Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Logical Positivism, Ethics, and Hope

I’d like to expand on a comment that Franklin Mason made on my last post, regarding logical positivism. As I understand logical positivism, it is a philosophical theory about the meaningfulness of propositions, according to which the following proposition is said to be true:

A proposition is meaningful if and only if it is either analytic (roughly, it is a statement about how ideas or concepts are logically related to one another) or empirically testable (in other words, the truth or falsity of the proposition would make a difference in what we would or could observe).

I will call this proposition the Logical Positivist Thesis (LPT).

Franklin points out, rightly, that logical positivism fell out of favor among philosophers as soon as it was noticed that LPT simply cannot be true because it is self-referentially incoherent. If we look at LPT, we can see quite readily that it is not simply a statement about how concepts are related to one another. Nor is it empirically testable. As such, if LPT is true, it is meaningless and can be neither true nor false.

But what follows from this? Here’s my reasoning:

1. If LPT is self-referentially incoherent, it must be rejected. That is, we must assert that “It is not the case that a proposition is meaningful if and only if it is either analytic or empirically testable.” In other words, we must assert that other kinds of propositions, besides analytic and empirically testable ones, are meaningful too.

2. In order for a proposition to be meaningful, it has to have a truth value. This is not the case with exclamations or questions, etc., since these don’t make a claim about anything. Wittgenstein rightly noted that we play different language games, and that the meaning of a term is given by how it is used in a language game. But the language game of stating propositions is precisely this: the activity of saying that something is the case. And when one says that something is the case, what one is saying has to have a truth value: either it is the case or it isn’t.

3.It follows from this that there are propositions that have a truth value which are neither analytic nor empirically testable. And since every false proposition is such that it’s contradictory opposite is a true proposition (and since the contradictory opposite of a proposition that’s neither analytic nor empirically testable will itself be neither analytic nor empirically testable), it follows that there are propositions which are true, but which are neither analytic nor empirically testable.

4. From this it follows that there are truths that we cannot access through conceptual analysis/logic nor through empirical investigation of the world.

If all of this is right, we should ask ourselves several questions. First, how is this possible? What is the truth-maker for these non-analytic/non-empirical propositions? If they are true not by the logical relations among the ideas in the proposition, nor by correspondence to the empirical world, there must exist some other standard of truth. What is it?

Second, can we discern propositions that are meaningful even though they are neither analytic nor empirically testable? How can we distinguish between propositions of this kind and meaningless pseudo-propositions?

Third, can we access the truth-maker for this third kind of proposition so as to have knowledge with respect to propositions of this kind? And if not, what are we to do in relation to propositions that qualify as being meaningful propositions of this third kind (assuming we can discern them)? Should we just be agnostic in relation to them? Or are there reasons of some kind that can guide us in deciding what to affirm and what not to affirm in this third category even though we can’t have knowledge?

To bring these questions out of the realm of mere theory, let me consider a claims that I think might be a good candidate for a meaningful proposition that is neither analytic nor empirically testable. Here it is:

“It is morally wrong for someone to extinguish a cigarette in a baby’s eye just to see how loudly the baby will scream.”

Now I think this claim is meaningful. In fact, I think it is true. But it isn’t true by virtue of the logical relations of the ideas in the proposition. And there is no empirical test one could conduct which is such that a certain empirical observation, if made, would falsify/verify it.

But with respect to this last point, I need to pause for a moment. Logical positivists were of course confronted with moral statements, and they wrestled with how to fit them within their system. They didn’t want to reject them as meaningless. What they did, therefore, was to subjectivize them. They said that these statements were really statements about the attitudes of the speaker. The statement above would therefore translate into something like the following: “I (the speaker) disapprove of someone extinguishing a cigarette in a baby’s eye just to see how loudly the baby will scream.” Others said they weren’t statements at all, but mere emotive expressions of one’s desires. Thus, Bertrand Russell would translate the above into, “Would that no one would extinguish cigarettes in the eyes of babies just to see how loudly they’ll scream!”

The former move is attractive to logical positivists because it makes moral utterances meaningful propositions with a truth value, even given the logical positivist thesis. After all, if moral utterances are just claims about the speaker’s attitudes of approval and disapproval, then the baby-torture statement becomes empirically testable: If it is true, then we shouldn’t expect to observe the speaker extinguishing cigarettes in babies’ eyes to see how loudly they scream. If we do make this observation, then the speaker doesn’t actually possess the attitude expressed. (Some room for controversy here, but I’ll let that pass.)

The latter move, by contrast, makes moral utterances into mere exclamations, akin to “Ouch!” By stripping them of their status as propositions, one thereby dispenses with the need for empirical testing altogether.

But there are deep worries about either move, some of which are lucidly expressed by Baruch Brody in his classic essay, “The New Subjectivism in Ethics.” My own problems with this kind of subjectivism in ethics can be summed up as follows: When I say that gratuitously torturing babies is wrong, I mean to be saying something about gratuitous baby torture that is true of gratuitous baby torture (not something about myself as a speaker that is true of me). And this is, in fact, what most people intend when they make moral utterances. They intend to say something about actions and people and states of affairs. They do not intend merely to express their own attitudes. If they did, they’d say, “Yuck!”

Put more simply, when people say that some action is wrong, they mean that the action has this non-empirical property of wrongness. And so they are operating on the assumption that non-empirical moral properties are something “real” that can be truly or falsely attributed to actions, states of affairs, etc.

Our moral language is riddled with this assumption. Moral disagreement would make no sense in the absence of this assumption. Our view that some people make mistakes in their moral judgments would make no sense otherwise. The sociopath who approves of gratuitous baby torture “all the way down” wouldn’t be evil in any absolute sense; instead, by the only standard of morality that there is, this sociopath would be doing something that would be truly right for him even if it were truly wrong for us. He wouldn’t be mistaken any more than we would.

Our view that people can make moral progress by abandoning misguided attitudes and adopting more fitting ones would also make no sense—and we can say goodbye to the coherence of some of our most cherished stories. Scrooge would have simply gone from one set of attitudes about love and community and money to a radically different set of attitudes—but the change could not in any meaningful way be declared an improvement, since that would require a standard outside of the attitudes themselves by which the attitudes could be assessed.

In short, our ordinary moral language has a meaning that is very different from the meaning that logical-positivism-inspired subjectivism foists upon it. When people use moral language, they think it is perfectly coherent to talk about improvement in someone’s moral attitudes, errors in someone’s moral attitudes, and genuine disagreements about the truth of moral claims (so that when I say that abortion is always wrong I am saying something that is inconsistent with your saying that it is not always wrong). But if morality is purely an expression of the subjective attitudes of the speaker towards things in the world, and nothing more, then none of these things that are treated as meaningful by ordinary users of moral language end up being meaningful at all.

And this means that subjectivism in ethics is not just a radically new theory of ethics. It is moral nihilism in disguise. What I mean to say when I use moral language—that actions and the like have this property of wrongness or rightness—is something that the logical positivist insists I cannot meaningfully say, because there is no such property. Let me repeat that: according to the logical positivist, there is no such thing as morality in the sense of morality that actual users of moral language have in mind. There is only this other thing, described by subjectivists and called morality, which cannot sustain any of the linguistic moves that characterize the “moral language game.”

One could, of course, bite the bullet here and embrace all of these implications: morality as we ordinarily understand it is a delusion, and our ordinary moral discourse is so much nonsense. Or one could decide, since logical positivism is self-referentially incoherent, and since there must be a third kind of meaningful proposition besides analytic and empirically testable ones, that moral claims are claims of this third kind. On this view, it can be true of gratuitous baby torture that it is wrong—it can be true that it has this property of wrongness, even though this property is not reducible to any empirical property.

But then we need to ask, of course, what is the nature of this property? What gives something this property? What makes it true that gratuitous baby torture has this property? Here we might pursue a neo-Kantian approach and say that “rightness” is equivalent to “conformity of our will to the motive of respect for a rationally universalizable law.” While such an equivalence makes moral utterances a bit more like analytic ones insofar as reason plays a crucial role in determining their truth value, it nevertheless thrusts us into a view of reality in which there are real entities that are not empirically discoverable.

Any Kantian will tell you that the possibility of conformity of the will to a motive of respect for reason requires a non-empirical conception of the self, according to which the self is moved to action by abstract principles as opposed to by empirical causal laws. That is, the possibility of analyzing morality in neo-Kantian terms depends on positing a “noumenal self” distinct from the “phenomenal self” that empirical study can describe—a self in which the will cannot be explicated reductionistically in terms of the interplay of brain states, in which “acting for reasons” amounts to something that is not part of the physical world—an intellectual abstraction called a “reason”—effecting the physical world through the mediation of this non-physical thing we call “the will.”

The empiricist may well say, “So much the worse for Kant.” But my point goes beyond Kant. There is this thing called morality that is extremely important to me. More than that, I have a strong and immediate intuitive sense of the truth of certain moral claims, every bit as immediate and determinate as what I find in my empirical experience. Certain moral claims seems to be clearly, obviously true (such as the claim that gratuitous baby torture is wrong). And it’s not some redefined sense of these claims that strikes me as clearly true. It is these claims understood in the ordinary sense—the sense which says that gratuitous baby torture has this property of being wrong independent of what someone’s attitudes happen to be, so that those who feel nothing but approval towards baby torture are rightly judged to be deeply flawed in their character, with attitudes that are fundamentally at odds with the moral truth.

Logical positivism eviscerates morality in this sense. Thankfully, logical positivism is necessarily false. This means that it is possible for moral propositions to be meaningful and true (or false) according to some standard of truth other than logical analyticity or empirical testability. But as soon as we begin to attempt to unpack a standard of moral truth—a truth-maker for morality that preserves the robust meaning of moral claims that is part of our moral experience of the world—it is (in my experience as well as the experience, I think, of most moral philosophers) essentially impossible to do so without positing more to reality than your typical reductionistic empiricist is prepared to allow.

I was a moral philosopher long before I got interested in philosophy of religion, and there is no doubt at all that my philosophical interest in religious ideas springs from my interest in finding an understanding of morality that does not eviscerate my moral experience of the world, but actually conforms to what my conscience tells me is true. Like Kant, I was motivated by the question, “What makes morality possible at all?”

The beginnings of the answer I’ve found most compelling depend on the following hypothesis: Goodness is something that is objectively real. It is a property possessed by things in the world, especially persons. And this objective value, which exists independent of anyone actually engaging in the act of valuing things, makes certain acts of valuing appropriate (treasuring my children) and others inappropriate (regarding women as mere things to be used). As such, both ethical subjectivism and divine command theory are appalling to me, and for basically the same reasons. Divine command theory is just subjectivism projected onto God.

But what must reality be like more broadly in order for goodness to be this objectively real property possessed by things, especially persons? To be blunt, I don’t know. But I'm convinced that it cannot be the way it is described to be by the most popular forms of naturalism—the reductive materialism espoused by Dawkins and the rest.

Although I don’t know the answer, I do have suspicions, and I do have hopes. And these suspicions and hopes are aligned with the Christian picture of the universe—not as it is presented in its crass legalistic formulations or its fundamentalist instantiations, but in the deep theological ruminations on love and grace that we find in the greatest thinkers of the Christian tradition. In these works I discover what in my book I call “the ethico-religious hope”—the hope that reality is fundamentally on the side of goodness, that goodness is not some subjective projection onto reality by a few critters in one corner of the vast universe of pitiless indifference, nor is it merely a property possessed by things in the universe; it is, rather, of the very essence of reality.

I’m not convinced (as Kant was) that the fulfillment of this hope is a necessary postulate in order for morality to be possible at all. But I am convinced that the decision to live as if this hope were fulfilled helps people to be better than they would be otherwise (Alcoholics Anonymous offers evidence of this). And when I say that people are better, I am making this judgment based on my immediate, intuitive sense of the good, the sense that is given to me directly by this thing I call my conscience.

And if the Good is something real and not merely a subjective projection, then an exploration of the nature of a reality in which that is possible will benefit from living my life in a way that seems to attune me with the Good. And the decision to live as if the ethico-religious hope were fulfilled is precisely such a way of living. It’s value transcends its philosophical value, of course—but I’m convinced that the kind of life you live opens up insights into the nature of reality that would not otherwise be possible. And since the kind of life one lives is shaped by one’s beliefs about reality, this means that we may need to make practical (and provisional) decisions about what to believe that go beyond the evidence available to us in the present moment. The refusal to do so may insulate us from error, but it may also insulate us from a fuller contact with truth.


  1. I agree with the basic premises of your initial argument from the failure of the LPT, but I have a couple of issues with how you proceed from there.

    1. When you say that there must be unobservable, non-analytic truths, I think it is important to note that just because a fact is not observable does not mean it is not a fact about the physical world. In other words, even though the the truth-maker for some propositions is not observation, that truth maker could still be part of the physical universe. It might simply be that the causal relationship between proposition and truth-maker is inscrutable by its nature.

    2. While it seems clear that there must be some propositions of the sort you claim, I do not think that moral propositions are necessarily of that sort. Take the proposition that baby torture is morally wrong. If we assume that 'morally wrong' has a stipulated definition that includes acts such as baby torture, then this proposition is analytically true. Are we justified in assuming that 'morally wrong' has such a stipulated definition? I haven't fully analyzed the implications of such a view, but on its face, it seems reasonable.

  2. cheek,

    I don't find it plausible that the concept of moral evil includes the presumably infinite number of particular acts such as baby torture. It might perhaps incorporate a set of general principles that will logically entail that that set of acts is evil.

    I also don't find it plausible that the concept of moral evil includes anything stipulatively. Stipulative definitions don't have to answer to any fact; they can be what you want. Thus to make moral truths a matter of stipulative definition is to make morality arbitrary.

  3. I think your first point is probably right. Regarding the second, it would not be arbitrary for the individual if it were stipulated by the community of reference. It doesn't make morality an independent truth as your intuition would like to have it, but it would also save it from the case of extreme moral nihilism proposed in the post.

  4. "both ethical subjectivism and divine command theory are appalling to me, and for basically the same reasons. Divine command theory is just subjectivism projected onto God."

    I agree, and I see a connection between this statement and your rejection of Biblical inerrancy. In your view, we don't blindly follow a text without reference to the justice or injustice of its real-world consequences. (Or rather, the consequences of a particular *interpretation* of that text.)

    But (I can hear Rhology saying!) what gives the specific content to our moral code, if not the Bible or something like it? If we dig deep enough, don't we always ultimately wind up with some form of subjectivism/divine command theory: "this is wrong because the Bible, my conscience, my community, etc. (insert preferred authority here) says so"? Infinite regress...

  5. Cheek said: "I think it is important to note that just because a fact is not observable does not mean it is not a fact about the physical world. In other words, even though the the truth-maker for some propositions is not observation, that truth maker could still be part of the physical universe."

    The coherence of this statement depends on making a distinction between "physical world" and "empirical/phenomenal world." The question that then arises is what meaning we are to attach to "physical world" (especially if it is taken to include properties that are not included in what physicists and other scientists can discern).

    Perhaps what we want to say is that the truth-maker for a non-empirical/non-analytic proposition would be some non-empirical aspect of the very same entity/object which we are in touch with through empirical observation. That is, there is more to "physical objects" than meets the empirical eye. They have properties which are true of them, but which make no difference for empirical observation (they would look the same empirically whether they possessed or lacked these properties). There are aspects of the "physical universe" that are not discoverable through empirical means, and that make no observable impact on what is.

    In saying this, I think the main thing that is being said is that one rejects any kind of metaphysical dualism. There are not two realms of reality--just one. And that one reality has aspects that impact our empirical experience as well as aspects that do not.

    But if this is the case, I'm not sure that calling this reality "physical" means anything other than what Kant meant by "noumenal" (as opposed to "phenomenal"). There is reality as it is in itself (the noumenal), and then there is reality as it presents itself to us in empirical experience (the phenomenal). If we call the former "physical," are we saying anything substantive about it? Are we making a metaphysical assertion pertaining to the noumenal that we would not be making were we to call it something else?

  6. "...this is wrong because the Bible, my conscience, my community, etc. (insert preferred authority here) says so"

    Uncovering the truth-maker for morality is an enormous challenge that philosophers have been wrestling with for generations. I won't pretend to have an answer. But I do want to make a distinction.

    There is a difference between saying that my conscience is the truth-maker for morality and saying that it is through my conscience that I come to discern moral truth. One might accept the latter claim, and therefore accept that one can have moral knowledge (akin to empirical knowledge gleaned through sensory observation), without settling on a fully adequate moral theory which explains what makes moral claims true or false.

    The analogy to sensory experience is helpful here. Most theories of epistemology will allow us to say that we know WHAT our (undefeated) sense experience tells us about our world even in the absence of a fully adequate understanding of the nature of the reality we encounter through our senses. We can know THAT the banana is on the desk through direct observation before we have an adequate theory of physical reality telling us what a banana is at the most basic level, etc. In fact, our theory development about the empirical world depends on accepting the direct evidence of our senses.

    Likewise, one might argue that our theory development with respect to morality may depend on accepting the direct evidence of our most immediate moral intuitions, which constitute the "data" against which we test the adequacy of moral theories. As such, I might be able to say that subjectivism and divine command theory clash with this data, and are therefore bad theories, before I have arrived at a theory that isn't a bad one.

    Put simply, it may be that the very possibility of moral theory development depends upon a foundation for moral knowledge that is not deduced from a fully adequate moral theory. It may depend on a kind of direct moral "experience" (although this may be the wrong term) given to us immediately through a moral faculty (the conscience). The conscience is not the truth-maker in this case, any more than than my senses make it true that it is sunny outside. My senses immediately DISCERN this truth, but what MAKES it true is something else--something which may be inscrutable to me, or which may be discoverable only through generations of concerted theory-development in the light of the data.

  7. Hi, Eric-

    Thanks for your crystal-clear exposition. If only we all could write so fluidly! Let me critique some of the logic, however. I agree that the LPT formulation is a mess, but there is another, and perhaps better, way to approach the situation. There are many meaningful statements that are not covered by LPT, and the whole thing needs to be refashioned in a more general way. Here is a suggestion:

    "We define truth statements as claims that must be matched with standards by which to evaluate them. Otherwise they are meaningless"

    Using this definition, various classes of truth claims can be dealt with, each matched by an appropriate mode of verification. The main problem, as you pointed out, is that LPT applies itself to some meaningful statements, but not to others.

    1. Claims about material reality are matched with empirical methods for verification.

    2. Claims about logical relations are matched with analytic methods for verification.

    3. Claims about subjective states are matched with either a. self-reporting, or b. new-fangled empirical technology like brain scanning, which can interpret brain states without the need for verbal reports. Even the need for introspection might be circumvented, since scans can detect intention prior to self-awareness.

    There are many meaningful statements that are truth claims solely on these terms- that I want ice cream, or that I love you. These are truth claims about my state, and very meaningful, but should not be construed to make claims beyond that state, which is to say- they are subjective.

    4. Claims about collective ideas/ideals like morals are matched with a hierarchy of methods, which I will detail below.

    The moral realm is one where truth has many meanings, and each deserves its own method of evaluation. The most elementary might be the fact of what is the community norm (A). We as a community frown on torturing babies, even though other communities thought the opposite from time to time. This community norm is a fact that can be verified by interviewing people, inspecting documents, law, etc. This would be in essence an empirical mode of verification.

    The next level of moral truth is the rationale (B) for why we hold some morals preferentially. Human nature encodes love of babies as a tendency, though this is not universal, perhaps requiring some backup rules. That is one fact. Another source of morals is game theory and reason in general, in terms of what makes sense as detailed societal rules, given our ultimate aims to survive and flourish. Certainly, kind treatment of babies finds support in the fact that the golden rule is a logical consequence of all the other practical ultimate aims that we have, among other more proactive reasoned moral stances.

    Lastly, there are individual rationales for morality, which are subjective, as #3 above. I may be vegetarian out of individual moral conviction in a society that opposes this choice vigorously. I may be a psychopath who does torture babies, also against the societal norm. While I can not now make arguments for my behavior on the basis of (A) above, I may try to make arguments based on (B). Or I may simply make completely subjective statements of morals (C) that I prefer X, in which case this reflects no greater truth than my own subjective state.

    So, all this does not imply a defect in the principle that truth statements need a form of verification, or that there is a neblous realm of truth statements out there that have so far been overlooked by philosophy, where we can hope for supernatural dispensation. (though there may be more than the four I mention above, of which the fourth boils down to the three others, really).

  8. Eric,
    I think it is meaningful to call such properties physical. When I say that properties are part of the physical world, I am essentially asserting nominalism regarding these properties, saying that the properties themselves are merely facts about objects and not entities in themselves. (I bet it would be fun to compare our interpretations of Aristotle on this issue.)

    An example of a non-empirical property (in this case a relation) of the physical (or noumenal, though I'm not sure I have understood Kant's account quite well enough to use the dichotomy faithfully) world is causation. Hume famously demonstrated that causation is itself inscrutable. Observation alone cannot yield knowledge of causation since instances of causation appear exactly the same under observation as instances of correlation. We must infer causation regarding what we observe. When we do, though, we are ascribing an unobservable quality to the physical world.

    Interestingly, though causation is non-empirical, it does have an empirical effect. Unfortunately (at least for those who would like to observe causation), that effect is indiscernible from other effects.

  9. Just wanted to say that Eric's reply to my question was very helpful!

    Eric, it sounds like you conceive of moral knowledge as empirical first, theoretical second -- again going back to the inerrancy debate, perhaps one could say that your opponents want to start with a theory before they can trust the evidence of their (moral) senses?

    But as you say, that doesn't fit the way we go about making decisions in real life. Mostly we have to act on imperfect knowledge that's good enough for the immediate situation. It's easier to see this when the example is less emotionally charged (e.g. the banana is on the desk).

  10. Eric,

    A great post. Many atheists/materialists don't realize they hold to a view (LPT) that has been discredited. I note your post here: also reference a post of my own that speaks to some of the same areas. I thought one of your best points was this one:

    "And this means that subjectivism in ethics is not just a radically new theory of ethics. It is moral nihilism in disguise. What I mean to say when I use moral language—that actions and the like have this property of wrongness or rightness—is something that the logical positivist insists I cannot meaningfully say, because there is no such property. Let me repeat that: according to the logical positivist, there is no such thing as morality in the sense of morality that actual users of moral language have in mind. There is only this other thing, described by subjectivists and called morality, which cannot sustain any of the linguistic moves that characterize the “moral language game.”"

  11. Burk--Thanks for your most recent comments, which I agree offers an improvement on LPT. I'm not totally convinced that your alternative hypothesis entirely avoids all difficulties, however.

    Because your alternative thesis (let's call it LPT2) is vague about the standards by which truth is assessed, and contents itself with saying that a proposition must admit of a discernible standard of truth-assessment if it is going to be meaningful, it doesn't refute itself in the way that LPT does.

    But in order for LPT2 to be meaningful, there must BE a discernible standard of truth-assessment which it measures up to. In effect, LPT2 denies that there are meaningful propositions which have a truth-value that is in principle inaccessible. I suppose the best candidate for a truth-maker for this claim would be the nature of human language, and that its truth would be discernible through methods developed in the philosophy of language.

    Perhaps a Wittgensteinian approach might be employed here, one in which it is noted that the meaning of language is given by its use within the context of a characteristic human practice, or "language game." It might be argued that there is no language game which involves truth-claims but which is such that there are no standards for assessing the truth value of claims of the relevant kind.

    What I want to say about this is the following: it's an interesting hypothesis that might be true, but it is hardly uncontroversial within the philosophy of language. Quite a bit of philosophical work needs to be done in order to establish it.

    In short, you have replaced a self-referentially incoherent thesis (LPT) with a thesis that, while interesting and possibly defensible, is such that (a) it's actual truth value is not obvious and (b) the standards for assessing its truth value are the subject of ongoing philosophical controversy. This is clearly an improvement, but if you base a broader naturalistic philosophy on LPT2 you cannot claim that your philosophy is incontrovertible (and that people who disagree with it are being obviously unreasonable).

  12. Continued---

    What is more interesting to me than the modified version of LPT is Burk's treatment of moral claims, in terms of a complex set of standards for assessing their truth-value that amount to a synthesis of cultural relativism, social darwinism, and social contract theory (with, I might add, a gesture towards something like Gewirth's neo-Kantian perspective).

    I cannot do full justice to this moral theory in this comment, nor do I have the time right now (I'm busy trying to pack my office, a task which needs to be finished before my vacation in July). So I will offer instead a kind of promissory note, a sketch of something I hope to fill out at some later time:

    As a specialist in moral philosophy, I've thought a great deal about a wide range of moral theories, and I would classify Burk's theory as having some promise but as being far from uncontroversial.

    My reasons for finding it controversial are the content of the pervasive character of direct human moral experience, and the elements of that experience which are either left out, explained away, or rejected.

    In the case of morality, I agree that there has to be a standard of assessing the truth of moral claims accessible to us, whether or not I'm wholly convinced by LPT2. But that standard has to be based on something generally accessible to the users of moral language (including the vast majority of those who are not philosophically inclined).

    As such, it cannot depend upon the correct identification of the implications of the as-yet-to-be-discovered One True Theory of Morality. But with respect to morality, human beings have something analogous to the direct empirical experience on which factual beliefs about the empirical world are formed and justified (even in the absence of the physicists' hoped-for final theory of everything).

    Specifically, they have immediate moral intuitions. Like sense experience, these intuitions can go wrong. Like sense experience, they are influenced by cultural categories and customs (if to a greater degree). But they constitute the data of moral philosophy and the ultimate measure against which an adequate theory is to be based.

    And this "moral experience," if you will, has pervasive features that I think are awfully hard to reconcile with a purely naturalistic moral least not without smuggling in hidden premises that are not themselves readily explicable in naturalistic terms.

    As I said, this is a mere promissory note. I don't have the time or space here to flesh out and defend all of these claims, which will surely be seen as controversial by many readers of this blog. But it has been my intent to take this blog into the territory of ethics more fully than I have in the past. When I do (sometime after finishing my promised series on biblical inerrancy), I hope to take up these issues.

  13. Burk,

    You propose that we accept this claim:

    S: For every meaningful claim, there must be a standard whereby its truth or falsity can be judged.

    (This is a gloss, I know, but I think that I got the gist of it right.)

    Now, presumably you wish to say that S is meaningful. (Indeed you wish to say that it's true, and all true claims are meaningful.) But S then tells us that there must be some standard whereby the truth of S can be judged. What is this standard? I can think of no plausible answer.

    Note that, if we wish to provide a standard whereby to judge the truth of a claim, it would seem that that standard cannot be the claim itself. Rather we should require that the standard be independent of that which we judge by it. But then the possibility of infinite regress looms. The standard must be prior to, and independent of, that which it judged by it. But the standard must, by S, then have a second standard by which to judge it.

    Of course there'll have to be a 3rd, a 4th, a 5th standard and so on to infinity. It would seem to follow that there must be some claims, some standards, whose truth we can know without reference to anything outside them. (Philosophers call this self-evidence.) Since S does not recognize this fact (it requires that every truth be judged by an independent standard) it cannot be true.

  14. Franklin,

    Your infinite regress point is well made. The atheist and the Christian both end with faith commitments, one in an autonomous “reason” and the other in the Trinitarian God. However, the atheist fools himself into believing he is grounding his view on “evidence” or “facts” when he is rather grounding his view on abstract principles/propositions that are themselves faith-based metaphysical presuppositions. At the end of the day, we don’t have the skeptic (atheist) and the Christian (believer); we have two believers.

  15. Hi, Franklin-

    The axiom I offered is, as Eric alluded to, more of a linguistic definition than another truth claim. I am just saying what we mean by the term "truth" has to imply some standard of measuring, evaluating, etc. its truth or falsity, along with the bare assertion being made. I guess this makes it a claim about language, whose standard is analytical/psychological- ferreting out what we really mean to say when we use language.

    If I say "the fizzish is wanged", there are no referents, and no meaning. If I say "there is a pink unicorn in my room", then you immediately have a way into that claim, by the implicit test of coming to my room and taking a look. Again, as Eric says, this does not put a bound on what those standards might be or what types of claims can be made... all of that is controversial (dare I say empirical? .. though it is easy to suggest the more obvious ones, including the biblical, for those so inclined). But the idea that claims and verifiers (truth-makers) go together conceptually (and linguistically) seems helpful as a practical matter.

    As to the moral instinct, all I can offer is that this is very, very biologically based, with some cultural conditioning and reason sprinkled in. There needn't be an abstract theory about it, and indeed a theory might not make much sense, since our experiential morals are diverse and not all-good by any means. That is why goodness takes so much work- to define, let alone achieve.

  16. Darrell,
    I'm not sure your repeated invocation of "the A-word" is helpful in this discussion. While many, perhaps even most, adherents of metaphysical naturalism are atheists, not all are, and no one is making an affirmative atheistic statement here. I can't speak for Burk, but I don't go out of my way to affirm atheism even though I find completely implausible the idea that any particular religious belief system represents an accurate view of an actual deity.

    I would like to point out that there is a qualitative difference between the fundamental principles that are unanalyzable but which are necessary for any kind of coherent discourse and specific religious beliefs like the Trinity. Everyone believes some version of the former because you can't believe anything without them. Theists, atheists, dualists, materialists, everyone has to rely on fundamental principles. The Trinity on the other hand in not necessary for coherent discourse. It's just a piece of Christian doctrine. It may be true, but it does not serve the function of a fundamental principle. In fact, it's difficult to see how it could, seeing as it has no explanatory power.

  17. Eric mentioned "social darwinism" as one moral standard I referred to, which I don't think is correct. Citing inborn instincts and tendencies as part of our moral compass is not the same as citing social darwinism. The one is descriptive of how the "direct moral experience" arises, the other is a prescriptive social program. Indeed the more we learn of our psychology the more balanced and nuanced our moral natures appear. Social Darwinism focused on competition, especially in the frames of capitalist, national, and racial competition. Yet our natures as social, and thus moral, beings also involve inborn instincts for cooperation, suggestibility and altruism.

    The whole concept of "direct moral experience" seems rather wooly, in fact. Is this not a description of subjectivism? Is it not the same as saying the color red feels like red to me or to most people? Judgements of good and bad are made rapidly and instinctively, just as our perceptions of other aspects of the world. We call psychopaths abnormal and inhuman, but calling them wrong is only possible once one has defined the frame of truth as being what is normal and human. (Or what violates human flourishing by reasoned arguments in turn based on our normal human desire to live and flourish).

    The deep explanation of moral experience, and thus morals, involves analysis of where normal human nature comes from, which is in turn an evolutionary project. We are far from alone in having morals- other animals have them to the extent that they are social, including dogs, dolphins, etc. Some may be more mechanistic (ants) than ramified, flexible and reflective like our own, but biology is the place to look if you want to understand direct moral experience.

    "And this 'moral experience,' if you will, has pervasive features that I think are awfully hard to reconcile with a purely naturalistic moral least not without smuggling in hidden premises that are not themselves readily explicable in naturalistic terms."

    Obviously, I could not disagree more. Naturalism is exactly the place to look, unless for some reason you have already cordoned off subjective experience as dissociated from biology and located in, let us say, a non-spatial entity.

  18. "The one is descriptive of how the "direct moral experience" arises, the other is a prescriptive social program"

    This is the key.

    Selection gives us no values in the present, as whatever happens will be plugged into the narrative of selection. More generally, Existence is the same.

    So there are no inherent values. We select them. Nature leads to us, but then our choices affect nature. Thoughts and choices lead to emotions which lead to thoughts and choices. Life is a big loop.

    Moral values are the result of the pursuit of positive feedback, but our perception of feedback as positive or not is based on our chosen perspective (or moral values).

    Surely, our choices are limited in the sense that our consciousness is a building block formed from the building blocks of the past, but this does little to help us in our choices today. Even if our perceived choices are illusory in a sense, we still have decisions we have to consciously make. Our genes give us certain conditions to manipulate choices, but the choices are conscious and lead to differences in our genes. Another loop.

    Any moral system is arbitrary and can only be argued about if people accept the same values. Which are metaphysical assumptions.

    I think that any system of values is a "leap". But we all take one.

  19. Hi, Steven-

    "Any moral system is arbitrary and can only be argued about if people accept the same values. Which are metaphysical assumptions."

    I think it is more accurate to say that any moral system is metaphysically arbitrary. We set its bounds by our innate tendencies and desires, with cultural variations (more or less male dominance, for instance). Beyond that, all is either utilitarianism- taking short term pain for longer term gain, or fantasy, like belief that self-flagellation now will give me a better afterlife (another form of utilitarianism, actually, but with highly questionable grounding). And most of these fantasies can again be traced back to psychological archetypes and tropes (I mean, life after death? Come on.) whose origin is best approached, once again, naturalistically.

  20. Burk,

    I agree with you, but as you said, the realm of fantasy and psychology have evolved through selection (genes and memes, baby) just like anything else that continues to.....continue. And fantasy and psychology are capable of producing a huge variety of perspectives, world views, mental states which affect our value systems. Our consciousness is the product of our genes and environment, but our conscious choices (which are not completely pre-determined from our current perspective) affect our genes and environment, and even our consciousness itself. A Buddhist monk physically changes his mind through meditation.

    Our thoughts and fantasies occur in our brains, but they also affect our brains. Loopedy loop!

    All is consciousness, ultimately. An ant is probably not aware that we exist. or of much else really. But this is only compared to us. There's no independent standard of consciousness. If this is true between different species, then it may also be true within species. Are all our consciousnesses the same? Just because some experiences are subjective, does that invalidate them as meaningful? Of course, we should make policy through mindsets and world views which work in harmony with empirical observation. But even that is the product of consciousness.

    Naturalism should not close the door on any phenomena as meaningful. Because it's all natural. Our fantasies, our dreams, our hopes, our feelings, our everything. I think a danger in thinking in terms of natural selection is that we begin to create value systems based on what continues and what does not through replication. It's mostly arbitrary though (not necessarily cumulatively, but in the moment). We label certain things as "winners" others as "losers" and many, many things as simply "by-products". Of course, we can do this, looking backwards, no matter what happens. (unless some religious nuts blow up the world but then we won't be here to look back! so I guess it's still true)

    Of course, I'm a musician, so I have a soft spot for all the unnecessary, "extra" things that people do - religion, the arts, fiction, sports, meditation, etc. I take them all very seriously. They are all realms of speculative, metaphysical faith-iness. But so is every move we make really. no matter what we do, it will fit into the narrative of naturalism, because it's all natural. But that doesn't negate the spiritual to me. The first is what is (known and unknown). The second is our perspective on it.

  21. How much does our perspective affect our consciousness of "reality" - even empirical perception? How much does "true" reality get to us regardless of our perspective on it?

    perspective - perception

    chicken - egg

    me - not sure

  22. Hey Steve-

    I agree completely ... I am only saying that one has to confine one's truth claims to their proper frames. "I am spiritual" should not lead to the claim that there is life after death (or at least should not induce the rest of us to believe it). It should only mean that you have spiritual feelings, which is great. Subjective statements are not meaningless, but people habitually inflate them into cosmic truths, which is just not acceptable. I dealt with some of this inflation in my original blog on atheist spiritualism.

  23. Very well put!

    I think the real argument is faith vs. the abuse of faith. Not faith vs. no faith.

    You can replace "faith" with "spiritual" or "subjective" etc.