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Welcome to the debate on Moral Realism featuring Aleph Naught and Friendly Banjo Atheist.

The topic for this debate is "Child Torture, Is It Really Wrong?"

In this debate, FBA will argue the non-cognitivist view while Aleph will argue for a God-independent moral realism.

The debate will proceed as follows:

FBA will make an opening statement of no more than 2000 words.

Aleph  Will respond with a statement of no more than 2000 words.

There will then be  two rounds of back-and-forth of no more than 1000 words

Banjo will make a closing statement of no more than 1000 words.

Aleph Will make a final closing statement of no more than 1000 words.

Each party will post their responses within 72 hours of the other parties previous post

The moderator is will offer short comments in response to each post, and is very susceptible to being influenced by heckles on the debate comment thread.

There shall be a separate link where viewers can discuss the debate, and both parties have agreed not to visit that thread until the debate is concluded.

We will now begin with Friendly Banjo Atheist's opening speech.

Friendly Banjo Atheist (aka Steve Baughman) is a lawyer, musician and sometimes philosophy graduate student in the San Francisco Bay area.   He has studied philosophy at San Francisco State University and at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley California.  Interesteds  can hear his music by typing his real name into the YouTube search field.

FBA, please proceed.
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Friendly Banjo Atheist

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In this debate I will defend the following proposition:

"Torturing children for fun is never wrong."

I realize that I have just given up any hope of ever being elected to public office, at least in the soundbite culture where I live. But a philosophical stance should be able to accommodate its most (seemingly) outrageous entailments. My moral philosophy entails that child torture is never wrong, so I might as well deal with it up front.

Now, I don't think child torture is right either. I happen to have an extremely strong preference for a world without it.  I also don’t wake up each day wondering if that preference might change before tea time.

And this brings me to the heart of my position. At the most fundamental observable level almost all of us feel the same about child torture. If you hooked me and the Pope (or any devout moral realist) up to a super-advanced neuro scanner and showed us holograms of child torture I am quite sure our reactions would be almost identical. Our dynorphinerigic cells would kick into aversion mode so intensely we would crash most machines.

I would be perfectly happy to leave it at that. The pope, by contrast, would insist on finding some metaphysical label, like "immoral," upon which to ground his reaction.

But why not simply accept our strongest preferences as a legitimate stopping place? I suspect it is because we have a discomfort with personal responsibility and a fondness for mystery. In this case we choose mysterious labels that 2,500 years of philosophizing have not been able to deliver a consensus on. Sadly, these labels make us feel more different from each other than we really are.

We can do better. And we will, once we view moral language not as a description of any matter of fact, but as expressing an evaluative attitude, or to put it tritely, a "preference." Recognizing this will help us avoid what Simon Blackburn calls "ontological contamination," (and will reduce the need for so many philosophy professors.)

But "preference" sounds so trite. We are, after all, talking about child torture, not salsa. And our feelings about child torture really are different from those we have about salsa. They are deep, profound, consuming, irresistible, non-inferential, soul-engaging, etc., etc.

Fair enough. So preferences can be deep, profound, consuming, irresistible, non-inferential, soul-engaging, etc., etc. That does not make them non-preferences. Intensity of sentiment does not imply ontology.

Many readers will recognize my comments thus far as a fairly standard non-cognitivist view of moral statements. But why be a non-cognitivist? Isn't the intensity of our moral intuitions better accounted for by the existence of "objective" moral truths that we somehow tap into, either because we are created by God to recognize them, or by "apprehension," or otherwise? Doesn't our primal response to things like child torture suggest that some things really are wrong, plain and simple?

And besides, on non-cognitivism the recent Paris terror attacks were not "wrong," "evil" or "wicked." They were just "not preferred." How lame is that?

Not lame at all. There are good reasons for assenting to non-cognitivism. First, non-cognitivism is fully adequate to account for human moral experience. It does so parsimoniously and without resort to spooky metaphysics. Second, no other moral theory does the job as well.

Now, one might claim that personal preference is thin ice upon which to ground our morality. But I am not seeking to ground morality. I am suggesting that we dispense with the notion of morality entirely, except in some (not-very-interesting) stipulative sense. For instance, we might stipulate that the word "good" in our medical language game refers to "that which contributes to human health," or in baseball to "that which helps our team score more runs than the other team."

Moral realists will have none of this stipulative stuff. "We're not interested in how we choose to use 'good' in a language game. We want to know if something really is good."

And here we have landed squarely in Carnap's internal/external distinction. Questions and statements internal to a linguistic framework have meaning and determinative answers. "The cat is on the mat" makes perfect sense, and can be true or false, within a framework where we have stipulated to certain criteria for accepting such propositions as true; if we kick what appears to the "the cat" we will hear a high-pitched yell and experience a scratching sensation on our leg, and so on. The question "But is there really a cat on the mat?" is external to that framework and therefore makes no sense. It will remain senseless until incorporated into some new framework. And that new framework will not be a product of ontology, but of pragmatic choices.

The same goes for moral discourse. The sentence "X is evil because it undermines human flourishing" makes sense within a framework where "undermines human flourishing" is at least part of what it means to be evil. To then ask if it is "really evil" makes no sense. You may go and create a framework in which "really evil" has some stipulated referent. But then prepare for the moral realist to say "No. No. No. I am not asking about stipulated frameworks. I am asking what it really means to be really evil." And so on. And good luck.

Why do we need moral language at all? Why is an intense desire for an end to child torture not a sufficient pragmatic stopping point for our dialogue on "moral" matters? Where is the defect in saying "I don't know why, but I really hate that stuff, and I will oppose it wherever it presents, and I'm sure glad you feel the same"?

It would be nice, perhaps, to know exactly where our preference against child torture come from. But we can't, at least not yet. Whatever kind of prophet Jeremiah was, he was onto something when he said that we cannot know our own hearts. (Jer 17:9.) I do suspect that our preferences have to do with psychology, biology, neuro-stuff, etc. And until we have ruled these out, resorting to metaphysics seems to me premature.

I confess to a bias for science over metaphysics. But it is not this bias alone that motivates my view. Any realist claim that our moral intuitions "track" some ontology seems to me to run afoul of common experience. If moral intuitions tracked ontology we should expect our reactions to news of a murder to be relatively consistent when the victim is a stranger in our neighborhood or a stranger in a distant Papua New Guinean village.

But they aren't. The intensity of our "moral" outrage is actually inversely proportionate to the number of miles between us and the location of the "morally outrageous" event. Bombings in Paris get us in touch with our inner moral ontology tracker quicker than does greater carnage in Iraq. (OK, I use "number of miles" as a metaphor for geographical, cultural or other kinds of distance.) This would not be so if we were tracking something "objective."

And then there is our capacity to feel "moral" stuff towards creatures we know to be incapable of moral thinking. Captain Ahab hated Moby Dick with a passion. I get really pissed at the barking dog that deprives me of sleep. We can even feel rage at inanimate objects, like traffic lights, or uneven pavement on which we stub a toe.

These cases show that some of what passes for "moral" sentiment can also be found in what moral realists would all agree are amoral contexts. I submit that this crossover phenomenon can be easily accounted for by the usual scientific suspects (evolutionary biology/psychology/etc.), and not so easily by ontology-tracking theories of moral intuitions.

With all this in mind, I take the following to be a mature and hard-nosed metaethical discussion between a Child Torturer (CT) and your average Non-Cognitivist (NC).


CT: I'm off to torture some kids.

NC: You better not.

CT: Why not?

NC: Because I have a profoundly strong preference for a world with less child torture.

CT (amused): Very noble of you. And I don't. So we disagree.

NC: The vast majority of people in this society share my preference.

CT (impatient): Vox populi! Bah! Look, unless you have some new ethical-realist argument about how wrong I am, you'll have to excuse me. I've got stuff to do.

NC: Don't expect such an argument from me. I can't even disagree with you since I don't believe "right" and "wrong" are meaningful terms.

CT(triumphantly): You're a non-cognitivist! Ha! You of all people have no right to lecture me about morals. Didn't you read Dostoyevsky? Gotcha!

NC: Well, actually, I am not lecturing you about morals at all. I was about to tell you that my preference against child torture is so strong that I will do whatever I can to stop you, even if I have to risk my life to do so.

CT: You're willing to risk your life for a mere preference?

NC: Sure. People do it all the time. Fortunately, in this instance I won't need to.

CT: Huh? What do you mean?

NC (loudly): Twelfth St. and Vine!

CT: What?

NC: Sorry. Turrets. I was also going to point out that regardless of my own metaethical views, you yourself seem committed to a realist view of morality.

CT: Yes, I believe in right and wrong.

NC: And surely any account of wrongness would include child torture. So by your own rules you are wrong in what you are about to do.

CT: Since when has self-referential incoherence been a big force for behavior change?

NC: Fair enough. Now, remember when I said that lots of others share my preference? Well, it just so happens that in our society enough people have the same preference that they passed a law against child torture.

CT: Let me guess, you support that law even though you agree that child torture is not wrong.

NC: Yes.

CT: Isn't that totally hypocritical?

NC: On the contrary it's quite consistent. I support laws that serve my preferences.

CT: But why would you have such a preference? You're not a child, and I hear you don't even have any. I also hear that you were just diagnosed with a fatal disease and will be dead by sunset. So why should you care?

NC: I don't know the answer to your question. What I do know is that I have this really strong preference against child torture. And so do most people.

CT: Well, what would happen if the majority's preferences changed? Would I then be able to torture children with impunity.

NC: Yes.

CT: Would that make it right?

NC: Not right or wrong, only that you could easily do it. In fact, I know of a modern society where the genital mutilation of infant boys is deemed to be part of a covenant with their god. It is widely and legally practiced there.

CT (excited): Really? That proves my point. I'm off now.

NC: No, actually it proves mine. You see, you won't be off now. I'd like to introduce you to Officer Krupke over here. While we were chatting I speed-dialed 9-1-1 on my cell phone. Because enough of us feel so strongly about (non-covenantal) child torture the cops got right on my call.

CT (unhappy and in handcuffs): Wait! Twelfth St. and Vine? Turrets? You lied to me! That's so wrong!

NC: Not wrong, not right. It's just a matter of preferences. Mine were served, yours weren't.


And that, it seems to me, is how the "moral" world really works.
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aleph naught

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In this debate I will defend the following proposition:

“Torturing children for fun is wrong”

The focus of this debate might seem absurd to the casual reader. Obviously it’s wrong to torture children, how could anyone think otherwise? But Banjo has offered us an excellent explanation of how one might think otherwise: if they happened to be non-cognitivists about moral judgements. Ethical non-cognitivism is the view that moral statements like the one we’re discussing are neither true nor false. Rather, they are mere expressions of emotion like “yuck” or prescriptions like “close the door”, or something of that sort. As such, when we say something like “torturing children for fun is wrong” what Banjo thinks we’re really saying is something along the lines of “boo child torture!” or “do not torture children!”. These statements are meaningful and appropriate to assert, but are not capable of being true or false.

Before I delve into the case against ethical non-cognitivism, I’d like to make a point about what I’ll have achieved if I’m successful. If statements like “torturing children for the fun of it is wrong” must be either true or false, surely they are not false. There are few things that are as obvious as the fact that we shouldn’t torture children for fun. If my case against non-cognitivism is successful then the causal reader’s concern comes back in full force. There are few theses that are as well supported by intuition and common sense as moral realism. We can no easier doubt that it's wrong to torture children than that we have hands and feet—such things are just self-evident. And so there is a powerful prima facie case to be made for the truth of such statements from our everyday experience and intuition. Therefore in the absence of defeaters we have got a strong presumption for the truth of such ethical judgements.

Now for the case against non-cognitivism. My case is taken directly from Michael Huemer's book Ethical Intuitionism, and can be found in the chapter “The linguistic evidence for cognitivism”. Huemer says it really well, and much of what I've written here has been copied word for word from his book. Each of these points should be taken as a piece of evidence against non-cognitivism, and together they form a powerful cumulative case.
  • Ethical statements take the form of declarative sentences, rather than imperatives, questions, interjections and so on. “Pleasure is good” has the same grammatical form as truth-apt statements like “weasels are mammals”, and is grammatically very unlike any other kind of non-cognitive statement.
  • Moral predicates can be transformed into abstract nouns, suggesting that they are intended to refer to properties; we talk about ‘goodness’, ‘evilness’, ‘righteousness’, and so on.
  • We ascribe to ethical statements the same sorts of properties as other propositions. You can say, “It is true that I have done some wrong things in the past”, “It is false that contraception is murder”, and “It is possible that abortion is wrong”. ‘True’, ‘false’, and ‘possible’ are predicates that we apply only to propositions. No one would say, “It is true that ouch”, or “It is false that shut the door” or “It is possible that hurray”.
  • All the propositional attitude verbs can be prefixed to ethical statements. We can say “John believes that the war was just”, “I hope I did the right thing”, “I wish we had a more virtuous President”, and “I wonder whether I did the right thing”. In contrast, no one would say “John believes that shut the door”, or “I wonder whether please pass the salt”, or “I wish that ouch”. The obvious explanation is that such mental states as believing, hoping, wishing and wondering are by their nature propositional: To hope is to hope that something is the case, to wonder is to wonder whether something is the case, and so on. That is why one cannot hope that one did the right thing unless there is a proposition—something that might be the case—corresponding to the expression “one did the right thing”.
  • Moral statements can be transformed into yes/no questions: One can assert “Cinnamon ice cream is good”, but one can also ask “Is cinnamon ice cream good?” No analogous questions can be formed from imperatives or emotional expressions: “Shut the door?” and “Hurrah for the Canucks?” lack clear meaning. The obvious explanation is that yes/no questions require a proposition; they ask whether something is the case.
  • It’s coherent to issue imperatives and emotional expressions directed at things that are characterized morally. If non-cognitivism is true, then what do these mean: “Do the right thing”, “Hurrah for virtue!”.
  • It’s perfectly intelligible to say things like “We shouldn’t be doing this, but I don’t care let’s do it anyway”. But it’s hard to make sense of these sorts of statements once we understand “We shouldn’t be doing this” to express either an aversive emotion towards the proposed action or issued an imperative not to do it.
  • In some sentences, moral terms (like “good”, “wrong”, etc) appear without the speakers either endorsing or impugning anything, yet the terms are used in their normal senses. Consider two examples:
Example 1: “If adultery is wrong, then God will punish Clinton”

This sentence delivers no verdict on adultery; it says neither that adultery is wrong nor that it is not. So ‘wrong’ is not used here to express a negative psychological reaction to adultery, nor is it used to issue an anti-adultery imperative, nor to influence the audience's feelings against adultery. It’s difficult to see how the non-cognitivist could explain the meaning of “adultery is wrong” in this context. Indeed, since a statement of the form “if p then q” generally requires a proposition to be plugged in for p, it seems that if “adultery is wrong” expresses no proposition, then the whole sentence is nonsense—like “If please pass the salt, then the potatoes need more salt” or “If hurrah for the Canucks, then the Canucks are going to win”.

Example 2: Aboard the sinking Titanic the captain says, “There’s a right way to handle this situation”.

Since the captain doesn’t say what the right way to handle the situation is, he is not expressing a positive emotion towards anything, or trying to influence anyone’s attitudes, or telling anyone to do anything. Yet ‘right’ is evidently being used in its normal sense nonetheless. This is shown by the fact that the captain could sensibly continue as follows “And that way is to draw straws to see who may get on the lifeboats.” Although he has now endorsed drawing straws, he obviously has not changed the meaning of his initial use of the word “right”.

We can sum up these points with the following two syllogisms. For the following statements:

I am questioning the act's righteousness
It is true that pleasure is good
I hope that I did the right thing
Is abortion wrong?
Do the right thing
If pleasure is good, then chocolate is good
Something is good

All of these statements make sense. But none of these statements would make sense if non-cognitivism were true. Therefore, non-cognitivism is false.

If non-cognitivism were true, then it would be more likely that the previous sentences would strike us as odd, malformed or confused, than it would be if cognitivism were true. But none of these sentences strike us as odd, malformed or confused. Therefore our reaction to those sentences is evidence in favour of cognitivism over non-cognitivism.

For the remainder of this post I will try to recreate and respond to the few arguments Banjo has offered. But first I would like to draw attention to a misrepresentation of the intuitionists case for moral realism:

If you hooked me and the Pope (or any devout moral realist) up to a super-advanced neuro scanner and showed us holograms of child torture I am quite sure our reactions would be almost identical. … I would be perfectly happy to leave it at that. The pope, by contrast, would insist on finding some metaphysical label, like "immoral," upon which to ground his reaction. But why not simply accept our strongest preferences as a legitimate stopping place?

To answer his question: Because preferences are not all that there are. On top of our having the usual preferences, we also have very strong intuitions; ways the world seem to us (albeit, not produced by any sensory mechanism). If you ask anyone whether it genuinely seems as if torturing children for the fun of it is wrong, they will respond with a resounding “yes”. As I suggested in the beginning portion of this post, these intuitions confer strong prima facie warrant to our ethical beliefs. Furthermore, we often times intuit that something is right or wrong even when our preferences don’t match up. It’s not uncommon to recognize something to be right when you nevertheless really don’t want to do it. This doesn't sit well with Banjo’s presupposition that we only have preferences.

Now the first argument I’ve been able to make out is an appeal to parsimony. True, non-cognitivism is parsimonious. But it’s no more parsimonious than some forms of moral realism. Notice that those who believe there is such a thing as good and evil, but that they are grounded in the natural world hold to all the same ontological commitments as Banjo does. Banjo surely believes in such things as health, happiness, well-being and so on. At face value, then, considerations of parsimony shouldn’t bring us to favour ethical non-cognitivism over naturalistic accounts of moral realism.

Banjo’s second argument is that non-cognitivism is “fully adequate to account for human moral experience”, but as I’ve already shown this is certainly not the case. Non-cognitivists have huge trouble dealing with our experiences of moral language at the very least. But I think it’s even worse. As I’ve mentioned part of the moral experience is having intuitions, ways the world appears to us. But it’s awfully weird that we would have intuitions about non-cognitive statements. This is not how any of our other intuitions ever work. Our intuitions are always about something propositional, we intuit that something is the case; it seems that torturing children is wrong.

Banjo then tries to undercut the warrant our intuitions confer by arguing that they do not track the truth. He says, were our intuitions to track the truth then we should expect them to be constant in strength regardless of physical or cultural distance. But why think this is a failed expectation? He mentions that our moral outrage is not appropriately proportionate, but moral outrage is a very different thing from moral intuition. Outrage is an emotion, an intuition is a sort of experience. It seems to me that everyone should be treated kindly, even if I become much more angry when it’s my own brother who is blighted. No one ever claimed that our emotions track moral truth, since they clearly do not. But emotion and intuition are simply not the same thing.

Banjo’s final argument is that we have a capacity to feel “moral” stuff towards creatures that we know are incapable of moral thinking. His example is getting pissed at the barking dog that deprives him of sleep. But of course this is making the same mistake as before. Obviously Banjo’s getting upset has nothing to do with morality. Again, no one ever suggested that our emotions track moral truth. Emotion and intuition are not the same thing.
« Last Edit: November 24, 2015, 12:01:20 am by aleph naught »



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I think both participants have done an excellent job of clearly communicating their arguments.

Next, FBA will respond to Aleph's first speech.

Everyone is hoping that both FBA and Aleph will each cut to the heart of the others arguments, expose their weaknesses and inconsistencies.

Wrack your brains gentlemen!
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In my opening statement I claimed that non-cognitivism (NC) could account for our response to the Paris terror attacks better than any other moral theory. I still believe this, although Aleph's statement in response has exposed some of the weakness in my position. I hate it when that happens.

My reply to Aleph shall consist in two parts. First, I shall address what I think is his positive case for moral realism (MR). I will point out deficiencies that I think will need to be fixed for his realism to be viable. I will suggest that this task will either be exceedingly difficult for him or it will require clarifications that renders his a "realism" in name only, indeed, one that I would be glad to accept.

Next, I shall respond to his critiques of my position. As I read him, he makes two anti-NC arguments. The first is that NC cannot account for moral intuitions like, say, that child torture is "wrong." On MR it is "self-evident" that child torture is wrong. On NC,..... um....... This gives realism a powerful prima facie advantage, which it maintains pending the arrival of some sort of defeater.

As for the second, Aleph argues that NC cannot accommodate much of our moral language. For example, on NC, simple moral statements when embedded in non-assertive contexts make no sense. If this all sounds technical, it's not really. On NC "adultery is wrong" just means "boo adultery!" But if so, the once-very-accessible statement "If adultery is wrong, God will punish Ronald Reagan" becomes the very odd "If 'boo adultery!' then God will punish Ronald Reagan." Clearly, NC's got some 'splainin' to do.

And so does Aleph.


It is not clear what kind of realism Aleph endorses, a robust one or a thin one. But this much is clear: on Aleph's MR few things are as obvious as "the fact" that we "shouldn't" torture children for fun, and that such conduct is "wrong." We also know that Aleph's MR is itself a thesis very well supported by "intuition and common sense."

Now, I don't analyze moral claims about child torture as Aleph does. But I do feel exactly as he does about child torture. So I wondered, can we simply sub my "preferences" for his "intuitions" and go have a beer? Unfortunately not. Preferences are for things, and those things might not even exist. Intuitions, by contrast, are apprehensions of things that, ipso facto, the apprehender believes exists and believes she has access to. Preferences are non-ontological. Intuitions are ontological.

So what exactly is Aleph apprehending, or, to stay with his term, intuiting? We know it is "self-evident" and "obvious." But what is it? Is it a universal "wrongness" or a particular"wrong"? Is it a Platonic form? Something that supervenes on nature? A powerful feeling? A non-inferential knowing?

What kind of existential claim is Aleph's MR making?

Unfortunately Aleph doesn't say. And I think he needs to.

One of the desiderata of NC is that it avoids messy existential claims.The messier the existential claims in Aleph's MR, the more attractive my view will be in comparison. How messy are they? We must wait and see.

At this point in Aleph's affirmative case all we really have is something like this:

"I and others intuit X so obviously and self-evidently that we are prima-facie entitled to believe X exists, but I have not told you what X is."

I also wonder if there is some circularity here. "I know X exists because I intuit X." Now, if X were a cat on the mat I could grant that Aleph enjoys prima facie status. But I think he is really saying "I know there is an abstract entity on the mat because I intuit it, and so does almost everybody else." (In Ireland they say that about the "little people.")

In this situation I am not sure Aleph is entitled to the prima-facie-correct position he views himself in by virtue of the "self evident" deliverances of his intuitions. Aleph's "intuitions" are like the beetle in Wittgenstein's box. We think we know what everyone else means by "beetle" but for all we know each has something rather different in mind. (P.I. 293.) More info gets the beetle out of the box for all to examine.

But more info from Aleph won't be the end of it. I will then throw Carnap at him. Carnap shows us (I think) that meaning derives from being part of a linguistic framework, and that our choice of such frameworks is a pragmatic choice. And this may bring Aleph and I together. Once we choose a linguistic framework in which "child torture is wrong" is stipulated, we can go about repeating that claim without, per Carnap, "implying a metaphysical doctrine concerning the reality of the entities in question."

Suppose Aleph were to say "By 'wrong' I mean 'detrimental to human flourishing'" he and I could then go get that beer. I could now say "Yes, Aleph, Child torture is wrong," without giving up my membership in the NC club. I could start chanting MR slogans about the "wrongness" of child torture while remaining as NC as ever, which, by the way, I do anyway. We all do.

Notice, however, that in this situation Aleph's "realism" no longer sounds quite so robustly realistic. Once he sticks his neck out, I suspect that "child torture is wrong" will become a matter of stipulation, not sexy ontology. And that is exactly what I think it is.

So we wait for Aleph to tell us exactly he intuits when he intuits that child torture is "wrong"? And after that we will ask if he means it is wrong within a framework, or that it is really really wrong? If the latter, what possibly can that mean? If the former, we welcome Aleph to the NC club.


1. Moral Language.

There are several strains of NC. I may have led Aleph to assume I subscribe to emotivism, (boo murder!). That is not entirely true. My NC simply entails that moral claims are not truth apt. There is no fact of the matter about a moral claim like "adultery is wrong." But let us assume I claim that "adultery is wrong" reduces to "boo adultery!"

Now I have a problem:

"If adultery is wrong, then God will punish Ronald Reagan"

seems pretty straight forward. But on NC, I am actually saying

"If 'boo adultery!,' then God will punish Ronald Reagan."

Suddenly I sound like an idiot. Is this reductio where my beloved NC leads me? (BTW, Aleph had Clinton in there. I have changed presidents to further an unrelated agenda of mine)

Well, it turns out that some very smart people in philosophy have noticed the problem of moral terms in non-assertive contexts like this. I will just touch briefly on one response that I, at this point anyway, consider satisfactory.

On Allan Gibbard's "Norm-Expressivism" what sound as moral judgments merely express our acceptance of certain norms, (a normative "framework", if I may add a Carnapian twist.) Basically we are accepting a set of rules, and once within that set we can make statements that would make any moral realist proud. "Child torture is wrong" simply means that we have accepted a set of norms/rules that either expressly or impliedly forbid child torture. We sound MR but we are still NC.

And we can be as angry about child torture as any moral realist. Per Gibbard it is rational to be angry about the violation of the norms we have embraced. So anger at child torture can be both rational and expected. But that anger comes not from us "intuiting" some violation of any metaphysical order. It remains all about desires and emotions, that is to say, fully NC.

But what about Ronald Reagan embedded (with Jane Wyman) in a non-assertive context? Simple. If we have adopted anti-adultery rules which Ronald Reagan has violated, and if God participates in those rules, God will punish him.

I do not see Aleph's moral language argument as a problem for my view.

(Incidentally, the moral language problem is often known as the "Frege-Geach problem." People interested in pursuing that sort of thing will find it to be the sort of thing they are interested in pursuing.)

2. Intuitions

Alpeh is correct that we all feel a certain obviousness about the wrongness of child torture. If the claim that "child torture is wrong" had to be true or false, I would sure as heck join him in saying it is true.

But feeling it isn't thinking it. Why think it is true? Aleph has made some bold claims about the obviousness of MR and the prima facie status he gains by the deliverances of his powerful intuitions. I have addressed this above so I will only note that I am not impressed by the claims that these intuitions entitle us to any kind of ontology.

Now, having said that, maybe I shouldn't have said “any kind” of ontology. Aleph says something very interesting in his third paragraph from the end. He notes that my view is no more parsimonious than "some forms of realism." (His form? Not sure, but maybe.) Both make "the same ontological commitments." Then he says, "Surely banjo believes in such things as health, happiness, well-being and so on."

If "believes in" means I hope for, long for, and feel these contribute to human flourishing, he is correct. And if to be "wrong" means to undermine that flourishing then we can agree about child torture being wrong. And if that is ontology, I’ll take it. But I suspect Aleph's MR makes a much more robust ontological claim than that.

Finally, I made a big deal in my opening about "preferences." I have offered them as an appropriate stopping place for our metaethics. Aleph rightly notes that "preferences are not all that there are." He proceeds to appeal to intuitions and the "strong prima facie warrant" they confer on our ethical beliefs.

I agree that preferences are not all there are. But I remain unconvinced that they are not sufficient to ground our moral life. And I do not see Aleph’s intuitions as offering anything better.

« Last Edit: November 26, 2015, 03:49:50 pm by Friendly Banjo Atheist »
Friendly Banjo Atheist
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aleph naught

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In response Banjo puts forward Allan Gibbard’s Norm-Expressivism, saying that what sounds like moral judgements are really just expressions of our acceptance of certain rules. But what does it mean to “express acceptance”? At face value, we might be tempted to say that to express acceptance of a rule is to express that it is a rule we should follow; i.e. an expression of a normative belief. But this is not compatible with non-cognitivism. To make this work we might understand such expressions as emotive or prescriptive, saying something like “yay this rule” or “obey that rule”. But this is just standard emotivism and prescriptivism applied to rules rather than actions, and at face value it doesn’t seem to solve any of the problems I put forward. Maybe instead the right idea is that moral judgements express a desire to follow some rule. This is a little better, but still some of my previous objections apply: what does it mean to say “This is wrong, but who cares let’s do it anyway”? Such a statement becomes paradoxical, seemingly expressing that the speaker both does and does not have a desire to abstain from the action. The cognitivist would explain this by saying “wrong” doesn’t refer to anything that is necessarily connected to the speaker’s desires, but rather to some objective feature of the action.

Banjo has tried to understand “If adultery is wrong, then God will punish Ragen” as meaning “if we have adopted anti-adultery rules, and God follows those rules, then God will punish Ragen”. But this can’t be right. The first statement says absolutely nothing about God’s compliance to any kinds of rules. It expresses only a relationship between the (purported) wrongness of adultery and God’s punishing Ragen. Banjo cannot add a conjunct to the antecedent and think the statement still means the same thing! To properly reformulate this conditional statement under Banjo’s view would require something more like: “If *speaker expresses acceptance to some rule* then God will punish Ragen”. But in this case, why would we think the statement is true? What does the speaker's acceptance of any set of rules have to do with God’s behavioral patterns? I expect all conditional statements with embedded moral terms will cause similar problems.

How about the statement “if it’s wrong to kick the cat, then it’s wrong to get my little brother to kick the cat”? This must be reformulated to something like: “If *speaker expresses some rule prohibiting kicking the cat* then *speaker expresses some rule prohibiting getting his little brother to kick the cat*”. Why would we think this statement is true? Why must the speaker accept rules that prohibit the latter action whenever he accepts rules that prohibit the former? It seems rather silly to think these kinds of logical relationships hold for our attitudes of rule acceptance. But it’s not silly to think that statement is true, so Banjo’s theory of moral language is in trouble.

Furthermore, my point 8 still holds as strong as ever. To utter these conditional statements doesn’t require us to actually express any acceptance of any rules. One can utter these kinds of conditional statements and say yet nothing about whether they actually accept rules prohibiting adultery or kicking cats. So moral language can be used even when the speaker is not expressing any acceptance of any rule, which is a problem for Banjo’s view.

All in all, I don’t think Banjo has done much to undermine my critique of non-cognitivism.

Now I would like to say a bit about my intuitionistic case for moral realism. Happily, I see that Banjo admits “If the claim that "child torture is wrong" had to be true or false, I would sure as heck join him in saying it is true”. Weirdly, even given this admission, he doesn’t think my case is very strong.

He says “I am not impressed by the claims that these intuitions entitle us to any kind of ontology”, but this doesn’t quite make sense. If our intuitions constitute strong prima facie reason to believe these moral statements are true, then that’s all we need to achieve the ontological commitments. If “It’s wrong to kick cats” is true, then there must be such a thing as kicking cats and wrongness, and kicking cats must be wrong. That’s what it means for a statement to be true, for it to “correspond to reality”. Now I have defended the claim that we have strong epistemic reason to believe these kinds of moral statements are true (and Banjo seems to have accepted the main premise). I’m not sure how he can avoid the conclusion at this point.

There is another section that would be best quoted in bulk:
He notes that my view is no more parsimonious than "some forms of realism." (His form? Not sure, but maybe.) Both make "the same ontological commitments." Then he says, "Surely banjo believes in such things as health, happiness, well-being and so on."

If "believes in" means I hope for, long for, and feel these contribute to human flourishing, he is correct. And if to be "wrong" means to undermine that flourishing then we can agree about child torture being wrong. And if that is ontology, I’ll take it. But I suspect Aleph's MR makes a much more robust ontological claim than that.

No, by “believes in” I mean believes in. Banjo surely thinks there’s such a thing as health, happiness and well-being. That sometimes people are healthy, happy, or well. And it’s exactly these kinds of properties like happiness, healthiness and wellness that Naturalists like myself commonly ground morality in.

Finally, Banjo says “I agree that preferences are not all there are. But I remain unconvinced that they are not sufficient to ground our moral life. And I do not see Aleph’s intuitions as offering anything better.”  But again this is confused. It sounds like he is conflating ontology and epistemology. I am not grounding anything in intuitions. I’m saying intuitions offer us strong prima facie reason to think statements like “torturing children for the fun of it is wrong” are not false. So if they must be either true or false (if non-cognitivism is defeated), it follows that we have good prima facie reason to think they are true. Furthermore, Banjo isn’t trying to offer a theory of moral grounding. He doesn’t think there are any such thing as moral properties to be grounded. So it doesn’t make sense for him to say that preferences ground our “moral life” (whatever that is).

Now Banjo has asked some questions about my view in the first half of his response. I am a robust moral realist, I do think that moral properties are objective and normative (you might call me a “paradigmatic moral realist”). And, as I’ve alluded to, I think moral properties are grounded in natural properties like sentient flourishing and languishing. That being said, I don’t think his concerns are very relevant.

Everyone knows what the word “wrong” means, and hence knows what it means to say “it seems that torturing children is wrong”. In fact, along with most philosophers these days I reject semantic reductionism. There is no analysis to give of moral language in terms of non-moral language; terms like “good” and “wrong” are semantically primitive. That being said, using Wittgensteinian skepticism about the meaning of our language doesn’t serve Banjo well, since I could flip that back on him about practically any term he uses. And just mentioning Carnapian internalism/externalism doesn’t make for much of an argument, either. I simply reject Carnap’s view, and Banjo hasn’t actually given us any reason to accept it. That being said, it’s not clear to me how exactly Carnap’s linguistic philosophy is helping Banjo’s case. It would be nice to see an argument more explicitly fleshed out here.



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I for one am very much enjoying this!

My comments will be generic in nature, without regard to whether either participant has proven his point more effectively.  In fact, in my view, both participants in this debate have a very difficult row to hoe, and I will only try to offer comments that might be beneficial to anyone reading.

My guess is (and it is a guess) that each viewpoint is shared by a fairly small subset of the general population.  That is to say, if the average man/woman on the street were offered these viewpoints as choices for ontology of morality in a multiple choice question, neither of these choices would be picked very often.

Perhaps obviously, FBA would find himself in a lonelier place than Aleph, but both would be pretty lonely.

If you both can, perhaps a moment of explanation going forward as to why your view is good (or more preferred) for those out there who are just living their lives and getting along in society.

And then more immediately, I think there is a significant problem that both are avoiding because the problem is equally present in both views; how do you ground all the contingencies of your views in something that is non-contingent.

Lastly, will there be any attempt to name or clearly state at least one "golden rule" that a fellow human being might embrace that will make their life better (or more preferred).

Very interesting debate guys; we appreciate it and look forward to more thought provoking discussion.
"First I knocked them out of a tree with a rock.  Then I saved them."


Friendly Banjo Atheist

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It has become clear that my fundamental difference with Aleph is over intuitions as legitimate moral stopping points.  He thinks they are, and I don’t. He also thinks our intuitions give us an ontology of abstract entities. I think that goes too far. 

On a separate issue, Aleph’s philosophy of language arguments against non-cognitivism have been well presented.  I shall deal briefly with them at the end of this reply. I must note for the record, however, that they implicate highly technical and controversial issues that are the subject of ongoing and raging debate about the Frege-Geach problem amongst metaethics professionals.  Aleph’s admitted “word for word” copying from the text of a prominent moral realist may do the trick in a forum debate. But interesteds will want to look deeper. Mark Schroeder at USC might be a good place to start.   

But first this:


On Aleph’s view, intuitions provide “strong prima facie reason to believe” that certain moral statements are true. With intuitions we have “all we need to achieve the ontological commitments.” 

If “It’s wrong to kick cats” is true, then there must be such a thing as kicking
cats and wrongness.

Fair enough. But why believe the antecedent? Aleph’s answer seems to be that we should do so (at least prima facie) because this belief is a deliverance of some rather mysterious sense that picks out semantically irreducible properties.

I, by contrast, am reluctant to view “wrongness” ontologically when I can think of ways to account for it as a social construct, one that arises from non-normative commitments on the part of human beings.  I see a complex species that has committed itself on a large scale to a code of conduct that enhances its flourishing. It develops a language where words such as “right” and “wrong” are invented to condone and disapprove of departures from that code.  Perhaps I accept that code because I see it as enhancing my own prospects for flourishing. (Psychopaths have poorer reproductive options than the “in crowd” does.)  I buy into the language of “right and wrong” and use it freely. This can sometimes end up sounding deceptively realist. “San Bernadino sure messed up our human flourishing”  easily becomes “San Bernadino was soooo wrong.” But all without robust normative commitments.

Aleph wonders, astutely, whether we accept such a code because we “should” accept it.  But this goes too far.  I simply see no need to engage “shoulds” when a furtherance of our flourishing will account for our acceptance. Why stick metaphysics in the gaps when self-interested putty will do?

Nor does one confuse ontology with epistemology, as Aleph says I do, by worrying about an epistemology that leads to queer ontological entities.  A sensual faculty that tells me that slithy toves really do gymbal and gire in the wabe needs a second look.  So does one that postulates such a thing as “wrongness.”  For what can it mean for something to be “wrong” (without God telling us so)?

And this is where Carnap can help.  The internal/external distinction forces us to stick our necks out and say whether something really is wrong or whether it is just wrong within some expressly or impliedly stipulated framework.  Aleph says child torture is prima facie wrong and he defends that belief by telling us that he intuits it to be true.  And my question is, what does “child torture is wrong” really mean? Carnap demands that Aleph either admit that it has meaning only within some stipulated context, or invoke the mystery of “intuiting wrongness.”   

I want Aleph to stick his neck out and answer this question. Telling us that he rejects semantic reductionism, that moral terms are “primitive,” does not help.

Carnap would say that cruelty impedes flourishing, so let’s agree not to kick cats.  Aleph wants to say that he has intuitions about the wrongness of cat-kicking.

The time has come for Aleph to put more substance into his account of “wrongness.”  I think he also owes us an explanation of why a purely evolutionary account of our “moral” intuitions is inadequate.  (If he wishes to put all his eggs in the Frege-Geach basket, so be it. But we deserve to know if he has more.)

Standing by.


OK, on to my own weaknesses now.  I shall focus on the classic old warhorse that Aleph raises:

If it is wrong to kick the cat, then it is wrong to get little brother to kick the cat.

On realism this is deemed a valid modus ponens.  But on non-cognitivism, per Aleph, it becomes “If speaker expresses some rule prohibiting kicking the cat then speaker expresses some rule prohibiting getting little brother to kick the cat.” The logical relationship that held the realist modus ponens together does not work for the non-cognitivist version.  The conclusion does not necessarily follow from the true premises.

That is bad for non-cognitivism. 

But what about this norm-expressivist rendering of Aleph’s cat-kicking example?

    Feeling anger at cat kickers is rational under the accepted norms.

If feeling anger at cat kickers is rational under the accepted norms, then feeling anger at anyone who gets little brother to kick cats is also rational under the accepted norms.

Feeling anger at anyone who gets little brother to kick cats is rational under the accepted set of norms.

This is a valid modus ponens. There are no possible worlds in which the premises are true and the conclusion false.

I think this approach also addresses Aleph’s point #8 and the Titanic captain who says “There is a right way to handle this situation.”  Aleph claims that “right” is being used here in the “normal   sense,” by which I assume he means the realist sense.  But why conclude this? The captain could also be saying something like “drawing straws by an egalitarian process would be rational under the norms we (and I) have accepted,” or “throwing children overboard to save oneself would violate the norms that we (and I) have accepted.” 

With waves crashing around and the band playing Nearer, my God, to Thee, the captain might be less nuanced and opt for realist sounding language like “that’s sooooo wrong to toss kids overboard” or “drawing straws is the only right thing.”  But we simply do not need intuitions or any ontology or right and wrong to account for this language.  It is non-normative at its core.

I understand that I have not given a full airing to the language issue in non-cognitivism.  It is hugely complex and I am just starting to grapple with it. But however the dust settles on these technical Frege-Geach issues, Aleph still owes us a more informative account of why he thinks moral intuitions actually give us access to moral “truth” and what it actually means for something to be morally true.


I have just now read Pater's interesting observation and his request for how we might relate our comments to those who are "just living their lives and getting along in society." 

I consider my non-cog view to be a great pragmatic tool in the trenches.  We don't need to worry about inaccessible matters that only professionals can comprehend.  We can recognize that our "morality" is the result of rational choices that we make as human beings.  Morality is not something that "tracks" some extra-human reality.  This recognition can be both liberating and daunting. And that's just the way life is.  Ain't it grand? 
Friendly Banjo Atheist
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The time has come to call this debate over.

Mr Aleph Naught has chosen to not continue within the very liberal time constraints and by default concedes victory to Friendly Banjo Atheist.

No reason was given.
"First I knocked them out of a tree with a rock.  Then I saved them."



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Do you have some basis for trusting your intuitions?

What exactly do you mean by "trust"? If you mean to ask whether I have some reason to think my intuitions are reliable (in that they probably produce true belief), the answer is no. But I don't think that's a problem since I'm not trying to infer anything from the fact that a belief is intuitive.

This is from another thread.  I would say it undermines Aleph's argument.  Could it be that this debate brought him to a deeper understanding? 

"First I knocked them out of a tree with a rock.  Then I saved them."