Is morality objective or subjective?

Should you think about your duty, or about the consequences of your actions? Or should you concentrate on becoming a good person?

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Peter Holmes
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Peter Holmes » Wed Jul 18, 2018 12:44 pm

Dr Peter suggests this guaranteed cure for any strain of objectivism.

1 Take any assertion expressing a value judgement - slavery is wrong, this god is good, that painting is beautiful, happiness is better than unhappiness, health is better than sickness, life is preferable to death - and so on.

2 To be objective - and so true or false - the assertion has to make a falsifiable claim about something - an 'object' of some kind. Ask yourself what that object is.

3 The object can't be what the judgement is about - slavery, this god, that painting, happiness, health, life - and so on - because that is also the object of the contrary value judgement - slavery is right, this god is bad - and so on. Back to square one.

4 And the object can't be the judgement itself: what justifies the judgement that this god is good is ... the goodness of this god - and so on. That just begs the question, going around in a circle.

5 Realise this is a wild goose chase, because the fact/value barrier is insuperable, which is why value judgements can't be factual - and why moral values and judgements - and morality itself - can't be objective.

This cure is provided for free, for the benefit of benighted objectivists, and the betterment of the species.

Peter Holmes
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Peter Holmes » Sat Jul 21, 2018 7:29 am

I'd like to point out what I think is a common misconstrual of the word 'subjective', and therefore of how it contrasts with the word 'objective'. And I think this misconstrual contributes to the intuitive rejection of - even outrage at - the idea that morality is subjective. Here's a summary.

1 Among the many things we do with language, we produce two kinds of assertion with different functions: factual and non-factual.

2 Factual assertions, such as 'the earth orbits the sun' assert something that may not be the case. They're falsifiable, because what they assert can be shown not to be the case. So their truth-value - whether they're true or false - is independent of anyone's opinion. That the earth orbits the sun is the 'object' that makes the assertion 'the earth orbits the sun' true - a true factual assertion - which we call a 'fact'. And the word 'objective' means 'relying on facts rather than opinions, judgements or beliefs'.

3 Non-factual assertions are different. They express judgements, beliefs or opinions, such as 'slavery is wrong', 'knowledge is good', 'murderers deserve capital punishment', 'this music is sublime'. and so on. These assertions - and the judgements they express - can matter very deeply to us. But they don't make factual claims about something that may or may not be the case - an 'object' that gives them factual truth-value, independent of anyone's opinion. So they're what we call 'subjective', which just means 'relying on judgements, beliefs or opinions, rather than facts'.

4 Our intuitive compulsion to believe judgements really are factual is enormously powerful. For example, many people insist that moral judgements of good, bad, right and wrong are objective. But to justify that claim, all they can do is appeal to facts about reality and our lives as social animals. If they are indeed facts, they're objective. But the choice to make those facts - rather than some others - the criteria we should use for moral judgements is itself a judgement. And we have to make those judgements to form our moral values, because we have no choice.

5 The mistake moral objectivists make is to believe a moral judgement. such as 'slavery is wrong', is a fact - a claim about something that really is the case. And this is a category error, because judgements aren't factual - that's not their function. We can and do justify our moral judgement about slavery by appealing to facts about slavery, but it remains a judgement.

6 The misconstrual - misunderstanding - I began with is this: 'subjective' doesn't and can't mean 'true or false depending on personal opinion' - because a judgement doesn't have a truth-value at all. It's just a judgement. What horrifies some objectivists is the assumption that, if morality is subjective - if there are no moral facts - there can be no justification for moral judgements at all - and moral nihilism is the only possible conclusion. But this nonsense comes from the misconception - the category error - that there can be moral facts in the first place.

Belinda
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Belinda » Sat Jul 21, 2018 8:39 am

Peter Holmes wrote:
Factual assertions, such as 'the earth orbits the sun' assert something that may not be the case. They're falsifiable, because what they assert can be shown not to be the case. So their truth-value - whether they're true or false - is independent of anyone's opinion. That the earth orbits the sun is the 'object' that makes the assertion 'the earth orbits the sun' true - a true factual assertion - which we call a 'fact'. And the word 'objective' means 'relying on facts rather than opinions, judgements or beliefs'.
True , that's falsifiable. So is it falsifiable that rape is wrong. The latter proposition is falsified if it's judged by the criterion that some people are more entitled than others to use violence. Morality is as much a part of a society's culture as is the world view of modern science.

Similarly 'the Earth orbits the Sun' is falsified according to the criteria of modern cosmology. Modern cosmology is as much a part of a society's culture as is its morality.

Ultimate criteria are subjective. The only reality we can know is social reality. It may be that science (e.g. 'the Earth orbits the Sun')has nailed absolute reality but we cannot know that .

I bet that Immanuel Can believes that not only morality is objectively true but that empirical facts also are objectively true. Both of those beliefs are in The Bible, as God made everything. A traditional theistic religionist holds to the correspondence theory of truth.

Peter Holmes
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Peter Holmes » Sat Jul 21, 2018 1:10 pm

Belindi

If 'rape is wrong' is a factual (objective) assertion, what is the 'object' that verifies it? It can't be rape, because rape is also the object of the assertion 'rape is right (justifiable)'. And it can't be the wrongness of rape: 'rape is wrong because rape is wrong' - gets nowhere. (Sorry - I know I'm repeating this argument - but do you see the point?)

Like you, rape horrifies and disgusts me - and I'm fairly sure that's for the same reasons. But if we believe our moral judgements are facts, the door is open to people justifying any moral judgements, claiming that they're facts and so unarguable. So it's right to murder abortion practitioners, because they themselves are murderers.

Choose any moral debate where there's disagreement, and see if there's an objective fact of the matter that settles the question. And to say some moral issues are clear cut, but others aren't, is special pleading. Who decides which moral issue is a factual matter, and which isn't? Is the morality of capital punishment a patently factual matter? And that's about judicial murder.

To say a moral judgement, such as 'rape is wrong' is subjective - a matter of judgement - does NOT mean anyone's judgement is as valid as anyone else's.

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RCSaunders
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by RCSaunders » Sat Jul 21, 2018 8:09 pm

Peter Holmes wrote:
Sat Jul 21, 2018 1:10 pm
Belindi

If 'rape is wrong' is a factual (objective) assertion, ...
Right, wrong, good, bad, important, unimportant, necessary, unnecessary are value terms. Since Hume, the nature of value terms has become completely confused and treated as though they are concepts of the intrinsic or inherent.

Nothing is just good, bad, right, or wrong in itself. All value terms are terms of relationship. Every value term assumes some purpose, objective, goal or end relative to which a thing (idea, action, or entity) has a value. If it furthers or completes the end, purpose, or goal it has a positive value, if it hinders or prevents the end, purpose, or goal, it has a negative value. No matter what value is being considered, the ultimate purpose, end, or goal of the thing must be specified, before a value can be assigned to it.

The purpose of moral principles are to be a guide for living successfully as a human being. They are necessary because all human behavior must be chosen and choice is not possible where the consequences of one's choices cannot be known. Moral principles do not tell one what to choose, they only provide the means of knowing, "if I choose this, these will be the consequences."

If one chooses to live happily and successfully in this world, moral principles will provide the means of knowing how to choose to live that way. One does not have to choose to live happily or successfully, in which case no principles are needed. A failed life needs no guidance, it is the default condition (and the most common).

Moral values are objective because which behavior will produce which consequences is determined by the nature of reality itself. There are two aspects of that reality: 1. the nature of physical reality as delineated by the physical science, and 2. human nature, physical, biological, and psychological.

If the objective of moral principles is successful human life, defying the nature of any aspect of reality is, "wrong," or, "bad," because it prevents achieving the objective. Defying the nature of physical reality (jumping off a tall building, lighting oneself on fire, etc.) is bad. Defying the biological nature (failing to consume necessary vitamins and minerals, consuming poison, breathing carbon monoxide) is wrong. Defying the requirements of one's psychological nature (failing to learn, to think, and to make one's choices rationally) is immoral because human success is impossible without them.

Perhaps the biggest mistake in all discussions of moral principles is the failure to identify the specific objective of such principles. No one is required to have a specific objective in life. One may choose to live as something less than a fully successful human being, but for those who choose to be the best they can be as a human being, achieving and being all they can possibly be, enjoying their life to the fullest possible, objective moral principles based on reality are absolutely necessary.

So, "rape is wrong," is objectively true if by wrong one means contrary to how one must live to be a successful human being.

Peter Holmes
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Peter Holmes » Sun Jul 22, 2018 9:31 am

RCSaunders

Thanks. That's carefully thought-out and clearly expressed. But I think you're mistaken.

You correctly describe the nature of value judgements, but then import objectivity - which was Aristotle's mistake with the idea of 'prescriptive truth'. It matters not a jot if we have complete factual knowledge of human nature and the motives or consequences of any action or behaviour. That we should act or behave in perfect accordance with that knowledge is a judgement, not a fact - a true factual assertion.

And that's why moral objectivism is a mistake. There are no moral facts, but only moral judgements - how ever rationally we reach and defend our moral judgements.
Last edited by Peter Holmes on Sun Jul 22, 2018 9:38 am, edited 1 time in total.

Belinda
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Belinda » Sun Jul 22, 2018 9:34 am

Peter Holmes wrote:
If 'rape is wrong' is a factual (objective) assertion, what is the 'object' that verifies it?
A criterion verifies an assertion.

I said that all value judgements are subjective judgements. That rape is wrong is a subjective value judgement. Some societies where rape is not illegal also advocate rape by reason of tradition and culture . In some societies a husband could and should rape his wife. True, you and I condemn a culture where this is taken for granted however we argue against it by reason of our criterion that a less powerful person such as a wife must be as free to choose as the more powerful husband.

All judgements rest upon criteria and all criteria reduce to the subjective sooner or later.

Peter Holmes
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Peter Holmes » Sun Jul 22, 2018 9:42 am

Belindi

Belindi wrote:
All judgements rest upon criteria and all criteria reduce to the subjective sooner or later.
I completely agree. And that's why morality - a moral judgement - is subjective, and can't be objective (factual).

Belinda
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Belinda » Sun Jul 22, 2018 10:16 am

RCSaunders wrote:
Moral values are objective because which behavior will produce which consequences is determined by the nature of reality itself. There are two aspects of that reality: 1. the nature of physical reality as delineated by the physical science, and 2. human nature, physical, biological, and psychological.
But reality is unknowable. What we know is social reality. Physical science is embedded in social reality ; physical science is a human activity.

Human nature is nowadays usually considered to be defined according to sciences and arts; sciences and arts are human and therefore social activities.

We cannot know that the greatest science or poem reflects reality. I have faith that it does reflect reality.

"Is morality objective or subjective?" is a question not of ontology but of epistemology.

Peter Holmes
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Peter Holmes » Sun Jul 22, 2018 10:16 am

The case against moral objectivism is very simple: it entails contradictions.

1 The word 'objective' means 'relying on facts rather than judgements'.

2 The claim that a moral assertion, expressing a value judgement, is a fact - a true factual assertion - means that any such assertion is a fact. So if the assertion 'slavery is wrong' is a fact, so is the assertion 'slavery is right'. And such a contradiction shows that the reasoning is faulty.

3 The claim that some moral assertions are facts, but that others aren't facts, is special pleading that falsifies the claim that moral assertions are facts.

4 The conclusion has to be that moral assertions don't express factual claims, but rather value judgements, and so they are subjective.

Belinda
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Belinda » Sun Jul 22, 2018 10:21 am

We do agree, Peter, about moral subjectivism. I think we disagree about the objective status of science.

uwot
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by uwot » Sun Jul 22, 2018 10:52 am

Belinda wrote:
Sun Jul 22, 2018 10:21 am
We do agree, Peter, about moral subjectivism. I think we disagree about the objective status of science.
It's worth bearing in mind what is involved in science. Loosely speaking, there is the observation, the measurement and the theory.
The observation can be verified. If different people see different things, then you repeat the experiment until there is enough of a consensus that most people accept that there is a genuine phenomenon, which is as close to objective as anyone is likely to get.
The observation is then measured; again until there is some consensus on the results, which again is as objective as can be.
Patterns are sought in the measurements to find some general pattern that can be expressed mathematically. The accuracy of the mathematical model/equation can be checked more or less objectively, but it is nearly always possible to create different mathematical models which account for the phenomenon equally well.
Then there is the explanation. Basically, that is the 'theory' bit and here, you can make up almost any story you like and if it isn't contradicted by the observation or measurement, it could be true. Because human beings are imaginative creatures, there can be any number of theories that are consistent with the data; as a result, there is no objective way to decide between one theory and another; it's really an aesthetic choice.
Here's Richard Feynman saying pretty much that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NM-zWTU7X-k

Peter Holmes
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Peter Holmes » Sun Jul 22, 2018 12:32 pm

I must apologise for my previous post about contradiction. I've made a mistake that I need to rectify. Sorry.

Belinda
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Belinda » Sun Jul 22, 2018 7:09 pm

Uwot, that is a good post.

BTW on a minor technical point is there a way to get transcripts of these Youtube video things? I much prefer to read than to watch and listen if at all possible.

uwot
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by uwot » Mon Jul 23, 2018 2:21 pm

Belinda wrote:
Sun Jul 22, 2018 7:09 pm
Uwot, that is a good post.
Thank you.
Belinda wrote:
Sun Jul 22, 2018 7:09 pm
BTW on a minor technical point is there a way to get transcripts of these Youtube video things? I much prefer to read than to watch and listen if at all possible.
That particular clip is an extract from number seven in a series of lectures that Richard Feynman gave at Cornell University in 1964. You can find it here: http://www.cornell.edu/video/richard-fe ... g-new-laws The clip starts at 42.50. You can fast forward to that bit, and if you click on the 'interactive transcript' button below the video frame, and pause the video, you can read the transcript at your leisure. Hope that helps.

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