Some things are not so simple

I have been distracted for months but I thought I would look in on UD to see if anything had changed.  All is much the same but I was struck by this OP from Barry. The thrust of the post is that Barry is a plain-speaking chap stating obvious ethical truths and anyone denying it is using sophistry and is evil.  The particular “obvious truth” that Barry is discussing is:

Anyone who cannot unambiguously condemn the practice of chopping little boys and girls up and selling the pieces like so much meat shares in the evil of those who do so.

I would argue that this gives the appearance of simplicity but hides considerable complexity and subtlety. It also illustrates how Barry, like everyone else, is actually a subjectivist in practice, whatever he might say in theory.

There is one obvious way in which this is statement is too simple.  It leaves out whether the little boys and girls are alive or dead. Most people find it morally acceptable to reuse organs from people (including babies and infants) who have recently died.

But also the statement is packed with emotional use of language. (Throughout this I assume Barry is referring to the practice of using parts of aborted foetuses for research and/or treatment and charging for providing those parts).

1) “Meat” suggests flesh that is to be eaten. I don’t think anyone is selling foetuses to go into meat pies.

2) “Chopping up”. Body parts from foetuses presumably have to be extracted very carefully under controlled conditions to be useful. To describe this as chopping up is technically accurate but again has connotations of a butcher.

3) “Little boys and girls”. By describing a foetus as a little boy or girl,  Barry appeals to our emotional response to little boys and girls that we meet, embrace and talk to.

4) “selling” suggests a product which is being produced, stocked and sold with the objective of creating a profit. It would indeed be shocking if organisations were deliberately getting mothers to abort so they could make a profit from selling the body parts. If you describe the same activity as covering the cost of extracting and preserving body parts of reuse it sounds quite different (the cost has to be recovered somehow or it would never happen).

What interests me is how Barry has chosen words for their emotional impact to make an ethical argument. If it had been described as:

Reusing parts of aborted foetuses for research and/or treatment and charging for providing those parts.

then it sounds a lot more morally acceptable than

chopping little boys and girls up and selling the pieces like so much meat

If morality were objective then it shouldn’t matter how you describe it.  It is just a matter of observation and/or deduction – like working out the temperature on the surface of Mars. But ethics is actually a matter of our emotional responses so Barry has to use emotional language to make his point.

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309 thoughts on “Some things are not so simple

  1. walto,

    I think we really don’t know what to say about some of those situations, as, for example, when we come to start calling red things “red” again, even though they had “looked green” to us for a few months.

    I think you may be confusing your starting point — the existence of sentient beings with specific desires — with your ending point — the detection of an objective value by a sentient being via conscience or emotion.

    It might help if you sketched out the chain of causation.

    From what you’ve written, my understanding is that

    1) sentient beings exist and have desires, and this is a physical fact;
    2) that physical fact either is, effectively, an objective value itself, or it creates other physical facts, which themselves act as objective values;
    3) sentient beings (imperfectly) detect these physical facts cum objective values via their consciences and emotions; and
    4) sentient beings conclude that certain things are, or aren’t, objectively moral.

    How would you describe it?

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  2. keiths:
    walto,

    I think you may be confusing your starting point — the existence of sentient beings with specific desires — with your ending point — the detection of an objective value by a sentient being via conscience or emotion.

    It might help if you sketched out the chain of causation.

    From what you’ve written, my understanding is that

    1) sentient beings exist and have desires, and this is a physical fact;
    2) that physical fact either is, effectively, an objective value itself, or it creates other physical facts, which themselves act as objective values;
    3) sentient beings (imperfectly) detect these physical facts cum objective values via their consciences and emotions; and
    4) sentient beings conclude that certain things are, or aren’t, objectively moral.

    How would you describe it?

    (1) is right: desires are physical events as are their satisfactions. Values are not physical anythings, so (2) is wrong. (I’ve discussed why that is in at least two posts above. (3) is right as to physical the events, but wrong as to the values for the same reason. I agree with (4).

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  3. walto,

    Values are not physical anythings, so (2) is wrong. (I’ve discussed why that is in at least two posts above.

    Yet you’ve said that values are detectable:

    Values aren’t facts and aren’t detectible in the same way. The change in values would be detectible by changes in people’s reactions to events and other behaviors,, and eventually in changes in moral standards, laws, penal codes, etc.

    Either a) values aren’t physical, in which case they aren’t detectable by human consciences or emotions, due to causal closure; or b) they are physical and therefore detectable. Something in your position needs to change to avoid the inconsistency.

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  4. keiths:
    walto,

    My point really isn’t that arcane. If objective values are created by sentient beings via their desires, then an ‘is’ — the physical state of the world, including the minds of those sentient beings — is creating an objective ‘ought’.You and Hume can’t both be right.

    And since you accept causal closure, the objective ‘ought’ is itself a physical phenomenon of some kind.Yet you claim it isn’t detectable by any means other than our consciences/emotions.Why?

    You are continuing to take values as things or events. They aren’t in either of those categories. Consider the claim that it would be good if someone finds a cure for cancer. There’s no “thing” there to be causally connected to.

    On your own view, desires would seem to make things “subjectively good.” But if you want to push the view that all there is in the world are physical things and events/processes than you really should say that there are no such things as values at all–objective or subjective. Because desires are not themselves values: they’re the wrong sort of things to be values.

    If you think that something may be subjectively good (for X) simply because X likes it–that that’s all it means–you should be able to understand what I mean when I say something is (all else equal) good (simpliciter) because someone likes it. Once this confusion as to categories is cleared up, the disagreement between us again boils down to you saying that all there are are personal preferences of various “strengths.” But I believe I’ve already shown why that view can’t explain moral force.

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  5. BruceS: That seems like an allusion to Block’s inverted Earth, since it involves both the qualia change and another planet.Was that your intent?

    Yes, that’s one discussion of this issue.

    In any event, as I understand Keith’s challenge (I have not read all of his posts on it, I admit), the situation is not hypothetical.It seems to be very close to what happened in societies which sacrificed babies to their gods when they ceased doing so because they no longer accepted that practice as desirable..

    I took keiths’ suggestion of a sea-change to be some sort of physiological change in what might be called our “emotion receptors.” But I think you’re right to point out that that’s not really required for a change in the sort of stuff that is desired. Some of it is a largely cultural matter.

    So it’s a good point, but what I think it mostly shows is the difficulty in dealing with preferences. Because, presumably, almost no one liked giving up their baby even when it was done. It’s just that they wanted some god’s grace so much they overcame that antipathy.

    Incidentally, this is a tough issue for me because I don’t trust any measures of preference and would therefore like to do without them entirely. I’d rather try to say something like “At t1 the Xians desired to sacrifice their babies when in condition C, but at at t2, when in that same condition, the Xians did not desire to sacrifice their babies.” So it’s analogous to using hypotheticals to determine preferences, but I’d try to leave preferences out of the equation.

    But would that change in (religious-based) desireshave affected the maximum of the function you evaluate?It would seem it cannot if you are able to deal with issues for consequentialism like harvesting organs (where the one person is put to death to serve the desires of others, just like the babies).

    I don’t understand what you’re saying in that graph.

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  6. keiths: Yes, because you have told us that they are detectable.

    I’m not sure what you’re linking there, unless it’s a remark of your own. In any case, I will repeat that our emotions provide evidence of the existence of values, but that values are not physical, mental or any other sort of things, events, processes, properties, or even states of affairs. They are, in a sense, “it would be good ifs.” We come to take there to be values by noting our wanting some state of affairs to happen or not happen. “Detection” is thus a little odd here. Please go back to my explanation of how they are like theoretical entities suggested by our experiences in light of our axioms.

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  7. keiths: Which is it? Are they detectable, and therefore physical? Or are they non-physical and therefore undetectable?

    When you figure out that the answer to a math problem 817, is 817 physical because you’ve detected it, or, if 817 is not actually a physical thing or event, was the answer to the problem therefore actually undetectable?

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  8. walto,

    “Detection” is thus a little odd here.

    It was the word you used:

    Values aren’t facts and aren’t detectible in the same way. The change in values would be detectible by changes in people’s reactions to events and other behaviors,, and eventually in changes in moral standards, laws, penal codes, etc. [Emphasis added]

    Do you still believe that values are detectable that way, or do you retract that statement?

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  9. I note that I didn’t actually say values are detectable in that quote. I said a change in them would be detectable if such and such were to occur. That is closer to what I believe is the case, so I’m glad that’s what I actually wrote.

    I could now respond in kind with “Will you now retract your claim that I said that values are detectable in that quotation?” But I prefer to simply repeat that “detect” probably isn’t the best word for our relations to values. We do, however, detect changes in behaviors, emotional responses, etc.

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  10. walto,

    I note that I didn’t actually say values are detectable in that quote. I said a change in them would be detectable if such and such were to occur.

    That doesn’t work.

    One follows from the other. If values are nonphysical, as you have stated, then they have no influence on the causally closed physical world. Changes in values must likewise be nonphysical and can therefore have no causal influence on the physical.

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  11. walto,

    When you figure out that the answer to a math problem 817, is 817 physical because you’ve detected it…

    No, and you haven’t detected it. What you’ve done is to manipulate physical representations of various numbers and the operations performed on them. The physical representations do in fact have causal power, thus enabling you to reach the correct answer.

    …or, if 817 is not actually a physical thing or event, was the answer to the problem therefore actually undetectable?

    The answer isn’t really the number itself, but rather a physical representation of it.

    Think of it this way: We define a hypothetical universe full of objects we call ‘integers’ that have certain properties. We also define ‘operations’ on those integers and ‘relations’ such as ‘equal’, ‘not equal’, etc. Your math problem then boils down to this: “Is there an object in this hypothetical universe that satisifies this equation?”

    The universe and the objects within it don’t have to be real. It’s enough that we’ve specified how they would behave if they were real. 817 is the hypothetical object that satisfies your equation, and we’ve determined this by manipulating physical representations of the the objects, the operations, and the relations.

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  12. walto,

    But if you want to push the view that all there is in the world are physical things and events/processes than you really should say that there are no such things as values at all–objective or subjective.

    Why? To say that piety is one of Belinda’s core values is to say something about Belinda’s physical state, and to say that I don’t value piety is to say something about my physical state.

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  13. walto,

    On the other stuff, I don’t think the “strength” of one’s like or dislike makes any difference to moral force. If you really REALLY hated rum raisin ice cream, and only disliked internet lying a little bit, it would make no difference to my point.

    Sure it would. If I mildly dislike rum raisin ice cream, then it isn’t a big deal if you coerce me into trying it at your birthday party. On the other hand, I really dislike intense physical pain, so if you force me to submit to having my toenails pulled out at your party, then we have a moral issue.

    Now suppose, through a quirk of wiring, that my dislike of rum raisin ice cream is so intense that eating it is as agonizing to me as having my toenails pulled out. I explain this to you, and you nevertheless insist that I try the ice cream. Has it become a moral issue? Yes, obviously.

    You say, in effect, “well, their not caring about murder could affect ME”…

    That’s not what I’m saying. Here’s what I wrote:

    On the other hand, my disapproval of murder is extremely strong. It harms the victim, the victim’s family and friends, and society in general.

    I value the well-being of other people, so I disapprove of murder even in cases where it has no effect whatsoever on me. The fact that it harms the victim, the victim’s family and friends, and the victim’s society is enough.

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  14. keiths:
    If I mildly dislike rum raisin ice cream, then it isn’t a big deal if you coerce me into trying it at your birthday party. On the other hand, I really dislike intense physical pain, so if you force me to submit to having my toenails pulled out at your party, then we have a moral issue.

    Morality has nothing to do with likes and dislikes. You may dislike rum raisin ice cream, but when you are offered it at a party it doesn’t make it a moral issue. Matters of personal preference are matters of personal preference, not moral issues.

    It becomes a moral issue when you are e.g. allergic to ice cream, the host knows it, and then you are offered ice cream. Moreover, you may be a masochist and you may like the pain that follows after eating the ice cream that you are allergic to, but it’s still immoral for the host to offer ice cream to you when he knows about all this. So, morality has nothing to do with likes and dislikes.

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  15. Erik,

    Right!

    Also, if morality were a matter of personal preference, then all disagreements about morality are as absurd as disagreements about which flavor of ice cream is best.

    (Maybe that point was made above — sorry for jumping in without reading the previous posts in the thread.)

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  16. walto: Yes, that’s one discussion of this issue.

    In the context that I’ve read those papers (on inverted qualia), they argue against functionalism, or the (philosophers’) representationalist explanation of perception, or against physicalism itself.

    I’m not clear on how those papers could apply to this discussion.

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  17. walto:

    Incidentally, this is a tough issue for me because I don’t trust any measures of preference and would therefore like to do without them entirely.I’d rather try to say something like “At t1 the Xians desired to sacrifice their babies when in condition C, but at at t2, when in that same condition, the Xians did not desire to sacrifice their babies.”So it’s analogous to using hypotheticals to determine preferences, but I’d try to leave preferences out of the equation.

    I suspect the details of your position are best understood from your paper. Until it is published, I am going by your posts here to understand your position. Beside the above quote, I also understand the following two are key explanations of your position. I’ve quoted the excerpts here for convenience. To keep this post short, I’ll provide my comments and questions in my following post.

    Post 1

    To answer your question more succinctly, our emotional responses are to things, properties and events that ARE in the world. To say that there are values is to say that some ways things, properties and events may be associated are better or worse than other ways. In my view, it is desires that make that the case. Hope that’s helpful.

    Post 2

    Bruce: So I presume you will might say that it somehow involves the relations among things that provides the “greatest” satisfaction of the desires [or preferences] of sentient beings.

    That would seem to involve maximizing an aggregating function mapping the desires [or preferences?] of all sentient beings to relations of things in the world. Is that close to your thoughts? Then the relation among things that satisfies that maximized function is what is objective?

    Walt: Yes. Further, we have to start with this function; it cannot be derived from an is. [ details on function’s origin paraphrased from separate post answering Keith].

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  18. walto:

    I don’t understand what you’re saying in that graph.

    Here is my understanding of your argument:
    1. We can use people’s emotions/desires to understand their preferences among possible relations between things in the world.

    2. We can create a function that takes the emotions/desires of people (or perhaps sentient beings) as input. The function involves translating the emotions/desires to preferences (although you are not happy about having to do that translation). It then involves weighting the preferences and maximizing the weighted sum. That gives the objectively (in a process sense) morally-best relation among things in the world.

    My point was addressing the concern that changes in people’s desires would change the input to the function and hence its output. My point was we cannot tell whether it would affect the output without understanding how desires are mapped to preferences and how various people’s preferences are weighted. In the babies example, it would amount to understanding how the babies preferences were accounted for versus those of the baby-torturers. That could involve, as a further complication, the influence of science on the weights (eg sacrificing babies to non-existent gods does nothing so zero weight to preferences based on this belief).

    You said you understood Keith as referring to biological, not cultural, origins for changes in people’s desires. But if your function takes the facts of the biological nature of humans into account, then it seems to me that changes in that biological nature would change the function and its output. Such a biology-based change would support the claim that the process using the function was objective.

    But you still probably have an issue with Keith wanting something to be objectively true by corresponding to reality (as I understand him). To satisfy him there, I think you’d need to show how scientific reality sets your function, which I don’t think you’d see as appropriate. Given you don’t do that he would say your results are objectively derived but not objectively true (based on my reading of our incomplete exchange on math).

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  19. walto:
    ”But I prefer to simply repeat that “detect” probably isn’t the best word for our relations to values. We do, however, detect changes in behaviors, emotional responses, etc.

    There seems to be two sense of “values” in your posts as I understand those posts.

    The values we detect are descriptions of what people do; these should have a scientific explanation as the physical states causing behavior and emotions.

    The values we compute as best from your function would be prescriptions for what people should do. As I understand you, that function takes as input the values we detect scientifically, but the function is also derived from moral axioms which are not reducible to science.

    ETA:
    Further, I believe you say that we can understand that prescriptive values are different from descriptions of behavior by reflecting on the moral force people feel; for example, when they experience a conflict between what they think they should do and what they want to do. Of course, that conflict would itself have a physical explanation, so I read your use of moral force as only a start to seeing that something more is going on than bare physical causation.

    By the way, one way to giving morality-based explanations a separate existence from (say) neuroscientific explanations is to appeal to both levels of explanation being viable. There is a physical explanation of behavior and a moral one.

    There is no reason both cannot be applied if you can justify using different causes at different levels of explanation. That was what I was getting at with the references to stances and real patterns earlier.

    Assigning reality to the causes at each level does depend on your metaphysics of causation. An interventionist (counterfactual-plus) approach works according to some. Similar discussions occur in examining mental causation.

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  20. walto:

    I took keiths’ suggestion of a sea-change to be some sort of physiological change in what might be called our “emotion receptors.”

    A relevant post from Friday: it is about how to think morally about engineering our genes to change our moral behavior.

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  21. Way too much stuff here to respond to all of it, so I’ll just make a couple of points.

    First, I agree with Erik (and KN’s) complaints about subjectivism. I’ve been arguing with keiths about those issues for a long time and on several threads with no meeting of the minds, so I’m happy to turn this over to others.

    Second, Bruce asks about the relevance of the “inverted qualia” literature:

    BruceS: In the context that I’ve read those papers (on inverted qualia), they argue against functionalism, or the (philosophers’) representationalist explanation of perception, or against physicalism itself.

    I’m not clear on how those papers could apply to this discussion.

    I was talking about the lack of clear intuitions regarding what we would say during the periods when one is adjusting one’s language to the new reality. I was suggesting that a similar period of adjustment might take place if there were a physiological change in our “emotional make-up.” Maybe it’s not a good analogy: I’m not sure.

    Third, keiths writes,

    If values are nonphysical, as you have stated, then they have no influence on the causally closed physical world. Changes in values must likewise be nonphysical and can therefore have no causal influence on the physical.

    But he doesn’t feel the same problem might be posed with the number 847. There, he suggests:

    keiths:

    Walto: When you figure out that the answer to a math problem 817, is 817 physical because you’ve detected it…

    Keiths: No, and you haven’t detected it. What you’ve done is to manipulate physical representations of various numbers and the operations performed on them. The physical representations do in fact have causal power, thus enabling you to reach the correct answer.

    Walto: …or, if 817 is not actually a physical thing or event, was the answer to the problem therefore actually undetectable?

    Keiths: The answer isn’t really the number itself, but rather a physical representation of it.

    Think of it this way: We define a hypothetical universe full of objects we call ‘integers’ that have certain properties. We also define ‘operations’ on those integers and ‘relations’ such as ‘equal’, ‘not equal’, etc. Your math problem then boils down to this: “Is there an object in this hypothetical universe that satisifies this equation?”

    The universe and the objects within it don’t have to be real. It’s enough that we’ve specified how they would behave if they were real. 817 is the hypothetical object that satisfies your equation, and we’ve determined this by manipulating physical representations of the the objects, the operations, and the relations.

    My point was that the issues are analogous. Just as the numbers aren’t things but are such that we may be said to “think of them” without anything that’s nicely termed “detection” going on, so too may values (also non-things) be thought of without literally being “detected”– the way a physical object or property can be detected.

    We can detect in values or mathematical conclusions, however, because we can detect changes in human behavior, etc. Finally, it is really not the case that if we can detect changes in X we must be able to detect X itself. No doubt there are many examples of this in biology, chemistry and physics.

    Fourth, Bruce writes,

    There seems to be two senses of “values” in your posts as I understand those posts.

    The values we detect are descriptions of what people do; these should have a scientific explanation as the physical states causing behavior and emotions.

    The values we compute as best from your function would be prescriptions for what people should do. As I understand you, that function takes as input the values we detect scientifically, but the function is also derived from moral axioms which are not reducible to science.

    I don’t agree with either of those descriptions. Values are not descriptions of what people do, and values are not “detected scientifically.” But I do think that how we determine whether one SOCIETY is better (not necessarily MORALLY better but better in the sense of the people there being BETTER OFF than in some other society) requires a manner of determining which individuals are best off as well as a manner of summing total “utiles” in each society and a way of comparing the results. As indicated above, I think you need at least three moral axioms to do those, and I’ve set forth the ones I use.

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  22. walto:

    Second, Bruce asks about the relevance of the “inverted qualia” literature:

    I was talking about the lack of clear intuitions regarding what we would say during the periods when one is adjusting one’s language to the new reality

    As I recall them, I don’t think what is said changes in those thought experiments. Rather, at least in Block’s Inverted Earth, it is what is referred to by what the Transported Person says (based on a causal theory of reference).

    At first, the TP’s “green” refers to the green on earth. But Block says after a time it will refer to the red on IE which the TP sees as green due to implanted inverting lenses and the IE inhabitants call green.

    But as I understand Keith’s later thought experiments, the behavior changes. Not sure what to make of the earlier ones describing a situation where the objective values change overnight but the verbal behavior does not (if that is a correct understanding).

    Values are not descriptions of what people do, and values are not “detected scientifically.”

    Perhaps I should have said personal values can be detected from what people do. But those values are not necessarily correct/right/morally defensible. They have to be compared to what they should do according to the output of your function.

    I think the deduction of people’s personal values can be done scientifically in principle and the explanation is descriptive/causal.

    Same applies at the level of society. That is some of what anthropologists do, I believe.

    But I do think that how we determine whether one SOCIETY is better (not necessarily MORALLY better but better in the sense of the people there being BETTER OFF than in some other society) .

    I was surprised by the stuff after “not necessarily morally better”. I had thought the purpose of your analysis was to determine correct/defensible moral values. It almost sounds like it could be better economics, depending on what “better off” means.

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  23. BruceS: I had thought the purpose of your analysis was to determine correct/defensible moral values. It almost sounds like it could be better economics, depending on what “better off” means.

    *butts in*

    How do you set any value other than comparatively? Intelligence is a meaningless concept but we can still compare performance at tasks and label it as more or less intelligent. “Better” or “better off” contains the unstated ‘compared to some other situation’.

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  24. Bruce,

    But as I understand Keith’s later thought experiments, the behavior changes. Not sure what to make of the earlier ones describing a situation where the objective values change overnight but the verbal behavior does not (if that is a correct understanding).

    When I introduced the thought experiment, I was still arguing against walto’s old view; namely, that objective values are independent of physical reality. Now I understand that he has changed his view so that objective values depend on physical reality and can change when the state of the world changes.

    Under his old view, objective values can hypothetically change even if physical reality does not. My point was to show that this renders objective morality causally inert. Objective morality can change, but no one will notice, and the world will go on exactly as before.

    Hence my repeated assertion that subjective morality is the only kind of morality that matters, because it’s the only kind of morality that can actually have an effect on the world.

    Under his new view, objective morality is no longer independent of physical reality, so changes in objective morality must be accompanied by changes in the physical state of the world.

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  25. walto,

    My point was that the issues are analogous. Just as the numbers aren’t things but are such that we may be said to “think of them” without anything that’s nicely termed “detection,” so too may values (also non-things) be thought of without literally being “detected” the way a physical object or property can be detected.

    Okay, so then objective values aren’t real and have no causal influence. What you’re left with are physical states that “point” to the hypothetical objective values just as the physical representations of 817 point to the hypothetical entity. If the world is in state S1, that points to the objective morality of child sacrifice and you say that child sacrifice is objectively moral. If it changes to state S2, you say that child sacrifice is objectively immoral.

    1. How is that not a case of getting ‘ought’ from ‘is’? The physical state determines the objective morality of child sacrifice.

    2. Physical states are facts about the world and are amenable to our normal methods of investigation. Why would we need emotion or conscience to sense these physical facts? Why do you think they would be invisible to normal investigative methods?

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  26. Erik,

    I addressed that point in the very next paragraph of the comment you quoted from:

    Now suppose, through a quirk of wiring, that my dislike of rum raisin ice cream is so intense that eating it is as agonizing to me as having my toenails pulled out. I explain this to you, and you nevertheless insist that I try the ice cream. Has it become a moral issue? Yes, obviously.

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  27. Alan Fox: *butts in*

    How do you set any value other than comparatively?Intelligence is a meaningless concept but we can still compare performance at tasks and label it as more or less intelligent. “Better” or “better off” contains the unstated ‘compared to some other situation’.

    My point was about which domain of values Walt was talking about.

    Talk about economically richer societies is different from talk about from morally better societies

    (ETA: unless you separately assume richer means morally better, but that might require an assumption that richer means greater human flourishing, which I think is empirically questionable once a certain economic standard is met).

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  28. BruceS: My point was about which domain of values Walt was talking about.

    Talk about economically richer societies is different from talk about from morally richer societies.

    Maybe so. Though I’m having a hard time imagining how a society could get morally richer. More charity? More prayer? More socialism, perhaps?

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  29. Bruce, to walto:

    I was surprised by the stuff after “not necessarily morally better”. I had thought the purpose of your analysis was to determine correct/defensible moral values.

    That is surprising. He seems to be backing away from the claims he made earlier in the thread, such as this one:

    I think people–and perhaps other sentient beings–actually CREATE moral goods and evils. We are value-creating (and destroying) entities, but, as I’ve said, the values exist once created (though not necessarily for ever). They are objective in that if, e.g., someone believes that X is a better state of affairs than Y, perhaps because she likes X better, but for any reason at all, she may be WRONG.

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  30. Alan Fox: Maybe so. Though I’m having a hard time imagining how a society could get morally richer. More charity? More prayer? More socialism, perhaps?

    Yes, my poor choice of words, which I fixed in ETA while you were replying.

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  31. keiths: walto,

    My point was that the issues are analogous. Just as the numbers aren’t things but are such that we may be said to “think of them” without anything that’s nicely termed “detection,” so too may values (also non-things) be thought of without literally being “detected” the way a physical object or property can be detected.

    Okay, so then objective values aren’t real and have no causal influence.

    I note (and as a purveyor of objective morality, I can do this without contradicting myself–as you cannot) that your “Okay, so…” there is immoral. It is a subtle form of misrepresentation. What you should (again that term is ok for me to use–it really isn’t for you) have said is something like “Well, then I’d take what you call objective values not to be real, because it’s my view that if they can have no causal influence they can’t be real.” I understand however, that that sort of honest debate is not really your thing. But as honesty is a moral value, I take it you’re not bound.

    Anyhow, to return to substance, I take the term “causal influence” to be a little unclear. There’s sense in which only physical events can have causal influences, but another in which other stuff can. Again, take honesty for example. It’s not a physical thing, event or process, but worlds where there is more of it are likely to be different from worlds where there is less of it. So there’s a sense in which honesty has causal influences and is real, but another sense in which one might claim it is neither. Furthermore, as I noted earlier, I don’t think a subjectivist can claim that only physical events and processes ought to be called “real,” because subjective values can’t be identical to emotions–they aren’t the right sort of things. Taking that strict position on what is real would seem to move you from subjectivist to emotivist.

    What you’re left with are physical states that “point” to the hypothetical objective values just as the physical representations of 817 point to the hypothetical entity. If the world is in state S1, that points to the objective morality of child sacrifice and you say that child sacrifice is objectively moral. If it changes to state S2, you say that child sacrifice is objectively immoral.

    1. How is that not a case of getting ‘ought’ from ‘is’? The physical state determines the objective morality of child sacrifice.

    Just as the 847 can’t be derived from the physical premises alone, neither can the rightness or wrongness of an action be so derived. A moral premise (in this case an axiom) is required precisely because OUGHTs can’t be derived from ISes.

    2. Physical states are facts about the world and are amenable to our normal methods of investigation. Why would we need emotion or conscience to sense these physical facts?

    Emotions suggest to us that “detected” states of affairs are valuable or bad. But I have to simply take my aversions, etc. to be signs of something outside us as axiomatic. I’ve already said several times why one might do this, and I’ll point out again now that we have to do the same thing with perceptual experiences. As Fifth might say, it’s a presupposition.

    Why do you think they [values] would be invisible to normal investigative methods?

    Because (as I’ve stressed LOUDLY) several times now, the values (whether considered subjective or objective) ARE NOT the physical facts.

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  32. Alan Fox: How do you set any value other than comparatively? Intelligence is a meaningless concept but we can still compare performance at tasks and label it as more or less intelligent. “Better” or “better off” contains the unstated ‘compared to some other situation’.

    I think you DO define “better off” comparatively. What’s good simpliciter has to be axiomatic. Then you define functions for amassing them. So for example one might proclaim as axiomatic:

    * The satisfaction of a desire is intrinsically good.
    * All satisfactions are equal. (Obviously, few people would agree with this one: some seem much more important than others.)
    * The more good the better.

    With those, I think we can compare two people with respect to which is better off. To move on to societies, you need a social welfare function.

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  33. walto,

    A moral premise (in this case an axiom) is required precisely because OUGHTs can’t be derived from ISes.

    You’re confused about the role of axioms. They don’t alter reality — they’re supposed to capture something about it.

    When you assume that the world being in state S1 means that child sacrifice is moral, and that the world being in state S2 means that child sacrifice is immoral, you aren’t changing reality and magically bringing objective oughts into existence via your axiom. You’re trying to capture a pre-existing truth: that S1 already means that CS is objectively moral, while S2 means it is immoral.

    If your assumption is correct, it means that Hume was wrong, and that an ‘is’ — the world being in state S1 — determines an objective ‘ought’ — one ought to sacrifice one’s children.

    You need to decide whether you agree or disagree with Hume on this issue.

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  34. walto: I think we can compare two people with respect to which is better off.

    I’d not be as confident. We can observe and describe differences. Who is “better off” is not always so clear.

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  35. keiths,

    I agree with Hume, and disagree with most of the remarks in your post. I agree with this, however:

    [Axioms] don’t alter reality — they’re supposed to capture something about it.

    All my aversion to child sacrifice does is, in conjunction with my axiom that emotions are evidence-providing intentional experiences, is provide me evidence that it would be wrong to sacrifice children.

    We are now officially mulberrybushing, I believe (and I think my experiences tell me something about reality). My silence regarding any future posts here shouldn’t be taken to reflect either assent or disinterest or disdain. I do think, though, that at some point the repetitions get silly. Plus, I don’t like the idea that I should have to answer your questions 30 times, while you don’t deign to answer mine at all.

    So, see y’all on another thread!

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  36. Alan Fox: I’d not be as confident. We can observe and describe differences. Who is “better off” is not always so clear.

    Not only “not clear”–but not demonstrable ever. Has to be an axiom.

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  37. walto,

    I’m happy to answer your questions, and have done so throughout the thread.

    However, the Hume issue is important. It gets at the heart of what we’re discussing here, which is why I keep emphasizing it.

    You claim that we sense what is objectively right or wrong via our consciences and emotions. For example:

    All my aversion to child sacrifice does is, in conjunction with my axiom that emotions are evidence-providing intentional experiences, is provide me evidence that it would be wrong to sacrifice children.

    In your model, there is a causal chain leading from the aggregated desires of sentient beings at any given time* to your perception of the fact that child sacrifice is objectively moral or immoral. If your position is compatible with the causal closure of the physical world, as you say, then this chain is completely physical. At some point in the chain a physical fact — an ‘is’ — becomes an objective ‘ought’, unless your final perception — that child sacrifice is or isn’t objectively wrong — is an illusion.

    Your position, as it stands, is incompatible with Hume’s (and many others’) view of the is/ought distinction.

    *Simultaneity is relative, of course, so this leads to the question, “Any given time in whose reference frame?” And since the causal chain is physical, presumably it’s only the sentient beings in our light cone that can have an impact on our objective moral sense.

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  38. Regarding the aggregating function, where does it happen, and how is it accomplished physically? Is it inside each of us, or outside somewhere? Are the desires of all sentient beings beamed to the aggregating point or points? Is it just the sentient beings within our light cone whose desires are aggregated? How do our consciences query the aggregating function to determine whether something is objectively moral?

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  39. As usual, this discussion confuses me. There are several strategies organisms use for survival. Two basic strategies are to have few offspring but guard and nurture them carefully (and expensively), and to have very large numbers of offspring few of which will ever reach reproductive age (and do no parenting at all beyond fertilization). And there are hybrids of these, like the octopus that guards a large number of eggs for a few months until they hatch, and then dies.

    I think it’s unavoidable that those who adopt the first approach, like humans, to regard the avoidable loss of a single offspring as morally objectionable. And if humans used the second strategy, stressing over the loss of even most offspring would be a waste of time.

    I don’t see any moral objectivity here. I see only attitudes consistent with the optimal survival strategy, as a function of reproductive approaches.

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  40. keiths: When I introduced the thought experiment, I was still arguing against walto’s old view; namely, that objective values are independent of physical reality.

    Hi walto,

    Was it ever your view that objective values are independent of physical reality?

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  41. keiths:

    In your model, there is a causal chain leading from the aggregated desires of sentient beings at any given time* to your perception of the fact that child sacrifice is objectively moral or immoral
    […]
    Your position, as it stands, is incompatible with Hume’s (and many others’) view of the is/ought distinction.

    How I understand Walt:

    Some people’s emotions are “subtle misrepsentations” of (correct — my characterization) values. Possibly many people, eg with respect to slavery in US South in 1840 or gay marriage in US in 1950 or attitudes towards Jews in Nazi Germany. I assume he thinks those people’s emotions are misrepresentations of correct values. So his function must have some way of discounting those peoples’ emotions/desires/preferences, I think, possibly though by over-weighting those emotions/desires/preferences leading to human flourishing. I don’t know how he would deal with a society where everyone misrepresents, or if he even thinks that is possible.

    Such a reliance on human flourishing would have to be one of his moral axioms. I understand those axioms structure how his function handles the input. It is through those moral axioms that I understand the oughts to enter. I don’t know if he has made explicit his reasons for saying that his axioms “capture something about reality.”

    I understand the function as just being an idealized way of thinking about the proper approach to conducting moral discussions about moral choices.

    Finally, commentators have different opinions on why Hume drew attention to deductions and the is/ought distinction.. Commentators note that he only made this distinction once and that most of his writing was about naturalism being preferable to rationalism. To end my contributions to the thread, I’ll close with a long quote on Hume and ought/is from SEP.

    Some read it as simply providing further support for Hume’s extensive argument that moral properties are not discernible by demonstrative reason, leaving open whether ethical evaluations may be conclusions of cogent probable arguments. Others interpret it as making a point about the original discovery of virtue and vice, which must involve the use of sentiment. On this view, one cannot make the initial discovery of moral properties by inference from nonmoral premises using reason alone; rather, one requires some input from sentiment. It is not simply by reasoning from the abstract and causal relations one has discovered that one comes to have the ideas of virtue and vice; one must respond to such information with feelings of approval and disapproval. Note that on this reading it is compatible with the is/ought paragraph that once a person has the moral concepts as the result of prior experience of the moral sentiments, he or she may reach some particular moral conclusions by inference from causal, factual premises (stated in terms of ‘is’) about the effects of character traits on the sentiments of observers. They point out that Hume himself makes such inferences frequently in his writings.

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  42. Flint,

    I think it’s unavoidable that those who adopt the first approach, like humans, to regard the avoidable loss of a single offspring as morally objectionable. And if humans used the second strategy, stressing over the loss of even most offspring would be a waste of time.

    I don’t see any moral objectivity here. I see only attitudes consistent with the optimal survival strategy, as a function of reproductive approaches.

    Yes, and it’s symptomatic of another problem with walto’s model — the lack of selective pressure for the ability to sense objective morality, assuming the latter even exists.

    Evolution “cares” only about what gets genes into future generations. It doesn’t care about objective morality, so there is no reason to expect that our consciences have evolved to be accurate diviners of objective morality. A false or purely subjective sense of morality is perfectly fine by the lights of evolution — all that matters is that it promotes reproductive success.

    And the two strategies you highlight — few offspring and a large investment in each versus many offspring and little or no investment — also pose a challenge for walto in this sense: his aggregating function aggregates desires across all sentient beings. How does that work? Do the mass reproducers have a moral say in how the heavy investors treat their offspring? Vice-versa? Is it species-restricted? Do the mass reproducers of Alpha Centauri, who outnumber us by many trillions, get to determine what is and isn’t objectively moral here on earth?

    It’s a bit ad hoc, to put it mildly.

    None of these problems arise with subjective morality.

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  43. Bruce,

    I understand the function as just being an idealized way of thinking about the proper approach to conducting moral discussions about moral choices.

    But remember, walto actually believes that moral questions have definite, objective answers and that we can access this truth, albeit imperfectly, via our consciences and emotions. So something very much like his aggregating function must be implemented in reality, so that we can sense its output.

    He is trying to describe a function that already exists, in his view.

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  44. walto, quoting keiths:

    Why do you think they [values] would be invisible to normal investigative methods?

    walto:

    Because (as I’ve stressed LOUDLY) several times now, the values (whether considered subjective or objective) ARE NOT the physical facts.

    Why did you alter my question by inserting the word ‘values’? I made it quite clear that my question was about the physical facts, not the values:

    2. Physical states are facts about the world and are amenable to our normal methods of investigation. Why would we need emotion or conscience to sense these physical facts? Why do you think they would be invisible to normal investigative methods?

    Good grief, walto. Show some integrity.

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  45. keiths:
    Bruce,

    But remember, walto actually believes that moral questions have definite, objective answers

    As is often the case at TSZ, the conversation turns on different understandings of the word “objective”. I found the following a quick, helpful read in how one might think about objectivity: Objectivity-Short-Introduction-.

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  46. keiths,

    Oh, keiths, I am SO sorry to have thought you might have been asking an intelligent question rather than a stupid one. The answer to the stupid question you say you were really asking is that the physical facts (which are not the values–as I’ve explained countless times on this very thread) are NOT invisible.

    BTW, all of the other posts you’ve made since I walked have been equally uncomprehending and/or ridiculous.

    Finally, why do you think anyone should care about your concerns regarding “integrity”? That’s just a personal preference of yours, no? Furthermore, assuming you use the word the way everybody else does, integrity involves a bunch of characteristics you don’t yourself exemplify–as I hope and expect pretty much everybody here knows by now.

    So it’s a weird request you are making here.

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  47. Bruce,

    As is often the case at TSZ, the conversation turns on different understandings of the word “objective”. I found the following a quick, helpful read in how one might think about objectivity: Objectivity-Short-Introduction-.

    The meaning of ‘objective’ doesn’t appear to be at issue. I think we all agree that the constellation of sentient beings and their desires is an objective fact about the world. In walto’s view this objective fact gives rise to objective morality.

    The dispute is over how this can happen, including how the is/ought gap can be bridged.

    I think walto is now aware of the problems, though reluctant to admit it. Hence the odd backpedaling that you noted yesterday:

    I was surprised by the stuff after “not necessarily morally better”. I had thought the purpose of your analysis was to determine correct/defensible moral values.

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  48. keiths: I was surprised by the stuff after “not necessarily morally better”. I had thought the purpose of your analysis was to determine correct/defensible moral values.

    You’re right that I haven’t been sufficiently clear about distinguishing among the various subsets of values. The issues are largely the same–e.g., the same open question arguments may be brought about beauty or desirability (in the sense of what OUGHT to be desired rather than what CAN be desired) that are brought with respect to moral values. But it’s true that the axioms I’ve set forth, while about what makes one person or one society better OFF than another, are not strictly moral axioms. While the derivation of OUGHT from IS issue is the same for all the values, I think (This piece of music OUGHT to be admired; this welfare scheme OUGHT to be adopted) I should have been clearer that that doesn’t turn all oughts into MORAL oughts or all values into MORAL values.

    I think all of these values are “objective,” and the MANNER in which they are so is identical (if not the substance of the axioms), but I should not have ignored the differences when highlighting the similarities. To be honest, I haven’t thought a lot about specifically moral axioms: my paper focuses on the others, and is actually subtitled “A Modest Consequentialism” precisely because it doesn’t get into the specifically moral issues.

    So, again, I’m sorry for being fuzzy on that.

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