most well-supported theory of how we reach reasoned conclusions.Isaac

    The review I linked to draws on a large study of fmri data and raises fundamental questions about its accuracy and replicability in many respects.

    fM.R.I. creates images based on the differential effects a strong magnetic field has on brain tissue. The scans occur at a rate of about one per second, and software divides each scan into around 200,000 voxels — cube-shaped pixels — each containing about a million brain cells. The software then infers neural activity within voxels or clusters of voxels, based on detected blood flow (the areas that “light up”). Comparisons are made between voxels of a resting brain and voxels of a brain that is doing something like, say, looking at a picture of Hillary Clinton, to try to deduce what the subject might be thinking or feeling depending on which area of the brain is activated.

    But when you divide the brain into bitty bits and make millions of calculations according to a bunch of inferences, there are abundant opportunities for error, particularly when you are relying on software to do much of the work. This was made glaringly apparent back in 2009, when a graduate student conducted an fM.R.I. scan of a dead salmon and found neural activity in its brain when it was shown photographs of humans in social situations. Again, it was a salmon. And it was dead.

    The study it refers to is here.

    And consider this: are the fundamental terms of logic and reason - the structure of syllogisms or logical rules such the law of the excluded middle - a product of neural processes. Or are they principles which it takes a functioning brain to understand? Surely such principles hold regardless of whether this or that individual has the mental competence to grasp them.

    And so original objection stands. As Thomas Nagel says,

    It is natural to look for a way in which our understanding of the world could close over itself by including us and our methods of thought and understanding within its scope. That is what drives the search for naturalistic accounts of reasoning. But it is also clear that this hope cannot be realized, because the primary position will always be occupied by our employment of reason and understanding, and that will be true even when we make reasoning the object of our investigation. So an external understanding of reason as merely another natural phenomenon--a biological product, for example--is impossible. Reason is whatever we find we must use to understand anything, including itself. And if we try to understand it merely as a natural (biological or psychological) phenomenon, the result will be an account incompatible with our use of it and with the understanding of it we have in using it. For I cannot trust a natural process unless I can see why it is reliable, any more than I can trust a mechanical algorithm unless I can see why it is reliable. And to see that I must rely on reason itself.
  • Isaac
    2.8k
    The review I linked to draws on a large study of fmri data and raises fundamental questions about its accuracy and replicability in many respects.Wayfarer

    I don't understand why you're having such trouble with this concept. Uncertainty in one approach is not a reason to adopt an alternative approach unless it can be shown to be more certain. Do you have an alternative method for understanding mental activity which passes replicability tests?

    are the fundamental terms of logic and reason - the structure of syllogisms or logical rules such the law of the excluded middle - a product of neural processes. Or are they principles which it takes a functioning brain to understand?Wayfarer

    I would say obviously the latter. This makes no difference whatsoever to the assessment of which brain areas are responsible for understanding which principles. As such it has no bearing whatsoever on my argument that activity in certain areas of the brain can give us good cause to conclude which of these principles are being used at the time.
  • SophistiCat
    1.3k
    To me there's two things going on here. There's the question of what is/isn't morally good. For a large number of questions I think there's a right answer to that question. It's a linguistic question, no different to asking "what is the correct way to use the term 'morally good'". In proper Wittgensteinian sense the answer is not clear cut, it's fuzzy at the edges, but this fuzziness cannot be resolved ever. Likewise with social contexts. When the grocer delivers potatoes, you 'ought' to pay him because that's the meaning of the work 'ought'. It means 'that action which the social context places an imperative on you to do'. So if someone were to say "When the grocer delivers my potatoes I ought to punch him in the face" they'd be wrong. That's not what 'ought' means.Isaac

    I don't think this thread has a point as such (it's just a poll), so I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this.Isaac

    OK. First, rules of communication and social rules, like rules for purchasing goods, are not necessarily moral. Knowingly transgressing such rules can be a moral act, but it is the act of following or breaking rules that is moral, not the rules themselves. Second, disagreements about moral questions are not similar to disagreements about the meanings of words.

    Is it that your moral attitude is not a 'thing', or is it that your moral attitude is not an 'opinion'. Absent either of those things it does seem as though you're agreeing with the latter statement. The thing which serves as the truthmaker for your moral statement would correctly be identified as your opinion.Isaac

    Yeah, I realize I was courting confusion with this talk about truthmakers. Let me put it this way: there are different kinds of assertions. Some assertions - assertions made about the world - imply a referent and at least a theoretical possibility of checking their truth against this referent. A moral assertion carries no such ontological commitments, at least not implicitly.
  • Isaac
    2.8k
    disagreements about moral questions are not similar to disagreements about the meanings of words.SophistiCat

    A moral assertion carries no such ontological commitments, at least not implicitly.SophistiCat

    You seem to have just restated your conclusions, I was more wondering how you got there. No bother if they're just basic bedrocks for you, but if not, I'm interested in the thought processes which lead you there.

    With what is 'moral', for example. How does someone who feels differently to the rest of the population about, say, violence, learn what the term 'morally right' refers to? All they're going to see growing up is people using the term to refer to 'good' stuff (being kind to old ladies etc). I don't understand how you imagine they'd ever learn that their preferred behaviour (hitting people) is somehow the same thing in essence that everyone else in their language community is really referring to when they use the term to describes helping old ladies etc.
  • SophistiCat
    1.3k
    I'm a bit uneasy attaching right and wrong to arbitrary ought statements myself; I don't like ought statements to begin with. It construes "ought" as an operator on "is", and "is" contains all the truth conditions in that framing.fdrake

    Like I said, I meant only ordinary, colloquial senses of right/wrong, true/false. Formal analyses of truth, I feel, rarely touch on matters of human interest. I understand your worry about the truth conditions for moral assertions. But it is precisely this ambiguity of moral expressions (never mind whether we explicitly assert their truth; what matters is that moral talk does not much differ from empiric talk) that prompted my crackpot theory about what motivates moral realism.

    Regardless, Sally and Lizzy are in love, so it should be true, no?fdrake

    I don't see this as a problematic enmeshment of dispositions and states of affairs. The statement can perfectly well refer to something empirical, such as observed behavior or verbal report. And of course Sally and Lizzy having the disposition of being in love is itself a state of affairs. A statement that refers to a disposition as an existing state of affairs (e.g. "Sally and Lizzy are in love," or "fdrake believes that hitting babies is wrong") would be comprehensible and defeasible.

    I take a pragmatic view of what it means to hold a disposition. A disposition has pragmatic consequences.fdrake

    Well, you go on to distance morals from their consequences by pointing out how the latter are not always true to the former (when we fail to act in accordance with our original dispositions). And of course moral attitudes are perfectly comprehensible even in the absence of any notable effects. Whether or not one's conduct is adequate to one's beliefs and attitudes (when there even is a conduct to speak of) is a separate question from whether beliefs and attitudes are right or wrong.
  • SophistiCat
    1.3k
    A moral assertion carries no such ontological commitments, at least not implicitly.SophistiCat

    You seem to have just restated your conclusions, I was more wondering how you got there.Isaac

    With this I was just trying to restate my position without appearing to contradict myself, i.e. without appearing to refer to some state of affairs that non-trivially validates moral beliefs.

    With what is 'moral', for example. How does someone who feels differently to the rest of the population about, say, violence, learn what the term 'morally right' refers to? All they're going to see growing up is people using the term to refer to 'good' stuff (being kind to old ladies etc). I don't understand how you imagine they'd ever learn that their preferred behaviour (hitting people) is somehow the same thing in essence that everyone else in their language community is really referring to when they use the term to describes helping old ladies etc.Isaac

    I seems like you are talking about moral vocabulary, such as the meaning of the words "good" and "bad." I don't really see the connection to the present subject. We learn how to use such words by correctly matching them to the respective classes of good and bad things. But the identification of members of the class is not just a matter of learning to use words correctly, surely?
  • Isaac
    2.8k
    the identification of members of the class is not just a matter of learning to use words correctly, surely?SophistiCat

    The class 'good behaviour' has certain membership criteria. That's the same thing as the definition of 'good behaviour'. It's perfect definition is 'everything in that class'.

    Natural language terms are not like taxonomic terms. There's no acknowledged authority determining class membership. No one decided what 'game' was going to mean and then everyone else went around finding activities which fit the definition. It's the other way around, we call a loose collection of things 'games' a fit new thing to the category on the basis of how similar they are to the other members.

    I don't see why it would be any different with 'morally good' we call a loose collection of behaviours (or characteristics) 'morally good' and then any new behaviours are labelled according to their similarity to existing members.

    If I decide the activity of filling in my tax return is a 'game' I've just made a mistake. If I were a new language user you'd correct me, probably by telling me the sorts of things 'games' are. Why would 'morally good' be any different? If I say punching old ladies is 'morally good' I've just made a mistake, that's not similar to the other things in that group.

    If a foreign student learning English pointed at someone hitting an old Lady and said "stroking", you'd be inclined to say "no, not 'stroking', that's 'hitting'". If they then said "morally good", why would you not similarly correct them and say "no, 'morally bad'"?
  • Dawnstorm
    110
    If a foreign student learning English pointed at someone hitting an old Lady and said "stroking", you'd be inclined to say "no, not 'stroking', that's 'hitting'". If they then said "morally good", why would you not similarly correct them and say "no, 'morally bad'"?Isaac

    If a foreign language student sees someone hitting an old lady, intervenes, and says "No, no. Morally good," we have a likely a language problem. - A linguistic failure

    If you see a foreign language student hitting an old lady, intervene, and he says "I understand that you think it's morally wrong to hit an old lady, but I disagree," we likely do not have language problem. - A moral disagreement

    If you see a foreign language student hitting an old lady, intervene, and he doesn't understand why, we likely do not have language problem. - A moral failure

    There can obviously overlap, but that's the gist of it.

    The relation between discursive ethics and pratical morals is a rather interesting topic on its own, I'd say.
  • Isaac
    2.8k
    If you see a foreign language student hitting an old lady, intervene, and he says "I understand that you think it's morally wrong to hit an old lady, but I disagree," we likely do not have language problem. - A moral disagreementDawnstorm

    So if, in the first example, the student says"I understand that you think it's 'hitting' to push my fist toward an old lady this way, but I disagree," why does no one treat it as a disagreement? It's not, he's just flat out wrong about what hitting is.
  • Dawnstorm
    110
    So if, in the first example, the student says"I understand that you think it's 'hitting' to push my fist toward an old lady this way, but I disagree," why does no one treat it as a disagreement? It's not, he's just flat out wrong about what hitting is.Isaac

    Well, he's certainly flat out wrong. Whether or not he, in addition, disagrees is an empirical question. Personally, decontextualised like in this thread, I'm more likely to imagine irony designed to dismiss your intervention.

    If it really is a disagreement about the word "to hit", I'd be inclined to think that he's trying to find a "loophole in the law" rather than to act morally. But that, too, is an empirical question. Very unusual people do exist.
  • Isaac
    2.8k


    You haven't answered the question though. I wanted to know why you confidently allowed the student to have his own private meaning for the term 'morally good', but you're deeply suspicious if he tries to claim his own private meaning for the term 'hitting'?

    What if, next week, he decides that 'morally good' is a type of potato, is he still just in disagreement, or is he now just wrong about what kind of thing 'morally good' refers to? If he's wrong about it referring to a potato, but he's just 'in disagreement' about it referring to hitting old ladies, then where's the line, and why is it there?

    We're social creatures. we're completely embedded in a culture, just to talk requires a huge amount of cultural cooperation. Why would we be at all surprised to find social rules entwined with our language?
  • SophistiCat
    1.3k
    Natural language terms are not like taxonomic terms.Isaac

    Yes, they are. We don't just put together a random collection of things and give it a name; we group things for a reason. This isn't an exact science, but neither is defining the boundaries of biological taxa.

    There is considerable diversity within moral outlooks, which results in different people using moral terms somewhat differently. This is the direction of fit, not the other way around. Moral valuation is not just a matter of labeling: it goes along with certain mental attitudes, the actions that they inspire and the social facts that they bring about. "Good" and "bad" are natural kinds, to put it crudely. Playing around with labels doesn't change what they are.
  • Isaac
    2.8k
    Yes, they are.SophistiCat

    Well then who are the experts who determine the status of certain behaviours? In Britain, if there's a dispute over the taxonomic status of a plant, a Cambridge Professor called Clive Stace has the final say. His book 'The New Flora of the British Isles' contains all the definitions, but they're based on (largely) seed structure and chromosome number. So...

    we group things for a reason. This isn't an exact science, but neither is defining the boundaries of biological taxa.SophistiCat

    The difference is that the 'reason's for grouping things into the category 'morally good' are varied and inconsistent an historical accident of cultural evolution, religion, politics... Not at all like taxonomy, which may well have it's disputes, but they are over largely agreed upon criteria with established authorities, as the example above.

    "Good" and "bad" are natural kinds, to put it crudely. Playing around with labels doesn't change what they are.SophistiCat

    There may well be a certain way in which they are, but given the history of language evolution would you not find it extremely unusual that two such loaded terms as 'Good' and 'Bad' were purely the result of our identification of some Platonic essence and not in the least bit influenced by culture or social dynamics? I certainly would.

    And if we accept the above, then how would a person learn how to correctly apply the term 'morally good' only to those things which met the criteria of this Natural Kind? How would we ever know which 'Natural Kind' our community of language users were referring to if their only use of the term is the one loaded with cultural and psychological biases?

    Whether I personally fell inclined to pursue what is 'good' and avoid what is 'bad' is entirely another matter. Unless you have a good contrary argument, we already know that we cannot have private meanings for words, so the meaning must be that which the community of language users collectively maintains, it cannot privately mean that which I find to be appealing or repellent. Yet that maintenance is a mash-up of natural kinds, politics, biases etc. it would be impossible to distinguish which part of the definition refers to a natural kind even if we were to accept the existence of such a thing.

    This is why I think it's important to distinguish the three aspects of moral-talk.

    There's what actually counts as morally 'right' and 'wrong'. This is definitional, it's our social group as language users which define this, we cannot meaningfully say they have it wrong because we cannot have a private meanings for words, it makes no sense.

    There's an investigation into why certain behaviours are labelled 'good' and 'bad' by our community of language users (as you say, we don't do so arbitrarily). IT would be incredibly surprising here if the answer we came up with was anything like taxonomy - that despite all the complexity of religion, politics, culture and psychology we somehow ended up with our definitions being a pure reflection of some natural kinds. Nothing in this investigation has any normative force over what the definitions 'ought' to be. There's no reason at all why definitions should be anything other than what they are.

    Finally there's your own personal inclinations to act. You may be inclined toward behaviours which are 'bad', or you may be inclined toward those which are 'good'. You may be inclined to reprimand or impose on others for their behaviours. But none of this has any normative force either. Your own private inclinations cannot determine the meaning of socially mediated terms. We cannot have private meanings for words, language is a social game.
  • Dawnstorm
    110
    You haven't answered the question though. I wanted to know why you confidently allowed the student to have his own private meaning for the term 'morally good', but you're deeply suspicious if he tries to claim his own private meaning for the term 'hitting'?Isaac

    I didn't anser that question, because that's not what I intended to say, and - to be honest - I don't think I I did. I called it a linguistic failure. Being wrong about "good" (he's not wrong about morally; the adverb's appropriate to the situation) and being wrong about "to hit" are both instances of linguistic failure. (I do allow him a private meaning for both words in some limited context - say, a diary written in code.)

    Basically, I misinterpreted your question, and I'm still not sure why you'd think I allow a private meaning for the term "morally good".

    You do seem to mingle language and morals at a deep level, in a way I don't quite understand. Sure, they're entwined, as you say, but it's generally not hard to follow the distinct threads, horrid tangles notwithstanding. Also, both language and morals involve social rules, so if you abstract enough you may end up in a place where they're the same, but they also use a lot of their usefulness at terms.

    For example:

    When the grocer delivers potatoes, you 'ought' to pay him because that's the meaning of the work 'ought'.Isaac

    This seems needlessly hard to parse or outright wrong. I don't know which.
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