Sunday, December 1, 2019

On Medium: The Forgotten Obsolescence of Faith

This article is about secular progress, faithfulness to a sacred covenant and the animistic roots of religious faith.

14 comments:

  1. Is morality objective? I've been having a debate with Larry Sanger, and he insists that morality is objective. I value your judgement and wondered what you thought.

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    1. Objective truths are matters of fact, so an objective, factual moral statement would run afoul of the naturalistic fallacy. Instrumental statements about the most effective means of achieving certain goals can be objective. For example, if we want to maximize happiness for the greatest number of people, there may be objective knowledge to be had about the most efficient means of achieving that end. But the rightness of the goal doesn't correspond to any fact or mere object. How could it? Rightness is about what ought to be the case, not what is factually so. That's why Plato's objective Form of the Good, which corresponds to the sun in his cave analogy, is a perfectly transcendent (fanciful) object.

      Consequentialists like Sam Harris say the goal of being happy is objective because it's self-evident, but then he dismisses the discipline of philosophy needed to establish that point. I've written articles criticizing his and Richard Carrier’s "science" of morality.

      So the question I'd ask someone who thinks morality is objective is this: Where can we find the fact or the object that embodies the rightness of their imperative? (This is just David Hume's question.) I want to be able to pick up the object in question. If it's a transcendent object, such as God's mind, that allows the moralist to confuse subjectivity and objectivity, since the transcendent entity is actually nothing whatsoever.

      If the object is something natural, such as a human brain state, it shouldn't take long to see the object isn't inherently right or wrong but just is what it is. We humans could have evolved to think differently about how we want to live, and the universe wouldn't have cared one way or the other. We're the ones who care, which makes our goals subjective. Otherwise, the objective moralist has to get around the naturalistic fallacy and preferably in a less fallacious manner than Sam Harris's (Harris just personally attacks philosophers in his footnotes).

      Having said all that standard stuff, I have a hunch that morality should be reconstructed in aesthetic terms, and aesthetics could rest on the objective fact of nature's creativity. I've written about that in several articles on this blog, but I wouldn't live or die by that hunch.

      Is this the Larry Sanger who co-founded Wikipedia? What type of morality does he stand by? Duties, consequences, virtues, divine commands? Something else?

      http://rantswithintheundeadgod.blogspot.com/2012/03/sam-harris-science-of-morality-case.html

      http://rantswithintheundeadgod.blogspot.ca/2014/02/answer-to-sam-harriss-moral-landscape.html

      http://rantswithintheundeadgod.blogspot.ca/2016/03/against-richard-carriers-case-for.html

      http://rantswithintheundeadgod.blogspot.ca/2013/11/life-as-art-morality-and-natures.html

      http://rantswithintheundeadgod.blogspot.com/2019/09/all-real-values-are-aesthetic.html

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  2. Thanks so much Ben! Yes, it's that Larry Sanger. He's been writing about the "crisis" of nihilism/anti-life views he sees growing in the world.

    Here is a quote from him that I had issue with.

    "Listen, one of the worst, most damaging lies that intellectuals and educationists have told you, and some have been repeating it for the last 75 years or more, is that there is no such thing as objective morality. If there is no objective basis of value, right, and wrong, it follows that our lives truly are meaningless." This was from a reply on his Against Anti-Natialism essay.

    https://larrysanger.org/2019/09/why-be-moral/




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  3. I shared your answer with him and he summed up his response with "Basically, life is good in itself, so essentially that which preserves and enhances life is instrumentally good." I think I'm done debating with him, he's not going to admit he's wrong.

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    1. Well, I agree with him that antinatalism is wrong, but it's a false choice between objective morality and nihilism or antinatalism.

      I see from his Wikipedia page that Sanger studied philosophy, so he must be aware of the naturalistic fallacy. And I see from his long article that he takes an Aristotelian view of morality. Aristotle's teleological ethics goes wrong in his analogy between natural and artificial things. He assumes that because artifacts have final causes, so must natural things, including rational creatures like us. An artifact's purpose comes from its designer, but natural things don't have designers, so the analogy falls apart.

      But there are other problems with Sanger's account. He says, "If you want to know what is ultimately valuable to a tree, or a dog, or a person, it is: those things that keep it alive...A farmer, veterinarian, or doctor studies the needs of the things in their care and quite naturally considers what is good for the organism as what is life-preserving (or life-enhancing)...I say that life itself is what is valuable; but now I will qualify that by saying that, for us humans, it is human life that is valuable, not mere biological flourishing."

      To show that life is valuable _to living things_ isn't to show that life is objectively valuable. On the contrary, adding that qualifier is the essence of making the value subjective. When I say, "To me the best kind of beer is so and so," I'm backing away from saying that that assessment is objective. I'm conceding that the preference is an expression of my taste. Indeed, Sanger seems to contradict himself on this point, since he says both that life "has value in itself" and that life is "good for" living things. That's an equivocation.

      There's another equivocation in his article between life being "objectively" and "ultimately" good. He takes himself in the beginning and end of the article to be showing that life is "ultimately," as in fundamentally good, but that would only be to say that the value of life isn't instrumental, meaning it doesn't depend on other desires but underlies all our other projects. To achieve anything in particular, we typically need to stay alive (unless we're sacrificing our life in some dire situation, which would be a special case). Saying that our desire to go on living is primary is consistent with saying that the value of life is subjective. Indeed, the primacy of that desire may make the desire especially subjective because it's the most cherished one.

      So the instrumental values or techniques for achieving our goals may be objective, as I said, but that doesn't entail that the goals themselves are objective. Some goals are only means to achieving other goals, but the fundamental goal of staying alive, together with its assumption that life is good can't be objective in the same instrumental way, because the primary goal can't be a means to achieving some other goal. And once you admit that the value of life is due to the interests of living things, you're as good as saying that that fundamental value is subjective.

      One other confusion that's likely at work here is between objectivity and universality. The love of life is virtually universal but that's not to say that the goodness of living is objective. Polls may show that people prefer to see low-brow movies, but that doesn't mean such movies are objectively better than those that are more likely to win high-brow awards. Sanger exhibits this confusion when he says, "morality is part of the normal and natural order." Normality has to do with universality, which is different from objectivity.

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    2. Incidentally, I posted my response to his morality article in the comments section of his antinatalism article.

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    3. Thanks! His antinatalism article is probably his most popular, and the same general discussion is taking place there anyway. My views on antinatalism have changed a bit overtime. I've learned to fully embrace schadenfreude, which had come in handy in the dystopian times we're living in.

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    4. For the record, I posted the reply in the comments of the antinatalism article, and Sanger deleted it in moderation. So I posted it in the comments of the more appropriate article, "Why be moral?" but he deleted it from there too. So no dice.

      The only reason I can think of as to why he'd delete it is that the reply refers to Sanger in the third person, because I just copied and pasted it from from here. Either way, it's pretty lame of him, unless I'm missing something. And anyway, his case for objective morality ist sehr schwach, as the Germans say.

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    5. I thought it seemed to be taking a long time to approve your comment. Larry doesn't like to be challenged. I'm done with him. His ego gets in the way of having an honest exchange.

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    6. I don't know what moderation system he has there, but the comment shows up as soon as it's posted and then it disappears after an hour or so (when I check back). On Blogger, a comment doesn't show up right away, and the blog's author gets to pick which posts to publish. That's why spam doesn't show up in my comment section, because I filter that out.

      I don't know why Sanger would take more than ten seconds to decide whether a comment should be posted. If it's not spam and it's not highly offensive (with foul language or racist remarks, etc), then what's to think about? As of the posting of this comment, my takedown of his morality article still hasn't appeared in either comment section. So that's a day's worth of thinking, which seems strange. More likely, the comment has been rejected for some reason.

      Anyway, thanks for bringing it to my attention. It's an interesting question, whether morality is objective.

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    7. It looks like he finally approved the one on the Why Be Moral essay. We'll see if he replies to it.

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    8. Well, I spoke too soon. The comment is now showing in both of Sanger's threads.

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    9. How do you feel about technologies role in the progress of human morals? I think people like Larry think that humans themselves have progressed, but I would argue this has happened in conjunction with technological progress. The ability to grow food at mass scale, cheap energy, access to clean water etc. Take all of those away and it would be interesting to see what happens to all the "moral progress" humans have made.

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    10. Neoliberals like Steven Pinker tend to be optimistic about technology's impact on its users, because neoliberals tend to be professionals who have a big stake in the establishment. Of course, we all have some stake in it because if society collapses, we're in anarchy. But the leaders of the establishment, such as Sanger who co-invented Wikipedia, have a special interest in defending the system because the system's their baby.

      I do think our mindset adapts to our environment, so we think differently being around TV, computers and the internet than our ancestors did who had only books. It's a big question whether human nature progresses along with technology. Certainly, technology advances faster, but technological progress is more easily measurable. For example, computer chips get smaller and faster. What would count as uncontroversial advances in human nature? Mind you, even technological progress is dubious if it ends up destroying nature. Pinker thinks it's clear our living standards have improved, thanks to the rise of science. I wrote about his case for progress (see the link below).

      http://rantswithintheundeadgod.blogspot.ca/2018/04/steven-pinkers-case-for-humanistic.html

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