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

Tammuz

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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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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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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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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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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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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.

Wiploc said:
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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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.
 

Koyaanisqatsi

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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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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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I wrote this above, but it's a mistake.

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.

That's wrong.

Here's a quote from the SEP (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

As a result, those who reject moral realism are usefully divided into (i) those who think moral claims do not purport to report facts in light of which they are true or false (noncognitivists) and (ii) those who think that moral claims do carry this purport but deny that any moral claims are actually true (error theorists).

So it's noncognitivists and error theorists (as opposed to what I said, noncognitivists and those who think moral claims are statements of preference) who are not moral non-realists.
 

Wiploc

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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.

Well, if -- absent a particular context -- I don't know what "objective" means, I think it follows that I also don't know what "subjective" means. These words are mostly used for equivocation, for dancing back and forth between conflicting meanings.

Nevertheless, let us stipulate, for the sake of discussion, that most atheists are subjectivists. Does it follow that they believe, as the OP claims, that there are no moral facts? I don't believe that.

People who believe morality is subjective still believe morality exists. At least this has always been my assumption.




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.

I think you're overstating your case. I think people are mostly confused (and often self-contradictory) about morality. It's a mistake to project your own views onto them because you think your views are coherent.




Of course, even if God existed, then theistic morality would still be subjective,

I agree that gods don't come into it. Any definition of "objective" that makes god-based morality objective will also make godless morality objective. Any definition that makes godless morality subjective will also make god-based morality 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,

Being skeptical, in most circumstances, of the word "objective," I try to understand sentences like the one above by ignoring that word. People might argue about moral issues as though they are arguing about truths. If you mean something different, then I'm missing it.




but if you walked them through the logic of what moral objectivism means

I'm available, if you want to do that with me.

But I already accept that for some definitions of "objective," morality is objective, and for other definitions, it isn't.




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.

That confuses me. I'm not sure that analogy serves you well.

Motion is relative. Therefore, the claim that the earth goes around the sun is not truth apt. It is no more true -- and no more false -- than the claim that the sun goes around the earth. I can't tell whether you're confused about this, or whether you understand it and are using it to make some point.




Wiploc said:
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'm a utilitarian.




I would argue that the only alternatives are the preferences of some non-human (e.g., theistic morality)

As you pointed out above, positing gods doesn't affect the objectivity of morality.




or objective facts

As I pointed out above, until we nail down what you mean by "objective," I'll just read that as if it says "or facts."




that are true independent of human goals and desires, which is moral objectivism.

1. Things that have a strong tendency to make people unhappy are wrong. (Utilitarian premise)
2. Rape has a strong tendency to make people unhappy.
3. Therefore, rape is wrong.
3. In some possible universes, rape has a strong tendency to make people happy.
4. Therefore, in such universes, rape is not wrong.

If we stipulate the premise, are the other statements objective?




I don't see a logical difference between that definition of "realism" and "objectivism".

Are you saying, then, that subjectivists are nihilists? Is it your position that most atheists are nihilists?




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.

I have trouble parsing that, but I suspect that I agree.




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.

I've seen pictures of a guy who got tattooed all over with lizard scales. And he had his tongue split lengthwise, so it's forked like a lizard's. He likes being the lizard man.

If you did that to someone against his will, it would constitute a great injury.

Whether it's a favor or an injury depends on the subject's attitude. So one might argue that morality is subjective.

On the other hand, if we believe that the underlined sentence above is a truth (what you might call an objective truth) then one might argue that morality is objective.
 

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I wrote this above, but it's a mistake.

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.

That's wrong.

Here's a quote from the SEP (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

As a result, those who reject moral realism are usefully divided into (i) those who think moral claims do not purport to report facts in light of which they are true or false (noncognitivists) and (ii) those who think that moral claims do carry this purport but deny that any moral claims are actually true (error theorists).

So it's noncognitivists and error theorists (as opposed to what I said, noncognitivists and those who think moral claims are statements of preference) who are not moral non-realists.
The SEP categorization is odd, and I think nonstandard, to whatever extent such terminology even has a standard. It would appear to classify those who translate moral claims into preference claims like "I'm against rape." as moral realists. But that's not how "moral realist" is normally used, at least in my experience. Such a person -- i.e., a moral subjectivist -- is normally considered an archetypical example of a moral non-realist. Sayre-McCord acknowledges this issue -- he says "(although some accounts of moral realism see it as involving additional commitments, say to the independence of the moral facts from human thought and practice, or to those facts being objective in some specified way).". I think those "some accounts" are more in line with conventional terminology than Sayre-McCord is. Perhaps you read your original post #5 categorization in one of those other accounts.
 

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I wrote this above, but it's a mistake.



That's wrong.

Here's a quote from the SEP (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:



So it's noncognitivists and error theorists (as opposed to what I said, noncognitivists and those who think moral claims are statements of preference) who are not moral non-realists.

The SEP categorization is odd, and I think nonstandard, to whatever extent such terminology even has a standard. It would appear to classify those who translate moral claims into preference claims like "I'm against rape." as moral realists. But that's not how "moral realist" is normally used, at least in my experience. Such a person -- i.e., a moral subjectivist -- is normally considered an archetypical example of a moral non-realist. Sayre-McCord acknowledges this issue -- he says "(although some accounts of moral realism see it as involving additional commitments, say to the independence of the moral facts from human thought and practice, or to those facts being objective in some specified way).". I think those "some accounts" are more in line with conventional terminology than Sayre-McCord is.

Okay, thanks for that information.

It leaves me confused, but that's hardly new.

I don't think I've ever claimed to understand morality. But I do understand it better than theists who claim that theirs is objective and mine is not.



Perhaps you read your original post #5 categorization in one of those other accounts.

No, I went back and checked. The SEP is what I read, but I misremembered it when I wrote the above post.
 

Tammuz

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Thanks for all the replies. I unfortunately can't respond to all of you individually.

Some people I like have written about this subject. I was thinking about including them in the OP, but in the end did not, because I did not want to unduly "lead" the discussion by that. But some of you posted stuff resembling it. So I post some snippets below:

Sean Carroll said:
Can moral reasoning convince anyone of anything important?

The point is that there are no fixed moral truths upon which we can all agree with metaphysical certitude, but there nevertheless are pre-existing feelings that each of us has about what is right and what is wrong (basically Rawls’ provisional fixed points). Some of these feelings might even be opinions that we might want to think of as conclusions of arguments rather than axiomatic starting points, but they are nevertheless the launching-points for our moral reasoning. The job of moral philosophy is to sort them out and shoot for some kind of consistency.

Steven Novella said:
Objective vs Subjective Morality

Further, humans are social animals, and in fact we have no choice but to share this planet with each other. Our behavior, therefore, affects others. If we had no cares at all about what happens to us or others, or our actions had no affect on anything but ourselves, then there would be no need for morality, and in fact morality would have no meaning.

We can take as empirical facts, however, that humans have feelings and our actions affect others – these are therefore well-founded premises for a moral system. Philosophers have tried to derive from there further premises as a starting point for a moral system. The goal is to derive the most fundamental principles, or determine the most reasonable first principles, and then proceed carefully from there.

Much of the previous discussion has centered around the validity of these moral principles, such as “harm is bad” and “it is better to be fair than unfair.” Are these “self evident,” can they be objectively proved, or can they be derived from something that can be proven?

I think, in part, they are taken as self-evident and given, but that does not mean they are entirely without justification, because they are rooted, as is the need for morality itself, in the human condition. Because humans are feeling social animals, we need morality, and certain principles are necessary for a moral system for a social feeling species (such as reciprocity). This is partly a logical statement, for without reciprocity you don’t have a moral system that helps us live together (again – the very reason for the system in the first place). Also, these principles can be evaluated empirically, in terms of their universality, their neurological basis, and the effects of their implementation in a society.

...

Moral philosophy is the only workable option for a human moral system. Philosophers have been thinking about and arguing about such moral systems since Aristotle, and have come quite far in working out how such systems can work. This is far preferable to a system based upon conflicting traditions about what an unprovable lawgiver allegedly told members of a primitive agrarian society about how he wants people to behave.

Massimo Pigliucci said:
On ethics, part I: Moral philosophy’s third way

Where does all of this leave us? With the idea that morality is a human (and other relevantly similar beings’) phenomenon, so that to talk about universal morality makes precisely no sense. But human beings share certain (local to the species) attributes, such as preferring a long and healthy life to a nasty and short one, and it is those parameters of humanness that set the axioms of our moral thinking. Ethical reasoning, then, consists of what sort of rules and outcomes logically emerge from that particular set of assumptions. Just like a good mathematician would do, we pick the most promising axioms and work with them, but we acknowledge that sometimes the search gets stuck into unproductive corners of logical space and we go back and — cautiously — tweak the assumptions themselves and get back to work.

Two obvious caveats about ethics’ third way: first, the assumptions from which we start are arrived at empirically (human nature), but this does not mean that science is sufficient to answer moral questions, because most of the work is done by logical analysis unpacking the implications of those assumptions. Second, I am not arguing that what is (human nature) in any straightforward way determines what ought to be (ethics), I am simply taking the eminently sensible position that morality is about human behavior, and so it cannot prescind from considerations of human nature.

...

* Moral reasonism (for lack of a better term): If assumptions {W,Z} are accepted, then X is right / wrong.

Where the assumptions are provided by our best (and changing) understanding of human nature, and the rest is done via rational thinking.

Would you agree with these three gentlemen?

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.

Yes, morality comes from evolution. But that's a role, not a foundation. Tendencies to violence and xenophobia undoubtedly also have evolutionary origins, yet modern liberal democratic society chooses not to endorse them. So clearly we are not slaves to our evolutionary impulses.
 

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What we call cheating, stealing, killing, etc, are verifiable, quantifiable, testable, there is a loss of property, a body is found.....these are objective things.
 

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Tammuz said:
If this is the case, what then is the job of moral philosophy? How does it proceed?
The question about the "job" of moral philosophy suggests proper function. But then, assuming moral realism is false for some reason, for all I know whatever brings it down also brings down proper function with it. After all, there appear to be clear similarities in the arguments against realism in both realms (i.e., against proper function and morality). Now, all the arguments I've seen fail, and perhaps an argument that would succeed against moral realism would not succeed against proper function, but I would not assume so.

As for the question "How does it proceed?", that seems ambiguous. Does it mean 'How should moral philosophers proceed?'. If so, it seems that there is no fact of the matter in the moral sense. In a means-to-ends sense, how each philosopher will proceed depends on her specific goals. Otoh, if by "How does it proceed?" you mean 'How will it proceed?', that too depends on each philosopher.


At any rate, if somehow there is a proper function of moral philosophy even if moral realism is false, then I would guess the functions would be to find and explain moral truths. In this case, if a moral error theory holds, the moral truths would be that it is not immoral to kill or rape people for fun, it is not immoral to spread fake news for money, it is not immoral to be a con artist, Stalin was not a bad person, and so on - as nothing at all is ever immoral, no person is bad, etc.

Now, if only a partial error theory holds, then I would guess the function is also to figure those out.

Finally, if some other sort of anti-realism is true, the only goal I could guess is metaethical - namely, to figure out that realism is false, what sort of anti-realism is true, and then come up with good arguments showing those truths.
 

ruby sparks

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Massimo Pigliucci said:
With the idea that morality is a human (and other relevantly similar beings’) phenomenon, so that to talk about universal morality makes precisely no sense. But human beings share certain (local to the species) attributes, such as preferring a long and healthy life to a nasty and short one, and it is those parameters of humanness that set the axioms of our moral thinking.

I would go along with that. Very much so.

Massimo Pigliucci said:
Ethical reasoning, then, consists of what sort of rules and outcomes logically emerge from that particular set of assumptions. Just like a good mathematician would do, we pick the most promising axioms and work with them, but we acknowledge that sometimes the search gets stuck into unproductive corners of logical space and we go back and — cautiously — tweak the assumptions themselves and get back to work.

I'm not sure I would go along with that. I don't think we use logic as much as we might like to think. I'd say we use emotion a lot, possibly much more.

I would say that we form our moral opinions very quickly, based on 'gut instinct' and/or intuition. We may reason about them subsequently but I think that (a) it's post-hoc, (b) doesn't easily or often lead us to a new or different opinion (the original one takes quite some shifting in other words) and (c) often isn't logical, except in the colloquial sense.
 

Wiploc

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I would say that we form our moral opinions very quickly, based on 'gut instinct' and/or intuition. We may reason about them subsequently but I think that (a) it's post-hoc, (b) doesn't easily or often lead us to a new or different opinion (the original one takes quite some shifting in other words) and (c) often isn't logical, except in the colloquial sense.

Good post; it lets me address the OP.

Forming moral opinions quickly, based on instinct and intuition, is not the job of moral philosophy.

The job of moral philosophy is to do the subsequent reasoning, to avoid post hoc, to do the heavy shifting required to bring opinions into conformity with logic, and to be logical in the actual sense.
 
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fromderinside

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Yes, possibly. Religions that included codes were organized before the rise of city states and early city states were most likely tribal. The obvious rise of organized religion probably occurred around the time writing arrived, a time which corresponds pretty well with the rise of cities, permitting inclusion of many spoken folk tales be included within their structures making them most likely becoming fixed common practice narratives in place.

DBT, you capture my thinking pretty well though.
 

4321lynx

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What is the job of moral philosophy?

The job of moral philosophy is to lessen the effects on members of tribal brutality.

That was and still is the self-imposed and openly declared task of two of the Abrahamic religions, and they were, and are, brutal about that task. The Hebrews were no better if the Bible is any guide and their descendants, lo and behold, are the same about land and property and morality of it all. Ain't human nature wonderful?

And the job of moral philosophy is to give employment to philosophers.
 
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fromderinside

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Ah, the good old days. Drunks on the street collecting coin and adherents as they burped on about The Good Life. God. Even Gods for all occasions, and, yes, why one should behave this way or that. Then came the age of F4s and minstals and drafts when saviors popped out of the sands speaking of fish, loaves and the promised land in Oregon. A place where milk, honey, a woman in every hovel, and looking good while eating grapes were things if you just joined dropped, turned and served meth man.

I remember it as if it were yesterday dreaming there in upstate New York.
 

Tammuz

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I'm not sure I would go along with that. I don't think we use logic as much as we might like to think. I'd say we use emotion a lot, possibly much more.

I would say that we form our moral opinions very quickly, based on 'gut instinct' and/or intuition. We may reason about them subsequently but I think that (a) it's post-hoc, (b) doesn't easily or often lead us to a new or different opinion (the original one takes quite some shifting in other words) and (c) often isn't logical, except in the colloquial sense.

It might be so in everyday life. But if we try to carefully construct a moral system, then I think more deliberation is called for.
 

Tharmas

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Yes, possibly. Religions that included codes were organized before the rise of city states and early city states were most likely tribal. The obvious rise of organized religion probably occurred around the time writing arrived, a time which corresponds pretty well with the rise of cities, permitting inclusion of many spoken folk tales be included within their structures making them most likely becoming fixed common practice narratives in place.

DBT, you capture my thinking pretty well though.

Here's an interesting article that addresses that very question.

Small societies, so the argument goes, were like fish bowls. It was almost impossible to engage in antisocial behaviour without being caught and punished – whether by acts of collective violence, retaliation or long-term reputational damage and risk of ostracism. But as societies grew larger and interactions between relative strangers became more commonplace, would-be transgressors could hope to evade detection under the cloak of anonymity. For cooperation to be possible under such conditions, some system of surveillance was required.

What better than to come up with a supernatural “eye in the sky” – a god who can see inside people’s minds and issue punishments and rewards accordingly.

The authors use a history database - Seshat - that's recently been developed.

Our statistical analysis showed that beliefs in supernatural punishment tend to appear only when societies make the transition from simple to complex, around the time when the overall population exceed about a million individuals.

Anyway, it looks like an interesting read.
 

rousseau

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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.

This gets to the heart of the matter pretty concisely, imo.

As far as philosophy is concerned with a subjective, contextual morality, I don't think very much so. Moral code is culturally constructed and enforced, regardless of what someone managed to write down in a book somewhere. Moral philosophers might try to speak authoritatively to sell books, but their impact is usually negligible.
 
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