Background Probability

The Agnostic Popular Front has moved to its new home at Skeptic Ink, and will henceforth be known as Background Probability. Despite the relocation and rebranding, we will continue to spew the same low-fidelity high-quality bullshit that you've come to expect.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Ought/Is & Subject/Object distinctions

Can we move from an "is" to an "ought" - from some set of objective truths to some set of subjective reasons to act in a given way? In my view, theists and atheists are equally over the barrel on such questions.

Theists (especially traditionalists) often claim that divine commands are objective in the sense that they do not vary from person to person or by time and place, but this sort of objectivity does not help one get to an ought without adding in certain assumptions such as one ought to please the gods for reasons X, Y, Z. Inevitably, such reasons must be rooted in the subjective desires of particular moral subjects in order to provide people with a good reason to act as they ought. This might help explain why so many mythologies have created incredibly paradisaical and/or shockingly horrific settings for life after death. Ordinary earthly carrots and sticks just weren't enough to make divine commands relevant in the here and now.

Atheists (particularly moralistic humanists) also have to make unjustifiable assumptions about empathy or compassion and have faith that other people are motivated by the same concerns that they are. Since private charities aren't exactly raking it in - compared to, say, Hollywood studios - this is not exactly a winning bet. Probably people are more concerned with their own happiness than with an idealized and universal sense of empathy for fellow humans.

Ultimately, there is no way to answer the question "Why ought I act or refrain from acting in this way?" without referring back to one's own subjective desires. I sincerely hope that your own desires are guided by empathy and compassion, but if they aren't, well, about all I can do is have you shot.

12 comments:

Paul C said...

Atheists (particularly moralistic humanists) also have to make unjustifiable assumptions about empathy or compassion and have faith that other people are motivated by the same concerns that they are.

First, you have not demonstrated that the assumptions are unjustifiable, or even identified what those assumptions are. Second, it doesn't require "faith" to tell whether people are motivated by similar concerns; you can simply look at their behaviour. Third, it's not about the "same concerns that they [have]" as individuals, but the same concerns that they have as humans - and, strangely enough, most humans share quite similar concerns. The problems mainly come when those concerns clash (or are perceived to clash).

Since private charities aren't exactly raking it in - compared to, say, Hollywood studios - this is not exactly a winning bet.

Why do you think compassion or empathy can or should be measured in terms of the amount of money given to private charities? Millions of people volunteer in their communities, or do other forms of unpaid work which does not appear in formal financial statistics; you are unlikely to find many people offering to help out film studios in a similar way.

Probably people are more concerned with their own happiness than with an idealized and universal sense of empathy for fellow humans.

You also are missing the point about empathy, it seems. You either have it or you don't; people aren't "concerned with" empathy and it would be irrelevant if they were. You've also failed to notice that many people also derive happiness through acting on their empathy towards others; and if those actions are purely local they're no less admirable than more "universal" responses.

p.s. If there's no way to answer a question - such as "Why ought I act or refrain from acting in this way?" - then it's usually a sign that the question is nonsense to begin with.

p.p.s. And I still don't see what people mean by "ought".

agnostiChicagOkie said...

You ask for particular unjustifiable assumptions, how about the affirmations of humanism?

We respect the right to privacy. Mature adults should be allowed to fulfill their aspirations, to express their sexual preferences, to exercise reproductive freedom, to have access to comprehensive and informed health-care, and to die with dignity.

Whatever people mean by "ought" it seems the same as "should" in the above affirmation.

This particular affirmation also assumes that moral rights exist in some meaningful sense and ought to be respected. But why should people be allowed to do such things, on humanist assumptions about the world? Is there something about our "shared human concerns" that should motivate me to tolerate abortion and sodomy, whenever I am not personally invested in such behaviors?

agnostiChicagOkie said...

I still don't see what people mean by "ought".

It seems to me more or less an expression of an unfulfilled wish. If one says "Mature adults ought to be allowed to bugger each other silly" one really means, "I wish the world were such that people could do such things without being punished."

For theists, the expression might be "God wants a world in which..."

Either way, one gets back to subjective preferences as to how one wants people to behave.

Paul C said...

You ask for particular unjustifiable assumptions, how about the affirmations of humanism?

I fail to see how the assumption you cite is related to the discussion about empathy / compassion in the context of moral behaviour.

Whatever people mean by "ought" it seems the same as "should" in the above affirmation.

So you define "should" as an if > then logical statement, which seems reasonable enough but doesn't appear to relate to the specifically moral component.

In addition, you seem to be talking about the language used around rights. Rights are generally not considered unjustifiable assumptions, as far as I know.

Paul C said...

Why do you think compassion or empathy can or should be measured in terms of the amount of money given to private charities?

Because (1) it is quantifiable and (2) truly altruistic, unlike volunteering to improve your own community, which is neither.

It is also possible to quantify time volunteered outside of private structures; but neither measure is a useful comparison for the money spent at the cinema, surely?

Also, why is it "truly altruistic" to give to a private charity rather than volunteering to improve your own community?

Paul C said...

It seems to me more or less an expression of an unfulfilled wish. If one says "Mature adults ought to be allowed to bugger each other silly" one really means, "I wish the world were such that people could do such things without being punished."

As you say, it gets us back to the personal preference thing again, which is where I agree with you. However that doesn't appear to be how others use the word, such as our good theist friends over there. This suggests that we're talking a different language.

agnostiChicagOkie said...

...neither measure is a useful comparison for the money spent at the cinema, surely? Are you saying time ≠ money? Surely not!

Rhology said...

I sincerely hope that your own desires are guided by empathy and compassion, but if they aren't, well, about all I can do is have you shot.

I couldn't agree with this last statement more.
You have no reason to tell anyone or to hope that empathy and compassion are the guiding principles for human behavior beyond what YOU want. Much like you prefer chocolate ice cream to strawberry ice cream. You use the same criteria for making that choice and making the choice whether to rape a child or hug her.

And we see how this atheistic morality you're espousing leads to might makes "right". You don't like the way I do things? Die.
The Christian system is the same, only God exercises good power, holy power, wise power. As opposed to human power which is usually none of those things.

agnostiChicagOkie said...

You have no reason to tell anyone ... that empathy and compassion are the guiding principles for human behavior beyond what YOU want.

Whereas you have no reason to tell anyone what the guiding principles for human behavior are except a collection of ancient tales about what a particular Canaanite deity supposedly wants. Even assuming these myths are true, are the ill-defined and much contended subjective moral preferences of an immaterial magical mind somehow more motivating than one's own internal sense of empathy? Somehow, I doubt it.

Much like you prefer chocolate ice cream to strawberry ice cream.

More like how we all prefer eating chocolate ice-cream to eating dog shit - however much they may look alike when carefully sculpted atop a waffle cone. This comparison (while a bit disgusting) is vastly more apt as an analogy to those moral principles and ethical intuitions which are so widely shared among human beings that it is difficult to find a tribe or culture which lacks them, e.g. Commandments VI through IX from the Second Tablet of the Decalogue.

You use the same criteria for making that choice and making the choice whether to rape a child or hug her.

Is this really a choice which you find yourself having to make? It never even occurs to me to rape her. (You think I'm the scary one here!?!)

You don't like the way I do things? Die.

What do you suggest we do with sociopaths who (to borrow your example) rape little girls for fun? Pay good money to feed them?

Even where lesser crimes are at hand, there is always the ultimate threat of force which is necessary for a society to enforce its own norms. If you don't believe that, try getting away next time you're pulled over.

agnostiChicagOkie said...

God exercises good power, holy power, wise power. Is it considered good and wise that some fraction of humanity will be tormented forevermore? If so, I suppose we have very different ideas of goodness and wisdom.

Rhology said...

you have no reason to tell anyone what the guiding principles for human behavior are except a collection of ancient tales...

Let's say for the sake of argument that my position is true.
Then I have every reason to tell anyone what the guiding principles, etc, are. All of that person's eternal existence hinges on that very fact.

Now, let's say for the sake of argument that YOUR position is true.
What reason would you have to tell anyone that empathy and compassion are the guiding principles for human behavior beyond what YOU want?


are the ill-defined and much contended subjective moral preferences of an immaterial magical mind somehow more motivating than one's own internal sense of empathy?

That's pretty irrelevant IMHO. Proof is not the same as persuasion.
B/c you can't motivate me to become an atheist, do you therefore believe that atheism is w/o merit?

More like how we all prefer eating chocolate ice-cream to eating dog...

So somehow following whatever moral empathic sense we might have is... what? Nourishing? Pleasing to the senses?
People have different senses of what nourishes them and what is pleasant. Tim McV thought it would be pleasant to blow up some children. What do you do with him?
I find following Jesus Christ and preaching that He is the only way to heaven nourishing and pleasant. Surely I'm not morally right to do so?

so widely shared

1) I don't grant that the other cmdmts aren't shared widely as well. People know that God exists and that they have broken His law.
2) Theism is also widely shared, but you don't follow THAT. Why the inconsistency?


Is this really a choice which you find yourself having to make?

I don't, but others do. Please be so kind as to answer the question.

(You think I'm the scary one here!?!)

Smokescreen. I explained why you're the scary one here. You're appealing to your own incredulity.


What do you suggest we do with sociopaths who (to borrow your example) rape little girls for fun? Pay good money to feed them?

If I were an atheist, it would appear (since you have thus far refused to provide an argument to the contrary) that it's just as rationally justifiable to execute them as to provide them more little girls to exercise their desires upon. Please explain why that's wrong, if it is indeed wrong on your worldview.

there is always the ultimate threat of force which is necessary for a society to enforce its own norms.

And my point is that this is the only thing to which you can appeal - if a gov't that happens to agree mostly with your morés be in power. If not, the Right has changed; if you don't change with them, suddenly YOU are in the wrong.


Is it considered good and wise that some fraction of humanity will be tormented forevermore? If so, I suppose we have very different ideas of goodness and wisdom.

1) Yes, it is good and wise. And I have some objective standard by which to judge that.
2) Besides, Hell is the fulfillment of sinful humanity's desires to be far from God. What, you want to be in Heaven, in Christ's bright glory forever?
3) So far you haven't given me any reason to think you could judge anythg "good" or "bad". As if it's my position's fault that I prefer choc ice cream and you prefer dog poo.

Peace,
Rhology

agnostiChicagOkie said...

I have every reason to tell anyone what the guiding principles, etc.

Name one that is not rooted in your own sense of empathy.

All of that person's eternal existence hinges on that very fact.

And...? You must personally empathize with that person in order to care about their "eternal existence" and how that works out for them. As such, you are simply proving the point that moral action is rooted in subjective desires, especially the desire to see those with whom one personally empathizes avoid harm.

What reason would you have to tell anyone that empathy and compassion are the guiding principles for human behavior beyond what YOU want?

The very same reason you gave just above, I empathize with the individual in question and all of that person's [temporal] existence hinges upon which moral principles they adopt.

Please be so kind as to answer the question.

Why should anyone attempt to reason with people who lack empathy so much as to see no difference between hugging and raping? About all you can do with such folks is make a few credible threats.

...[without gods] it's just as rationally justifiable to execute them as to provide them more little girls to exercise their desires upon.

If you found out all gods are myths tomorrow morning, would you stop caring about what sort of country your daughter grows up in? If not, what more reason do you need?

More to come later, I've got to go do fatherly stuff now. Out of empathy, mostly.