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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The problem with the term "objective" is that some people will construe that if there is some objective data injected somewhere along the way, the system is fact-based and thereby justified, but religious people will often argue using facts to draw absurd conclusions. 

My contention is that ethical judgments are inevitably relative to a constellation of things from the person's personal values (how s/he weighs things) to the relatives, friends, and society that play a large role in how anyone's values arise.

It's easy for people work up a system based on facts and various ways of analyzing various possible responses to a problem, and then to declare that they have a solution which they believe should hold for everyone and in all times and circumstances, which would be an absolute ethic. But clearly, that is simply a belief. No system gets beyond that and if it were to generate the occasional solution we disliked, we'd almost certainly act based on our disbelief. So much for an objective system of ethics. In the end, our ethical decisions are personal and subjective.

But let's not be distracted by terminology like objective and subjective. The question is whether ethical systems can ever be absolute in the sense of generating undeniable truths. Most systems of ethics declare that it's wrong to kill other persons, and yet we often find it necessary to do so.

And of course the other problem is that, unlike mathematics or physics, any ethical system is going to turn out to be unhelpful in situations like the man who must embezzle money or let his child die due to lack of funds to treat the child.

I didn't say that the "moral judgement" is itself objective. They can be objectively analysed.

First, different moral systems define "moral statement" and "moral judgement" differently or may use only one of these terms or completely different terms.

In the case of this deontological system...think of moral statements as "theoretical statements" sort of like tentative statements. "Killing someone is questionable". All such statements are subjective. They might be based on a theoretical framework explained through reason, or not at all. It isn't, in fact, so important how the moral statement is formed (though some approaches are less questionable than others).

Moral statements and moral judgement themselves aren't objective. A moral statement can only be objectively analysed as stronger than another and a moral judgement can be analysed as more consistent with similar moral problems as others.

Think of "moral problems" as analyzing an event that has already happened where we have as much information about the event as possible (though we can do something similar with "imminent moral decisions". Think of "moral judgement" as the application of a "moral statement" on a "moral problem". Let's take the "moral statement" killing is questionable and then apply it to a moral problem "John killed Sarah and said he did so because he felt certain that she was likely going to kill some other people the next day". The judgement (according to this system) is either "him killing her was questionable", "him killing her was not questionable" or "I don't have enough information or I'm not going to make a judgement". None of these moral judgements are objective either. What can be objective is our analysis of how consistently and strongly a person applies a "moral statement" to a "moral judgement" or more importantly "their moral statements". So if a person says "John killing Sarah was questionable" then it can be objectively said that this person's moral judgement is strongly consistent with their moral statement. If they say "John killing Sarah was not questionable" or justified or whatever, this weakens their moral statement and (according to some) puts into question their ability to objectively analyse moral problems.

This, according to such a system, says something objectively about the strength of the "moral statement" and the unbiased nature or impartiality of their "moral judgments".


Personally I believe what is valuable through analyzing rule based moral systems and moral judgement is that seeing how people make moral judgement over a variety of problems demonstrates a lot about a persons biases, hidden values, sympathies, prejudice, favoritism and even  hypocrisies (though this isn't necessarily bad). 

Take unseens dilemma 

man who has a child who needs an expensive treatment of some sort as a lifesaving measure, and the only way he can pay for it is to embezzle money from a worthy charity

If you start with the moral statement "taking money  that isn't clearly given to you is questionable" then we can objectively say that a consistent moral judgement would be "That man embezzling the money was questionable". If someone says the opposite then we know something about their bias towards people who are poor or unlucky and their biases towards people who have surplus money or faceless organizations. Some argue that even this kind of analysis of one's values and biases can be objectively analysed.


Further more we can objectively analyse a system of moral statements as stronger and more consistent with one another or not. For example take the following moral statements:

"Breaking an object you don't own is questionable"

"Breaking an object you share with someone is questionable".

There is a consistency between these two moral statements.

"Eating the meat of animals is questionable"

"Eating the meat of fish is not questionable".

There is an inconsistency between these two moral statements.

It is, however, far more difficult to analyse the consistency of moral statements in a moral system (it is very problematic) than it is to objectively analyse how consistent someone is in applying moral statements to a variety of similar moral problems.

Thanks for the detailed explanation - it is clearer to me now.

I get that there is an issue with Unseen's original statement but I was referring more to the subsequent back and forth within the thread.

An ethical system to qualify as having absolutely true results must have an answer for how those results CAN be absolute. I understand why the solution of 2+7=9 is absolute and arrived at in a deterministic fashion. The answer is undeniable by any sane person who actually understands the arithmetic system. And any proposition which fits the system has an answer. If someone denies that 2+7=9, we are simply perplexed by their thick-headedness.

By contrast, I defy anyone to construct an ethical system whose output is absolute and which can answer any ethical question fed into it, by which I mean (as in math) which fits the format of an ethical question. 

No ethical system can do that.

Ethical systems become more and more useless the more we need them. The more difficult the ethical questions, the more they have no answers. I gave the example of the man who has a child who needs an expensive treatment of some sort as a lifesaving measure, and the only way he can pay for it is to embezzle money from a worthy charity. I don't know any ethical system which can give him an answer. 

Should I poke a guy in the nose for dissing me? Sure, ethical systems can guide me there, but I don't need a fancy ethical system to help me in situations like that.

One of the greatest indications that we actually make ethical decisions subjectively rather than objectively, and despite any facts involved, is that ultimately we only follow them if they conform with our attitudes, opinions, and beliefs.

The same applies to someone who denies that blowing a person's head off with a shotgun against his wishes is harmful to that person objectively.


GM you would be a natural writer at rationalwiki with its SPOV.


Whenever I sit and read through these posts I'm reminded of Slim Pickens immortal words in, the most racist movie ever made, Blazing Saddles:

Hedley Lamarr: My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives. 

Taggart: God darnit, Mr. Lamarr, you use your tongue prettier than a twenty dollar whore.


"The same applies to someone who denies that blowing a person's head off with a shotgun against his wishes is harmful to that person objectively"


BTW: Most of this stuff is beyond my pay grade and the Mac's "define" function has been used extensively but damn if you boys don't use your tongue's prettier than a twenty dollar whore...

I like your analogy of a road map.  I think that's what a moral system is - a road map to show you what works (according to your values). 

The moral system based on benefit / harm is unable to help in Unseen's example of the charity worker with the sick child, because both choices seem to be pretty evenly matched. 

But I might have a principle, "I will do anything to protect my family", and if that's the case, then the answer is clear straight away. 

I agree with Unseen that no moral system that works (ie. can guide us in almost everything) can answer every question put to it. 

If I was in the unfortunate situation described, I would steal the money and save my child.  Out of the two possible outcomes, I would prefer to go to prison in disgrace and wreck my career than to lose my child to a preventable illness. 

Now - I've just contradicted myself.  The choice has still been made on the basis of benefit / harm, and choosing the most beneficial outcome possible.  So maybe the moral system of benefit / harm can answer any question, if you are prepared to take the necessary consequences. 

Now - I've just contradicted myself.  The choice has still been made on the basis of benefit / harm, and choosing the most beneficial outcome possible.  So maybe the moral system of benefit / harm can answer any question, if you are prepared to take the necessary consequences. 

I described the charity as a worth charity, in order to indicate that if you were to save the one life of your child, you might bring harm and perhaps death to many. Does that change your decision based on a "the greatest good to the greatest number" standard? No, that's now how people in practical situations think. The more proximate to their own life and loved ones the problem, the more likely their decisions are to benefit themselves and their loved ones.

I've never liked "the greatest good for the greatest number".  It implies that some poor souls can be left out.  It seems silly that a great philosopher contented himself with this rubbish.  It's useful for government social policy, but has nothing to do with everyday life, like you say.  A better version is "the greatest good and least harm for each person".  This is what we actually do in real life, or at least, we aspire to it.  It's a gold standard of good behaviour.  It makes a good underlying basis for a moral system. 

"The more proximate to their own life and loved ones the problem, the more likely their decisions are to benefit themselves and their loved ones."  - in the little clip that Mai supplied, Richard Dawkins sums up the essence of the situation very cleverly.  We're of this school (from a page of gobbledygook about moral realism on Wikipedia):

"Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has argued that the game theoretic advantages of ethical behavior support the idea that morality is "out there" in a certain sense (as part of the evolutionary fitness landscape)"

Our basic moral sensibilities evolved before Homo Sapiens was even born, in our ancestor species.  They're a result of living in small groups where everyone depends on each other to survive.  You could probably program a computer to simulate the situation, and the same moral behaviour would arise.  Certainly that's been the case with reciprocity. 

Those basic moral sensibilities were mainly designed for small groups.  In hunter-gatherer societies, it's common to make alliances over a wide area that people can call on in times of need.  In both cases, to help others means to help yourself. 

There are two consequences for the way we live today.  First, we tend not to care about people we don't know, because they're not in a position to help us in return.  Second, we have inherited compassionate prosocial instincts that do compel us to care about people we don't know, even though it's irrational from a self-interested point of view.  We exhibit both of these behaviours. 

The challenge for secular morality is to find self-interested motivations that nevertheless result in a better world for all.  Luckily, the human body is stuffed full of mechanisms that fire off a little jet of pleasure every time we're nice to somebody, anybody, it doesn't matter who. 

Christians are motivated by self-interest just like everyone else, but I truly believe they're also motivated by a desire to do the right thing for its own sake, or to please God.  An atheist version of this could be that we can make the world a better place by ethical behaviour. 

Beyond that, to answer your question in a different way, it's right, proper and healthy to look after your own interests.  The challenge comes in balancing this against the interests of others.  In the case of embezzling from the charity, I would consider that my own child needs the money to save its life just the same as the other children, so it's a good use of the money. 

It's true that excessive self-interest leads to negative consequences and unhappiness because we damage our social standing. 


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