Sunday, October 17, 2010

Rationalization part 2 -Logic, Morality and Grounding

Often logic is referenced as an absolute "ground" for knowledge. Fair enough. It is often pointed out that we cannot even have a conversation that makes any sense at all without the rules of logic. Certainly this is true.

But what do we mean if something is illogical? What we mean is that if something doesn't make sense, that it cannot be. And if it doesn't make sense and it cannot be, then it doesn't exist - necessarily.

For instance, a theist will rightly criticize the argument that God cannot be omnipotent because he cannot create a stone that he cannot lift. It's a bad argument because it criticizes God for not being able to do something that is illogical. God also cannot create a married bachelor. Why? Because it is illogical and illogical things cannot exist.

But morality is different, because immoral things can exist.

So if morality is the idea that a certain choice is better than another (and they both exist!), it begs the question - why is one choice better than another? Surely the only way to establish which choice is moral is if there is some sort of goal in mind. This is where moral theories come in, I suppose. X is better than Y because it will lead to greater happiness, lead to the preservation of conscious creatures, fulfill more desires, etc. etc.

The idea of morality does imply the idea of an absolute standard of good. That makes sense. But we must define what "good" means. If we do not, then our "morality" is arbitrary. For me, good means things coming together. The opposite of good is separateness. ( BTW, this does not mean that someone going off to live in the woods is doing something evil. A person needs to be connected to nature too after all. We are all made of the same stuff.)

And how do I, and we, ultimately ground a definition of "good"? I am not sure we can, except in our deepest feelings, our intuitions, about what the meaning of existence is. And one person may feel this is because God created this sense in us, a "natural law", and another person may think these deep feelings are the result of natural selection and cultural conditioning, or someone may think that both of these ideas are true. But the process of seeking morality becomes the same in both cases. We use our reason to probe our deepest feelings and educate ourselves in order to find the best course of action to satisfy the goals of these deep intuitions.


  1. Steven,

    Thank you, first, for a fun discussion. Now, to the discussion:

    From the last post comments section:

    "We don't necessarily need an external rule book. Right?"

    I like how we're comparing ethics to logic, so I'll continue down that path. You know that I'm a Christian and that I believe the Bible to hold revelations about God's moral guidelines. Scripture, though, is not really pertinent to this particular conversation. I do not believe that one must be a Christian in order to affirm God or to affirm an absolute ethical standard. When we look to logic, it is not necessary that one must scribe the Law of Noncontradiction, for instance, in order that we believe A cannot equal Not A. The laws of logic exist regardless of whether we scribe logical rules. Similarly, if absolute good exists, it exists regardless of whether we have Scriptural evidence to support it. My questions here center on the question of whether morality describes an absolute good or whether it simply reflects societal preferences.

    "I do lean towards an absolute morality..."
    "...natural selection and cultural conditioning..."

    I think these two notions a diametrically opposed to one another. If we are just the end result of natural selection and nature has no ethics, ethical standards have no definitive source. Nietzsce expresses this much better than I can, so I'll just echo his thoughts on the matter.

    Also, I don't believe you can define logic by success and failure... logic is necessary to define success in the first place. In short, logic is.

  2. From this post:

    You present the idea that there is a dichotomy between logic and ethics in that illogical things cannot exist wheras immoral things can. I think the idea, though, is really the same. If there is an absolute ethical standard, something is either good or it is not good. Illogical things do not exist, but illogical notions do. Following the Law of Noncontradiction example, with absolute ethical standards, something cannot both be good and not good at the same time. We may be presented with a moral dilemma, yes, but that does not change the "not good" property of each component of the dilemma.

    "For me, good means..."

    I don't mean to be contrite here... for discussion purposes only: who cares? If good is absolute, our individual definitions of good are irrelevant unless we have some insight into where this goodness comes from. Gosh, that reads way more 'evil' than intended... I hope that you catch the idea that I don't mean to be disparaging.

    If we hold first to the idea that good is, should not our first priority be to seek this source of goodness? We certainly, on a societal scale, cannot look to individual intuition; else, we must confront the Ted Bundy example John brought to the table. Knowing that not all individual intuition can be truly ethical, are we not obliged to look beyond both ourselves and societies comprised of individual selves?

  3. I think we are on some similar ground here. Yes, logic is. And if there is absolute morality, then it is.

    And if it is, it is likely that natural selection and cultural conditioning would, in the long run, lead us to what is.

    (all of this is the product of our limited human minds of course, but that's another post)

    "If we are just the end result of natural selection and nature has no ethics, ethical standards have no definitive source"

    If absolute morality is real, then nature does have ethics. Morality is either a true reality, or it is not. If nature is not ethical, if morality is not a reality built into the structure of things, then there is no rhyme or reason for morality and it could be anything.

    I feel that you are arguing against personal feeling as a ground, yet that is what you are actually appealing to, since you are arguing against any external method to measure morality.

    I feel we do appeal to personal intuition, because we are in the middle of things. We can't have absolute knowledge of morality, we do our best and we have to rely on some degree of instinct.

    "illogical notions do (exist)."

    I see what you mean, but the reason a married bachelor does not exist is because it can't - necessarily. The "it" I use in the previous sentence does not refer to anything. Something bad does exist, if we believe in morality, so it seems we need a reason for morality, for we are one step removed from the grounding of logic. If we don't have a good reason, it may be intuition that we rely upon.

    Randy, please tell us how, in practice, we should look beyond ourselves and beyond society? I don't think there is a model you can reference that doesn't come down to intuition on some level.

    If you're appealing to "natural law", if one person disagrees with you as to what natural law is, then you are appealing to majority rules. If you're appealing to Scripture, then there are problems we can get in to, but as you say, a truly good morality exists independent of Scripture.

    I feel that we all actually agree in practice, but you are looking for a certain way of phrasing it.

    "If good is absolute, our individual definitions of good are irrelevant unless we have some insight into where this goodness comes from."

    True - and you are good at deconstructing ideas of morality, but you are bumping up against the limits of human epistemology in your questioning. I don't believe any alternative notion you present will be more than different words for the same things.

    Morality shows us well that we cannot ever get any true "outsider" view of ourselves. We do the best we can to humbly discover what is.

  4. As an aside, I think the illogic lies in the rather fanciful concept of omnipotent rather than the creating/lifting of massive objects. Creating/lifting are things that can and do exist. It seems that omnipotence might the married bachelor here. Just something I think of whenever this old chestnut is brought up.

    Let me propose that we might improve on the notion of coming together as a basis for morality. I think if we are to ground “good” in our deepest feelings, intuitions, nature of existence, then we are talking about good as a function of being rather than a state of coming together. There are many ways in which we can talk about things coming together; some in a good way and others in a not good way. We come back to how do we decide which is which. Doesn’t this come down to the consequences that the coming together has on some state of being?

    About psychopaths that may be brought into the moral discussion. It is true that a psychopath is probably acting on what they believe to be their well-being (relative increase in excitement, feeling of personal power), but morality is not about the perceived well-being of psychopaths, it is about well-being. The moment we begin to consider cases where one rapes and murders many beings, our notion of well-being must expand to match the expanding inclusion of beings.

  5. Skyhook,

    I agree. "Thing coming together" is a really generic statement on my part, but it's good, if it is, because it creates well-being.

    Also, yes, the omnipotent question is illogical because one can't prove one's omnipotence by limiting one's own power in some way.


    Another way to think about the difference between logic and morality - a person can't do anything illogical. When we say a person does something illogical, we really mean he is doing something stupid. Illogical actions don't exist. However if we believe in morality, then one can do something immoral.

    There is no danger in a person accidentally going left and right at the same time or something like that. But a person can do something bad.

    So there has to be a criteria for good and bad - even if we can only ultimately appeal to our deepest feelings.

  6. "...if there is absolute morality... it is likely that natural selection and cultural conditioning would, in the long run, lead us to what it is."
    "...then nature does have ethics."

    Are you presuming that natural selection has some end goal in mind (i.e. that "nature" is more than time, matter, and energy)? If so, what might this "more" quotient be? How would it arise?

    "Randy, please tell us how, in practice,we should look beyond ourselves and beyond society?"
    "If you're appealing to 'natural law'... If you're appealing to Scripture..."

    There is one notion that it seems we all agree on: Logic is. I would propose we appeal to that. From your comments following my "deconstruction," it seems that you're attributing certain qualities to "nature" that are necessary for this logic-esque ethical standard. These qualities are not inherent in what we understand are the building blocks of the natural universe: matter, space, time, and energy. If we begin with the notion that our 4 materialistic building blocks are insufficient to the task (i.e. that the known interrelated properties of these components yield no ethical insight), logic would seem to dictate that we look elsewhere. How might we begin our search? I described morality as an "ought". Our first question should probably be: where else do we see this concept of oughtness?

    "The moment we begin to consider cases where one rapes... our notion of well-being must expand to match the expanding inclusion of beings."

    I like your reasoning here... arguing for a more absolute description of well-being. Let's say, though, that I vastly exceeded societal averages for physical and mental adeptness (I don't, by the way). So by my own measure and by any societal measure, I would be considered among the greatest mankind has to offer. Now, let's say that I decided, for the good of mankind, that I would "gift" my seed to as many women as possible, whether they wanted it or not, thereby serving the greater good. Would this be wrong? what if the women were first anesthicized? Still wrong? Why? I feel gross having typed that...

  7. That's a very good question. I am not presuming that natural selection has a goal in mind, just wondering if it does. This is faith of a sort, for sure. But if morality is really absolute, then it will be revealed through the world we live in - and our thoughts and feelings are a part of the world we live in - like everything!

    If morality isn't really absolute, then we are using our feelings and just saying that they are absolute - probably because saying that appeals to our feelings.

    "If we begin with the notion that our 4 materialistic building blocks are insufficient to the task (i.e. that the known interrelated properties of these components yield no ethical insight),"

    I do not begin with this notion.

    "where else do we see this concept of oughtness?"

    While I hold open the possibility that there are non-empirical realities all around us, it seems difficult to presume it, especially when morality is a product of the empirical world. It is feelings, actions, etc. How would you describe someplace else, outside of the reality we experience, as a place-holder for "oughtness"?

    "it seems that you're attributing certain qualities to "nature" that are necessary for this logic-esque ethical standard."

    But I am speculating through faith. Logic is a word we use for things that cannot be otherwise, so that is a different standard. If there is a true, objective morality, then it must be in nature - our world.

    If it isn't, then there is no objective morality.

    I feel that you are arguing that morality does not actually exist and then you are trying to say that it does. Then you are using religious language to describe this non-existent existence. You're trying to be a moral anti-realist and a realist at the same time, perhaps?

    I can sympathize for sure, because we all do this to an extent. But I just don't see how your language has any advantage in making moral choices. All of our moral searching can be reduced to circular reasoning at some point. That's why we are grounded by intuition, ultimately.

    I remember you saying once that surely if God created the universe He would have left some fingerprints. If morality is real, wouldn't it be built into the fabric of His creation?

    Good conversation!

  8. "I don't begin with this notion."

    Can you expound some, then, on what you mean by "nature"?

    "All of our moral searching can be reduced to circular reasoning at some point."

    If there exists an absolute ethical code, but you're certain that it can't be discovered (a necessary by-product of ALL being reduced to circular reasoning), why would you regard any application of morality to be meaningful? How could you be comfortable making any moral claims yourself?

    This is the crux of what I'm arguing. My understanding of the natural world is that it is indeed comprised of the aforementioned building blocks. I'm not aware, for instance, of any scientific endeavors to discover the ethical properties of quarks or photons... we seem to realize that these properties simply do not exist. My argument is two-fold:

    1. I'm attempting to "deconstruct" the worldview that says absolute morality can exist harmoniously with a space/time/matter/energy-only universe.
    2. I'm asking the question, "If an ethical standard exists, what might be its source?"

    "...wouldn't it be built into the fabric of His creation?"

    I imagine it would. I just think that this fabric is more than the physical S/T/E/M world we can measure.

    Practically, if not in theory, we seem to all recognize that some acts are inherently bad... even the Nazis provided "justification" for their actions. Are there things that are immoral? Are there certain acts that always require justification? If so, why? Where would we get these notions if not from S/T/E/M?

  9. Randy,

    It seems odd to me that you feel gross having typed that. As I read that story of a vastly superior being impregnating a woman, potentially against her will, I could not help but think about a resemblance to a certain Western religious myth. If I am not mistaken, this hypothetical story very closely describes the actions of a being that you find to be the ground of morality. Very odd indeed.

    I recognize a stud impregnating a woman without consent as immoral, because I recognize that there are facts about reproductive freedom and diversity that relate to well-being that need to be taken into consideration.

  10. Randy,

    Thanks for providing a good, succinct version of what you're saying.

    "If there exists an absolute ethical code, but you're certain that it can't be discovered (a necessary by-product of ALL being reduced to circular reasoning), why would you regard any application of morality to be meaningful? How could you be comfortable making any moral claims yourself?"

    I am hopeful that it can be discovered! But all grounding is something that ultimately cannot be defended. That's all I mean. Every system of knowledge begins with something axiomatic. But this doesn't mean that all first principles are equal. We judge them by how well they seem to work. We are not objective observers in anything we participate in.

    But let's imagine that there is no absolute morality. How would we make decisions? Based on what contributes to our well-being - and then boom, morality. And if someone disagrees with us, we argue, we fight, we struggle because it is in our interest to do so. Sounds like the way it is now. So I am not sure that proving morality objective or subjective is super relevant to its practice.

    "I'm not aware, for instance, of any scientific endeavors to discover the ethical properties of quarks or photons... we seem to realize that these properties simply do not exist."

    But this is what we are doing now. We are made up of that stuff. Quarks cannot see or hear either, but if you put them together the right way, they can.

    I think that if you prove 1. then perhaps have proven that there is no standard by which to justify our feelings.

    Then the "ethical source" in 2 is our feelings - which is fine. But there is no reason to think that only a supernatural explanation can work. I don't mind that explanation, maybe it's true, but it's not really necessary.

    Especially if you believe that morality is built into the fabric of our universe. Then it's a process that unfolds naturally and may contradict your 1. point? Maybe, maybe not.

    But all of us are appealing to our feelings at some point, so we have that in common!

  11. Another thought:

    If we say that God is required to explain some of our feelings (such as moral intuitions), then we are implying that God is not required for other things that exist. It becomes another design argument.

    Rather, if God is truly universal and truly transcendent (there must be a better term) - then for a theist, God is required for all things.

    And for an atheist, God would be required for no things.

    So the question of God comes down to our intuitions about the nature of all things - not just this or that.

  12. Can someone attempt a definition for "well-being" so I can better address your posts? I'm having difficulty conceiving this idea. It should give ground for the wrongness of things like the holocaust and rape.

  13. Randy,

    In your terms, I would define "well-being" as that which you are seeking when you choose to follow God.

    Is this something we can work with? I do find it valuable to try to describe "well-being" further but I think we should first recognize that it's something we all are seeking.

  14. Since it's working functionally as our current S/T/E/M grounding, I was hoping for more of a concrete definition. I get where you're coming from with the seeking notion, in a way, but I would hope that we're actually being driven by something. "Well-being" was offered as that something, but I'm unclear on what that could mean.

  15. My definition of "well-being" would be something like - feeling that you are a part of something, like the community. Feeling a sense of belonging and purpose. Connection.

    And overall well-being can require specific, difficult choices, of course.

    What's your definition? How would you describe the sense of well-being when you are seeking God?

  16. I think well-being is a concept that is best framed in an open to revision manner (like our concepts of life or health). That is, as we learn more about how states of the world and states of the brain relate to subjective states of being, we are likely to gain a better understanding of what constitutes well-being.

    At our current state of understanding, a distinction as clear as any other can be made regarding the heights of thriving/flourishing/… and the depths of suffering/misery/…. This distinction is one of well-being. Although we may not be able to definitively and precisely state what it is that maximizes well-being, this does not mean we cannot understand this concept in principle.

    Once we admit that the extremes of thriving/flourishing and misery/suffering are different and that they dependent on facts about the universe, then we have admitted there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality.

  17. I'm truly not trying to be difficult here, but it feels as though we're passing the buck with regards to the well-being principle. Now, the notions of "extremes" enter the equation. "We" 1 and "we" 2 have historically defined these extremes in vastly different ways. We need not look beyond the current century. For instance, China views forced abortions as the greater good when viewed against the population problem... arguably a much greater violation than rape. The "morality" exercised is not without compelling justification. Is it wrong? Which "we" decides?

  18. Your question about China’s population control policies is just another case of mistaking difficulty in practice with impossibility in principle. Just as I don’t know which is greater, the number of fish currently oriented North or the number currently oriented South, so too I do not know the answer to which policy of Chinese population control results in the greatest well-being. But this does not mean that there is not a definite answer to either question in principle.

    Before you start jumping to complex and controversial moral questions in an effort to find fault, try starting with more simple situations. Situations that involve two people and a simple behavior, for example. Then maybe three… and then see if you can find a good reason why the differences between right and wrong that are quite obvious for two people do not apply to a billion.

  19. I think Skyhook's point about difficulty in practice not negating the actual principle is well-taken, since we are arguing more meta-ethics than a specific version of an ethical theory (I think!).

    Choosing which action is actually going to contribute to greater well-being can be difficult, but certainly no more difficult than choosing which action is more in line with God's will.

    Once again, however, if morality is objective (based on certain principles about the universe that transcend "humans only"), it will emerge over time, because it actually does work. It will lead to greater well-being, happiness, love, fulfillment, etc. of individuals and therefore for communities and civilizations. But that still can make prescriptive morality difficult, as sometimes we don't know what the best course is here and now. That's why our feelings contribute so much, hopefully guided by reason.

    Why did the Nazis and Stalinists fail? Is it dumb luck on our part, or is it because those systems do not work? They are not in-line enough with human nature and were destined to fail at some point.

    I can't prove this is true. Once again, it's closer to an article of faith, but it's certainly possible.

    Randy, what's your definition of well-being? How would you describe the overall sense of well-being you attain when you are seeking God?

  20. "...another case of mistaking difficulty in practice with impossibility in principle."

    Cameron, in fairness, I began by looking at individuals and at situations where a few parties were involved. When I'm asking these questions, it's because I'm trying to better understand the "well-being" concept from your perspective. If we're to define "well-being" on the basis of societal perceptions it makes sense to me to look to societies. I don't grasp the concept so I'm trying to ask questions in order to form a better understanding. I am not trying to convince you of anything, so "poking holes" gains me nothing. I simply do not understand how one can define well-being without, in the end, just calling upon the inclinations or preferences of individuals.

    To your point on fish orientation, if we were to base our moral principles on the orientation of these fish, the fact that we cannot conceive which fish are "correctly" oriented would put us back to square one.

    What I'm gleaning here is that we all have some intrinsic idea of what is "good" or of what "well-being" is, but we can't seem to define this idea looking only at individual selves, at groups of two or three, or at societies. Is that fair?

    Steven, I don't believe well-being to be the basis of morality. I believe that there exists an ethical standard that is true and that we should attempt to understand in the same way we understand logic. Some grasp logic more readily than others, but we don't define logic by the mathematical aptitude of the individual or the society. We recognize its existence and work to understand it. Likewise, I truly believe that one may have a greater understanding of "true" ethics than another... not because one can better understand what contributes to an overall well-being, but because the ethical standard is there to be discovered and some are more attuned to this standard.

  21. Randy, I am still not sure how your view differs than ours, except that it is couched in different terms. Maybe a few short questions can help:

    "I believe that there exists an ethical standard that is true and that we should attempt to understand in the same way we understand logic."

    Can you define this ethical standard? If some level of overall well-being is not involved, then is it fair to say that some moral acts can be ultimately terrible for everyone?

    "but because the ethical standard is there to be discovered and some are more attuned to this standard. "

    How does one discover this ethical standard?

    If it is there to be discovered, then perhaps it is a fact about the universe, like mathematics. Perhaps a culture can never thrive without rules like "thou shalt not murder". Fair enough. But once again, how would this alleged fact about the universe require a specific theistic interpretation any more than mathematics or other facts about the universe?

  22. Randy,

    I think we are oddly close here. I pretty much agree with your paragraph addressed to Steven all except for the two parts about well-being. And I think this is mostly an artifact of the difficult to define nature of well-being. Does your ethical standard necessarily relate to being? Does complying or not complying with your ethical standard have any affect whatsoever on any being?

    My points about the fish orientations or insects currently in flight were about how it is possible to have definitive answers in principle, but it may difficult or impossible to get the answer in practice. That is all.

    This point about having definitive answers in principle works quite well with your belief that there exists a true ethical standard. Your discussion about how some grasp logic better than others carries over quite well to morality and psychopaths like Bundy.

    I have yet to understand a way in which this ethical standard has any meaning unless it is in relation to some variety of conscious being. If you have a scenario in which we may continue the discussion independent of being, this would be something I would like to hear to help me understand. Otherwise, I think we should proceed to discuss morality in terms of being.

    Calling on the inclinations or preference of being is inevitable (isn’t this what Steven has been pointing out all along?) But to act like this is some grand weakness in theory is to take a naïve approach. All explanations come down to inclinations or preferences at the base. No theory, be it natural, supernatural, or super-duper natural can survive this type of extreme skepticism.

    The important part here is that inclinations or preferences are not arbitrary. They are faithfully linked to states of the world. And as we continue to understand how actions affect states of the world, and how states of the world affect states of the brain, and how states of the brain affect states of being, the picture of what it is that we are talking about when we are talking about morality begins to fill in.

  23. It does seem that we agree on a multitude of things... we even seem to agree upon which acts are basically good and which are bad. I believe that we agree on these things because there exists a logic-esque true ethical standard that we all recognize in part or in full. The reason, I think, that good cannot be well-defined by looking at the self or at the society, is that it is not a product of human thought.

    Using logic again as our backdrop, we see that human beings can make illogical choices even though logic is true and unchanging. We should still seek to make logical choices even if we're not adept in logic looking only to ourselves.

    The practical considerations of determining how to realize the ethical standard which should guide us are secondary to realizing that there is an ethical standard to begin with. I don't agree with the notion that morality should be guided by our choices; rather, our choices should be guided by a true moral standard. If the former is true, it seems that we could "rationalize" just about anything that fit our first-blush beliefs on right and wrong.

  24. "we see that human beings can make illogical choices"

    But they can't perform illogical actions. They can, however, perform immoral actions. That's why we need a rational standard, or goal, to work in concert with our feelings.

    Since you do not acknowledge overall well-being as a good standard, and your are suggesting God as the standard (divorced from the overall well-being of conscious creatures), then how does this contribute any standard of rationality?

    Doesn't it actually reduce morality to our feelings alone, uncoupled from any rational standard?

    Isn't this an extremely subjective point of view that simply says it's not?

    I am still trying to understand how appealing to God here adds any real standard of objectivity.

    You also appeal to the universality of certain moral standards. Does universality equal objectivity? How is this different than appealing to the majority?

  25. I think we all agree that morality should ideally be guided by a real standard. So the question is “What is this real standard all about?” I have made my case (credit to Harris) that this standard is all about comparative states of being. Again, what else could it be about?

  26. Steven, I don't understand how it follows that we divorce ourselves from reasoning by claiming that ethical standards come from God. Can you expound on this?

    As for appealing to universality, I simply mean that it adds credence to the notion that something exists if people nearly universally accept it as true... it's not really evidence per se... just a neat reality.

    There is a point where the logic analogy falls short. This should be expected since logic and ethics are not the same thing... I'm not certain how the fact that peolpe cannot produce illogical things impacts our conversation, so I'm not certain how to respond here. Logic just serves as a useful tool for analysis, since it is an absolute recognized by all in practice.

    Cameron, my difficulty with the comparative states of being remains. I understand that we can compare states of being, but there seems to be no standard by which to judge them. Even the question "is this state 'better' than this other?" is inherently subjective. Which state is the one of higher well-being is in the eye of the beholder. It seems that we always return to the individual to define "good" (in this instance, looking to individuals to draw the comparisons between various states of being). So, "good" is relegated to the subjective determination of the individual and remains without a concrete definition.

    Have you read Kant's thoughts on morality? I wonder if your own ideas would fit with his... it's a neat argument anyway.

  27. I have a preference for slightly increased privacy on the internet. I ask that you please do not go out of your way to create points of identification.

    I have not read Kant except for various passages in Phil101 and second hand discussions. Perhaps I will get to it one day.

    It is not my claim that “better than” can be clearly discerned in practice in all cases. My claim is that there are no good reason why we cannot, in principle, discern one state as better than another.

    Since morality relates to our actions and experiences, it is easy to write the whole venture off as subjective. I believe this is mistaken. We can talk about ontologically subjective experiences in an epistemologically objective manner. That is to say that method of inquiry does not have to entirely depend on the subjective beholder any more than it does with other areas of science. Keep in mind that states of being are not detached from the physical universe.

    Got to run now. More later.

  28. SH,

    No time for much of a response now, but I wanted to extend my sincere apologies. I meant the manner in which I addressed you to be a sign of respect. I will not do so in the future.

  29. I didn't mean it to sound like I was saying that associating ethics with God is a divorce from reason. Sorry if it came across that way.

    What I meant was that to use reason, we need a standard - a tool. We can't compare different actions as more or less ethical without a goal to judge these different actions by.

    If there is no goal - "this will accomplish greater well-being for more people" or something like that, then we have no criteria for our reason to judge different actions with.

    But Randy, I don't disagree with your statements, only in the way you limit their scope. I think that there is no true objectivity in any absolutely ultimate sense. You are right. We are finite creatures, so we are epistemologically limited.

    But the terms objective and subjective are still useful in an everyday sense. All Skyhook and I are saying is that we have to establish some sense of something as a criteria to begin any pursuit of knowledge that can claim the elusive description "objective". And these first principles are not ultimately defendable. But this is true of everything.

    I will try to have a short post up on this subject soon, If I can.

  30. SH,
    I don’t see that this discernment can be made even in principle. It’s this “epistemologically objective manner” that I am taking exception with. Going back to your fish example, it seems that what you’re doing with morality is “orienting the fish” with other “fish”. Employing this methodology, no matter how many “fish” you add to the equation, you still have no idea whether any of the “fish” are oriented “north”… even in principle. Unless, of course, you determine what “north” is first.


    “We can’t compare different actions as more or less ethical without a goal to judge these different actions by.”

    I agree wholeheartedly; however, if your goal is undefined or defined only in relative terms to begin with (e.g. the necessarily relative “comparative states” example), does your act of “judging” really have any value?

    I don’t think it’s productive to subjectively define good then to judge on the basis of your definition. Practically speaking, this seems to me to be a hazardous and erratic system upon which to determine morality. And, I don’t think it gets you anywhere… your “goal,” it seems, would be ever-changing, so you would never know (even in principle) whether you were any closer to your “goal” than when the whole system started; as such, I think that unless you can first define an objective “good,” the whole moral enterprise has little value.

  31. Randy,

    We may be talking past each other at this point, but I will add one more comment.

    I don’t see you offering any objective criteria, rather you offer our personal feelings alone as sources of morality. This is the definition of subjectivity.

    What is your objective criteria and is it measurable at all?

    Even if there is a God at the source of our morality (an idea I certainly have no problem with at all), if His feelings and preferences do not correspond to any measurable reality in our world, except personal feelings, then it is by definition subjective. That is what subjectivity is - something based on a mind’s feelings and preferences without measurable correspondence with the “external” world.

    “I don’t think it’s productive to subjectively define good then to judge on the basis of your definition”

    Can you define “good” for me and prove that it is not a subjective definition based on feelings? Probably not. The only way to pursue any discussion or pathway of knowledge or exploration is to make some initial premises and move forward. Can you prove to me the epistemological foundations of science? How do I know that your physical senses are not subjective? How do you know that other minds actually exist?

    Once again, you are hitting on something true, but you are way zoomed out with an ultimate point of view. Absolutely nothing can completely hold up to that standard - we have to make our best educated guesses on starting axioms, whether consciously or not, in order to pursue any line of thinking.

    Conclusion : Your are saying that morality is tricky to define in terms of well-being, and you are right. But we are saying that it is impossible to define without it.

    Thanks for the conversation! They will probably be a bit more rare for a while after Wolfie is born....

  32. The fish example was meant to illustrate the fact that even though a measure may be difficult or impossible in practice, that does not mean it is impossible in principle. Since it has been repurposed to show that we must define ‘north’ to judge whether or not a fish’s orientation is pointed north or not, let us continue on this path.

    How is this different from a discussion on morality? We must start with north before we can say if something is oriented north; so we must start with morality before we can say if something is moral. Well-being has been proposed. What is the alternative? How would an alternative escape this problem?

  33. I don't believe I ever intimated that we should rely solely on our ethical intuition or feelings to discern good. If that came across, I apologize for not being clear.

    I have written at length on why I don't believe "well-being" to be a firm grounding, so I'll move forward with the understanding that we seem to each realize some of the limitations there (Steven's conclusory statement, at least, speaks to the "tricky" nature of this notion).

    You have asked whether I can define "good" in an objective sense and I put off my response while trying to hash out the meaning of "well-being". I am sorry if I looked to be avoiding the question, but I thought it would be a case of chasing a rabbit down a rabbit hole in the midst of the well-being discussion.

    I gave reasons (somewhere) on why I believe the absolute ethical standard functions as evidence for God. In principle (back to the lesson from our fish) I believe the answer to the "good" question would be "that which is pleasing to God;" don't think, however, that I don't see the difficulty in applying this principle. Steven, in prior conversation you indicated that basing morality on this notion would be a fully subjective enterprise... intimating that our only method for determining the will of God would be to return to our feelings. I don't think this is the case.

    More soon.

  34. We can discern actions as good or bad in a manner that is not all that different from our ability to determine whether something is oriented north or south. This is especially true in simple/extreme examples. At the very least, we should be able to agree there is a polarity to the best possible thriving/flourishing/etc. and the worst possible misery/suffering/etc. just as there is a polarity to north and south.

    I think there are two major hold-ups here. The first one is that it is easier in practice to read and understand a compass than it is to read and understand brain states. The second one has to do with assigning “good” to one pole and “bad” to the other once we have identified the polarity.

    In order for the first hold-up to actually be an issue, I think we would have to see that brain states do not faithfully correspond to states of being such as the best possible thriving/flourishing/etc. or the worst possible misery/suffering/etc. Getting into the neuroscience of brain states in relation to states of being will probably take us a bit far away from the discussion at hand, so I will not go too far in this direction for this comment. The only point that needs to be made here is that there is a faithful relation between states of world, states of brains, and states of being and these states can all be investigated, in principle (kind of like the faithful relation between the needle of a compass and a magnetic pole).

    The second one finds me bewildered upon actual consideration. If we cannot say that the worst possible suffering/misery/etc. for everybody is bad, then what is it that we mean by “bad”? Is there a definition of bad that fits with the other pole? If so, I suspect we are not even talking about the same thing.

  35. It is a funny little paradigm. The difficulty in conducting some moral study is that we can't distance our own personal moral notions from the results. I would imagine that even if we were to put this brain study into practice, it would have little impact on how we view morality.

    I truly believe that this is because there actually does exist an ethical standard... that "good" and "bad" have already been defined for us. This, I think, is why we always see societal morality in cycles. I think that there is an ethical baseline and that when we deviate too far in one direction or another (hedonism perhaps on one side and puritanism/legalism perhaps on the other) as a society, we recognize moral decay.

    I realize that we have gone a few rounds already on my arguments for theism and later for Christ, so I don't anticipate any changes here, but, for me, this ethical standard is just one more thing that comports to the Judeo-Christian worldview and does not seem to fit well with a S/T/E/M-only worldview.

    I realize we're all viewing the same evidence and coming to markedly different conclusions, so, in that regard, it would be dishonest of me to believe that I could not possibly be wrong, but I find the aggregate case to be compelling and the realization that the ethical standard appears to be a real thing serves as one more link in the chain of evidence.

    Truly a great discussion thus far...

  36. @Randy: Just a few simple questions to help flesh things out since you are advocating for absolute morality - which I understand to mean that some action X is inherently morally right or wrong, independent of whether any minds perceive it. Would that be a fair definition?

    1. What do you consider to be the source of absolute morality?
    2. How do you KNOW this is the source of absolute morality?
    3. What are the specific absolute moral rules?

    Furthermore as to defining well-being. I think it may be a properly basic concept; similar to the concept of "red", "green", "happy", or "sad." One can't really define red other than saying "that which has the property of redness" which is somewhat of a tautology - but it is a basic concept that we all have access to. We can understand differential states of well-being through our own experience, seeing how at some points we had more well-being than others, without ever arriving at a maximally infinite state of well-being. I hope that wasn't too muddled.

  37. Samuel,

    I appreciate the questions you raised. First, I think that perhaps a more precise description of absolute morality would be that there are certain actions that are inherently right or wrong. It is not necessarily the case that all actions are morally right or wrong. Taking out the trash, for instance, may be morally neutral. To your other questions:

    1. God.

    2. We have two tools at our disposal:

    The first is our somewhat subjective personal moral feelings (I say “somewhat” because there are certain actions that are rarely contested as being wrong). Appealing to the morality “written on [our] hearts” only takes us so far, of course, but we all do have some internal sense of right and wrong.

    The second is our ability to reason and to use this ability to examine the validity of the accounts of the gospel writers and of Paul. There are various reasons why I feel comfortable appealing to Scripture (the suffering of the early church, the conversion of Paul, the conversion of James, the extra-Biblical accounts of Jesus, etc). I understand that these reasons are not convincing to all, but I have found the cumulative case for the validity of these accounts to be compelling. So, I reference the Bible for God’s moral teachings.

    3. The aforementioned teachings give us two tools for discerning right from wrong. We are basically given statutory law (specific dictums from Christ/Paul) and case law (scenarios addressed by Christ/Paul). Statutory law addresses things like murder and thievery. Case law allows us to infer “good” actions by understanding what Christ/Paul did in specific instances and drawing upon those similarities so that we can employ the same principles.

    We take these and apply them as best we can. In practice, we could never develop moral perfection; however, we have a principle in place that can aid us in most every situation. Your comments on well-being accord well to some of the things I stated above. This comports to the first “tool” in number 2 above. It’s not a terribly bad way to go, but I think we have more at our disposal.

    Thank you again for adding additional insights to what is proving to be a very stimulating discussion.

  38. This comment has been removed by the author.

  39. This comment has been removed by the author.

  40. This comment has been removed by the author.

  41. Sorry for all the deletes. Blogspot was being difficult...

  42. You see Samuel, Randy rejects well-being as the basis of morality because it is ill-defined; so he prefers the indefinable concept of God instead. He also objects to the version of morality being put forth by Steven and myself on the basis that it relies too much on subjectivity and “ungrounded” axioms; so instead he prefers subjective moral feelings and utmost solid ground of ancient testimony and the unbiased Christian interpretation of historical changes.

    It is quite simple really. Evidence of God is found wherever an explanation that is absolutely grounded cannot be found and the only way to have absolute grounding is with God.

  43. Alas. The truth comes out. I'm a God-fearin', Bible-beatin' imbecile who wouldn't recognize sound logic if it bit me where the sun don't shine. Luckily for me, though, universities give out degrees like candy on Halloween these days, so at least I'm a credentialed idiot.

  44. Hey, go easy on the self deprecation there. You are not an imbecile and you are familiar with the bite of sound logic.

    I do wonder if you got your university credentials by appealing to supernatural explanations though…


  45. Hmm... I do recall praying before and during a few finals... Quantum Mechanics and Plasma Dynamics come to mind... I think "but for the grace of God" may be applicable there.

  46. so he prefers the indefinable concept of God instead.

    I wouldn't say the concept of God is indefinable.

    As for absolute morality - I am guessing you are referring to a deontological type of ethics? What are some specific moral rules that you think are absolutely binding?