IEET > Rights > Vision > Fellows > Russell Blackford > FreeThought
Metaethics Makes Slow Progress

Metaethics is one of those fields where the wheels grind very, very slowly. I do think it’s making glacial progess. But just as there has been huge resistance over the centuries to the idea that God does not exist, so there has been huge resistance to the idea that there are no objective moral oughts, in the strong sense of “objective” that ordinary folk and many philosphers seem to want.

Then again, philosophy only ever makes progress in the face of strong resistance from people who are committed to saving the appearances and/or the traditional picture of the world.

The interesting question at the cutting edge of metaethics is what follows if we accept that morality is not objective. I.e., if we accept that the answers given to moral questions do not genuinely have the absolute bindingness and irresistible practical oomph that is usually assumed in moral debate. Richard Joyce captures the idea with two propositions:

1. Moral discourse presupposes non-institutional desire-transcendent reasons and non-institutional categorical imperatives. BUT

2. All genuine desire-transcendent reasons are institutional and all genuine categorical imperatives are institutional.

That’s a technical way to put it, but I think it’s pretty much a correct statement of the problem. There are reasons for action based on desires (or fears or wants or other such psychological phenomena), and there are imperatives contained in positive moral systems, systems of law, etc. But when we try to give a further reason to abide by the imperatives in positive moral systems, we’ll end up appealing to psychological phenomena, not to something that is both (a) built into the external fabric of the universe and (b) itself imperative-delivering. There is nothing like that (and, I submit, even God could not be like that).

So how should we respond to this horrible suspicion - nay, truth - about morality? E.g. should we stop using moral language entirely (in a similar way to the way that many of us have stopped using theological language relating to “sin”)? If so, how should (tricky word) we talk when we want to discuss what people ought to do? We seem to need some concept like that, and it needs to go beyond the idea of practical rationality (acting in the way that will achieve your own desires, etc). No one denies that there are oughts of practical rationality, but these are, in an important sense for this debate, subjective.

The guy to watch in metaethics is the above-mentioned Richard Joyce, who now teaches at the University of Sydney, and is embroiled in these debates. He’s young, he’s on the ball, and he’s a much better philosopher than Sam Harris, at least when it comes to metaethical issues. Unfortunately, his new book is not likely to be a best-seller. (It’s not even affordable to individual people; meaning that he and his co-editor couldn’t find a publisher that was prepared to order a print run large enough to bring down the unit cost.)

I’m giving a paper on some of this in July, at the next AAP (Australasian Association of Philosophy) conference, but after thinking about it hard for the past several days, I’m now uncertain what I want to say. Though I’m not very impressed by the metaethical end of what Sam Harris is doing lately, and I think it’s far behind the cutting edge of metaethics, I sympathise with him to an extent. This stuff is difficult. We’ve managed to adapt to the idea that there is no God and therefore no “sin”. But it may be more difficult to adapt, psychologically, to the idea that there are no objective moral oughts built into the fabric of the universe or the nature of reason.

I’m now not sure what I think should be said about how we ought (that word again!) to use moral language ... given that morality can’t deliver all the things that the folk naively assume it can. Some metaethicists argue for an eliminativist approach to moral language - such as we’ve adopted with “sin” language - but they will still need to use some kind of language to oppose (forcibly) such horrors as torturing babies or conducting extermination campaigns against despised minorities.

Even I balk at concluding that all positive moral claims are just false (like positive claims about “sin”). Strictly speaking, if we buy fully into moral error theory, that radical proposition might be correct, but it would sure be a misleading thing to say outside a philosophy seminar room!

I think, though, that the picture is a bit more complicated than this, and we need to tease it out, and probably to include some focused empirical study of what people think they are doing when they use moral language of various kinds. If any of y’all out there are working on this and interested in collaborating, let me know what you have in mind.

Russell Blackford Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, an attorney, science fiction author and critic, philosopher, and public intellectual. Dr. Blackford serves as editor-in-chief of the IEET's Journal of Evolution and Technology. He lives in Newcastle, Australia, where he is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle.


Quote : “We’ve managed to adapt to the idea that there is no God and therefore no “sin”. But it may be more difficult to adapt, psychologically, to the idea that there are no objective moral oughts built into the fabric of the universe or the nature of reason.”

Quote : “I’m now not sure what I think should be said about how we ought (that word again!) to use moral language ... given that morality can’t deliver all the things that the folk naively assume it can.”

@ Russell

It sounds like you are driving yourself round and round in circles over this subject, and I concur it is a difficult subject. One has to drive deep into the mind to unravel and separate logic from “feelings” and abstract terms like morality, compassion and empathy.

However… How you fail to see that the “Golden Rule” is as close as there is to any code that is morally and “ethically” objective beats me, and quite frankly I am a little disappointed. Don’t take my word for it, the “Golden Rule” has been around for thousands of years, (how many thousands?) It is the keystone for all philosophies and religions, (or most!), and you can wash it, scrub it, bash it and beat it It will not erode away or crumble.

Now what else do you need to reveal? What else does humanity need, to lay the foundations for equality between all humans AND incorporate respect to all lifeforms both terrestrial and non-terrestrial?

Justice and courts and laws are used to resolve the details concerning conflicts and alleged injustices. The key point is that justice and injustices and the feelings associated with these are all resolved back into the “Golden Rule” : enough said.

Sin does indeed exist, it just depends on how you define it, and thus it is as subjective as “these”, (“plural”), moral codes that you seek to unravel. Sins are irrelevant and deemed non-existent concerning the philosophies of Hinduism, yet this philosophy relates to pure idealism and so does not apply to this materialistic argument. Sins or “wrong-doings” against humans and animals are real, and if you want to promote morality and ethical conduct, you need to accept this, even if these are “subjective”.

Everyone knows in their mind whether they have wronged, (another question..what is conscience?), and it is merely subjective as to whether one person or another deems this as a “sin” or otherwise. Killing is a “sin” : period. Justifiable homicide? : don’t get me started, we’ll be here all night!

Amok time..

What can Star Trek teach us that George Lucas simply does not even have half a clue about : the dark side? Trekkies will at once know where I am going with this, (where many have gone before!) In this episode Spock is overcome by Pon Farr, this suffusion of brain chemicals that overcomes his Vulcan logic so absolutely and completely he all but kills his best mate Kirk. Even Spock’s logic cannot overcome his own brain chemicals, rationality is futile! What does this tell us about objective morality?

So here we have’the Golden Rule”, (objective rationality) + Brain chemicals, (all but impossible to overcome without some discipline or dispassionate practice) + subjective “oughts”, should’s and should not’s, (so many it makes yer head spin). Which one are you going to go with here?

Resolve yourself to be mindful and follow the “Golden Rule”, and get this moral code back on the school/parent curriculum so hopefully, in the end, not one human on the globe is unenlightened. This moral code has not been lost, merely misplaced.

Here’s a little reminder of what folks are capable of

“Couple jailed for Charlotte Avenall neglect”
“A mother and stepfather who locked their daughter in a bedroom described as “revolting and squalid” for 12 hours a night for four weeks have been jailed for a yearAn inquest has yet to establish whether her death was deliberate, or an accident.
The prosecution at Nottingham Crown Court said the couple “effectively abandoned Charlotte to her fate” in the small terraced house in Mansfield. They had not been into her bedroom for four weeks when she diedThe court heard the room was in a “foul” state, with faeces smeared over the walls, bed and Charlotte’s toys.”

Drive him wild!
Vulcan Pon Farr… perfume from the Star Trek universe.
Because having is not always as pleasing as wanting!
Star Trek Pon Farr Perfume >>

Ethics is super important and necessary but, alas, talking about ethics doesn’t make a difference because 99% of the “people” (more like pain-o-bots) who need them don’t know such a thing exists. Sad and horrible.

Blackford gives a very slanted portrayal of contemporary metaethics.
Read these for a hint of the much strengthened case for moral realism in the last decade:

Theoretically, I am a moral relativist: I don’t believe in absolute, or objective morality. I think the universe just does its thing without giving a damn about our moral preferences, which are, I believe, cultural constructs.

But I am also a nice person, or at least I try: I am kind to children and animals, I help old ladies to cross the street, and I try to practice the Golden Rule. I don’t believe in objective morality… so what? I choose to be a nice person.

Let’s be nice to each other without worrying too much about abstract metameta, and perhaps some day we will be able to force the universe to care.

Quote : “Theoretically, I am a moral relativist: I don’t believe in absolute, or objective morality. I think the universe just does its thing without giving a damn about our moral preferences, which are, I believe, cultural constructs.”

@ Giulio Exactly!

Why should the mechanism of the universe care about our morality? And why Russell would even contemplate the possibility of “objective moral oughts built into the fabric of the universe”, is a strange position for an atheist to take? A theist yes would contemplate this, as objective morality may be assumed to arise from a creator or God.

All of our subjective perceptions, delusions, misconceptions, ignorance and misunderstandings merely arise through our separation from each other and from the universe as a whole, yet we are beginning to realise our integral position within and as part of the universe. Sam Harris has a point by searching for values that may be reduced to facts about how “dilemmas”, (thanks Ben!), affect our thoughts, ideas, rationality, and brain chemicals, that give rise to our emotions and moods and neuroses.

Neuroscience and psychology will lead to a better understanding of the way we view morality, and how conflicts arise when circumstances do not align with the way we want or wish. Seeking for an objective cosmic morality seems like a wild goose chase, and you may as well search for God, for proof of either of these may well point to the existence of the other or moreover both.

The problems associated with the conflicts of moral values are linked to selfishness and ignorance concerning “Self” which can so easily obscure our values of mutual respect, (for all life). Our “Self” interests so easily make us forgetful of the “Golden Rule”, this fundamental moral code that we all know and understand and which we carry with us at all times. This is why mindfulness and “right intention” and even forgiveness require constant practice and application.

It’s great the way all these blog articles overlap and intertwine here at IEET. Through this method great progress can be made to link materialism, politics, ethics and the spiritual growth required by humanity to evolve to a techno-spiritual position leading towards posthumanity. We must contemplate the phenomena of “Self” through self-enquiry and Self-understanding : what higher goal is there to pursue? The question of “why morality” ultimately resolves into the question “who am I?”, (as with all our other questions regarding thoughts of separation and self).

“Know thyself and thou shalt know all the mysteries of the gods and of the universe”

Now this is what I call a lesson in compassion and application of the “Golden Rule”(one of many around the world today! see we do know, we do remember the rule compassion kicks in, when we give it chance, and take time to reflect..)

” Cow rescued from storm drain after 5 days trapped under street”..

It is shameful that in the two links I have referred to here, one item relates to the neglect and death of an innocent child, the other in saving an innocent animal : how fickle and self-complacent we all are!

@ Giulio Hear, hear.

It wasn’t that hard now was it? Some solutions to “deep” problems are simpler than philosophers like to admit. Now all we have to do is to find a way of uploading and overwriting that data into every human mind and the world will be NICE.

Giulio, this post reveals you to be deeper and clearer thinker - in a word, a realist - than some people, judging by some of your heated exchanges, seem to think. Thumbs up. And keep on dreaming without limits.

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