Meta-ethics, realism, and intuitionism

Dan S. asks:

What are your meta-ethical views? I’ve heard you mention the importance of subjective value as well as “virtue,” so I imagine you are inclined toward a more “morality is subjective” view. What is your opinion of Bryan Caplan’s moral realism and intuitionism? Do you think it faces insurmountable metaphysical obstacles?

I am a moral realist and intuitionist, as is Bryan, but my view on applications is very different.

On torturing babies, I a) think it is objectively wrong, but b) I don’t think that a philosophical unpacking of “wrong” here gets one very far.  It’s wrong, and if you don’t understand why you won’t understand the philosophic explanation either.  There is nothing in the philosophical explanation that is more evident than the initial wrongness.  So far I’m on board with Caplan.

Yet I don’t wish to walk down this plank very far.  Bryan wants to “coin” a large number of (non-trivial) moral truths this way, such as his claim that taxation is morally wrong for violating the precepts of common sense morality (“don’t take things from other people”).  Last I looked, a lot of common sense people support taxation and the interpretation of common sense maxims depends very much on context.  Reasoning by analogy is far, far weaker than Bryan wishes to believe.

I’m agnostic on a lot of ethical issues, but not a relativist or a subjectivist per se.  I simply think that we don’t have very good facilities for detecting objective ethical truth, just as most of us are not very good at factoring large numbers in our heads.  Indeed, ethical philosophy hasn’t made a lot of progress in the last two thousand years.

I find that my combination of views is fairly rare.  People who believe that ethics is objective and intuitive are often quite keen to make a lot of detailed pronouncements about the content of those ethics.  The agnostics tend to be relativists or subjectivists.  It seems to me that people are first choosing a mood or attitude, and then finding the disparate views which match to that mood and, to themselves, justifying those views by the mood.  I call this the “fallacy of mood affiliation,” and it is one of the most underreported fallacies in human reasoning.  (In the context of economic growth debates, the underlying mood is often “optimism” or “pessimism” per se and then a bunch of ought-to-be-independent views fall out from the chosen mood.)

Here is an earlier post on ethical intuitionism.  Here is my conclusion:

…ethical intuitionism settles many fewer issues than most of its proponents like to think.  That said, there is often nowhere else to go.  We somehow need to come to terms with two propositions at the same time:

1. We need to think more rather than less ethically.

2. The content of ethical philosophy tells us less, in reliable terms, than most people would like to believe.


some babies have really important intel

No. Torturing babies is wrong because their are better alternatives to torture, such as puppies and kittens.

Does intuitionism solve anything ever?

You're basically trying to intuitively agree that some highly specific situations as morally good or morally bad - and to get enough people to agree you'll need to be very specific here.

Then you make analogies - but analogies depend on structure of your language, not structure of reality. It's grue and bleen all the way down.

For your example of "torturing babies" - you're trying to enforce your mental categories of "torturing" and "babies" here as most relevant descriptions of the situation. But other people have different mental categories. For some abortion is like torturing babies, for some not preventing infant diseases and malnutrition is like torturing babies, for some if baby is from a wrong country, it's fine, for some inaction to prevent it is ok even when action causing torture would not be etc.

Even if everyone agreed on morality of specific situations (and they don't, not even close), intuitionism would still be worthless because people wouldn't agree on which categories to use to reason by analogy.

As in waterboarding a toddler. Not torture. Not a baby.

Are you in the administration?

To be objectivistic, you should be able to go further and say WHY it is wrong to torture babies (based upon some more fundamental/objective fact) – e.g. it causes them a lot of pain (of course, “pain” is arbitrary, but you could implicitly define it in objective brain activity).

To me, the relevant moral issue is about the pain. The wrongness in the act of waterboarding a baby isn’t derived from the question whether it should be defined as torture or not, but from the inescapable fact that it will bring the baby a lot of (broadly defined) pain. The immoral action is those actions that bring the baby pain.

I have never understood the mindset of those that have to/want to define morality in terms of, to me arbitrarily grouped set of, actions.

PS: of course you could be a subjectivist and a utilitarian, and a objectivist and non utilitarian - but the later is meta upon meta, and thus practically meaningless?

Reasoning by analogy is actually pretty good as long as you add the usually unspoken parts.

Taking stuff from other people is bad if it means I might lose my stuff (there should be a law against it, darnit!); taking stuff from other people is not bad if I am unlikely to lose stuff and will probably be a beneficiary (there should be a law for it, darnit!). The "morality" is perfectly consistent.

Why is that bad?

If I take some grass from your lawn, is that so bad (and you probably won´t even realize it)?
What if I take your car? Probably a bit worse. Why?

you read wrong. Or I wrote sloppily.

Folks' "morality" is merely a garnish for their self-interest, and laws reflect that. Most people would not be in favor of legalized, random theft, because they are liable to lose lots of their stuff under such a system. On the other hand, most people are strongly in favor of organized, targeted theft as long as the theft happens to other people. The easiest coalition in the world to form is the one that says, "join our group and you will never get stolen from, but you'll get to steal from others." There's one like it in every democracy.

I am at last prepared to opine on the blog's new appaearance. It stinks.

I remain,
Yours faithfully,

"On torturing babies". How did we come up with this question? Is there context here that I am missing. Was there ever a situation where this was under debate and is there a argument that makes it defensible?

It's a common and simple test for a moral framework: if some proposed framework doesn't prohibit torturing babies, it sucks. If it positively encourages torturing babies, it sucks even more.

This might seem obvious, but naïve ethical theories can fail such simple tests. There should be no argument that makes it morally defensible and thus the point is to see whether your framework unintentionally permits it.

It does seem surprising and counter-intuitive to me that any serious, non-trivial ethical theory might actually fail the "torturing baby" test. Any such theories you can name? I'd love to read more.

Pick any framework that is careless about specifying who gets to have morally valid and fully competent personhood. It is non-trivial to define "baby" in such a way that makes babies materially distinct from mammals in general in various states of their life. Authors often want to make judgments in the areas of individual consent (possibly including children), individual responsibility (over care of other people, or being forced to care for other people, again possibly including children), acceptable extents of individual power (over subordinates, including children), animal rights, and assorted abortion-related issues; this places babies right in the center of a variety of stances which may conflict.

“On torturing babies”. How did we come up with this question? Is there context here that I am missing. Was there ever a situation where this was under debate and is there a argument that makes it defensible?

Cowen just picked the most obvious intuitively wrong thing in the world as shorthand for "there aren't any arguments that would make the case against torturing babies any stronger than it is via intuition". He was referring to something Bryan Caplan has said a few different ways, one of which was "The strength of my position is precisely that I’m not offering you a phony seventeen-step “proof that murder is normally wrong.”

Or, I should say, “there aren’t any arguments that would make the case against some things any stronger than it already is via intuition”

Describing something as "objective" doesn't advance matters at all until we know how Tyler defines the word "objective". Torturing babies is objectively wrong. Is Beethoven's Ninth Symphony objectively grand? Marilyn Monroe objectively beautiful? Are rotten eggs objectively stinky? Barbecued ribs objectively delicious? Does "objective" mean that it is or must be a consistent neural reaction for all people/all people suitably deemed normal or normative?

It means exactly what you think it means. Any analysis beyond that is valueless.

Which is to say, the value of the word "objective" is subjective.

A follow-up question: where do you stand on Humean is-ought distinction and Moore's Open Question Argument?

Lh6JFF I'm not easily impressed. . . but that's impressing me! :)

Moral intuitionism is a form of abdication that would never be accepted in any other intellectual undertaking. Someone calling herself an "economic intuitionist" would rightly be mocked. Philosophy can of course mean "thinking stuff to pieces" and coming up with elaborate but failed and impractical solutions, such as some forms of utilitarianism, but it does deserve better and more than "this is wrong because I feel it is". We all know the horrors that were (and still are) perpetuated by "this is right because I feel it is".

Lol, "you say you object to philosophical reasoning in this department, but can you defend your position with philosophical reasoning?"

"Moral intuitionism is a form of abdication that would never be accepted in any other intellectual undertaking. "

Ever heard of mathematics?

"Moral intuitionism is a form of abdication that would never be accepted in any other intellectual undertaking. "

Still, many people seem to treat the physical world as a fact.

Bryan Caplan advocates greater reliance on intuitions in economics. He also believes in an "anti-Hansonian heuristic" in which his opinions are inherently more accurate just because he was lucky enough to be born uniquely truthy.

Instead of dismissing subjectivist/relativist philosophy to "mood affliction," one interesting question would be to ask why the person has been struck by that mood in the first place. And is it correct to claim that an objectivist view does not require a corresponding "mood" to get you there as well?

Asher makes an important point. One MUST define what one means by "objective" or the conversation gets derailed. It's used at least 3 different ways in philosophy/meta-ethics, each having different implications.

All this discussion about relativism and subjectivism is all fine and dandy but do you guys actually come across real-life situations where you actually think about this when you need to make a tricky decision? Can anyone recall a ethically difficult decision that you took which might have been different had you been a relativist and not an subjectivist or some such?

Agreed that life is peppered with morally tricky decisions but does having these moral taxonomies actually help anyone other than academics?

Well, yes. Here's a common decision, often affected by the moral reasoning you ascribe to yourself: a panhandler begs you for a dollar. What's your response?

Tell him I'll give him a twenty, if he knows someone with a baby I can torture?

Personally, I don't give. But I am curious; what do the various moral theories say about this. Are their answers different?

And since I did not mention a particular moral theory that I use to justify my answer, does that make me a "moral intuitivist"

If I give money to a panhandler I tell myself I've done good. If I don't give money to a panhandler I tell myself I've done good. Whatever I do my moral reasoning works out that I've always done good, somehow.

I only feel guilty if I do something that I know someone else considers bad -- and I suspect I might get caught. But then if I do get caught I become indignant and quickly assure myself I didn't really do anything wrong.

I guess I'm a moral intuitionist also.

" It seems to me that people are first choosing a mood or attitude, and then finding the disparate views which match to that mood and, to themselves, justifying those views by the mood."

Isn't it rather that people first simply have a mood or attitude, and not that they choose it?

When it comes to intuitionism, it's important to note that people lie. Both to others AND themselves. The same people that purport to hold themselves and others to some magical high moral standard tend to completely ignore it when it comes to actually making choices. See: pretty much any atrocity ever.


Speaking of ethics...
How are ethical questions dealt with by economists as a profession? Do economists have a professional organization that sets legal or tacit rules or moralistic boundaries based on ethical codes, along the lines of the AMA for doctors, ABA for lawyers and GAAPs for accountants? For example, if you are hired by a special interest lobby to slant a case heavily in their favor, whether you believe in it or not, are you obligated by the code of the profession to recuse yourself or turn it down on moral grounds? If you choose to do it is your only downside that other, possibly smarter, economists will tear it to pieces in public and ruin your reputation? Are you all just hired guns who are free to produce whatever you want as long as you're willing to risk the consequences of being exposed, or like lawyers, bound by the code to do the best job you can defending your clients whether they are guilty or not? I'm not talking about the fringe element of "ambulance chasers", but the vast majority who are true professionals.

I am surprised that you are a moral realist rather than, at most, a "quasi-realist" in Simon Blackburn's sense. I had imagined you as, at root, a physical materialist—the world is made up of physical stuff and its interactions. Some of that physical stuff has evolved into things—our brains—that, by instinct and culture, represent moral ideas. But what in the world could these ideas correspond to?

Let's say someone placed strong, positive moral value on the act of torturing babies—whatever the consequences. (NB the person may or may not even enjoy doing the torturing—he/she just believes it to be a moral good. This would be horrific, of course. But in what sense is this person "wrong"? Are they misunderstanding something about the actual world?

I second this question.

I suppose I should follow up, since I asked the question.

Despite my love for my econ bloggers, their presumption of moral realism (implicit or explicit, in Caplan's case) is something I have always found bizarre. What the heck is the metaphysical nature of these objective moral truths? To me the argument against moral realism comes down to this: if a serial killer were going around murdering people, what argument would you use to dissuade him? For example, a utilitarian might say, "but you're not maximizing the total amount of utility of sentient beings!" to which the killer would reply "I don't care about that. What makes you think that I would place any value on that?" The intuitionist would say "My intuition says you shouldn't do that!" with similarly unsuccessful results.

There is really no objective reason for the serial killer to observe the rules of morality. On the other hand, he cannot simply reject the objective laws of physics; to do so would likely kill him (jumping off a cliff and that sort of thing). In my opinion that is the line between objective and subjective properties: a rational being ignores objective properties at his own peril. I've always found it amazing that moral realists will succumb to the line of reasoning that to me sounds basically like "I really really want moral realism to be correct, so... it is!" It reminds me of religious people who believe in God because they really really want there to be a god. After all, couldn't I also argue for the existence of a god through "religious intuitionism?"

Is not the universe a physical entity ultimately governed by the laws of physics? All of a sudden these moral feelings that we have (which are arguably best explained by evolution) are evidence of very strange, non-physical entities in the universe?

Sorry to rant, but in all of my philosophical travellings I have yet to come across even a halfway decent answer to the amoral serial killer. And yet that issue is ignored as if it doesn't matter.

Dan, I mostly agree (as my post right above yours suggests). That said, I think it's important to emphasize that moral anti-realism does not imply amorality, or moral relativism, or the inability to reason about morality. Your own values, presumably, make you feel that the serial killer's murdering is wrong, and you can hold those values and act so as to further the ends they point at. Just as important, there are usually *reasons* and arguments you can offer to the serial killer as to why killing is wrong. You may share other values in common that you can appeal to. Or you may be able to change his/her values through some kind of intervention (verbal, punitive, medical…).

I agree entirely, Christopher. I do not mean to suggest that people don't have moral values or make moral judgments, nor am I even objecting that many of these judgments are almost universal among humans, only that there is not an objective "right" answer/value/judgment to have/make.

The serial-killer is well taken care of by common law. We need to invoke morality and ethics to cover those situations where something prevents us from having a law to take care of it. Or where an action might be justified even contrary to accepted law.

Dan you hit the nail on the head with every sentence. The reason why objective accounts of ethics end up with their knickers in a twist over baby torturing etc is that they're basically all crap. Ethics is pretty similar to theology in being an enormous waste of time.

A simple positivist account of ethics as an evolved psychological phenomenon can be internally consistent, and can account for all of the seemingly contradictory aspects of morality that we observe. For example, we can easily dream up evolutionary explanations for why torturing babies seems "more wrong" than torturing adults.

So do I think that the statement "torturing babies is wrong" is false? Not exactly, I just think it expresses something close to "I find torturing babies abhorrent".

Just let go of objective ethics, there's nothing to fear :-) The only consequence will be a palpable sense of the lifting of an intellectual fog...

If torturing one hypothetical baby would allow you to save an imaginary school of 2000 children from certain death then all sound moral theories would say NO?

Some people think that even the asking of such questions damages a person, perhaps for life. Sufficient for today is the evil thereof; let us apply to our problems and Lord have mercy on those who might be confronted with such a choice.

Life is stranger than fiction. Surprisingly, weaker versions of this have indeed happened. Would you kill one fat woman blocking a cave to save 22 adults?

I can only reiterate my comment above. Were I a theist, I would thank Lord that He has saved me (so far) from making such a choice. I have no idea what I would actually do in this situation, and neither have you — unless you have had similar experience, in which case you might have a slight idea, or lots of similar experience, which case I shudder to think about.

PS: being unable to delete comments seriously sucks.

Also sucks:

1. Not being able to preview before I post
2. Not being able to use tags like etc.

What you are talking about is mysticism - the notion that you acquire or relate to a (common) truth by the act itself. Coming to a conclusion via intuition is basically circular, or singular, however one wants to put it: you are developing an idea based on appealing to your own, predetermined ideas.

That's not to say that it is wrong, mind you - I was heavily influenced by Erich Fromm, who explains his own mysticism this way. I think there is a place for subjective bias in securing one's own interests.

But really, there are no "objective" ethical principles. If you are talking about the value of life, for instance, these values often come into conflict. I don't see how anyone deserves to die, ever - the best we can do is try to minimize human death, with a keen eye trained on the effect it will have on the rights of others.

Hmmm. So, in the interest of philosophy, let's torture a baby and see if torturing THAT baby was evil.

Sure, just break out your evilmeter....

I'm pretty sure that if our culture preached that torturing babies was good and not torturing them evil we would still have about the same level of good and evil in society.

Machado de Assis has an interesting story called The Devil's Church in which mankind is taught to do evil. The problem was that humans weren't very good at following the teachings of the satanic church and tended not to cheat, not to steal, not to lie and not to kill nearly as much as they were supposed to. They tended to do what was in their nature to do.

Thank you. Sounds like a must read.

We may be slaves to our passions, but that's doesn't mean our passions latch on to truths.

That is, we probably share a good number of moral intuitions for a variety of biological, cultural, and idiosyncratic reasons, but that lends no support to the truth of moral propositions. Indeed, even asking what it would be for a moral proposition to be true is tricky. With empirical propositions, at least we have the correspondence theory as a starting point (but not necessarily an end point). Are moral propositions supposed to correspond to some part of the world as well? Some part of the world that is separate from the very intuitions we claim as the source of these moral propositions? I find that doubtful, or, at least, some type of explanation is in order.

Unless you're willing to go whole-hog pragmatism (and who would want to do that? hopefully no right-thinking individual), there seems to be a clear difference between empirical and moral (not just normative) facts. But beyond the simple acknowledgement that they are different, we need to be given some account of what moral facts are, how they relate to the world, and how we could possibly know them. We have some sort of account (inadequate, of course, but a start) for empirical facts. Now we need one for moral facts.

And if the project fails, we're back to the unbridgeable is-ought gap: there are no such things as moral facts.

Very good article, I like it, thank you

in fact, I’m pretty sure that if our culture preached that torturing babies was good and not torturing them evil we would still have about the same level of good and evil in society.

"DECISIONS" broadly subsume more narrowly conceived "ethics".
In "decisions", we consider costs
(loss function including interaction with others).

An ETHICAL TOOLBOX gives possible approaches to ethics/decisions.
I prefer this toolbox approach to ethics;
equivalent to considering a ladle, knife, or blender to cook.

We can't all agree to the same ethics
without some sort of moral dictatorship,
as in the six hundred years (1100's to 1800's)
of religious inquisition torture, burning, and quartering.
Such misguided search for moral absolutes destroys morality.
In any society, people's dissimilar ethics reach equilibrium
as mud does in water.

Some of our ethics is embedded in our genetics.
The chimpanzee, on seeing a human reaching for an object,
pushes the object to the human.
Animals raise other species orphans.

Some of our ethics comes from logical constraints
fed through evolution.
If everyone lies too much,
the English language becomes useless.
If we kill ourselves too much,
our society dies and another society arises.

Ethical Society (eg, Northern Virginia Ethical Society in Vienna) has but one motto: "bring out the best in others."
Incidentally, Ethical Society members have a higher proportion
of PhD's than any other religion.

Hunter gatherers lacked taxes,
yet every surviving government has taxes.
So, moral argument against all taxes have underlying errors,
what lawyers call "brain farts."
Of course, we can see error in the other extreme,
where all income goes to taxes; ie, the state owns all.
Since all successful societies have taxes,
all seem to adopt some "utilitarian" ethics,
so put "utilitarianism" in your ethical toolbox.


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