This morning we are going to have a little discussion about moral epistemology. A few days ago I noted that on an externalist epistemology “you can know p without being able to show that p.” In other words, you can know that a proposition is true without being able to demonstrate the way you know it is true. (This isn’t true about every proposition but only some. The difference between the two is, roughly speaking, the difference between a properly basic belief and one that is derived from properly basic beliefs.) This cashes out into moral epistemology with the conclusion that you can know a given behavior is moral or immoral without being able to show how you know.
Jerry Rivard was incredulous to the suggestion that there are certain moral facts we can know in this way:
“What does “know” mean to you? Are you saying that you “know” that pre-marital sex is morally wrong? If so, why is it less legitimate for me to say that I “know” it’s not (other than the fact that I “know” I’d be lying)?”
What is the objection here? I’m not sure. Perhaps Jerry is arguing like this:
(1) If externalism is true then two people can say they know contradictory statements to be true.
(2) Two people cannot say they know contradictory statements to be true.
(3) Therefore externalism is not true.
Clearly this won’t work since two people can say they know contradictory statements to be true and it has nothing to do with externalism. After all, Jerry and I are doing that right now. And even if Jerry demurs and says he doesn’t actually know anything in epistemology but only believes, there are many epistemologists who will disagree and say they do know things contradictory to my position. And that has nothing to do with externalism since the truth of externalism is one of the very points of contention.
Perhaps Jerry’s reasoning is more like this:
(1) If we accept externalism to be true then we will undermine moral argument.
(2) We cannot (or ought not) undermine moral argument.
(3) Therefore, we cannot (or ought not) accept externalism to be true.
But a commitment to externalism doesn’t undermine argument, moral or otherwise unless it is an externalism of the type that says both (a) my theory of externalism could not be false and (b) my moral perception is infallible. But one need not accept (a) and (b). A person can say that they believe externalism to be true. They could even say they know externalism to be true. And at the same time they could recognize that theories (including externalism) come and go. A Neo-Darwinian is surely justified in saying she knows that common descent is true even as she says she can conceive that it could turn out to be false.
“If you don’t “know” that pre-marital sex is morally wrong, then you believe it. That’s fine, but how is it objective?”
We’ve already settled this. I can know a particular moral action is wrong while also knowing that it could conceivably be shown not to be objectively wrong. As for the last statement, I think Jerry might be confusing objectivity about facts with a particular kind of knowledge as if knowing a fact is what makes it objective. That isn’t correct. There is an objective fact about whether it rained on Cascade Mountain on April 1, 432 BC. This fact is objective even if no human being can know whether it rained or not. It remains objective on the day when ancient First Nations writings are discovered that seem to describe the weather on Cascade Mountain on April 1, 432 BC as rainy. It remains objective when those writings are confirmed and people come to know that it rained on that day.
Now we’re getting into the nitty gritty (not the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, just the nitty gritty). Jerry quotes me:
“A cannibal asks you “What’s wrong with eating humans?” “It hurts them!” you reply incredulously. “So?” comes the puzzled response. Does your inability to persuade the cannibal constitute a defeater to your belief that it is wrong to eat human beings? Of course not.”
Yea and Amen!
Fortunately Jerry responds:
“I agree completely.”
Unfortunately Jerry keeps responding…
“I want to make two things clear. First, I don’t believe that actions are objectively right or wrong. I do believe there are a few moral principles that might be objective, like “it’s wrong to cause unnecessary suffering”. But actions are situational. There’s a big difference between killing a human being for food and eating a human being who has already died in an extreme survival situation where there’s no other food available. So I’m coming from that perspective. If someone says “X is wrong”, I ask why, and all they’ve got is “it just is” I will be neither impressed nor persuaded.”
Here I’ll just note that Jerry does believe in objective moral facts despite the disagreement of others. We may disagree on the range of facts that are objective, but we both recognize objective moral facts.
“Second, I get it that one does not need to be convinced of an objective moral principle in order for it to be objective. That goes to the very definition of objective, doesn’t it? But if something is objectively correct, then I would expect there to be some way to demonstrate it, or at least an argument that it is indeed objective. Otherwise, I see no way to arbitrate between the differing opinions of 7 billion people.”
Ahh, this sheds light on Jerry’s earlier quip about the wrongness of pre-marital sex. Apparently he doesn’t believe it is possible to “demonstrate it”. I wonder the following: (a) why does he think objective facts must be demonstrable? (b) what does he even mean by objective (and demonstrable) anyway?
Let’s take a breath and consider a putative objective fact. It is a putative fact that Jerry himself just endorsed so we’ll call it “Jerry’s fact”:
Jerry’s fact: “If something is objectively correct, then I would expect there to be some way to demonstrate it.”
I assume Jerry’s fact is not merely a statement of personal psychology but that it is a statement of what we ought to believe in which case:
Jerry’s fact revised: “If something is objectively correct, then there should be some way to demonstrate it.”
Hmmm, is this supposed to be objectively correct? Then let’s leave it to Jerry to demonstrate his fact.
“The cannibal and I have a difference of opinion. I think that his “right” to eat human flesh is easily trumped by his dinner’s right to go on living. He doesn’t see it that way. I would challenge him to explain why he is more important than the person he wants to eat. I would ask him whether it would be morally acceptable for another cannibal to eat him. In terms of convincing him, I would probably get nowhere (except perhaps on a spit over an open fire). But I believe I can make an objective case, and that he can’t. His case is inherently subjective.”
This is a rhetorical move worthy of John Loftus: when you come to a disagreement with another person and your arguments fail to persuade them, declare them “subjective” and yourself “objective”. We may not like cannibals, but that doesn’t make this a legitimate rhetorical move.
Let me explain what I think is going on in the case of Jerry vs. the cannibal. These two gentlemen disagree on some fundamental moral principles, e.g. the principle of universal human rights and the principle that human meat ought not form part of a human diet when there are other things to eat. I think Jerry is right, but that doesn’t mean he is more “objective”. (It appears that Jerry is using the terms objective/subjective in two different ways. In the first way they describe the ontological status of facts, objective facts obtaining irrespective of the mental dispositions of minds, subjective facts obtaining only relative to the mental dispositions of minds. In the second way objective/subjective seem to apply to a particular kind of reasoning about facts where objective is reasonable and clear and not driven by emotion while subjective is none of these things.)
Jerry then quotes me:
“You are asking for a meta-ethical account of the ontological ground of moral values and obligations. I believe that is grounded across possible worlds in the morally perfect creator of all things. His perfect nature existing across possible worlds is the metaphysical ground of his commands to us in the actual world.”
Let me pause for a moment to push the Applause button.
*clap clap clap clap clap*
Jerry, however, is not clapping, in flagrant disregard for the sign. (I dare say, such callous disregard for the rule of law is a moral issue.) Instead he replies cooly:
“Thanks for that.
I’ve asked this many times before and never gotten an answer, but I’ll try again. If God is perfectly moral, then there must be a moral standard to which he adheres. If that standard is external to God, where did it come from, and what makes it moral? If the standard is created by God, then could he have created any standard and it still would have been moral? If not, answer the first question again.”
Socrates interjects from the peanut gallery:
“Ahem, please acknowledge your sources Jerry.”
“Socrates, don’t be so thin-skinned. You don’t need to document things that are widely known, and everybody knows you came up with the ‘Euthyphro Dilemma’. As for Jerry’s question, I answered it in the very statement I made which he quoted above: ‘His perfect nature existing across possible worlds is the metaphysical ground of his commands to us in the actual world.’ Look at it this way Jerry. Consider a moral fact like this: “It is wrong to extract pleasure from the suffering of other sentient beings simpliciter.” I trust we agree that this is true. Now is it contingently true or necessarily true? I hope you agree that it is necessarily true. But then what is it that makes it necessarily true? It isn’t true as a matter of definition, i.e. it isn’t an analytic truth. Nor is it logically necessary in the same way as the old standby “Nothing can be red and green all over”. One viable explanation for this conundrum, the one I propose, is that it is true in virtue of being willed true in every possible world by an agent. That’s my rough explanation to account for the (necessary) truth of that proposition. Now what is yours and why should I think yours is better?”
Next Jerry shifts from moral ontology back to moral epistemology:
“For the sake of the next question, let’s assume your “meta-ethical account of the ontological ground of moral values and obligations” is correct. How do you get from there to “it’s morally wrong for two consenting adults to have sex outside of a ratified covenantal framework”? (And don’t forget about that ‘keep the young virgins for yourselves’ thing – it isn’t even consensual!)”
Jerry, how do we learn things about the world generally? We immediately sense perceive some of them. We rationally intuit some. We learn some by testimony and retain them all by memory. Through these and many other ways we gain knowledge about the world. The same is true of the moral dimension of the universe. Some truths we immediately perceive, others we learn through testimony, and all of them we retain by memory.
From this point Jerry shifts back to moral epistemology starting with a quote from moi:
“What’s your meta-ethical ground of moral values and obligations?”
“My moral ground is a kind of egalitarian-based libertarianism. Everyone has an equal right to life, liberty, and property. No one has the right to usurp the rights of others, even (or perhaps especially) government. This stems from the proposition that each person owns his own life.”
Okay Jerry, do you believe that or know it? Why do you believe it (or think you know it)? And how do you aim to persuade others who don’t agree apart from labelling them “subjective”?