Scientism, Evolution and the Basis for Morality

22 12 2011

Cut, jab, thrust, confusion! That seems to be the spirit of an ongoing exchange between Michael Ruse and Jason Rosenhouse of Evolutionblog. It started with scientism, the term (often used in the pejorative) applied to the notion that science is the best/only way of knowing the world. It then shifts to a somewhat complex (but useful) discussion of moral knowledge, moral absolutism and the slippery slope into moral subjectivism.

The discussion is useful precisely because it’s complex and irresolute – and that’s precisely where the debate lies at the heart of naturalistic ethics today. In delving to this depth – a more arcane depth than most public commentators would delve – we can get to some of the most pressing and important questions in ethics.

First, a word on scientism: I do firmly believe that science is the best tool in our kit for understanding the natural world. But it’s a limited tool. As they say, science is a wonderful tool, but a terrible master. Let’s not wander into the fallacy of assuming because it can’t do something then therefore that thing doesn’t exist.

Ultimately, I take a pragmatic stance on knowledge, and on the utility of science. We’re confronted with phenomena, we organise and structure that phenomena and posit theories to explain it and make predictions about future phenomena. Science has been very carefully developed and refined to be exceptionally good at this task – and if you care about explaining and predicting phenomena, then science beats all comers, especially any brand of revelation.

But that’s not all there is to knowledge. As Ruse points out, there are questions about this method itself, or about how the world can be such that science even works. Science can’t answer those. And that shouldn’t worry us a jot. That’s what philosophy is for.

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Dichotomies in Metaethics

11 11 2011

There are two types of people in this world: those who like dichotomies, and those who don’t. This post is for the former.

Metaethics is riddled with dichotomies. And, unhelpfully, they often cut across each other in unpredictable ways. On top of that, not every metaethicist employs the terms in the same ways, meaning some dichotomies are rendered differently in different texts.

So, here is my understanding of the key dichotomies in metaethics (with my preferred options). I’m not entirely sure I have characterised them all correctly, or that I’m not missing any salient points. Please feel free to criticise or revise this list in the comments:

Realism vs. anti-realism

  • Realism: moral facts exist
    • Often cashed out as objective prescriptive facts
      • “objective, intrinsic, prescriptivity” (Mackie, 1975 – who, by the way, thought these facts didn’t exist)
    • Or facts about a property of goodness in things/actions
    • Example proponents: G.E. Moore, M. Smith, P. Bloomfield, a (disappointing) heap of others
  • Anti-realism: moral properties don’t exist
    • Example proponents: Mackie, Joyce, Greene
  • I fall within this camp as I don’t believe objective, prescriptive moral facts exist, and use evolved moral psychology to show why we might erroneously think the do

Cognitivism vs. non-cognitivism

  • Cognitivism: moral utterances are statements of fact and have truth values
    • Eg: “murder is wrong” is either true or false
    • A descriptive semantic thesis about moral discourse, not a prescriptive or ontological thesis about moral statements
    • Strong cognitivism: as above but the facts are cognitively accessible
  • Non-cognitivism: moral utterances are statements of affect or preference and don’t have truth values
    • Example proponents: Blackburn, Ayer, Stevenson
  • I consider this a spurious distinction as everyday moral discourse is muddled, and most moral utterances have a cognitive and an affective component: moral intuitions (immediate impressions of permissibility/impermissibility of an act) are typically non-cognitivist; while the post-hoc rationalisations of moral norms are typically cognitivist

Naturalism vs. non-naturalism

  • Naturalism: a form of cognitivism and realism that states that moral properties exist and they are natural properties or moral statements are rendered true or false by facts about natural states of affairs
    • Facts about happiness (Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer) or about neurological states (Sam Harris)
  • Non-naturalism: a form of cognitivism and realism that states that moral properties exist and they are non-natural properties
    • Example proponents: G.E. Moore
  • I reject both these formations as they’re dependent on moral realism. Instead I adopt an anti-realist naturalism that says moral phenomena are analysable in purely naturalistic terms, but this alone doesn’t imply any binding normativity, similar to Joshua Greene, Michael Ruse (I think…) and the so-called Duke Naturalists

Internalism vs. externalism

  • Internalism: moral beliefs are intrinsically motivating
    • It’s somehow contradictory to believe that ‘x is good’ and yet have no inclination towards doing ‘x’
    • Example proponents: Michael Smith
  • Externalism: moral beliefs are not intrinsically motivating and require some other impetus to motivate moral behaviour
    • It’s possible to believe ‘x is good’ and not be motivated to do ‘x’
  • This is another dichotomy I reject as I take a softer psychological approach that suggests moral norms are not bindingly prescriptive nor intrinsically motivating, although we are often internally emotionally motivated to act in accordance to the norms to which we subscribe (akrasia not withstanding), and we want people to behave like this, but we often need ‘external’ motivation, such as threat of coercion, to motivate conformity and prevent bouts of akrasia

Absolutism vs. relativism

  • Absolutism: there is one moral standard that is fixed
    • Applies without contingency
    • Can be objective (fixed by facts in the world or God’s will)
    • Can be subjective (fixed by the whim of an authority)
  • Relativism: moral standards are indexed to some value
    • Indexed to culture, group of people, environment etc
    • Can be objective (x group/circumstances always implies y morality)
    • Can be subjective (x group/circumstances can choose y or z morality)
  • I am absolutely not an absolutist, rather more a pluralist along the lines of David Wong, where there I argue there are many ways of solving the problems of social living that morality is constructed to solve, but there are better and worse ways in different environments, and there are clearly some very bad ways

Categorical vs. hypothetical

  • Categorical imperatives: moral norms are binding regardless of an individual’s ends or desires
  • Hypothetical imperatives: moral norms are binding contingent on an individual’s ends or desires
  • I fall into the hypothetical camp, with norms binding hypothetically, contingent on our desire to serve our own interests in a social context, given the assumption (usually true) that acting in accordance with the constructed moral code will advance our own interests better than the alternative of not acting in accordance with a moral code

Not even sure if the last one is strictly metaethical, or more a normative ethical thesis. But hey.

The Poverty of Postmodernism

31 03 2011

You may not realise it, but you’ve probably been poisoned by postmodernism. No-one who lived through the 1970s would have escaped untainted. And just about anyone who underwent schooling or a university education in the 1980s or 1990s received a crippling dose. I was entirely oblivious to my own indoctrination during my undergraduate in the early ‘90s until only a few years ago.

You can blame postmodernism for the banalities of political correctness.

You can blame it for making contemporary art ugly and incomprehensible.

You can blame it for moral relativism, and the inability to criticise individuals from other cultures when they do plainly heinous things.

You can blame it for rampant individualism and greed.

You can also blame it for words like ‘deconstruction,’ ‘hermeneutics,’ and my favourite, ‘subversion.’ You can even blame it for the identity crisis afflicting the political Left.

The good news is that postmodernism is philosophically defunct. Deep exhale. We can all let it go now. Let it sink to the bottom of the Swamp of Bankrupt Ideas. And we can move on to firmer conceptual territory, in doing so discovering the world is, in fact, more (and less) explicable than we probably think, and intractable problems – like multiculturalism, for one – are more solvable than we realise.

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Chaos, Levels of Explanation and Interdisciplinarity

27 03 2011

I’ve been thinking a lot about interdisciplinary research (IDR) of late. (One day I’ll spend a lot of time thinking about finishing my thesis, but hey.)

It seems that one of the most fundamental questions to ask is: why do we have separate disciplines at all?

Seems obvious, but often the unanswered obvious questions are the most interesting. Delving into them can reveal something illuminating about our assumptions about how things are, and even reveal some false intuitions.

The simple answer might be that there’s no one discipline that can tackle every question we might want to ask. Okay, why?

Well, probably because such a discipline would be unmanageably complex. Far easier to carve up nature – and the questions we want to ask about her – into bite size pieces.

But why carve it where we do?

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Of Metaethics, Error Theory and What Morality Really Is

12 02 2011

I’ll say it again: doing metaethics is a dreadful way to spend one’s time. Yet, here I am. Doing metaethics. For, like doing tax returns and scrubbing the bathroom, there are some unsavoury endeavours that are necessitated by our chosen course of life. And as my chosen course involves walking the paths of ethical theory, I’m forced to wade through the swamps of metaethics from time to time. So, don your galoshes and on with the show.

I stated recently that Sam Harris ought to be a moral anti-realist, and in shifting to such a stance, he’d lose little and gain much. Namely, he’d lose the mad-dog moral naturalist realism that insists that science can determine human values – and in doing so, evaporate the ire of the manifold philosophers who’ve criticised this aspect of his approach.

What he’d gain is an ability to talk about moral facts, or facts that pertain to making a moral judgement. This has got me into some metaethical strife, according to Richard Wein. Why? Because I’m getting all error theorist on Harris’ realism, yet I’m still talking about moral facts. But, if error theory and anti-realism are to be taken seriously, then moral statements are all false. The only point in continuing to talk about them as if they’re real is to pretend they’re real, a la moral fictionalism.

Let me elaborate. And brace yourself, this is going to get metaethical.

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Morality, Health and Sam Harris

9 02 2011

There’s a lot to like about Sam Harris‘ views on morality. In fact, I suspect that even his most vocal critics agree with him on a vast majority of what he has to say. His advocacy for a scientific engagement with morality is warmly welcome, as is his commitment to go beyond the old God versus no-God debate to suggest a positive agenda to build a secular morality devoid of supernatural meddling.

But there’s one sticking point  – one to which Harris continues to apply glue – and one against which people like myself and Russell Blackford continue to rebound. That is Harris’ commitment that science can describe morality all the way down.

Harris suggests that science doesn’t stop at the descriptive waters edge, but that it extends as far as being able to establish our fundamental values. His brand of bald naturalistic realism is not only extreme but, in my opinion, overshoots his objective. And in doing so receives criticism that distracts from the merits of his view.

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Sam Harris Doesn’t Get Morality

17 01 2011

It’s all in Russell Blackford’s illuminating and comprehensive review of Sam Harris’ latest book, The Moral Landscape.

Harris’ big mistake is his utter contempt for metaethics. Now, I’m on record as stating that doing metaethics is a dreadful way to spend one’s time. And so is doing your tax. But, sadly, there are few metaethicists who bill by the hour to whom one can outsource one’s metaethical labours.

Harris’ broader project – one to which I’m sympathetic – is done a disservice by his refusal to engage with moral philosophy and metaethics, at least beyond engaging to the point of skimming the surface and dismissing it out of hand (although one could claim I’m doing the same with Harris’ work – but hey, if I’m wrong, someone’ll tell me – it’s the internet, after all).

Metaethics has a propensity to get bogged down in minutia, and to argue around in circles about questions of arguable import. But the very difficulty of meteathics is suggestive that morality is a more complicated phenomenon to understand that it appears at first blush. Harris would do well to pause to listen to philosophers before disagreeing with them. In fact, some philosophers, such as Blackford, are trying to help advance Harris’ programme.

Ultimately, as Russell says, Harris’ book will be a Good Thing because it’ll advance the discussion about morality. Even if Harris’ work is flawed, he makes some good points, particularly about encouraging a productive engagement between philosophy and science when it comes to morality. Hear hear.

Hopefully, The Moral Landscape, will inspire a second generation of books that respond and build on Harris’ ideas. Blackford has suggested he might pen one himself (go for it man!). What does seem clear is that we’re emerging, slowly, from the miasma of 20th century metaethical debate, and we’re gaining momentum towards developing a robust, functional and empirically-aware secular moral framework. And that is possibly one of the most important things humans can work on right now.


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