Why CR’s “Ethics is Only About Solving Concrete Moral Problems” Argument Fails
|March 11, 2018||Posted by Barry Arrington under Intelligent Design|
Critical Rationalist often says that morality is not about applying objective moral principles (which, according to him, do not exist) but about “solving concrete moral problems.” Here is an example from a recent post:
Moral knowledge is relevant in the context of solving concrete moral problems, as opposed to existing independent of them in some abstract sense. That’s because moral problems are what we actually face and they have concrete impact on the outcome.
The obvious problem with CR’s formulation is that the categories “moral knowledge” and “moral problem” cannot even exist if abstract moral principles do not exist, but that is the very proposition he denies.
Suppose I decide I want to shoot CR in the head because – like the guy in Folsom Prison in the famous song – I just want to watch him die. Is the question whether I should go ahead and shoot CR for that reason a “moral problem”? It should be obvious that it is a moral problem only if the abstract moral principal “do not commit murder” exists. If that principal exists, I can compare my desire to shoot CR with the proscriptions embodied in the principal. And when I do, I find it would indeed be immoral to shoot CR in the head just to watch him die.
I take it that CR does not deny moral rules as such. Instead, he says there are no independent abstract objective moral rules. Instead, what we call moral rules are merely tentative positions that are, in his words, hard to criticize. So, CR would say the abstract moral principal “do not commit murder” does not exist. Instead, he would say, in deciding whether to shoot him I should form a “conjecture” about whether the rule “don’t shoot CR in the head just to watch him die” is a position to which I should tentatively adhere. And if I do decide tentatively to adhere to that rule, I should then attempt to criticize it. And it the rule is “hard to criticize,” I should follow it, all the while being open to the possibility that new evidence might suggest the rule is actually not a good one to follow. And if I do withdraw my tentative acceptance of the rule based on new evidence, I could go ahead and shoot him.
Rubbish. CR’s conception assumes the very thing to be demonstrated. He begs the question. How? When he says that we should make a conjecture about a moral question, I assume he does not mean that we should face every decision that could be characterized as a moral decision on an ad hoc basis. If we did that, the very concept of morality would be meaningless.
On what, then, should our conjecture about moral rules be based? It should be obvious that the only thing they could be based on is our preexisting moral knowledge. Thus, CR’s formulation fails at the very first step. We cannot make non-random moral conjectures without moral knowledge to begin with.
CR’s formulation also fails at the second step. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that we can have a basis to accept, even tentatively, a moral conjecture in the absence of preexisting abstract moral knowledge. What would CR have us do now? Criticize that moral position. But on what basis could we criticize a moral position? The only basis on which to criticize a moral position is — you guessed it — whether it adheres to a preexisting abstract moral principal.
CR’s second step fails for another reason. Having found a moral principle that is hard to criticize, he says we “should” follow it. Why? He doesn’t say. If objective moral truth does not exist, why should I follow any moral rule for any reason? Indeed, why should I not instead adhere to the principle: “maximize Barry’s pleasure to the exclusion of all other considerations, including other people’s pain”? The answer is, of course, like every other materialist ethical theory, CR’s smuggles in objective moral standards through the back door. We should follow hard to criticize moral principles, because it is objectively good to do so and objectively evil not to do so. If it were not objectively good to follow hard to criticize moral principles, the decision to do so would be completely arbitrary.
Finally, CR’s position fails at the third step. CR says every moral position should be held tentatively, subject to correction based on new evidence. Piffle. Consider the proposition “the Holocaust was evil.” Should I hold that position dogmatically or tentatively. It is self-evidently morally monstrous that it is conceivable that new evidence would ever lead me to reconsider whether it is good and just to murder 18 million innocent men, woman and children. Indeed, to even suggest that it is possible to reconsider that question is itself evil. I should be dogmatic. What about keeping an open mind, Barry? Sigh. The only reason keep an open mind to begin with is so that it can close around the truth when it grasps it.
In summary, CR’s moral theory fails at every step. This is not surprising. For materialists, ethics really is impossible, because ethics presupposes the existence of “good” and “evil.” And as Dawkins is candid enough to admit, materialism absolutely insists there is, at bottom, no such thing as good and evil. In a world governed by materialist principles, there is no morality. There are only the strong and the weak, and the strong prevail and the weak succumb, and questions about whether that is right or wrong are literally meaningless.
CR’s response to the above OP (moved from Comment 5 into the OP for emphasis):
CR doesn’t want to get shot in the head (as opposed to having a terminal disease and lacking the ability to kill myself) Hypothetically, Barry wants to shoot me in the head because he enjoys watching people die.
How is this not a moral problem to be solved?
Even if I wanted to die, the question would be, have I carefully considered the options? That’s a moral question as well.
He can correct me if I am wrong Local, but I think CR would say when it comes to morals there are no theorems or axioms.
As I’ve pointed out, there is no dichotomy between non-basic beliefs and basic beliefs. What you call axioms are hard to vary ideas that we currently lack good criticism of. This doesn’t mean that we necessarily will have good criticism of any idea. For one, we might give up or hold the belief that some ideas are immune to criticism. Or it might be that we never come up with a good criticism.
Nor has anyone presented a counter example to this.
We just muddle along with tentative rules until, for whatever reason, we jettison those rules for others we like better.
“Like better” is a rather vague, as compared to ideas that we lack good criticism of, wouldn’t you say? I mean, why not actually address the most strongest form of an argument, rather than a weak one? Why not actually fill in any gaps in my argument you might find to shore it up and then criticize that instead?
If you’re genuinely interested in having a discussion, doesn’t that seem like the most direct way of making progress.
Again, ideas start out as conjectures. We could just as well say that we “like” conjectures and therefore decide not to criticize them. However, there is a moral imperative there to criticize even ideas that we might “like”.
The accent Greeks used to think it wasn’t murder if you left an infant out to die of exposure. After all, one of the gods might take them in.
The historical Greeks considered the practice of adult and child sacrifice barbarous, however, the exposure of newborns was widely practiced in ancient Greece, it was even advocated by Aristotle in the case of congenital deformity — “As to the exposure of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.” In Greece the decision to expose a child was typically the father’s, although in Sparta the decision was made by a group of elders. Exposure was the preferred method of disposal, as that act in itself was not considered to be murder; moreover, the exposed child technically had a chance of being rescued by the gods or any passersby. This very situation was a recurring motif in Greek mythology. To notify the neighbors of a birth of a child, a woolen strip was hung over the front door to indicate a female baby and an olive branch to indicate a boy had been born. Families did not always keep their new child. After a woman had a baby, she would show it to her husband. If the husband accepted it, it would live, but if he refused it, it would die. Babies would often be rejected if they were illegitimate, unhealthy or deformed, the wrong sex, or too great a burden on the family. These babies would not be directly killed, but put in a clay pot or jar and deserted outside the front door or on the roadway. In ancient Greek religion, this practice took the responsibility away from the parents because the child would die of natural causes, for example hunger, asphyxiation or exposure to the elements.
The practice was prevalent in ancient Rome, as well. Philo was the first philosopher to speak out against it. A letter from a Roman citizen to his sister, or a pregnant wife from her husband, dating from 1 BC, demonstrates the casual nature with which infanticide was often viewed:
“I am still in Alexandria. … I beg and plead with you to take care of our little child, and as soon as we receive wages, I will send them to you. In the meantime, if (good fortune to you!) you give birth, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, expose it.”, “If you give birth to a boy, keep it. If it is a girl, expose it. Try not to worry. I’ll send the money as soon as we get paid.”
In some periods of Roman history it was traditional for a newborn to be brought to the pater familias, the family patriarch, who would then decide whether the child was to be kept and raised, or left to die by exposure. The Twelve Tables of Roman law obliged him to put to death a child that was visibly deformed. The concurrent practices of slavery and infanticide contributed to the “background noise” of the crises during the Republic.
What happened there?
Barry replies to CR’s response:
Let’s count the arguments in the OP that CR apparently has no response to other than spouting his talking points.
CR doesn’t want to get shot in the head (as opposed to having a terminal disease and lacking the ability to kill myself) Hypothetically, Barry wants to shoot me in the head because he enjoys watching people die. How is this not a moral problem to be solved?
Good grief CR. You don’t just get to skip over the OP without reading it. In the OP I wrote: “It should be obvious that it is a moral problem only if the abstract moral principal “do not commit murder” exists.”
1. You failed to respond to that argument; instead you spouted your talking points. Do you have a response?
I argued that initial conjectures about moral rules cannot be based on anything but our preexisting moral knowledge.
2. You failed to respond to that argument; instead you spouted your talking points. Do you have a response?
What you call axioms are hard to vary ideas that we currently lack good criticism of.
I argued that the only basis on which to criticize a moral position is whether it adheres to a preexisting abstract moral principal.
3. You failed to respond to that argument; instead you spouted your talking points. Do you have a response?
I argued that under CR’s position, we just muddle along with tentative rules until, for whatever reason, we jettison those rules for others we like better.
CR actually responded to this. He says the phrase “lacked good criticism of” is a better term than “like better” And he suggests I am misrepresenting his argument by using the term “like better.” Of course, I used a variation of CR’s preferred phrase (“hard to criticize”) FIVE times in the OP.
I described CR’s position as follows: 1. Make a conjecture about how to respond to a moral problem. 2. Criticize the moral principle that emerges from step 1. 3. Adhere to a moral principle that is hard to criticize. CR, if that is not your position, please enlighten us.
4. So with respect to the one statement I made that he does respond to, CR lies about whether I understand his position and quibbles about terms.
I argued that CR smuggles in objective moral standards through the back door. Otherwise his argument that we “should” follow moral principles that are hard to criticize would be arbitrary.
5. You failed to respond to that argument; instead you spouted your talking points. Do you have a response?
I argued that CR’s argument fails because it asks us to be open to changing our mind about self-evidently monstrous moral evil.
6. You failed to respond to that argument; instead you spouted your talking points. Do you have a response?
Finally, CR tried to change the subject to an examination of exposing infants in ancient Greece.
7. Instead of responding to my argument, CR tried to change the subject.
Let’s see CR’s score. CR failed to respond to five of the arguments I made and instead just spouted his talking points. He lied about whether I understood his argument and quibbled about terms with respect to one argument I made. He tried to change the subject. FAIL.
CR, I am beginning to suspect that you are incapable of responding to counterarguments and that spouting your talking points over and over and trying to change the subject is the only thing you can do. Prove me wrong. Respond to the arguments I made.