Stathis Papaioannou wrote:
Brent Meeker writes:
> Well said! I agree almost completely - I'm a little
uncertain about (3) and (4) above and the meaning of "scope".
Together with the qualifications of Peter Jones regarding
the lack of universal agreement on even the best supported
theories of science, you have provided a good outline of the
development of ethics in a way parallel with the scientific
development of knowledge.
> There's a good paper on the relation facts and values by
Oliver Curry which bears on many of the above points:
That is a well-written paper, particularly good on an
explanation of the "naturalistic fallacy", covering what we
have been discussing in this thread (and the parallel thread
on evil etc. with which it seems to have crossed over).
Basically, the paper argues that Humes edict that you can't
get is from ought is no impediment to a naturalistic
explanation of ethics, and that incidentally Hume himself had
a naturalistic explanation. Another statement of the
naturalistic fallacy is that explanation is not the same as
that while Darwinian mechanisms may explain why we have
certain ethical systems that does not constitute
justification for those sytems. To this Curry counters:
"In case this is all rather abstract, let me re-state the
point by way of an analogy. Suppose that instead of being
about morality and why people find certain things morally
good and bad, this article had been about sweetness, and why
people find certain things sweet and certain things sour. The
Humean-Darwinian would have argued that humans have an
evolved digestive system that distinguishes between good and
bad sources of nutrition and energy; and that the human
'sweet tooth' is an evolved preference for foods with high
sugar-content over foods with low sugar-content. If one
accepted this premise, it would make no sense to complain
that evolution may have explained why humans find certain
things sweet, but it cannot tell us whether these things are
really sweet or not. It follows from the premises of the
argument that there is no criterion of sweetness independent
of human psychology, and hence this question cannot arise."
That's fine if we stop at explanation at the descriptive
level. But sweetness lacks the further dimension of "ought":
if I say "sugar is sweet" I am stating a fact about the
relationship between sugar and my tastebuds, while if I say
"murder is bad" I am not only stating a fact about how I feel
about it, I am also making a profound claim about the world.
In a sense, I think this latter claim or feeling is illusory
and there is nothing to it beyond genes and upbringing, but I
still have it, and moreover I can have such feelings in
conflict with genes and upbringing. As G.E. Moore said (also
quoted in the article), if I identify "good" with some
natural object X, it is always possible to ask, "is X good?",
which means that "good" must essentially be something else,
"simple, indefinable, unanalysable object of thought", which
only contingently coincides with natural objects or their
properties. The same applies even if you include as "natural
object" commands from God.
I was preparing a response to related questions from Stathis in a
separate post when I noticed that he had already done an excellent job
of clarifying the issue here. I would add only the following:
The fundamental importance of context cannot be overemphasized in
discussions of Self, Free-will, Morality, etc., anywhere that the
subjective and the objective are considered together. Like
particle/wave duality, we can only get answers consistent with the
context of our questions.
* Many have attempted to bridge the gap between is and ought, but
haven't fully grasped the futility of attempting to find the
intersection of a point of view and its inverse.
* Many have shaken their heads wisely and stated that is and ought are
entirely disjoint, so nothing useful can be said about any supposed
relations between the two.
* Very few have realized the essential relativity of ALL our models of
thought, that there is no privileged frame of reference for making
objective distinctions between is and ought because we are inextricably
part of the system we are trying to describe, and THAT is what grounds
the subjective within the objective.
There can be no absolute or objective basis for claims of moral value,
because subjective assessment is intrinsic to the issue.
But we, as effective agents within the context of an evolving
environment, can *absolutely agree* that:
* subjective assessments have objective consequences, which then feed
back to influence future subjective assessments.
* actions are assessed as "good" to the extent that they are perceived
to promote into the future the present values of the (necessarily
* actions are assessed as "better" to the extent that they are perceived
to promote "good" over greater scope of consequences.
* actions are assessed as "right in principle" (or "moral") to the
extent that they are perceived to be "better" over greater context of
So a pragmatic theory of ethics is clearly achievable, and by the very
nature of its subject, desirable.
Key is that for any subjective agent there are no absolutes and there
never have been, while we continue to be pulled along in the direction
of increasing synergetic advantage.
Paradox is always a matter of insufficient context--in the bigger
picture, all the pieces must fit.
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