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

    Thanks for the clarification.

    I did misunderstand the nature of the values you were referring to and that affectied many of my comments.

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  2. keiths:

    The meaning of ‘objective’ doesn’t appear to be at issue.

    I am still unclear what you think about mathematical axioms.

    Is the axiom of infinity objectively true? What about the axiom of choice? If so for either, what is the truthmaker?

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  3. Bruce,

    I am still unclear what you think about mathematical axioms.

    Is the axiom of infinity objectively true?

    I would say no.

    What about the axiom of choice?

    Again, I’d say no.

    Since I’m not a platonist, the only way I think an axiom could plausibly be asserted as “objectively true” would be if it correctly described something about physical reality. For example, if real-world spacetime actually followed the laws of general relativity, you could make a case that the axioms of the corresponding geometry were objectively true (though in that case they would really be empirical observations more than axioms).

    Given that GR breaks down at the quantum level, the axioms would only be objectively true to the same extent that GR is. But that gives you an idea of the conditions under which I’d be willing to consider the possibility that some mathematical axioms might be objectively true.

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  4. keiths:
    Since I’m not a platonist, the only way I think an axiom could plausibly be asserted as “objectively true” would be if it correctly described something about physical reality.

    Thanks Keith.

    I had not seen that approach before, although it did remind of the Quine’s limited platonism that we should accept the reality of some math objects based on the success of science which depends on them.

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  5. BruceS: I had not seen that approach before, although it did remind of the Quine’s limited platonism that we should accept the reality of some math objects based on the success of science which depends on them.

    I’ve never understood that (the Quine-Putnam indispensibility thesis). I guess I don’t understand how philosophers think. To me, platonism makes it harder to explain the usefulness of mathematics in science. I see fictionalism or nominalism as a better fit.

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  6. Neil Rickert: I’ve never understood that (the Quine-Putnam indispensibility thesis).I guess I don’t understand how philosophers think.To me, platonism makes it harder to explain the usefulness of mathematics in science.I see fictionalism or nominalism as a better fit.

    I think it is more the other way: roughly, the success of science implies scientific realism implies we should also accept the platonist reality of math objects used in successful science.

    Here is a short, closely argued version. Key conclusion:

    This conclusion is epistemic only in a conditional sense. It simply says that one cannot have one’s cake and eat it. One cannot be a nominalist and a scientific realist.

    Since I believe you are not a scientific realist, you have (at least) one out.

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  7. BruceS: I think it is more the other way: roughly, the success of science implies scientific realism implies we should also accept the platonist reality of math objects used in successful science.

    That’s a better wording than what I used. But it still does not make sense. It seems to make science mystical.

    Here is a short, closely argued version.

    It’s bullshit, but thanks for the entertainment.

    I see that argument as BS, though perhaps nobody else does.
    I claim to understand consciousness, though it seems that nobody else does.

    I think those are related. I’m looking at it in a way that helps explain consciousness, while everyone else is looking at it in a way that make consciousness seem mysterious.

    Come to think of it, Tim Maudlin’s weird ideas about topology probably come from the same mistaken way of looking at mathematics.

    Feel free to start a new thread on Quine-Putnam if you want to further explore this.

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  8. Neil Rickert: I claim to understand consciousness, though it seems that nobody else does.

    I have, partly as a result of these discussions, come to the conclusion that “we” are continually being replaced and are not the same person as we were a while ago.

    Ship of Theseus on steroids.

    I have always rebelled against the concept of “I” and “we”. There is no homunculus doing the conching or perceiving. Like OOL, self awareness is a mystery. I think we might be said to understand it when we can replicate it.

    On the other hand, I think both AI and OOL simulations will only be achieved through evolution — presumably speeded up — so even if we succeed, we will not understand what is going on.

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