When it comes to value theory (ethics and aesthetics) one has a binary choice. Either such value judgments as "This is good/bad" or "That is beautiful/not beautiful" are true or they are not. But clearly they aren't facts in the sense that "Water freezes at 32F/0C" is a fact or "My microwave oven is to the left of my refrigerator" are facts. They aren't facts about the world of things. Clearly, they express opinions. Whatever truth applies to them is the truth of whether or not you really believe what you are saying.

So, how can an opinion become a fact? The only way the ingenuity of man has ever come up with is that there must be some standard or standard-setter independent of the world of stuff and things according to which such statements become factual.

Throughout most of recorded history, the guarantor has been a deity. What is true is what accords with his mind.

We skeptics and free thinkers typically don't believe in deities which means they come up short when trying to claim that an ethical or aesthetic judgment qualifies as factual.



In the clip above, Richard Dawkins was asked how, without making the sort of leap of faith atheists are known to abhor, could there be moral certainty? After recounting many of the abhorrent things one finds in The Bible and Koran, he basically says that, by contrast with the past when such things were decided by scriptural authority and other nonsense, we today discuss and debate and reason and arrive at more rational and humane views.In other words, better opinions and attitudes. Notice, curiously, that he doesn't make any factual claims about ethics or morality. All he says, basically, is that today we're doing our opinions better than they used to in the past because today we have better intellectual tools and we leave religion out of the pictures.

But, of course, even that view is an opinion and not a fact.

And yet, such views as we arrive at by such methods are still not absolutes just as science knows no absolutes other than very basic facts and measurements. No matter how established a theory or law is, it's never out of bounds to question whether it is true or precisely enough stated, and in that sense they really are not facts. Unlike facts, theories and laws are attempts at description. Even if they work every time and in every way possible so far, and even if we treat them much like facts, they are still tentative.

Consensus or majority vote doesn't establish certainty any more than rolling one's eyes at something we disagree with proves it is false.

People believe what people in their day believe, or to be a bit more precise, people tend to believe pretty close to what those in their social or intellectual circle believe. That's the way it is and the way it's always been, and it's obviously true. People in the United States are far more likely to be Christian than Hindu whereas in India the opposite is the case, to take an obvious example.

This is why ethical judgments, just like aesthetic ones, are not factual, much as we may agree with them, and much as we may want them to be true. They are beliefs, attitudes, and opinions which are compelling, and sometimes compelling enough for people to act on, whether the action might be an act of heroism or an act of condemnation. This is what ethics actually amounts to. It involves caring about a belief, attitude, or opinion enough to treat it AS THOUGH it's a fact and feel a need to act upon it.

This may be distressing enough, but it becomes really distressing for many of us when we realize that things we believe in our heart of hearts to be true are still basically just beliefs, attitudes, or opinions. They may be better informed and supported than those other persons or groups hold—and they are comforting (or distressing)—but not even that makes them true, and certainly not absolutely true.

Do slavery, lynchings, The Holocaust have to be absolutely and objectively wrong to be abhorrent to us? No! The concept of a fact is really poorly crafted to be applied to morality and ethics. And thinking they have to be absolutely and objectively wrong rather than abhorrent and disgusting is a kind of category error, which tricks us into wishing for absolutism.

However, even perfect objectivity can't turn an opinion into a fact. That may be distressing and depressing, but it's good to know.

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"In my experience, the incompetent debater is rarely capable of admitting an error. Instead, he shuts down the discussion using intellectual dishonesty."

+1 as a general point. I'm not commenting on activity in this thread.

ISIS think that genocide is good, and they're as philosophically justified to think that as we are to think the opposite.

What philosophical system does ISIS use to justify genocide?

They justify genocide because it's in the Koran, and anything in the Koran is good.  In other words, instead of benefit/harm, their moral system is based on the Koran and the Prophet's life.  Which isn't quite the same thing. 

That sounds like a theological system....rather than a philosophical one.

I agree, it's a theological system, but it stands as a justification where we would use philosophy.  Theology and philosophy are similar, are they not?  Both are designed to be lived experiences as well as intellectual ideas. 

Theology and analytical philosophy have about as much in common as astronomy and astrology do. In the case of the latter...they both study the stars and make various conclusions based on their observations. The large difference is...the first is not just rational but rationally rational...and there is a meaningful criteria behind which we can say what is good astronomy. In the second case "astrology" ... it is a large pile of steaming c**p wrapped around with some rational arguments and a lot of rational sounding arguments that abuse everything about critical thinking that critical thinking holds dear.

I think you can apply the same to analytical philosophy and its rather moronic dodgy brother theology.

Awe come on, Davis. Just because astrology and theology are trailer park versions of astronomy and philosophy doesn't mean they deserve to be ignored at large! Morons run the world, doncha know?

(oops, i forgot to thank my ex-wife for convincing me to not search for a mobile home as our first residence.)

I know this is partly true, but you might be surprised to find that some aspects of religion can be shown to make a lot of rational sense if you can find a rational key to it.  (as I've already stated - the biological instinct towards health and survival is the rational key). 

I'm not surprised to find that there are some nuggets of worthwhile commentary in religious narratives. Just as "alternative medicine" becomes "actual medicine" those rare times they turn out to be useful when tested...so it goes with folk psychology, theology and so on.

But the point is:

If there is something worth taking from religion...then we take it on our own terms. If it can be confirmed scientifically then it becomes scientific...not a "religious term" that makes sense. The baggage, the myths, the decorations, the nonsense we leave behind. If there is a philosophical like argument that can be turned philosophical through philosophical analysis...then it becomes a philosophical argument that can be analysed through philosophical analysis.

I disagree very much with Harris's use of Eastern religious ideas on the terms of Eastern religion. Especially using words like "spiritual" or referring to specific and non-thoroughly-tested forms of meditation. If it is useful then it can be scientifically tested or formulated rationally through critical argument. If the terms carry woo-baggage, then the ideas should be given new or different names.

It's also worth remembering that there's a central role of benefit/harm within Islamic morality, the same as everyone else the world over. 

Simon, The Inquisition was conducted by highly moral people. In many regards, highly moral people are to be feared.

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