Moral Relativism and Godwin’s Law
June 2, 2010

In 1934, Hitler became Germany's president und...
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Previously I’ve written that I am not a moral realist (one who believes that objective moral laws exist) or, more specifically, a naturalist (one who believes that objective moral laws can be unveiled through empirical observation). That being said, I find moral relativism deeply unsatisfying. Part of the reason for that, I’ll freely admit, is intuition: I’m just not comfortable with drawing that sort of conclusion. But a large part of it is the following thought experiment, courtesy of philosopher Nicholas Sturgeon:

We start with the premise (which I hope we can all universally agree on) that Adolf Hitler was morally depraved. The question is if that moral depravity caused, or at least played a causal role in, the Holocaust. If you think that there are no such thing as moral facts, then you would have to argue that moral depravity can’t cause anything. So the challenge for someone who is a non-realist is to see if it’s possible to conceive of a world in which all the physical facts up to and including the Holocaust are the same, but one thing is different: Hitler is not morally depraved. Could one of the most horrific events of the 20th century have occurred without that one ingredient?

I don’t think so, and neither does Sturgeon.

So the implication, at least according to Sturgeon, is that moral judgments have causal force, just like physical facts about the world. To me, this seems like a relatively potent argument for non-reductive naturalism, or the belief that morality roughly correlates to natural properties, but isn’t totally reducible to them (If you want another example of a property like that, think of the word “healthy”; that’s something that’s sort of a natural property, but if you were asked to describe the objective measurements that exhaust the definition of the word, you would be hard pressed to do so).

On the other hand, if pressed, I’m not sure I would sign totally onboard with the conclusion of the thought experiment. Something about it doesn’t quite sit with me, though I’m not sure I can articulate it. So I guess I’ll open it up to you guys.

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Humans versus Persons
May 27, 2010

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A couple commenters have made reference to evolutionary biology and “human nature” as the causal force behind existing ethical systems. Now, there’s obviously something to that (look for an upcoming post on something called the Darwinian Dilemma), but it also means that the time has come for us to draw an important distinction: most humans are persons, and as far as we know all persons are humans, but that does not mean that the definition of one exhausts the definition of the other.

“Human” is a label referring to a set of biological characteristics. Personhood is … something else harder to define. But, with the help of some examples, I think it is doable. So: I would argue that an individual who no longer has any brain function beyond basic life support is a human that is no longer a person. On the other hand, to use several geeky examples, Kal-El (pictured), Frodo Baggins, Data from The Next Generation and Dogbert are all non-human persons. Recently, some scientists have argued that the same applies to dolphins.

So what, then, is a person? I think the existentialist definition works best: Heidegger and Sartre refer to man as the “being-for-itself” (in Sartre’s French, the pour sois). What this means is that persons are the only things in the universe that can reflect on themselves and their own actions. The other way to put this is that persons are defined by the fact that they alone are self-aware.

This is an important distinction to make because I think a good ethical system is one which seeks to describe good interactions between persons. So, for example, murdering Frodo in order to get your hands on the one ring is unethical, whereas killing a non-person animal for food or terminating life support for someone in a persistent vegetative state at the wishes of the family is not necessarily wrong in and of itself.

The Root of Value
May 26, 2010

While we’re on the subject of Rawls, I might as well pose the obvious question that follows from the argument I presented: it’s all well and good to say Rawls’ thought experiment leads to the best understanding of how to create a fair society, but who says fair is so great in the first place?

This is similar to the challenge posed by Thrasymachus: who says your metrics for goodness are objectively good? This is the question that led me to metaethics, because I realized that I didn’t have a very good response. I couldn’t bring myself to argue that ethical claims were natural properties, but I was uncomfortable with moral relativism, for obvious reasons.

But before I get into some possible answers, I want to solicit your opinions: what are ethical claims rooted in? Anything? When you say “Murder is wrong,” are you actually expressing an objective fact?

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Metaethics
May 25, 2010

Since I don’t think that Thrasymachus’ argument is about philosophy of law, it’s time for me to attach a definition to what I think is really going on: he and Socrates are engaging in one of the earliest, and most well-known, metaethical debates.

Metaethics, for reasons that have a lot to do with this argument, is the philosophical topic I’m most fixated on. My metaethics professor put the central question of the discipline in this way: “When we discuss, or argue about, ethics, what is it we’re doing?”

The Socrates of the Republic is what you might call a moral realist. He thinks that when one debates ethics, one is debating over a set of mind-independent facts about the world.

Me, I’m not so sure. And, in fact, I found his conception of ethics as relating to these universal forms of justice and the good that exist on a higher plane than mere physical objects wholly unpersuasive.

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