Thursday, 22 March 2012

Objective Morality

I am in one of those states of depression where my brain is completely and utterly fried. It is an extreme effort to keep typing this, since not only am I mentally fatigued, but no important or valuable insights come to me, and I can no longer keep talking in a consistent manner. So instead of giving you a post that might save you a little bit from boredom, I'll simply be reposting an important (well, to me) comment I made recently. Narcissistic, yes, but writing a post on this would just be a repeat of what I've already said.
Now the question becomes: why should we care about this thing you call morality?
Oh simply because the entire human race follows it. As individuals we don't have to care, though most of us will because it's instinctual.
As I see it, following your moral intuitions is just the simplest thing to do unless you're a sociopath. It takes effort NOT to think and act the way you are biologically programmed, and in the case of morality, it probably isn't worth it in the end as it is very, very hard to do without causing yourself a lot of suffering (I've tried).

There is nothing in this universe that screams morality except the human mind (and possibly alien minds). I guess what it all boils down to is: what is the easiest option, and hence the option that is followed through with most of the time. And that option is to follow one's instincts. Our instincts are to go away from pain and to be moral - not only does not having a morality violate the second drive, but it violates the first as well, because in the process of eliminating your own morality you are causing yourself pain.

Should we really follow our drives? The thing is, in this meaningless universe, it doesn't matter if we do or if we don't, but we probably will anyway, because we have very little control over ourselves. Not having a morality is a hard thing to accomplish and most people will not accomplish it. Hence, morality is relevant because most people think using it as a bias.

So my answer is: we don't have to care about it, but we will anyway.

Why is antinatalism relevant then? Because humans care about other humans, and the ultimate form of care is not creating more humans. You have a morality and you have the urge to become a better person (probably). And upon working things out with logic, it turns out antinatalism is a valid conclusion of this morality. Hence from now on anyone who is antinatalist cabn [sic] derive pleasure (if not anhedonic as I am) from spreading the word, not having children and converting others. Also, once one updates their morality, they can't downgrade it afterwards, so antinatalists are stuck that way.

Antinatalism is another case of lack of control. There is no reason to care about anyone, including ourselves. But at the same time because our moralities are so strong, or because we do not realise what I have been writing here, we cannot help but act on our antinatalist beliefs. And again, we can't get rid of them, either.

I hope I haven't lost you as a commenter after this: after a lot of thinking (from around 5 years ago or so), I've come to this conclusion. The world is only horrible if you have your morality-hat on. The world is actually a meaningless void with no emotion attached to it whatsoever, because suffering and emotion and morality are all inside human heads and not in the universe. Even if we apply solipsism to things, I still have no reason to follow my own emotions or morality. I only do it because going against biological drives is hard, and hence there are many blocks against me doing it to any success."

Anyone have any ideas how to correct me on this one? I would love it quite a lot if morality WERE based on something more than not being able to do anything but have our emotions tied up with it, but I really can't find any reason why that shouldn't be the case. Regardless, I'm still an antinatalist. My conscience won't let me have kids, and it will probably result in me trying to convert a lot more people into not having kids. I am also of the opinion that what has happened to me is so horrible that it should never happen to anyone, ever again, so it's not like being something of a moral nihilist makes changes anything about my beliefs - because I couldn't change them if I tried (they are firmly implanted with logic).

Also sorry Karl, haven't replied to your email yet because of the same problem I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Trying to, though.


  1. I've never been overly fond of the term 'objective' as it applies to values; aesthetic, ethical or otherwise. That's not to say that such things can't be described as 'real' mind states, correlates, judgments measured against this or that standard(s), etc...but the confusion lies in jumping from describing, say, an (almost) universal moral inclination, for instance, to prescribing said inclination as a 'should'. Here's the difference as I see it: gravity is an 'objective' fact, a natural law that as far as we know cannot be deviated from. On the other hand, even though any particular moral standard is equally factual in a descriptive sense, that's not quite the same thing, is it? I HAVE to obey gravity, whether I like it or not. But morality (along with the applied ethics emanating from any particular moral system, of course)needs an added persuasive element that goes beyond mere descriptive justification, usually derived from the aggregate of cultural sensibilities, and often shaped by the institutions calling the shots.

    Of course, this won't do for most of us. We need solid hooks to hang our ideological hats on, and so we invent gods or Platonic templates or some other form of transcendental justifications to try and make our 'right' THE 'right'. But then someone always comes along and asks us why he should see things our way, and we're left stymied. Or worse, we find ourselves appealing to logical fallacies like arguments from consensus, which puts antinatalism itself in a fairly precarious position, wouldn't you say? Even so-called universal human proclivities aren't really that universal when you come right down to it, and even if there's one exception, how do you convince him to feel the same way as the rest of the herd, if he simply doesn't?

    Ultimately, I've come to the same conclusion that you have, I think. I appeal to a shared sense of empathy. If it's there, I'll go on to the consistency issue, trying to explain that bringing life into the world runs directly afoul of a caring person's own moral compass. But if the required level of empathy isn't there? Well, I suppose you can make an effort to raise that level as best you can... but argue whether your moral standard is 'objectively right'? Nah. You might as well try and argue why your favorite color is the BEST color, or that your baseball team is God's baseball team.

  2. This is my comment from the same debate over on Jim's blog:

    "I've never been convinced by any attempt to establish "objective ethics". Even trying to establish morality on the grounds of self-interest along the lines of "If others suffer less, they're less likely to harm me" tend to crash when countered with the idea that self-interest could equally be served by simply eliminating other people. As Jim says, it really does appear to boil down to empathy. Either you have it or you don't. This may lead ultimately to a general perspective that is nihilistic, but that's just how things are, alas. Even someone like Adam Smith in his "Theory of the Moral Sentiments" and David Hume could only ultimately appeal to empathy as a ground of morality. And sadly, there are many people who appear to be endowed with very little of it or, worse, none at all."

    As Jim points out, something like gravity is true objectively, or to put in another way it is "mind-independent". There is no way morality can be said to be "mind-independent". From what I can see, various moral codes tend to be an amalgamation of fuzzy notions of self-interest, no harm principles, religious doctrines and natural empathy. Depending on the shifting nature of these factors we tend to get different moral codes at different times and places. Anyway, sorry for the platitudes.

  3. In the original discussion (look at it, I'm paraphrasing and taking out of context), I asked "why should we care about human intuitions?", to which estnihil replied something I interpreted as "because that's what morality is", to which I replied "why should we care about morality?". I felt he had done no more than overload the term "morality".

    To be fair, I wasn't actually trying to deny "objective" "morality" when I asked estnihil that question. I effectively have my own flavor of "objective" "morality" that I'm trying to spread. Now, I'm putting "objective" and "morality" in scare quotes because those are two scary words. I don't want to use them because they have too many meanings, only a small portion of which apply to what I'm talking about.

    In terms of Jim's "favorite color" analogy, I propose that if we can only show one and the same color to some audience, then it should be a mixture of all the favorite colors of the individual members of the audience. I don't understand why this is such a controversial thing to say.

    Is the controversy in assuming that everyone has a favorite color, or a preference order over colors, or a degree to which they like each color? It can't be -- those who don't have this couldn't possibly care what color you show them.

    Is the controversy in assuming that everyone's preferences matter? Apparently for some it is. Apparently there is some list of "thou shalts" floating around in Heaven that is more important than the feelings of real individual sentient creatures.

    Is the controversy in implying that there is no roomy set of colors that it's "justified" to show the audience, a set within which you can freely move around at your own whim, just like the right to swing your fist ends at the other guy's nose? There is usually exactly one color that is the right mix; moving around would violate more preferences than strictly necessary.

    I don't know where else the controversy could be.

    Leaving aside the issues of practicality, can we agree that what I propose is "what should be done", regardless of whether you're willing to call it "objective" and/or "morality"? Regardless of whether we're informed, motivated, able, allowed, etc, to do that which "should be done" by this standard?

    (If you agree with all I said, but despite that are left wondering whether this is "really what morality is", then you're looking for God.)

  4. Sorry if I have in some way misunderstood what you were saying Tim, I was just trying to make the point that no such objective morality exists (which my misunderstanding comment shows), and there is nothing to base morality off of except the fact that we can't help but have a morality - a morality based off of our intuitions, and logic to fill in the gaps might I add (sorry! Had to add that haha).

  5. By the way, as you (estnihil) point out, trying to actually maximally fulfill everyone's preferences will cause you to suffer. But since "everyone" includes yourself, this is taken into account. It could be that we can only maximize preference fulfillment[1] by suffering all the time. That would suck, but it wouldn't detract from the truth of what I'm saying.

    Also, I want to comment on some of the things said in this comment thread so far by Jim and Karl.

    Jim mentions empathy. Empathy seems to extend your concern for your own welfare to that of other individuals. This frames it as something positive, but it really isn't. If you were unbiased and you somehow came to the conclusion that welfare matters, then that means all sentient beings' welfare matters.[2] What I mean to say here is that empathy is not some special human moral intuition. If you were unbiased, then acquiring empathy wouldn't extend your concern, it would narrow your concern to only yourself and some select group of people (e.g., people who support the same football team).

    As Karl says, notions like "if others suffer less, they're less likely to harm me" that are intended to make selfishness work, don't/won't. The fact that A implies B doesn't imply that B implies A is one thing. The other is that they are trying to justify B by saying that it satisfies A which they thereby admit is what really matters. Apart from all that, as I've explained above, empathy really isn't based on intuition; it merely lines up with it to some extent.

    Finally, after rereading my previous comment I realize I come across as annoyed at best. I didn't intend this and have no hard feelings toward anyone around here. Occasionally I'm snarky, but hey...

    [1] I'm not particularly into preference utilitarianism, I'm just using convenient words here.
    [2] regardless of whether you know who is sentient and who isn't

  6. Haha, I didn't refresh before posting that follow-up to my previous comment, so I didn't see your comment in between, estnihil. But I think it lines up pretty well, even pre-emptively denying that my notion of "morality" is based on intuition ;-)

  7. To tangle things up a bit further, 'intuition' is sometimes used to imply one is 'intuiting' an 'objective' state of affairs, while at other times it seems to be a reiterative embossment of our own, 'subjective' 'feelings'. All these scary marks seem to indicate that this terminology is fraught with hazards :)