Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Stanley Fish is a Moron

Stanley Fish is a moron.

Yes, I know he's a "literary theorist" and "legal scholar" and he has a Ph. D. and wrote 10 books and has a lecture series named after him. But he's still a moron.

Want proof? Read this column in the New York Times. There Professor Fish, favorably quoting a book by Steven Smith, tells us that "secularism" is completely incapable of answering any "real" questions: "...there are no secular reasons, at least not reasons of the kind that could justify a decision to take one course of action rather than another."

So what does Fish think provides these reasons? Why, religion of course.

This argument is so stupid that I find it hard to accept that Fish really believes it. So either he's dishonest (which wouldn't surprise me), or he's a moron. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, the latter option is more palatable.

"Secular" analysis just means thinking about things without relying on religious dogma. When Muslims outlaw interest because their holy book forbids "usury", secular thinkers can point to economic analysis that is noncontroversial outside religious communities: that having money today has value over money ten years from now. When Jehovah's Witnesses prevent their children from having blood transfusions that would save their children's lives because of their interpretation of the Christian bible, secular thinkers can point to the safety of the procedure and the likelihood the child will die without it.

Social science research can reveal aspects of the human character that suggest some ways of structuring our society are better than others. By "better" I mean that they result in happier, prosperous, and freer people, and a more just society. Fish may answer that my devotion to these principles is not "secular". But it clearly is - it is driven by my own self-interest and by principles that are generally accepted, without any reliance on religion or "notions about a purposive cosmos, or a teleological nature". And evolutionary psychology can help explain why people think and act they way they do.

"Secular" analysis doesn't mean all secularists will agree on everything. Some may think (as I do) that a woman's right to autonomy over her own body clearly trumps the right of an embryo to come to term, while others may disagree. But neither do all theists agree: Christians can't even agree on the most basic fact about Christianity, whether good works or faith alone gets you into their heaven. So advancing religion as the answer to ethical quandaries is not in the least helpful.

"Secular" analysis has one big advantage that religion doesn't have: it can appeal to people of all faiths (and of no faith). If I argue that repealing Sunday blue laws will help the economy, that argument has an appeal for everyone, an appeal that is quite different from one relying on a particular interpretation of a particular holy book that Sunday is "God's day". Similarly, if I argue that not repealing Sunday blue laws is better because it gives small business owners a respite from having to run their business 7 days a week, that argument is accessible to everyone. But arguments that depend on one particular dogma and implicitly demand that I take the dogma seriously or at least "respect" it, fail by their very nature to have universal appeal.

139 comments:

James Cranch said...

Is there any evidence that religion offers a system for making decisions at all?

Most people seem to have some preconceived notions of what's good and bad. I don't know to what extent it's correlated with religion: but in the main it's apparently hardly correlated at all.

For example most people think that having people killed is generally bad, and the degree to which they think it varies from "always bad" to just "bad in most circumstances" appears to show the same sort of distribution among atheists and religious people.

Moreover, religious people may say "God abhors having people killed" and secular people may say "I don't want to live in a world where you can have people killed", but in practice are they just wording a very similar emotion in different ways? I doubt that God -- or the reality of the possibility of a different world -- really enters into their mind in a critical way. Effectively, "don't have people killed" seems usually to have the status of an axiom.

Note that, in order to investigate the coupling of moral beliefs with religion, we must be able to rule out other contributions, from such things as local culture and moral standpoints acquired from secular literary work.

So I don't think that secular/religious is even obviously a particularly meaningful distinction in moral analysis. Maybe it is. But what's the evidence?

Tommy Blanchard said...

Wow, it seems he just completely ignores the fact that individuals have interests. That is all that is needed in order for secular discourse to be effective in the public sphere, but he doesn't even mention (let alone confront) this.

Anonymous said...

So what would be a "secular reason" to call torture wrong? Stated another way, if I want to torture someone, why shouldn't I? How do you get to the value judgment that torture is wrong? The only reasons I can think of are "religious" in the sense that Fish means: appealing to some normative standard that is non-empirical. You can't get an ought from an is.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Anonymous:

Self-interest. I don't want to be tortured, so it is in my best interest to support a universal ban on torture.

Miranda said...

"Stanley Fish is a moron. ... Either he's dishonest (which wouldn't surprise me), or he's a moron."

"Already the commenters have taken to ... calling me stupid and dishonest. Yup, that's the way to answer the argument. " -- from http://recursed.blogspot.com/2009/12/worlds-worst-journalist-attacks.html

Jeffrey Shallit said...

The difference is - as you know well, Miranda - that I explained why he is a moron. The commenters I was referring to didn't. Nice try, though.

Michael Fugate said...

You could use a cost benefit argument. Useful information is almost never obtained from torture - so it is a waste of time and money.

Anonymous said...

Sure, I don't want to be tortured. How does that make torture wrong for me to do? That is a value judgment that simply does not follow from observation. There are certainly cases in which engaging in torture reduces the chances I will be tortured. Why should I not do so?

I really don't understand this attachment people have to concepts of right and wrong. The world will not end if people wake up one day and realize that they can do whatever they want. If I like burning houses down and am willing to accept the risk that I will be caught, why should I not burn houses down? Most people don't want to burn houses down. Most of those who do want to burn houses down don't do it because they don't want to risk getting caught. Many of those who do it despite the risk will get caught and be punished. Some small number will get away with it. So it has always been. Murder, rape, theft, etc. are all part of the normal range of human behaviors that we will never eradicate. If I want to engage in any of these behaviors and am willing to accept the risk of getting caught, please give me a "secular reason" why I should not do so.

Joel Noche said...

James Cranch said...

Most people seem to have some preconceived notions of what's good and bad. I don't know to what extent it's correlated with religion: but in the main it's apparently hardly correlated at all.

Perhaps an article in the December 5 2009 issue of New Scientist (page 17) is relevant here. It states "Christians subconsciously endow God with their own beliefs on controversial issues."

The article refers to a paper that states "Intuiting God's beliefs on important issues may not produce an independent guide, but may instead serve as an echo chamber to validate and justify one's own beliefs."

Miranda said...

So, Jeff, besides Fish, are you also taking on Hume and MacIntyre?

-- from the article -->
"Smith does not claim to be saying something wholly new. He cites David Hume’s declaration that by itself “reason is incompetent to answer any fundamental question,” and Alasdair MacIntyre’s description in “After Virtue” of modern secular discourse as consisting “of the now incoherent fragments of a kind of reasoning that made sense on older metaphysical assumptions.”"

Miranda said...

"The difference is that I explained why he is a moron."

You could've just said that Fish said some moronic things. But no, you went right for the person.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

How does that make torture wrong for me to do?

I just explained, but you ignored it. Since I don't want to be tortured, supporting a law against torture is in my self-interest.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Miranda:

I don't know if it's a personality disorder or you just like to yank people's chains, but really - you need to work on your reading comprehension.

Joel Noche said...

Anonymous said...

There are certainly cases in which engaging in torture reduces the chances I will be tortured. Why should I not do so?

There are certainly cases in which engaging in torture increases the chances I will be tortured. Why should I do so?

Anonymous said...

If I like burning houses down and am willing to accept the risk that I will be caught, why should I not burn houses down?

If I do not like burning houses down and am not willing to accept the risk that I will be caught, why should I burn houses down?

A more interesting question (where some symmetry is lost):

If I do like burning houses down and am not willing to accept the risk that I will be caught, why should I burn houses down?

Anonymous said...

I did not ignore your explanation. Supporting a law against torture is not the same thing as choosing not to torture. Same thing applies to many behaviors. It all depends on circumstances. If I am the Vice President of the US, I may find torture to be a very useful thing to inflict on others without significantly increasing the chance that I will be subjected to it myself. There is no right or wrong about it, just personal preference.

Anonymous said...

Joel Noche said...

There are certainly cases in which engaging in torture increases the chances I will be tortured. Why should I do so?

Thanks for helping make Fish's point: there are no reasons why I should or should not do anything, beyond personal preference. The words "should" and "ought" are ultimately religious words. Let's at least recognize that, even if we still feel a desire to use them anyway.

Joel Noche said...

To Anonymous,

Forgive me if my 7:14 AM comment doesn't make much sense. I admit I didn't entirely get the point you were trying to make.

RichardW said...

I think "moron" is a bit strong. The biggest problem with Fish's article is that he fails to make himself clear. One of the commenters to the article writes:

"He is simply stating--correctly in my view--that Secular Liberalism is not as objective or empirical as it takes itself to be and that the distinction between it and religious traditions is not as clear as it would like to believe. Both rely on unproved and unprovable first principles to make value judgments--the only ones that really matter."

Well, if that's all Fish is stating it's a great pity he couldn't do it as clearly and succinctly as the commenter. A large part of the problem is that Fish cites Smith with apparent approval, yet Smith appears to go much further than this. For example:

"It is not, Smith tells us, that secular reason can’t do the job (of identifying ultimate meanings and values) we need religion to do; it’s worse; secular reason can’t do its own self-assigned job — of describing the world in ways that allow us to move forward in our projects — without importing, but not acknowledging, the very perspectives it pushes away in disdain."

It sounds much like Smith is claiming that we need ultimate meanings and values, and that religion can provide them. I'm not sure he is claiming that--it's a confusing passage--but one can easily come away with that reading.

Now, to address the view described by the commenter. I think it's true that many secularists do assume that there's a solid basis for secular moral values. But that's by no means true of all of us. And we can make a good case for secularism without the need for any such assumption.

Those who wish to bring religious dogma into the public sphere are not starting from basic moral values. They are starting from factual claims, such as "God tells us not to do X", and arguing that "therefore X is wrong". They are claiming to have an empirical (factual) basis for their values, but (a) those factual claims are not justified, and (b) the values do not follow from the claimed facts. You can't get an "ought" from an "is", even if it's a religious "is".

Yes, secularists have no empirical basis for their most basic moral values either, but that's no reason to allow invalid religious arguments into the discussion. Our most basic moral values just are what they are. All we can do is argue from that starting point.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

there are no reasons why I should or should not do anything,

Sure there are. If by doing an action, you bring significant harm to someone else, that's a good reason for not doing it.

The words "should" and "ought" are ultimately religious words.

I think that's a silly claim. They refer to a code of generally-accepted behaviors, such as not murdering. And they are ultimately based on our evolutionary history and self-interest.

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

So what would be a "secular reason" to call torture wrong?

The philosophical field of aesthetics predates Christianity by half a millenium.

Here's another reason not to torture: it is ineffective. You can make almost anyone confess to literally anything. I.e. the rate of false positives is very high. Thus the Inquisition and the witch hunts.

Meanwhile the religious arguments for torture might be as simple as "God told me so."

Filipe Calvario (from Brazil) said...

Strangely, it seems that many people forget that religion is not the only source of some rules of behavior, or some general purposes to life.

Philosophies also do it, and in a much more adultly manner, without appealing to duller/easier shortcuts, such as "do it lest the Bogeyman may catch you", or "do it and you'll have no gifts from tne Santa Claus in the Christmas" or "an omnipresent supernatural Being is observing you, and he will punish your ill behavior".

Many people feel that many secular people might need something more than Science to worry about. Something to TRY to explain the whys, instead of the hows only. Some people (like Atkins) say it is absurd, that whys are dull. I dare to disagree, and maintain that no one can shut your inner why-questioner, even if we can never achieve the definite "becauses". But I don't appeal to religions to address these questions. I appeal to Philosophy instead.

In fact, there is a whole branch in Philosophy which concerns those issues we have talked about; it is called Ethics.

Anonymous said...

If by doing an action, you bring significant harm to someone else, that's a good reason for not doing it.

You do realize that the not-harming-others principle is not derived by pure reason. Your illiteracy in philosophy is only second to your hubris. There are many limits to rule-based utilitarianism approach to ethics.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

You do realize that the not-harming-others principle is not derived by pure reason.

Very little is derived by pure reason. The atomic weight of bismuth, the deep ancestry of humanity, the lifespan of the Arctic fox - none of these is derived by pure reason. Why do you think that's a significant criticism?

Anonymous said...

we are talking about the principles upon which one seeks to build moral code. Explain why arbitrary empirical facts about nature are germane to this discussion?

Any utilitarian approach is devised around maximizing a principle (be it sanctity of life, happiness in Mill's sense, etc.). These principles can neither be derived from empirical sense perceptions (my mistake was taking for granted that this was evident to you; hence only dismissing pure reason as their origin), nor can they be demonstrated by a pure rational calculus, as I mentioned.

You don't need to be a pious believer in one of the institutionalized religions to admit this. FWIW, I am an atheist--and so was Hume arguably--, but that does not mean that I believe purely objective reasoning--e.g., Ayn Rand's ethical system--is adequate for arriving at moral judgments. There always are tacit moral postulates involved that are derived from sentiments, religion, custom, etc.

Seriously, do yourself a favor and read a bit about Hume's moral philosophy. You don't need to peruse his treatise through and through; the paucity of knowledge manifest in your argument suggests that even his wikipedia page should be more than enlightening for you.

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey Shallit said...

If by doing an action, you bring significant harm to someone else, that's a good reason for not doing it.

Can you provide some evidence for this? What if I want to harm others? Many people frequently want to inflict suffering. Revenge, anger, sadistic pleasure are all part of normal human (and chimp, and dog, etc.) behavior. If I am willing to risk repercussions, I still see no non-religious reason not to do anything I want to do.

I do think we can find out lots of interesting things from evolutionary psychology and neuroscience about what kinds of behaviors may make us happier. But, in the end, each of us has to decide for ourselves what to do. Science tells us what is, not what ought to be. History and the natural world provide plenty of evidence that cruelty is just part of life.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Can you provide some evidence for this?

Sure. If you go around harming others, you can hardly object if people harm you. Again, self-interest.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Explain why arbitrary empirical facts about nature are germane to this discussion?

The deep ancestry of humanity is hardly an "empirical fact"; it is a deduction.

You were the one criticizing beliefs not obtained by "pure reason"; I was simply pointing out this was a silly basis for criticism.

These principles can neither be derived from empirical sense perceptions (my mistake was taking for granted that this was evident to you; hence only dismissing pure reason as their origin), nor can they be demonstrated by a pure rational calculus, as I mentioned.

No, but they can be derived from a combination of the two. Our sense perceptions tell us what actions bring harm and what pain is; our "rational calculus" tells us to avoid doing to others what would bring pain to ourselves because we deduce that others are beings like ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Is self-interest something that you categorically strive to maximize when making choices in regard to ethical dilemmas, or is it for the particular case of torture and harming others and the like?

If it is your general principle, how did you deduce it or acquire it through empirical knowledge? Can you argue that someone who, for example, makes the interest of others his priority is committing a logical fallacy? What do you do when your self-interest is marred due to a particular application of the law you advocated to be enacted (e.g., allowing for torturing of a terrorist to gain information may be in your self-interest despite ruling out the practice). I hope you realize that whatever framework you put forth for resolving these cases, no matter how viable, are not inferred by reason.

We sometimes make decisions that only benefit our succeeding generations. Can you produce an egoistic argument against, say, exhausting all the resources of the planet before one dies?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I hope you realize that whatever framework you put forth for resolving these cases, no matter how viable, are not inferred by reason.

So what? We infer lots of information based on things other than "pure reason". Our knowledge of the world depends, in part, on the structure of the brain, which is a neural network tuned by evolution to be sensitive to things like people's facial expressions, our position in the social hierarchy, etc. In particular, research shows that children at a very early age have a sense of what is "just" and what is "unjust" behavior. So some of our ethical knowledge must be innate, formed by our evolutionary history. Why does this bother you?

Can you produce an egoistic argument against, say, exhausting all the resources of the planet before one dies?

Sure - if one understands the "ego" more generally as copies of one's genes. To use Dawkins, we are survival machines for our genes; using up all the planet's resources will not enable copies of our genes to propagate.

miranda said...

"Sure there are (reasons why I should or should not do anything). If by doing an action, you bring significant harm to someone else, that's a good reason for not doing it. "

The article mentions smuggling in vocabulary. You did so by using the word "significant."

Anonymous said...

0) when I said "inferred by reason," I also meant to include deductions based on empirically acquired knowledge, which for the sake of brevity I excluded, but thought was apparent from your own previous post. So let me elucidate: any framework you propose for resolving instance vis-a-vis rule contradictions cannot be inferred from reason, sense knowledge and/or the combination of the two, alone.

"using up all the planet's resources will not enable copies of our genes to propagate."

1) have we established that there is any virtue in the propagation of our genes?

2) A definition has to allow itself to be consistently applied across the gamut of contexts. You can't pick a definition for 'self' for a particular rebuttal and then re-define it again for answering to another case. As someone famously said, classic (needless to say bogus) responses to counterarguments against selfish ethics usually involve arbitrary re-definition of 'self.'

3) You--and Dawkins alike--are vague about what you mean by "our genes." Is it our species' genes, those of our ethnicity's, or just our very own, that wee should seek to perpetuate? Note that you need to rationally justify this choice, and, in doing so, avoid bringing in another unprovable axiom.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Miranda:

How can you discuss anything without vocabulary? Your objection is incoherent.

Anonymous said...

In response to my question...
Can you provide some evidence for this [i.e. harming others is a good reason not to do something?
Jeffrey Shallit said...
Sure. If you go around harming others, you can hardly object if people harm you. Again, self-interest.

Why can't I harm others and object if they harm me? I realize that it seems to offend your sense of fairness. But feelings and intuitions are not "normative." That is, they don't oblige me in any way. It may in fact be a very rational strategy to try to place restrictions on other people's behavior, while exempting myself from any requirement to follow suit. People benefit from this kind of duplicity all the time.

Filipe Calvario (from Brazil) said...

Anonymous,

I think that morality is a sort of a good ilusion, that we have acquired because through the process of Natural Selection. It has helped getting us here, and it makes men's lifes much easier.

We have been moved by our instincts and empathy to accept one sort of universal law of morals: "Do not to your neighbor what you would take ill from him".
From that one rule, you derive all the rest.

We are programmed to accept it. It's inherent to [the most of] us. We want to live in a world in which morals are respected. Perhaps it is true that reason can't tell us an ought. But religion can only tell an ought based on a lie.

I just think that people ought to follow morals because we, as a species, have agreed that it must be so. Because we wish so. Dots final.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Anonymous:

You asked for a reason. I gave you a reason. By "reason", I understand a rationale that can be supported, not something that is universally applicable in all cases. For example, you might say, "What is a reason to vote Democratic?" and I might reply "Because the alternative is worse".

I'm not claiming ethical propositions are amenable to mathematical proof, so I'm still not sure what your objection to my reason is.

Anonymous said...

Filipe Calvario (from Brazil) said...
Perhaps it is true that reason can't tell us an ought. But religion can only tell an ought based on a lie.

I just think that people ought to follow morals because we, as a species, have agreed that it must be so. Because we wish so. Dots final.


This captures perfectly the nonsensical, supernatural baggage that goes along with any moral argument. First you concede that "reason can't tell us an ought." Then you immediately say that "people ought to follow morals." You are smuggling a religious concept, irrational, supernatural (literally outside of nature), and dogmatic (because we wish it so, end of discussion) in order to cling to a conception of normative values.

What I want to know is why secular people care about morals at all. Give it up. Such concepts are as fictional as the tooth fairy. There is no point to defending concepts of good and evil with secular tools such as evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, etc. God used to fill the morality gap. This is one gap that will have to remain unfilled by science. It's actually kind of liberating to stop believing that actions (and people) are good or bad. Stop worrying and do what you want to do. Cheating on your taxes and your wife can be a lot more fun once you realize that there is no need to feel guilt.

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey Shallit said...
I'm not claiming ethical propositions are amenable to mathematical proof, so I'm still not sure what your objection to my reason is.
If your reason works for you, great. But everyone has to answer the question "what am I to do?" You may find the principle of not-harming-others self evidently correct just as some people consider the existence of god self evident. But you have to admit that moral statements are not in the same category as the proof that the square root of two is irrational, or the empirical evidence for evolution and quantum mechanics. Knowledge of these latter subjects is based on objective evidence and logic. They are rational fields of inquiry. On the other hand, the fact that, say, 99% of people find rape abhorrent and deserving of punishment, is simply irrelevant to the person who wants to rape and is willing to accept the risk of punishment. There is no rational, non-religious reason for that person not to rape.

John said...

@ Anonymous:

You do realize that "secular" and "reason" are not synonyms, don't you?

The article Fish wrote demands that religion is necessary to answer "real" questions. "Secular" is the opposite of "religious". "Reason" is not.

Are you being deliberately obtuse?

Miranda said...

"How can you discuss anything without vocabulary? Your objection is incoherent."

You're a mistake -- um, what I mean is that you are mistaken. If you had reviewed the article in the section about "smuggling," you'd see what I meant.

"Sure there are (reasons why I should or should not do anything). If by doing an action, you bring significant harm to someone else, that's a good reason for not doing it. "

High taxes bring me significant harm.
Setting a broken bone brings me significant harm.
(Perhaps you have a universal definition of "significant"?)

John said...

If I like burning houses down and am willing to accept the risk that I will be caught, why should I not burn houses down?

If you want to, and you don't care about the consequences, then there is no reason you shouldn't. But that applies equally well to religious reasons, too.

Murder, rape, theft, etc. are all part of the normal range of human behaviors that we will never eradicate. If I want to engage in any of these behaviors and am willing to accept the risk of getting caught, please give me a "secular reason" why I should not do so.

You are correct, "Murder, rape, theft, etc. are all part of the normal range of human behaviors that we will never eradicate." If the US prison system is any indication, many, if not most, of these crimes are committed by religious people who would have had a "religious reason" they chose to ignore as well. So how does religion increase morality?

John said...

...is simply irrelevant to the person who wants to rape and is willing to accept the risk of punishment. There is no rational, non-religious reason for that person not to rape.

Given the number of rapists in prison, and Catholic priests in the news, there is no religious reason either. Your argument is empty rhetoric.

Filipe Calvario (from Brazil) said...

Anonymous,

I said immediately another "ought" deliberatedly, to illustrate a "reason out of reason".

And about morals, there are emotions and empathy, and the wish that we can make our systems work. It's not just about a "need" to avoid cheating one's wife, or not raping a woman when there is little risk of punishment.

I want to live in a world of peace, in which I can see people respecting me and the others; and I'm willing to respect others if they do respect me. I don't want to see people being abused for it moves me. I can't stand injustice. It's the way I and most people are, after we start to think of ourselves in the other's position. It's not even "just human". Other species feel empathy as well.

Perhaps you don't have these feelings. Perhaps you are part of the group of the sociopaths. If it is so, I have nothing to argue. In fact, I can't convince you (or anyone) that you must do good when there is little risk of punishment for the evil. If you lack the emotions, what can I say?

I can only say that if we were all like sociopaths, our species would hardly succeed as it has suceeded.
And that sociopaths would better be prepared for the retaliation they will have from normal people when they get caught doing what has been considered unethical.

Anonymous said...

@John
So how does religion increase morality?
Neither I nor Fish ever said it does. The funny thing about this debate is that people reading Fish assume he is defending religion. He is certainly not doing that. His purpose is actually just the opposite, to point out the smuggled religious ideas that many ostensibly secular people adopt without even knowing they are doing so. Fish is actually helping secular people to recognize and eradicate the vestiges of religion from our thinking. His style is deliberately didactic and controversial. He is not a moron.

Anonymous said...

@John:
I said:
If I like burning houses down and am willing to accept the risk that I will be caught, why should I not burn houses down?

You replied:
If you want to, and you don't care about the consequences, then there is no reason you shouldn't. But that applies equally well to religious reasons, too.

Exactly. Religious reasons are false because religion is false. Secular reasons are false because they are actually religious reasons without admitting it.

RichardW said...

>>I'm not claiming ethical propositions are amenable to mathematical proof, so I'm still not sure what your objection to my reason is.<<

Jeff, if all reasons (for action) come down ultimately to self-interest (as you seem to be saying), then where do "ethics" come into it at all?

I don't really believe that you are motivated only by self-interest. But even if you you are, there are (fortunately) plenty of people who have other motivations, including altruistic ones. I for one would certainly not support secularism if it required that self-interest be the only motivation allowed in the public sphere.

Earlier you defined "better" means of structuring society as those that "result in happier, prosperous, and freer people, and a more just society." But, if self-interest is the only motivation, then to you "better" must mean better for Jeff Shallit. So you should favour a society which results in a happier, more prosperous and freer Jeff Shallit, no matter how much that might be to the detriment of other people's happiness, prosperity and freedom.

I would agree that ultimately the only reasons people have to do anything are their own goals. But those goals are not limited to self-interest. They include altruistic goals and goals prompted by conscience. I would say it is the latter goals that "ethics" are concerned with.

I favour the exclusion of religious dogma from public policy discourse because I think such discourse is best served by sticking as far as possible to rational argument and rationally established facts. I accept that our ultimate goals do not have a rational basis, but we can still seek the most rational means of achieving whatever ultimate goals we have. Where people's ultimate goals differ, we may be able to reach a compromise agreement. If not, then so be it.

Miranda said...

"Exactly. Religious reasons are false because religion is false. Secular reasons are false because they are actually religious reasons without admitting it."

That's some pretty interesting reasoning there, anonymous. Was it religious reasoning or secular reasoning?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

It's remarkable how weak some of these defenses of Fish are (and by people not courageous enough to use their own names).

First, there is a real sense in which our ethical decisions are not based on any "ideas" at all, let alone religious ideas. Rather, we are equipped by our hardware with ways to judge ethical situations, from which we attempt to extract basic principles. And these ways to judge are remarkably similar across cultures; read, for example, Experiments in Ethics.

These basic principles are not "religious" in any meaningful sense; nor are they "smuggled" in. They are our attempt to briefly summarize the outcome of billions of years of evolution.

There's an analogy with chess. We don't know of an efficient algorithm to provide a winning strategy for chess, and most likely there isn't one. (Generalizations are known to be PSPACE-hard.) But we still teach basic principles such as, try to castle early in the game, don't play knights to the side of the boards, etc. Do these brief heuristics capture all of the complexity of chess? No. Are they useful nevertheless? Yes. Are there good players who sometimes violate the rules? Yes.

Were alligators able to generalize about ethics in the same way, I don't doubt that their ethical ideas would be quite different. And, as brief summaries of complicated neural networks, our principles are not going to work in all cases. Fish and his defenders here haven't come to grips with this.

Second, no one is denying that if you want to turn ethics into a logical system of proof that you use assumptions. (I think treating ethics as a logical system is a misguided aim, but that's a different question.) But hat's true of any logical system. Calling these assumptions "religious", however, is not at all apt, as they don't refer to gods. After all, we can't do mathematics without axioms. Are the Peano postulates "religious"? How about the axiom of choice? So does Fish's condemnation of "secular reasoning" apply equally well to mathematics? If that's the case, then his claim that "secular reasoning" is good for things like science is wrong, too. After all, much of science is based on mathematics, which ultimately depends on those nasty axioms.

Third, as for the "self" having a fuzzy definition - it seems to me that philosophers, who cannot define the word "chair", should be the last people to object to that. Why is it hard to accept that the "self" can be viewed in different ways, including the physical body and the aggregate of shared genes in bodies related by descent? Richard Alexander's work is very important here, yet philosophers hardly know it.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

RichardW:

if all reasons (for action) come down ultimately to self-interest (as you seem to be saying), then where do "ethics" come into it at all?

Nope, I'm not saying that at all. I didn't say anything about "all reasons" and "ultimately". I gave a reason for a particular situation. In fact, I think coming up with a very small set of basic principles from which one can derive all our ethical intuitions is probably impossible.

It's like asking a chess player, "Why did you make that move?" The chess player can answer with a reason like, "Because it's good to have a supported knight in the center of the board". But that doesn't imply that is the only reason for any move, nor does it imply that there are no situations in which this reason might be overruled by others.

Anonymous said...

So what would be a "secular reason" to call torture wrong?

So what would be a "non-secular" reason to call torture wrong?

If you do not have a secular reason for something, that does not mean that there is a non-secular reason for it.

And that applies for "is" as well as "ought".

Creationists rely on "evolution can't account for such-and-such" as if that were sufficient reason for "intelligent design does account for it".

Tom S.

Anonymous said...

The analogy to chess is very apt. The rules of thumb are a convenience. The best players violate those rules when it gives them an advantage. All I am suggesting is we can take a similar attitude toward morals. They are perhaps convenient reminders, but in no way do they bind us.

If you find anonymous comments offensive, then disable or delete them. I won't be offended :-)

Anonymous said...

>>Exactly. Religious reasons are false because religion is false. Secular reasons are false because they are actually religious reasons without admitting it.<<
That's some pretty interesting reasoning there, anonymous. Was it religious reasoning or secular reasoning?

I'll go with secular. While I was talking about "reasons" in the sense Fish used the term to means "oughts" or "shoulds," I was not asserting that any such reasons are actually true. If that makes any sense.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Anonymous:

The main problem with anonymous commenting in this context is that I don't know if all the different comments by anonymous are by the same person, or by different people. This makes it hard to structure a response.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

Jeff,

It's great that you have the courage to call this Stanley Fish a moron. Yes he is. I read his review of Sarah Palin’s memoir, “Going Rogue: An American Life" and had a good laugh. The man is, indeed, either an idiot or dishonest (the "or" is not exclusive). Either way, he's a bullshitter.

Incidentally, it's hilarious to see again and again your devoted reader Miranda add noise to your blog. It looks like she's here just to disagree.

RichardW said...

Jeff, your use of the term "ethical intuitions" implies that there are ethical facts about which we can have intuitions. You've also given analogies to questions of fact, such as the utility of knights in chess and the atomic number of bismuth. You don't seem to recognise the distinction between facts and values ("is" and "ought").

We may not be able to give a fully deductive derivation of the atomic number of bismuth, but that's a factual question, and it's one to which we can give an evidence-based answer. The same is not true about assertions of value, like "this type of society is better than that one". That assertion depends on one's criterion for a good society. And there is no fact of the matter about which criterion is the "right" one. Our criteria for what constitutes a good society depend on our goals, and goals vary from person to person.

I think the reason you and others in this thread appear to be talking past each other is because they assume you are aware of the fact-value distinction, when it seems you are not. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fact-value_distinction

RichardW said...

P.S. Perhaps I should clarify something. My example of a value claim--"this type of society is better than that one"--looks superficially like a fact (an "is"). But it's actually a value, because the word "better" involves a value judgement.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Thanks, RichardW, I'm aware of the distinction.

your use of the term "ethical intuitions" implies that there are ethical facts about which we can have intuitions.

But there are facts underlying our ethical intuitions: namely, the structure of our brains. Where else do you think our ethical intuitions come from?

goals vary from person to person

Yet our ethical intuitions are remarkably stable across societies. Read The Moral Animal.

Tristram Shandy said...

Coming out of the anonymous shadows into the bright pseudonymous sunshine. All prior comments by Anonymous were mine, except:
11:23 AM
12:09 PM
3:23 PM
3:59 PM
7:37 AM

RichardW said...

Thanks, RichardW, I'm aware of the distinction.

But you haven't been making that distinction in your posts. Do you think that "this type of society is better than that one" is a statement of a fact or a value (or both)?

But there are facts underlying our ethical intuitions: namely, the structure of our brains. Where else do you think our ethical intuitions come from?

I'm questioning whether the concept of an "ethical intuition" is meaningful. What does it mean to have an intuition about a value? Do you accept that values are neither true nor false? If so, how can you have an intuition about the truth of something that is neither true nor false?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

If so, how can you have an intuition about the truth of something that is neither true nor false?

Do you accept that we have intuitions about whether someone is trustworthy? Or sexy? Or whether a landscape is beautiful? If so, why do you object to intuitions about ethical behavior? If not, I'm not sure we have much common ground to continue.

Filipe Calvario (from Brazil) said...

After this talk, Nietzsche's views on morality are starting to make sense to me. Not that I agree with him.

RichardW said...

Jeff, you still won't make the distinction between facts and values. I asked you straight out whether you consider "this type of society is better than that one" to be a statement of a fact or a value (or both), and you didn't reply.

Let me try to make the point more clearly.
- There is a fact of the matter about the atomic number of bismuth. It is 83.
- There is no fact of the matter about whether society A is better than society B, because it depends on your criterion for what constitutes a good society. By one criterion A is better than B. By another B is better than A. Different people may have different criteria. That's why "society A is better than society B" is a value statement, not a statement of fact.

Now some people may claim that there is a "correct" criterion to employ, so whichever society is better by that criterion is the better society (without qualification). Do you wish to take that position?

The issue of intuition is an unnecessary distraction. The question is whether there is a fact of the matter, not how we can know that fact.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I asked you straight out whether you consider "this type of society is better than that one" to be a statement of a fact or a value (or both), and you didn't reply.

I didn't reply because I felt the other question was more fundamental and I wanted to get it out of the way first. But you didn't reply to my question, so it's still unresolved.

Tristram Shandy said...

@Felipe Calvario:
I can't convince you (or anyone) that you must do good when there is little risk of punishment for the evil.
Well, you could convince me if we shared some common religious beliefs upon which we could base a discussion. Absent that (and this is Fish's point) there is no reason for me (or anyone) to adopt your particular values.

One thing that often goes unchallenged in discussions like this is how universally accepted certain moral norms are. The "golden rule," for example, is often portrayed as common to all societies in all places at all times. Evolutionary just-so stories are used to explain how empathy provides selective advantages and is therefore a built-in part of human nature. As far as it goes, this is all fine stuff. But there are plenty of not-so-nice adaptations that are equally part of human nature that get dismissed as exceptional, deviant, sociopathic, etc. Certain violent tendencies are likely to be just as much a part of our makeup as empathy. Even further, intra-species violence is likely to be a significant contributor to the survival of the human race. Nice guys frequently finish last. Ostensibly secular people prefer to overlook this side of the story.

So if we look to evolution to provide us with insight into how we "ought" to act (putting aside the absurdity for a moment) the results are likely to be fairly grim. Violent, dominating, selfish, and greedy behavior is just as "built-in" as the nicer stuff.

Miranda said...

Excellent post (at 1:13), Tristam.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Well, you could convince me if we shared some common religious beliefs upon which we could base a discussion. Absent that (and this is Fish's point) there is no reason for me (or anyone) to adopt your particular values.

Well, I think that's remarkably stupid (and no wonder that Miranda agrees with it). You really cannot think of any reason whatsoever why people might agree with ethical rules other than shared religious beliefs?

Tristram Shandy said...

@Jeffrey Shallit:
I am a guest on your blog, so I will try to be less stupid.

But, at the risk of seeming obtuse to you, I thought Fish's thesis that all reasons are ultimately religious reasons was the subject under discussion. Obviously, I am defending Fish's position.

The examples of reasons that you have suggested so far are either (1) not reasons or (2) religious.

(1) Evolutionary history, self-interest
(2) Don't harm others

Take our evolutionary heritage. We are programmed with certain behaviors that (sometimes) help us cope in a dangerous world. Empathy, revenge, and fairness are some examples of adaptive behaviors. But this tells us nothing about how we "ought" to act.

Joe sees suffering in Haiti. He reacts with horror and sympathy. He reaches for his checkbook knowing that he can help alleviate suffering. A moment later it dawns on him that this desire to help others is an instinctual response. He unconsciously weighs the costs and benefits of helping these strangers so far away. Quietly he puts the checkbook away. For him, the financial cost is not worth the feeling of gratification he would receive by helping.

Question: is there any point in trying to reason with Joe that it would be better for him to go with his initial instinct?

David Hume Fan said...

Jeff,

You are doing a disservice to secularism in this discussion. I think you need to educate yourself about myriad topics triviality of which you take for granted. I know that you are a fine mathematician. However, your expertise in manipulating words or deducing facts about prime numbers does not give you enough insight to be authoritative on philosophical issues, even though you may very much like to promulgate yourself as such. I am aware of your general disinclination with philosophy, but if anything, this thread is an apt testament to the necessity of philosophical discussion, and to the shortcomings we face when applying math and natural sciences in lieu thereof.

You take liberty in ignoring--or worse, rendering them irrelevant--the questions that you seem to be unable to answer. I am not taking aim at secularism as a doctrine in general; many of these questions are adequately discussed and, anyone versed enough in secular moral philosophy should be able to easily provide us with the right answers. My issue is with you per se, who eschews many of the pertinent questions posed here while adamantly condescending your interlocutors without positing any cogent argument. Notwithstanding the title of your post, you accused--and insulted--some of the posters here of, among other things, being unable to read and stupidity. The irony is that you, yourself, have failed to comprehend some of the most important comments here, as well as the crux of the original article.

Chris said...

Fish belives what he wants to believe. Like his fellow religious belivers and creationists, he makes his conclusions first and then looks for justifications or facts to support it, no matter how flawed those facts are - a most unscientific way of proceeding. Unfortunately, for people who stubbornly believe what they wish to, there is no persuading them, no matter how good your facts. They're just stubborn and are determined to believe what they've been taught to belive, no matter what evidence you produce.

It is not uncommon for defenders of any faith these days to argue that religion should be "above" science and empirical evidence. I think at this point, they are fighting for their existence and credibility. Why? To put it bluntly, religion is going to go the way the weathermakers who performed sacrifices in ancient civilizations when the meteorologist comes along.

- An agnostic's perspective

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Tristram:

First, could you do me the favor of explaining why you think "Don't harm others" is religious?

Tristram Shandy said...

@Jeffrey Shallit:
You really cannot think of any reason whatsoever why people might agree with ethical rules other than shared religious beliefs?

To use your chess analogy, ethical rules are merely "rules of thumb," i.e. suggestions. "Experience shows that castling early is an effective defensive strategy." Or "Giving money to charity can help you feel good and assuage guilty feelings." Or "Most arsonists are caught and go to prison." Insofar as I find such suggestions useful, I am happy to consider following the advice.

But these are not "reasons" in the sense of "oughts" or "shoulds." As soon as someone modifies his behavior from what he wants to do to what he thinks he ought to do (assuming they differ), he is acting religiously.

Here the word "religious" is meant to describe anything irrational, supernatural, subjective, non-emperical, or dogmatic.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

even though you may very much like to promulgate yourself as such

Wrong. I'm not a professional philosopher, although I have published one paper in a philosophy journal. I freely admit I am not an expert. But it seems like the "experts" aren't able to respond well to some of my arguments, so perhaps even the "experts" haven't thought of everything.

You take liberty in ignoring--or worse, rendering them irrelevant--the questions that you seem to be unable to answer.

I've ignored nothing. I haven't answered every single question yet, because I am still trying to establish the basics of what other people think. I certainly intend to answer every substantive question eventually.

without positing any cogent argument.

On the contrary, I've provided several arguments. I'm sorry you haven't read them.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Tristram:

"To use your chess analogy"

I think you've missed the point of the analogy. I brought up chess only because I think we are built with moral intuitions that can't be captured by a small number of simple rules. Other aspects of chess are disanalogous: for example, what would it mean to "win" at ethics?

But these are not "reasons" in the sense of "oughts" or "shoulds."

So it seems to be your contention that all "reasons" must be phrased in "ought" or "should" language; otherwise it is not a reason. Am I right? In that case, I think we differ on the meaning of the word "reason". For example, I can provide reasons that appeal to self-interest, but didn't occur to the person I am talking to. These would not be phrased as "ought" or "should".

Here the word "religious" is meant to describe anything irrational, supernatural, subjective, non-emperical, or dogmatic.

Well, then we differ on the meaning of the word "religious", too. It's hard to argue when we have such completely different understandings of the meanings of basic terms.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Question: is there any point in trying to reason with Joe that it would be better for him to go with his initial instinct?

Well, doesn't it depend on many things? Maybe Joe feels that his money would be better spent on a more local charity. Why should I try to reason him out of such a decision?

But if you feel I am somehow obligated to do so, for the purposes of this argument, then I could think of several reasons that don't depend on "religion" as I understand the term. To name just one, you could point out to Joe that if he donates to Haiti through an organization that publishes the names of donors, then his social standing in the community would increase as a result of his donation.

I suppose you could (1) deny that this is a reason for donating - but then you would have to explain potlatch or (2) claim it is religious - but then you have broadened the term "religious" so much that it no longer means what most people think it means.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

RichardW:

Different people may have different criteria.

So - as a thought experiment - if everyone in the world agreed on what makes a good society, then it would no longer be subjective?

I think the distinction between "fact" and "value" begins to vanish once you accept that "value" is a function of our biology and evolutionary history. Couldn't it be the case that our "values" are deducible from the physics, chemistry, and biology of humans? If they were, would they become "facts"?

Filipe Calvario (from Brazil) said...

"Tristram",

There has always been a problem with axioms: we hate them, for they can't be demonsrated. But axioms are necessary, and can be useful to people who accept their self-evidence.

Let us consider Mathematics, for example. There are a lot of axioms beneath its logical underpinning. So, Matematics is only valid to people who desire to accept those axioms which seem self-evident. It's like a group of people have decided in favor of it. And fortunately, this group coincides virtually with the whole mankind.

Now, let us consider Ethics. If there is a group of ethical assertions which are considered self-evident for a group of people, then we can deduct a group of consequences to those assertions, who will be valid to those people.

If you ask someone if it is "right" that one should avoid seeking imposing on others what he would blame one who imposed on him, and if that the adoption of such a rule would make a better and safer society for its members, I can guarantee that most people will agree. To those people, you can derive the famous Ethics. To the few who won't accept, you cannot.

And then, if the most people decide that choosing Ethics as the standard of living is a matter of protecting their society and their peace in general, you must expect that the dissident will not be allowed to practice his dissent opinion. It would be a matter of a consensus pro safety. Not fair, perhaps, but if one doesn't accept morals, how can he complain?

However, let justice be done (why?); it is right that some people haven't understood your position. They think that you're a defender of religion, when if fact you're a defender of reason. Morals is what you combat.

John said...

@ Anonymous

Ok, I see the problem. You have no clue what "religious" and "secular" mean.

Tristram Shandy said...

First, could you do me the favor of explaining why you think "Don't harm others" is religious?
"Don't harm others" is religious in the same way that "Thou shalt not kill" is religious. It is a dogmatic statement that takes as a given its own authoritative nature. There is no evidence for "don't harm others."

You may object that there is plenty of evidence that harming others may make me unhappy or that harming others will increase the chances that I will be harmed. I would tend to agree with both of these assertions. I can agree with them and still logically conclude that harming others is lots of fun and something worth doing anyway. My conclusion is not falsifiable.

Tristram Shandy said...

I think you've missed the point of the analogy.

I think I got the point of the chess analogy, but that you did not quite foresee how well it works for my argument.

The analogy to "winning" is, literally, whatever I want. I, and no one else, can say what winning is for me. Winning is fulfilling my desires.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

The analogy to "winning" is, literally, whatever I want.

Chess has a strategy. Some moves win, others don't. What does that correspond to in your analogy?

Nothing. So perhaps you should be a little less triumphal.

Tristram Shandy said...

Well, then we differ on the meaning of the word "religious", too. It's hard to argue when we have such completely different understandings of the meanings of basic terms.

Please suggest a better definition.

My definition of "religious" is roughly the opposite of "naturalistic." Any statement that presupposes a non-natural, supernatural, or mystical explanation is religious. Empirical, observable, rational, evidence-based statements are non-religious, i.e. secular.

Examples of religious statements:
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
My cancer was cured by a miracle.
I saw an angel.
I am the 14th reincarnation of the Buddha.
The Iraq war is immoral.

Examples of similar non-religious statements:
If you commit adultery, you will be miserable when your wife finds out.
My cancer has gone into remission.
I saw something I can't explain.
I sometimes get this weird sense of deja vu.
Bush lied, soldiers died.

Tristram Shandy said...

Chess has a strategy. Some moves win, others don't. What does that correspond to in your analogy?

The analogy fits: If you get what you want, you win. If you don't get what you want, you lose.

The only difference is that the outcome of chess is binary. A non-binary "game" that has winners and losers, complex rules, and unpredictable outcomes is the stock market. Perhaps that is also a good analogy.

Tristram Shandy said...

his social standing in the community would increase as a result of his donation

OK, let's consider what sounds like a perfectly religion-free reason. We remind Joe that he may want to increase his social stature by giving. But only Joe can decide if he really cares about that. The "reason" for giving that we propose is only valid if Joe wants it to be.

Contrast that with what you and I would consider "reasons" to believe that the earth revolves around the sun. These reasons are based on objective, observable facts. The earth revolves around the sun whether or not Joe wants it to.

The first example is not really a reason in same sense as the second.

Let's look at a more extreme case. Instead of Joe the Reluctant Donor, consider Joe Stalin. This Joe is the supreme dictator of a massive country with a huge army. He wields total power over everyone. He consolidated this power by brutally and mercilessly ordering the murders of thousands of people who may have gotten in his way. He oversees a vast prison system that holds millions of people in inhuman conditions.

Despite his overwhelming success at getting whatever he wants, Joe has recently had some doubts about whether he is really fulfilled. He summons his old teacher from the gulag to ask his advice. The teacher tells Joe that his actions are evil and that he must stop inflicting suffering on so many. Joe considers the what the old man said. He finally concludes that all he really needs is some vodka and a few days in the country.

Question 1: Do you think that Joe "ought" to do what his teacher says?

Question 2: Can you give a reason to Joe why he should not have the teacher shot?

Tristram Shandy said...

@Jeffrey Shallit:
After all, we can't do mathematics without axioms. Are the Peano postulates "religious"?
[snip]
After all, much of science is based on mathematics, which ultimately depends on those nasty axioms.


Mathematical axioms are not religious because, while they cannot be proved mathematically, there is plenty of observable evidence that they describe the real world. I can repeat experiments to prove 1+1=2. Mathematical axioms do not presuppose non-natural explanations of anything. I agree with your earlier comments implying that "pure reason" (math alone, separated from empirical evidence) does not get us very far.

RichardW said...

Jeff, since you refuse to address my arguments, I won't continue.

The fact-value distinction is central to the subject of moral philosophy, and as long as you ignore it any discussion you have on this subject will be futile.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

RichardW:

Somehow you seem to have missed that I have addressed your arguments (although admittedly not answered every single question).

Somehow you seem to have missed that you, on the other hand, have not addressed any of the ones I posed to you in return.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Mathematical axioms are not religious because, while they cannot be proved mathematically, there is plenty of observable evidence that they describe the real world.

You're kidding, right? What is the "observable evidence" that the axiom of choice describes the real world? Have you heard of the Banach-Tarski paradox?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Please suggest a better definition.

Well, if you are confused about the meaning of words like "religious" or "supernatural", then a dictionary might be useful to find out how many other people use the word. I don't see much point in cutting and pasting from one, though.

Is it common in your community to think of statements like "Beethoven was a good composer" as a religious or supernatural one? Because it's certainly not common in mine.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

To me, these two statements (which you classify together), seem very different:

My cancer was cured by a miracle.
The Iraq war is immoral.

The first one is very likely to be factually incorrect because it does not correspond to anything in the physical world.

The second one, however, is a statement that a certain occurrence in the physical world (the war) fails to conform with a certain moral construct (created, say for the purpose of argument, by the Catholic church). But this construct ultimately comes down to patterns in the brains of Catholics and hence is, ultimately, a statement about the physical world.

Do you agree that they are different in this way?

RichardW said...

Oops, Jeff, I didn't notice that you made two replies to my previous post. I responded to the first one before seeing the second.

So - as a thought experiment - if everyone in the world agreed on what makes a good society, then it would no longer be subjective?

It would still be a value (subjective if you want to call it that) no matter how many people agreed. My argument was not based on the observation that people actually have different criteria, merely that different criteria are possible.

"Society A is better than society B" is one person's value judgement. "Everyone thinks society A is better than society B" is a statement of fact about people's value judgements.

I think the distinction between "fact" and "value" begins to vanish once you accept that "value" is a function of our biology and evolutionary history. Couldn't it be the case that our "values" are deducible from the physics, chemistry, and biology of humans? If they were, would they become "facts"?

No. It doesn't matter whether I discover your values by asking you what they are, by studying your brain or inferring them in any other way. They are still your values. You seem to be confusing values with facts about people's values.

Maybe I'm not explaining this well. I recommend you find some more authoritative and better-written source on the fact-value distinction.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

RichardW accuses me of being unaware of the fact-value distinction.

If you look at what I wrote in the original post, however, it included "it is driven by my own self-interest and by principles that are generally accepted".

Now by "principles that are generally accepted" I had in mind things like (A) "treat others the way you would want to be treated" and (B) "don't exempt yourself from rules you ask to be followed by others". I am happy to concede that these are not "reasons" in exactly the same way that observational evidence about the planets tells us that the Earth orbits the Sun. But they are still "reasons" in an ordinarily-understood sense of the word, and they are not "religious" or "supernatural" in ordinarily-understood senses of those words. In my vocabulary, a "reason" need not compel anyone to believe anything or take any action.

I'd also claim that rules like (A) and (B) have more in common with observations about the physical world than Tristram is admitting, in two different senses. First, I think they sum up something about the psychological makeup of humans, in the sense that they would probably be assented to by the vast majority of people. Second, I think they represent generalizations about human societies on the order of "societies function more smoothly if most people accept (A) and (B)", where "smoothly" is shorthand for something like "people being happier and more prosperous".

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Question 1: Do you think that Joe "ought" to do what his teacher says?

Question 2: Can you give a reason to Joe why he should not have the teacher shot?


1. Yes.

2. Sure. How about "If you have your teacher shot, it makes it more likely that Beria will poison you later."

But again, we differ on the meaning of "reason", so I'm not sure we gain anything by this exercise. You will just (1) deny that it is a reason or (2) call it religious.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Do you think that "this type of society is better than that one" is a statement of a fact or a value (or both)?

Both. I think it is a fact in the sense that it represents a justified empirical generalization about the consensus of human opinion, and that generalization, in turn, ultimately derives from our evolutionary history.

RichardW said...

Jeff, responding to the example you just gave to someone else...

My cancer was cured by a miracle.
The Iraq war is immoral.


The first is an assertion of fact. The second is a moral (value) judgement. You may be able to give a factual explanation of why people make that value judgement. But it is still a value judgement.

The difference is easier to see when you convert the second sentence into the language of "oughts". It can be restated as "the Iraq war ought not to be fought". We can then more easily see that one senetence is an "is" (fact)and the other is an "ought" (value).

It's true that many people (moral realists) claim that "ought" statements are assertions of fact too, i.e. value statements are a subset of factual statements. But at least informed moral realists recognise that there is a distinction to be made between the two, and that reconciling the two is a problem they need to solve. (The is/ought problem.)

You seem not to even recognise the existence of this distinction and this problem, and that's what makes it very hard to discuss the subject with you.

Please at least read the following pages, if you haven't already:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fact-value_distinction
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Is-ought_problem

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Jeff, responding to the example you just gave to someone else...

My cancer was cured by a miracle.
The Iraq war is immoral.


It's not an example I gave to someone else. I was commenting on Tristram's classification of statements into two types, and I was arguing that the two statements were quite different. I'm glad you agree they are; that was my point.

You seem not to even recognise the existence of this distinction and this problem

Or perhaps the distinction is illusory?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

My argument was not based on the observation that people actually have different criteria, merely that different criteria are possible.

Suppose different criteria aren't possible, in the sense that our brains are wired in such a way that we will all agree. Would it still be "subjective"?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Here is a professional philosopher on Fish. We don't agree on everything, but there is a lot of commonality between what I've written and what Russell Blackford wrote:

1. Principles about how to create a good society can reasonably be based on secular, empirical knowledge about societies. This knowledge is not "religious".

2. Fish's distinction between truths of logic and reasons for action both depend on axioms, so he was wrong to claim "secular reasoning" was good for one and not the other.

3. "true empirical claims about the worldly consequences of my actions" are legitimate reasons for actions.

4. There are "well-recognised values that are shared by almost all people".

RichardW said...

Or perhaps the distinction is illusory?
Well, do you think the fact-value distinction is illusory? And what do you mean by that? That the two words are interchangeable?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Well, do you think the fact-value distinction is illusory?

Currently, yes. I'm willing to be persuaded I'm wrong.

To the extent that they can be stated coherently, I think that human values are facts in the sense that they fall into two categories: (1) generalizations based on empirical observations about human societies and (2) statements about how human brains are wired.

RichardW said...

Me: Do you think that "this type of society is better than that one" is a statement of a fact or a value (or both)?

Jeff: Both. I think it is a fact in the sense that it represents a justified empirical generalization about the consensus of human opinion, and that generalization, in turn, ultimately derives from our evolutionary history.

You are conflating two different sentences:

A. This type of society is better than that one
B. Most people are of the opinion that this type of society is better than that one.

Only the latter is an empirical generalization about the consensus of human opinion. The former is just an expression of the speaker's opinion.

Do you really think that a person who says A means the same thing as a person who says B?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Do you really think that a person who says A means the same thing as a person who says B?

Wouldn't it depend on the speaker? My guess is, the average person who makes an assertion like A would, in fact, want it to be understood as a wide consensus, not merely the speaker's opinion.

If I say, "Beethoven is a good composer", am I simply expressing my opinion, or am I making a statement that, among people who study and appreciate classical music, Beethoven is held in high regard?

By the way, it would be nice if you would answer the questions I asked of you that so far you have avoided. For example, Do you accept that we have intuitions about whether someone is trustworthy? Or sexy? Or whether a landscape is beautiful? If so, why do you object to intuitions about ethical behavior?

Tristram Shandy said...

@Jeffrey Shallit:
Question 1: Do you think that Joe "ought" to do what his teacher says?

1. Yes.


Is this because you think it is in Joe's self-interest to stop acting cruelly? If Joe disagrees with you, is he wrong? That is, is there an objective standard against which you can discuss Joe's self-interest?

Or is there another reason for Joe to change that does not reduce to his self-interest?

Tristram Shandy said...

@Jeffrey Shallit:
You're kidding, right? What is the "observable evidence" that the axiom of choice describes the real world? Have you heard of the Banach-Tarski paradox?

I'm not a mathematician, if that's not already obvious. I am only familiar with the popular version of the paradox.

As for observable evidence, I have no idea if the truth or falsehood of the axiom of choice has implications in physical world. The apparent paradox applies to idealized geometrical concepts, not real physical objects.

Since this is far outside my area, I'm happy to be corrected.

RichardW said...

Wouldn't it depend on the speaker? My guess is, the average person who makes an assertion like A would, in fact, want it to be understood as a wide consensus, not merely the speaker's opinion.

I think if a person wants it to be understood as a statement about the consensus of opinion he would say B, not A. If he says A when he means B, he is very likely to be misunderstood.

Of course, people often mistakenly consider their own value judgements to be facts, and those people will no doubt want their statement A to be understood as a statement of fact. But they will want it to be understood as a statement of fact about which society is better, not a statement of fact about the consensus of opinion on the subject.

Do you accept that we have intuitions about whether someone is trustworthy? Or sexy? Or whether a landscape is beautiful? If so, why do you object to intuitions about ethical behavior?

I didn't reply to these questions earlier because they are similar to the examples I've already discussed, and I didn't want to wander off onto other examples, especially less clear ones. But since you insist...

As I said before, I can only have an intuition if there's a fact of the matter to have an intuition about. So the real issue here is whether there's a fact of the matter. There is a fact of the matter about whether someone is trustworthy, though it's a bit fuzzy because trustworthiness is not very precisely defined. So, yes, I can have an intuition about whether someone is trustworthy.

Beauty, on the other hand, is a matter of taste. If I say something is beautiful (or sexy) I could just be expressing how I feel about it, or I could be judging it by some other criteria, e.g. what I take to be the taste of people generally. So there is no fact of the matter about whether something is beautiful. It can only be judged beautiful by some set of criteria or other. Of course people are in the habit of saying "that's beautiful" without specifying any criteria, just as they're in the habit of saying "that society's better" without specifying any criteria. But some set of criteria is being applied whether we realise it or not. Of course, there is a fact of the matter about whether the object meets these criteria for beauty (whatever they are) so before I've had the opportunity to make an assessment I can have an intuition about how well it will meet these criteria when I have that opportunity. So before I've met a woman I might have an intuition about whether I'll rate her as sexy when I meet her.

If I say, "Beethoven is a good composer", am I simply expressing my opinion, or am I making a statement that, among people who study and appreciate classical music, Beethoven is held in high regard?

You could choose either criterion, or perhaps a third. There is no fact of the matter about whether Beethoven is a good composer, because it depends on which criterion you are judging by.

Suppose different criteria aren't possible, in the sense that our brains are wired in such a way that we will all agree. Would it still be "subjective"?

Other criteria would still be logically possible. Don't get hung up on the word "subjective" (which I think you introduced, not me). The point is that there is no fact of the matter about "which society is better". There is only a fact of the matter about "which society is better by criterion X". "Which society is better?" is not a well-formed question. It's like asking "is f(0) > 0?" without specifying what function you're talking about.

This post took me rather a long time to write, and I think I'm going to have to call it a day here. The discussion is taking up too much time. It's been interesting. Thank you. I'll just add that I'm sure a good philosopher (like Russell Blackford) would make the case much better than I've done.

larryniven said...

Sorry for jumping in late. @RichardW:

"I'm questioning whether the concept of an 'ethical intuition' is meaningful. What does it mean to have an intuition about a value? Do you accept that values are neither true nor false? If so, how can you have an intuition about the truth of something that is neither true nor false?"

Well this is a bit silly. First of all, you should really define "value" so that we know for sure whether it's truth-apt or not. Second, you can have an intuition about any damn thing your mind can (nominally) entertain - if human brains were really the way you're describing them, they would be incredibly valuable truth-finding tools just on the basis of intuitions. In reality, of course, they are not at all like that.

"There is no fact of the matter about whether society A is better than society B, because it depends on your criterion for what constitutes a good society. By one criterion A is better than B. By another B is better than A. Different people may have different criteria. That's why 'society A is better than society B' is a value statement, not a statement of fact."

This is even more absurd. There's also widespread disagreement about what makes e.g. a good basketball player, but nobody in their right minds would say that I'm a better basketball player than Steve Nash. You can arbitrarily define "good basketball player" to mean whatever you like - maybe you want to say that a good basketball player has to operate under the screenname "larrynivnen," in which case I win - but that doesn't make your arbitrary definitions at all relevant to reality.

Filipe Calvario said...

I think that RichardW is mistaking Secularism by Scientificism; Secular reasoning by Scientific method. Science is a very strict prescritive practice. And Religion is a set of beliefs generally concerned with, or based on the supernatural. Not all that is not Science is Religion. Not all that is not Religion is Science. But ALL THAT IS NOT RELIGION IS SECULAR, as secular is the opposite of religious.

No one here (I presume) is a Scientificist. This thing has virtually died long time ago. No one thinks that Science is all we need. We also need Literature, Music, Common Sense, Law, ETHICS and more to live a good life. But do we need the belief in he supernatural? I don't think so.

--------------------------
Tristram insists in the fact that he doesn't accept the premise of Ethics (the Golden Rule) as valid. That he can do harm to others and enjoy it. But when you talk about premises or axioms, you can accept their self-evidence or not. Ethics is for those who have accepted that in a desirable world the Golden Rule is searched to be followed. If Tristram doesn't agree, if he doesn't have this intuition or empathy, I'd hardly suppose that another person would convince him.

But naturally, we who have agreed that such a behavior is harmful to our society will try to impede him if he decides to harm others.

Tristram Shandy said...

To me, these two statements (which you classify together), seem very different:

My cancer was cured by a miracle.
The Iraq war is immoral.
[snip]
Do you agree that they are different in this way?


For the sake of this discussion I do agree that they are different sorts of statements. The first is clearly religious because it supposes the existence of supernatural causes.

The second statement is different in that its meaning depends upon the definition of "immoral." If we accept your definition of morality as patterns of neuronal activity, then I agree that this statement is completely non-religious. But by that definition, belief in miracles should also be classified as non-religious. Miracles also can be described as patterns of neuronal activity in the believer. But, obviously, this is a very unsatisfactory definition of miracles.

For the sake of argument, suppose that a tendency to believe in gods and miracles is just as much a part of our evolutionary heritage as a tendency to believe in morality and the goodness of altruism. Both types of beliefs manifest themselves physically as patterns of neuronal activity. We dismiss gods and angels because there is no evidence that they exist independent of our brains. Yet with morality and the goodness of altruism, otherwise secular people accept their reality without a shred of evidence that they actually exist outside of our imaginations.

RichardW said...

@larryniven

This is even more absurd. There's also widespread disagreement about what makes e.g. a good basketball player, but nobody in their right minds would say that I'm a better basketball player than Steve Nash.

I didn't say anything about basketball players. Claims about good basketball players are rather different from claims about good societies (the case we've been discussing). Basketball has a specific objective: winning games. So when we talk about a good basketball player there is an implicit criterion: we are judging by ability to win games. There is no equivalent criterion for societies.

You can arbitrarily define "good basketball player" to mean whatever you like - maybe you want to say that a good basketball player has to operate under the screenname "larrynivnen," in which case I win - but that doesn't make your arbitrary definitions at all relevant to reality.

For a start you're confusing definitions with criteria. And I don't know what "relevant to reality" is supposed to mean in this context. Of course, some criteria are of more interest to people than are others. People use the criteria that most suit their concerns. I don't suppose anyone is going to choose "has most starving people" as their criterion for a good society. All I'm saying is that there is no fact of the matter about which society is better, without a criterion for what constitutes a good society.

Before you start describing people's comments as "absurd" it would be wise to stop and make sure you've carefully read and understood the comment you're criticising.

Filipe Calvario (from Brazil) said...

Errata: by "scientificism", I man "scientism". The Portuguese word is "cientificismo", which explains my mistake.

Tristram Shandy said...

@Jeffrey Shallit:
After I co-opted your chess analogy, you objected saying chess has the objective of winning, where ethics does not. I responded to your objection:
The analogy fits: If you get what you want, you win. If you don't get what you want, you lose.

Do you agree?

As a side note, I would like to thank folks who have commented for a generally civil, if sometimes frustrating, dialogue and for your patience with me. I know we are all busy and can't always respond to every point made by our opponents. I would suggest that one way to keep the discussion interesting is not to focus on the weakest point that your opponent makes but on the strongest. I will try to follow my own advice.

RichardW said...

I couldn't get this subject out of my mind, and I realised I'd given a poor reply earlier:

Jeff: If I say, "Beethoven is a good composer", am I simply expressing my
opinion, or am I making a statement that, among people who study and
appreciate classical music, Beethoven is held in high regard?


Me: You could choose either criterion, or perhaps a third. There is no fact
of the matter about whether Beethoven is a good composer, because it
depends on which criterion you are judging by.


This was a poor reply, because you weren't asking about criteria. You were apparently asking about the intention behind your statement. Well, only you can say what the intention behind your statement was. But the sentence "Beethoven is a good composer", as the words are normally understood, does not mean the same thing as "among people who study and
appreciate classical music, Beethoven is held in high regard". This is the same point I made in the A/B example above.

It may be the case that when people say "Beethoven is a good composer" they are most often applying as their criterion the tastes of people who study and appreciate classical music, i.e. that they really intended to express the idea that "Beethoven is a good composer as judged by the tastes of people who study and appreciate classical music". But then there is a difference between what they are saying and what they are intending to express, because what they are saying did not mention a criterion.

There is a difference between the meaning of the word "good" and the criteria by which we judge whether something is good, but it's easy to get the two confused because good is a very hard word to define. It would make no sense to ask "good by whose criteria?", as people often do ask, if the criteria for goodness were an integral part of the mean of the word "good". If you look up the definition of "good" in a dictionary, you won't find it defined as "to the taste of cognoscenti", or anything like that. You'll mostly find near-synonyms, like "excellent", "superior", "having positive qualities", which lack any criteria for evaluation. You may also find more specific terms, like "enjoyable" and "admirable" (which I would argue are more like criteria than definitions) but even those won't specify to whom.

RichardW said...

I've just found this interesting article on the distinction between the meaning of "good" and criteria for being good:
http://www.utilitarian.net/hare/about/196310--.pdf

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Tristram:

I think it is really stretching things to say, as you have claimed, that "there is plenty of observable evidence that [mathematical axioms] describe the real world" when applied to the Axiom of Choice. For one thing, it applies to collections of arbitrary cardinality, which is something we don't experience in the real world.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Yet with morality and the goodness of altruism, otherwise secular people accept their reality without a shred of evidence that they actually exist outside of our imaginations.

I think you're a bit too dismissive here. Have you read The Moral Animal? I think ethical principles do have a sort-of-existence in the physical world; namely, as encoded in the structure of our brains.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

RichardW:

With respect to what people mean when they say "Beethoven was a good composer", I don't think you can always deduce the meaning of an utterance by looking up the definitions of individual words. For example, try looking up the definitions of "break", "a", and "leg" to understand the utterance "Break a leg!"

If I can manage it, I'll put up a poll to ask people what they think it means.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Or is there another reason for Joe to change that does not reduce to his self-interest?

Yes, I think there is. But haven't we already established that you don't consider the ones I offer as reasons?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Do you agree?

No, I don't agree that it is a good analogy. As you say, in your version "I, and no one else, can say what winning is for me." But that's not the case for chess, where winning is clearly defined. I think you're confusing chess with Calvinball.

RichardW said...

With respect to what people mean when they say "Beethoven was a good composer", I don't think you can always deduce the meaning of an utterance by looking up the definitions of individual words. For example, try looking up the definitions of "break", "a", and "leg" to understand the utterance "Break a leg!"

Of course, but "good composer" is not a figure of speech, as "break a leg" is. Please pay attention to what I wrote about the difference between the meaning of "good" and criteria for goodness. I think you will find it helpful to read at least the beginning of the article I linked to.

If I can manage it, I'll put up a poll to ask people what they think it means.

What you are likely to get is different views on what criteria to employ, not on the meaning. Unless you are careful to distinguish the two your poll won't achieve anything.

paul01 said...

Calvinball?

Oh, you mean TEGWAR the exciting game without any rules (de Niro fans take note)

Tristram Shandy said...

@Jeffrey Shallit:
Okay, so ethical rules are not like chess strategies, because that analogy stopped working for you. They are more like patterns of brain activity, or mathematical axioms, or ...?

Before I give up completely on what I thought was a promising area of agreement, let me make one more attempt at explaining why chess strategy and the stock market are, in fact, quite good analogies for ethical decision making. In all three cases (chess, investing, ethics) the individual has a definable goal. In the first two cases the goals are pre-determined: checkmate, and more money. In rational ethics the goal can still be described simply: doing or getting what one wants. What is it about this objective that completely invalidates the whole analogy? I am certainly not claiming that the analogy is perfect. No analogy is perfect. But they are useful tools for discussion.

Tristram Shandy said...

@Jeffrey Shallit:
I think it is really stretching things to say, as you have claimed, that "there is plenty of observable evidence that [mathematical axioms] describe the real world" when applied to the Axiom of Choice.

The claim is that ethical principals are like mathematical axioms. This, I think, is far more problematical than the chess/investing analogy. Axioms are absolute givens for any system of logic. They are not debatable within the system itself. Choose different axioms and you get completely different outcomes. Do you really think that "do not harm others" is a statement that has that kind of immutable character?

For one thing, it applies to collections of arbitrary cardinality, which is something we don't experience in the real world.

If there are no real-world consequences to your choice of axioms, then it does not matter how you choose. If you have a conviction that "The Axiom of Choice is True" without any real-world evidence, that sounds an awful lot like religious belief to me. Merely assuming it is true for the purposes of deduction is not religious. If we assume the AC is true or false, we can develop different mathematical constructs. I'm guessing that much the same can be said for axioms of Euclidean geometry. Choosing different axioms may result in more or less useful mathematical constructs as applied to the physical world.

The relationship between math and the physical world is a subtle topic. In my opinion, it is a very inadequate analogy for ethical reasoning as applied to personal or societal decisions.

Tristram Shandy said...

@Jeffrey Shallit:
I think you're a bit too dismissive here. Have you read The Moral Animal? I think ethical principles do have a sort-of-existence in the physical world; namely, as encoded in the structure of our brains.

A great many things can "exist" as encoded brain structures, what I called "imagination" (miracles, gods, stars, clouds, etc.). When someone conflates imaginative existence with reality without any evidence that his ideas correspond to the natural world, is it not reasonable to call that belief supernatural?

I have not read The Moral Animal. Nearly all popular accounts of evolutionary psychology I have read are very confused about the fact/value distinction. What about this one?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

A great many things can "exist" as encoded brain structures, what I called "imagination" (miracles, gods, stars, clouds, etc.).

I think you didn't understand my point. Suppose I tell you a description of a miracle; say I say to you that I was drinking a glass of water and it turned to wine. Now, by telling you this, your neurons fire in a certain way so that you have a picture of the "miracle".

But this is very different from our ethical sense, which seems to exist regardless of what people describe to you. In other words, evolution has hard-coded some ethical hardware. This is in contrast with particular experiences, real or imagined.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

The claim is that ethical principals [sic] are like mathematical axioms.

No, that's a different claim. I was addressing your claim about how mathematical axioms describe the real world. I guess you have abandoned it, although from the large amount of text devoted to an entirely different topic I can't tell for sure.

Tristram Shandy said...

@Jeffrey Shallit:
You are interpreting my statement (there is evidence that axioms describe the real world) in a way that I did not intend. I could have been clearer by stating there is real-world evidence to accept some axioms. I did not mean it to be a statement about all mathematical axioms. For those which have no real-world evidence, there is no basis for accepting or rejecting them.

You wrote:
"we can't do mathematics without axioms. Are the Peano postulates religious?"

I guess it depends on what you believe about the Peano postulates. If you are convinced of their truth value, despite a lack of physical evidence, then yes, they constitute religious beliefs for you. If, on the other hand, you simply use the postulates to make mathematical deductions while you remain indifferent to whether they are actually true or false, then no, they are not religious.

Tristram Shandy said...

@Jeffrey Shallit:
This is in contrast with particular experiences, real or imagined.

Again, I guess I was not very clear. When I put gods and miracles in my list of imaginative things, I did not mean conceptions of particular gods or miracles. I meant them in the same way that you seem to mean by our "ethical sense." The tendency to believe in gods and miracles, just like the tendency to believe in right and wrong, basically comes down to encoded brain structures. If it were shown that evolution endowed us with a predisposition toward religion, that would not make religion true. Similarly, ethics, good and evil, right and wrong, do not become true just because evolution programmed us to believe and act as if they are true.

Belief in the reality of concepts for which there is no evidence is not a bad way to describe religion.

larryniven said...

RichardW, I'm not sure you understand the words you're using. A definition is nothing other than a set of criteria: something is defined to be Thing Type X if it meets criteria 1-n. But anyway...

"Of course, some criteria are of more interest to people than are others. People use the criteria that most suit their concerns."

Okay - so can you identify a criterion by which I'm a better basketball player than Steve Nash, now that this is your concern? I know you don't know me personally - just take some guesses, I'm patient.

"I don't suppose anyone is going to choose 'has most starving people' as their criterion for a good society. All I'm saying is that there is no fact of the matter about which society is better, without a criterion for what constitutes a good society."

Um, duh? But you haven't established that there are no criteria for evaluating societies: you've established that people disagree about which criteria to use, which is irrelevant. People disagree about everything, and yet in the midst of that we can still identify truths and falsehoods.

"Basketball has a specific objective: winning games. So when we talk about a good basketball player there is an implicit criterion: we are judging by ability to win games. There is no equivalent criterion for societies."

Well, now we're getting somewhere. You seem to be a bit confused, though, about the objective of basketball: there is no such thing. For most players, the objective is ostensibly to win - although when I play I try to have fun as well, others might want to show off, some people play just to exercise, and so on. Presumably even some professional players are just in it for the money or to get in record books. So why, again, should I take your word about the purpose of playing basketball? And why do you not even consider those other purposes when evaluating a basketball player?

At any rate, I see you've taken a sort of Aristotelian approach to this, what with the whole teleology thing. It's odd, though, that you should focus so strongly on the positive - on having a teleology in hand in order to identify values. I mean, you've already identified a potential disvalue: having the most starving people of any society. (This isn't a particularly well-formed disvalue for a few reasons, but I'm willing to run with it as long as you are.) Even if you don't know anything else about what makes a society good or bad or what societies "are for," just knowing that one disvalue enables you to make accurate evaluations of societies. (Not very informative evaluations, but accurate ones nonetheless.) So maybe this is the question for you to answer: is there any way at all for it to be good for a society to have the highest (nonzero) number of starving people of any society?

Tristram Shandy said...

@larryniven:
"is there any way at all for it to be good for a society to have the highest (nonzero) number of starving people of any society?"

You didn't ask me, but I'll answer anyway.

The answer is a provisional yes, assuming the meaning of "X is good" to be something like "I like X" or "hooray for X!"

If I were a member of Greek society engaged in war with the Trojans, it would be a very good situation if every member of Trojan society were starving.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Tristram:

Well, maybe we're not as far apart as you seem to think we are. I agree that ethical principles have no independent existence outside our brains. Where we differ seems to be that I think the fact that some principles seem "hard-wired" is significant, and allows us to reason about them and perhaps even deduce their basis, and you don't find it significant. Am I wrong?

Tristram Shandy said...

@Jeffrey Shallit:
I agree with everything in your last comment, apart from the bit about deducing the basis of ethical principles. If by "basis" you mean "evolutionary origin," then I do agree that we may be able to deduce their basis. In normal usage, however, "basis" has something to do with "evidence."

Evidence that evolution programmed us to believe certain things is not the same thing as evidence that those things are real. This applies to gods and ethical principles. As far as I can tell, we still differ on this point.

Wanderin' Weeta said...

Anonymous (way up at the top):
"How do you get to the value judgment that torture is wrong?"

Amplifying from Jeffrey: "Self-interest. I don't want to be tortured, so it is in my best interest to support a universal ban on torture."

Biology. I don't want my grandchildren to be tortured, so it is in my and their best interest to support a universal ban on torture.

Nilou said...

"So what would be a "secular reason" to call torture wrong?"

I feel another's pain, it pains me to imagine torture. Physical discomfort good enough?

Tristram Shandy said...

@Wanderin' Weeta and @Nilou:
All "reasons" given so far amount to "I want":
I want not to be tortured.
I want my grandchildren not to be tortured.
I want not to imagine torture.

But only I can say what I want and what risks I am willing to take. None of these "reasons" is valid for anyone else, unless they happen to share my preferences. History shows that these preferences against torture are far from universal.

So I will ask again, with different words:
If evolution has programmed us to be cruel and violent, why is it wrong to be cruel and violent?

Nilou said...

Tristram
I do not support torture because I will feel physically uncomfortable. This is not something I want to feel. It may be that your empathy meter is dialed down. If the only reason you do not punch a baby in the face is fear of eternal damnation, then by all means keep up the good work. But not all of us need threat of damnation to prevent us from doing bad, we can imagine, feel, ponder, and choose to do better. It is very simple Tristram, we try not to delude ourselves, and crazy, irrational stories do not provide reasons based on foundations we can trust. I (a person who strives to believe what is true) do not want to punch my baby, torture a human, eat my mother, stone an accused adulterer or kill an apostate; NOT because of fear of eternal damnation (like you), but rather, because these ideas bring bile to my mouth, swarms in my stomach, and stress molecules raging through my body.

Wanderin' Weeta said...

@Tristam
"If evolution has programmed us to be cruel and violent, why is it wrong to be cruel and violent?"

But why say that evolution has programmed us to be cruel and violent in the first place?

Some of us are, some of us are not. It's not a given, therefore not part of our "programming". (Which, by the way, is a backwards way of looking at it; "evolution" did not do anything. It is not an entity, just a name for a process. Things happened, as they do in a non-static universe, and things changed over time; when this change produced a variety of living things, we call the process "evolution". There is no goal, no program, no purposing mind.)

Still, the result, given that this universe is a violent place, inhospitable to life, is that we had to be aggressive to survive. Some of us use that aggressiveness against our fellow creatures. And we say that it is wrong.

Not because there is some rule-maker who made a law against it, but because it makes life more difficult than it already is. And we (most of us) want to survive. That's all it is; what we want to happen, we call "good"; what we don't want, we call "bad".

If our wants change, then the states to which we apply those words changes accordingly. Even a cursory reading of history makes that apparent.

And, as you say, even from person to person, the words mean different things.

"None of these "reasons" is valid for anyone else, unless they happen to share my preferences. History shows that these preferences against torture are far from universal."

True. So some would say, in the "right" circumstances, that torture is good and useful. I disagree, simply because my preferences are that my grandkids live in a sane world where they won't be tortured.

After all, that too is part of my evolutionary heritage.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

If evolution has programmed us to be cruel and violent, why is it wrong to be cruel and violent?

As others already pointed out, evolution hasn't just programmed cruelty; it has also programmed an ethical sense and cooperation and the ability to foresee consequences. So it is reasonable to deduce that if one is cruel and violent to others, this increases the probability that one will be treated cruelly and violently in return.

What we call "wrong" is part genetic programming, and part societal consensus, based on observation of what works and what doesn't. Not all societies agree on what is "wrong", but there is remarkable agreement among societies on the basics.

But we've been over this again and again, so I don't see the point in continuing.

Anonymous said...

Back to the title of this blog, I cannot agree more: Stanley Fish is a moron. I also cannot understand why the NYT keeps publishing such low level, irrelevant rubish. Today's (March 9th) Opinionator column is no exception: the moron is asking if we miss Bush. Of course a minority will be crazy enough to miss that other moron, just like one is sure to find a minority that thinks that slugs are delicious.

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey Shallit may not be correct. Either Fish is a moron or he thinks I am (I and others like me). Stanley Fish belongs to that bunch of literati critics motivated almost entirely by ideology but with a keen sense of which way the wind is blowing and since Boas, Benedict and Mead it has been blowing in the direction of Cultural relativism which leads (they think) to truth relativism and hence to incommensurable paradigms (of a shifty dodgy kind). The essence of reason is an attempt to incorporate the diversity of nature (including human nature) by higher levels of abstraction that can account for diversity. Religion does no such thing. Religion and reason appear equivalent only to those who subscribe to the above Post-xxxx (whatever takes your fancy) that Fish and co love and which is nothing more than argument by foreclosure (Geertz)
Schmoepooh

Stuart said...

Re articles by Fish and co., the NYT keeps publishing such low level, irrelevant rubish because there are a heap of people out there in cultural relativism land (see Alan Bloom) who think its great.
Stu

Stuart said...

Stanley Fish may be a moron, or he might think everyone else is!
Stanley is that class of literati intellectuals who, on the coat-tails of Boas, Benedict and Mead endorse cultural relativism and with it "truth". The end resault of this thinking, coming as it does from German Philosophical Idealism and Berkleyism is Conceptual Idealism and Incommensurable Paradigms of a shifty kind beloved of American undergrads ignorant of the history of philosophy. It has been said that Americans take old European fallaceous wine and re-bottle it in California.
Stu