Sunday 25 February 2018

Naturalism and Indefeasibly Decisive Moral Reasons: A response to Flannagan, Craig, and Layman, and a defense of Wielenberg

Previously I had developed an argument to the effect that, because stronger prudential reasons can always clash with moral reasons, morality and prudence are relative to each other. [1] I suggested this relativity might manifest in either direction: maybe some karmic force ensures that it is always prudent to be moral, or maybe morality is fundamentally egoistic so that it is always moral to be prudent. Both horns of this dilemma seem implausible, and so I took this to be a problem for the moral realist. My intention for this argument was, in fact, to knock it down, for I think I have come up with an attractive theory of moral obligation that invalidates it. I was wanting to show that my theory was worthwhile, and that by constructing it I had answered an important and difficult metaethical problem.

I was excited, then, to come across Matthew Flannagan critiquing Erik Wielenberg's atheistic moral realism on exactly these grounds, and rallying behind other philosophers in the process. [2] Flannagan quotes William Lane Craig saying, “if God does not exist, then prudential reason and moral reason can and often do come into conflict, in which case there is no reason to act morally rather than in one’s self-interest.” [3] He also cites Layman arguing that God must exist because, if there was no God and no afterlife, then prudential reasons could on occasion override moral reasons, leaving us without decisive reason to do our moral duty. [4] To this Craig says, “I agree with Layman that on atheism, what he calls the overriding thesis (namely that moral value always trumps prudential value) is not true, for one can have extremely strong prudential reasons for not acting morally, and there seems to be no common scale in which to weigh moral against prudential considerations”. [5]

Essentially, I had been defending Flannagan’s criticism of Wielenberg: that atheism and robust moral realism do not quite fit together. It seems implausible, given atheism, that there would be any karmic force ensuring that it's always prudent to be moral. And robust moral realism does not seem compatible with egoism.

Wielenberg's responses don’t quite hit their mark, and so it seems he has been pinned down. It looks as if that atheists and naturalists cannot accommodate robust moral realism. But these first appearances are illusory. As I had mentioned, there is an error in this argument being brought against Wielenberg. True, it may always be possible to have even stronger prudential reasons that clash with ones moral reasons. But that does not, in of itself, entail that those weaker moral reasons can always be defeated. They might be helped along by further normative reasons that defeat those threatening defeaters, and this is exactly what my theory is intended to explain. In the end, I will identify moral obligations with a kind of composite normative state of affairs that amount to indefeasibly decisive moral reasons. This will then explain why we should always be moral. It falls out of the very nature of a moral obligation, on my view, that you necessarily should do whatever is morally obligatory.

The overlooked mistake is that rebutting defeaters are not the only sort of defeater. There are also undercutting defeaters, which are more commonly spoken of in the context of epistemology. Where a rebutting epistemic defeater might be a strong bit of counter-evidence, an undercutting defeater would be one that takes a piece of evidence out of the equation. You might show that an argument is invalid, or that an experiment is flawed, or that a method used is unreliable. In doing so, you are not providing an epistemic reason that clashes with the original evidence. Rather, you’re providing an epistemic reason to not be motivated by it, or to not hold any belief on the basis of it. This is exactly the sort of defeater that arguments for extreme skepticism seek to defend.

There are clear examples of undercutting defeaters for practical reasons as well. Suppose you want to eat junk food, but you also want to not want to eat junk food. You want to no longer be motivated by your desire for junk food. Again, we’re not seeing two reasons clashing. Rather, we’re seeing one reason undercut the other. Your wanting to not be motivated by that desire only gives you reason to not be motivated by that desire, and not reason to abstain from eating junk food altogether. This can be clearly seen by supposing you had a second, different reason to eat junk food. Maybe, for example, you’ve developed an anxiety disorder over your diet, and your therapist thinks it would be beneficial for you to start eating junk food every once in a while. Your wanting to not be motivated by your desire to eat junk food gives you no reason to not be motivated by your therapists wisdom or your waning mental health. Talk of higher order normative reasons may be clunky, but it’s not outside of ordinary normative discourse.

For a case in the moral domain suppose you’ve been caught doing something wrong and, wanting to avoid punishment, you decide to lie to get out of trouble. Generally, wanting to avoid punishment is not a good reason to lie. In fact it seems like a pretty bad reason, especially when you deserve that punishment. Often times when people talk about “good” or “bad” reasons they really mean “valid” or “invalid”, and it’s easy to see that the latter meaning could be intended here. But in this case the reason seems both morally bad as well as invalid. In fact, we might think it’s invalid precisely because it’s morally bad. That is, the moral badness of lying to get out of trouble gives you reason to not lie to get out of trouble. You thus have a moral reason that undercuts your prudential reason to lie.

There are many other reasons to lie that might not be all that bad: to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, to make someone believe in a benign fantasy, to preserve a surprise that will bring them happiness, to confound a wrongdoer and protect his victims, and so on. Of course each is controversial to some extent. Many people don’t think it’s right to tell children that Santa Claus exists, while others think it’s harmless fun. And Kant was infamous for saying that you should never lie, not even to protect people's lives. This controversy can easily be seen as being over whether or not these are morally good or bad reasons to lie. Those who think that lying is categorically wrong will no doubt think that there are no reasons to lie that are not morally bad reasons. So the moral value of the motivating reason factors into a good explanation of why the motivated act is wrong.

It is worth noting that when looking for an example of something that is categorically wrong, people often describe actions in such a way that encapsulates the motivating reason. To use an extreme example, it’s always wrong to kill people for the fun of it. But, uncontroversially, it’s not always wrong to kill people out of self defense. Again the difference here can be seen as a difference in the sort of defeaters potentially at play. A person's life is intrinsically valuable, and so there is always moral reason to not kill people. But, wanting to defend yourself from an attacker doesn’t seem to be a morally bad reason to kill. And so this prudential reason remains undefeated, and clashes with and defeats your moral reason to not kill. In this case, then, we do not have decisive reason to abstain from killing. On the other hand, mere entertainment is certainly a morally bad reason to kill someone. Nothing could be more obvious. And so there is moral reason that undercuts this prudential reason to kill, leaving only the original moral reason to abstain from killing. In such a case, then, we do have decisive reason to abstain from killing.

But what about higher order prudential reasons? Couldn’t someone always have a higher order desire, that would defeat higher order moral reasons? What if, for example, someone wanted to do evil for its own sake? We should keep in mind how extraordinary this is. The vast majority of people are at worst apathetic to morality. It would take a real monster to be motivated by evil itself. Because this case is so unusual, I don’t think it would be biting much of a bullet to admit of a loophole here. That being said an answer can be given anyway. Surely wanting to do evil for its own sake is itself evil. That’s a pretty bad desire to have, and a bad reason to be motivated by. Even in these sorts of unusual cases, surely there would always still be further higher order moral reasons to not be motivated in this way.

We are now seeing what I had promised: a sort of composite normative state of affairs that amounts to an indefeasibly decisive moral reason to act. For an action to be morally wrong, or morally obligatory that we not do it, is for it to be both morally bad (so that there is defeasible, indecisive reason to not do it) and motivated by a morally bad reason (so that the reason to do it has been undercut).

The property of wrongness, then, is actually a property of action and motive pairings. It’s wrong to do something for some reason. There are two questions that naturally arise. Aren’t some actions categorically wrong, regardless of what motivates them? It does seem so, and in such cases any motivating reason would be a morally bad reason. So this is something my view can easily accommodate. But what if an action has no motivating reason at all? Well, if an action is wholly unmotivated then it’s like a hiccup or a sneeze. It’s either random, or caused by some involuntary process within the person. Such actions are hardly the sort of thing that we can be held responsible for, anyway. A prerequisite for doing wrong is being in control. If someone is acting truly without motive or reason, then it’s hard to see in what sense they are in control of that action. If they are able to prevent it, like we can hold back a sneeze, then their failing to do so may be wrong. But involuntary actions themselves, however morally bad, are never morally wrong.

On a second glance this theory is not all that novel. Condition (b) could be rephrased to say that the action is unjustified. For an action to be justified, it seems, is for it to have been motivated by some reason that is morally good or, at least, not bad. Indeed, this seems to just be what people ordinarily mean by “justified” in a moral context. So really my theory can be stated as: for an action to be morally wrong is for it to be morally bad and morally unjustified. This again seems rather analytic. I expect this just is the content of our ordinary concept of moral wrongness. I am not under any illusion, then, that my theory is especially insightful from the top looking down. What is interesting is the normative consequences I have drawn out from an action being both morally bad and morally unjustified.

One might be satisfied with this, but now turn their attention to moral value. How might the atheist or naturalist then explain moral goodness and badness? This is where Wielenberg’s view shines. Moral goodness and badness may be irreducible, objective properties, that give us normative reasons to act in certain ways. If this is correct then the metaphysical explanation stops here. This, then, is a sketch of how atheists or naturalists might hold to robust moral realism.

[3] William Lane Craig  “Q&A 230 Is Life Absurd without God?” available at
[4] C. Stephen Layman “God and the moral order”, Faith and Philosophy, 19: 3 (2002) 304-16.
[5] William Lane Craig “This Most Gruesome of Guests” 183

Saturday 17 February 2018

An objective sort of moral subjectivism

By moral subjectivism I mean the view that moral properties are wholly comprised of subjective properties. That is, properties such as being valued, being regretted or being something that one would regret, being believed to be right, being taboo or prohibited by society, and so on. Subjective properties are those that relate to people's attitudes.

The most obvious reason to reject moral subjectivism is that moral properties do not seem to supervene on or be determined by subjective properties. It doesn't seem that people can always make a difference to which moral properties are instantiated by simply having different attitudes. Nor does it seem that a difference in the moral properties always requires there being a difference in people's attitudes. This sort of relativistic subjectivism seems clearly false.

For the most part subjectivism and relativism go hand in hand. But, in fact, we can tease out sort of subjectivism that doesn't render morality relative to people's attitudes in the way that I have rejected above. How can this be? In short, by adopting a non-reductive subjectivism wherein moral properties are wholly comprised of subjective properties, but do not reduce to subjective properties.

To see how this might be let's first take a look at the ontology of species. We might ask, what is it to be a tiger? We cannot give a definite answer in terms of non-contingent, necessary and sufficient conditions. If we could then that would raise an evolutionary paradox. Such conditions would either apply or not apply to any animal in a tigers ancestral lineage. But we know that if you trace back the lineage of a tiger far enough, you'll eventually get an animal that is not itself a tiger. And so it follows that there must have been a first tiger, born from a non-tiger. But that's just not how speciation works. We know that new species do not come about in a single generation. The property of being a tiger, then, must be potentially vague or indefinite in its instantiation. Once upon a time there would have been populations of animals that were not tigers which, over many generations, slowly evolved into populations that were tigers. And during this transition, there would have been animals that were neither definitely tigers nor definitely not tigers.

One way to make sense of this is to identify the property of being a tiger with a cluster of properties. That is, properties that are statistically grouped together, so that the presence of some make the presence of others all the more likely. Such clusters might have outliers and anomalies, and that doesn't seem to be incompatible with their reality. And so if we identify the property of being a tiger with a property cluster, then this avoids the evolutionary paradox.

Some things are clustered only by our grouping them together and labeling them with the same name. Such distinctions are drawn simply because it's useful to individuals or society, and not because that's how nature is genuinely carved up. But if that were the case here, then whether or not something was a tiger would depend on whether or not we labelled it a tiger. If all of society singled out a particular tiger, and decided that it was no longer a member of that species, surely society would be in error. Whether or not an animal is a tiger doesn't depend on whether or not it has been labeled as such.

More plausibly, it seems, tigers are grouped together by nature itself. There are naturally occurring causal mechanisms—i.e. the psychological, physiological, and genetic processes of tiger reproduction—that are responsible for the clustering of tigeresque traits in tigers. Human society is not required for any of this, nor does it add anything to it other than giving it a name. And, since it is a naturally occurring property cluster, it's surely real and objective in any meaningful sense. It is a way in which nature is genuinely carved up, albeit one with potentially vague boundaries. And it is this naturally occurring property cluster, then, that we have named "tiger".

Of course, there may be naturally occurring property clusters that we have not yet named. For instance, what about the naturally occurring cluster of human values? There are certain things for which it is just in human nature to value, usually manifesting as pro-social attitudes. Almost everyone wants to be thought of as being kind and generous and brave, even if they don't generally behave in such a way. No one wants to think of themselves as a villain. People will do mental gymnastics to excuse their bad behavior, so they can preserve some semblance of a virtuous self-image. This illuminates what we naturally value. And it's not difficult to see why this would be. Evolutionary pressures have made our species into social animals, that flourish when we live together and can depend on each other. So there are clear causal mechanisms in place that are responsible for human values being clustered about pro-social patterns of behaviour. Let's call this naturally occurring property cluster the human value cluster.

The human value cluster is wholly comprised of human values, just as tigers are wholly comprised of their tigeresque traits. There is nothing that any particular tiger consists of over and above its tigeresque morphology and genome and so on. That is to say, the biological characteristics of any particular tiger are, alone, sufficient for being a tiger. Likewise, then, there is nothing that any particular instance of the human value cluster consists of, over and above the evaluative attitudes that make it up.

Nevertheless, the human value cluster is, in a way, independent of the actual values that make up its instances. Even if society were to change suddenly, and people started valuing the opposite of what they do now, so that it was socially acceptable to be violent and malicious, and taboo to be kind and generous, even then this would not make a difference to whether or not it's natural for humans to have these attitudes. And so if we identified moral properties, such a goodness, with the human value cluster, this would result in a form of subjectivism that is nevertheless robustly non-relativistic.

But one might think that this isn't good enough. What if human evolution had gone otherwise, and it was instead natural for humans to value what we currently condemn? Doesn't this form of subjectivism entail that, if we were to naturally value malice, then malice would be good? It does not. Let's raise a similar question about tigers. Suppose some animal drastically different from present day tigers had evolved from the tigers ancestor. Would that animal then be a tiger, and would tigers then be drastically different from what they are today? It seems clear that they would not. If evolutionary history had gone otherwise, tigers just wouldn't exist. Some different animal would exist instead. Similarly, then, if human evolution had gone quite differently, so that humans naturally valued the complete opposite of what they do now, then the human value cluster simply wouldn't have existed. Some other cluster of human values would have taken it's place. And that other cluster is not what we have named "the human value cluster". What follows, then, is that there wouldn't have been such a thing as goodness at all.

This "objective" sort of moral subjectivism renders moral properties robustly non-relativistic in their instantiation, but not in their reality. This should be seen as something of a win, for the latter sort of relativism is not nearly so deeply unintuitive as the former. That being said, I don't doubt that there are problems with this latter sort of relativity as well. But many views, if not all, face problems, and one might think that this is not significantly worse than competing theories of moral ontology. This may very well be a viable form of moral subjectivism.

Saturday 3 February 2018

Exploring the "why be moral?" question

Why should we be moral?

At face value this is a trivial question. It just is, in part, what we mean by the word "moral" that we should be moral. Our concepts of morality, good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, and so on, are normative concepts. It is analytic that moral properties give us normative reason to behave in certain ways. And so this question is something like asking why all bachelors are unmarried men, or why all triangles have three sides.

And yet, this doesn't quite feel satisfying. The question may still seem to raise an important challenge for moral realists to answer. I think this is only because of commonly held, unspoken assumptions that one has in their mind when considering the question. These assumptions make it difficult to say that we should always be moral. And so, when paired with what has been said above, these assumptions form a challenge to the moral realist. They might go something like this:

1. We should do whatever we have most reason to do
2. But if someone were to want to do something enough then they would have most reason to do it
3. Therefore, if someone were want to do something enough then they should do it

The first premise seems almost analytic itself. Normative reasons weigh for or against certain responses of agents. Often times different reasons aggregate to form an even stronger reason, or clash and cancel each other out. This is most clearly seen in the case of epistemic reasons, where each piece of evidence provides a unique reason to affirm or deny a theory. Whether or not we should believe the theory depends on how these individual reasons weigh up. The word "should", I take it, just refers to this sort of aggregate normative reason that weighs decisively in favour of some response.

But the conclusion (3) is in serious tension with a robust, non-relativistic form of moral realism. The robust realist would want to say that,

4. If something is immoral, then it would still be immoral (and would still be something we should not do) no matter how much we wanted to do it

From this and (3) it follows that,

5. Therefore, nothing is immoral

This, I think, is what motivates the question at hand. That, because of (1) and (2), we are trapped between moral relativism on one hand, and moral nihilism on the other. The question might be seen as a rhetorical move to prompt this realization. That second premise, then, will be a point of controversy. Many find (2) intuitive, but at the same time find (4) and (5) to be very unintuitive. So why not respond with a Moorean shift? A better defense of (2) is needed, and I think a compelling one can be given as follows.

2.1. There is no limit to how much someone can want to do something
2.2. Therefore, there is no limit to how much prudential reason someone can have to do something
2.3. But there is a limit to how much moral reason there is to do something
2.4. Therefore, if we want to do something enough (so that there is more prudential reason to do it than there is moral reason to not do it), then we will have most reason to do it

Premise (2.1) and the inference from it to (2.2) seems plausible. That someone wants to do something no doubt gives them prudential reason to do it, and the weight of the reason would be proportional to the strength of their desire.

Some might think to reject (2.3), but I am skeptical of this move. Moral reasons supervene on biological, psychological and sociological factors, such as health and happiness, fairness, liberty, and equality. Just as the weight of prudential reasons are proportional to the strength of ones desires, the weight of moral reasons seem proportional to the extent to which these subvening natural factors are being promoted or discouraged. At the same time, moral reasons appear to contribute only finite weight for or against some response. After all, things could always be worse. Murder is worse than theft, though both are immoral. But comparisons of this sort are meaningless between infinite magnitudes. Since such comparisons are sensible, and since the subvening natural factors are finite, it seems moral reasons must contribute only finite weight.

Others may think to resist the inference from (2.2) and (2.3) to (2.4), and suggest that at least some moral reasons just cannot be defeated by prudential reasons—no matter their relative strength. But this is rather odd, and demands explanation.

A more sensible answer is to just admit that morality is relative to prudence. But that relativism needn't go in any one direction. Many believe that God will punish all wrongdoers and reward the righteous in the afterlife. Similarly, some will argue that there are certain interests all humans have, in virtue of being rational agents or social animals, that are most effectively realized by being moral. If this is true, then we have decisive prudential reason to live a moral life and abstain from immorality. One can thus explain how it is that we should life a moral life, without even mentioning moral reasons. In this way, then, one can accommodate the relativity of morality and prudence without committing to a radical and unpalatable form of moral relativism.

Many find this compelling, but I am dubious. Relativism in either direction, morality being dependent on prudence or prudence being dependent on morality, doesn't strike me as correct. There are still counterfactuals that require explanation, such as: "Even if it were imprudent to be moral, we should still be moral." There is still a sense in which morality is non-relativistic, that these sorts of answers don't seem to be able to explain or accommodate.