More on Disproving Morality

Frequent Catallarchy commenter Mark provides his answer of how to disprove morality.

Since I posted my moral principles here, some attacks on falsifying this system are:

1) Attacks on volition. God's premonition of future events, or God's omnipotence can both destroy my ethics. In the first case, if God already knows what will happen, I cannot choose my actions freely. In the second, even if I do decide what I want to do, God might make me do something different (and presumably He could make me do this without crude threats, but by moving around my limbs in a way that I thought only my mind could do). Of course, you don't need God to destroy volition; many lesser beings are up to the task. I just like the irony that most religions are incompatible with what I think is a fundamental observation about the way the world works and how we act in it.

2) Attacks on individuality. If we are all interconnected and responsible for each other's actions, it weakens the personal responsibility to suffer or benefit from the results of your own individual choices.

3) Attacks on equal validity of different individuals' rights. If I believe a race of first-class super beings are entitled to their lives while enslaving my second-class life, my ethics is destroyed. I am nothing more than their chattel.

4) Attacks on reason. Since I maintain that we can extend my two principles of justice to different situations through reason, it is necessary to preserve good habits of logic. This is also true of other types of science.

5) Attacks on observations. Specific evidence and general induction are both required, again as they are in other forms of science. This God guy can cause problems with His omnipotence here too by changing the world at any instant to behave differently and throw my plans into disarray, like when he inverts gravity or resurrects the dead.

There are no doubt other attacks (I considered "attacks on peer review", but this is probably bound up in (3)). Note that all of them get used all of the time to question the validity of a system of justice that punishes the guilty for their crimes.

Just to make a distinction, this is the portion of my ethics that needs to be objective. As long as I find enough like-minded people with enough physical force to prevent criminal acts in my community, I do not feel any need to justify my non-criminal acts. Because justice is meted out by fallible humans possessing equal rights, the definition of "criminal act" requires care in its application, and this is where the attributes of other sciences--reason, observation, and peer review--become necessary to constrain ourselves and ensure that we are punishing criminal acts without committing new crimes. After all, we are dealing with life-and-death issues here, and the consequences of both wrong actions and a lack of action can destroy many lives.

If, on the other hand, by "Morality", you mean how I choose those actions that do not infringe on anyone else's rights, then I can give you some insight into how I choose my actions, but I don't really care whether you follow them or not. I try to choose some long term goals for things I want in life--a close relationship with my wife, children that are well prepared for life, some empty space around me to build stuff, nice food, a more free society, mentally stimulating productive work--then I use the same tools of reason and observation to pursue these goals. From what I've picked up about Austrian Economics by osmosis, this is where its adherents like to point out that even if our methods are rational, our goals are chosen subjectively.

I don't really care if the neighbor wants to marry five men, inject some really intoxicating stuff, and pursue a Marxist dream state. If she commits no crime against me, then I can decide whether to associate with her or not. My wife and I would probably invite them to dinner, or at least make a point of meeting them on neutral territory like a county picnic. The only real issue I can think of is that if I believe the neighbors are likely to commit a crime, I might have to prepare a defense, like building a bigger fence, but from experience this is best done as unobtrusively as possible--"in your face" actions are often provocative and end up making you more vulnerable.

To sum up my answers to your two questions:

1) Any observation supporting attacks 1-5 above could disprove "individual rights based criminal justice". Many people know this, and reported observations and twisted logic get thrown at it all the time.

2) A theory of objective morality is more like a theory of science, and incompatible with most theories of God.

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Apparently my objective

Apparently my objective subjectivity meshes well with your objective subjectivity. I may associate with you in the future. Tell me, are you involved in the camel trade?

Maybe I'm just obtuse, and

Maybe I'm just obtuse, and I'm definitely not a philosopher, but I really don't see how any of the 5 are really attacks or disproofs of Morality (God-based).

1. If God removes your volition, your ethics aren't destroyed, they're inoperable. In such a situation, you are then an extension of God. If this situation did not hold forever, then there will be times in which you (acting, independent of God) will have to make a decision on what to do. Your prior possession by God would not negate the need to decide in the future, thus morality still holds.

2. I don't understand #2. How does being held responsible for others a diminution of individual responsibility? Under such a regime, wouldn't individual responsibility simply include responding to what everyone else does, too? I.E., as part of your personal responsibility you must answer for everyone else, too.

3. Chattel != cattle. Black Africans held in chattel slavery still had ethics. THey didn't say "oh, well, since I'm enslaved, I dont have to worry about acting ethically or morally, I'm off the hook." POstulating a Super-being (a deity) would create a special case of Superbeing-to-underbeing relations, but would not seem to require any change in underbeing-to-underbeing relations, or imply any moral elimination. If the superbeing told you to act morally toward your fellow underbeings, how would the command negate ethics?

4. I don't understand #4, either. Seems like a non-sequitur.

5. If a being is supernatural, why would it surprise people that natural laws at some points may not hold? This is a peculiar attack since I would think that the momentary inversion of gravity or the resurrection of the dead would be pretty awesome proof of said supernatural being(s) who can act in contravention to everyday natural laws.

LIke I said, its more than likely that I'm being obtuse, but I really don't understand the critique being offered. I say that not sarcastically, but truthfully, in the sense of requesting enlightenment if possible.

Ahh, I see. I was being

Ahh, I see. I was being obtuse.

Your points are in reference to denying your 2 pillars of justice.

I can see how #1 might deny your formulation of self-ownership, though I dont know why God is in the mix. I think my point on #1 still stands, though, God or no God.

#2 does not seem to deny your 1st pillar either. Again, your responsibility can be for yourself or for any number of other things without negating self-ownership. You may deny that you are responsible, but the responsibility itself would be considered neutral IMO.

#3, for the reasons I outlined above, does not violate your principles of justice either. Just because there are superbeings doesn't mean you get a free pass on dealing with people of the same type/category as you. All the presence of a superbeing means is that a separate ethical category must be developed for governing interaction with the superbeing.

#4 still seems like a non-sequitur. How could anyone negate reason? Thats like negating Pi. Its not something that is observed or interacted with, reason *is*. If I were a better philosopher (or, rather, one at all) I probably could give a more satisfying answer.

Regarding #5, if God/the Superbeing not only could alter your perceptions arbitrarily but in fact did so on a regular basis then I suppose it would be difficult to draw many (if any) conclusions about the world. The only thing constant would be inconsistency and arbitrariness. Of course, down that way lay madness. Postulating a world that is 99% regular with 1% arbitrary intervention may work better (your natural laws are probabilistic rather than objective, but will mostly work). In all real postulates of a deity aside from Greek gods, divine intervention is not arbitrary but intentional and usually in accordance with a meta-rationality/regularity. With the final postulate, intervention itself wouldn't be a problem at all for observation, because the intervention class would itself be of some sort of regular nature, and have an explanation. I.E. according to Exodus, God intervened in the natural world to part the waters, as well as visit all sorts of smackdowns on Pharaoh. God did not do this randomly or arbitrarily, but in accordance with an "if-then" statement. "If you do not let My people go, I shall lay down (x) upon thee with wrath."

THe Judeo-Christian-Islamic God is not arbitrary but obeys an internal logic (that is, you dont get random lightningbolts for the hell of it, you dont get routinely contradictory commands from God or His messengers, the natural world goes on as normal without randomly changing gravitational constants from day to day, etc).

But I digress. Any sort of regularity to existence allows a sane worldview, even existence that has even routine supernatural events. If you can figure out a cause and a why, then your world remains comprehensible.

>if God already knows what

>if God already knows what will happen, I cannot choose my actions

Does the fact we know John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln mean he had no free will?

Stormy, I wasn't aware that

Stormy, I wasn't aware that "we" are god(s).

I'm just pointing out that

I'm just pointing out that knowledge of what action a particular individual takes doesn't necessarily abrogate free will.

Does the fact we know John

Does the fact we know John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln mean he had no free will?

It might if we knew what Booth was going to do before he did it. Knowledge of the past doesn't cause any problem for free will. Knowledge of the future might.

Knowledge of anything isn't

Knowledge of anything isn't directly problematic for free will. It would be God's omnipotence which would render free will a nonsense. If he fully created everything to unfold in a predetermined fashion then the idea of discrete entities with free will would be a nonsense.

Brian, Sorry for the


Sorry for the confusion--I should have quoted my two principles of justice, volition (which is a scientific fact about the world) and mutual respect (which is a good idea), instead of merely linking to them.

Jonathan's challenge was for us to examine our own ethical principles to see if they were falsifiable, like science, or if they were unprovable, like tenants of faith. The list I provided wasn't meant to be a list of ways to destroy all useful work in the subject of ethics; it was a list of ways to falsify my principles of ethics. The analogy would be trying to destroy physics as a field of study compared to trying to destroy a particular hypothesis about a class of physical phenomena, such as "The speed of light is constant in any inertial frame".

That having been said, there are some general axioms you have to accept to accomplish much of anything in science. The attacks I listed in items 4 and 5 above fall into this category, so I will address them first then come back to the other points. If someone doesn't accept deductive logic, you are not going to have many productive conversations with them about any field of science. Likewise, if they think that observations about the world do not point to some real, natural, predictable events. By its definition, the "supernatural" is unpredictable. Either an event is natural, in which case it is based on some underlying regularity, or it is supernatural, literally "beyond nature". If a god always acts within some rules, he is acting naturally--he is part of this world and must fit into it consistently without violating the other rules we use to understand the world. If a god is capable of acting beyond nature, but chooses never to exercise that power, that god (or at least his supernatural power) can be removed by Occam’s razor. I have trouble seeing how maintaining the existence of this god has a real bearing on understanding the world scientifically; it sounds more like some unfalsifiable tenant of faith.

A couple of things they teach you when you prepare for a career as a philosopher are: 1) the problem of “future truths”, and 2) how any theory about the world is really a theory about how we understand the world. Of course, when you actually try to earn money as a philosopher, and find you spend most of your time pondering the essence of an accounting transaction, and you get kind of rusty on these things. I suggest someone else lead discussions on these topics in more detail, but I bring them up because they are pertinent to the issue at hand.

Basically, the problem of “future truths” is that if you know that John Wilkes Booth murders President Lincoln, it means that this particular act of murder is determined and cannot be changed. Most of us agree that in the year 2004 that act of murder happened and cannot be changed. But if you knew that fact was true in 1804 in the exact same way we know it in 2004, it would mean that future acts were determined before they happened and that Booth had no control over whether he actually would shoot Lincoln that night in Ford’s Theater. There are different ways to try to deal with this problem, but deal with it you must if you claim that anyone, supernatural or subatomic, can know future events in the same way as past events, yet still leave each of us with the ability to shape our present.

The second point is that it is impossible to remove the mind from descriptions of the world. There may well be something real out there (I certainly believe there is), but “describing” or “understanding” or “modeling” that thing all presupposes that there is a subject for all of those verbs in quotation marks. If you claim that your study is objective, you are claiming that there is more than just a subject, there is also an object out there being described. As David nicely pointed out in another post, it’s not fair to hold objective morality to standards higher than objective physics. Even physics deals with human minds—it is about trying to find some simple ideas, contained within our minds, from which we can describe and predict phenomena.

I think we need to be more careful about how we use the phrases subjective/objective or the waters will be too muddy for us to get to the bottom of this issue. All fields of human study will include a subject. Most useful ones will also include objects—things in the real world. Some fields of study are very personal and may not have any basis in the real world, such as, “What is my favorite color?”, “How do I want to spend the $20 in my pocket?”, and “Who do I want to spend my life with?” Presumably, these fields of study are also useful in the context of deciding what to do with your own life, but it is probably not very useful to try to convince someone that they are wrong about what their favorite color is or should be. There are fields of study that try to enumerate the types of choices people have made and look at their consequences—economics, ethics, history, literature. Are these fields to be called “subjective” because of the individual choices inherent in them, and does this mean that we cannot draw valid, universal conclusions about the consequences of those choices? Unfortunately, I don’t have a short answer yet, and this thread will probably run through our discussions here over the coming years (particularly since this seems to be a central idea in Austrian economics).

With all of that general rambling discussion behind me, let me polish off “Attacks against volition”. I think volition is so closely related to self-ownership that I have been using the two interchangeably. I think that volition is a fundamental fact about the universe, and that it is necessary to any ethical system where we are responsible for our choices. If someone showed me a controlled, reproducible experiment that passed both my judgment and the judgment of scientists writing in the foremost journals of their field, that proved that my actions were pre-ordained, I would have to seriously doubt my power of volition. Suppose an experiment were constructed where I was supposed to throw a switch to turn on a particular light—switch left, a green light comes on, switch right, a red light comes on. Prior to my throwing the switch, the color of the light that will come on is recorded in a sealed envelope. Every time I throw the switch, the envelope is opened to reveal that it was already known whether I would switch left or right. This would throw the way I act in the world into complete disarray! I would leave the experiment and empty my bank account buying the nicest, biggest Cajun seafood dinner I could afford, without worrying about the amount of weight I would gain, or how I would pay next month’s mortgage. I could also assault the waiter instead of tipping him. What will happen will happen, and it doesn’t matter how carefully I choose what to do.

To further explain point (2) (“Attacks on individuality”), self-ownership depends on understanding “self”. I maintain that each human body contains one independent mind. An important exception is that some human bodies do not have minds or have minds not fully developed. Shame on all of us for not bringing up the case of minors! Any ethical theory which does not address them does not describe the world completely. Minors are usually treated as a different class of individual not fully responsible for their actions.

But assume we are only discussing an ethical theory as it pertains to individuals of majority standing (i.e. “adults”). I assume that a body’s actions are controlled by its corresponding mind, and that an action to stop the body also stops the controlling mind. If I put handcuffs on someone who has attacked me, I don’t expect his mind to jump to the next convenient body and resume the attack. As you say, I am hard pressed to think of an example where shared consciousness diminishes responsibility; it seems to increase responsibility. I had in mind that by creating a “common” pool of guilt, there would be a tragedy of the commons where we don’t worry about adding to the guilt because we can’t control its final outcome. Again, this wouldn’t necessarily mean that it is impossible to come up with an ethical system where some group shares some common guilt; but it wouldn’t be the system I described. We can pursue this more later, if you wish.

Under point (3), I was considering how I treat animals. I think animals have volition, yet I have killed them for my convenience (as opposed to my self-defense). I think I do not include animals because I do not believe they can rationally respect my life or rationally defend their own. But if a device were created that allowed my cows to converse with me in the same way that we converse on this blog, I would suddenly feel very differently about those fillet mignons I am looking forward to eating at slaughter-time.

I’m worried about how long it has taken me to reply. You may want to pick up the thread in a new post.

Oops! Did a spell-check in

Oops! Did a spell-check in Word. My single and double quotes ended up looking like this: ” I miss my "Preview" button!