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Thread: If moral realism is false, what is the job of moral philosophy?

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    If moral realism is false, what is the job of moral philosophy?

    I think most people who are atheists, skeptics, or similar but distinct groupings, are of the view that moral realism (objective morality) is not true, that is, that there aren't any moral facts out there to be discovered, unlike for example lost tombs of Pharaohs in ancient Egypt. Morality is a human construct. There are exceptions to this, of course. Sam Harris is perhaps the most well-known one. Also my impression is that a substantial amount of self-identified humanists do believe in moral realism, and by some definitions belief in moral realism is almost a requirement (see #4) to be able to properly identify yourself a as a humanist (which I personally don't, so it doesn't really bother me).

    Historically, I think David Hume was the most well-known proponent of the fact that moral realism is false, making explicit the is/ought distinction. But I think the underlying idea can be found much earlier, for example in the social contract ideas of Epicurus. If societal morality is a contract, then it is another way of saying that it is a human construct.

    If this is the case, what then is the job of moral philosophy? How does it proceed?

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    Sapere aude Politesse's Avatar
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    Are you conflating "objective" with "real"? If so, why? Human constructs are always subjective, but they are also real. I am not stating a fact when I say that abortion is a moral evil. But you are stating a fact if you then observe that I object to abortion. I see no reason why, without conceding the existence of some absolute morality, a philosopher couldn't discuss, debate, and even advocate for the relative benefits of one moral perspective over another. If you see the purpose of moral discussion as the attainment of certain goals within certain contexts, rather than the attainment of some illusory perfection, you realize pretty quickly that the latter was a theist distraction from the real goal anyway. Humans are not made happy by being "objectively perfect", but by meeting their needs and those of others.

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    Contributor DBT's Avatar
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    If something is said to be objective, it can be verified or tested by anyone who cares to test its properties or attributes, which tells us that it is real.

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    Super Moderator Torin's Avatar
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    If moral realism is false, normative ethics (what you seem to be calling "moral philosophy") isn't necessarily impacted much.

    To take a simple example, suppose naive moral subjectivism is true and morality is merely a matter of what we like or dislike. We can still study what we like or dislike and build up systems of normative ethics inductively. Your paradigm case of a moral anti-realist, David Hume, did something like that, although Hume's concept of approbation / disapprobation doesn't quite map to liking / disliking.

    Moral nihilism, the doctrine that there are no moral principles whatsoever, would be a problem for normative ethics, so maybe that's what you're thinking of.

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    Veteran Member Wiploc's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tammuz View Post
    I think most people who are atheists, skeptics, or similar but distinct groupings, are of the view that moral realism (objective morality) is not true,
    That seems not at all likely. I've occasionally run across people on the internet who didn't believe in morality, but the idea of most atheists or skeptics being in that category, that estimate seems to me to be off by orders of magnitude.



    that is, that there aren't any moral facts out there to be discovered, unlike for example lost tombs of Pharaohs in ancient Egypt. Morality is a human construct.
    The tombs of the Pharaohs are human constructs. So are grammar and art. This doesn't mean there are no facts to be discovered about pyramids, double negatives, and Oxford commas.



    There are exceptions to this, of course. Sam Harris is perhaps the most well-known one.
    He is why I call myself a moral realist.

    I will uncharacteristically pause here to define terms:

    Moral realism:

    It has recently been suggested (here at Talk Freethought, I think) that I shouldn't call myself a moral realist just because I believe some behaviors are better than others (Kindness, for instance, being better than cruelty), or because I think there are things that we ought or ought not to do.

    So I looked it up at, I think, the Stanford Philosophical Encyclopedia. I learned that non-realists fall into two camps, the noncognitivists, who believe that discussions of morality are all gibberish, and another group, which believes that moral claims can be made sense of by translating them into preference claims. (Thus, "Rape is wrong," means, "I'm against rape.")

    I don't fall into either of those groups. So I still think I'm a moral realist.

    Objective morality:

    As a general rule, this is gibberish. It doesn't mean anything.

    I could try to soften that by saying that on the internet it doesn't mean anything. But of course, scholarly philosophers who use the word in defined and consistent ways have been known to wander onto the internet, so that claim isn't quite right.




    Also my impression is that a substantial amount of self-identified humanists do believe in moral realism, and by some definitions belief in moral realism is almost a requirement (see #4) to be able to properly identify yourself a as a humanist (which I personally don't, so it doesn't really bother me).
    I can't square this with the claim in your opening sentence. Is your point that most humanists are theists?



    Historically, I think David Hume was the most well-known proponent of the fact that moral realism is false, making explicit the is/ought distinction.
    Even if we stipulate that you can't get from is to ought, morality can still be real.



    But I think the underlying idea can be found much earlier, for example in the social contract ideas of Epicurus. If societal morality is a contract, then it is another way of saying that it is a human construct.
    Are you now claiming that there are no facts about contracts?



    If this is the case, what then is the job of moral philosophy? How does it proceed?
    How ought we to behave? What is the good? Things like that.

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    Others have done a good job pointing out the important distinction between "objective" and "real" morals, and that only that latter are required for moral philosophy to serve a useful function.

    I would add that even if any particular moral position ultimately hinges upon purely subjective preferences (and it does), there are objective/logical questions to be asked about moral systems (such as there internal coherence, the likelihood of societal coherence in the absence of authority, etc), and also about to objective consequences of particular actions (e.g., whether abortion is unethical is subjective, but whether it entails killing a living organism that would have otherwise likely become a human infant is a matter of fact).

    I also do not identify as "Humanist" but I'm skeptical that moral objectivism is inherent to Humanism. Certainly the author of the article you linked to thinks so, but I don't see how it inherent to any of the core defining aspects of Humanism and doesn't follow from what major Humanist organizations say about ethics. The American Humanist Society has this to say when defining Humanism:
    "values-be they religious, ethical, social, or political-have their source in human experience and culture."
    "derives the goals of life from human need and interest"
    " ethical lifestance which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives."
    "ethics based on human and other natural values"
    And lots of references to life's goal being "maximize their long-term happiness"

    That all sounds quite subjectivist to me, basing ethics in human emotional feelings and preferences. And it's something I agree with.

    Now, they also talk a lot about reason and the scientific-method, such as
    "pragmatic ethics based on human reason, experience, and reliable knowledge-an ethics that judges the consequences of human actions by the well-being of all life on Earth."

    But I would argue that is not moral objectivism, but rather using reason to answer objective questions about consequences that are deemed desirable or not based upon subjective human desire for well being. Something that I also agree with.

    That might make me a defacto "Humanist", except then they say this: "Humanists believe that this approach to life [maximizing long-term happiness] is more productive and leads to a deeper and longer-lasting satisfaction than a hedonistic pursuit of material or sensual pleasures that soon fade."
    That smacks of elitism and holier-than-thou criticism of life's simple pleasures. I don't think think there is anything "deeper" than the joy of human sensory pleasure. I think the joy a human derives from drinking a cold delicious beverage created from centuries of creative pursuit of hedonic pleasure, while lying on warm sand and watching the sun set on the horizon fulfills human "purpose" and and is as "lofty" as any high-art.

    If you can't be a hedonist and a humanist, then I am no humanist.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Wiploc View Post

    That seems not at all likely. I've occasionally run across people on the internet who didn't believe in morality, but the idea of most atheists or skeptics being in that category, that estimate seems to me to be off by orders of magnitude.
    I am curious what you base that on. Most atheists I know are moral subjectivists. They view all moral positions as stemming from subjective human desires, feelings, preferences about how things ought to be. They recognize the theist morality is merely dishonest subjective morality where the believer imposes their preferences onto an imaginary God to make them appear beyond human preference and give the veneer of objectivity. Of course, even if God existed, then theistic morality would still be subjective, just the subjectivity of God rather than humans.

    I think you could find many atheists that haven't really thought about the basis for their morality and might argue about moral issues as though they are arguing about objective truths, but if you walked them through the logic of what moral objectivism means they would reject it and acknowledge that their moral stances are based in what they "feel" is right, not what they "know" is right in the same sense as knowing that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

    Quote Originally Posted by Wiploc
    believes that moral claims can be made sense of by translating them into preference claims. (Thus, "Rape is wrong," means, "I'm against rape.")

    I don't fall into either of those groups. So I still think I'm a moral realist.
    What do you think morals are based in, if not human preferences? I would argue that the only alternatives are the preferences of some non-human (e.g., theistic morality) or objective facts that are true independent of human goals and desires, which is moral objectivism.
    I don't see a logical difference between that definition of "realism" and "objectivism". That definition also is problematic by ignoring the position that moral preferences are real b/c human emotions are real and subjective experience is real, and yet morality is not "true" independent of it's relation to preferences.

    If one person prefers to die than suffer, and another prefers to suffer and live. Most atheist would say it is moral to allow the first person to die without preventing it if you can , but immoral to do so in the second case. That shows that subjective preference is THE determinant of morality.

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    Contributor Cheerful Charlie's Avatar
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    It has long been my claim that ethics comes from evolution. We have evolved emotions, and when we are cheated, rapes, robbed, tortured, attacked et al, we suffer and we have an emotional response to that sort of maltreatment. And of course the opposite when good things happen to us. We have emotional responses to seeing our family members badly treat, friends and acquaintances, and finally, people at large, even if we don't know them.

    These emotional responses and pain et al are very real, and underlie ethics and morals, and moral systems. Unfortunately, we also have emotions of hate that can be used to justify dealing badly with others. We also have ability to reason abstractly and that can be a problem when we abstractly erect societies, religions, ideologies, cultures and subcultures that claim to justify evils that inflict suffering for no good reason on innocent people. So ethics and morals means examining such things carefully, and not let these sort of things become powerful forces.

    Ethics then becomes entangled in sociology, anthropology, and politics. And we cannot separate ethics from these larger issues. which is where a lot of ethics studies seems to do an inadequate job of dealing with ethics and morality. Poverty and poorly run societies can become behavioral sinks. Like say, El Salvador. Abstract ideas like racism can cause entire societies to become evil, like Hitler's Nazi Germany.

    In the end, ethics is a massive and complex subject.
    Cheerful Charlie

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    I don't see what the point is. It doesn't matter if morality is something external, everything is ultimately internal to all of us as a simple brute fact (i.e., the Hard Problem). So, even if it were "god-ordained" or the like (i.e., objectively established), we'd still be stuck with our subjective acceptance/interpretation of what that means for each of us individually.

    Indeed, if all we did is take Earth as a case study and the actions of all of the living creatures upon it as our statistical baseline, then we would have to conclude that rape is morally justified; beating each other into submission and then eating each other alive is morally justified; killing is morally justified; etc., etc., etc.

    Point being, that there is no way around morality being subjective even if it could somehow be established as objective. The best that could ever be said about it is: I believe it to be objectively established, but that is only ever my subjective belief and nothing more.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Tammuz View Post
    I think most people who are atheists, skeptics, or similar but distinct groupings, are of the view that moral realism (objective morality) is not true, that is, that there aren't any moral facts out there to be discovered, unlike for example lost tombs of Pharaohs in ancient Egypt.
    I think that's a provincial impression it's natural to get from living among Westerners, but demographically, atheism is most popular in East Asia. Moral relativism is a Western meme; China and Japan appear to be well stocked with moral realist atheists.

    But I think the underlying idea can be found much earlier, for example in the social contract ideas of Epicurus. If societal morality is a contract, then it is another way of saying that it is a human construct.
    I don't know about Epicurus, but the point of social contract theory in its modern Western incarnation, from Hobbes and Locke, is to propose that we have an obligation to follow the rules because we allegedly agreed to. Logically, that can only work if there's a preexisting non-contractual rule that we have an obligation to live up to our agreements. Trying to use a social contract to bypass the is/ought problem is an exercise in circular argument.

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