What could make morality objective?

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Peter Holmes
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What could make morality objective?

Post by Peter Holmes » Sat Jul 14, 2018 10:29 am

It seems to me this question - which has emerged from discussion of my post 'Is morality objective or subjective?' - is the crux in the disagreement between objectivists and subjectivists.

An objection to moral subjectivism is that, if moral values and judgements are matters of opinion, we can't know if they're correct. For example, we can't know if slavery is right or wrong, and can't therefore morally condemn those who think slavery is justifiable. That's just their opinion, and we can't say which opinion is correct or true.

But this assumes that there is indeed something to be known: an object of some kind that verifies the assertion slavery is wrong and falsifies the assertion slavery is right - or, perhaps, vice versa. But what is the object that makes moral judgements objective - matters of fact - and therefore true or false?

It can't be slavery itself, because that would also be the object of the assertion slavery is right - so we're back to square one. And it can't be the wrongness of slavery. To say the assertion slavery is wrong is justified (shown to be true) by the objective wrongness of slavery is circular, and so no justification at all.

So what is it that moral objectivists claim about moral judgements that makes them objective - matters of fact, falsifiable and independent of judgement, belief or opinion?

Does any moral objectivist here have an answer that doesn't beg the question?

(The claim that objective moral values and judgements come from a god's commands or a god's nature begs the question: what makes a god's commands or a god's nature objectively morally good?)
Last edited by Peter Holmes on Tue Jul 17, 2018 2:27 pm, edited 2 times in total.

Impenitent
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Re: What could make morality objective?

Post by Impenitent » Sat Jul 14, 2018 6:10 pm

once a universal "right" (as opposed to "wrong") is established, you'll have your objectivity

until then, gird your loins

-Imp

gaffo
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Re: What could make morality objective?

Post by gaffo » Sun Jul 15, 2018 1:10 am

reciprocity per prior actions.

i.e proportion reply to original offense evens the scales and is justice/just reply to original offence IMO.

Skip
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Re: What could make morality objective?

Post by Skip » Sun Jul 15, 2018 8:26 pm

Peter Holmes wrote:
Sat Jul 14, 2018 10:29 am
An objection to moral subjectivism is that, if moral values and judgements are matters of opinion, we can't know if they're correct.
Here, we have three inaccurate assumptions.
1. subjective = matter of opinion [1a. wherein all opinions carry equal weight]
2. there can be such a concept as "correct" in a subjective world-view
and 3. that the correctness value of any non-physical entity can be determined.

If you remove morality from the realm of objectively measurable entities (physics) and from the realm of absolutely knowable truth (religion)
and put it where it belongs: in the amorphous and dynamic realm of social organization.
Then we can see how the welfare/interest of individuals balances against the welfare/interest of the community, and how what benefits [right] is negotiated against what harms [wrong] the social unit as functional whole.
Once that's been set out in principle, the members of the group can all know what's generally right and wrong to do - even if their individual opinions vary on specific instances, or degrees or mitigations. That negotiation never ends, and that's what drives advocacy, legal challenges, interpretation and legislation. That's why there are amendments (and, in fact, a built-in amending formula) to constitutions.
For example, we can't know if slavery is right or wrong,
Sure we can. In my culture, in my country, the moral precepts are based on a presumption of individual equality and autonomy. Therefore, the legal system is built on the rights of individuals, and there are laws forbidding the ownership, abduction, confinement, forced labour or coercion of any individual citizen by another. We know that slavery is wrong, because we put that as a guiding principle in our constitution.
and can't therefore morally condemn those who think slavery is justifiable.
Of course we can. What we can't legally do prevent them expressing that opinion, so long as they don't act on it.
So what is it that moral objectivists claim about moral judgements that makes them objective - matters of fact, falsifiable and independent of judgement, belief or opinion?
They appeal to authority. If not God or some other Universal Administration. The only proof they have is either an old, fallible and self-contradictory book which actually tends to show how moral precepts and legal practice did change over time, or else the similarity of a few basic taboos over a number of human communities, though they cannot point one single rule that has been invariable in all human communities.
No human concept can be shown as objective or universal or eternal without begging the central question.

surreptitious57
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Re: What could make morality objective?

Post by surreptitious57 » Sun Jul 15, 2018 8:53 pm

I know of no objective moral philosophy that is not derived from some belief system
However something cannot be objective if based on something that is non falsifiable

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Immanuel Can
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Re: What could make morality objective?

Post by Immanuel Can » Mon Jul 16, 2018 2:05 am

Peter Holmes wrote:
Sat Jul 14, 2018 10:29 am
(The claim that objective moral values and judgements come from a god's commands or nature begs the question, of course.)
Well, under those stipulated conditions, the short answer to the OP question would be "No," but only because of the stipulations you set in place there.

It's not clear why reference to "nature" or "God's commands", as you put it, "begs the question." What is the particular issue that is allegedly being "begged" there? Since that's not evident, the "of course" seems a little gratuitous.

Skip
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Re: What could make morality objective?

Post by Skip » Mon Jul 16, 2018 3:51 am

Immanuel Can wrote:
Mon Jul 16, 2018 2:05 am
[The claim that objective moral values and judgements come from a god's commands or nature begs the question]

It's not clear why reference to "nature" or "God's commands", as you put it, "begs the question."
"Refer to" doesn't exactly mean the same as "claim". The claim begs the question "Is there an objective morality?" because there is no universally accepted test for the god-givenness or naturalness of a moral precept. Those precepts exist in the archives or canons of their advocates - and nowhere else. Advocates, by definition, are partisan. There is no neutral other-wordly authority to certify the validity of a moral set forth by a putative other-worldly authority. The advocate can only appeal to the authority of the authority he himself claims: his "objective" evaluator is the evaluee.

Peter Holmes
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Re: What could make morality objective?

Post by Peter Holmes » Mon Jul 16, 2018 7:26 am

Agreed, Skip.

But I must clear up a grammatical ambiguity in the last sentence of my OP, for which I apologise.

(The claim that objective moral values and judgements come from a god's commands or nature begs the question, of course.)

I should have written: ... a god's commands or a god's nature ...

My aim was to head off divine-emanation theories at the pass.

But the point remains: the claim that anyone's commands are morally good, or that anyone's nature is morally good, is a value judgement, not a falsifiable factual assertion. So the claim that morality is objective because it derives in any way from someone, such as a god, is to beg the question: what is it that makes that person or god (factually) morally good?

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Immanuel Can
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Re: What could make morality objective?

Post by Immanuel Can » Mon Jul 16, 2018 2:23 pm

Skip wrote:
Mon Jul 16, 2018 3:51 am
Immanuel Can wrote:
Mon Jul 16, 2018 2:05 am
[The claim that objective moral values and judgements come from a god's commands or nature begs the question]

It's not clear why reference to "nature" or "God's commands", as you put it, "begs the question."
"Refer to" doesn't exactly mean the same as "claim". The claim begs the question "Is there an objective morality?" because there is no universally accepted test for the god-givenness or naturalness of a moral precept. Those precepts exist in the archives or canons of their advocates - and nowhere else. Advocates, by definition, are partisan. There is no neutral other-wordly authority to certify the validity of a moral set forth by a putative other-worldly authority. The advocate can only appeal to the authority of the authority he himself claims: his "objective" evaluator is the evaluee.
This also is problematic.

The mere fact that "people advocate X" cannot inform us of the rightness or wrongness of X. Neither can the observation, "Not all people believe X," or the observation, "Different people believe X, Y, and Z." All of these are truly question-begging, as none answers the question fo whether or not X is true.

If the advocate of X appeals to the authority of X, and X is the right authority to which to appeal, then X is correct. If the advocate appeals to the authority of X, but not-X is known for sure, or X is not the right authority to which to appeal, then X is not correct. But there is nothing that "begs the question" about a person appealing to the authority of X.

Moreover, there is no guarantee -- not even the whisper of a promise -- that when the right answer to the question of morality has been found, it will turn out to be "neutral." In fact, moral philosophy has, for at least 300 years, been searching for just such a thing, without ever finding it. So it may well be that begging the question in favour of the aspiration to an eventual "neutral" solution has really been the problem all along.

It may well be that without authority X, no rational legitimation for morality exists at all.

Skip
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Re: What could make morality objective?

Post by Skip » Mon Jul 16, 2018 3:12 pm

Immanuel Can wrote:
Mon Jul 16, 2018 2:23 pm
The mere fact that "people advocate X" cannot inform us of the rightness or wrongness of X. Neither can the observation, "Not all people believe X," or the observation, "Different people believe X, Y, and Z." All of these are truly question-begging, as none answers the question fo whether or not X is true.
Some of those advocates do claim an ultimate, universal truth (beg questions, cite unimpeachable-because-absent authority, reference their own book, conflate causes with effects, misattribute phenomena, dissemble, distract, switch meanings, etc) but the present observer is not falling for any of their tricks. The present observer is merely reporting on their various arguments, to show that there is no single objective truth.
Many subjective truths comprise the ongoing negotiation.
We don't need to be informed of right and wrong; we need to decide what's right and wrong.
If the advocate of X appeals to the authority of X, and X is the right authority to which to appeal, then X is correct.
For that advocate and his faction - not for all of society, and not for the objective observer.
Moreover, there is no guarantee -- not even the whisper of a promise -- that when the right answer to the question of morality has been found, it will turn out to be "neutral."
Exactly. It will not be found. ("When it's found" sounds as if a coherent moral system has been lost, lying in some cave this whole time... which, of course, harks back to the holy scripture boondoggle.) Nor is there "the question of morality" - there are many questions regarding morality.
'S why we're saying there is no such animal, vegetable or mineral as a Unified Moral Theory - just a lot of wannabe's.
In fact, moral philosophy has, for at least 300 years, been searching for just such a thing, without ever finding it.
60,000 years, and they were not "searching": they were making suggestions, constructing arguments and putting forth contenders.
It may well be that without authority X, no rational legitimation for morality exists at all.
Rational, yes - all of the contenders are rational in their own context - even the God hypothesis.
Final and objective, no, of course it doesn't exist.
Last edited by Skip on Mon Jul 16, 2018 3:21 pm, edited 2 times in total.

surreptitious57
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Re: What could make morality objective?

Post by surreptitious57 » Mon Jul 16, 2018 3:13 pm

Immanuel Can wrote:
It may well be that without authority X no rational legitimation for morality exists at all
There initially needs to be some provisional axioms to establish the basis for morality even if they are to be subsequently discarded
The most obvious one is the principle of no harm which is generally accepted regardless of whether or not one believes in objective
morality. This is the foundation of morality [ both religious and secular ] And so from it a more rigorous morality can be constructed

But because morality is not determined on scientific or mathematical principles it cannot by definition be absolute but subject to change over
time. Which is why I referred to the axioms as provisional. I dont think the principle of no harm has to be discarded but there are areas where harm can be justified such as self defence for example. This is obviously open to interpretation wrt where one draws the line at what is and is
not acceptable. And so this ever shifting grey area is the reason why morality cannot be regarded as objective for all situations all of the time

Peter Holmes
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Re: What could make morality objective?

Post by Peter Holmes » Mon Jul 16, 2018 3:28 pm

Skip

I just wanted to clarify what you say about moral authority.
"Refer to" doesn't exactly mean the same as "claim". The claim begs the question "Is there an objective morality?" because there is no universally accepted test for the god-givenness or naturalness of a moral precept. Those precepts exist in the archives or canons of their advocates - and nowhere else. Advocates, by definition, are partisan. There is no neutral other-wordly authority to certify the validity of a moral set forth by a putative other-worldly authority. The advocate can only appeal to the authority of the authority he himself claims: his "objective" evaluator is the evaluee.
The actual situation with moral assertions is clearer than you suggest. Because they aren't factual assertions, they have no truth value at all. There is nothing that can show they are true or false, because they're neither. So the question of authority with regard to moral assertions is doubly irrelevant. (Obviously an authority can't make a genuinely factual assertion true or false.)

An authority - human or divine - can't make a moral assertion true or false, because the claim that a moral assertion has a truth value is a mistake in the first place. All an authority could do is say slavery is wrong, which is just a judgement. It could impose that judgement on the rest of us, but that wouldn't make the judgement 'true'.

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Immanuel Can
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Re: What could make morality objective?

Post by Immanuel Can » Mon Jul 16, 2018 3:40 pm

Skip wrote:
Mon Jul 16, 2018 3:12 pm
...the present observer is merely reporting on their various arguments, to show that there is no single objective truth.
That's a self-defeating claim.

If it's true that there is no single, objective truth, then the single, objective truth is that there is no single, objective truth -- which means there IS a single, objective truth...and so on.

It's epistemological relativism -- and epistemological relativism simply cannot be made coherent; and that, on its own terms.
If the advocate of X appeals to the authority of X, and X is the right authority to which to appeal, then X is correct.
For that advocate and his faction - not for all of society, and not for the objective observer.
This mistakes the question, "IS THERE a single, universal X?" for the question, "Does everyone know or believe the single, universal X?"

The answer to the first could be yes, and to the second, no, with no contradiction between them at all.
'S why we're saying there is no such animal, vegetable or mineral as a Unified Moral Theory - just a lot of wannabe's.
Sorry: I missed the content of that " 'S," (which I assume is short for "That's" or "it's.") Precisely what is the reason we know there is no such thing as a universal moral? Or did you mean only that there was no universal theory -- in which case its' unproblematic, as shown above. There could be many theories, and one among them could still be quite right.

There were once many theories about the configuration of our solar system. One was right.
In fact, moral philosophy has, for at least 300 years, been searching for just such a thing, without ever finding it.
60,000 years, and they were not "searching": they were making suggestions, constructing arguments and putting forth contenders.
Not that long. All morality of all cultures started out in some version of the "Divine Command" mode. Almost all ancient cultures were polytheistic and a few were monotheistic: but none that we have ever found was atheistic or agnostic. It was never thought that morality had to be, or even could be "neutral" until the appearance of the idea of scientific objectivity. The search for secular morality on a rational basis only appeared in the West, and relatively recently. It may be more than 300 years, but not much more.
It may well be that without authority X, no rational legitimation for morality exists at all.
Rational, yes - all of the contenders are rational in their own context - even the God hypothesis.
Ah, yes. Now you're onto the point. Quite so.

'Rationality" is a thing that kicks in to work with premises that have to be taken as given. There is no such thing as neutral rationality. But it's funny how slow that message has been to reach the masses. Most people still seem to believe that one day "rationality will tell us" all what morality requires. But modern epistemology blows that to dust, I think.

Rationality, rightly understood, contains no substantive premises of it's own. It depends on substantive content that must come from outside of rationality itself, from empirical data, from observation, from experience, or from somewhere else. Rationality is terrific stuff -- far better than alternatives; but alone, it can do nothing. Like mathematics, it depends on fixed values established from outside of its own system of symbolic manipulations.
Final and objective, no, of course it doesn't exist.
That, we do not have reason to say.

We do have reason to say, "The human race is not unanimous on its base assumptions, so if such a thing as an objective morality exists, it is currently known (if at all) only by some minority, and not the majority (since the majority have diverse opinions that contradict each other). But that's all we know.

uwot
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Re: What could make morality objective?

Post by uwot » Mon Jul 16, 2018 3:41 pm

I think you have to get over the idea that human beings are perfectly rational. It is demonstrably the case that as a species we frequently have to make judgements without access to all the facts. It can also be the case that we make judgements based on no facts at all, or even in contrast to the facts. Facts simply do not impact greatly on our values, as it is also demonstrably the case that people presented with facts will interpret them in ways commensurate with their values, or just ignore them.
There are two basic forms of moral theory: deontological and consequential. Deontological theories are those which insist there is some objective list of rules that everyone should agree to. Typically these are espoused by political and religious conservatives; so there is the law, or some set of commandments. In functional democracies the law largely conforms to the will of the majority, but not everyone will agree. In religion, morality is dependent on the interpretation of some old book. Again, not everyone will agree. In either case, the 'objectivity' of morality is a function of the determination and resources of the elite to enforce their version.
Consequentialist theories take some value, such as optimising well being, or minimising harm will be considered good. It's messy, because 'good' itself is subjective, but the advantage is that people can be judged on their intentions, rather than simply on their behaviour.

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Immanuel Can
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Re: What could make morality objective?

Post by Immanuel Can » Mon Jul 16, 2018 3:55 pm

surreptitious57 wrote:
Mon Jul 16, 2018 3:13 pm
Immanuel Can wrote:
It may well be that without authority X no rational legitimation for morality exists at all
There initially needs to be some provisional axioms to establish the basis for morality...
Quite so. And we need to get those axioms from whatever we believe is the realm of the real (ontology). The ability to supply moral rationality with premises depends entirely on whether or not we think something exists that's capable of doing that job. And we can always debate the merits of the ontological views that are being suggested in order to do that -- we can ask, "Are they real?" or "Are they true?" and then also, "Is ontological view X, or Y, or Z, rationally adequate to the task of telling us about morality?"
The most obvious one is the principle of no harm...
What makes this "obvious" to anyone?

It's not obvious to Nietzscheans, Randians, Social Darwinists, elitists of all stripes, or anybody who doesn't believe in the principle of the equality of persons. And there's a lot of these. Rather, what's "obvious" to all of these groups is that people are NOT equal, and in their view, don't deserve to be. The weak need to be down, and the strong and wise need to be up. That seems very obvious to them.
But because morality is not determined on scientific or mathematical principles it cannot by definition be absolute but subject to change over
time.

Your claim there would have to be that only that which is scientifically or mathematically determined can be absolute. How would we verify such a claim?

I see that it is attractive because mathematics in particular allows verification. But we both realize maths have nothing to tell us about morals. Science is a bit trickier, because it's empirical, and thus not absolute itself, but it also allows us at least the illusion of reliable verification (although this has been intelligently contested by Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Polanyi, et al.). But whether we look to maths or science, how do we verify that either is the ONLY way to know a thing with any noteworthy degree of confidence? That seems too much to say.

For example, people find their personal experiences and their common-sense estimates, and even some kinds of personal intuition very important and relatively reliable. It seems too much to say to argue that they're just always wrong about that.

Again, we've crossed the question, "Do all people know [a particular thing]" with the question, "Is there a [particular thing]." Those are different issues, of course.

Thanks for your thoughts.

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