Are there moral facts?

Jimmy asks:

Hey I have some questions regarding ethics. How do you determine what moral properties exist and what the best moral system is? It seems like every property that people refer to is only morally significant for arbitrary reasons. Like why does sentience, autonomy, rationality, etc. matter? It seems like people assume these axioms while just appealing to intuition. How would you be able to assert that sentience is a more valid moral property than say, race? What if someone just has the natural intuition to prefer white people over others? Most people would obviously agree that that’s absurd, as racism is less common than “sentientism”, but how would you subjectively and arbitrarily determine when an intuition is common enough to matter, and for whom does this intuition apply to? Should we only consider the intuitions of humans or men or white people, or even living creatures for that matter?

Also, this would apply to deontology vs consequentialism and utilitarianism. A common objection for the latter two is the utility monster argument. But how would one arbitrarily decide that it is wrong to give all the resources to the utility monster. It is also the case that people seem to be more inclined to give to the utility monster if you switch the situation so that the monster begins at a baseline of massive suffering. More people would support giving resources to the monster if it relieved his suffering greatly at the expense of having slightly less pleasure for the humans. This shows that people arbitrarily determine whether deontology or consequentialism is better. This is why I don’t understand how to prove that one’s moral system is better. It is for these reasons that moral nihilism seems to make more logical sense to me, although personally it obviously sounds absurd to say things like rape, murder, etc. aren’t wrong. I was wondering what your thoughts on all of this is?

Answer from Craig Skinner

One of the longest questions I have answered, but a big one. Actually, you ask nine questions on metaethics and normative ethics. I cant answer them all. I will deal with your overarching concern:

Are there moral facts, or is it all just feeling and opinion?

There is no agreed view. I will sketch the options.

First, we could say there are no moral facts. People continue to speak and act as if there were, praising, blaming, commending, denouncing. If they believe there are moral facts, they are mistaken, and we call this an error theory of morality. If they know there are no moral facts, but just pretend there are, this is moral fictionalism. Or we might think moral utterances just express attitudes (emotivism), or recommendations as to how to act (prescriptivism).

If, on the other hand, we think there are rights and wrongs of matters, that we can make mistakes, and that moral progress can occur, then we must say there are moral facts. Having decided this, we must next decide what kind. The main distinction is between mind-independent and mind-dependent facts.

Mind-independent facts could be transcendental, natural or non-natural.

  1. Transcendental facts are guaranteed by something beyond the everyday world, such as Plato’s Forms (eg of the Good), or God (divine command theory), or  self-evident facts — analogous to mathematical truths (Kant). But, on my view there is no evidence for an “intelligible world” distinct from the “sensible world”, and on the maths analogy, “self-evident” moral facts are axioms not a priori truths.
  2. Natural facts depend on the way the world is. But attempts to bridge the gap from fact to value by appeal to common humanity or evolved adaptive traits still leaves us with with descriptive not normative ethics, explanation not justification, no “ought” from “is”, no moral facts.
  3. Non-natural facts, allegedly, are unanalyzable and have intrinsic value. They are invoked to get over the problems with natural facts. But how they supervene on natural facts, and how we could know about them, are mysteries.

The most plausible view, for me, is that there are mind-dependent moral facts reached by intersubjective agreement. These facts are constructed, typically, not from actual agreement of fickle, real individuals with their personal views, but by postulating “ideal observers” or an agent-neutral “view from nowhere” from whom or from which can emerge a set of principles that no reasonable person could reject or that any fully rational agent could agree. Of course if there is no morality in the input to such an exercise, there is no guarantee of morality in the output — we need contractors/ constructors to be fair, benevolent. But this is no strike against the constructivist approach — all ethical systems are ultimately tested against our moral intuitions, this being equivalent to science’s testing hypotheses against the empirical world.

In conclusion, the case for mind-independent moral facts, whether transcendental, natural or non-natural, is weak. But there is no need to deny that moral facts exist. They can fairly be construed as mind-dependent in terms of constructive intersubjective agreement.

You must make your own choice. By the way, if you find these metaethical debates difficult, join the club, they are difficult. I’ve tried to avoid the technicalities that pervade the literature. And whether you favour a particular metaethical view, or remain open, you still have to deal with normative ethics (which system or combination of systems) and practical ethics (abortion, euthanasia etc.).

Footnotes to Plato: in a manner of speaking

Louise asks:

When Alfred Whitehead famously writes: “the safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”, do you agree and if not why.  How could this be argued / refuted.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Footnotes are comments clarifying or commenting on a literary work. So, if we took Whitehead literally, his statement would be nonsense. Aristotle’s work, for instance, doesnt just clarify/ comment on Plato. He is original, going beyond and disagreeing with Plato on key points, and is at least the equal of Plato as a philosopher. And I doubt if Whitehead thought his own magnum opus, Process and Reality, was a footnote to anybody. So I wouldnt agree with Whitehead if his comment were meant literally.

But he doesnt mean it this way. As he says:

“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them” (Process and Reality: Corrected Edition [1985], ed. Griffin DR & Sherburne DW, p39. Free Press).

So he just means that Plato’s work is so wide-ranging that it deals with practically every topic that philosophers have since written about. Fair enough, who could disagree, but not very profound.

Anaximander’s enigmatic Apeiron

Twaha asks:

Explain why Anaximander thought that the basic stuff of the earth is APEIRON.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Anaximander (born 610 BCE) was one of the Presocratics. They are sometimes called protoscientists because they looked for explanation of the world in terms of natural, not supernatural, causes (mechanism not animism), a conceptual revolution.

They sought a ‘first principle’ as the basis of all things: Thales suggested water, Anaximenes, air and Anaximander, apeiron. Thales’ suggestion was pretty implausible, and may have been prompted by the prominence of water in many ancient mythical world origin views. Anaximenes’ suggestion was an improvement because it included a mechanism, compression and rarefaction, by which air might produce the other elements.

As for Anaximander’s apeiron, the word means ‘infinite’ or ‘indefinite’. It is unclear exactly what he had in mind, but the key point is that, unlike water or air, it was not one of the substances of everyday experience. He thus postulated that all things physical were ultimately explained by a single substratum that escapes our perception. Thus began a viewpoint that characterizes science to this day. Descendants of apeiron include atoms, then electromagnetic fields, then quantum fields and wave functions, and today’s favourites, strings, loops, and information. They are imperceptibles, postulated to account coherently for the complexity of the world, the very role and function Anaximander assigned to the apeiron.

In addition, he held that the Earth isnt resting on something (a giant turtle for instance) to stop it falling, but is a giant stone floating in space and doesnt ‘fall’ because there is no reason for it to prefer one rather than another direction to move — an early example of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. He also held that change through time is due to universal necessary laws. He can fairly be viewed as the greatest of the protoscientists.

Philosophy and science

Lasmii asks:

I am a literature student. I am deeply interested in philosophy and science. Who are the philosophers who probed into scientific ideas?

Answer by Craig Skinner

In the ancient world there was philosophy. Then Christianity appropriated it to formulate intellectually appealing doctrine (theology). Throughout, systematic enquiry into the natural world was called natural philosophy. A ‘science’ was simply a body of knowledge or area of enquiry, such as military strategy or geometry. It was only with the application of mathematics, and the distinctive methodology of conjecture and testing with experiment, beginning with Galileo and Newton, that natural philosophy became science as we now know it, and physics, chemistry, geology, biology, psychology, and other fields of study, successively budded off from philosophy.

I will deal briefly with three things:

1. Great philosophers who were also scientists.

2. Great philosophers of science.

3. Great or well-known scientists who show interest in philosophy.

(1) The presocratics are sometimes called protoscientists because they were the first to seek explanation of events by natural rather than supernatural causes (mechanism rather than agency). Perhaps the most notable is Anaximander (born 610 BCE). He held that the Earth was a stone floating in space and didnt ‘fall’ because there was no reason for it to prefer one rather than another direction to move. He also held that change through time was due to universal necessary laws. A sparkling account of his contribution and its significance is given by one of our best scientist-writers (Rovelli C (2007) Anaximander, Westholme.

The greatest scientist among great philosophers is Aristotle. His physics is often derided as nonsense these days. Of course it is long superseded. But it held the stage for 2000 years because, given the accepted cosmology of his day — an Earth-centred system of concentric spheres with circular motion in the heavens and linear motion on Earth — it was a coherent system of fluid mechanics, and was only replaced when Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton came up with something better. Newton, in turn, was replaced by Einstein, and now, because Einstein’s theory of gravity doesnt work below the Planck scale, we await the new theory of quantum gravity which will replace it. Aristotle’s field work in marine biology is world-class. Darwin admired it, commenting on the illustrious biologists, Linnaeus and Cuvier, that ‘they were mere schoolboys to old Aristotle’. Aristotle knew that individuals varied within a species, that some variations were heritable, and that some variations aided survival. But he didnt make the conceptual leap to evolution by natural selection, maybe because of his view that there were fixed natural kinds. Mind you, nobody else came up with the idea either, although Hume was close, till the 19th century. Philosophy texts tend to skim over Aristotle’s biology (although they deal with its metaphysical underpinnings, and these are also very much alive and well in modern scientific practice). An outstanding account is given in Leroi AM (2014) The Lagoon: How Aristotle invented Science, Bloomsbury.

Descartes was a great mathematician, inventing analytic geometry, and we still refer to the x-y axes on which we plot our graphs and functions, as Cartesian co-ordinates. But he was also a scientist. His vortex theory of the formation and motion of the solar system was mainstream till succeeded by Newton’ laws of motion and gravity. He also studied animal anatomy and physiology by dissection.

Berkeley made original contributions to the science of optics, again mostly skimmed in philosophy texts.

(2) Once science got going, philosophers turned to systematic analysis of scientific method and practice, including confirmation, refutation, theory choice, underdetermination, versimilitude, realism, reduction, distinction from pseudoscience, and much else. Among the great 20th century philosophers of science are Popper (distinguishing science from pseudoscience), Kuhn (science proceeds by long stretches of within-paradigm routine work punctuated by paradigm shifts), Feyerabend (there is no single scientific method, only a hotchpotch), Duhem, Lakatos, Hempel, Laudan, Cartwright and others. All have written important works, and well, but, perhaps, they are mostly too heavy-duty for the general reader.

(3) Scientists with an interest in philosophy are a mixed bag, their philosophy ranging across the whole spectrum of the good, the bad and the ugly. Einstein’s contributions are mostly aphoristic, but astute. Eddington’s 1927 Gifford lectures, published as The Nature of the Physical World are worth a read. A brilliant account of the science and philosophy of time, making clear difficult ideas which many other authors leave opaque, is Rovelli C (2018) The Order of Time, Allen Lane. As for Dawkins and Hawking, considerable scientists and good writers both, their philosophical contributions are best passed over.

I have only skimmed the surface of a vast subject, and havent even touched on the disputed question of the distinction, if any, between science and philosophy, but I hope my remarks are of some help.

Animals as persons

Clara asks:

Can animals be considered persons?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Arguably, in some cases, yes.

Locke famously distinguishes between a person and a human being (a ‘man’ in his terminology). Thus a person is:

‘A thinking intelligent being, that has reason, and can consider it self as it self, the same thinking thing, in different times and places, which it does only by that consciousness, which is inseparable from thinking’ (Locke An Essay Concerning Human Understanding , 2nd ed, 1694, 27.9).

This distinction raises the possibility that there might be:

(a) human beings that are not persons.

(b) persons that are not human beings.

As regards (a), fertilized eggs, embryos, foetuses and adults in a persistently vegetative state all fit the bill — eggs, embryos and foetuses are only potential persons, PVS-adults are former persons — but they are all human beings.

As regards (b), aliens, computers and animals are all candidates.

Science fiction is rife with alien persons, from little green men to Mr Spock, and they may well exist for real elsewhere in our universe.

As regards computers as persons, again this is a science fiction staple, but it may become a fact in the not too distant future.

And now to animals. Are there non-human animals that are not just conscious (like my cat and dog for instance) but are self-conscious and thus might be seen as persons? Yes, experiments suggest this in chimps and in some other species. A chimp, for instance,
recognizes its mirror image as itself — if the experimenter has daubed bright paint on the chimp’s forehead, on looking in the mirror the chimp will realize he has paint on his own forehead and will wipe it off. The celebrated philosopher Peter Singer notoriously suggests that adult chimps, and other relevant species, have a greater claim to be regarded as persons than newborn humans.

Pointless suffering cant be justified

Martin asks:

A question about suffering.

A person is enduring extreme suffering. During that suffering they die. Did the suffering happen or matter?

Alternately, death ‘wipes the slate clean’ and is a release so you don’t have to worry about peoples last moments

I’ve witnessed traumatic things and I don’t know how to rationalise other’s suffering.

Answer by Craig Skinner

I saw a fair bit of suffering in 40 years as a medical doctor.

We’re not talking about voluntary suffering for good ends, like visits to the dentist, but pointless suffering.

Yes, it happens. The world is full of it. Probably suffering outweighs joy. But even if it doesnt, there is too much of it. The alternative is no world at all or one without sentient beings. And the case for that is convincingly made by Benatar in Better never to have been (OUP 2009).

And suffering matters. Yes, death ends a creature’s sufferings, but this doesnt mean it didnt happen. It will forever be the case that it did, and was bad.

I dont think you can justify or rationalize it. And this is the case whether you are religious or not. If you are, you might hold that an ordered world containing free beings, a world with both necessity and free will in it, inevitably includes innocent suffering, and at least some of it is deserved, and also that God is a fellow-sufferer (incarnate as Jesus). But even if all this were true, and also that those who suffered got a cushy afterlife, this still wouldnt justify it. Some say it helps us grow. And no doubt struggling with adversity can sometimes do this, but most suffering mars or even ruins a life.

So the best we can do is to try to prevent it, to relieve it if we can, and to comfort if we can do neither. Those who deal with it daily in a professional capacity can only cope if the have a degree of detachment from it, but this need not, and should not, amount to lack of fellow feeling.

Descartes and the Causal Principle: talking relics

Linda asks:

“Now it is indeed evident by the light of nature that there must be at least as much (reality) in the efficient and total cause as there is in the effect of that same cause. For whence, I ask, could an effect get its reality, if not from its cause? And how could the cause give the reality to the effect, unless it, also, possessed that reality? Hence it follows that something cannot come into being from out of nothing, and also that what is more perfect (that is, what contains in itself more reality) cannot come into being from what is less perfect.”

What is Descartes arguing in the text above? In other words, what does this quote mean? I am having a hard time understanding his point.

Answer by Craig Skinner

You are having a hard time because Descartes is talking relics. Of medieval scholastic philosophy that is.

We read Descartes in modern english translations, which has the effect of making him seem more modern than, say, Locke or Hume whom we read in their original texts. Try reading Molyneux’s (1680) english translation of Meditations and you will see this. But, although determined to shake off scholasticism and “build anew from the foundations”, Descartes was steeped in it, and the passage you quote is an example.

It occurs in M3 where Descartes sets out his causal argument for the existence of God. This relies on the scholastic “Causal Principle” which roughly says that the cause must be greater (or at least as great) as the effect, never the reverse. So Descartes will go on to argue that since he has a clear and distinct idea of a perfect, infinite being (God), such an idea with perfect and infinite content could only be produced by a cause with perfect and infinite reality (not puny finite me), namely God, so God exists. Actually the details are more subtle and hard to grasp: the existence of something (its formal reality) is distinguished from its content (objective reality), and reality comes in degrees (infinite substance, finite substance, modification of a substance), so that the argument strictly is that the degree of formal reality of the cause must be at least as great as the objective reality of the effect.

We can reject his argument on a number of grounds: deny I have any idea of an infinite being; agree I have this idea but say that it’s my own, a reasonable extrapolation from thinking of something getting bigger and bigger without limit; deny the causal principle (no evidence/argument given for it).

And so, a reasonable simplified paraphrase of the passage is:

“It stands to reason that a cause must be at least as great as its effect. Otherwise how could it produce the effect. It follows that we cant get something from nothing, or the perfect from the imperfect”

Finally, whilst some scholastic ideas do show unnecessary nitpicking and logic-chopping, and can be quietly forgotten, I dont share Descartes’ wholesale rejection. On the contrary, the Aristotelian/scholastic metaphysics framework of substance/form, essence/attributes, actual/potential, and efficient/final causes finds increasing acceptance in modern metaphysics, biology, cosmology and philosophy of mind. Here Descartes sets us off on the wrong foot (again, his dualism is another example). But he is still a great philosopher, great mathematician, considerable scientist, and one of my favourites.