The word “ethics” implies an ethical standard. Under materialism there can be no standard that is objectively binding as between two people who disagree, because under materialism the only thing “good” can mean is “that which is subjectively preferred.”
I will explore this concept in response to some objections raised by commenter Pro Hac Vice. In a comment to my prior post I wrote:
The first question that must be answered is whether the concept of “good” means anything other than “what I [or some group of people] happen to prefer at this particular time.” If it does not, then Hitler actually was doing good if he was doing what he preferred.
Post Hac Vice tried to summarize my argument as follows:
You said that if “good” doesn’t have an objective meaning, then Hitler was doing good by his own lights. As I said, all that’s doing is stating a truism:
No PHV. That is not what I said. If “good” means “that which I subjectively prefer,” then under that definition of “good” Hitler was NOT doing good “by his own lights.” He was actually doing good.
Your broader point seems to be that this is unacceptable, because of course Hitler was objectively wrong.
Yes, Hitler was objectively wrong, but that not the point I was making. My broader point is that any definition of “good” in which what Hitler did can be considered “good” must be a faulty definition.
Please remember that everyone you’re talking to believes that what Hitler did was wrong.
The subjective beliefs of the people reading this thread are utterly irrelevant concerning the question of whether Hitler was actually evil.
You don’t seem to understand the logical conclusions that follow from your own premises. Under materialism there is no “inter-subjective standard” (by which I mean a standard that is binding as between two people without regard to whether either of them subjectively agrees with the standard). For example, the law creates an inter-subjective standard for the limited purpose of determining whether the state will intervene with coercive force to enforce compliance. You and I do not have to agree on whether we prefer the standard created by the law. But we can agree that each of us is at risk of prosecution if we transgress it.
Under materialism there is no such inter-subjective standard that defines “good.” Then how is “good” defined? The ONLY alternative to an inter-subjective standard is a subjective standard. And that means that the definition of “good” boils down to subjective preferences. And as with all subjective preferences, what is “good” for you might not be “good” for me and vice versa. In other words, the determination of what is “good” is no different from the determination of what is “tasty.” You prefer chocolate. I prefer “strawberry.” And there is no inter-subjective standard to determine whether your preference is superior to mine.
Hitler preferred killing Jews, homosexuals and disable peopled. Under materialism, therefore, he did not merely believe that killing Jews, homosexuals and disabled people is good. His preference defined good and therefore it was good. Pro Hac Vice prefers to allow Jews, homosexuals and disabled people to live. Good for him. Under materialism his preference is defined as good.
But here’s the rub – and it is endlessly frustrating that materialists constantly deny this glaringly obvious conclusion that follows ineluctably from their premises – under materialism there is no inter-subjective standard to determine whether Hitler’s “good” is superior to Pro Hac Vice’s “good” any more than there is an inter-subjective standard by which we can determine whether Pro Hac Vice’s preference for chocolate is superior to my preference for strawberry.
Which brings me to my conclusion: Any system of ethics in which killing millions of Jews, homosexuals and disabled people can possibly be defined as good is clearly flawed. Under materialist ethics in which “good” is defined subjectively as “that which is preferred,” the killing of millions of Jews, homosexuals and disabled people can be defined as good (and in fact was so defined by Hitler). Therefore, materialist ethics is flawed.
No one on this thread thinks that the fact that he disagreed makes his actions acceptable or right by any relevant standard.
That is simply wrong as a matter of simple logic. Under subjectivist ethics, the FACT that he disagreed makes his actions right by the relevant standard – his subjective preference.
Materialism and/or subjectivism, insofar as they’re linked, only means that there’s no objective standard by which to judge, not that we can’t agree on a standard with which to judge.
You are correct that materialism and/or subjectivism only means that there’s no objective standard by which to judge any more than we can judge between your preference for chocolate and my preference for strawberry.
That last part is glaringly wrong. “not that we can’t agree on a standard with which to judge”
If “good” is defined as that which is subjectively preferred, then agreement is irrelevant. For Hitler killing was good. For you killing is evil. It makes no difference if you get people to agree with you and disagree with him. He preferred it; therefore it is good. Now obviously it makes a difference whether you get people to agree with you with respect to his ability to carry out his preference. If you get enough people on your side, you can stop him. But under materialism that does not make what he did wrong and what you did right. It only means that under materialism might makes right. [The objectivist also desires to stop Hitler, because what he was doing was objectively evil.]
Barry: Whether objective moral truth exists is an ontological issue. Our capacity to understand and apply it is an epistemological issue.
PHV: You seem to be saying that whether OMT [objective moral truth] exists is a distinct question from whether it’s accessible to us; to go a bit further out on a limb, the former is a question of whether the fundamental truth is real, the latter is a question of whether we’re entitled to assume that it is.
Close. The ontological issue is a matter of being. The epistemological issue is a matter of knowing about the being.
I think Sean S. has a good objection to that point, that the ontological question has to precede the epistemological question.
SB’s rejoinder to Sean is apt: “The ontological question precedes the epistemological question in the order of being; the epistemological question precedes the ontological question in the order of knowing.”
The ontological issue is by far the most important. The ontological question of God’s being (or non-being) is the most important question we can ever ask. Literally everything else follows. If God exists, good (in an objective sense because it is grounded in his being) exists. If God does not exist (i.e., if materialism is true), then good in an objective sense is meaningless.
My objection is different. I think the accessibility of OMT precludes any resolution of the ontological question. That is, it’s not relevant whether OMT exists if we can never reliably access it.
But you, yourself, insist that you can reliably access OMT. Is there the faintest doubt in your mind that Hitler’s killing of millions of Jews, homosexuals and disabled people was evil? Of course there is not. Is there the faintest doubt in your mind that if you were a minority of one and everyone else disagreed with you, that you would be right and everyone else would be wrong? Of course not.
Congratulations. You’ve accessed OMT. Your statement that we can NEVER reliably access OMT is simply false.
Well-meaning people disagree about abortion, capital punishment, even slavery. Short of assuming that anyone who disagrees with me is just lying or insane, I don’t know how to reconcile those evident disagreements with some universally accessible OMT. (Also, I think it’s hard to square universally-accessible OMT with the fact that people almost without exception come to believe that the OMT happens to be just what they were taught as kids and/or what their peers believe. That seems much more consistent with subjectivism than an OMT.)
Here is your argument in syllogism form:
- Unspoken major premise: If there is not complete and total agreement regarding every aspect of OMT, it must mean that OMT does not exist.
- Minor premise: There is not complete and total agreement regarding every aspect of OMT.
- Conclusion: Therefore, OMT does not exist.
Now let’s play “spot the faulty premise.” Yes, your unspoken major premises is faulty. Again, as a matter of simple logic, something can exist even in the face of disagreement about its exact parameters. Again, the ontological question is distinct from the epistemological question.
As in many other areas, the ability to perceive and apply the truth is not evenly distributed. Consider mathematics. A small child can understand that 2+2=4. A teenager in high school can understand basic Algebra. A college student can understand calculus. A post-doc can understand advanced theoretical mathematics.
Does the fact that the child’s understanding of the objective truths of mathematics is less than the post-docs understanding of objective truths of mathematics mean there is no such thing as objective mathematical truth? Of course not.
Knowledge of OMT also falls on a continuum. Let us take this sentence of yours and consider it:
“Short of assuming that anyone who disagrees with me is just lying or insane.”
Some propositions of mathematics are self-evident. Others are not. Some propositions of objective moral truth are self-evident. Others are not.
For example, 2+2=4 is self evident. It really is the case that anyone who disagrees with me is just lying or insane.
Killing millions of Jews, homosexuals and disabled people is evil. It really is the case that anyone who disagrees with me is just lying or insane.
The further we move from the basic self evident propositions of mathematics, the more room there is for error (and thus disagreement). Similarly, as we move aware from the basic self evident propositions of OMT, the more room there is for error (and thus disagreement). The fact that people make errors about mathematics does not mean the true answer does not exist. The fact that people make errors about OMT does not mean that the true answer does not exist. [BTW, where the issues you raise fall on the continuum is beyond the scope of this post.]
Finally, Pro Hac Vice asks me why I am so rough on materialists. It is a fair question and the answer is simple. They scare the hell out of me. As I explained above, materialist ethics ALWAYS boils down to “might makes right.” And of such ethics totalitarian nightmares are made. “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” Mao famously said. His formulation of legitimate political power was simply applied materialist ethics.
Materialist ethics is not only wrong. It is extremely dangerous. The more people who believe materialist ethics the less safe we are. Therefore, my goal is not only to resist it, but also to make the people who spout it look foolish and stupid (which is usually easy enough) in an effort to stop and perhaps to even reverse the spread of this pernicious and hazardous error.