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Subjective morality — wow, why am I even trying..?

May 21, 2009

For a while, I had been having a go around with Randal Rauser at Christian post (I would link to our comment discussions, but he seems to have deleted them and then posted his articles anew with no comments, but I guess that was to be predicted, after Hemant Mehta sic’d his minions on the site).

HANLON’S RAZOR EDIT: so, it seems like it wasn’t a conspiracy or anything. The site just crashed deleting all the comments (and I guess posting accounts?)

Anyway, while I think there was a lot of misunderstanding, a lot of words put in others’ mouths, etc., I didn’t see a point to getting angry and quarrelsome (and I’ll have to write about that some day…dear ex-Mormons or atheists in general, do we realize that getting mad and making fools of ourselves online hurt our cause, no matter if we’ve been slighted and think we deserve better?)…so I wanted to try to engage on a friendly level.

One of the nascent issues Rauser had with atheism was of its seeming inability to provide objective value. As he wrote:

But like the “Don’t pay for sixty days” ads for that new Samsung TV, atheism also has a cost that eventually comes due. And you start paying it once you begin to realize that, according to atheism, we came from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing. For the shallow atheist, that “for nothing” promises to liberate (no obligations!). But the thoughtful atheist understands that “for nothing” means that there is no meaning or purpose to life. And the repercussions of that are staggering indeed.

So staggering is the cost that many atheists cannot admit that there is no meaning to life, and so they engage in the futile and self-deceptive attempt to project meaning onto the universe.

And I mean…around that snippet, there was a lot of perturbing information here (for example, his “benefits” of atheism? Having freer Sundays, not being obligated to donate to charity, etc….and afterward, he implies that “thoughtful atheism” lead to suicidal tendencies)…and so I can see why he was lambasted severely…but cutting out some of the misinformed comments, I think he had made a *genuine* point.

I just happen to think his point doesn’t matter.

Now, while I am sure there will be many other atheists who try to account for objective morality without supernatural forces (while Rauser, I suppose, thinks that naturalism cannot account for things like this)…I took a different direction from the beginning. If we have a pervading nihilism, so what? (then again, Kullervo disagrees…)

I can fully acknowledge a world where there’s no meaning and purpose to life, and I can fully acknowledge we are engaging in a futile and self-deceptive attempt to project meaning onto the universe…*to me,* it sounds so poetic, Nietzschean, and beautiful.

But no, this does not inspire me to party with bears.

Rather, I think this isn’t really problematic. For anyone. Supposing nihilism is true, then this self-deceptive attempt to project meaning onto the universe is something everyone does, regardless of if they believe they do or not.

Rauser takes this position where if he believes and says that his morality/worldview is backed by a god and is objective, then somehow, it actually is. But my point to Rauser throughout many conversations was to suggest that just saying it doesn’t make it so — in fact, Rauser could be doing his very own projection of meaning onto the universe that he claims is ineffective — and he does it so well, he trusts it!

So then, we have a few positions we can take. 1) We can project our subjective and personal meanings onto the universe and believe they are objectively so, 2) we can project our subjectives and personal meanings onto the universe, fighting for their meanings while recognizing that they are objectively meaningless, or 3) we can realize the futility, and then become so discouraged that we don’t even fight for our personal meanings.

I think that positions 1 and 3 both have flaws. 3 is what people familiarly discuss as that relativist position, “Well, if you believe my morals and your morals are just the same, then you can’t try to fight for your morals or presume they are “correct.”” Or 1, “My morals must be better than yours, because (I believe) mine have an objective founding (even if that founding comes from my moral worldview…)”

2 seems to be a noble struggle, and even though I’m not reading Nietzsche too carefully (to avoid the crazy), I can appreciate that kind of struggle. The goal is to move every day, seeing this overwhelming nihilism and understanding it to be objectively true, but then forgetting about objectives and forging eternally forward with subjective values. I don’t try to lose sight of the objective futility of my task, but instead I both embrace it and disregard it.

And I think this is what everyone does. What if, let’s say…Flying Spaghetti Monster is OBJECTIVELY true. You can actually exchange any worldview here, but let’s just use FSM, but the critical part is…we have to just accept it as being objectively true. When we do so, we are in a similar situation as now. Everyone believes in different things (most of which are quite contrary to Pastafarianism)…and they believe so because of subjective validations and subjective experiences (one of these days, remind me to talk about John Loftus’s Outsider Test for Faith…). We are so muddled by conflicting values and interpretations that we can’t tell that Pastafarianism is objectively correct, but in many ways, it doesn’t matter. Christians will push onward fervently believing they are objectively true, and so will Muslims, Hindus, etc., Each group will effectively not care about their objective falsity, perhaps partially because they don’t know, but more importantly, because the objective fact doesn’t matter to their subjective experience.

Why the title? Because I know I’m dragging myself into something I most definitely have no authority to be dragging myself into. Shoddy armchair philosophy + WordPress: making everyone an self-proclaimed expert one post at a time!

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24 Comments
  1. I have little to contribute to this topic other than to say that I think comment deleting is incredibly lame. If you can’t handle feedback and criticism, don’t open comments on your post. It’s that simple.

  2. generally, I take the same stance, but I also try to have some compassion for people…just a *smidge*.

    EDIT: OK, so not quite so mischievous as thought.

    It was a site crash that took down all the comments and old commenter accounts.

  3. It seems to me you either believe that that which currently “is” continues, or you don’t. Neither one is really provable, so you just pick the one you want and run with it.

    For myself, I reject the void. I don’t believe in “nothing.” And it doesn’t matter if it’s Calvinist or an atheist talking about “nothing,” it is not a concept I accept.

    I exist. There is something here beyond a collection of proteins, synapses, nerves, and sinews.

    It came from somewhere, and it is going somewhere. To me, the idea of the void makes no sense.

  4. If you stick a bar of metal through someone’s brain in a tragic accident, then their personality shifts dramatically. If someone has a stroke that wipes out half of their brain…then amazingly, their other half can do surprisingly well in some cases to take over the work, BUT once again, the personality of a person shifts dramatically. So it seems at least plausible that what we call the essence of a person — their personality, their being, their “soul” — is very connected to the thing we call their brain. We don’t have all the details figured out, but details already available suggest the two already work together.

    So…what if you ax the brain completely? Where does the rest of that stuff go?

    I’d like to point out again the way you refer to it in the beginning.

    “It seems to me you either believe…or you don’t.”

    Yes, belief or nonbelief are the two options we have at the table. But the question is…if neither are really provable, then why belief? Nonbelief is the basic, in my mind. Note, this nonbelief different from an assertion. “I don’t believe this continues” is nonbelief. “I believe this does not continue,” is another assertion. But since you recognize that this is between belief and nonbelief, and not between two beliefs, then I think the burdens are different.

    But it doesn’t matter. I think you believe because you have some reason to. It may be highly personal; it may be highly subjective, but you don’t just believe for nothing. You believe for some reason that I cannot grasp and do not have. And because I don’t have this reason, or whatever this reason is doesn’t compel me, I don’t believe. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have a problem with the idea of the void.

  5. Couple quick points:

    You write: “while I am sure there will be many other atheists who try to account for objective morality without supernatural forces (while Rauser, I suppose, thinks that naturalism cannot account for things like this)…” There is no doubt that by conventional definition (metaphysical) naturalism cannot account for objective morality. But an atheist could indeed recognize objective meaning by abandoning naturalism and embracing something like an impersonal, platonic absolute good that just exists out there as a brute fact. The only problem is, having gone that far, why not go all the way baby?

    You are not inclined to dance with bears. I am heartened. Really I am. But Andrew, I also think that it is an objective good that you choose not to find your purpose in bear-dancing, or in genocide, or in the finer pursuits of a Jeffrey Dahmer. You think it is merely your preference, as if you prefer a fine steak for dinner while Jeffrey Dahmer happens to prefer a human liver. And I think this is just crazy.
    Well I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one.

  6. I am still confused as to why even metaphysical naturalism cannot account for objective morality. But perhaps it is because I personally don’t play around seriously with the idea of objective morality enough to work it out. It seems to me that there is no need to make a jump to the supernatural. If objective morality is like an impersonal, platonic, absolute good that just exists out there as a brute fact, then I don’t see how there is no need to “go all the way” to supernaturalism.

    For example, the laws of physics just exist out here like brute facts, yet it doesn’t follow that to suppose this is so encourages us to “go all the way.” So, I would imagine an atheist as saying…why not look at morality as something like a physical law rather than something supernatural?

    I guess we do have to agree to disagree on the objective vs. subjective. I mean, I think there’s a lot where we actually match. For example, I’m not going to lay down and acquiesce to Jeffrey Dahmer’s preference of human liver and soylent green, but I can’t shake the idea that this really tells more about ME and MY biases rather than of anything objective, because someone else could look at some of my habits and find something also positive objectionable about it. In the end, if there is an objective right or wrong about it, it won’t matter, because whoever has more influence and power will hold sway anyway.

  7. It was a site crash that took down all the comments and old commenter accounts.

    Ah, okay. Site crashes are understandable. Comment-deleting (which I have seen some bloggers do when they get rolled by their commentators) is not.

  8. Jack,

    What about comment deleting just when I think a guy is obnoxious and I’m sick of looking at his crap posts cluttering an otherwise nice discussion?

  9. That’s when banning and disemvoweling comes in handy. Or you could just call on a friend who is also a professional troll and get her to troll him off the blog.

    Are you talking about someone we know?

  10. Naw.

    I’m actually pretty liberal about comment allowance. Very rarely would I actually ban or delete someone who wasn’t spamming.

    But I totally support Rusty’s motto of blog administration over at Nine Moons:

    “if I don’t like what you say, I’ll ban you.”

    Much easier than having a freaking legal debate every time you want to boot an idiot.

  11. Disemvoweling is way more fun than banning. Especially if the first comment that they make after the disemvowel has been set is a really long, time-consuming one. Then you get to laugh about how much time they spent composing that comment only to have it come out without vowels.

    And now I’d better stop jacking Andrew’s thread before he bans us. Or worse, disemvowels us.

  12. I’m liking this disemvowel concept. how do i learn to do this? Is there a plugin for it?

    also, about getting counter-troll professionals. Note to self: don’t troll on the clobberblog, or I might get counter-trolled off the premises.

  13. I built my disemvoweler out of the plugin code found here and uploaded it to my blog with an FTP. I didn’t think WordPress.com blogs had FTP access, is there a way for them to have normal plugin installation access? If so, there is a normal disemvowel plugin here, but I think it only lets you disemvowel comments one at a time by clicking on them. Not quite as fun, but still better than removing vowels from comments manually.

  14. yeah, I guess I run into wordpress.com limitations here.

  15. One problem with nihilism is that we longer have grounds to judge the behavior of others beyond “your behavior displeases me.”

    The immediate reaction to this might be “good-we shouldn’t judge other peoples’ behavior!” But that’s crap. We all evaluate the behavior of other people, and I think most of us have at least an intuitive sense that we should.

    If morality is completely subjective, then what’s wrong with genocide? Torture? Child rape? Where do we get off condemning perpetrators when there’s nothing wring with what they do other than offending our personal preferences or aesthetics?

  16. I disagree, Kullervo.

    We still have grounds to judge the behaviors of others. It’s just we recognize that these grounds are altogether subjective too. This makes us have to come up with more creative and collaborative ways to convince other people (subjectively, of course) to agree with our way of doing things. But, if you’ll recognize, this is what ANYONE has to do.

    For example, if I want to convince someone that we shouldn’t commit genocide, I can’t appeal to some universal source of morality (but if you’ll notice, I couldn’t do that even if I believed in some universal source of morality — because there are others who do not believe in that source of morality or believe in a different, contradictory source of morality). Instead, I either have to persuade others through subjective common ground (hey, we both happen to subjectively value life…or maybe we don’t) that a path of no genocide is subjectively better than a path of genocide. What if we don’t have common ground? Do we have to lie down like dogs? No, not at all. Then, however, we simply have to amass a coalition and then use force to try to propagate our ideas. Perhaps this second idea makes you feel uncomfortable…but perhaps it should. The popularity of an idea does not indicate universal truth — rather, it simply indicates its pragmatic value or its power.

    If you believe genocide is *objectively* wrong…this is really STILL just your *subjective* experience. Your subjective value system just leads you to accept the reasoning that your system is objective. But someone who supports genocide might be similarly deluded into thinking that genocide is objectively right. In either case, the stances don’t tell us anything about genocide, but rather about the biases of you or the genocidal supporter.

    What’s wrong with genocide, torture, and child rape is not anything objective (or rather, if it is objective, we don’t know what and we don’t care what). Rather, we get off condemning perpetrators because WE AS A SOCIETY have come together and decided that society runs a lot smoother if we do not do some of these things. YET, even with these very examples, you can see how people can subjectively come together to decide different things. As we have learned in recent months, Americans subjectively aren’t fully in agreement if torture is bad or not — so we don’t see universal condemnation of waterboarding…and even if we did see universal condemnation, this wouldn’t mean that torture was objectively wrong…it just means that our society would have collectively and subjectively decided it was wrong. Of course, as you can see, other societies do not come to anywhere near the conclusions we do.

  17. So, why should the fact that we as a society pretty much all dislike murder be a sufficient reason to imprison murderers? How are we justified in enforcing our collective preferences? To get there we have to have democracy or collectivism as a value, and there we have the snag: what justifies democracy/collectivism? The fact that we all want it? That’s circular.

  18. why should our collective dislike of murder *not* be a sufficient reason? What are the murderers going to do about it? (Keep in mind that if/when you try to answer this, you are only trying to drum up subjective values that you may feel we can find common ground on…you may then conflate this agreement to universality).

    You assume an objectivity (which is actually a subjective desire for objectivity) that allows you to ask these questions, but I think you’ll find that when you don’t assume this objectivity (or when you realize that it itself is subjective), these questions don’t make sense. What does “justification” matter? What does the “circularity” matter?

    Your very desire for justification only matters because you subjectively want it. It *is* also circular, but that doesn’t stop you, me, or anyone else.

  19. Fair enough. But then we’re left with coercion and force, and nothing else. Very Hobbesian. And if that’s really the way the world is, then there’s not a lot we can do about it–the fact that I don’t like it doesn’t make it other than it is.

    At the same time, I think there’s something to the fact that most people seem to have at least an intuition that the world is not just about force and coercion. Maybe we’re all delusional, sure, but I’m not inclined to dismiss overwhelming intuitive evidence just because I can’t put my finger on what is being intuited.

  20. We are left with one other thing though…and that is pragmatic value. (But then again, sometimes I wonder, what is often more pragmatic than force itself?)

    When we see things come into play that gain following without obvious violence, then I think what convinces people in lieu of violence is pragmatism. Quite simply…what has a tendency of working? You’ll be able to convince people of ideas that work — regardless of if they are right or wrong — much easier than you’ll be able to convince people of any old arbitrary idea. And I mean, this just matters if you can *convince* people — sometimes, you can have ideas that are harmful for the long-run or harmful for the short-run or harmful for any number of subjective measures, but as long as you can convince people that on some other measure, it’ll be a net positive, you’ve got them.

    So subjective morality isn’t necessarily arbitrary. Throughout years and years, we’ve had to hammer out what ‘works’ and what doesn’t. Obviously, we aren’t at the end of the road, because we still have brave new worlds of moral territory out there that people furiously disagree with.

    So, if the world is above force and coercion, I’m afraid that doesn’t make the case that there’s anything objective about it. It just means that subjectively, we can be swayed without force and coercion. Which makes a whole lot of sense with daily lived experience. So such intuition need not point to anything special.

  21. 1. Pragmatism and violence are not mutually exclusive by any means.

    2. Force is not the same thing as coercion. A world without coercion would basically be impossible. Coercion is reasons to do things imposed externally. Group consensus is coercive. Social approbation is coercive.

  22. So such intuition need not point to anything special.

    Certainly not. But I also think you’re being unduly hasty in handwaving it away.

  23. 1) Of course not.

    2) Of course they are different. But then again, isn’t it you who is trying to present the case that the world is not “just about force and coercion.” So, to make coercion a necessary aspect of the world seems strange.

    I don’t think I’m being too hasty…but then again, perhaps that’s why I seem hasty in handwaving it, so to speak.

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