Defending Moral Realism

This is a continuation of the previous post, and must be read in succession to that.

If we wish to be consistent, there are only two positions to take.

EITHER: You believe that your intuitions, both moral and rational, have no objective validity, and that you are trapped in an inescapable black hole of moral and rational uncertainty.

OR: You believe that your intuitions (and intuition is not the same as faith, nor does it imply that all people are at an equal capacity for intuition) have an objective validity (to whatever degree). As to the nature of this objectivity, there are two options. You can either believe that this objectivity exists as a sort of Platonic Ideal, or you can resort to a philosophical conception of God that by-passes the Euthyphro argument (I won't go into the detail of that at the moment). Both options are philosophically adequate in my view.

Relativism dies its own death because if you cannot trust your rational intuitions, you can't even presume the truth of biological evolution in the first place! Relativism begins by supposing the "truth" of evolution and ends by accepting that no truth can be known! This is clearly self-contradictory. Therefore, it should be clear to us that realism is the only philosophically tenable position out of these two.

Q. What I feel is dependent on my upbringing, my personality, my intellect and my experiences. And it is mostly dependent on my personal concept of an ideal society. Any idea which is in conjunction with that central concept I would deem as moral or acceptable. That is where my ideas of sanctity of human life, freedom of speech etc come in. [Zaidan Idrees]
Yes, I agree that intuition is influenced by upbringing, personality, intellect, experiences and religious beliefs, but there is a strong central core of intuition that is independent of all these things. Relativists mistakenly assume that only moral intuition is vulnerable to these factors. Rational intuition is vulnerable as well. You can't compare Pamela Anderson's sense of rationality with Plato, and claim that they are both at equal level and of equal validity. So why then can we put the moral sense of Taliban society at equal level with Western society? Intuitions have to be refined and purified through rigorous rational and moral reasoning, to free them from the biases. That is why we observe a continuous evolution of both rational and moral intuitions through history. Our intuitions are becoming better and better at reflecting the objectivity, and this progress is still going on.

Q. How can you be sure of the objective validity of a certain moral stance. How can one say that THIS is superior to THAT. Our pride and misplaced sense of superiority will always dictate that we will consider our own "choice" as the better one and just rationalize the remaining gaps. Unless there is some external objective criterion our "intuitions" will remain synonymous with "opinions". [Zaidan Idrees]

How can you be sure of the objective validity of a rational stance? How can you say that THIS argument is superior to THAT argument? How can you say that 2 + 2 = 4 is true and 2 + 2 = 5 is false? The answer lies in rational intuition and rational reasoning. The more clearer the perception of that, the more clearer the answer. The situation with moral intuition is similar. If someone stands up and says "I believe that 1 + 1 = 3 and there is no way you can prove me wrong" it would be absurd. Just because some person is logically retarded, it doesn't put their opinion at the same level as logical person. Similarly, if some person stands up and say "I believe that it is morally acceptable to inflict unnecessary cruelty", it would be absurd. Just because some person is morally retarded, it doesn't put their opinion at the same level as ours. Just as in rationality there are matters are clearly true and false and some matters which are unclear, similarly in morality there are matters which are clearly true and false, and some matters which are unclear. It is only by indulging in reasoning, both logical and moral, than we can gain further clarity.

As far as all people who believe morality on the basis of religious scripture, it is as false as saying "I believe 2 + 2 = 4 is correct because my God says so." So all people who believe that an innocent murder is justified because their God says so, we should reject it without hesitation. There is not even the question of asking whether this argument is superior or not, because they are not even relying on intuition, they are relying on blind faith.

Here, I must emphasize that because we realize that our intuitions are biased by various factors, we can never be dogmatic about them. We must treat our intuitions with caution, and we must always believe that our rational and moral views are capable of being superseded by something even more rational and moral. But this has to be done by reasoning and debate, not through dogmatic insistence.

Q. 1+1=2 (and other similar rational ideas) can be tested using empirical evidence. There is no such way to test morality.

Yes, this pragmatic view of reason can work in a limited way in only so far as it deals with empirical observations. But even then, it works only in the form of a model that explains what we observe. It cannot claim any "truth" or any objective validity.

So, a relativist can perhaps save science and empirical reasoning by reducing it to an explanatory model, but much of philosophy, logic and mathematics is still lost and consumed. How do you show the empirical evidence for square root of 2? Or how do you show the empirical evidence for an imaginary number? Or how do you show the empirical evidence that a tautology is necessarily true? How do show from empirical evidence that deductive reasoning is true?

Q. If we accept basic mathematical principles through empirical evidence, we can then use these basic principles to build on higher principles. For example you could find square root of 2 using iterative methods with rely on addition and addition itself can be tested empirically.

You would be relying on INDUCTION to prove the truth of DEDUCTION. It is even theoretically impossible.

Q. Everyone (mathematicians etc) agrees on/accept the basic principle's of mathematics (or rationality). However agreement on the basic principle's of morality isn't as common as the agreement on the rational principles. Moral philosophers often disagree even on some of the basic moral principles. If rationality was a product of evolution like morality (lets for the moment assume morality is a product of evolution) then one would except as varied opinions between mathematicians about principles of math as the moral philosopher's have about moral ideas.

If rationality is not a product of biological evolution, then what else is it a product of in a naturalistic account of world?

There are no principles for rational intuition. There is no written external criteria that tells you when an argument would be correct. What you are presented with a self-evident axiom, you don't resort to any criteria to know that it is self-evident. When you are presented with a deductive argument, you don't resort to any external criteria to know that it is correct. You can "see" that it is correct, you can "see" that the conclusion proceeds from the premises.

Secondly, about the agreement. Philosophers mostly disagree on what are the principles of morality, and much less whether something is moral or not. The agreement of what is moral is far more than the matters on which is disagreement. There is a tremendous consensus among humans on what is moral and what is not. For instance, there is an almost universal consensus among people that unjustified cruelty is wrong. There can be disagreement on when it is justified to be inflict cruelty on someone (as punishment, for example) but there is almost no disagreement as to the wrongness of unjustified cruelty.

When philosophers debate on the principles of morality, they are actually trying to determine whether there is any pattern in what our moral intuitions tell us about whether this or that act is moral. And when a moral theory is being criticized, it is almost always criticized by showing how it goes against our moral intuitions.

Q. Moral intuition of a psychopath might be different from others. however no one would disagree on 1+ 1 = 2 or that P and not-P both cannot be true at the same time.

We can know pure mathematical truths just by thinking but we cannot know pure moral principles just by thinking (a psychopath might come to a different conclusion.

Pure mathematics is an a priori, but the same cannot be said about morality.

If you can bring psychopath into moral debate, i can bring a mentally retarded into rational debate. A psychopath has no moral intuitions; a psychopath doesn't judge things as morally right or wrong. He is by definition amoral. If a psychopath inflicts cruelty on someone, he doesn't justify that cruelty as being moral.

We cannot compare mathematical "truths" with moral "principles". You have to compare the mathematical truths with moral truths. We determine a mathematical truth in the same way we determine the moral truth, by intuition. The "principles" of both, however, require further thinking and deliberation.


Butters said…
A key point in this post is that if knowledge is possible, then our intuitions matter (or to put it more stylistically: if knowledge is to be possible, then our intuitions must matter). Mathematics, science and morality are analogous in this respect.

This is a very important point that is based on a certain epistemological approach that I have great sympathies with.
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