There are only two sides, and you are on one or the other of them

We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.

— Donald J. Trump

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

I condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the involvement of President of the United States in the evil of racism. The counter-protesters in Charlottesville lapsed into evil, to be sure. Meeting violence with violence, they handed their adversaries a huge victory. But their error does not make them the moral equivalent of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and Klansmen. Seizing on their error to construct such an equivalence, as Donald Trump has done, is positively obscene. “Grab them by the pussy” pales in comparison.

264 thoughts on “There are only two sides, and you are on one or the other of them

  1. William J. Murray: White Nationalists have – and should have – freedom of speech and assembly, and those rights should be respected.

    Why should I respect those rights? I’m Canadian. We don’t have the same freedom of speech that the US does.

  2. William J. Murray: If these “unique operating properties” are not caused by chemistry or governed by physics, what are they caused and governed by?

    Personally I don’t have a problem with saying that our sense of morality is “partially” caused by chemistry. As is our ability to produce different proteins or to see. But you completely ignore the impact of natural selection on how this chemistry is arranged.

    There is little doubt that our ability to think abstractly and to predict the outcome of different actions increases fitness. Why is it so difficult to imagine that morality (deeply ingrained beliefs that we feel all should obey) based on early teaching, repetition, feedback and experience would not also be adaptive? The fact that there are very few, if any, “moral truths” that do not vary amongst individuals within a society, between societies, and over time within the same society strongly suggests that they are not objective. Or, if they are objective, that they are completely dependent on subjective interpretation.

    Chemistry is all about emergent properties. Fill a room with two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen and light a match. You will get a completely different outcome than if you light a match in a room full of water. we do not yet know what physical parts of the brain and what chemical reactions are responsible for morality (or fear, or love, etc.) but we do know that changes in chemistry and changes in physical structure can change what we perceive as moral “truths”. If this is the case, why do you see the necessity to add a god to the equation? And before you say that you never mentioned god, please explain how the source of these objective morals/truths is distinguishable from god.

    Your opposition to subjective morality has the same motive as your opposition to evolution (and KF’s, Barry’s and Denyse’s opposition). You do not like the implications of what this would mean. What this could lead to. You and the other ID crowd are afraid of this. But you completely ignore the fact that strength comes from knowledge. Accurate knowledge. History is full of examples of terrible things that have happened because humans acted on inaccurate or incomplete knowledge.

  3. walto: BTW, I’m very excited to report that The Journal of Philosophy has accepted a paper of mine on knowledge and skepticism. And I was prompted to start examining those issues by a couple of threads here!

    Congratulations!

    Yes, TSZ isn’t all bad for people like us. I’ve tried out a few ideas about Sellars here and I’ve been working them into my publications. In fact my present long-term project is an indirect attempt to show that Sellars’s work contains the necessary distinctions for rejecting Plantinga’s EAAN. I wouldn’t have worried so much about the EAAN if not for TSZ and Uncommon Descent.

  4. Acartia: History is full of examples of terrible things that have happened because humans acted on inaccurate or incomplete knowledge.

    Indeed. White supremacy, for example.

  5. Kantian Naturalist,

    I think there’s plenty of room for a defensible view in which some aspects of morality are culturally variable, others are species-specific human universals, and others yet are widely shared across intelligent social animals.

    Yep, I’d go along with that. It’s also important to try and separate out the idea of universals that act through a moral sense, from the (near-)universal possession of broad ‘moral sense’ itself. It all appears – subjectively, ha! – like one thing: reducing to approval or disapproval of greater or lesser strength. But it is interesting how malleable some things are, in early development. People end up thinking that all their moral sensations are what they would been regardless of cultural influence, not really a sustainable position. And then, on top, they are of such import that even a deity would approve!

  6. Allan Miller,

    Yes, I think it is an interesting fact about our moral psychology that we tend to associate the same aversion to norm violations, regardless of whether the norms are local or global. But at the same time, exposure to different cultures and different norms can lead to adjustments in the affective systems that govern aversion. Disgust is plastic and not at all a reliable indicator of objectively reliable moral judgments.

    The major distinction that everyone seems to track is between norms specific to a particular cultural practice and norms that generalize across the whole culture. For example, most people realize that one should not wear one’s pajamas to the orchestra, but if everyone else did it, then it would be acceptable But it would not be acceptable to throw sharp objects at the conductor even if everyone else did it.

  7. This is timely — a 2012 essay by Mark Rowlands on moral motivations in animal behavior: “The Kindness of Beasts.”

    When humans act morally, what is it we are doing? Traditionally, the philosopher’s answer has been an intellectualist one: acting morally requires the ability to think about what we are doing, to evaluate our reasons in the light of moral principles. But there is another tradition, associated with the philosopher David Hume and developed later by Charles Darwin, that understands morality as a far more basic part of our nature — a part of us that is as much animal as it is intellectual. On this ‘sentimentalist’ account of morality, our natural sentiments — the empathy and sympathy we have for those around us — are basic components of our biological nature. Our morality is rooted in our biology rather than our intellect.

    Which would be fine except that the rhetoric goes badly astray in the last line. The truth is that our intellect is itself rooted in (or better: an aspect of) our biology — the biology of the very weird kind of animal that we are.

  8. Kantian Naturalist:
    Which would be fine except that the rhetoric goes badly astray in the last line. The truth is that our intellect is itself rooted in (or better: an aspect of) our biology — the biology of the very weird kind of animal that we are.

    Perhaps you should rewrite that as “Our morality is rooted in aspects of our biology other than our intellect.”

  9. John Harshman: Perhaps you should rewrite that as “Our morality is rooted in aspects of our biology other than our intellect.”

    There is probably more truth in this than you intended.

    Most of us heterosexuals still feel uncomfortable about the idea of homosexuality, but what is the rational basis. William, KF, Barry and others will talk about natural law and compatibility and other self-justifying nonsense. They are totally incapable of rationally explaining why it is immoral. One of them has even gone as far as preventing a gay valedictorian from giving the traditional valedictory address out of fear for what he might say.

  10. Acartia: There is probably more truth in this than you intended.

    Pretty sure there’s exactly as much truth in it as I intended.

  11. John Harshman: Perhaps you should rewrite that as “Our morality is rooted in aspects of our biology other than our intellect.”

    Even better would be: ‘our morality is rooted in other aspects of our biology besides just our intellect.”

  12. I complained earlier in this thread that I’m really confused by how folks here are using terms like “subjective” and “objective.” So here’s a question for y’all:

    Supposing that morality were a feature of human biology, and that biology had an evolutionary explanation, would that make morality ‘objective’ or ‘subjective’?

    We can make this an OP if you want.

  13. Kantian Naturalist:
    I complained earlier in this thread that I’m really confused by how folks here are using terms like “subjective” and “objective.”So here’s a question for y’all:

    Supposing that morality were a feature of human biology, and that biology had an evolutionary explanation, would that make morality ‘objective’ or ‘subjective’?

    My first inclination is to say that I could see the assertion of existence of that role (in evolution) as a premise in an argument for objectivity.

    But

    A: I’m not sure I could put the whole argument together as I sit here today though.

    and

    B: I can imagine changing my mind about this as soon as this evening.

  14. I would consider a basis in our biological (presumably this refers to genetic) preferences to be subjective. What “objective” means in these discussions may be unclear, but it usually seems to refer to something that isn’t at all contingent but is a universal rule of the universe, like gravity. How there could be something of that sort for morality is beyond me. Any genetic basis is historically contingent, dependent on past environments, as any social basis is dependent on past and current environments, including genetic preferences.

    Usually, God’s will is brought up by those who favor objective morality, and that suffers from obvious problems.

  15. Arcatia said:

    Your opposition to subjective morality has the same motive as your opposition to evolution (and KF’s, Barry’s and Denyse’s opposition). You do not like the implications of what this would mean. What this could lead to.

    Well, that’s close. My opposition to belief in “subjective morality” is that I don’t like what belief in subjective morality probably leads to, given enough time for such a belief to become widespread and deeply embedded. In other words, I think that as long as that belief is relatively shallow and not too widespread, civilization will continue on just fine. I don’t think anyone is going to like living in a world where most people deeply believe that morality is subjective – except maybe sociopaths and psychopaths.

    However, I wouldn’t have an argument to make against subjective morality if it was logically defensible. It’s not, except under the premise “might makes right”, which really isn’t much of a morality.

    But you completely ignore the fact that strength comes from knowledge. Accurate knowledge. History is full of examples of terrible things that have happened because humans acted on inaccurate or incomplete knowledge.

    History is also full of great and beautiful things that have happened because humans acted on inaccurate or incomplete knowledge. BTW, when is knowledge ever “complete”? Or even 100% accurate? This really sounds more like rhetoric than a point you’d actually like to try and defend logically.

    Most of us heterosexuals still feel uncomfortable about the idea of homosexuality, but what is the rational basis. William, KF, Barry and others will talk about natural law and compatibility and other self-justifying nonsense. They are totally incapable of rationally explaining why it is immoral. One of them has even gone as far as preventing a gay valedictorian from giving the traditional valedictory address out of fear for what he might say.

    I’ve never claimed that homosexuality is immoral.

  16. William J. Murray: History is also full of great and beautiful things that have happened because humans acted on inaccurate or incomplete knowledge. BTW, when is knowledge ever “complete”? Or even 100% accurate? This really sounds more like rhetoric than a point you’d actually like to try and defend logically.

    Yeah, I loved that one. Talk about vacuous. But when you got nothing else …

  17. John Harshman: I would consider a basis in our biological (presumably this refers to genetic) preferences to be subjective. What “objective” means in these discussions may be unclear, but it usually seems to refer to something that isn’t at all contingent but is a universal rule of the universe, like gravity. How there could be something of that sort for morality is beyond me. Any genetic basis is historically contingent, dependent on past environments, as any social basis is dependent on past and current environments, including genetic preferences.

    Fair enough. But usually “subjective” means “contingent on the beliefs, desires, and personal preferences of the person making the judgment”. For example, I don’t like spicy food. (I know, I’m missing out.) So, “spicy food tastes terrible!” is subjective in one clear sense.

    Suppose we allow “objective” to mean “something that isn’t at all contingent but is a universal rule of the universe, like gravity.” Gravity is a fundamental force, and our best theory of it, general relativity, is a part of fundamental physics.

    A theory counts as part of fundamental physics if it applies at every point in space-time. Are we going to say that only fundamental physics is therefore “objective”? So that none of the following are objective: celestial mechanics, biochemistry, ecology, neurophysiology, geology (since none of them apply to universal objects, relations, or processes)?

    So if something is not objective, then it is subjective? So that theories of stellar evolution belong to the same logical category as my dislike of spicy food, but general relativity and quantum mechanics belong to a different logical category (“objective”)?

  18. I’ve always wondered at the phrase “objective empirical evidence.” It would be a shame to have a discussion about objectivity without Patrick around to demand “objective empirical evidence” at every turn in such a discussion.

    I’m tempted to create a sock puppet.

  19. Kantian Naturalist,

    I complained earlier in this thread that I’m really confused by how folks here are using terms like “subjective” and “objective.”

    I tend to use them in the sense that I perceive the WJMs of this world do, at least in this kind of discussion. That is, something inside human minds vs something outside all of them. Of course it’s not quite right, but it saves a sidetrack if that’s how they are being used by the other party.

  20. Allan Miller: That is, something inside human minds vs something outside all of them.

    I really wish you’d stop saying mind when you really mean brain, and that you would stop saying brain when what you really mean is the stuff that brains are made of.

    🙂

  21. Allan Miller:
    Kantian Naturalist,

    I tend to use them in the sense that I perceive the WJMs of this world do, at least in this kind of discussion. That is, something inside human minds vs something outside all of them. Of course it’s not quite right, but it saves a sidetrack if that’s how they are being used by the other party.

    I don’t understand how this distinction between “what is inside at least some human minds” and “what is outside of all human minds” makes any sense at all. I suspect it is fundamentally incoherent and should not be used by anyone who seeks genuine understanding.

  22. William J. Murray: I don’t think anyone is going to like living in a world where most people deeply believe that morality is subjective – except maybe sociopaths and psychopaths.

    Most people want to live in a world where what they think is moral is enforced, calling it objective just makes the use of coercion justified.

  23. John Harshman:
    I would consider a basis in our biological (presumably this refers to genetic) preferences to be subjective. What “objective” means in these discussions may be unclear, but it usually seems to refer to something that isn’t at all contingent but is a universal rule of the universe, like gravity. How there could be something of that sort for morality is beyond me. Any genetic basis is historically contingent, dependent on past environments, as any social basis is dependent on past and current environments, including genetic preferences.

    Usually, God’s will is brought up by those who favor objective morality, and that suffers from obvious problems.

    John, ‘subjective is often taken to mean ‘true, if believed’; one can’t be wrong about anything that’s subjective in that sense. Do you think all of your value judgments must be true?

    Others think that moral statements are actually meaningless. Like grunts. In any case, it doesn’t make sense to talk about this without knowing whether we’re talking about the same thing.

  24. Kantian Naturalist: Fair enough. But usually “subjective” means “contingent on the beliefs, desires, and personal preferences of the person making the judgment”. For example, I don’t like spicy food. (I know, I’m missing out.) So, “spicy food tastes terrible!” is subjective in one clear sense.

    If everyone felt that way would it be objective?

  25. walto: John, ‘subjective is often taken to mean ‘true, if believed’; one can’t be wrong about anything that’s subjective in that sense. Do you think all of your value judgments must be true?

    That line seemes to get blurred nowadays

  26. walto: John, ‘subjective is often taken to mean ‘true, if believed’; one can’t be wrong about anything that’s subjective in that sense. Do you think all of your value judgments must be true?

    If we were to stipulate that “subjective” means “incorrigible from the first-person perspective” or something like that, then we’d be saying that “looks talk” (as Sellars calls it) characterizes the subjective. I can be wrong about whether something is red, but I can’t be wrong about whether something looks red to me.

    I can’t see how it would make to characterize judgments of right and wrong to looks-talk. When I say that mass incarceration is morally wrong, I’m not just reporting my personal feelings; I’m making a claim that I’m prepared to justify with reasons and evidence.

    Others think that moral statements are actually meaningless. Like grunts. In any case, it doesn’t make sense to talk about this without knowing whether we’re talking about the same thing.

    I suspect — on the basis of having read Blackburn and Huw Price — that emotivism about moral discourse only makes sense given a background theory of propositional content. For one might think that only descriptive terms reliably pick out worldly states of affairs, and non-descriptive terms (e.g. prescriptive terms) must therefore play some non-assertoric role.

    I myself think that this is a really problematic view of propositional content, because I can’t see how we can pick out the privileged, genuinely referential terms from the rest of our seemingly assertoric discourse without begging the question.

    newton: If everyone felt that way would it be objective?

    If everyone experienced spicy foods as I do, then it would be a truth of our biology that humans finds capsaicin aversive. That would be an objective fact about human biology.

    It seems perfectly plausible to me that morality is objective in the following sense: any species of intelligent social animal will evolve norms that regulate and constrain the behavior of its members, cognitive abilities for reliably tracking social relationships, and emotions (such as care, concern, approval, disapproval) that count as moral motivations.

    If there’s any great difficulty here, it’s not that morality is subjective, of the same logical category as looks talk, but that it’s both objective and relative: relative to some species of animal, there will be objective facts for that kind of animal as to what does and does not promote flourishing and well-being. And in human beings, since we elaborate our moral practices through cultural institutions, the relativism is historical-cultural as well as biological.

    (One might be confused if one thinks that subjectivism and relativism are the same thing, which might happen if one thinks that objectivism and absolutism are the same thing. But one shouldn’t think that, because that’s just not what those terms mean.)

  27. Kantian Naturalist: …morality is objective in the following sense: any species of intelligent social animal will evolve norms that regulate and constrain the behavior of its members…

    Wouldn’t “inter-subjective” be more appropriate?

  28. Kantian Naturalist: It seems perfectly plausible to me that morality is objective in the following sense: any species of intelligent social animal will evolve norms that regulate and constrain the behavior of its members, cognitive abilities for reliably tracking social relationships, and emotions (such as care, concern, approval, disapproval) that count as moral motivations.

    But moral behavior is not limited to the dictates of social norms. MLK was willing to go to jail for what he considered to be moral acts. It seems to me that norm violating behavior is an important part of what we consider to be moral.

  29. Yes. It doesn’t seem to me to be contradictory to say of some “norm” in my own society that it is immoral. How can that be if to be moral just IS to comport with my societies norms?

  30. Neil Rickert: But moral behavior is not limited to the dictates of social norms. MLK was willing to go to jail for what he considered to be moral acts. It seems to me that norm violating behavior is an important part of what we consider to be moral.

    In one sense, yes. MLK (and thousands of civil rights activists, to be clear) were willing to risk arrest in protest of unjust laws. The wrongness of the Jim Crow South depended in part on objectively false beliefs that allowed Southern Whites to see Blacks as less than human, and thus as not deserving moral consideration on a par with Whites. But one can understand and admire King for his work in the civil rights era without endorsing the personalist theology through which he understood the nature of moral norms.

    In any case, I don’t see why a secularist can’t say that King was correct to think that moral norms are objectively real standards against which we can evaluate the exercise of state power but that he was incorrect to think that those norms are ultimately grounded in the nature of the divine person. It’s one thing to think that human personality has dignity and worth and quite another to give an account of that dignity and worth.

  31. walto:
    Yes.It doesn’t seem to me to be contradictory to say of some “norm” in my own society that it is immoral.How can that be if to be moral just IS to comport with my societies norms?

    I only meant to say that human moral norms are social and historical in character (and not merely, as nonhuman moral norms are, ecological). That’s compatible with judging the society of one’s own time and place to have immoral practices and/or institutions.

  32. Kantian Naturalist: I only meant to say that human moral norms are social and historical in character (and not merely, as nonhuman moral norms are, ecological). That’s compatible with judging the society of one’s own time and place to have immoral practices and/or institutions.

    Is it, do you think, compatible with some moral claims being correct and others wrong–if correctness doesn’t mean consistency with some societal norm?

  33. walto: Is it, do you think, compatible with some moral claims being correct and others wrong–if correctness doesn’t mean consistency with some societal norm?

    If we were to explain moral norms in terms of intersubjective mechanisms that promote cooperation, then we could understand “______ practice/policy/institution is morally wrong” as “_____ practice/policy/institution fails to promote cooperation.”

  34. Kantian Naturalist,

    I don’t understand how this distinction between “what is inside at least some human minds” and “what is outside of all human minds” makes any sense at all. I suspect it is fundamentally incoherent and should not be used by anyone who seeks genuine understanding.

    Nah, don’t quite get this. The point, as I understand it, is where the adjudicator of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ resides. I don’t find it at all ‘incoherent’ to try and demarcate this. But then, I’m just a bloke, not a philosopher, so maybe I should just leave youse all to it.

  35. It’s almost as if the vast majority of entities to whom the discussion might pertain are disqualified from entering into that discussion, because …

  36. Allan Miller:
    Kantian Naturalist,

    Nah, don’t quite get this. The point, as I understand it, is where the adjudicator of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ resides. I don’t find it at all ‘incoherent’ to try and demarcate this. But then, I’m just a bloke, not a philosopher, so maybe I should just leave youse all to it.

    I apologize if I was flippant. I wouldn’t come here if I didn’t enjoy philosophizing with blokes.*

    My point was that it’s muddled to try and put the necessary point in terms of “what is inside the mind” and “what is outside the mind,” because minds aren’t buckets. A mind isn’t the kind of thing that has a boundary, with some things inside of it and other things outside of it, like putting water in a bucket.

    By all means, yes, we do need some criterion what makes an action right or wrong, and we need to understand how we know what that criterion is. But doing so in terms of what’s inside the mind vs. what’s outside the mind isn’t going to help, because it relies on a problematic metaphor about what minds are.

    * using bloke as an inclusive term regardless of gender and gender identity.

  37. Just for the record, in case anyone is confused about where I’m coming from:

    I start off with the basic idea of a cognitive system:

    To be a cognitive system is to be a dedicated information-processing subsystem of a self-maintaining system, consisting of a family of representational states that reliably track patterns in both (a) the system within which the sub-system is embedded and (b) the environment in which the system is embedded.

    Self-maintaining, self-perpetuating systems that contain cognitive systems as one of their parts are cognitive agents.

    (In these terms, brains are a kind of cognitive system and animals are a kind of cognitive agent.)

    Cognitive agents will tend to be competent navigators of the affordances that comprise their ecological niche. Their navigation is made possible by the causal dynamics between representing states of the cognitive systems and represented states of the body and environment.

    Any cognitive system is going to have a local optimum problem. It needs to reliably track patterns. But it is severely constrained by its own parameters of how to model those patterns. So, there’s always going to be a worry that a cognitive system is trapped on a local optimum — maybe there’s a better model, a better way of tracking patterns, but it can’t get there from where it is. After all, if there’s no feasible evolutionary trajectory from where it is to a better optimum, then the local optimum is where it has to stay.

    Unless . . .

    . . . unless it has a way of comparing its own models with those of another cognitive system.

    Because if a cognitive system has a reliable way of detecting the similarities and differences between its models and those generated by a different cognitive system, then each cognitive system has an opportunity to correct those discrepancies and arrive at a better model of the patterns being tracked.

    But this comes with a great danger: what if the two systems, instead of mutually correcting each other so that each becomes more responsive to real patterns, become interlocked — so that they end up simply reinforcing each other’s mistakes?

    The hardest problem in our individual and shared cognitive lives is that of being able to avoid both (1) a situation in which only cooperating because we’re reinforcing each other’s bad models of the world, ignoring possible sources of correction as well as (2) a situation in which differences between models, and disagreement about which patterns are salient and worth responding to, leads to conflict.

    In short, we need epistemic and ethical norms that help guide us towards world-responsive cooperation: behavior that is both cooperative (not competitive or conflictual) and world-responsive (not closed off from how things really are).

    And thus we can evaluate any candidate ethical or epistemic policies, institutions, or practices in terms of how well they promote or hinder world-responsive cooperation. Do they promote oppression or violence at the expense of cooperation? Do they promote cooperation only by dogmatically insisting on a specific ideology? Or do they promote cooperation that is genuinely responsive to how the world is taken to be, at that given stage of inquiry?

  38. Kantian Naturalist,

    My point was that it’s muddled to try and put the necessary point in terms of “what is inside the mind” and “what is outside the mind,” because minds aren’t buckets. A mind isn’t the kind of thing that has a boundary, with some things inside of it and other things outside of it, like putting water in a bucket.

    We may be talking at cross purposes. Regardless how one construes the concept ‘mind’, there is a species that collectively has one, or several. That species wishes to determine whether ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is adjudicated by members of its species, or by something unspecified which is not a member of it species. I’m well aware that this is not at all usefully divided into ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ lingo. But, when I’m talking to critics of ‘atheist morality’, that seems to be what they are aiming at.

  39. Allan Miller: That species wishes to determine whether ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is adjudicated by members of its species, or by something unspecified which is not a member of it species. I’m well aware that this is not at all usefully divided into ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ lingo.

    Fair enough, as far it goes.

    But I think there’s a distinction worth making hereabouts between (1) “adjudicated solely in terms of the collective whims, wishes, or preferences of members of the species” and (2) “adjudicated with reference to what actually does tend to promote the flourishing and well-being of members of those species”.

    When I’m defending objective morality, I’m talking about (2). I’m taking the position that there are facts about human individual psychology and social psychology such that some practices really are morally better than others.

  40. Kantian Naturalist:
    When I’m defending objective morality, I’m talking about (2). I’m taking the position that there are facts about human individual psychology and social psychology such that some practices really are morally better than others.

    So would you be saying that, for example, hunting in packs would be immoral for cats?

  41. Tom English:

    I suspect that makes me ignostic.

    If so, you’re in good company. AIGUY fancied himself as an ignostic too.

  42. Kantian Naturalist: If we were to explain moral norms in terms of intersubjective mechanisms that promote cooperation, then we could understand “______ practice/policy/institution is morally wrong” as “_____ practice/policy/institution fails to promote cooperation.”

    Of course, then we’ve got ‘conducive to cooperation’ as a sort of foundational good.

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