Monday, December 30, 2013

Is Morality Objective?

Is morality objective?

Lot’s of people disagree about morality. Many of them think that since we disagree about it, that must mean that morality is subjective, as opposed to objective. But this reasoning doesn’t make sense because it’s analogous to saying that science is subjective since many scientists disagree about scientific theories. The reason we disagree is that none of us are infallible, and so people are making mistakes. None of us have reached the truth, but individually we are making our way towards it -- at least this is the case for the people that are genuinely trying to seek the truth.

Another reason some people think morality is subjective is that they think there is no objective way for people to agree. But this is not true either. To explain why, I'll explain what I mean by the idea that truth is objective.

Truth is objective. This means that every question has only one correct answer. This applies to moral truths like it does for any other truths.

Truth is also contextual. So morality is also contextual. No two people are ever in the exact same situation, so no two contexts are exactly the same. One consequence of this is that what is right for me is not necessarily right for you, and vice versa.

The objectivity of morality refers not so much to moral conclusions, but rather to the standard by which moral conclusions are determined. Judges should come to their conclusions using a standard that is independent of any individual judge. Analogously, scientists should come to their conclusions using a standard that is independent of any individual scientist.

Often, judges and scientists draw the wrong conclusions, but the method by which they reach their conclusions ensures that their conclusions will be revised in the future when new evidence or criticism is found. In the US judicial system, all court cases are open to appeal. This means that the law treats court decisions as tentative, and so the law is setup to keep all decisions open to revision. The same goes for science. All scientific theories are treated as our best theories to date -- which means that any scientific theory might be flawed and so it's important to keep them all of them open to revision. And the same goes for moral conclusions. Everybody should treat their moral conclusions as fallible, just like court decisions and scientific theories -- which means that any moral idea might be flawed and so it's important to keep them all open to revision. To clarify, even the standard by which we come to conclusions is a fallible standard, and it too is open to revision.

So what is the standard and how does it work?

Let’s consider science first. The standard for science is this: A theory is scientific if and only if it can, in principle, be ruled out by empirical evidence. So if there is a theory that is claimed to be scientific, and if it cannot, in principle, be ruled out by empirical evidence, then it is not scientific, and instead, it is what we call psuedo-science.

The standard for morality is similar, and it applies to other kinds of knowledge too, not just morality. The standard is this: An idea is objective if and only if it is intended to solve a problem. Note that this even applies to science. The problem that a scientific theory is intended to solve is explaining physical reality while making testable predictions about it, such that the predictions are consistent with all our existing empirical evidence.

An objective idea is one that can be found to be false. And one way to determine whether it's false is to determine whether or not the idea fails to solve the problem it’s intended to solve. So if a person judges that a moral idea fails to solve the problem it's intended to solve, then that is it’s flaw. And if the idea is flawed, then it’s false, and so it should not be acted on. To clarify, when we explain why the idea doesn’t solve the problem it’s intended to solve, this explanation constitutes a criticism of the idea. It refutes the idea. [2]

So if an idea is flawed, then it's refuted. And if it doesn't have a flaw, then it's unrefuted. Now I've made that sound pretty simple but it's a lot more complicated than that. For one thing, people are fallible, which means that any of our ideas may be mistaken, which means that even our criticism can be flawed. That's why it's important to keep all our ideas on the table, even our criticisms.

So to clarify how refutation works, if an idea has an unrefuted criticism, then the idea is tentatively refuted. And, the unrefuted status of the criticism is also tentative. So if somebody comes along with a criticism of that criticism, then the original idea is now unrefuted.

A second thing to consider is how criticism works. A criticism is an explanation of a flaw in an idea. Now some ideas are vague -- their purpose is not clear. In other words, the problem that the idea is intended to solve is not clear. This makes it hard to find a flaw in it. For this reason, the fact that the idea is vague is a useful criticism of the idea. In other words, if the idea's purpose is unclear, then it's refuted.

Now people often disagree about what things are unclear, but this is a soluble problem. One way to do it is to identify what problem the idea is intended to solve. The people discussing the idea might go back and forth a bunch of times before the problem is established, but once that is agreed on, then it's easier to figure out if there is a flaw in the idea. Since the idea is a proposed solution for the intended problem, if we can explain how the proposed solution fails to solve the problem, then we've found a devastating criticism of that idea.

As an example, consider the case where somebody claims that some event caused some other event. If the claim doesn't have an explanation for the causal relationship, then that is a criticism of the claim -- that it's unexplained. It's a criticism because without an explanation, we can't find out if it's reasoning is wrong. So it's wrong for not having any reasoning.

So ideas that are intended to solve problems are objective. Those that don’t are subjective. And morality is about solving problems. A moral philosophy should be able to provide a method to answer questions like 'should I learn to read,' 'should I learn epistemology,' 'what and when should I eat,' 'how should I raise my children?' These are all ideas that are intended to solve specific problems. And for this reason, it's possible to find out if they fail to solve the problems they intend to solve.


[2] "... by an objective theory I mean a theory which is arguable, which can be exposed to rational criticism, preferably a theory which can be tested: one which does not merely appeal to our subjective intuitions." _Unended Quest_, Chapter 31, by Karl Popper.

----------------------------------------------[ Q & A ]--------------------------------------------------

Q: Morality is subjective because moral ideas are based in subjective premises.

A: No, the premises are fallible too. They can be shown to be wrong. And it's possible for people to agree on them. There is no law of nature preventing people from agreeing on the premises.

-------------[ Since it's about opinions, then it's subjective ]---------------

Q: Morals are merely opinions, all opinions are subjective. So morality is subjective.

A: Do you think it's wrong for a parent to murder his 2 y.o. child for crying too much? Or do you believe that that opinion is not wrong? If you believe the opinion is wrong, well that raises the question: By what standard did you judge the opinion wrong? If you have a standard, well then that means you are treating morality objectively.

-------------[ Basing ideas on personal feelings and opinions ]--------------

Q: Morality can't be objective because people form their moral codes based on or influenced by personal feelings and opinions. There are plenty examples of this.

A: Yes, lots of people justify (aka base) their ideas on other ideas/feelings, rather than look for flaws in them. But justifying ideas is wrong. So any idea that uses justification, is also wrong. And what you're saying is that there are a lot of examples of people coming to conclusions using false methods of reasoning (justification), but so what? Just because some people are wrong about justificationism doesn’t mean that morality is subjective. For one thing, they are able to learn that their method is wrong. There is no law of nature preventing them from learning it. [...] To clarify, coming to conclusions by working out which one feels right is not an objective method.

-------------[ Dismiss all personal experience as invalid ]---------------

Q: I think that you have it all entirely the wrong way round. We are our emotions, our sense impressions, our ideas, our experiences. Assuming there is something 'out there', we can only encounter it through the filter of our minds. We can't encounter the world objectively; we can only do so individually and then compare our experiences in order to find a satisfactory way of understanding it . If you dismiss all personal experience as invalid, then you dismiss even the possibility of knowledge.

A: I agree that we can only encounter "it" through the filter of our minds. But I did not dismiss all experience as invalid. That’s not what fallibility means. You’ve misinterpreted me. [...] That an idea/feeling/experience is fallible, means that it COULD be wrong, which also means that it COULD be right. And you’ve missed this part. You just said that my position is that “all experience as invalid” which means that all experience is wrong, which actually contradicts my position. [...] My point is that justifying one's ideas/feelings/experiences by other ideas/feelings/experiences is a wrong way to come to conclusions -- it means trying to prove one's ideas/feelings/experiences, which is a mistake because that means not looking for flaws in them, and doing that means keeping your ideas/feelings static, preventing them from evolving. The right way is to try to find flaws in one's ideas/feelings/experiences and fixing them, which means evolving/improving your ideas/feelings.

-------------[ Absolutes in morality ]---------------

Q: I read your essay and it's clear to me that you don't understand the meaning of objective morality, if morality is objective, as you clearly believe it to be, then there are absolutes in terms of morality, which is incorrect. In order for there to be an absolute it has to be based on some outside force, in the case of morality theists argue that that source is god. If you believe morality to be objective you need to prove where it comes from, what is the basis for morality?

A: So you believe your claim because it feels clear to you? That’s a non-argument. Your feelings are not an objective standard for knowledge. [...] Re your assertion that if morality is objective then there are absolutes in terms of morality -- that is an unexplained assertion, so it's wrong for being unexplained. [...] Re outside force -- I disagree that knowledge has a basis. I disagree that there needs to be some outside force (god) in order for morality to be objective. Knowledge is created by guesses and criticism, not by basing it on other knowledge. Ideas need not, and cannot, be proved. Ideas have flaws and what we can do is seek out and fix flaws thus evolving our ideas.

-------------[ Ideas can't be proved ]--------------

Q: Re your idea that ideas can't be proved -- Really? Gravity is an idea, Evolution is an idea!

A: Yes really. There are many theories of gravity and evolution, and not all of them are correct. There is only one theory of gravity that is consistent with all our existing evidence. There is only one theory of evolution that is consistent with all our existing evidence. All the other theories of gravity and evolution have been refuted by empirical evidence. So ideas can only be ruled out, they cannot be proved.

-------------[ Popular opinion ]-----------------

Q: Just because someone has a moral standard does not mean that morality is objective. Objective means based on facts, I can have a moral standard based on the popular opinion in my society!

A: Coming to conclusions by determining which ideas are most popular is not an objective method. That's analogous to a scientist who bases his opinion of a scientific theory by polling all other scientists to find out the popular opinion of the population of scientists.

-------[ Morality is contextual as a means of dodging questions? ]--------

Q: Does the additional context just create a new question in order to dodge answering the initial question or render it irrelevant due to lacking context about the individuals involved?

A: A lot of moral relativists (aka subjectivists) use their philosophy as a means of dodging questions posed by moral objectivists. I think it’s bad to dodge questions. And I think it’s bad to adopt a philosophy as a means of dodging questions.

----[ Does morality is contextual mean that morality is subjective? ]----

Q: By allowing data to be seen in different contexts, are you not arguing morality is subjective to begin with? (Objectivity comes into question when subjective data is deemed accurate or not in certain contexts.)

A: No. I'll give an example to clarify. Let’s say that John is in a situation and he decides that action X is his best course of action. Let’s say that John seeks Paul’s help to figure out if there is something better than X. So John tells Paul all the details that John thinks Paul needs to know to make a moral determination. Now let’s say that after hearing all the details that John gave, Paul is not sure if X is right or wrong, and he has a question about another detail that John didn’t give. So Paul asks John the question, and John answers it, and the answer is a detail that wasn’t mentioned earlier. Now lets say Paul has enough information now, and he thinks that action X is wrong because action Y is better for a reason that Paul explains to John. Now let’s say that John agrees with Paul’s reason, and let’s say John doesn’t have any new criticisms, so John agrees that action Y is better than action X so he chooses to do Y instead of X.

So let’s summarize what happened. John was in a situation and he thinks that the relevant contextual details are A, B, and C, and he decides that action X is his best course of action, but he wants other people’s help to make sure. John explains this context to Paul, and Paul thinks that the contextual details that John thought were enough, were not enough. So Paul asks John a question whose answer reveals contextual detail D. At this point, Paul and John agree that contextual detail D changes the context such that the best course of action is Y rather than X. 

Now back to your question. Does this mean that morality is subjective? No. It’s possible for John and Paul to agree that John’s understanding of the context is missing some details that are relevant in determining what is the best course of action.

In science, the method is this: Create a falsifiable theory, and then test in the effort to falsify it.

In everything else, we do not have access to empirical evidence, which means that we can't falsify them. Instead we use criticism to refute them. A criticism is an explanation of a flaw in an idea. If an idea is flawed, that means that it fails to solve the problem it's intended to solve.

Now this method is actually a general case of the one used in science. The problem that a scientific theory (aka idea) is intended to solve is to explain reality such that the explanation makes testable predictions and such that the explanation is consistent with all empirical evidence.

Now the reason this standard works is because scientific theories are the only kind of theories that one can apply the scientific method on. The scientific method is to create a falsifiable theory, and then test it in the effort to falsify it.

And the reason that this standard works is because objective ideas are the only kind of ideas that one can apply an objective method on. 

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