Surviving Philosophy: Objective & Subjective

Have you ever been in one of those conversations where somebody defines the word God so loosely that it becomes near-meaningless? If so, how did that make you feel?

Here’s the thing about philosophy: it’s great for sharpening one’s wit. It’s excellent for exploring the history of human questioning. It’s useful in that it can lend itself to both personal enrichment as well as social edification. However, as a means of uncovering truth, philosophy has disadvantages. Severe disadvantages.

If you get down to it, philosophies are a lot like software bundles. Anybody can make anything, and none of the code has to agree, because there is no independent standard, only practiced conventions at best. This means nobody is ever right or wrong! If you don’t believe me, just run a search for “strict model-view-controller logic” and see what I mean.

The more I engage in it, the more I can see why plenty of scientists refuse to take philosophy seriously, despite the fact that science itself is founded on various philosophical concepts. What are those, anyways?

I mean, philosophical concepts. Ontologically, do they reduce to purely abstract ideas? Or, is there a sense in which they can rightfully be described as analogous to scientific laws? That is, do philosophical concepts ever map to real-world objects?

I ask this question because it seems that, when backed into a corner, any “philosopher” can simply start redefining things to save face. I feel this is exactly what happened in the DCT conversation we’ve been having. For example, when confronted with the claim that DCT is objective, Luke Muehlhauser can simply reply, “Oh, that’s not how I define DCT.” And really, who am I to tell Luke he’s wrong? We’re all free to define things however we want, right?

Well then. Debate settled! DCT can never be objective, because DCT is defined as, “morality based on God’s arbitrary attitudes.” Better yet, Luke Muehlhauser’s claim that DCT is subjective can never be falsified, because DCT is defined as “morality based on God’s arbitrary attitudes.” See? DCT is subjective by definition. Are these types of philosophical debates actually helping anybody get closer to the truth about anything?

On the other hand, philosophy is awesome, and I can’t justify abandoning it simply because it’s not as conducive to truth-finding as I might like. So, I’ve asked myself: is there anything I can do to help at least myself or others? I will tell you right up front that I’m probably going to fail miserably, but I can try, and I think a great place to start would be with the words objective and subjective. At the very least, I wish to improve my own command of the words.

I felt the first step should be to identify the various ways these words are used, both in everyday language and in academic context. I suppose I should state that I’m on the West Coast of the United States of America, so, this analysis reflects my exposure to language patterns here. If you can think of ways the words are used that I’ve missed, by all means, help us out.

1) I frequently hear people use the word objective as a synonym for fair or impartial. “You’re not being objective” is an example of a sentence using the word objective as a synonym for fair or impartial. I would consider this a more common usage, with little or no practical import to philosophy. That’s not really what I’m interested in.

2) In my experience, the word subjective is used primarily to denote propositions whose truth varies from person to person, for example any and all preferences: “Chocolate is the best ice cream,” or “Basketball is the hardest sport.” At least part of the reason people use subjective thus is because it conveys an opinion, and opinions enjoy this odd sort of privilege in which they are only true for people who have them. As such, most people recognize an implicit distinction between opinions and facts.

3) However, in spite of their similarity, note that “Jan likes chocolate ice cream” or “Johnny skateboards” would not be subjective propositions, for at least one reason: they retain “true for everybody” status. A person named Jan exists, and likes chocolate ice cream. A person named Johnny exists, and skateboards. Of course, Wendy could simply declare that Jan actually detests chocolate ice cream, or that Johnny actually rides rollerblades, but neither nullifies the fact that Jan actually likes chocolate ice cream, and Johnny actually skateboards.

In other words, to use objective in this sense is to convey a fact, and facts cannot change via adjustments in attitude. So, in this sense, we – meaning people who accept conventional Western language – refer to these types of propositions as objective, and their truth does not vary from person to person. Objective propositions retain “true for everybody” status.

Now, here’s where it can get confusing, and I’m hoping this helps at least one other person to better understand the exercise in miscommunication that is desirism, which I’ll explore again in the next post: It is also an objective fact that Jan has a subjective preference for chocolate ice cream.

Tricky, eh?

In that sense, the word objective still denotes a proposition whose truth cannot vary from person to person. IOW, that Jan likes chocolate ice cream is true for everybody, in the same way it is true for everybody that, ignoring air resistance, an object falling freely near the Earth’s surface increases its velocity by 9.81 m/s (32.2 ft/s or 22 mph) for each second of its descent. It is impossible to change the truth value of either claim via mere change in attitudes, as should be the case with any objective theory.

By the way, what does it mean to ask the question, “Is a theory objective?”

Well – unfortunately – that’s going to vary from person to person, so here we are back at the problem of definitions again. When I ask that question, I’m questioning at least two things: whether a proposition maps to reality, and whether that proposition elevates beyond the level of opinion. That is to say, does the proposition refer to things that actually exist, and does it retain “true for everybody” status?

Consider the following depiction of the law of gravity:

The strength of the gravitational field is numerically equal to the acceleration of objects under its influence, and its value at the Earth’s surface, denoted g, is approximately expressed below as the standard average.

g = 9.81 m/s2 = 32.2 ft/s2

This means that, ignoring air resistance, an object falling freely near the Earth’s surface increases its velocity by 9.81 m/s (32.2 ft/s or 22 mph) for each second of its descent. Thus, an object starting from rest will attain a velocity of 9.81 m/s (32.2 ft/s) after one second, 19.6 m/s (64.4 ft/s) after two seconds, and so on, adding 9.81 m/s (32.2 ft/s) to each resulting velocity. Also, again ignoring air resistance, any and all objects, when dropped from the same height, will hit the ground at the same time.

I would say gravity is an objective theory because it maps to the real-world, and because it has that “true for everybody” status. If a theory of gravity did not meet both of those criteria, I would not consider it an objective theory. If somebody decides to redefine gravity as something besides g = 9.81 m/s2 = 32.2 ft/s2, quite simply, they are in error.

Now – I don’t wish to explore this objection in full today – but as with all other language conventions, units of measurement are simply conventions. It is true that humans could have arbitrarily invented different units of measurement to write a law of gravity. That is to say, g = 9.81 m/s2 = 32.2 ft/s2 is a contingent description. It could be different, and, given a different universe, the real-world entities it maps to could differ, too. However, what presumably cannot differ is the state of affairs that actually exists irrespective of contingent conventions in any given universe. I hope that makes sense. I’ve had a lot of coffee this morning.

So, what would you say?

Do you have anything to add to the definitions of objective and subjective I’ve provided?

Did you see anything that you would consider problematic in the definitions and/or reasoning I’ve provided?

22 Comments

  1. bossmanham says:

    I don’t think other people’s hard headedness is a reason to discount the use of philosophy. I mean that’s impossible anyway. Philosophy is in everything we do. I also think the reason science is in the abysmal state it’s in is because scientists don’t know how to reason properly and don’t understand the limits that science faces. That’s why we get ridiculous proclamations about evolution, relativity, cosmology, quantum physics, etc.

  2. tmp says:

    “Tricky, eh?”

    Desirism loves semantic trickery. I initially objected “It’s not objective” but I was mistaken with the scope. Then I objected “but it’s not a moral theory”, but moral theories are allowed to make statements about nature of morality. Then I objected “but it’s antirealism”, but it is antirealism only under the commonly used definition of morality. So I must (reluctantly) agree that while desirism stretches these definitions nearly to breaking point, it does qualify. Of course, stretching means that these concepts lose most of the meaning they should have.

    “So, what would you say?”

    I don’t see what units of measurements have to do with anything, but I think the theory of gravity is very objective, because the scope of the things it deals with is defined by a real world phenomenon. Using desirism as a counterexample, it is objective inside its scope, but the definition of this scope is arbitrary, which I believe must be allowed(there are many useful theories that do this). It’s calling this limited scope “morality” that seems to be making a subjective claim to me(or objective but false), but morality is traditionally pretty fuzzy area, so I’m going to give them the benefit of doubt.

  3. woodchuck64 says:

    Are these types of debates actually helping anybody?

    I think it definitely helps because it highlights equivocation when it occurs. Equivocation is easy to do because terms are linked in our heads to many other concepts and if we start redefining those terms in a way that is not quite consistent with our background “neural network”, we can make a fallacious argument that feels right without ever realizing it. You and Luke don’t see eye to eye on on many things, but I see major agreement on the importance of defining and understanding words and language (i.e. his Intro to Language series http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=7760).

    While what I said is true for words like “objective”/”subjective”, I don’t think it applies to a term like “DCT” for which few have extensive experience. I personally wouldn’t agree that DCT is subjective or objective based solely on a couple sentences from anyone; it’s clearly a complex topic requiring a lot of reading and analysis.

    objective … whether a proposition maps to reality, and whether that proposition elevates beyond the level of opinion.

    Not completely certain why we need both of these for objectivity since they seem to bleed together. That is, anything that most everyone agrees on, also seems to be what most everyone agrees is reality, and vice-versa. Further, we can always find someone who disagrees with any given proposition, so it seems that “objective” might be a gradient rather than a strictly true/false concept which varies according to the ratio of opinions. Not meaning that opinions define reality, but rather that our perception of reality or perception of objectivity seems to be limited by the extent that we agree on observations.

  4. Garren says:

    If “Jan likes chocolate ice cream” is true for everyone, but this can “change via adjustments in attitude” (since an adjustment to Jan’s attitude can change the truth for everyone) does it count as objective or subjective?

  5. cl says:

    Glad to have you drop by.

    Speaking only for myself, I would say it’s truth – and by “it” there, I refer to the proposition, “Jan likes chocolate ice cream” – remains an objective truth, in the same way that it is objectively true to say, “I live at 123 Some Street” one year, and “I live at 456 Another Street” another year.

    Take the proposition, “Larry likes pedophilia.” Again, objectively true unless or until Larry dislikes pedophilia.

    However, as far as I understand moral realism, the question needs to be, “Is there some fact of the universe – a fact impervious to human attitudes that retains “true for everybody” status – by which we can truthfully make a moral claim of the type, “Larry ought or ought-not like pedophilia?”

    I define moral realists as people who say “yes,” and moral anti-realists as people who say “no.” I do not see any viable manner in which a desirist can answer “yes” to that question.

    At the very least, that should help clarify what I mean with some of these morbidly confusing terms.

  6. ^owever, as far as I understand moral realism, the question needs to be, “Is there some fact of the universe – a fact impervious to human attitudes that retains “true for everybody” status – by which we can truthfully make a moral claim of the type, “Larry ought or ought-not like pedophilia?”^

    ok but to argue from the desirist side isn’t ^the fact that people generally don’t prefer pedophilia^ a ^true for everyone^ thing? isn’t that fact also ^impervious to human attitudes^ to use your exact words?

    if you say yes then why isn’t desirism objective? not that i’m desirist i’m only trying to see from all angles

  7. tmp says:

    “I define moral realists as people who say ‘yes,’ and moral anti-realists as people who say ‘no.'”

    As do I. However, the actual definition really is like Alonzo uses it. And yes, it makes no sense.

    “I do not see any viable manner in which a desirist can answer ‘yes’ to that question.”

    And they do not even try. Well, I think Alonzo does not(at least not anymore); there seem to be some (not Alonzo or Luke) who do.

  8. tmp says:

    …about subjective theories.

    I think I figured out where our difference lies; you define subjective theory as something that is about subjective matters, and I define it as something that makes subjective claims.

    And yes, I don’t see there being desirist objective moral value. However, nor do I see any need for it.

  9. tmp says:

    In addition, there is a subtle difference with “objective moral theory” and “theory of objective morality”. In the first case the THEORY is objective, in the second the MORALITY is. :)

    And objective moral value is something of a oxymoron, unless value can exist without a valuer.

  10. cl says:

    …you define subjective theory as something that is about subjective matters, and I define it as something that makes subjective claims.

    What’s the difference? Can you explain exactly what you mean by “subjective matters” and “subjective claims?” No offense, but I’m so sick of going around in circles with people that I really can’t muster the energy anymore, unless I know exactly what you mean by the words you use.

    And yes, I don’t see there being desirist objective moral value. However, nor do I see any need for it.

    Without it, we’re forever doomed to subjectivity. If there is no truthful way to say, “You ought not X,” then all moral claims reduce to variants of “I like” or “I dislike.” If that’s the case, then who the hell is Alonzo Fyfe or anyone else to condemn us because we like what they don’t like?

    However, the real point – for me at least – is that Luke and Alonzo pretend desirism is an objective theory – something like a science of morality – when it is not.

    In addition, there is a subtle difference with “objective moral theory” and “theory of objective morality”. In the first case the THEORY is objective, in the second the MORALITY is. :)

    Can you elaborate? What, exactly, do you mean when you say “objective moral theory?” What, exactly, do you mean when you say “theory of objective morality?” I gave my precise definitions in the OP. If you’re not using those, let me know.

    And objective moral value is something of a oxymoron, unless value can exist without a valuer.

    If we take the assumption that all theories reduce to explanations proffered by sentient beings – which I do – then no theory can ever exist “objectively” [as in outside the minds of sentient beings]. Of course, I agree to that, which leaves me wondering, why did you bring it up?

  11. tmp says:

    “What’s the difference?”

    If you say “I think that chocolate icecream is better than strawberry icecream” you are just describing a subjective preference. If you say just “Chocolate icecream is better than strawberry icecream” you are making a subjective claim. Now, you could make a theory that claims that there is something in human genome that makes humans in general to prefer chocolate over strawberries and this theory would be objective, even if it deals with subjective preference.

    “No offense, but I’m so sick of going around in circles with people that I really can’t muster the energy anymore, unless I know exactly what you mean by the words you use.”

    Really, the very first part of any argument (especially on internet) should be trying to find out what the other party means. Often there is no argument after all.

    “Without it, we’re forever doomed to subjectivity.”

    Yes. Yes, we are. But not in the scope that desirism deals in.

    “If there is no truthful way to say, ‘You ought not X,'”

    There is. “If you desire not to get burned, you ought not touch the fire.”

    “all moral claims reduce to variants of ‘I like’ or ‘I dislike.'”

    Yes. And desirist moral(desirist definition) prescription is “If you like X, you ought to do Y(it’s the best way to achieve X)”. Note that the prescpription can be perfectly objective(in relation to the likes of the agent that the prescription is given to).

    “then who the hell is Alonzo Fyfe or anyone else to condemn us because we like what they don’t like?”

    What Alonzo seems to claim is that, say, “people in general” do not like child molestation. Thus, “people in general” should condemn child molestation. If someone in particular happens to enjoy molesting children, then of course that person in particular should not condemn it.

    “What, exactly, do you mean when you say ‘objective moral theory?'”

    It’s a theory that deals with morality objectively. Morality itself can be subjective, but if it is, the theory can not claim that any particular action is (objectively) right or wrong.

    “exactly, do you mean when you say ‘theory of objective morality?'”

    This would be any theory where morality itself is objective. It is possible to ascribe objective rightness or wrongness to actions(if the definition of morality used includes these concepts, of course).

    This is of course all semantic trickery, and I would personally avoid this wherever possible, but I still believe that Alonzo has some claim for objectivity, if only by the strict literal definition. I’d personally describe desirism as “statistical subjectivism”, but that’s just me.

    “then no theory can ever exist ‘objectively’ [as in outside the minds of sentient beings]”

    Well, what I meant is that value claims seem to be by definition subjective. e.g. “sky is blue” -> objective, “forest is green” -> objective, “sky is more beautiful than forest” -> subjective(beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all).

    “Of course, I agree to that, which leaves me wondering, why did you bring it up?”

    My mistake. I think you, in an earlier post, protested Luke’s definition of objective moral value, and it seems to me that the entire concept of objective value is a bit off. It slipped to this one.

  12. tmp says:

    “When I ask that question, I’m questioning at least two things: whether a proposition maps to reality, and whether that proposition elevates beyond the level of opinion.”

    BTW, do note that desirism seems to fulfill both of these conditions. Well, at least if one does thorough enough research before making a prescription.

  13. cl says:

    If you say “I think that chocolate icecream is better than strawberry icecream” you are just describing a subjective preference.

    I agree to that as stated.

    If you say just “Chocolate icecream is better than strawberry icecream” you are making a subjective claim.

    Not sure what to say there. I think the person who – without any further explanation – simply says, “Chocolate icecream is better than strawberry icecream” is still expressing a subjective preference. In my experience with ordinary language, that is what most people who make variants of the claim, “X is better than Y” are expressing: “I like X more than Y.”

    However, if by “better” that person means something like, “Less harmful to the body,” then we have an objective claim that is either true or false regardless of human attitudes about the matter.

    I consider a “subjective claim” to be any claim that cannot be verified objectively. I would consider, “I experienced a ghost” to be a better example of a subjective claim.

    Now, you could make a theory that claims that there is something in human genome that makes humans in general to prefer chocolate over strawberries and this theory would be objective, even if it deals with subjective preference.

    I agree, in the sense that “something in the genome makes humans prefer chocolate” is either true or false regardless of human opinions about the matter.

    Without [objective morality], we’re forever doomed to subjectivity. [cl]

    Yes. Yes, we are. But not in the scope that desirism deals in.

    You’ve lost me. How does desirism escape the problem?

    Yes. And desirist moral(desirist definition) prescription is “If you like X, you ought to do Y(it’s the best way to achieve X)”.

    That makes it a prescription of pragmatism, not morality, unless of course you simply redefine “morality” to “getting what one wants.” Then, and only then, would it make sense to say, “If you like X you should do Y” is a moral prescription.

    What Alonzo seems to claim is that, say, “people in general” do not like child molestation. Thus, “people in general” should condemn child molestation. If someone in particular happens to enjoy molesting children, then of course that person in particular should not condemn it.

    Whoever doesn’t desire state of affairs X has reason to act such as to prevent state of affairs X – and probably will. That doesn’t say anything that people haven’t known for millennia. The question is, which states of affairs X should or should not be acted upon, and how do we answer the question? If we appeal to the attitudes of “people generally,” then we’re just defining morality by whatever attitudes people have at the moment.

    Morality itself can be subjective, but if it is, the theory can not claim that any particular action is (objectively) right or wrong.

    Well, you completely avoided an actual definition, which is what would really help me understand you, but, yes, I agree. Therefore, desirism cannot claim that any action is objectively right or wrong. That’s exactly what makes it not an objective theory.

    This is of course all semantic trickery, and I would personally avoid this wherever possible,

    Then define your terms. When I ask, “What do you mean by objective morality?” to reply, “a theory that deals with morality objectively” is no help at all. What do you mean, exactly, when you say “objective” and “subjective?”

    Well, what I meant is that value claims seem to be by definition subjective. e.g. “sky is blue” -> objective, “forest is green” -> objective, “sky is more beautiful than forest” -> subjective(beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all).

    I can follow that, and I agree. So, which type of claim is the desirist claim? I say that desirist claims reduce to value claims, and therefore cannot be imposed upon those who don’t share the values.

    My mistake. I think you, in an earlier post, protested Luke’s definition of objective moral value, and it seems to me that the entire concept of objective value is a bit off. It slipped to this one.

    I actually used Luke’s definitions of “subjective” and “objective” to support my conclusion that desirism is a subjective theory, meaning, it is grounded in the attitudes of persons. That’s correct.

    When I ask that question, I’m questioning at least two things: whether a proposition maps to reality, and whether that proposition elevates beyond the level of opinion. [cl]

    BTW, do note that desirism seems to fulfill both of these conditions. Well, at least if one does thorough enough research before making a prescription.

    Desirism “maps to reality” in the sense that agents with desires exist. Desirism elevates beyond the level of opinion – superficially – in that it objectifies a set subjective preferences. However, those subjective preferences reduce to opinions, attitudes, and intuitions, so any desirist prescription is irrevocably dependent on human opinions, attitudes, and intuitions.

    Anyone who claims otherwise needs to answer this question: if “people generally” preferred chocolate ice cream, should they condemn fans of vanilla ice cream? I will say right up front that no serious thinker will say “yes” to that question. So, why do things change when we switch the preference from chocolate ice cream to pederasty? Smoking? Trash TV?

  14. tmp says:

    “Not sure what to say there.”

    My mistake; I should have used third person. e.g. the difference between “Bob thinks that X” and just “X”. This is more relevant when writing any kind of theories.

    “I consider a ‘subjective claim’ to be any claim that cannot be verified objectively.”

    I’m more inclined to think any claim that has value judgement or preference(without external metric, like best for some practical purpose). If we had means for detecting ghosts, “I experienced a ghost” could be verified.

    “You’ve lost me. How does desirism escape the problem?”

    It does not deal with it; morality is defined in a way that it is not an issue.

    “That makes it a prescription of pragmatism, not morality, unless of course you simply redefine ‘morality’ to ‘getting what one wants.’”

    Actually, I believe that the desirist definition is the interaction between (moral) agents. And yes, the (hypothetical) prescriptions are purely pragmatic.

    “That doesn’t say anything that people haven’t known for millennia.”

    I have commented earlier, that I believe that desirism states the blindingly obvious in a needlessly complicated way. :)

    “The question is, which states of affairs X should or should not be acted upon, and how do we answer the question?”

    I do not believe desirism tries to actually answer that question. Or rather, that it initially tried but Alonzo found out that it did not work, and it was dropped.

    “Well, you completely avoided an actual definition”

    The problem is, that there is a huge amount of wiggle room in “objective moral theory”. (If we allow that a moral theory can define what morality is)

    “Therefore, desirism cannot claim that any action is objectively right or wrong.”

    I agree. The point is, rightness or wrongness of action is outside the scope of the theory, and thus has no effect on its subjectivity or objectivity.

    “Then define your terms.”

    We are not talking about my terms, but Alonzo’s terms. Or, well, my best interpretation of them.

    “What do you mean by objective morality?”

    Morality that is not dependent of human opinion. Note that you can neatly bypass any significant meaning by using suitable definition of “morality”.

    “so any desirist prescription is irrevocably dependent on human opinions, attitudes, and intuitions.”

    This is correct. However, the process of forming prescription based on those opinions can be (reasonably) objective. You can make a prescription how some third person can best achieve his desires without injecting any of your own values.

    “should they condemn fans of vanilla ice cream?”

    If vanilla ice cream somehow inhibits their ability to get chocolate ice cream and this condemnation does not have side effects like people thinking they are crazy and they themselves don’t think that it is too silly, yes. Or, if they believe that vanilla fans are inherently subhuman or something.

    “So, why do things change when we switch the preference from chocolate ice cream to pederasty?”

    They don’t. The only difference is that “people generally” tend to dislike pederasty significantly more than they dislike vanilla ice cream.

  15. cl says:

    Brackets mine, for clarity:

    I’m more inclined to think that [subjective claims] are any claim that has value judgement or preference(without external metric, like best for some practical purpose).

    That works for me, and that would fall under my general definition as “any claim that cannot be verified objectively.” One programmer might think PHP is “best” for the practical purpose of making a website. Another might think Ruby on Rails is “best.” Both are subjective claims. Although, I think it’s worth pointing out — that both programmers think their preferences are “best” remains an objective fact [as distinct from an objective claim].

    If we had means for detecting ghosts, “I experienced a ghost” could be verified.

    I’m hesitant there. What I meant was, for any person who claims, “I experienced a ghost,” we cannot prove that they actually experienced a ghost. If we had proper means, we might be able to go to their house and detect a ghost, but even then, that doesn’t verify that they actually experienced a ghost. Either way, I can think of a better example of a subjective claim: Tony Hawk is the “best” skateboarder.

    Although, then again, it seems reasonable to say that matters of proficiency are objectively quantifiable. For example, if we had a baseball player who batted .500 and another who batted .110, it would seem objectively “true for everyone” that the former batter is “better” than the latter – at least during the season in question. So, the more I think about the boundaries between “objective” and “subjective,” the more they seem to blur, and that seems to suggest that more work is necessary.

    It does not deal with it; morality is defined in a way that it is not an issue.

    I think I see what you mean, but I’m not sure. Presuming your third “it” refers to my remark about the desirist “being doomed to subjectivity,” how does redefining morality solve the problem? Because we’re no longer talking about what is “right” or “wrong,” but only means to an ends? IOW, we’re kind of side-stepping conventional moral questions in favor of pragmatism?

    I have commented earlier, that I believe that desirism states the blindingly obvious in a needlessly complicated way.

    I wholeheartedly agree, and find it very, very annoying.

    The question is, which states of affairs X should or should not be acted upon, and how do we answer the question? [cl]

    I do not believe desirism tries to actually answer that question.

    I know that Alonzo used to at least imply that he would answer that question. I don’t have the citation readily available, but I do have a fairly recent [as in this year] citation where Alonzo plainly states that the moral question concerns which desires we ought to promote. It may be the case that he abandoned that line of thinking, as you suggest — I’m not sure.

    The point is, rightness or wrongness of action is outside the scope of the theory, and thus has no effect on its subjectivity or objectivity.

    Okay, I see more clearly where you’re coming from now. At least, I see why you’re not behind my objection the same way I am. Rightness and wrongness are outside the scope of the theory because Alonzo redefines “morality” as means to an end [paraphrased], and means to an end has nothing to do with rightness and wrongness. In that regard, it makes no sense to complain that desirism eschews the conventional moral question, because it does not purport to answer it. Right? Is that an accurate paraphrase of what you’re saying?

    We are not talking about my terms, but Alonzo’s terms. Or, well, my best interpretation of them.

    I was talking about your terms, but, I think I can sufficiently understand where you’re coming from now.

    What do you mean by objective morality? [cl]

    Morality that is not dependent of human opinion.

    If you really meant “on” instead of “of” there, I agree.

    However, the process of forming prescription based on those opinions can be (reasonably) objective.

    In the sense that one can simply take an unbiased inventory of desires, correct?

    You can make a prescription how some third person can best achieve his desires without injecting any of your own values.

    I agree. The problem I see is, that’s not what Alonzo does in his “applied ethics” posts. Rather, he begins with something that he sees reasons to condemn – perhaps smoking, trash tv, spectator sports or electronic games – then uses nothing but the shoddiest of evidence and reasoning to conclude that “people generally” ought to respect his take on the matter.

    If vanilla ice cream somehow inhibits their ability to get chocolate ice cream and this condemnation does not have side effects like people thinking they are crazy and they themselves don’t think that it is too silly, yes. Or, if they believe that vanilla fans are inherently subhuman or something.

    Sorry, but that’s just 110% wrong to me. I do not believe that people should go around condemning other people simply because they have different preferences — especially in the absence of any objective right or wrong preferences that might sustain such condemnation.

    So, why do things change when we switch the preference from chocolate ice cream to pederasty? [cl]

    They don’t. The only difference is that “people generally” tend to dislike pederasty significantly more than they dislike vanilla ice cream.

    I think things do change. I don’t think Alonzo would even seriously consider the vanilla ice cream thing. I don’t think he would hesitate to describe the preference for vanilla as permissible. Yet, because pederasty so deeply offends his own moral intuitions, he claims the Greeks were “probably wrong” about it — and that without a shred of evidence or cogent argument.

  16. tmp says:

    “Another might think Ruby on Rails is ‘best.’ Both are subjective claims.”

    Best is pretty unspecific term. What they are really saying, is that they are best fit for their individual (subjective) styles of making websites. If the metric was, say, “most likely to have support in ten years” or “uses the least amount of hardware resources”, objective evaluation should be possible.

    “I’m hesitant there. What I meant was, for any person who claims, ‘I experienced a ghost,’ we cannot prove that they actually experienced a ghost.”

    But we can not usually prove that a person who claims that ‘I saw a black cat today’ is right either. That claim is still objectively true or false. I’d classify the ghost one as “objective, unprovable and likely wrong”.

    “I can think of a better example of a subjective claim: Tony Hawk is the ‘best’ skateboarder.”

    Again, we do not have a definition for “best” here. Which makes it an excellent subjective claim.

    “Although, then again, it seems reasonable to say that matters of proficiency are objectively quantifiable.”

    Yes, objective evaluation requires that the criteria of evaluation has been given. Then you can be objective in relation to that criteria.

    There is some fuzzines on the edges that I’m not entirely certain about(about my own definitions), but I think that we mostly agree here.

    “IOW, we’re kind of side-stepping conventional moral questions in favor of pragmatism?”

    Yes. We are solving difficult moral problems expediently by simply defining them out of morality.

    “I know that Alonzo used to at least imply that he would answer that question.”

    I actually have something of a problem with the disparity of what is being implied and what is outright stated. It is possible that I have missed or misunderstood something, of course.

    “Alonzo plainly states that the moral question concerns which desires we ought to promote”

    And the answer is … wait for it … those desires (in others) that help us fullfill our own desires.

    “Is that an accurate paraphrase of what you’re saying?”

    Yes. Mind you, Alonzo may imply something more, but I have not seen him making actual hard assertions.

    “The problem I see is, that’s not what Alonzo does in his ‘applied ethics’ posts.”

    Yes. I believe I have complained about this before, too. :)

    “then uses nothing but the shoddiest of evidence and reasoning to conclude that ‘people generally’ ought to respect his take on the matter. ”

    Yes. But he is gloriously, objectively, wrong. That has to count for something, right?

    “I do not believe that people should go around condemning other people simply because they have different preferences”

    Neither do I. And neither does desirism. Firstly, for the prescription(to condemn) to be valid, you need to either actually desire to condemn, or the condemation must have some utility for you. Secondly, if you are overzealous in your condemnation, someone may decide to hit you in the face. Most people desire to avoid this. This needs to be accounted for in the prescription.

    “I don’t think Alonzo would even seriously consider the vanilla ice cream thing.”

    There is perfectly valid reasons for avoiding condemning trivialites. It is not useful, and it would annoy people, and this would have negative consequences for the agent. The exception would be, if the agent actually deeply cared about some triviality, but “people in general” do not.

    “that without a shred of evidence or cogent argument.”

    You are pretty much preaching to the choir here…

  17. cl says:

    Best is pretty unspecific term. What they are really saying, is that they are best fit for their individual (subjective) styles of making websites.

    That’s my point, exactly.

    If the metric was, say, “most likely to have support in ten years” or “uses the least amount of hardware resources”, objective evaluation should be possible.

    I agree.

    But we can not usually prove that a person who claims that ‘I saw a black cat today’ is right either. That claim is still objectively true or false.

    I agree. Perhaps I’m wrong to say that “I saw a ghost today” is a subjective claim. I think it might be better described as “subjective evidence” or something similar. If I can better articulate what I mean, I will.

    Again, we do not have a definition for “best” here. Which makes it an excellent subjective claim.

    Yes, I agree. That was exactly the point.

    Yes. We are solving difficult moral problems expediently by simply defining them out of morality.

    Then I understood you correctly, and now I can state with more confidence that I disagree with this part of your preceding comment:

    The point is, rightness or wrongness of action is outside the scope of the theory…

    I believe Alonzo has to claim that rightness and wrongness are inside the scope of the theory. After all, Alonzo has very specific definitions for terms like “right act” [an act a person with good desires would perform] and “wrong act” [the act a person with good desires would not perform]. So I don’t know what to say there. I suppose we have to wait for desirism 2011 and/or episode 217 of the podcast!

    I actually have something of a problem with the disparity of what is being implied and what is outright stated.

    Join the club. It seems to me that many others – atheist and theist alike – share our concerns.

    The [moral] question is, which states of affairs X should or should not be acted upon, and how do we answer the question? [cl]

    I do not believe desirism tries to actually answer that question. [tmp]

    [but] Alonzo plainly states that the moral question concerns which desires we ought to promote… [cl]

    And the answer is – wait for it – those desires (in others) that help us fullfill our own desires. [tmp]

    Then, doesn’t that mean Alonzo the desirist actually does try to answer the question?

    …I have not seen [Alonzo] making actual hard assertions.

    How about,

    Desirism has nothing to say to a moral agent at the moment of decision. Any theory that claims that it DOES have something truthful to say to an agent at the moment of decision can be thrown out because what it has to say is false. -Alonzo Fyfe, Short-List Theories of Morality, September 3, 2010

    Seems pretty hard to me! But yeah, I tend to agree: Alonzo does seem to allow himself quite a bit of wriggle room.

    I do not believe that people should go around condemning other people simply because they have different preferences [cl]

    Neither do I. And neither does desirism.

    Desirism can’t believe anything, so that statement is meaningless. Alonzo, the desirist, says that we ought to condemn desires which tend to thwart other desires. Without any objective right or wrong, this amounts to desirists running around shooting condemnation from the hip, and – as you seem to agree – that’s exactly what Alonzo does.

    There are perfectly valid reasons for avoiding condemning trivialites. It is not useful, and it would annoy people, and this would have negative consequences for the agent.

    I agree, but who is the arbiter of triviality? You and I might agree that a preference for vanilla ice cream is trivial, but what about nudity? Pornography? Spectator sports? I say the desire to watch spectator sports is trivial. Alonzo says we should condemn people with that desire. Surely you can see the problem here — right?

    Anyways, I want to extend a hearty “thank you” for helping me think these things through. I’m pretty close to the point where I’ve said all I have to say, but I’ll definitely read any further responses and reply where I think it’s appropriate.

    Other than that, I’ve got heaps of work to do today, so, I’ll simply say enjoy the rest of your week, and I hope your holidays – if any – are restful and pleasant.

  18. woodchuck64 says:

    cl,

    Anyone who claims otherwise needs to answer this question: if “people generally” preferred chocolate ice cream, should they condemn fans of vanilla ice cream? I will say right up front that no serious thinker will say “yes” to that question. So, why do things change when we switch the preference from chocolate ice cream to pederasty? Smoking? Trash TV?

    Things change only when desires are reasonably seen to be thwarted. Everything I can think of that people do that thwarts desires in themselves or others seems to already be in, or close to, the realm of morality. For example, people I know that think smoking wrong base it primarily on their belief that it hurts (thwarts desires of) the person doing it

    If we appeal to the attitudes of “people generally,” then we’re just defining morality by whatever attitudes people have at the moment.

    Why is that subjective, though? Attitudes/preferences vary from person to person certainly, but what if all people shared the same attitude/preference, wouldn’t that attitude or preference then become objective? I.e. dislike of pain, need for companionship, desire for happiness, etc..

    I think objective/subjective are not necessarily black and white terms but vary according to the number of people that share an observation (and that observation could be of an introspective attitude/preference). If all people agree on an observation, it is as objective as it gets. If no one agrees on an observation, it is as subjective as it gets. In between, if more people agree on an observation than disagree, we could still call it more objective than subjective; likewise if more people disagree on an observation than agree, we could call it more subjective than objective. But it seems misleading to use the terms subjective/objective as if things can only be one or the other; as if some degree of subjectivity amid objectivity renders something entirely subjective or vice-versa. In a 60%-for/40%-against election of candidate Smith, I don’t think it would be fair to call it a subjective election even if there is a sizeable difference of preference among voters; likewise claiming it’s an objective fact that people prefer candidate Smith wouldn’t be warranted.

    If purely objective morality exists, all people should agree on it, if what I say above is correct. Since they don’t, either purely objective morality doesn’t exist, or people’s moral observations are flawed (or something else I wrote is wrong). If purely objective morality exists and people’s moral observations are flawed but we have no other observation that can reliably expose or correct those flawed moral observations, purely objective morality might as well not exist (here’s where I assume the atheist gives up on “objective morality” as traditionally defined, and also where the theist gets stuck trying to find a reliable moral observation method that will generate the same observations by all other theists).

    I think desirism says in affect that we need to find out what common social behavior a majority of people do observe in themselves and make that the basis for objective (but not “purely” objective since a minority always exists with uncommon social behavior) morality instead. That entails two main things I think, finding out what desires most people observe in themselves that fulfill/thwart desires, and persuading society to give up on “folk” morality and accept desirism’s definition instead.

  19. tmp says:

    “After all, Alonzo has very specific definitions for terms like ‘right act’ [an act a person with good desires would perform] and ‘wrong act’ [the act a person with good desires would not perform].”

    I’m under impression that these are tied to the dropped part. But I could very easily be wrong here. Alonzo is making podcasts now so we will (hopefully) see.

    “Then, doesn’t that mean Alonzo the desirist actually does try to answer the question?”

    My mistake. You were talking about states of affairs, and not desires. The Alonzo quote was about desires. But my understanding is that the answer to both is trivially pragmatic; an agent ought to promote desires that help him to fullfill his own desires, and those states of affairs that he desires to be true. Not because they are right or good, but because he desires them.

    “Seems pretty hard to me!”

    My mistake again. I should have said that I have not seen (recent) positive hard assertions that desirism makes determinations about righness or wrongness of action. This quote actually indicates that is does not. There are very few positive claims that I’m (reasonably) certain that desirism makes.

    “Desirism can’t believe anything, so that statement is meaningless.”

    Well, I meant that the theory does not prescribe it. I’m not a native speaker. :)

    “who is the arbiter of triviality”

    The mythical “people in general”. If it is not useful to “people in general” then you can not make a true (practical) prescription that “people in general” ought to do it.

    “You and I might agree that a preference for vanilla ice cream is trivial, but what about nudity? Pornography? Spectator sports?”

    Really, you just send a questionnaire to large enough sample of “people in general”, and if they answer that spectator sports are the root of all that is evil, you can justifiably make a prescription about how to condemn them.

    “I say the desire to watch spectator sports is trivial. Alonzo says we should condemn people with that desire. Surely you can see the problem here — right?”

    Yes. I believe this is simply case of Alonzo projecting his own desires on “people in general”. Of course, it is remotely possible that we are just weird and everyone else really does find spectator sports contemptible. :)

    “I’m pretty close to the point where I’ve said all I have to say”

    I think that I more or less understand your important points and vice versa. Communication with the goal of undestanding is a wonderful thing. Educational, also. I’m going to echo your sentiment, and hope that your week will be enjoyable too.

  20. cl says:

    woodchuck64,

    For example, people I know that think smoking wrong base it primarily on their belief that it hurts (thwarts desires of) the person doing it

    Yeah, and I bet many – maybe even most or all of those same people – also believe that getting in their car and driving to work is right, because it fulfills the desires of the person doing it. Yet, the industrial culture we’ve built seems to be in real danger of thwarting more than fulfilling the collective desires of humanity. So, how can a person say both that smoking is wrong because it thwarts desires of the agent, but driving to work is right because it fulfills them? Isn’t that a sort of cherrypicked reasoning?

    Besides, your rejoinder simply brings us back to the same old problem: with no math, Alonzo doesn’t have a theory. He has something like a “things change” theory of evolution. Cool, things change. Woohoo! Now what?

    How do we know – that is, how do we really know – which desires tend to thwart more than fulfill others? Without math, the best we can do is shoot from the hip, IOW, rely on our own intuitions, however educated we might fancy them to be. Alonzo told me that the Greeks were “probably wrong” about pederasty, yet, no math – nothing objective or empirical – accompanied his claim. You tell me: is that rational morality?

    Attitudes/preferences vary from person to person certainly, but what if all people shared the same attitude/preference, wouldn’t that attitude or preference then become objective?

    I say no. It would only become an objective fact that all people have said preference. Without reeking of majoritarianism, how do we get from there to the normative claim that those who lack said preference ought to be condemned?

    If all people agree on an observation, it is as objective as it gets. If no one agrees on an observation, it is as subjective as it gets… But it seems misleading to use the terms subjective/objective as if things can only be one or the other;

    I’m hesitant, and I actually think your use seems misleading. What do the two “its” refer to in those sentences? What, exactly, do you mean by “objective” and “subjective” as used in your comment? Without those crucial parameters, I can’t parse your code. At least as of today, I strongly believe that subjectivity and objectivity are Boolean – but I’m open to persuasion.

    In a 60%-for/40%-against election of candidate Smith, I don’t think it would be fair to call it a subjective election even if there is a sizeable difference of preference among voters;

    Well, if we presume that all voters had their say, then I, too, would deny that the election was “subjective” in the sense of unfair. Conversely, the election would be “objective” in the sense that it was fair: everybody was polled. Of course, democratic elections implicitly assume that majority rule is the way to elect a candidate. I strongly object to using similar logic to sustain normative claims.

    If purely objective morality exists, all people should agree on it, if what I say above is correct.

    Why? A “purely objective” fact that somebody killed JFK exists, but not all people agree on who did it. Meaning, people’s inability to consistently apprehend truth does not preclude truth.

    If purely objective morality exists and people’s moral observations are flawed but we have no other observation that can reliably expose or correct those flawed moral observations, purely objective morality might as well not exist

    I’ve never been a fan of that line of reasoning. To me, that seems the same as saying, “If God exists but we can’t prove it, God might as well not exist.” I think that’s fallacious.

    That entails two main things I think, finding out what desires most people observe in themselves that fulfill/thwart desires, and persuading society to give up on “folk” morality and accept desirism’s definition instead.

    Without math, desirism *is* folk morality. What do you see as the substantial difference?

  21. tmp says:

    @cl

    I was bored(and mildly intoxicated), and it occurred to me that Desirism seems to be moral subjectivism in third person.

    e.g. my subjectivist claim, “I want to do the right thing. I believe, that the right thing is X.” in desirist terms is “Tmp has a desire to do the right thing. Tmp believes the right thing to be X”. This is an objective claim. Then we get a prescription: “To make his desire true, tmp ought to do Y.” This is an objective prescription, as long as the metric it is evaluated against is my desires. Fun, we turn subjective to objectve by changing perspective! It seems that Alonzo and I agree. :)

  22. woodchuck64 says:

    cl,

    So, how can a person say both that smoking is wrong because it thwarts desires of the agent, but driving to work is right because it fulfills them?

    In the context of how an average person does moral reasoning, I agree, there doesn’t seem to be great deal of reasoning to it. I assume desirism, on the other hand, should want to quantify the difference between harm to a person from smoking and harm to a person from burning fossil fuels before making a moral judgement.

    You tell me: is that rational morality?

    From what I can see, desirism is in the hypothesis stage, defined something like: desire fulfillment/thwarting can be measured and is an effective substitute for “folk” morality in order to optimally accomplish social harmony. (Note that I haven’t seen a formal definition so I don’t know if Alonzo would agree with that.) As a hypothesis, it seems as rational as any hypothesis which has at least face-value plausibility, it needs evidence before it can be considered in any sense to match reality. It especially needs evidence regarding desire fulfillment/thwarting, as you note; what desires are, how to measure accurately, etc. In the scientific sense, I feel that desirism is a hypothesis, but far from a theory/fact.

    It would only become an objective fact that all people have said preference.

    The word “preference” seems to be incompatible with “objective”, though. Can you think of a preference everyone shares that isn’t objective? Pain, pleasure is out, obviously. It seems to me that if everyone shares a attitude/preference it becomes an objective fact and the word “preference” is no longer used for it.

    What, exactly, do you mean by “objective” and “subjective” as used in your comment?

    I’m defining it in terms of observation: if all people agree on an observation, the observation is as objective as it gets; if no one agrees on an observation, the observation is as subjective as it gets. But between those two seems to be quite a lot of area which is somehow neither and both.

    Note that I agree that people can have flawed observations. Thus, a nation of rose-tinted eye-glass wearers can claim an objective fact that the human eye can not detect green and be quite wrong. It’s objective to them, but doesn’t match reality. Even for our universe, g = 9.81 m/s2 doesn’t necessarily match reality; we may yet find exceptions. But for now it is an objective fact.

    I’m reminded of your post on scientific anti-realism; this is the same point I think.

    Well, if we presume that all voters had their say, then I, too, would deny that the election was “subjective” in the sense of unfair. Conversely, the election would be “objective” in the sense that it was fair: everybody was polled.

    Note that the election is ultimately about subjective preference for a candidate. Yet this subjectivity does not somehow make the entire approach subjective, as you note above.

    However, there is a clear difference of preference for a candidate in every election. We can not say that “the people prefer candidate Smith”, that is not a purely objective fact. We can only say “the majority prefer candidate Smith” as a purely objective fact. But why is it fair that a majority gets to make the rules? That’s majoritarianism as you say.

    People are observing candidate Smith and seeing effectively two observations: a candidate suitable to participate in a government and candidate not suitable. An election assumes that a majority of observations in common is good enough to define reality and I tend to agree, but the observation that Smith is a candidate suitable to govern is definitely not a purely objective fact, but neither is it a purely subjective fact. It is somewhere in between. The majority opinion seems to shift things in the “objective” direction by convention, or perhaps simply because its pragmatic.

    Without reeking of majoritarianism, how do we get from there to the normative claim that those who lack said preference ought to be condemned?

    Why does majority work for a democracy but not for morality? Both seem to have the welfare and well-being of humanity at stake. Pragmatically, majority seems to be the best approach (while not meaning to gloss over problems with “tyranny of the majority” and ways governments/morality can be structured to avoid that).

    If purely objective morality exists, all people should agree on it, if what I say above is correct.

    Why? A “purely objective” fact that somebody killed JFK exists, but not all people agree on who did it. Meaning, people’s inability to consistently apprehend truth does not preclude truth.

    Right, people’s observations can be flawed.

    I’ve never been a fan of that line of reasoning. To me, that seems the same as saying, “If God exists but we can’t prove it, God might as well not exist.” I think that’s fallacious.

    I’m not saying purely objective morality doesn’t exist, but if it exists, it’s possible theists would find it, agree on it, and then demonstrate it to atheists. In the meantime, since we atheists see no agreement on objective morality or productive research on improved moral observations, we might as well assume it doesn’t exist and look for a different approach, like desirism.

    Without math, desirism *is* folk morality. What do you see as the substantial difference?

    I think desirism is a hypothesis only. Something like string theory (probably weaker than that at the moment.)

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