Exploring My Own Moral Parameters

As I'll be discussing morality and ethics a bit more in-depth over the upcoming weeks, specifically Alonzo Fyfe's desirism, I felt I should share my thoughts concerning morality and ethics as they relate to (a)theism, so people have at least some concrete idea of where I stand. This should make it easier to identify areas of disagreement, and I felt I should begin by explaining exactly what I mean when using the terms objective and subjective morality, since most everything else flows from there.

The terms objective and subjective morality are mutually exclusive in my book: either some objective "source" of morality exists "out there" in the universe or perhaps beyond – or not.

If an objective source of morality such as God or some sort of moral field exists, then we have real-world reason (i.e., something besides individual or group opinion) to ground moral statements, which are essentially answers to "should" questions of any sort.

To aid in understanding what's proven to be an oft-misunderstood phrase, by moral field, I mean something like an undiscovered field in the universe that prefers or selects for specific behaviors over others. If such a field could be accurately identified and understood, we could refer to something besides individual or group opinion when considering any possible "should" questions that might arise. Presuming we can identify the behaviors the field selects for, we can ground any possible "should" statement we might make, for example, "the moral field exerts cellular damage on those who X, so we should not do X," where X represents some behavior. This is what I allude to when using the phrase objective morality.

On the other hand, if there is no objective source of morality, i.e. nothing that prefers or selects for any one behavior over another, then any "should" statement one can make becomes akin to either individual or group opinion, and this is what I mean by subjective morality

The way I see it, Euthyphro's dilemma arises regardless of the source of our morality. For this reason, invoking the dilemma as an argument against any source of morality is meaningless, because the dilemma applies regardless of the source of our morality. This is because any source of morality that can be established can also be questioned.

I think we can best illustrate this with a short story. Imagine that some squirrels are trying to decide whether or not it's morally good for them to inhabit Farmer Bill's oak tree. Up to this point, every reason the squirrels conceive of points to the answer that yes, inhabiting Farmer Bill's oak tree would fulfill more and stronger desires than it would thwart, such that it would be good for them. Still, just to be sure, the squirrels decide to inquire of the most intelligent and powerful being they know of, the one with ownership rights to the entire property, including the oak tree: Farmer Bill.

Note that by my aforementioned definition of objective morality, Farmer Bill represents an objective source of morality relative to the squirrels, in the sense that he is the source of a moral imperative with real-world consequences that remain in effect regardless of the squirrels' consensus about the matter. That is, if Farmer Bill has an aversion to squirrels in his oak tree such that he shoots them on sight, then all squirrels have real-world reason not to inhabit Farmer Bill's oak tree. In such a case, the squirrels can answer "no" to the question "should we inhabit Farmer Bill's tree" with reference to a real-world reason — outside themselves — as opposed to answering "no" simply because some percentage of squirrels doesn't like oak, or another percentage believes oak offends their religion.

Now here's where things get a bit tricky: even though he represents a source of objective morality relative to the agents — that is, to the squirrels — the same questions apply to Farmer Bill's aversion to squirrels in his oak tree: is Farmer Bill's aversion right because it is right, or because Farmer Bill says it's right? Is there any reason outside Farmer Bill that the squirrels should accept Farmer Bill's aversion as "good" or "right"?

Granted, there might be some real-world reason Farmer Bill has for his apparently intolerant position regarding squirrels in his oak tree, which would seem to make his decision ultimately good. For example, what if the oak tree is scheduled to be uprooted the following week? In such a case, Farmer Bill would actually be acting with the squirrels' best interests in mind — though they certainly might not see it that way.

However, what if Farmer Bill just likes shooting squirrels for no good reason? Then it would seem he's just a sick and twisted farmer who likes killing innocent animals for his own enjoyment.

Unless the squirrels were at least as intelligent as Farmer Bill, how could they know? Where's their moral litmus test?

In this I see a corollary to the "what caused X" line of reasoning often pursued in first-cause discussions: if we say that all things require cause, we entail an infinite regress of causes required. Similarly, if we say that all moral statements require justifications, we entail an infinite regress of justifications required – i.e., Euthyphro's dilemma.

For example, if one group of squirrels says, "we should find another tree because Farmer Bill said so," another group could always counter that Farmer Bill's aversion requires a justification, i.e., "yes, but is Farmer Bill's aversion good because it's good, or because Farmer Bill says it's good? We don't think it's good, so we say screw that old farmer, let's inhabit his oak tree anyways."

The dilemma persists even if Farmer Bill appeals to an objective source of morality to uphold his aversion. For example, perhaps God has ordered Farmer Bill to shoot all squirrels in his oak tree, and God is even willing to unequivocally appear to communicate this message, at dusk for all squirrels to hear. The first group of squirrels might attempt to further justify their own position with something like, "see, it's not just Farmer Bill being a jerk, God actually commanded Farmer Bill to shoot us, so we shouldn't inhabit the oak tree."

Yet still, the dilemma persists, as the second group of squirrels could simply question the source of Farmer Bill's aversion with something like, "yeah, but what makes Farmer Bill's God good? We say screw that Farmer Bill and his God, and let's inhabit the oak tree anyways."

Since it seems undeniable that any source of morality can be questioned, how are we to ground any moral statements that might be made?

While I've got some ideas, for now, I'll just summarize what I see as the salient points from today's post:

1) objective and subjective morality are mutually exclusive;

2) a source of morality is not "good" or "right" just because it's objective relative to the agents;

3) any source of morality can be questioned;

4) per 3, the Euthyphro dilemma arises regardless of the source we attribute morality to, hence it lacks meaning as an argument against any particular source of morality.

Are we on the same page? If not, where do we disagree?

16 Comments

  1. Jayman says:

    cl:
    1) objective and subjective morality are mutually exclusive
    This depends on how you define objective and subjective morality. Depending on the definition, there can be a blurring of the line between the two. Alonzo Fyfe believes that morality concerns the objective relationships between subjective human desires. He’s less concerned with whether desirism is objective or subjective than with whether it is true or false.
    2) a source of morality is not “good” or “right” just because it’s objective relative to the agents
    Can you define “good” and “right” in such a way that there will be a clear line between objective and subjective morality? I’m not disagreeing with your second point, I’m just interested in how it works with the first point.
    3) any source of morality can be questioned
    But if your moral theory is true, those questions should be able to be answered.
    4) per 3, the Euthyphro dilemma arises regardless of the source we attribute morality to, hence it lacks meaning as an argument against any particular source of morality
    The Euthyphro dilemma might be useful to the extent that it forces us to consider whether a moral theory is arbitrary or not. Is your “objective morality” so objective that it has no connection to moral agents? Is your “subjective morality” so subjective that it fails to transcend individual moral agents? Of course, this doesn’t rule out the truthfulness of any theory.

  2. cl says:

    He’s less concerned with whether desirism is objective or subjective than with whether it is true or false.

    As am I, but part of my argument is that desirism’s subjectivity prevents it from being true: it can’t actually tell us what desires are good, only what desires are good relative to fulfilling other desires.

    Can you define “good” and “right” in such a way that there will be a clear line between objective and subjective morality?

    When considering all human beings as the set of agents, the clear line between objective and subjective morality is whether or not a source of morality outside humans exist, at least, that’s the sole criteria I’m looking at. I’m not sure how one can define “good” and “right” in such a way as to make that line any more clear. Or, maybe I misunderstood what you’re asking?

    ..if your moral theory is true, those questions should be able to be answered.

    I agree. I didn’t necessarily mean that any moral theory can be questioned, though any of them can — and as you say — if they are true, they should be able to answer. I’m simply noting that any source of morality can be questioned, meaning that whoever we replace God with, we can ask, “is X good because X is good, or because whoever we replaced God with said it’s good?”

    Of course, this doesn’t rule out the truthfulness of any theory.

    If you’re just saying that Euthyphro’s dilemma doesn’t rule out the truthfulness of any theory, I agree.
    When it comes to desirism, one thing I get hung up on is Fyfe’s statement that “good is such as to fulfill the desires in question.” I think capable would be a more accurate word there. I don’t see the mere fact that X fulfills more and stronger desires than it thwarts as grounds to call X good.
    Do you?

  3. Dominic Saltarelli says:

    Oh cl…. cl, cl, cl, cl, cl… You’ve got some maturing to do yet, me bucko.
    You’ve defined objective morality to indistinguishable from the desirism that you’re going to take at hand at dismantling later. The definitions that you’ve provided are that objective morality is one where the moral good is determined based upon consequences, and subjective morality is one that simply disregards consequences (such as the squirrels who decide to live in the oak tree knowing full well that its suicide).
    Next, you’re invoking Euthyphro’s Dilemma. The dilemma only exists in a polytheist paradigm, where the dilemma is deciding whether something is good according to the will of the Gods…
    Gods… plural.
    Gods who can and did disagree with each other. Thus the dilemma. Is morality determined by that which pleases the Gods or not, if so how is it they disagree, if not, then what else could possible make this determination?
    Using your own definition of objective morality, so long as the determination is based on consequences, then there is no possible way for Euthyphro’s dilemma to apply. Objective morality can be as hard a science as physics in such a case, you only need to start with an arbitrary list of criteria for desirable consequences as axiomatic and go from there (take for example, whether not it kills you). Further, since objective morality is purely consequential, the “moral field” reduces to evolutionary group selection.
    If you want to take down desirism, take the Vox Day approach and focus on its real world consequences rather than its philosophical structure. As it stands, you’ve thrown in the towel before the fight even started.

  4. Dominic Saltarelli says:

    gah… so many typos… don’t think lesser of me for them, I guess I’m just gettin’ old.

  5. Jayman says:

    cl:

    As am I, but part of my argument is that desirism’s subjectivity prevents it from being true: it can’t actually tell us what desires are good, only what desires are good relative to fulfilling other desires.

    What desires are good are those desires that tend to fulfill other desires. While desires are subjective, it is an objective fact that some desires will tend to fulfill other desires.

    When considering all human beings as the set of agents, the
    clear line between objective and subjective morality is whether or not a source of morality outside humans exist, at least, that’s the sole criteria I’m looking at. I’m not sure how one can define “good” and “right” in such a way as to make that line any more clear. Or, maybe I misunderstood what you’re asking?

    What I’m trying to say is that I don’t see how we can come up with a definition of “good” that is (1) not arbitrary and (2) not based on human nature to some degree. For example, if something is good solely because God says it is good, then goodness is arbitrary. On the other hand, if God says something is good because it will lead to human happiness, then goodness is not arbitrary but it does have some basis in human nature.

    I’m simply noting that any source of morality can be questioned, meaning that whoever we replace God with, we can ask, “is X good because X is good, or because whoever we replaced God with said it’s good?”

    A strength of desirism is that even if you don’t agree with its definition of “good” it still remains a fact that your desires will factor in to the intentional actions you take.

    When it comes to desirism, one thing I get hung up on is Fyfe’s statement that “good is such as to fulfill the desires in question.” I think capable would be a more accurate word there.

    He admits that desire X may not always fulfill other desires. I think he would say that if desire X fulfills desire A 90% of the time and desire Y fulfills desire A 10% of the time then you should promote desire X (all other things being equal).

    I don’t see the mere fact that X fulfills more and stronger desires than it thwarts as grounds to call X good. Do you?

    I think it’s a pretty good definition.

  6. Sung Jun says:

    Here’s yet another contribution I have that has a tangential relationship to the topic at hand but not a direct connection:
    Just the other day, me and a friend had a small argument about whether dolphins would have comparable morality to human beings. We both agreed upon the fact that we don’t really know enough about their society to gauge what they think is “moral,” however, I closed it with, “Whether or not what they do is still right, however, is up for debate.”
    cl, do you have some sort of tap into my mind that prompts you to write about whatever religious/ethical/supernatural/etc. topic I happen to be thinking about?

  7. Sung Jun says:

    (Okay, maybe “tangential” is not quite the right word … how about “synchronicitous?”)

  8. cl says:

    Dominic,

    Oh cl…. cl, cl, cl, cl, cl… You’ve got some maturing to do yet, me bucko.

    Really now! Yours must be a whopper of a comment, then!
    No, seriously though, I think you’ve either misinterpreted some things I’ve said, and/or gotten a little ahead of yourself.

    You’ve defined objective morality to [be] indistinguishable from the desirism that you’re going to take [a] hand at dismantling later. (Brackets mine)

    If in fact you intended the words in brackets, perhaps we disagree as to whether desirism constitutes objective or subjective morality: I say that desirism is subjective because it ultimately relies on the dispositions of subjects to make its proclamations.

    The definitions that you’ve provided are that objective morality is one where the moral good is determined based upon consequences, and subjective morality is one that simply disregards consequences

    Not exactly: the definitions I provided were that objective morality denotes some external source of morality (i.e. God or a moral field), whereas subjective morality is imposed by either ourselves (in individual considerations) or the majority (in social considerations).

    The dilemma only exists in a polytheist paradigm,

    Yes, that’s the common inference people make, but think deeper: the question “is X good because X is good, or because Y says it’s good” has meaning in all but one instance of Y. Even in the monotheist paradigm: that there is only one God doesn’t necessarily mean that decrees of that God are good.

    Using your own definition of objective morality, so long as the determination is based on consequences, then there is no possible way for Euthyphro’s dilemma to apply.

    Kind of: using my definition of objective morality, so long as there is a truly good source of morality outside ourselves, there is no possible way for the dilemma to apply. If the moral field happened to be truly good, or if God is at least omniscient and omnibenevolent, then the dilemma cannot apply because the first question, “Is X good because it is good” can be answered in the affirmative: if the moral field is a truly good source of morality, then X becomes good because X is in fact good. Similarly, if God knows all possible actions and only decrees good actions, then X becomes good because X is in fact good.

    If you want to take down desirism, take the Vox Day approach and focus on its real world consequences rather than its philosophical structure. As it stands, you’ve thrown in the towel before the fight even started.

    Not even close: I’m focusing on real-world consequences and philosophical structure, I don’t necessarily want to “take down desirism,” and I’d really be interested in hearing a better explanation of why you think I’ve thrown in towel before the fight can get started. Maybe I’m missing something.

  9. faithlessgod says:

    CL
    “If an objective source of morality such as God or some sort of moral field exists, then we have real-world reason (i.e., something besides individual or group opinion) to ground moral statements, which are essentially answers to “should” questions of any sort.”
    This is a contradiction. You both define objective morality as being different to individual or group opinion and then assert that God’s opinion is is the source for an objective morality!

  10. cl says:

    You [both] define objective morality as being different to individual or group opinion..

    Did you mean indifferent, perhaps? If so, your paraphrase is accurate enough that I’d call it correct, but..

    ..and then [you] assert that God’s opinion is is the source for an objective morality!

    I asserted no such thing (cf. 2).

  11. Dominic Saltarelli says:

    Before I state this, let me lay it out there that I agree with you, there’s nothing objectively moral about any of the moral statements desirism generates given it is nothing but glorified mob rule that would destroy any group or civilization that took it seriously, contradicting its own rather absurd premise of desire fulfillment.
    I mean, say you have a bunch of people who get really, royally pissed off, and decide to go wreck something, but only feel slightly bad about having done so later, and the owner of the ‘something’ is just one person, nothing compared to the earlier mob. Desirism, with its desire fulfillment formula of weighing stronger desires vs. weaker ones would call the act of vandalism an objective good, since it fulfilled more, stronger desires than it thwarted. I mean, damn, this is the scene whenever your hometown’s team loses the Superbowl. How is anyone w/ half a brain supposed to take crap like that seriously?
    My only criticism of your approach is internal coherence. The conclusion reached is spot on (that desirism is not objective, even by its own standards).
    I’ll try to clarify my position here. The terms “good morality” and “bad morality”, lacking the benefit of context, are by themselves oxymorons. Morality points to the “good”, by definition. When this context is provided with a moral dilemma, there is one and only one way to objectively state that there is a correct answer rather than a preferred one (good moral vs. bad moral), and that is via consideration of the consequences.
    When the matter of preference, or ‘desire’, to put in the context of the discussion at large, is strictly limited to evaluating end consequences, then and only then can you objectively distinguish between edicts, thoughts, and actions that have consequences, irrespective of the source.
    You pointed all this out yourself quite clearly in the original post:

    Note that by my aforementioned definition of objective morality, Farmer Bill represents an objective source of morality relative to the squirrels, in the sense that he is the source of a moral imperative with real-world consequences that remain in effect regardless of the squirrels’ consensus about the matter.

    Hell, you could’ve just stopped there.
    But you didn’t. The contradiction that caught my attention (and faithlessgod’s as well) is drifting from a solid base of defining objectivity based on consequences to simply calling it an inhuman source of proclamations in an effort to ‘de-objectivize’ desirism.
    It doesn’t matter, at all, who makes the rules, only what enforces them. This is why I said to focus on what actually happens
    when desirism is applied to generate moral statements rather than spinning your wheels trying to get away with saying its not objective because it needs people to generate the statements.

  12. faithlessgod says:

    Of course you do not explictly make such an assertion otherwise your claim would be blatantly contradictory. However this is implicit in what I have read you write about God.
    So are now asserting that God has no opinion? If so then you are saying that your God does not exist.
    If you assert that God has opinions then you cannot assert, without contradiction, that morality is objective. Since you make your God the necessary grounds for objective morality that God too cannot exist.
    Either way your god does not exist and so cannot be the basis for an objective morality.

  13. faithlessgod says:

    You said in a comment “I say that desirism is subjective because it ultimately relies on the dispositions of subjects to make its proclamations.”
    However you defined subjective as being based on individuals or group opinions and these are two different usages of “subjective” – you are committing the fallacy of equivocation.
    According to your own stated definition of subjective desirism is objective, (and in another comment I deal with the contradictions your own theory has with respect to objective).
    However with your new definition of subjective your god is most certainly subjective – unless you wish to deny your god has desires and dispositions.

  14. faithlessgod says:

    Since Vox Day’s approach openly takes the subjective horn of the Euthyphro dilemma, I hardly think such argument would help cl in his case here trying to make god the basis for an objective morality.

  15. faithlessgod says:

    ” it is nothing but glorified mob rule that would destroy any group or civilization that took it seriously, ”
    This is not desirism as I have repeatedly made clear. Desirism is a very powerful, simple and elegant model to criticise mob rule far more powerful, determinate and consistent than any theistic-based theory which is just as likely to be used to justify mob rule as to deter it.
    You are not going to learn about desirism from cl, given he is still just talking about an act utilitarianism. In his latest post the first comment provides three links for you to properly explore what desirism entails, if you are really interested in trying to find the best moral theory.

  16. faithlessgod says:

    Just a qualification to my last line. I am not saying it is the best theory (although I think it currently is), but that if you are interested in finding the best theory, you should at least understand it from its proponents and the same goes for any other theory, then you can make up your mind as to what is best.
    In addition, from my research, I hold that theistic-based morality is the worst moral type of theory that has ever existed and if we want to make the world a better place we need to at a minimum stop wasting time on such (meta-ethically) bad theories.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *