Given that Churchland focuses on the causal story (physiological, evolutionary, psychological, cultural) for where we get our moral sense, does that mean that the causal story is all there is to it, i.e. that by understanding the causal theory, you understand morality itself?
Certainly Kant thought not: the causal story is only relevant for him in figuring out how to teach people morality and the like, after the essence of morality has already been determined through a priori reasoning.
At the other extreme, you might think that we have these sentiments, and sometimes they agree, so in that sense there's something "objective" about rightness, in that it's intersubjectively verifiable, but really, it's just a shared fiction (like the value of money).
Certainly Churchland's view is closer to the latter than the former, but the vigor with which she took to discussion of actual ethical/social problems means that she's not an error theorist about ethics.
This for me was the gap in Churchland's book, and why I built Hume into the conversation. Scholars have the same trouble interpreting Hume in this respect as I'm running into here. Let me just quickly throw out my own view as I'm trying to formulate it:
I see a lot of parallels to Russell's view of mathematics here: it's conventional, but if taken seriously, it needs to be a full, coherent system, which means there's more to ethics than is given in the actual ethical views of individuals. Much like we have to posit the axiom of infinity for basic arithmetic to work (for Russell), moral reasoning involves positing an objective "right" a la Plato. So yes, for Russell, we can act as if numbers are Platonic entities, but we needn't actually adopt that as a metaphysical claim, and we shouldn't forget that the basic postulates are ultimately a matter of convention, which is underdetermined by experience. This is what pluralism in the moral realm amounts to: we start with the data of our own "moral sense," i.e. the experiences we have of judging things and those we observe in others, and our eventual moral theory has to accord in some way with those, but once you start looking at the internal logic in our disparate judgments and try to systematize them, then you end up rejecting some of your gut reactions (maybe even most of them).
The only question, then, is how much do you need to systematize these judgments? Enough to address actual moral questions you have to deal with, yes, but no more than that. I suggested in my example about abortion that we have two sentiments in play: 1. Only those beings that act like us (i.e. they talk and evidently reason) get treated as members of the moral community, and 2. Our offspring get treated as members of the moral community, especially when they're babies who can't speak for themselves. A moral realist would have to say the question "morality is morally wrong" needs to be true or false. I think Churchland ends up as a pluralist, in that the statement does have a truth value, but this can be different depending on the concrete circumstances re. the abortion in question. There are problems with that view, in that any decision re. an individual case seemingly has to rely on general principles if it is not to be arbitrary. I incline more towards moral skepticism: there simply is no truth value to the claim that abortion is wrong. Now, I'm not saying I have a great semantic analysis of this. I don't want to say that the word "wrong" needs to be stripped out of a logically perfect language and replaced with some convoluted expression referring to the speaker and his or her society and all that. The kind of ambiguity that the term has seems to me fruitful: much like "beauty," it points to the urge to systematize our intuitions and sentiments and conventions and is itself a useful tool in moving us along this road... or at least it CAN be useful in this way.
James says truth is what works. Rorty agrees and further posits truth to be a boring non-entity.
Tom McDonald says
This is a great post. Interesting to see your working out of the problem. In the end, I think your conclusion may be too formal and nihilistic. But I don’t think this is a charge against you personally. I take nihilism to be an effect of the neutral-indifferent ontology of modern science to which we are all more or less committed by virtue of our modern culture of technological success. Because the techniques of science are so effective and successful, we are convinced that the world must really be in fact in essence intrinsically a valueless state of affairs. This notion is liberating and liberalizing for us in some respects, and I think this liberating effect is what scientism tends to be really after. But let’s return to the abortion question, and let’s take a Humean empiricist view of human nature as motivated in great part if not wholly by passions. Let’s allow instinct, contra pure reason, a role. My own instinct is that abortion really is wrong. That’s the first sense. However, this doesn’t lead me to reason that it ought to be illegal necessarily. It may be wrong but not as bad as outright murder of another adult. So we can qualify and deliberate and distance ourselves from passion via reason, but it does not mean that the initial passional sense of right and wrong does not point to the reality of values in the world itself.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Right: once you get pragmatic about moral judgments, then you get specific about the purposes for which you have to make an evaluation: Is this something I would do? (and even for that question, as long as it’s hypothetical, you can’t know for sure) Is this something, if someone I love is doing it, would I try to interfere? Is this something to outlaw? Is this something to try to ban depictions of in child-accessible media? Is this something to tolerate legally but still socially try to discourage? It’s not just a simple dichotomy between moral vs. legal.
If one of the “purposes” is maintaining your own integrity as a self, i.e. “what should I value?” then this is not at all nihilistic. I don’t think there’s anything in what I’ve said that commits me to a verdict between a deterministic (“this is what I already value, and I can’t help that”) or existentialist (“we create our own values, and I choose to value this”) theory of valuing. Interestingly, either of those views can be used to argue for nihilism. (“Since my values are a matter of my upbringing/biology, i.e. not my free choice, then they ultimately don’t matter to me: screw my biology/culture!” vs. “Since my values are a matter of my free choice and I can change my mind whenever I want, then nothing REALLY matter.”) I’ll hazard that it’s entirely the ambiguity of our experience with regard to this division that gives moral decisions the character they have for us.
Ethan Gach says
“This is what pluralism in the moral realm amounts to: we start with the data of our own “moral sense,” i.e. the experiences we have of judging things and those we observe in others, and our eventual moral theory has to accord in some way with those, but once you start looking at the internal logic in our disparate judgments and try to systematize them, then you end up rejecting some of your gut reactions (maybe even most of them).”
The other option would be to change the moral system so IT accords with our moral instincts, no?
And how would we know which is to be done? Our moral intuition is that flipping a switch to re-rout a train and kill less people leads to a principle of, sacrifice the many for the few. But then when it comes to pushing someone in front of the train to save the many by sacrificing the one, our moral intuition reverses.
It seems we could either reject one of those moral instincts, or amend the systematic principle to something less eloquent like: it’s alright to sacrifice the few unintentionally/by accident (i.e. collateral damage), to save many, but it is not alright to sacrifice the few intentionally and on purpose (forgetting for a moment the complexities here).
But which of those three would we know was “correct” to do? Instinct 1, instince 2, or reconciling instinct 1 with instinct 2?
This seems to be the problem with predicating morality on subjective facts about ourselves (i.e. facts about my intuitions) vs. objective facts about ourselves (i.e. this is what makes me feel/be healthy). Especially since morality seems to be related to social circumstance, and thus the facts about other people we have access to.
Is systemazation really a continuum? It seems like you either systematize or you don’t.
If you can’t judge a moral claim, in what way is it still a meaninful utterance? And how could you judge something, anything, without a system of references by which to measure and evaluate it.
Mark Linsenmayer says
W.D. Ross seems a good example of an only partial systematization in ethics. Any time we come up with “rules of thumb,” we’re doing that. Ultimately, you can’t have a set of rules that is exhaustive, because then you have to have rules on how to apply the rules, and rules re. how to apply the rules about applying the rules. Somewhere down the line, individuals in concrete situations have to make judgment calls, which means they’re not just applying rules (i.e. the system). So all systematization is by necessity partial. (The incompleteness theorem may or may not be relevant here.)
This sounds like the central problem of later Wittgenstein, and it’s very much like asking, I think (as Ayn Rand does in her epistemology book, I believe) “how can we understand each other if we don’t have precise definitions for all of our words?” A word is meaningful if it unambiguously applies in some situations, i.e. picks out some definite things for some group of speakers. So we have many many situations we pretty unambiguously call “bad:” think of any war atrocity. That’s enough to fix the meaning of the word, even if we find that there are then plenty of borderline cases that we’re not sure whether they word applies or not, and even if we later reevaluate some of the paradigm cases and find that we don’t really think it applies to those after all.
Granted, whenever we use an evaluative word, I think part of the semantics is that it’s objective and unambiguous and so does implicitly refer to some evaluative system that would yield many similar judgments. That doesn’t mean that such a fully fleshed out system is actually there to support this semantic implication.
It may be that my view entails that value claims are “meaningless” in some circumstances; I don’t think so, but I’ll think about it.
Daniel Horne says
I thought this was a key point of early Wittgenstein as well. The Tractatus describes all talk of ethics and values as meaningless and nonsensical. But while we can’t sensibly “speak” to ethics (T., Sec. 6.421), that doesn’t diminish the importance of ethics. (See W’s letter to Ficker, etc.) But nevertheless we can never approach ethics as something to which truth values can be assigned, and therefore can never treat it like a scientific endeavor.
Perhaps working with your “war atrocity” example. We can all agree that “atrocities” are bad (it’s built into the definition!), but we can’t all agree on what constitutes an “atrocity.” (Perhaps now I’m moving from early to late W, but perhaps an “early W” way to say it is that there’s no way to assign a truth value to “atrocity”…)
Which perhaps goes to your earlier statement:
You say a word can be meaningful if it unambiguously applies in _some_ situations for _some_ group of speakers. But doesn’t that only make it meaningful to _that_ particular group of speakers for _that_ particular situation? And that seems the very opposite of a systematic approach.
So, contra your point, (unless I’m missing it, which is possible), using an evaluative word does _not_ necessarily imply an evaluative system that would yield similar judgments. By which I mean to say there’d be no way to predict what my future judgments would be in later scenarios, simply based upon my past use of an evaluative word. I’m reluctant to get trapped by examples, but I’ll do so if I’m not making myself clear. I dunno…”War is bad, but our fighting WWII was good.” “Bombing civilians is bad, but A-bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was good, from a utilitarian perspective.”*
*That’s not _me_ making that statement, by the way, but many do, and I’m not sure that it can be decisively rebutted. Just trying to stick with your “atrocity” example.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Witt. is so terse about it in the Tractatus that I don’t know what he means; I know he’s reputed to be all spiritual and thinking that ethics and religion and all that are important, but I see only the negative in the Tractatus: if a word does not refer, either ostensively or via a description, to some fact in the world, then it’s not meaningful, and we should keep quiet about it. It’s an interesting connection, though.
In talking about individual judgments, I had in mind ostensive judgments, i.e. pointing at something and saying “that’s bad.” Putting aside any difficulties with ostension (what exactly about the phenomena are you judging?), I had in mind by atrocity not the general category but a paradigm case, which I was hoping to not have to describe, so let’s just say torturing a child for fun.
Thinking in Fregean terms, once a word is given a sense–a meaning–through its use, then it’s got an objective meaning, which means that meaning can be reidentified in new though relevantly similar situations. True, if a term were really defined through a very specific, idiosyncratic usage, then it would not be understood when used by other parties in other contexts, but certainly “bad” is not that kind of term.
My main point about the semantics of evaluative terms implying a system is that badness is attributed to objects, not to subjects, or to the relation between subjects and objects. Even “tasty,” despite the actual use of the word “taste” in it is making an objectification of the quality: pre-theoretically, I would expect others to have the same reaction to the thing, because the quality is right there in the object. How could I recognize it as such and communicate this? Because other things are tasty too, and some not so tasty. Presumably things that taste like the tasty thing, though not exactly like it, would still be tasty, unless they taste like an untasty item (dirty ice cream). Of course, combinations of tasty items can be nasty, which points to a structure of different flavors within the realm of tastiness. So that’s all I mean by evaluative system. It does offer some predictive potential (If you like ice cream flavor X1, you’ll probably like X2), and being wrong in a prediction reveals something about the structure in question (turning back to the war example: what specifically it is about war or atrocities that are bad).
Of course, after reflection (conversations with others as we attain maturity), we no longer assume that our tastes will be reflected by others, but that doesn’t change the semantic situation (developed, presumably, by less reflective folks than ourselves).
Daniel Horne says
Good, I’ll reflect on your later points, thanks!
Though I remain unconvinced. I don’t think we can call torturing a child for fun _objectively_ wrong in any sense. I _do_ think we can say that most of us belong to a community of people who find torturing a child wrong. And I think “bad” is precisely the kind of term that can be misunderstood by other parties in different contexts.
That said, I may be misunderstanding you, as I wouldn’t think to apply Fregean terms (or logical syntax generally) to a discussion on ethics.
With respect to W., I was referring to T., sec. 6.421:
and comparing to W.’s 1919 letter to his publisher, Ludwig von Ficker:
I belabor this only because I find W.’s point re: ethics persuasive. That is, just because you can’t _talk_ about ethics doesn’t mean it’s not there. See T., sec. 6.522:
So, just because you can’t express it, doesn’t mean it’s not there! I’m not trying to treat the Tractatus like holy writ, but I think it makes a useful argument on ethics, albeit indirectly.
*And, no, I don’t think he’s equating “mystical” with “metaphysical”.
Tom McDonald says
That guy with the big question mark over his head actually has a ‘third way’ out of that situation — throw himself in front of the train! ; )
Bear Mathan says
At the risk of offending many people, one of my many problems with taking a physiological approach to Moral Philosophy is that it begs the question: it is like constraining ones understanding of optics and particle physics by the (human) neurological processing of light. Thus, ultraviolet and infrared light would be ignored.
It does not ask the question about whether right and wrong/good and evil &c exist, or if they are useful categories. So it avoids the fundamental questions of Ethics and Moral Philosophy.
It also skirts around the complexity of the phenomena being examined: and there are a lot of epistemic assumptions made.
Mark Linsenmayer says
I think the train of thought leading to something like what I’ve been describing (I wouldn’t quite call it an argument) is:
1. The Euthyphro scores a slam dunk against divine command theory: regardless of whether good/evil exist as a result of God’s creation of them as such, we don’t have to refer to God to figure these things out.
2. That means if good/evil are metaphysically real, they have to manifest themselves in some other way than us hearing about someone or other’s commandments.
3. The only evidence we have that good/evil exist are that people say that they do and experience things as good/evil, i.e. from experience.
4. If these experiences were grasping something mind-independent, then that something would presumably exhibit a comprehensible uniformity, i.e. something we can make into a formula like Kant’s categorical imperative or the utility principle, etc.
5. Philosophers hash through such alleged formulas and find them all wanting: the verdicts of our moral intuitions consistently evade any exceptionless rules.
6. So, we explore the other hypothesis: that intuitions aren’t in fact grasping something mind-independent, but are expressions of something about us. Since we often have inner conflicts (e.g. conflicting desires, reason vs. emotion, etc.), maybe the various moral intuitions don’t emerge from a single faculty that would yield a unitary moral rule, but are a result of multiple mechanisms.
7. Enter Churchland (and others) to try to unravel what these various mechanisms are scientifically.
8. If the explanation for #7 is convincing and exhaustive enough, then this is taken as a confirmation of #6.
I’m tempted to turn around and parse/attack these various steps, but I’ll let it sit for now.
It is ironic that philosophy, in its dealing w/ the nature of things, generally chooses to overlook Darwin to focus on Plato/Aristotle.
We are evolved from emotional creatures and our emotions have evolved a good bit more than fellow mammals in our ability to form relatively more com[lex propositions which are felt as conscious reasoning.
Ignore this brute fact and you might as well believe in a flat earth.
Ethan Gach says
Given objective disagreement between people, and subjective disagreement within ourselves, where do we find the justification to deconstruct the process into divergent mechanisms rather than reconstruct them into reconliable rules?
It seems any exception to a rule can just be grafted to that rule, thus making it work again even if less elegantly so.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Good point, Ethan. Just as when a scientific explanation faces counter-evidence, you can always choose to keep pushing in that direction and make the explanation more complex to take into account the apparent exceptions.
In this case, we have the even more serious complication of the normative/descriptive distinction: even if ALL our intuitions cry against some result of, for instance, Kant’s imperative, one can always just say that the intuitions (moral “experiences”) are wrong, and that the normative law trumps any experiential evidence… that in fact evidence CAN’T have any bearing on normativity.
In both cases, moving along my sequence of steps is not motivated by deductive necessity but of trying to come up with a way of conceiving of morality that seems to best gel with our actual experience, which means:
-Re. normativity vs. experience: if we can’t rely on experience (including, again, moral intuitions as a certain kind of experience) to give us the raw data that must be pounded into a moral theory, what other recourse do we have? Faith? If faith ends up being a free choice, it’s still motivated by something… some moral intuition… or else it would just be random and senseless.
-Re. unified rules vs. disparate causal sources. This is more complicated and interesting to me. It’s, again, a matter of trying to come up with a simple, elegant theory as scientists often do, and on good grounds: if something really has a unified cause, we would expect a unified effect (e.g. when something drops to the ground, it’s the force of the Earth’s gravity that is the chief cause; if we find that things fall more slowly if you’re high in the mountains or when the moon is out, we’d likely want to bring in some other factor to explain the discrepancy). So if our moral theory, which tries to count all of our well-considered moral opinions as correct, ends up a pockmarked, exception-filled mess, then it’s pretty natural to decide that the source of these intuitions is not unitary. At the same time, I think that the point of ethical reasoning (one of the ways, as Kant might say, that reason tries to make itself all-encompassing) is to keep pushing and try to come up with as simple a theory as possible; otherwise, we won’t know what to do when faced with novel situations. Even if what we’re doing is constructing some new edifice based upon but far exceeding its intuitive base, that will likely have some utility in itself. We can and probably should push forward in moral reasoning AS IF our intuitions had a unitary basis, even if they in fact don’t. Still, we’d need to recognize, then, that there’s something arbitrary in the way we’re doing this, such that other people or cultures might do it differently: thus moral pluralism.