Over the past month or so, there has been an exchange of comments regarding my OP L&FP 48, where I note how New Atheist Stefan Molyneaux, in his “Universally Preferable Behavior” (2007), stumbled across the Ciceronian first duties of reason. As a part of that, sometime objector VL raised the claim:
Obviously, for one to say that it is objectively true that there are no moral truths is absurd. But that is not what those who are arguing against the idea of objective truths are saying . . .
I responded in comment 1110, and think it worth the while to headline that response, with slight adjustments:
>>Saying and pretty directly implying are of course two distinct things. Relativists typically emphasise diversity of opinions among individuals and cultures etc, but that has never been a matter of controversy. Nor, do presumably well informed relativists merely intend [to confess their inexplicable] ignorance of such accurately described states of affairs regarding duty, right conduct etc, they imply longstanding want of warrant and no reasonable prospect or even possibility of such warrant. That is, my summary statement accurately reflects the bottomline stance of relativists.
I thank you for acknowledging that that summary proposition is indeed reduced to absurdity.
Going on, manifestly, we are an error-prone race, and across time, space etc have many, many areas of profound disagreement. The normal procedure in such areas, is to identify sound first principles for the area, starting with first principles of right reason, logic. Then, if self evident first truths can be listed, a framework for the field can be identified and developed into a body of well warranted so reliable and objective knowable truth independent of the error proneness of our individual or collective opinion-forming. From which, we then have a body of knowledge and best practice to work with.
For logic, the general tool, there is an established body of knowledge and Epictetus long since put its branch on which we all sit character on record:
When someone in [Epictetus’] audience said, Convince me that logic is necessary, he answered: Do you wish me to demonstrate this to you?—Yes.—Well, then, must I use a demonstrative argument?—And when the questioner had agreed to that, Epictetus asked him. How, then, will you know if I impose upon you?—As the man had no answer to give, Epictetus said: Do you see how you yourself admit that all this instruction is necessary, if, without it, you cannot so much as know whether it is necessary or not? [Notice, inescapable, thus self evidently true and antecedent to the inferential reasoning that provides deductive proofs and frameworks, including axiomatic systems and propositional calculus etc. We here see the first principles of right reason in action. Cf J. C. Wright]
Notice, the classic framework of a set of first principles: inescapable, so inescapably, self evidently true. Thus, warranted and objective.
Now, regarding our sense of being duty-bound to right conduct etc, conscience is so pervasive that it was only in recent centuries that it was fully seen as distinct from consciousness. Thus, on pain of self-referential discredit to our mindedness, we have to recognise validity of sound conscience and its testimony. Where, soundness implies due application of right reason and prudence towards warranted [so, objective] conclusions and linked due recognition of limits. Where, in the face of risk and uncertainty, prudence points to least regrets and similar precautionary principles. Similarly, “due” is of course directly connected to duty. What we do is under government of what we can reasonably identify as what we ought to do. But, too often, don’t. As a rule, with damaging consequences.
Underneath, is the naturally evident end of cognition, truth, accurate understanding and description of entities, states of affairs etc in reality, whether tangible or abstract. That is, if we regard our mindedness as grossly defective and dominated by our known error proneness we undermine cognition and credibility of mind.
Further to this, we realise we are a common and social race in two complementary sexes with linked requisites of child nurture such that our mutual thriving under the civil peace of justice is a reasonable criterion, i.e. there is to be due balance of rights, freedoms, duties. Where, per sound conscience, a valid rights claim must not be such that it taints sound conscience of others. This, being a coherence criterion.
If you have been keeping track, I have outlined precisely the Ciceronian first duties as are listed in the OP as having been stumbled across by SM:
1: to truth,
2: to right reason,
3: to warrant and wider prudence,
4: to sound conscience,
5: to neighbour,
6: so too to fairness, and
7: to justice,
. . . ,
In short, c 50 BC, Cicero was not putting up random notions but was recognising the sum and substance of centuries of “the highest reason,” on a subject of highest importance, which frames government and sound law.
My comment on this, was to observe a familiar pattern, which again crops up in the latest raft of objections. Namely, that these Ciceronian first duties have the Epictetus characteristic: they are pervasive, inescapable, branch on which we sit first principles. As I noted, even objectors routinely appeal to same in order to gain persuasive power for their objections. For instance, above there is much failed appeal to duties to right reason that I allegedly fail to meet.
The onward point is, from these longstanding classic principles, the moral, legal and governmental ideals and framework of our civilisation was built. As noted above, the US DoI 1776, charter of modern constitutional democracy, is a case in point. But latterly, selective hyperskepticism has been used to undermine such, frankly, the better to promote lawlessness, licence and libertinism at expense of sound governance.
That is, we have had a mutiny on the Platonic ship of state.
Such mutinies don’t end well.>>
A further comment I made in response to VL’s attempt to dismiss an algebraic expression of a reductio of the relativist thesis, is also worth noting, from 1112:
>>[T]he following [duly informed by the just above context that is readily accessible to those who would ponder] is patently not “meaningless”:
Let a proposition [= an assertion that affirms or denies that something is the case, e.g. Socrates is a man] be represented by x [–> symbolisation]
M = x is a proposition asserting that some state of affairs regarding right conduct, duty/ought, virtue/honour, good/evil etc (i.e. the subject is morality) is the case [–> subject of relevance]
O = x is objective and knowable, being adequately warranted as credibly true [–> criterion of objectivity]
[–> patently meaningful; u/d Jan 8: x is a proposition and is to be tested with regard to having properties O and M, M also being a subject-domain regarding duty to right conduct etc, i.e. morality]
It is claimed, S= ~[O*M] = 1 [–> the there are no objective, warranted, knowable moral truths claim, again meaningful]
However, the subject of S is M, [–> by simple inspection]
it therefore claims to be objectively true, O and is about M [–> pointing out the implicit thesis that relativists claim to know the accuracy of their claim or implication, on warrant]
where it forbids O-status to any claim of type M [–> patent]
so, ~[O*M] cannot be true per self referential incoherence [–> reductio]
~[O*M] = 0 [as self referential and incoherent cf above]
~[~[O*M]] = 1 [the negation is therefore true]
O*M = 1 [condensing not of not]
where, M [moral truth claim]
So too, O [if an AND is true, each sub proposition is separately true]
That is, there are objective moral truths; and a first, self evident one is that ~[O*M] is false.
The set is non empty, it is not vacuous and we cannot play empty set square of opposition games with it. That’s important. [–> square of opposition issues]
Your attempted dismissal fails. The argument is meaningful and relevant to the underlying thesis of relativism. Relativists are not confessing general ignorance and openness to be instructed otherwise, they are rejecting validity of objective claims regarding right conduct etc on grounds of irresolvable difference, demand for tolerance etc.
Of course, due tolerance is an onward objective moral principle. Namely, that as we are error prone and need due freedom of inquiry and community, a fairly wide range of opinion and discussion must be tolerated on pain of undermining liberty. Where, similarly, other credible evils must be put up with and regulated as opposed to abolished due to “hardness of men’s hearts,” pending moral growth of society. An excellent comparison is abolition of slavery starting with the trade and the fate of prohibition as peak temperance movement in the US and how it had the unintended consequence of empowering organised crime. Similar arguments can be made regarding Marijuana.
In short, due tolerance is an objective moral principle and has due limits.>>
What I find further interesting is that in 2018, a posthumous, completed book based on a Manuscript by Dallas Willard came out, The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge. That book’s Amazon Blurb reads:
Based on an unfinished manuscript by the late philosopher Dallas Willard, this book makes the case that the 20th century saw a massive shift in Western beliefs and attitudes concerning the possibility of moral knowledge, such that knowledge of the moral life and of its conduct is no longer routinely available from the social institutions long thought to be responsible for it. In this sense, moral knowledge―as a publicly available resource for living―has disappeared. Via a detailed survey of main developments in ethical theory from the late 19th through the late 20th centuries, Willard explains philosophy’s role in this shift. In pointing out the shortcomings of these developments, he shows that the shift was not the result of rational argument or discovery, but largely of arational social forces―in other words, there was no good reason for moral knowledge to have disappeared.
The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge is a unique contribution to the literature on the history of ethics and social morality. Its review of historical work on moral knowledge covers a wide range of thinkers including T.H Green, G.E Moore, Charles L. Stevenson, John Rawls, and Alasdair MacIntyre. But, most importantly, it concludes with a novel proposal for how we might reclaim moral knowledge that is inspired by the phenomenological approach of Knud Logstrup and Emmanuel Levinas. Edited and eventually completed by three of Willard’s former graduate students, this book marks the culmination of Willard’s project to find a secure basis in knowledge for the moral life.
In short, something is rotten in the state of our civilisation and we need to work to recover moral knowledge as a key piece of cultural capital. Or, the consequences will be dismal. END