Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Hunting for Objectivity

Looking at the replies that have been posted to yesterday's blog entry, I can tell that my moral relativism is still a point of disagreement with many of you, who otherwise seem to agree with me on most things. Thus, I'm going to make a good-faith effort to wrestle with these issues further. My mind is open: I am not married to the relativist philosophy. This blog entry will outline my concerns about the notion of objectivity with respect to 2 specific issues. I anxiously await your responses, as I intend to study them, turn them over in my mind, and compose another entry on this subject in the near future.

Here are the two issues that I assert cannot be understood absolutely or objectively, but rather only subjectively: Morality and "Value of Life." Let me expand on these before I go further:

1. I view morality to be subjective, rather than objective, because I recognize no method by which to test moral principles. Clearly, the scientific method of testing does not apply to a statement such as "Homosexuality is morally acceptable." As far as I can tell, a statement such as that can only be evaluated through human perception via the senses and reasoning. However, human perception is demonstrably faulty. Once again, I cite the example of optical illusions. In this illusion, only a ruler can reveal the truth; our senses lead us to an erroneous conclusion. Without instruments with which objective tests can be performed, my fear is that our conclusions could be illusory, and we simply would be ignorant to that fact.

2. I view "value of life" to be subjective, rather than objective, because once again I recognize no method by which to gauge "value of life." Once again, the scientific method of testing does not apply to a statement such as "Human lives have more intrinsic value than bumblebee lives." And, once again, as far as I can tell, such a statement can only be evaluated through human perception/senses/reasoning. Moreover, in this example, we have an inherent bias present simply because we are humans and it's in our interest to value our lives highly. That's why, in my view, people cite things such as complex emotions, intelligence, cognizance and reasoning abilities as "value-adding" traits. We've arbitrarily decided that our traits are "value-adding," rather than selecting having wings, 8 legs, antennas or the ability to regenerate severed limbs.

Now, a response to my previous entry, my friend Aaron Kinney posited a couple of "objective" standards to fit into the above categories, which I allege to be subjective.

He wrote: "Back to the homosexual argument you provided: I think you borrowed from objective morality itself when you said: 'Let people do absolutely whatever they want, so long as their actions do not impede others from doing absolutely whatever they want'."

The statement in question definitely reflects my personal moral code, and I'd love it if that statement had some connection to objective morality, but I just don't see it right now. I sincerely ask Aaron and everybody else here how a statement such as "Let people do absolutely whatever they want, so long as their actions do not impede others from doing absolutely whatever they want" could be objectively verified or falsified. As far as I can tell, morality cannot be tested, measured, gauged or quantified in any way. Thus, I am having a hard time grasping how the above-quoted statement is falsifiable. Are we simply appealing to our perception, or is testing feasible?

Aaron also wrote: "I also think that your mention of speciocentricity doesn't make morality relative. Instead, it makes it contextual. Morality is contextual to the subjects in question. In other words, it is moral for a life form to promote itself and its own kind. This way, it is moral for a human to kill other life forms for food, and it is also moral for those life forms to defend themselves from the humans."

I see this as being connected to the "value of life" issue. If I am analyzing the above quote correctly, then human lives OBJECTIVELY are more valuable to humans, just as bear lives are OBJECTIVELY more valuable to bears, etc. This seems to refute the notion of intrinsic life value and replace it with contextual life value, based upon one's species. The first half of that sentence is very appealing to me. As a believer in the Theory of Evolution, I recognize that there is only 1 Tree of Life. Every species that ever existed is either a branch unto itself or a branch from a branch. That being the case, I cannot justify the notion of one species having more intrinsic value than another. I see no evolutionary process by which life value could increase.

But going back to Aaron's argument, I once again question how the assertions could be tested, either to be confirmed or falsified.

"Looking through the human prism, human lives are objectively more valuable."

"Looking through the bear prism, bear lives are objectively more valuable."

That makes sense to me. It even seems to fit with the Theory of Evolution by natural selection, which is all about propagating one's genes. But are the ways of nature a reliable source for moral guidance? I see no conclusive evidence pointing to this. Moreover, I see no way to quantify, test, measure or gauge the objective truth behind the two quoted statements above. As I wrote, they seem sensible to me. However, I fear this conclusion might be analogous to the false impression an optical illusion imparts. I want a method by which objective analysis can be done, so statements can either be confirmed or falsified.

I don't have the answers here. I appeal to you for your help. I view this blog as both a place to spread my ideas and a place for others to educate me. Aaron has my mind working, as I grapple with these issues. Perhaps we can reach a conclusion together.



Anonymous subnormal said...

isn't "contextual morality" nothing more than the species-level of "relative morality"? what im saying is, relative morality deals with what is moral for an individual, while contextual morality (at least in this case) seems to be the "relative morality" of the species as a whole.

or is there something im not getting here?

10:03 PM  
Anonymous Tanooki Joe said...

I've debating which post to put this under, cuz Aaron's post is in the other thread. But it might be more relevent here:

AK says, to the question of "how does one determine an objective morality":

"Very easily. We can empirically determine what promotes life, and what inhibits life. And we use these empirical observations to reach conclusions about what is moral and what is not."

Alright, I'll raise you -- how do we know, objectively, that life is preferable to death? Or one type of life over another, as Libdefender notes?

I'll leave you with that thought. Time for bed, methinks. :P

10:11 PM  
Blogger The Libertarian Defender said...

"Alright, I'll raise you -- how do we know, objectively, that life is preferable to death?"

You express my feelings EXACTLY. If I had responded first, it probably would have looked nearly identical to that. Indeed, I perceive life to be preferable to death. It makes sense to me. It's certainly a statement with which I agree. However, I think it's a subjective statement that cannot be tested. How could one formulate an experiment to prove whether life or death is "better"? How could one measure "better"? What are the units of measurement for positivity and negativity? With what instruments are such measurements possible? In my view, lacking objective testing, "life is better than death" is a statement of opinion, like "spaghetti is better than pizza."

11:03 PM  
Blogger Aaron Kinney said...

Great post LD. You raise some very good questions.

I wanna start off by saying that after all this discussion is done, I dont expect anyone to agree with me or adopt my objective morality views. At best, we can expect to understand both of our positions better.

LD said:

view "value of life" to be subjective, rather than objective, because once again I recognize no method by which to gauge "value of life."

I think that we can empirically guage the "value of life" concept. For example: if bombs are scientifically found to kill humans when exploded, then we can say that bombs, by themselves, are objectively anti-life and therefore immoral. Now to make it contextual, we can revise this to say that the initiation of force through bombs is anti-life. If you use a bomb to defend yourself against someone who wants to kill you, then and only then is using a bomb ok. See, there is no relativity here. What you have is a given contextual situation (initiating force against a human with a bomb) where objective truths of reality (bombs kill people) can be objectively determined to be anti-life and therefore immoral. Did I make any sense just then, or no?

Once again, the scientific method of testing does not apply to a statement such as "Human lives have more intrinsic value than bumblebee lives."

In a given context, it does. A bumblebee must be most interested in sustaining and promoting its life, and by extension, the lives of its colony. Same thing with a human. So a human taking honey from a hive for food is objectively moral because it fulfills the sustaining of life (value of life) for that human. For a bumblebee to sting that same human is also objectively moral for the bee because it objectively promotes its own life via the defense of its colonies food supply. In these instances, morality is not relative, but it is consistently objective when applied to a given context (bee or human).

I hope that made sense. If not, feel free to barrage me with questions and criticisms.

Now to subnormals comments:

isn't "contextual morality" nothing more than the species-level of "relative morality"?

No. Relative morality would be like saying "it is moral to kill others and myself in a mass suicide because I value death." But objective morality says "that which is moral is that which promotes and sustains life, therefore mass suicide is immoral regardless of how valuable Mr. Smith considers suicide to be. Mr. Smith values immorality."

what im saying is, relative morality deals with what is moral for an individual, while contextual morality (at least in this case) seems to be the "relative morality" of the species as a whole.

Not really. Relative morality means that what is "moral" is whatever the individual wants it to be. But objective morality says that what is moral is concrete regardless of what the individual values. If the individual values death, then the individual is immoral. If the individual values life, then the individual is moral.

Does that help?

Now for Tanooki Joe:

I've debating which post to put this under, cuz Aaron's post is in the other thread. But it might be more relevent here:

Yea, since LD made a new post, we should continue the conversation here :)

Alright, I'll raise you -- how do we know, objectively, that life is preferable to death? Or one type of life over another, as Libdefender notes?

Easily. An individual can choose to be immoral and value death. I think we are getting into a defining of terms. How do you define morality? I define it as "that which sustains and promotes life" so that way a death-loving nutjob is immoral, and a life-loving humanist is moral.

It seems that with your definition TJ, an individual could not be immoral no matter what they chose to do.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Aaron Kinney said...

Let me give another clarification:

With objective morality, the definition of "moral" does not change regardless of context. My definition is "that which sustains and promotes life."

Now, whether its a bumblebee stinging a human, or a human harvesting honey from the bumblebee's hive, both animals are acting according to that objective morality. The definition "that which sistains and promotes life" does not change. And when I say context, I am saying "whose life?" or "which life?"

In this way, morality is objective (its definition or goal --to promote life-- does not change), and its also contextual (it deals with the "life" in question).

To beat a dead horse, let me use one more example: a lion and a gazelle. The lion tries to eat the gazelle, and the gazelle tries to escape the lions clutches. Both animals act according to objective morality (to sustain and promote their own life) and this morality definition is consistent with both contexts (both the lion and the gazelle).

Now, the only thing different is the actions: the lion hunts, and the gazelle flees. The actions are RELATIVE (relate to which subject is in question; the lion or the gazelle), but the morality behind their actions is the same for both animals, and therefore objective.

Let me know what all you guys think! Give me your best shot :)

2:25 PM  
Anonymous Tanooki Joe said...

Ah, damn it you two, I haven't been able to get this out of my head all day. Damn you, damn you to hell with your philosophical provokement! :P

Aaron, what I see is the problem is that morality and ethics are primarily about value. Value, I hold, exists only in the mind, or if it does exist as some Platonic form or whatnot, it is inaccesable to us now, and we form moral codes without knowledge of it.

You put a value on life. That is, you hold life is "good". I agree completely. But we run into a problem, like LibDefender says above -- how do we measure this goodness?

I don't deny that your system is rational and approvable. Indeed, once we place a value on life, we can objectively measure what promotes life, and act accordingly. But I still hold that the initial placement of value on life is subjective, and thus the system is not wholly objective.

Libdefender says a thought I've been having a lot -- that aesthetic and moral judgments are quite similar in nature. Saying "this action is good /bad" is similar to saying "this artwork is good/bad". Looking at it that way might give you a better view of where we're coming from.

That said, I do differ from Libdefender -- I'm more of a middle ground between you two. Personally, I think while we can't ascertain morality in an absolute way, I do believe that certain things are more likely to be moral than others. (How? Well, I'm working on that. :P) I tend to take more after Hume, ethically. Anyways, it's something I need to think more about.

That's probably it for me for a while. I have a lot more I could say, but that's enough for a comment. I really need to start my own blog-- when I do, I'll definitely be posting something about this. :D

3:56 PM  
Blogger Aaron Kinney said...

Tanooki, thanx for the insightful reply.

But before we get any further, we need to clear up definitions of "morality" or "moral"

How do you define "moral"?

Reminder: If it helps, I define moral as "that which sustains and promotes life"

I think the definitions are a big part of this conversation between all of us. Lets look at your artwork example through the prism of MY definition of morality for a minute:

Saying "this action is good /bad" is similar to saying "this artwork is good/bad".

I disagree here. Morality involves a subject (human) that chooses which action to commit out of a series of choices. The artwork itselfinvolves no action choice; it is merely a representation of the artists values. For more info, check out this page on artwork according to the objectivist view: The Role of Art.

Now when you say "this action is good/bad" I agree with you there. Thats because morality involves making a choice of action. But one persons opinion of a piece of artwork does not involve an action, it involves a judgment. The human judges the arts esthetic value to him. Morality does not come into play when judging art. What DOES come into play when judging art is value assignment.

Dunno if this helps at all. Lemme know whatcha think.

5:06 PM  
Blogger Aaron Kinney said...

Oh yea, you mentioned Hume. I dont agree with anything that guy said LOL!

Im way closer to the Ayn Rand, David Kelley, Leonard Peikoff, and those guys, although I dont actually consider myself to really be an objectivist.

5:08 PM  
Anonymous Tanooki Joe said...

Oh crud. I had a good comment here and it didn't go through. *sadness*


First, I said that Hume seems like someone you would like, Aaron, but objectivists don't seem to like skeptics :P. I plan on ready quite a bit of Hume at my college's library.

On morality, there seems to be a bit of equivacation going on: we're using "moral" in two different ways. I define something as moral as being good or promoting good. Morality, as you say, applies pretty much only to actions -- you make a good point there (it might make sense to call a rock "good", but not "moral").

My point about aesthetics is not that it involves morality but that it is similar: Both are about value judgments. Broadly, aesthetics is value assignment to things, morality is value assignment to actions. (Your post helped me sort that out in my head -- thanks!)

Damn it, I still like my lost post better. *more sadness* But I hope I got my point across.

And again, thank you AK, for the discussion. Most objectivist just sorta treat nonobjectivists with contempt, in my experience. But you've been polite, openminded, and engaging. It's nice to be able to have a civil discussion now and then. :D

9:37 PM  
Blogger Francois Tremblay said...

Aaron is already speaking for my position on this topic, but to reiterate, "objective" morality (as if there was any other kind of proposition) is a species of knowledge. It is the fact that causality (natural law) also applies to our actions. I stop eating, I die. I piss people off, they're not going to help me. Pretty simple.

"Clearly, the scientific method of testing does not apply to a statement such as "Homosexuality is morally acceptable." As far as I can tell, a statement such as that can only be evaluated through human perception via the senses and reasoning."

This might be the problem here. There is only one kind of knowledge, and that is empirical knowledge. "scientific" is not opposed to "empirical".

But your example is very bad. Obviously homosexuality in general is not a moral issue at all because it is not within the purview of man's choices. So I think you have a lot of misconceptions about morality that we would need to clear out first.

I wrote a simple article on the topic which you might appreciate :

5:44 PM  
Anonymous I Am said...

After listening to Aaron's appearance on Unchained Radio, I've been thinking a lot about these issues today. I have long considered myself to be essentially a moral relativist, but I hate the idea of moral relativism. I just can't find objectivity, though. I agree that definitions are a big part of the problem in this arena. In fact, I think definitions are a large part of the problem in a lot of human philosophical arguments. Language, no matter what the "sample rate," is digital. It's an analog world.

10:58 PM  
Anonymous irichc said...

It's quite obvious that we have somehow fallen in the mud from which we were created. It suffices to admit that a natural law exists to appreciate to what extent is the human kind fulfilling it without coaction -fear or hope- in general terms. We can find this law in the common ground of the main religions of the world. My wife, an ex-Buddhist and a Christian nowadays, explained me about the five precepts that every normal man has to observe in her previous creed: 1) don't kill life, 2) don't steal, 3) don't fornicate, 4) don't lie and 5) don't get drunk. The first four points depend on the last one, understood in a wide sense as keeping your consciousness against passion's attack. This and infinite more, that is to say, every natural moral rule -she added- can be summarized in Christian love.

However, if we redefine the first precept as "don't kill without a fair reason" (for instance, protecting an equal good that we cannot otherwise save), none of them is violated by beasts in most cases. That's admirable and should move us to reflection: they are not rational, but they can satisfy a rational law. Never the less, we do it backwards from them, since we break the moral law continuously, and we would do it more often if there was no law or no custom forcing us to reconsider the benefits of being wicked.

Certainly, the stupid creatures enslaved by us never make a war, and by the way not usually a war to death, but only for defending themselves from imminent dangers, fight with other predators in order to survive or rival with members of the same species when trying to get a female for later reproduction. They don't love any food not coming from their work. There is no hypocrisy in their kind. They avoid vague sex and waste of energy produced by it. They despise every superfluous pleasure.

Thus, we can deduce that, knowing the existence of this eternal law that even beasts are experts with, and being aware of the man, the most rational creature walking on the Earth, infringing it as he was totally ignorant; in regard of the everlasting rule written in our heart that everyone can read, I say, we can infer that something obnubilates our intelligence and moral sense in a permanent way, preventing us of being faithful to it and naturally perfect.

We can find, I don't deny it, animals whose behaviour -regular or sporadic- seem to break natural principles. But they are just the exception confirming the rule, while a good man is an exception for the whole human race. If crime was something unusual and extraordinary, laws wouldn't be needed at all, because law -Latins said- doesn't care about the insignificant.

What is, then, ruining our understanding and making us be beneath wild animals? Might it be our free will? This is similar to blaming knife for the slash. It is not for the sake of our consciousness that we are falling in the sin, but despite of it. Our oppression, then, isn't in the will, as buddhist think; more likely it's previous to its stimulus. Theologians referred to the original sin when designating this shameful prostration. Islam rejects it, and this should be enough to prove this religion wrong. But it is not our commitment now.



Theological Miscellany (in Spanish):

5:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

that was really interesting (i hope you don't mind strangers commenting?). i think that you could look at the issue in another manner.
start with defining morality as a code or system of laws of good and bad conduct. therefore the issue is how are these laws/codes formulated? Objectively, subjectively, relatively?
first this implies an intelligence to do the formulating, which means that only intelligence and actions steming from an intelligence can be judged for morality--therefore animal actions are all completely without moral color, and only humans and their actions can be judged. The existence of intelligence implies life, which means that only things which occur in the universe of the living can be subject to morality. how therefore can we call death MORALLY preferrable to life? in truth death is amoral and therefore as a state of being does not exist within moral consideration (i.e. you cannot be called good or bad for being dead! but you can be called good or bad for dieing for particular reasons), but actions leading up to death can still have moral quality. that does not mean however that moral acts are simply acts which promote life. This world could be teaning with life but be unhappy, a moral code which does not address this issue is not one at all. we might say that by definition happiness is preferable [i.e. good] to suffering [i.e. evil] (even psychologically this holds true, where masochists are deamed unhealthy) therefore the promotion of human happiness ought to be the primary objective of any moral system.
as for natural law based on observations of animals, i don't think this holds water. firstly because most animals seem incapable of kindness (what you might call christian love) and that ought to be a cornerstone of morality, don't you think? but more importantly because animals are inconsistent. if we say useless murder is immoral because unatural the fact that as a species chimpanzees, cats, and dogs, are known to do it seems to contradict. or when we say that sex ought only to be for reproduction we ignore the casual sex and gay sex play found in most mamals--again not as abarrant individuals but as entire segments of the population.
the most interesting (though still imperfect) essay i've found on this topic is on

1:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

woops sorry that's

1:12 PM  
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What are the lies that you can't see?

3:19 AM  
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3:20 AM  

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