Monday, August 31, 2015

Discussion with a moral relativist about whether morality is objective

this is a discussion i had with somebody on fb about whether morality is objective. he called it "moral realism" so i continued to use that term with him. i've included just the most relevant parts of the discussion.

On Mon, Aug 28, 2015 somebody offlist:

> Sam Harris and Islam are the same stuff. Moral realism wrapped up in a hateful, polarizing package.

are you disagreeing with the moral realism part?

On Mon, Aug 28, 2015 somebody offlist:

> Of course. I am an atheist because there is no evidence for god(s). I am not a moral realist for the same reason - lack of evidence.
> Moral realism is an artifact of religiosity and theocracy. If one is an atheist and still clings to moral realism, all that tells me is one has stopped questioning much, much too soon. Religion comes with a lot of baggage, from moral realism to retributivism dressed up as justice. Saying one does not believe in god(s) is only scratching the surface.

why do you believe that more questioning of that idea would necessarily lead to realizing that revenge is not justice? it’s because you believe that the goal post is the truth, and questioning leads one closer to *the truth*. hence moral realism.

On Mon, Aug 30, 2015 somebody offlist:

> When were we objectively morally right about gender equality?

Maybe never. But the idea that men should have legal rights that women don't have, is wrong.

> And why so?

you mean, why do I believe we're right today and that people were wrong in the past? because we know of flaws in their theory that they didn't know about.

> The very least a moral realist *must* recognize is that we were right at some point or wrong at some point.

Which I've acknowledged.

> And for the record, just because I express a moral opinion (and that's what I recognize it is) does not mean I am become a moral realism, thinking my moral opinion is the absolute, objective truth.

?! so you're saying that having a moral opinion while being a moral realist means that the moral realist believes that his opinion is the absolute objective truth? why do you believe that? I'm a moral realist AND I have moral opinions AND I don't believe that any of my opinions are absolute objective truth. You think I'm wrong to hold these views but you haven't explained how I'm wrong. Can you explain that?

On Mon, Aug 30, 2015 somebody offlist:

> Interesting. So what is your support/evidence/justification for "...For example, the idea that men should have legal rights that women don't have, is wrong."

Searching for support/justification is flawed epistemology. The best epistemology known to date expains that we need to look for flaws/problems in our theories. And that a theory is treated as rejected only if it has known flaws/problems. And a theory is accepted if you can't find any flaws/problems with it.

Do you see any flaws or problems with the idea that women should have the same rights as men? I don't.

On Mon, Aug 30, 2015 somebody offlist:

> Alright, so how do we know that liberalism is the truth?

Find a flaw. Explain the flaw. Then submit that explanation to criticism. If that explanation survives criticism, then as far as we know, the explanation is correct. And if that happens, then we've either rejected it, or we changed it to account for the flaw in the old version. And if we don’t find a flaw (in liberalism), then its our best knowledge about the truth.

Though we could be wrong about it. So we should be open to changing our minds. We should be open to new criticism and new rival theories.

On Mon, Aug 30, 2015 somebody offlist:

> That would make it sound *almost* like a scientific endeavor, but without the final arbiter (that empirical reality serves as in science).

Emprical evidence isn't the final arbiter. Evidence can be MISINTERPRETED. So a scientist (and anybody) must lookout for misinterpreting the evidence. So the relevant question here is: How does one analyze evidence in order to catch one's misinterpretations of the evidence?

> Tell me, how do we know when we have found a flaw?

If you think you found a flaw, and you don't see any criticisms of the flaw you see, then as far as you know the flaw is the best knowledge you have about the truth.

On Mon, Aug 30, 2015 somebody offlist:

> Honestly, though, if that is your view of morality, there doesn't seem to be much room for the confidence most moral realists in the past have craved when making their decrees. I mean does truth really amount to some variant of argumentum ad populum without any sort of arbiter?

Truth is not judged by popular vote. 

Truth is judged by critical discussion. If a theory survives criticism, then it is accepted as the best knowledge to date about the truth. If a theory doesn’t survive criticism, then it is rejected for having known flaws. Theories that survive criticism are non-refuted (no known flaws). Theories that didn’t survive criticism are refuted (has known flaws).

> That hardly seems like a process to truth... I guess truth won't really mean much any more, will it? Now "knowledge," and "truth" are watered down to nothing.
> So, you would never say you have the moral truth, but you hold that there is moral truth nonetheless, is that correct?

Yes. It's the same as in science. We have knowledge of the truth (of the physical world). But none of our current scientific theories are THE FINAL COMPLETE TRUTH. They are all flawed. But we don't reject a accepted theory UNTIL a flaw is made known.

On Mon, Aug 30, 2015 somebody offlist:

> Actually, in a very important way, empirical reality is the final arbiter for science. Yes, there is the possibility of misinterpretation, and there are deeper problems (like that different theories could conceivably be just as scientifically valid for the same phenomena), but in the end we measure them against empirical reality.

What would you do in this situation? Say you have 2 scientific theories competing to explain some aspect of physical reality and they both are consistent with all known evidence.

Then how do you choose between the 2? Empirical reality won’t help here unless you can find NEW evidence that contradicts 1 of these theories leaving the other untouched.

But even if that happened there’s nothing FINAL about it. Somebody could find new evidence. Or somebody could find new criticism of an existing explanation of evidence, thus refuting that empirical-explanation, thus saving some previously-refuted scientific theory. So FINAL arbiter doesn’t make sense.

or is there a reason you are using the “final” qualifier that i’m not aware of?

> What, if anything, is the final arbiter for your position? 

The tentative “final” arbiter is a simple test: has the theory survived criticism or not?

> It sure would be helpful to find it, because as it is we are just guessing between internally consistent but contradictory "theories." (Not to be confused with scientific theories.)

I don’t believe that your theory is internally consistent. And I think you haven't really given me the opportunity to explain what i understand about this to you.

On Mon, Aug 30, 2015 somebody offlist:

> To be honest, our perspectives seem similar in some ways.

I agree.

> I do not subscribe to what I would call the conceit of moral truth. Your position does not seem to mesh well with the desires of the "confused" moral realists to make and defend moral prescriptions. My perspective certainly doesn’t.

Can you tell me more of what you mean by “moral prescriptions”? Do you mean something like where people are supposed to obey these “prescriptions” in the sense that they have to do it even if they don’t agree with it? Like against their will?

Demanding obedience is morally wrong. By that I mean that there is a better way that is known. Instead of demanding obedience, you should request an audience so that your voice may be heard. Why? For the purpose of alerting people of mistakes or rival theories that (a) they didn’t already know and (b) they would be glad if you stuck your neck out to tell them about.

And when I say that you should do X, I'm including an implicit "but only if you wholeheartedly agree with me about you doing X". I will never demand that you do what I say on my authority. Because i reject authority in truth-seeking. I also don't even want you to *voluntarily* accept what I say on my authority. again because I reject authority in truth-seeking. 

You should do your own independent judgement, not rely on me. I could be wrong, so you should judge things for yourself to help catch the mistakes that I make. You can't catch the mistakes in my ideas if you blindly accept what I say as truth. And even if I'm right, and you blindly accept what I say as truth, you could easily misunderstand me. so without doing your own independent judgement, you'd be making tons of misunderstandings and believing all sorts of false things that you would be falsely attributing to me.

> What, precisely, is the difference between holding that there is unreachable truth and not bothering with truth at all?

The difference is this:

Unreachable truth - I cannot reach perfection but I can do a good job of it. I can make progress continuously. Tomorrow will be better than today (on average). How? Because I’m finding and fixing flaws in my knowledge. That’s what progress is. It’s evolution.

Not bothering with truth at all - I cannot reach perfection so I’ll just stop trying. Stagnation is ok. I’ll just learn to deal with the suffering. That’s what everybody else does. And they seem happy.

> Especially when there isn't even any way to determine when there is or is not a flaw in the moral "theory?”

Sure there is. Whatever theory you are considering, you need to consider rival theories too. And you need to use criticism to rule out all but one. The theory that survives criticism is the one that is deemed non-refuted. The rival theories that are criticized are deemed refuted. And this is tentative since new criticism can be found in the future.

Now there are nuance situations like ‘what do i do when i have two rivals theories that are not criticized?’. all the questions (AFAIK) that have been asked about this have been answered (AFAIK).

> Is it a "point of the journey" moment? If our moral theory is always flawed, and we recognize it as such, from whence does any confidence in our moral prescriptions arise?

hmm, i’m trying to use my interpretation of what you mean by “moral prescription” and it doesn’t seem to fit. i thought you mean “demanding obedience” to the moral prescription.

can you clarify?

> To be fair, you asked me the same question in a different form earlier. I would respond "in the democratic process of negotiation." I'm not sure how you would respond.

what is the context? do you mean 2-person interaction? 5-person interaction? a whole nation? or do you mean all of these?

> A major problem for you is that most are not going to understand moral realism the way you do.

what kind of problem is it for me? do you mean like, it’ll make communication with them more difficult? like with more misunderstandings?

or do you mean some other kind of problem?

> Rightly or wrongly, they are likely to dismiss it as not giving them the power to prescribe (although they might enjoy the elasticity of it).

do you mean “the power to [demand obedience]”? or do you mean something else?

> For most people morality is about having prescriptive power. Do you give it to them in some way I am not seeing?


Morality is not authoritarian. Nobody is infallible.

Knowledge is not authoritarian. Nobody is infallible.

Knowledge is created by people. People are fallible so the knowledge we create is fallible.

To clarify this, see:

-- Rami

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