Friday, January 25, 2013

Why Morality Has No Floor

[Caution recommended. Though I still agree with the basic point, I made it in an extremely misleading way.]

I was criticized after my post on vegetarianism for sneaking an ethical subtext into what was ostensibly a post about killing animals. So to clear up all doubt, I will be completely straightforward now with what I believe about morality:

Morality does not exist in the world. It is not logical. There is no such thing as a true or false moral statement. And it is impossible to rationally persuade someone of a moral conviction that he does not already hold.

I want to distinguish morality here from what I'll call ethical norms. By norms, I mean codes of behavior that human beings enforce—both socially and legally—in much the same way as they enforce rules of language. Norms are abundant in the world. It is an empirical fact that if I walk down the streets of Teheran with a bottle of brandy, I will be punished. If I hit someone with a baseball bat in Hyde Park, I will not only go to jail but also lose favor among my friends. Norms vary from place to place, but most societies on earth have many precepts in common. This is partly because in general, human beings have good reason to try to prevent things like premeditated murder.

But norms like this are not what people usually mean when they call something immoral. Morality, rather, refers to what people think is the essential badness or goodness of a thing. Morality is what makes it just-plain-wrong to murder and lie, wherever I am.

The problem, though, is that this kind of essential badness is not something we can point to or whose existence we can test. We can only make testable, meaningful statements about the way things are in the world. Here's a bird, there's a pebble. There's a bird eating a pebble. Here's the Biblical prohibition of sodomy, there's Lawrence v. Texas. There's a California legislator defying both. But a moral statement is not a description of the way things are. As Wittgenstein said, if I wrote a scientific history of everything; describing the whizzing of the stars, the composition of the earth, and the history of human beings; nowhere in my enormous book would there be a single normative sentence.

So whatever moral values there are, they have nothing to do with the way the world appears. They have everything to do with what the world means—and that's not an question that can be answered with an informed rational discussion. Morals are, as Ludwig Wittgenstein said, mystical.

I should be clear about the implications of what I am saying. If I am asked: why it is immoral to murder a baby? I will have no answer. I won't even know where to start.

Let me illustrate my point with this dialogue between Joe, who's gay, and a homophobic Republican:
Republican: Your way of life is immoral and an offense to decency.
Joe: Says who? You have no right to impose your morality on me.
R: You are imposing your morality on me when you insist on this arbitrary principle of non-intervention.
J: All I'm saying is that whatever consenting adults do behind closed doors is none of your business.
R: Morality is of course my business. And what difference does it make if you sin in private? By the way, how do you know that consent is the criterion of morality?

And so on. To give another example, f I had been born in pre-modern Igboland, I would have been condemned to death for being a twin. If I had cried: stop! you are acting immorally! I would have received the response: your very existence is what's immoral. And there would have been no judge on Earth to tell us who was right. To arbitrate the dispute would mean talking about things that do not exist in the world—and that is something that our language is incapable of doing.

None of this means that I do not have moral convictions or try to act morally. But morality is something that I simply practice, not something I can reasonably defend against someone who disagrees with me.

Doesn't this make you a cultural relativist? In one sense yes, and in another no. It is an empirical fact that different societies have different norms, and also that societies (and people, for that matter) often attempt to impose their norms on each other. But I do not derive from that fact any moral duty to respect the norms of any given society or person. In fact, I believe that I am morally obligated to reject the cultural norms that I think are immoral. It was appropriate, for instance, for the British government to ban the Rajasthani practice of widow-burning.

Are you a post-modern nihilist? To the contrary! I believe that I am commanded to live for other people and not for my belly. The problem is that I can neither talk sensibly about this commandment nor convince you of it: it does not exist in the world. (On the other hand, the absence of morality in the world means that it is conceivable for a person to run joyfully down the road to hedonism without stumbling.)

Don Giovanni stumbles.

P.S. My thinking on ethics has been heavily influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein and Oliver Wendell Holmes, who explained what I have said much better than I did.

Updated 1/28.


Aaron said...

You move from "can't understand morality scientifically" to "morality doesn't exist in the world." The protasis is fine, but you don't show that the apodosis follows. In fact, you would contradict yourself if you did, since there clearly is no scientific explanation to get you from the protasis to the apodosis -- hence by your own claim there is no way to do so. Just because descriptive explanations of the world will never get you normative considerations, it does _not_ follow that normative considerations have no meaning.

Anyways, you don't really wanna get rid of morality on the grounds that it is normative. Then you'd have to get rid of all other normativity too such as logic (which tells us not how we always think but how we ought to think and which clearly cannot be demonstrated through empirical methods any more than morality can).

Personally, I'm not so worried to try to convince you that there is something just plain wrong about killing babies just so long as you remember what happens to those who do such disgusting things.

Anonymous said...

I’m a busy man and don’t have time to tell you all the reasons why you’re wrong, so I’ll just stick to some of my favorites.

“ If I wrote a scientific history of everything; describing the whizzing of the stars, the composition of the earth, and the history of human beings; nowhere in my enormous book would there be a single normative sentence.”

No shit, Sherlock. That’s why morality is a philosophical field, not a scientific one. So your argument is that if you wrote a book full of only descriptive statements that there would be no normative statements in the book? Holy fuck, give this man a medal.

You make this jump from “I can’t verify it in the world” to “it has no rational content.” First of all, buddy, I don’t remember seeing this principle written down in your giant book of descriptive statements. In making this claim that things must be empirically verifiable in the world to be rational, you are appealing to something that is, in fact, not empirical in the slightest. So there must be something beyond the empirical that we can appeal to. Thank fucking god because I would be bored as fuck if the only things we could reasonably talk about were things in that dull as fuck book of descriptive statements of yours.

“To arbitrate the dispute would mean talking about things that do not exist in the world—and that is something that our language is incapable of doing.”

I’m not sure if you’ve ever taken a math class but there are these cool new things called numbers. I talk about them a lot. In fact, just earlier today I was talking about the 7 million things that are wrong with your ethical views. Funny thing, though, is that I have never once seen the number 7 million walking around in the world. Thought I saw it at a bus stop once but it turns out it was just the acid kicking in. It’s something that doesn’t actually exist in this world except through our rational capacity. Language is pretty fucking sweet in that it can talk about all kinds of shit beyond just shit in your boring-ass book.

Your problem seems to be that there is a lack of a judge for morality; a lack of some neutral dude to say “X is right and Y is wrong and fuck you if you say otherwise.” Sorry to disappoint, but we live in a world without judges and empirical verification isn’t always an option. If some dude comes up to me and says “truth doesn’t exist and logical rules are non-verifiable” you can be damn sure that first off, I’m gonna be pissed that this dude has the audacity to smoke crack right in my face and not even offer to share. That is just common courtesy. Second, maybe I can’t convince him, but I know in the strongest possible sense that he is wrong. But since when is it my job to convince crack-heads that they are wrong? If someone comes up to me and tells me that my dope as fuck purple shirt is actually green, I can’t convince them that they are wrong, but let’s be honest, I ain’t gonna be wearin no green-ass shirt with these shoes. Sometimes, someone is just wrong even when you can’t convince them or anyone else; the inability to arbitrate the dispute does not constitute a lack of truth. This is the case for everything, whether it be empirical or moral.

Jonathan S Nathan said...

I think we agree; we just have a misunderstanding over terminology. All I meant by "morality does not exist in the world" is that moral commands are not apparent from the arrangement of matter in space, so there is no universally shared logical language in which I can make the true observation "it's wrong to kill" in the same sense as I can say "there are three apples on the table." Within a certain moral community that shares normative principles, there are of course true and false normative statements.

Logic is a great example. I cannot empirically demonstrate the imperative to use logic—I just use logic! In the same way I cannot empirically found my moral principles—I just act on them.

Jonathan S Nathan said...


A statement about transcendental morality can't have a logical structure, unless it takes a form along the lines of: "x is transcendentally wrong. y is included in x. Therefore y is wrong." The trouble comes when we want to compare major premises. I live firmly according to some moral premises but not others, but I can't tell you why.

Also, it's not as if "3" is a word that corresponds to a definite "nonexistent thing" no matter what its use is. Three apples? I know what that means. The figure three? I know what that means, too. But the essence of three?

I agree, by the way, that philosophy (usefully practiced) does not deal with empirical data. That's because there's no such thing as a refutable philosophical statement—only a nonsensical or a tautological one. Philosophy is very good at clarifying our thought, but not at telling us how the world works.