Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Intellectual Bankruptcy of Moral Relativism: A Case Study



Readers here may not know, and may be glad that they do not know, that I have written My Little Pony fan fiction, and that I am mildly internet-famous (and even a little internet-infamous) for one particular story, A Mighty Demon Slayer Grooms Some Ponies, which is loosely based on the psychological fad of animal therapy.  Basically, the story crosses over the original My Little Pony with the current generation, depicting the star of the old show from the '80s as having grown into a bitter, foul-mouthed teenager suffering from PTSD and a serious case of daddy issues, who works through her problems by braiding the manes of the current ponies and having copious flashbacks.

It's good times.

But never mind that.  Over the course of the story, the villain, who's rather intellectual, or at least she thinks so, rapidly descends through the course of Western philosophy from the Modern period to today, finally becoming a moral relativist and a totalitarian.  Some readers complained about this, though most who did basically said that they agreed with one of the stages on the villain's philosophical degeneration and didn't like what came after.  I always replied by explaining that I simply didn't make any of this up, and that, like it or not, these are the conclusions real people drew from what went before.

Anyway, the combox on the story eventually turned into a fierce argument.  I deleted the argument off the story, but preserved it in a blog post, which I reproduce here, including all repetitions, though I took the liberty of correcting a typo or two.

On the whole, I think I acquitted myself well and think this is a debate worth reading.  Unfortunately, it references the story in question (I believe it is understandable in spite of that), and at the end I lost my patience when my interlocutor informed me that humans are incapable of rational thought.  That's when I told her to take a hike:  I don't argue with people who don't believe in arguments.

Here is the reproduced blog post in full:

Those among people generally who hold the view that moral values and prescriptive judgments are subjective and relative are not acquainted with the philosophical mistakes that underlie their view.  These mistakes have filtered down to them and have penetrated their minds without their being explicitly aware of them.
—Mortimer J. Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes
The seventh chapter of A Mighty Demon Slayer Grooms Some Ponies orbits around a particular philosophical error, or, rather, collection of errors.  Perhaps inevitably, a couple of fellows, one of them polite and one of them not so much, showed up to argue for Wind Whistler's position.  Since I cannot resist a debate over ethics, I was lured in.  I was not at my best, partly because I have had sixteen hours of sleep in the last eighty hours, partly because I let my temper get the best of me, and partly because I grew frustrated, since I can make better arguments for moral relativism than these two can.
Certain obvious errors get my dander up, especially blatant self-contradiction.  In this case, I was confronted with two people who, one after another, made arguments leading to the conclusion that there are no true prescriptive statements, and then they followed that up by making prescriptive statements like gangbusters.
I do not wish the comment boxes on my stories to be debate threads, but I do not wish simply to delete the hard work of these two.  So I have moved the entire conversation, complete and uncensored, including my embarrassing moments, here.  As a combox thread, it is of course repetitive, but I have elected not to edit it.
But first—

tl;dr:  The most interesting part of this, to my mind, is the argument over my attempt to refute the basic premise of moral relativism.  I write it thusly:  "Moral relativism is an absolute statement about ethics that there are no absolute statement about ethics."  Kris Overstreet replies that there is a difference between prescriptive statements and descriptive statements about ethics.
I first attempted to dodge this, but then thought better of it, so I edited my argument to accept the refutation (I edited a little late, so he ended up replying to the earlier version).  In one way, the refutation pleased me, because I appreciate and approve proper and fine distinction.
Yet it nagged me.  I had that sense of suspicion you get when you have erred, so I reconsidered.  I believe his refutation is incorrect, but I also believe that, in my original statement, I did not phrase myself in the strongest possible way.
Ethical statements are by nature prescriptive:  they are by definition statements of what a man ought to do.  Even ethical principles, phrased as descriptive statements, are implicitly prescriptive.  This attribute appears to extend to descriptive statements about how ethics is derived:  so, as a Natural Lawyer, I argue that ethical prescriptions are derived from final causes.  But that implies the prescription, "One ought to derive ethical prescriptions from final causes."
Indeed, it appears that all statements of truth, whether descriptive or prescriptive, imply the duty to assent, since the intellect is ordered toward knowledge, and since knowledge is only real knowledge if it is true.  No field of inquiry, either this or any other, whether it be mathematics or physics or metaphysics or any field of knowledge a man might explore, is possible without implicit recognition of the duty to truth; if there were no such duty, honest exploration of any topic would be impossible, for a man would not be beholden to argue in good faith, or to refrain from falsifying his experiments, or to present factual information.  All knowledge is founded on truth.
So this is one irreducible moral principle:  every man has a duty to truth.  Deontologically, he must tell the truth and assent to truth.  In virtue, he must develop the habit of honesty.
Therefore, moral relativism, when asserted as true, is presented with the implicit prescription that every man has a duty to apprehend and assent to its truth.  But moral relativism teaches that there are no prescriptions binding on every man.  So moral relativism, if true, is false.
This, I admit, I cannot sum up as pithily as in my earlier formulation.


Humanist
rejecting objective morality in favour of what she regarded as rational and necessary
I don't think this is where she went wrong, because I mean... There isn't such a thing as objective morality. So she got that right, it's just that the conclusions she drew from that realization were... not of the good.
I think that the reasons for her mental downfall were:
1. She failed to realize that even though there is no such thing as objective morality it doesn't mean that subjective morality doesn't exist and isn't important.
2. She seemed to have developed a distinct lack of empathy.
3. She made the mistake of thinking that the ends justify the means, when in reality there are no ends, only means. (or, in the words of Dr. Manhattan: "In the end? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends")
4. She couldn't even stay true to her own new realization/decision, something which Megan almost made her realize but unfortunately Wind Whistler had become a bit too stubborn and irrational by that point. To be more specific:
“But if right and wrong are just personal tastes . . . then why follow logic if you don’t like what it says?  What if it goes against your tastes?  Why do you have to be logical?”
Wind Whistler had realized that there was no objective right or wrong, but then seemingly formulated her own new system of right and wrong and treated that as objective and refused to go against it even when she didn't agree with it. That is, she didn't really want to do some of the things she was doing but she felt that she had to for some reason... which is kinda screwy thinking since she had just recently concluded that she had no reason to follow an established morality system if she disagreed with it.
Unfortunately Megan's other attempt at convincing Wind Whistler wasn't nearly as effective:
“Maybe . . . maybe the rules of how we should live are built in somehow?  Maybe you can’t see them with your eyes, but what if they’re really there anyway, something you can’t see—?”
Megan's argument kinda sucked here and didn't really have a chance of convincing Wind Whistler because she attacked the wrong part of Wind Whistler's argument (i.e. she attacked the part of Wind Whistler's argument that was actually correct).
Even if she had continued on with the first argument I doubt it would have succeeded because by that point Wind Whistler had (ironically) become far too irrational to reason with.
Answer to me:
Are you referring to the rationalist view?
In the empiricist view, one can only claim to have knowledge when one has a true belief based on empirical evidence. This stands in contrast to the rationalist view under which reason or reflection alone is considered to be evidence for the truth or falsity of some propositions

D. G. D. Davidson
Nobody, not even Wind Whistler, nor you, can consistently maintain the position that there is no objective morality.  Observe:
There isn't such a thing as objective morality. So she got that right, it's just that the conclusions she drew from that realization were... not of the good.
Can you spot the contradiction?  When you state that her conclusions were not "of the good," you implicitly acknowledge some standard of good and bad against which her conclusions can be measured.
You do it again here:
She seemed to have developed a distinct lack of empathy.
If you acknowledge empathy as a good, you imply that there is a standard of good.  If there is no standard, then you have no basis for calling empathy good or bad.
That is WInd Whistler's point:  once an objective standard is removed, nothing remains except whim, nothing except naked will.
She made the mistake of thinking that the ends justify the means, when in reality there are no ends, only means.
Means to what?  You cannot have means without ends.  You cannot have anything without ends.  Any movement at all implies some end toward which a thing is moving.  Even if the thing in question is an inanimate object moving under inertia from here to there, "there" is still the end toward which it moving, and if it were not, the moving thing would move randomly or not at all, and there could be no such thing as velocity.
(or, in the words of Dr. Manhattan: "In the end? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends")
You have here changed the definition of "end."  In your first sentence, "end" means that toward which something is directed.  In the quotation, "end" means cessation or completion.
Megan's argument kinda sucked here and didn't really have a chance of convincing Wind Whistler because she attacked the wrong part of Wind Whistler's argument (i.e. she attacked the part of Wind Whistler's argument that was actually correct).
The link between "is" and "ought," between descriptive and prescriptive, is final cause, but Megan cannot articulate this because she is a thirteen-year-old with no philosophical training.  None of the ponies can articulate it, which is why most of them fall back on "feeling" as an explanation of ethics.  Also, I was beholden to this because "feeling" is consistently treated as the basis of right conduct in G1.  As I've described elsewhere, G4 is basically Aristotelian in its ethics, and G1 is basically Humean.
Are you referring to the rationalist view?
I am referring to the fact that the study of ethics is not a study of empirical phenomena.  Nor is the study of epistemology, metaphysics, psychology, mathematics, economics, or any field that is not physical science.
I am neither a Rationalist nor an Empiricist.  I am an Aristotelian-Thomist.  All knowledge begins in the senses, but that doesn't mean it stops there.

Humanist
Nobody, not even Wind Whistler, nor you, can consistently maintain the position that there is no objective morality.
But I can... because there isn't.
Can you spot the contradiction?  When you state that her conclusions were not "of the good," you implicitly acknowledge some standard of good and bad against which her conclusions can be measured.
I used my own personal morality, which is the only thing that I can use. I can't use an underlying objective moral system because one doesn't exist
If you acknowledge empathy as a good, you imply that there is a standard of good.  If there is no standard, then you have no basis for calling empathy good or bad
I consider empathy to be good, I'm not saying that it is objectively good, because there is no such thing as objective morality. Morality isn't inherent to the universe, it was created by humans and differs from person to person and society to society. What one society considers "good" another might consider "evil". Neither are right or wrong, because the judgement is entirely subjective. There is no objective morality to compare these things to.
The universe itself doesn't care about good or evil. The universe can't care, it is incapable of caring because it isn't sapient or even sentient. Good and evil are concepts that we have created. That doesn't mean that morality isn't important, only that there is no such thing as an underlying objective morality for the universe. It is entirely up to us as a species to decide what is good and what is evil.
Ethics is based on pyschology, which is based on our evolutionary development as a species (and is ultimately the result of chemical interactions in our brain, so I suppose that could be considered empirical if you look closely enough).
Means to what?  You cannot have means without ends.  You cannot have anything without ends.  Any movement at all implies some end toward which a thing is moving.  Even if the thing in question is an inanimate object moving under inertia from here to there, "there" is still the end toward which it moving, and if it were not, the moving thing would move randomly or not at all, and there could be no such thing as velocity.
I am referring to "end" as the final result, the conclusion of a course of action or the result of a decision, but in reality there is no "end" to anything we do. Our actions have consequences, and those consequences have consequences, and so on.
You have here changed the definition of "end."  In your first sentence, "end" means that toward which something is directed.  In the quotation, "end" means cessation or completion.
The definition I was using remained the same, as I have noted above. Again, the point being made is "nothing ever ends". Some people think that the ends justify the means, but every action we take is itself an end, and every "end" isn't truly the end of anything. In Watchmen Veidt asks Dr. Manhattan if he did the right thing "in the end", but there isn't an end, not really. He imagined an end point to his actions, but things don't actually stop there. Life goes on.
I am referring to the fact that the study of ethics is not a study of empirical phenomena.  Nor is the study of epistemology, metaphysics, psychology, mathematics, economics, or any field that is not physical science.
I'd argue that all fields of knowledge are derived from and can be traced to physical science. Psychology is due to evolutionary development and is ultimately the result of the electrochemical interactions in our brains. Those interactions are physical phenomena which can be studied.
Ethics => Sociology => Pyschology => Biology => Chemistry => Physics
(and it all can be explained/modeled by mathematics!)
Relevant xkcd:
Admittedly, I am a naturalist so my thoughts are likely to contradict yours on a fundamental level.

D. G. D. Davidson
I used my own personal morality, which is the only thing that I can use.
If that is the case, then your statement that Wind Whistler's decisions and actions were not good is of no more import than if you had stated that you prefer vanilla ice cream to waffles.  If you reduce ethics to personal taste, you have no basis for saying that Wind Whistler does wrong when she seeks to establish a military dictatorship and invade a peaceful neighboring nation.
Let us say for the sake of argument that I crept into your house and murdered your wife and children in their beds.  Would you object?  Why or why not?  What if I told you that my personal value system permits me to kill your family?  Would you still object?  Why or why not?
Surely you see where this is going.  If you deny the existence of objective ethics independent of personal opinion, you reduce all human interactions touching on moral matters to attempts by men to assert their wills over one another.  Relativism is, in the end, the view that might makes right, or at least that might can kick all competing ideas of rightness off the playing field.
What one society considers "good" another might consider "evil".
The alleged differences in ethics across cultures have been much exaggerated.  See the appendix to Lewis'sAbolition of Man for a run-down of the re-occurrence of several ethical prescriptions across several cultures.  Even if it were true, however, that conceptions of right and wrong varied vastly from place to place, this would not actually make your case; my assertion is that morality is objective, not that it is popular.
Ethics is based on pyschology, which is based on our evolutionary development as a species (and is ultimately the result of chemical interactions in our brain, so I suppose that could be considered empirical if you look closely enough).
Wind Whistler explodes this in the bedroom scene.  You could describe brain chemicals all day long, and you would not derive from them a single prescriptive statement.  You would not even derive from them a single thought, because thoughts are mental, that is, immaterial.  If you think about ponies, then when I, acting on my personal value system that says it's okay, cut your head open, a lot of little miniature ponies are not going to fall out of your brain.  Perhaps if I have super vision of some sort, I will be able to see your neurons firing, but I will not be able to see the thoughts that the firing neurons represent.
Physical substances are described in terms of such measurements as length, mass, temperature, candlepower, current, duration, and moles of substance.  Thoughts, particularly thoughts about ethics, are described in terms of right or wrong, true or untrue, fair or foul, noble or ignoble.  The second list is not reducible to the first, and nobody has succeeded in reducing it.  The claim that all is physical is a metaphysical claim supported by neither evidence nor argument.  You have also contradicted yourself:  by saying everything is physical, you have claimed that there are no abstractions, yet you have also said that everything can be described in terms of mathematics, which is an abstract field.
The definition I was using remained the same, as I have noted above.
You have committed the same error again, but did not realize it.  Let me try this with a different word:  a goal is not the same thing as a cessation.  The statement, "there is no 'end' to anything we do" is unrelated to the statement, "life goes on."
If there is no end, that is, goal, to anything we do, then how is it that you sat down at your keyboard and produced intelligible words?  Did you intend to produce intelligible words, or did you simply bang on the keyboard and produce words and sentences by random chance?  If you intended to produce words, then you had an intention, that is, a goal, that is, an end.  Do you understand what I mean by end?  I do not mean the moment you finished typing, or the moment you die, or the moment at the end of time when the universe suffers heat death.  I mean your goal in responding to my comment with your own.
The universe itself doesn't care about good or evil.
Nobody, to my knowledge, makes the opposite claim, except perhaps some pantheists.

Humanist
Let us say for the sake of argument that I crept into your house and murdered your wife and children in their beds.  Would you object?  Why or why not?
Yes, because under my moral system I consider that to be wrong.
What if I told you that my personal value system permits me to kill your family?  Would you still object?  Why or why not?
Yes, because under my moral system I consider that to be wrong.
It wouldn't be objectively wrong, just wrong in my eyes (and the eyes of most humans). Morality isn't inherent to the universe, it isn't a fundamental force or anything like that, it is merely a creation of humans and human societies.
Surely you see where this is going.  If you deny the existence of objective ethics independent of personal opinion, you reduce all human interactions touching on moral matters to attempts by men to assert their wills over one another.
Well, yes.
Relativism is, in the end, the view that might makes right, or at least that might can kick all competing ideas of rightness off the playing field.
I suppose that one could ultimately say that might makes right in the sense that what large and powerful groups consider to be "right" generally becomes accepted as right (either by force of arms or by force of culture or other means).
a run-down of the re-occurrence of several ethical prescriptions across several cultures.
Naturally, certain ethical prescriptions would re-occur across cultures for several reasons:
1. Cultures that have a common origin are likely to share these.
2. Cultures that have come into contact with and interacted with each other in the past are likely to change as a result of this contact and incorporate some of each others' moral systems into their own.
3. Even if the two cultures never came into contact with each other they may very well develop the same or similar ethical prescriptions due to similar evolutionary pressures.
Even if it were true, however, that conceptions of right and wrong varied vastly from place to place, this would not actually make your case; my assertion is that morality is objective, not that it is popular.
Where are you getting this objective morality from, though? It isn't something inherent to the universe like the laws of physics, it is entirely a human creation. The conceptions of right and wrong vary from place to place because here is no "true" morality, just different moral systems created by different groups of people.
You could describe brain chemicals all day long, and you would not derive from them a single prescriptive statement.  You would not even derive from them a single thought, because thoughts are mental, that is, immaterial.
All thoughts are the result of electrochemical processes in the brain. The brain is effectively an enormously complex computer, but if you have sufficient understanding of the processes I see no reason why you could not derive thoughts from observing said processes. Again, in my view nothing is truly immaterial. The physical universe is all that is.
Perhaps if I have super vision of some sort, I will be able to see your neurons firing, but I will not be able to see the thoughts that the firing neurons represent.
You would if you had sufficient understanding of the processes. Again, compare it to a computer: You can look inside a computer and see the circuitry and the electricity going through it an such but just by looking you cannot understand what computations and such it is actually conducting... Unless you had a sufficient understanding of the workings of computer circuitry (and, presumably, some ability to slow down time as well as a perfect memory and such so that you could actually observe all the different processes occurring within the computer). Our thoughts are no more immaterial than a computer's.
Thoughts, particularly thoughts about ethics, are described in terms of right or wrong, true or untrue, fair or foul, noble or ignoble.  The second list is not reducible to the first
Again, all thought is reducible to electrochemical interactions in the brain. Just as all computational simulations and calculations and models and such are reducible to electrical impulses in the circuitry of a computer.
nobody has succeeded in reducing it
Not yet, anyway. Once we have a sufficient understanding of neural processes, though I see no reason why this could not be achieved.
The claim that all is physical is a metaphysical claim supported by neither evidence nor argument
I should think that "all is physical" would be the default position in such matters because the physical is the only thing that we actually have proof exists. We have no proof that anything non-physical exists, so why would believing in the existence of the non-physical be the default position?
You have also contradicted yourself:  by saying everything is physical, you have claimed that there are no abstractions, yet you have also said that everything can be described in terms of mathematics, which is an abstract field.
Mathematics are constructs of the human mind (which again, is effectively just a really complex computer), models created to try to describe the universe around us. Our mathematical models are not perfect because our understanding of the physical universe is not perfect. I'm not sure how else to really address this: mathematical models describe the physical universe, but they are still of the physical universe because they were created inside human minds and thus are the result of physical processes. I mean, they are still useful as hell and all, but they aren't really proof of the existence of the immaterial. I have to admit that this is a tricky subject though because a hypothetical perfect mathematical model of the universe might hypothetically be considered an example of something immaterial... Though of course, if it was truly a perfect model in every way I wonder if it could not then be considered a universe itself... Hm... I'll have to think about this some more.
You have committed the same error again, but did not realize it.  Let me try this with a different word:  a goal is not the same thing as a cessation.  The statement, "there is no 'end' to anything we do" is unrelated to the statement, "life goes on."
You are missing the point I was making. My point was that our actions have consequences, and those consequences extend past the "end" point we had assigned to them.
Did you intend to produce intelligible words, or did you simply bang on the keyboard and produce words and sentences by random chance?  If you intended to produce words, then you had an intention, that is, a goal, that is, an end.
I worked to achieve a desired result, an "end" as it were, but once I achieved that "end" I wasn't really done as it were. My actions had consequences beyond the limited "This is the goal I need to achieve, these are the means I will use to achieve it". The universe continued beyond my established end point and I had to deal with all the consequences of both my "end" result as well as the actions I took to get there. My "ends" simply became the "means" that led to whatever came next.
Nobody, to my knowledge, makes the opposite claim, except perhaps some pantheists.
Then where does this idea of "objective" morality come from? If it isn't something inherent to the universe itself, then where? Are you suggesting that "objective" morality is inherent to humanity and the human mind in particular? Then why are there so many different views on what is and isn't moral? And furthermore, what about when you throw other sapient races into the mix, as is the case of My Little Pony and this fic in particular? Or what if you were to modify human thought processes sufficiently (via surgery, social influences, genetic engineering, or any other means) so that the affected does not develop a moral system that in any way resembles any existing ones? For a naturally occurring example: sociopaths. If an objective sense of morality is truly inherent to humans, why do they lack it? How could they lack it? If an objective sense of morality isn't an inherent and fundamental part of all sapient beings, then why call it objective?

D. G. D. Davidson
You are confusing symbols with referents and also anthropomorphizing machines, but I believe you are my first interlocutor on this website who hasn't responded with sneers and insults, and you deserve a thoughtful and thorough reply.  I'm afraid you might have to wait a few days for it, as my current work schedule does not allow me much time for extracurricular activities.  I would also, if you do not object, prefer to move the conversation to my blog so the story combox doesn't turn into a debate thread.  I'll let you know when I post.
Our argument now ranges from ethics to metaphysics and touches on epistemology, and I can see from how it has gone so far that I will have to carefully define terms, or we will end up talking past each other, so my post will probably be quite long.  For the moment, I think we need to focus on the word end.  I am not convinced you understand what I mean when I use the term, and from where I am sitting, your comments on it have been all over the map.  First you say there are no ends, and then you quote a wordplay from a sophistical funnybook that does not seem to me to be relevant to the conversation, and is not itself a serious argument (the question Doctor Manhatten is asked means, "Is what you did right, good, noble, and praiseworthy?"  But his reply means, "The world continues, life goes on."  That is to say, he does not answer the question, but his reply appears clever at first glance because it hinges on the ambiguity of the wordend).  Then you make the observation that human actions can have consequences beyond a man's power to predict, a point that, to my knowledge, no one disputes.
When I use the word end, I mean that toward which a thing is naturally ordered, or toward which it develops, or toward which it is directed.  By thing I mean anything, because anything can be described in terms of some end.  End here does not mean a point in time.  It is a metaphysical principle.  
Do you agree to the definition?  Do you need it clarified in any way?  I am not asking you to agree that ends exist as matters of fact.  I am asking if you will agree to allow me to use the word in this way.  If you for some reason do not, I will gladly use the philosophical terms of art, final cause or telos, which mean the same thing.

Humanist
I suppose I should try to clarify by what I meant by "end", and how I interpreted the dialogue between Veidt and Dr. Manhattan.
When Veidt asked Dr. Manhattan if "I did the right thing, didn't I? It all worked out in the end.", I understood him to be asking if he really did manage to save the world, asking Dr. Manhattan if he at least achieved his original goal. I took Dr. Manhattan's response of "nothing ever ends" to mean that what Veidt accomplished was temporary, that it wasn't a definite end of anything. He saved the world for now, yes, but what about tomorrow? The next day? He was focused so much on accomplishing his immediate goal that he didn't really look past it to see what comes next, what the other consequences of the actions he took to achieve his ends might be or even what the consequences of achieving his ends themselves might be. He succeeded in accomplishing his "end', but now what? Of course, this may or may not have been the intended meaning of that bit, but that's how I saw it.
I drew the comparison to Watchmen in the first place because I saw some similiarity between Veidt's and Wind Whistler's mindsets: Veidt was willing to resort to horrible means to achieve his end of saving humanity, while Wind Whistler was likewise willing to resort to horrible means to achieve her end of "a world of order and peace". But... neither of them put into any thought about what happens after those ends are achieved or really realized that what is done to achieve those ends is just as important as the "ends" themselves because... well, I don't really see a distinction between the two.
Basically, I don't really see much of a distinction between "ends" and "means". Every means you use to accomplish something are the ends of something else, and your ends become part of the means to accomplish whatever end comes next. In artifical, constrained scenarios sure, you can have a distinction between means and ends. But in reality? In reality it all just kind of blurs together.

D. G. D. Davidson
I will use telos instead.  This will also allow me to more easily make the distinction between natural ends and conscious goals of agents, which may or may not be in keeping with natural ends.
I suppose Dr. Manhatten's reply can be understood in a non-sophistical way if Consequentialism is assumed.  That is, Alan Moore may perhaps be arguing that, since all consequences cannot accurately be predicted, the morality of acts is unknown, moral calculus is useless, and therefore moral nihilism obtains.
But I am not a Consequentialist.  The end intended is only one factor to be considered in the moral evaluation of acts.  An agent should ask whether the end is good, the act itself is good, and the circumstances are right.
It would be helpful, however, if you agreed to distinguish means and ends.  An end (in this sense) is the goal of an agent (by which I mean a free-willed being capable of deliberate acts), whereas his means are the acts he performs (and we could also include any things he uses) to achieve his ends.  The possibility of unforeseen consequences or additional goals does not negate the end of his specific acts, nor blur the distinction between ends and means.
But... neither of them put into any thought about what happens after those ends are achieved or really realized that what is done to achieve those ends is just as important as the "ends" themselves because... well, I don't really see a distinction between the two.
This is the second time you have introduced the word "important" into the discussion.  What is importance?  How is importance evaluated?

Humanist
All I was attempting to say was that I felt that "the ends justify the means" was a deeply flawed mindset because I feel that everything leading up to one's stated "end" is just as important and significant as the end itself, that there are always unforeseen consequences to ones actions (whether those actions were the means used to get to the end or the end itself), and that even if you achieve your stated ends... what then?
I was trying to argue that you cannot truly justify your means using your intended ends, which is where I felt Wind Whistler made her biggest mistake. What if Wind Whistler had succeeded in creating her utopian society at the cost of incredible amounts of violence and fear and bloodshed? Would it be worth the price that she paid for it, would the happiness she created outweigh the suffering that she paid to attain it? And how long would her utopia actually last after she finally established it? Would she have to keep on resorting to unsavory means to maintain her utopia? If so, it doesn't seem like a very successful utopia, does it?
Or what if she failed to create her desired utopia after resorting to all those horrifying acts? What if she inflicted all that harm for nothing? She never even seemed to consider the possibility that she might fail, so I suppose we can add arrogance to her list of flaws (as if it wasn't on there already).

D. G. D. Davidson
All I was attempting to say was that I felt that "the ends justify the means" was a deeply flawed mindset . . .
What if my personal value system says the ends justify the means?
I was trying to argue that you cannot truly justify your means using your intended ends, which is where I felt Wind Whistler made her biggest mistake.
Is it true in all times and places that you cannot justify your means using your intended ends, or are you only describing your personal tastes?
Would it be worth the price that she paid for it, would the happiness she created outweigh the suffering that she paid to attain it?
Is it wrong for anyone and everyone to create happiness with suffering, or are you merely describing your personal tastes?
Would she have to keep on resorting to unsavory means to maintain her utopia?
Are they unsavory to anyone with rightly ordered tastes, or are they only unsavory to your tastes?
Or what if she failed to create her desired utopia after resorting to all those horrifying acts?
Are her acts horrifying to anyone with rightly ordered emotions, or are you merely reporting your personal emotions?
What if she inflicted all that harm for nothing?
What is harm, and how is its rightness or wrongness evaluated?
She never even seemed to consider the possibility that she might fail, so I suppose we can add arrogance to her list of flaws (as if it wasn't on there already).
According to what standard is arrogance a flaw?
You are clever enough to see what I am doing.  No one, not even you, who I admit are more consistent than any other relativist I have met, can be a wholly consistent relativist.  You will always, always, always end up stealing concepts from absolutists.  Relativism is unintelligible, and the reason is because it is paradoxical in its first axiom:  relativism is based on the absolute statement about ethics that there are no absolute statements about ethics.  You are here making moral evaluations while at the same time claiming that moral evaluations are impossible.
I say "impossible" because if moral evaluations are wholly subjective and based only on personal want, then they are no different from whims or desires, and therefore morality, by the normal definition, does not exist according to the relativist, since, by the normal definition, morality's purpose is to rightly order and regulate desires in keeping with their proper telos, the telos of morality itself being happiness, by which I of course mean true happiness, not temporary pleasure.  If telos is denied as non-existent, or if an objective standard is denied as non-existent, then there is nothing by which to evaluate desires, and desires themselves become the standard.  That is what Wind Whistler concludes in her speech before the mirror:  what she wants is "good" simply and only because she wants it.  This is not morality at all; this is unmitigated narcissism.  This is anti-morality.
If you claim that, in the quotations I give above, you are only describing your subjective sensations, you are weaseling out:  if it were true that you were only reporting personal tastes rather than evaluating acts against a moral standard, then all your comments would be trivial; saying you prefer peace and order to rape and murder would be as trival as me saying I prefer the Moscato to the Chardonnay.  But you have not called them trivial.  Instead, you have repeated the word "important."  You understand that moral evaluations are not trivial.  Indeed, they are life and death.
You have walked into my trap much earlier than I expected, before I have even made my argument.  Stop talking nonsense and exchange relativism for realism.

Humanist
What if my personal value system says the ends justify the means?
Well, that's up to you, I suppose. You'd likely have your own reasons for believing such a thing and could probably make a good case for it. I'd be inclined to disagree with you, but of course I couldn't say that such a moral system would be objectively wrong. I mean, I would personally consider it to be wrong and do my best to argue against it but again in the end that is a matter of opinion (but just because it is a matter of opinion doesn't meant it is important).
Is it true in all times and places that you cannot justify your means using your intended ends, or are you only describing your personal taste?
I was arguing that ones intended ends should not be used as an excuse to ignore ones means, that you shouldn't just sweep them under the table.
Would it be worth the price that she paid for it, would the happiness she created outweigh the suffering that she paid to attain it?
It depends on your moral system. I believe that under the utilitarianism view you could weigh the suffering inflicted vs. the happiness created by your actions and use that to determine whether or not an action is ultimately "good". Of course, said system is about maximizing happiness while minimizing suffering, so even if her way does ultimately result in a net gain of happiness it may not be the best solution if other options result in a greater net gain.
Is it wrong for anyone and everyone to create happiness with suffering, or are you merely describing your personal tastes?
Personal tastes. They're all I really have to work with.
Are they unsavory to anyone with rightly ordered tastes, or are they only unsavory to your tastes?
Unsavory to my tastes, and likely most other peoples' as well. I'm not sure what you mean by "rightly ordered tastes". Who gets to decide what is "rightly ordered"?
Are her acts horrifying to anyone with rightly ordered emotions, or are you merely reporting your personal emotions?
See above.
What is harm, and how is its rightness or wrongness evaluated?
I can only define harm and evaluate rightness and wrongness using my own personal moral system. I define harm as killing others, starving others, injuring others, and otherwise inflicting pain on others (and one's self, I suppose). Definitions may (and do) vary from person to person and society to society.
According to what standard is arrogance a flaw?
My own.
You are here making moral evaluations while at the same time claiming that moral evaluations are impossible.
I am claiming that objective moral evaluations are impossible. I not only acknowledge that I am making many subjective moral evaluations but I feel that doing so is both necessary for a meaningful society to function as well as something that most/all humans do without even thinking about it.
by which I of course mean true happiness, not temporary pleasure.
What is true happiness, and how does it differ from temporary pleasure? How long is temporary? Is not all pleasure ultimately temporary?
If you claim that, in the quotations I give above, you are only describing your subjective sensations, you are weaseling out
Well damn, telling the truth is weaseling out then?
if it were true that you were only reporting personal tastes rather than evaluating acts against a moral standard, then all your comments would be trivial
Just because something is subjective doesn't make it trivial. It is up to us as individuals and societies and ultimately as a species to decide for ourselves what is and isn't trivial.
saying you prefer peace and order to rape and murder would be as trival as me saying I prefer the Moscato to the Chardonnay.  But you have not called them trivial.  Instead, you have repeated the word "important."  You understand that moral evaluations are not trivial.  Indeed, they are life and death.
Things have importance because and only because we assign importance to them. I feel that moral evaluations are important, as do many other humans. As a result, moral evaluations are generally considered to be important. That doesn't mean that they are objectively, inherently important, just that a significant number of humans believe them to be important. And really, that's enough.
You have walked into my trap much earlier than I expected
I am afraid I still do not see the trap.
Stop talking nonsense and exchange relativism for realism.
I do not feel that anything that I have said was nonsense, though... My views may conflict with yours, but that doesn't make them nonsense.

D. G. D. Davidson
I was arguing that ones intended ends should not be used as an excuse to ignore ones means, that you shouldn't just sweep them under the table.
Is this true for everyone, or is this just your opinion?
I define harm as killing others, starving others, injuring others, and otherwise inflicting pain on others (and one's self, I suppose).
How did you arrive at this conclusion?  Why do others matter in your ethical evaluations?
Things have importance because and only because we assign importance to them. I feel that moral evaluations are important, as do many other humans.
And what if I say that I regard your moral evaluations as worthless and unimportant?  What if I say I am going to kill you dead?  What if I say that my private moral system, based only on my whims, tells me that killing you, but only after torturing you first, is not only licit but laudable?  How will you stop me?  Will you appeal to my better nature?  But you do not believe in a better nature, since you are a relativist, and to call one part of a man better than another part implies a standard of goodness.  Will you appeal to my conscience?  But you do not believe in a conscience, since the conscience is the part of the intuitive intellect that contains the precepts of the Natural Law, and you do not believe in a Natural Law.  Will you appeal to reason?  But you claim reason has led you to the view that morality is a private matter, and I have already said that my private morality orders me to torture, maim, and kill you.  You can do nothing except appeal to power.  You can kill me first, or you can call the police and ask them to beat me with their billy clubs, assuming that they are in the mood to support your made-up personal morality today instead of mine, or their own.
So, in the relativist view, ethical suasion is impossible because ethics are private.  Yet, because ethics, unlike all other matters of private taste, have far-reaching consequences, they result in conflict, conflict that cannot be resolved except with force, since persuasion is impossible.  This leads directly to totalitarianism.  For someone who calls himself a humanist, your philosophy is decidedly inhuman.  You are accusing Wind Whistler while committing all of her mistakes.
And that leads me to another question:  if you really believe that ethics is wholly private, then why are you arguing with me as if ethics were not wholly private and were something about which someone could be persuaded?  You are arguing as if you were speaking truth to which I ought to assent.  But if I ought to assent to truth, then I have an obligation to assent to truth, and such an obligation is a moral standard to which I am beholden.  And if you recognize a moral standard to which I am beholden, then you recognize an absolute moral standard, and relativism is refuted.  So why are you arguing with me?  By the very act of arguing, you refute your premise.
What is true happiness, and how does it differ from temporary pleasure?
Excellent question.  Happiness, or eudamonia, is often called "flourishing" by today's virtue ethicists.  It is the full realization of you as a human being.  You are, as a man, a rational animal.  What is good for you is that which is conducive to the full development of you both as an animal and as a rational being.  The attributes conducive to your happiness are called "virtues," which means "powers" or "strengths," but is often used in the sense of good habits or tendencies.
So, because you are an animal, food is good for you, but only the right food and in the right amount; too little is harmful to you, as is too much.  The desire for too much food is called gluttony, but the desire for too little has no name because it is an exceedingly rare vice.  Right desire for food is objective because what you need, as a man, can be evaluated independently of your personal wants, and indeed must be, for it is possible for you to want too much or too little.  Keep in mind, however, that what is right for you is right for you, so what is gluttonous for a desk clerk may not be gluttonous for a hard-working farmer such as yourself.  Nonetheless, what is too much or too little or just right can still be evaluated according to your needs.
You see here that I am distinguishing between needs and wants.  Those things you need are actually, by definition, good for you.  Those things you want appear good, and may or may not be actually good.  They are "apparent goods."  Their goodness can be evaluated by comparison with your needs.  Your desires, appetites, passions, emotions, and tastes are "rightly ordered" when they conform with your needs:  to put this in slightly more technical fashion, your desires, appetites, passions, emotions, and tastes should be, by your intellect, brought into conformity with their respective final causes.  But that is only possible if your intellect is itself rightly ordered.
As a rational being, you have an intellect, and therefore there are additional virtues that apply to you but not to other animals, such as knowledge, wisdom and prudence.  Knowledge, I assume, I need not explain:  it is conformity of the concepts in the mind with reality.  This is known as the "correspondence theory of truth."  Falsehoods are not true knowledge because they do not correspond with reality.  Knowledge is a virtue, and unlike the virtues related to the body, it is not a mean between extremes, for you cannot have too much knowledge.  Wisdom is understanding of moral virtues, and prudence is conformance thereto.  Wisdom and prudence apply to you specifically as a rational being because, since you are rational, you have a free will, which is the ability to weigh choices and decide for one thing over another.  As a rational being, you can decide for things that are actually good (your needs) or things that are not good (wants not in conformity with actual needs).  Since you can therefore deliberately do things that are actually good or not actually good, you are a moral agent, that is, a being to whom morality applies.
Morality is the same for everyone, because everyone is human (fictional beings and angels need not be discussed here, since we are talking, for the moment, about human flourishing), and therefore everyone shares a human nature, and therefore everyone is a rational animal, and therefore everyone has the same final cause of flourishing, of happiness, in conformity with his nature.  Difference in constitution, as already mentioned, does not equal difference in morality:  just because you need more calories than I do does not mean that gluttony is right for you and wrong for me; it merely means that the amount that is gluttonous is different between us.
To have the moral virtues and the intellective virtues together results in the full flourishing of you as a man, at least insofar as it is possible for you given those circumstances outside your control.  That is happiness.  Ethics is not about pursuing your tastes.  It is about making you a better man.

Humanist
Is this true for everyone, or is this just your opinion?
Opinion.
How did you arrive at this conclusion?  Why do others matter in your ethical evaluations?
Genetics, society, personal experiences, etc. Others matter to me because I have empathy, and I have empathy because of the stuff listed in the previous sentence (And the first two, genetics and society, were the result of evolutionary pressures on my ancestors).
And what if I say that I regard your moral evaluations as worthless and unimportant?  What if I say I am going to kill you dead?  What if I say that my private moral system, based only on my whims, tells me that killing you, but only after torturing you first, is not only licit but laudable?
Well, I suppose I wouldn't really like that very much.
How will you stop me?  Will you appeal to my better nature?  But you do not believe in a better nature, since you are a relativist, and to call one part of a man better than another part implies a standard of goodness.
I would try to convince you not to do it first by talking to you and using my own moral code for my arguments. Once it become clear that our moral codes are quite different however, I would either try to sway you to also follow my moral code so that I could then convince you using it or I would try to understand your moral code and do my best to use that to convince you not to kill me. Failing that, I would resort to using force.
Will you appeal to my conscience?
I would try to appeal to your conscience, different from my own though it may be. Alternatively, I would try to shape your conscience to better resemble my own.
Will you appeal to reason?  But you claim reason has led you to the view that morality is a private matter, and I have already said that my private morality orders me to torture, maim, and kill you.  You can do nothing except appeal to power.  You can kill me first, or you can call the police and ask them to beat me with their billy clubs, assuming that they are in the mood to support your made-up personal morality today instead of mine, or their own.
If you truly as you describe, as  someone who has no moral code of their own or has a moral code that is so different from my own that we cannot coexist and I have no capability to influence your way of thinking in any way... then yes, I'd have to resort to appealing to power.
You are arguing as if you were speaking truth to which I ought to consent.  But if I ought to consent to truth, then I have an obligation to consent to truth, and such an obligation is a moral standard to which I am beholden.  And if you recognize a moral standard to which I am beholden, then you recognize an absolute moral standard, and relativism is refuted.
Morality is subjective, but not EVERYTHING is subjective. The physical laws of the universe, for example, are objective.
So why are you arguing with me?  By the very act of arguing, you refute your premise.
Why argue about anything that is subjective? To try to sway the other person to your point of view.
(fictional beings and angels need not be discussed here, since we are talking, for the moment, about human flourishing)
But we threw fictional sapient beings into the mix already, I mean that is the entire reason we got to talking about this.
I am sorry if I am not being very clear about what exactly I am arguing. Let me sum up my entire argument thusly:
Morality is not inherent to the universe, it is something that we humans have created. We have created many different moral systems, none of which are objectively right or wrong. If morality is, as you claim, objective, then where does this objective morality come from? If it isn't a fundamental part of the universe like the laws of physics are, then what makes it objective?

D. G. D. Davidson
Morality is subjective, but not EVERYTHING is subjective. The physical laws of the universe, for example, are objective.
Irrelevant.  You are changing the subject.
. . . Or, on second thought, am I obligated to assent to truths about the laws of the physical universe?  If I am, then that is a moral obligation.
Why argue about anything that is subjective? To try to sway the other person to your point of view.
I don't think you've grasped the implication of what I am saying.  If it is wholly subjective, there is no basis for suasion.  I cannot convince you to like the Muscato more than the Chardonnay if you find the sweetness cloying.  That is a private matter, about which there simply can be no arguments.  When you try to persuade someone with arguments, you are implying the existence of a standard independent of either of you or your interlocutor, whether that standard be rules of logic or facts or prescriptive truths.
But we threw fictional sapient beings into the mix already, I mean that is the entire reason we got to talking about this.
Wrong.  Fictional beings invented by men represent men.  In any case, we are talking real philosophy here, not invented sophistry, so speculation about whether magic ponies might have a morality differing from that of human beings is irrelevant.
Morality is not inherent to the universe, it is something that we humans have created.
I am beginning to notice that you do not answer my arguments.  I just explained morality to you in terms of human wants and needs.  Morality exists because humans exist, and humans have real wants, real needs, real free wills, and real intellects, which can conform with their needs or not.  No appeal to any imaginary sapient universe is necessary.

Kris Overstreet
Sorry, but on one point you're entirely wrong. Argument of any sort does not require any objective standard whatever. In fact most tactics of persuasion RELY on there being no objective standard, especially appeals to emotion. The point of an argument is to induce change in the views of the audience.
To address what I see as they key argument (the universality of morality): "assenting to the truth about the physical laws of the universe?" No, you don't have to. The universe doesn't care whether or not you believe in or agree with the laws it operates under. The key feature of objective rules and laws is that they are self-enforcing- it is impossible to break them. The speed of light in a vacuum is a constant- everywhere. Protons and electrons have equal and opposite electromagnetic charges- everywhere. An object in motion does not change its motion except when acted upon by an outside force- everywhere. You may dispute these laws if you wish, but you'll be lucky if all that happens is, like Canute, you end up with wet feet.
If morality were objective, it would also be universal; the fact that moral codes are broken so routinely shows that they are very, very subjective. There are people who think nothing about coercing others to give up property, labor, time and even life for their own sole benefit. There are differences of opinion- vast ones- on what is and isn't theft, what can and can't be property, on the rules and mores of reproduction... and a vast, vast, vast spectrum of cultural and personal taboos, many of which might not be shared by next-door neighbors, never mind peoples of different nations, religions, and cultures.
Even when there is a general consensus within a society about morals, the moral code is not universal. Every single moral code you can name has an "except" somewhere in it. "Killing is wrong, unless we're killing someone as a punishment for a high crime or defending our own lives." "Cannibalism is wrong, unless there's no other food option and the only alternative is starvation." "Stealing is wrong, unless it's from these horrible other people who don't belong to the same group as we do." "You should always help others, but you shouldn't help the poor because they'll become dependent upon your help and never do anything for themselves." Etc. Etc. Etc.
Your argument is that, if morality is subjective, then there is nothing stopping people from murdering each other. My answer: precisely correct. You have just described the mythological "state of nature" proposed by Hobbes- "nasty, brutish and short." All your arguments for an objective morality amount to nothing more than a deep desire that the world be other than what it is- that human nature be other than what it is. That will work in much the same way that believing wearing a cape will allow you to fly. So long as the cape-wearer never jumps off a high place, their delusion will be harmless; and so long as you never encounter a mugger or thrill-killer, belief in universal morality will likewise be harmless.
Belief in universal morality is not a workable strategy for making the world better. Persuading your fellow human beings that their lives will be better if specific points of morality are accepted by consensus is- and that's the method that human civilization has adopted. Granted, the methods of persuasion seldom took the form of logical argument. They were more along two lines: "Our Big Man in the Sky demands everyone do this," or, "We're going to kill or drive off every person who refuses to do this." (Or, more frequently, both at once.)

D. G. D. Davidson
No, you don't have to. The universe doesn't care whether or not you believe in or agree with the laws it operates under.
You misunderstand me.  I am asking if I am obligated to assent to the truth of true statements about physics.  I am not asking if I can break the law of gravity.
Argument of any sort does not require any objective standard whatever. In fact most tactics of persuasion RELY on there being no objective standard, especially appeals to emotion. The point of an argument is to induce change in the views of the audience.
You misunderstand me.  When I say argument, I do not mean emotional appeal.  I mean argument, logical argument.  You cannot have a logical argument about matters of taste.
If morality were objective, it would also be universal; the fact that moral codes are broken so routinely shows that they are very, very subjective.
Hold it.  What do you mean by "universal"?  Do you mean it would be acknowledged everywhere, or that it would be unbroken by everyone?  I dispute both claims.  First, moral truths are prescriptive, not descriptive truths.  Moral statements are "ought" statements.  They are descriptions of what men ought to do, not descriptions of what they do do.  Morality is objective in that it can be logically derived from irreducible first principles; it is not objective in some non-standard sense of "popular" or "admitted by everyone."  Also, as already mentioned, the claim that morality varies widely is simply false, though, were it true, it would not support the relativists' argument.  The Christ and the Buddha have vastly different metaphysics, and until recently, almost no influence on each other, yet their ethical teachings are very similar.  The apparent differences between ethical outlooks in different cultures has mostly to do with which moral precepts are given priority, and whether they ought to be applied universally or to the group only, but the alleged vast differences in moral formulations are simply not there.
You can perhaps find in some remote place in New Guinea a small band of people who have suffered some catastrophe and live wretched, friendless lives almost without contact with each other, but that does not mean that real human goods are not good for them.  It means simply that they have lost their way.  They are not thriving.
Even when there is a general consensus within a society about morals, the moral code is not universal. Every single moral code you can name has an "except" somewhere in it. "Killing is wrong, unless we're killing someone as a punishment for a high crime or defending our own lives."
I am afraid you are indulging in sophistry.  Your argument here hinges on the ambiguity of terms.  Murder is wrong, always and everywhere, but you must define it properly:  murder is the unjustified killing of another human being with malice aforethought.  There are three things to consider in moral calculus:  the act itself, the end intended, and the circumstances.  The act of killing is not itself wrong in all times and places and circumstances, as in the cases you mention, such as self-defense, execution of criminals posing serious danger to society, or just war.  That is not an "except," as you call it, but a clarification.
Your argument is that, if morality is subjective, then there is nothing stopping people from murdering each other.
First, Hobbes's imaginary primitive humans never existed and never could:  he imagines full-grown and self-sufficient adults springing out of the ground.  There are no children in his imaginary primitive world, and it is because of this beginning error that he pants after totalitarianism.  Aristotle, a wiser political theorist, recognizes that not only the individual, but also family and society, are irreducible units.
Second, you misunderstand my argument.  If morality is subjective, there is no reason people cannot murder one another with impunity.  There is no argument that can be used to dissuade them, nor a standard to judge them, because if morality is a matter of personal taste, it is not susceptible to logical argumentation, and acts cannot be evaluated as moral or immoral by any standard, any more than your preference for cake over pie can be judged wrong or right.
Belief in universal morality is not a workable strategy for making the world better. Persuading your fellow human beings that their lives will be better if specific points of morality are accepted by consensus is- and that's the method that human civilization has adopted.
Can I not find a relativist who does not blatantly contradict himself?  If you can make their lives "better," then you have a conception of good that you hold to be objective.  If "certain points of morality" lead to "better" lives, then those "certain points" are aimed at or directed toward positive goods.  You have just made the same argument I made in an earlier comment.  You spend several paragraphs sneering at me for believing in objective morality, and then you argue for objective morality.
Do you even understand what your own position means?  If morality is purely subjective, then it does not exist, because morality is by definition a standard to which people are beholden.  A standard you set for yourself, based on nothing but whim or taste arising from nowhere for no reason, is not a standard at all.  That is the position you need to argue for, that there are no morals.
I want some relativist to actually answer my arguments:  first, relativism is based on a formal logical error, a paradox, the absolute statement about ethics that there are no absolute statements about ethics.  Second, I laid down a basic argument for Natural Law Theory in a previous comment, in which I differentiated between needs, wants, actual goods, and apparent goods.
"Our Big Man in the Sky demands everyone do this," or, "We're going to kill or drive off every person who refuses to do this." (Or, more frequently, both at once.)
You lie.  Whole libraries' worth of philosophical arguments on the subject of ethics have been written.  Begin with the Nichomachean Ethics, in which you will find no appeals to big men in the sky.  In fact, I think you will find that appeal nowhere at all, anywhere, except perhaps in Greek tragedies.

Kris Overstreet
"First, moral truths are prescriptive, not descriptive truths."
There is no such thing as a prescriptive truth. Saying, "The sky is green," will not make it so. Nor, incidentally, will, "The sky OUGHT to be green."
"If morality is subjective, there is no reason people cannot murder one another with impunity."
Correct and accurate, except that the people targeted for murder might have something to say about it.
"There is no argument that can be used to dissuade them, nor a standard to judge them, because if morality is a matter of personal taste, it is not susceptible to logical argumentation, and acts cannot be evaluated as moral or immoral by any standard, any more than your preference for cake to pie can be judged wrong or right."
Inaccurate. You fail because:
(a) you presume that logical argument is impossible without a single universal benchmark. Not so.
(b) you disregard emotional and other illogical modes of argument as either invalid or useless. Validity of such modes depends on your audience, and logic, as regards humanity, isn't everything by a long shot.
"Can I not find a relativist who does not blatantly contradict himself?  If you can make their lives "better," then you have a conception of good that you hold to be objective."
How the hell do you get there from here? Any conception of good or evil I have is, and will always remain, subjective, because every single idea, thought, opinion, etc. is subjective. All ideas, of any sort, are subjective. That doesn't mean I can't try to make my fellow human beings' lives better in my own estimation.
Furthermore, having made such a personal judgment call, I can then estimate the subjective moral code held by members of my audience and attempt to appeal to that as part of the effort of persuasion. I do NOT have to agree with every part of their moral code, or even ANY part of it; if, for example, appealing to the raw greed of a person gets that person to support a particular bit of morality I advocate, that's a step in the right direction so far as I'm concerned.
"If morality is purely subjective, then it does not exist, because morality is by definition a standard to which people are beholden.  A standard you set for yourself, based on nothing but whim or taste arising from nowhere for no reason, is not a standard at all.  That is the position you need to argue for, that there are no morals."
Welcome to humanity. I used that exact same argument with others when I was younger and very fundamentalist indeed. The main flaw in your argument is this: you ignore the basic operation of human nature. Most humans want to feel good about themselves, so they create their own definition of good... and under most circumstances, when they fail their definition somehow, they change the definition so they fall back into it again.
We create our own moral standards (usually with a lot of cultural influence and interference). We consistently fail them. We then make excuses so we can lie to ourselves and claim we didn't really fail them, and then we feel better. You may not like it, but it's fact, borne up by psychological studies. Fortunately for humanity, we try to correct one another- mostly through ILlogical, emotional persuasion, sometimes through force. Working together, we human beings at least have a chance for improvement.
But ignoring human nature, your argument fails because, if an individual's moral code is an idea, then it DOES exist. Ideas exist- otherwise what's the point of writing stories?
"...relativism is based on a formal logical error, a paradox, the absolute statement about ethics that there are no absolute statements about ethics."
Now who's indulging in sophistry? Or, should I say, strawman? Saying there are no absolute RULES about ethics is NOT the same as saying there are no absolute STATEMENTS about ethics.
"Second, I laid down a basic argument for Natural Law Theory in a previous comment, in which I differentiated between needs, wants, actual goods, and apparent goods."
Which definitions are irrelevant, because Hobbes' never-existed state of nature, whence Natural Law must draw its foundations, the only right and wrong comes from what the individual is able to defend with his or her own strength. The only way you get any form of right or wrong beyond brute force is through some form of social consensus (built first on family groups, then clans, then tribes, then nations). As soon as you have society, you don't have nature anymore, because society is a human construct.
"You lie.  Whole libraries' worth of philosophical arguments on the subject of ethics have been written.  Begin with the Nichomachean Ethics, in which you will find no appeals to big men in the sky.  In fact, I think you will find that appeal nowhere at all, anywhere, except perhaps in Greek tragedies."
Ten Commandments much? Or the pronouncements of Muhammad? The earliest philosophical and moral arguments were fought with clubs and axes, and for most of history it has remained (with technological advances) the most popular- and final- method of settling such disputes on a large scale. (Such moral arguments included: My God is the Only God, My People Deserve This Land More Than Your People Does, and You Aren't Real Human Beings Anyway, So Die.)
For a prime example I refer you to the Bible- the book of Joshua, to be exact, which I can sum up thusly: "And God said to the children of Israel, 'Go over there, kill everybody, and take their land, because I Said So.' And so they did, except for a couple of tribes they enslaved."
As far as written, non-violent moral arguments... that would be persuasion again. The fact that there were arguments at all, to be blunt, is yet more evidence AGAINST a universal moral code.

D. G. D. Davidson
There is no such thing as a prescriptive truth. Saying, "The sky is green," will not make it so. Nor, incidentally, will, "The sky OUGHT to be green."
The word ought has two senses.  In the sense in which the word describes prescriptive truths, it applies to moral agents, not inanimate objects or beings without volition.  "The sky ought to be green" is a statement of preference or taste; it is not a prescriptive statement at all.  You can, I assume, see the difference between the statement, "The sky ought to be green," and the statement, "The man ought to be good."
. . . you presume that logical argument is impossible without a single universal benchmark . . .
I presuppose that logical argument is impossible without both formal validity and factual axioms accessible to both parties, of course.  If the axioms are available to only one party, the other party cannot be presented with an argument.  Logic is not possible in matters of mere taste because taste is wholly subjective.  Give me a logical argument as to why I should prefer pie to cake.
. . . you disregard emotional and other illogical modes of argument as either invalid or useless. Validity of such modes depends on your audience, and logic, as regards humanity, isn't everything by a long shot.
I do not understand your answer because I am unclear how you are using the word valid.  An emotional appeal is not formally valid, certainly.  An emotional appeal can of course be justified, but this presupposes some standard for its justification, but such a justification would necessarily contain prescriptive statements.  Calling on people's emotions to draw them toward the good is noble, but only if we have some standard by which to judge what is good or what is not, and what is noble and what is not.  If you are not trying to draw people toward the good when you appeal to their emotions, then you are merely manipulating them.  Since you have reduced ethics to mean merely what you want, then you are here proposing the manipulation of people's emotions to get what you want out of them.
Furthermore, the appeal to the emotions implies that people's emotions can be quickened by certain things.  This presupposes some standard of rightly ordered emotions.
Which definitions are irrelevant, because Hobbes' never-existed state of nature, whence Natural Law must draw its foundations, the only right and wrong comes from what the individual is able to defend with his or her own strength.
I can make nothing of this sentence.  Natural Law predates Hobbes by quite a bit, and I have never encountered a Natural Lawyer who takes Hobbes very seriously.  Do you know what Natural Law Theory is?  Ethics derives from final cause:  the good of a thing can be known if the end of a thing is known.  If we know what man is, we know what man's end is, and therefore we know what is good for a man.  It has nothing to do with a might-makes-right view; that is the view of relativism.
Fortunately for humanity, we try to correct one another- mostly through ILlogical, emotional persuasion, sometimes through force.
The word "correct" assumes some standard against which correctness and incorrectness can be measured, and the word "fortunate" assumes a standard as well.  Try as you might, you will always steal concepts.
Do you see what you are doing here?  You talk like an absolutist, and when called out on it, you backtrack and claim you were just talking about your opinions, which are like your preference for breezy days over sunny ones, but then you spin around and talk about bettering society.  You cannot even maintain your position consistently for two sentences.  Tell me this, if you consider one society to be better than another, on what is that estimation based?  From what does your preference stem?  And please do not tell me your parents or your genes, for that is dodging the question.  I am asking why you prefer one over another.
We consistently fail them. We then make excuses so we can lie to ourselves and claim we didn't really fail them, and then we feel better.
Including you?  If you are lying, do it somewhere else, please.  I am interested in truth, not your excuse-making.
Saying there are no absolute RULES about ethics is NOT the same as saying there are no absolute STATEMENTS about ethics.
All right.  But if there are no absolute rules, there are no rules at all.  A personal whim or appetite or desire is not a rule by the usual definition.  Rules exist independently of individuals, and are prescriptions to which individuals are beholden.  To say "there are no absolute rules of ethics" is to say that ethics is non-existent, a null set.  I am curious as to why the relativist is insistent on saving the word "ethics," instead of saying there are no ethics at all, which might prevent the wholesale concept-theft typical of relativism.
Ten Commandments much? Or the pronouncements of Muhammad?
The Judeo-Christian God is not a "big man in the sky."  Do not presume to lecture me in sneering tones about a subject of which you are ignorant.  I am not interested in your private interpretations of scripture, and I am not going to waste my time correcting your caricatures thereof.  Christians are Natural Lawyers; Christian ethics is not based on an appeal to authority.

Kris Overstreet
Right. Long story short: you insist on things being the way you want them to be, when they aren't. This is called dogma, not logic. Example: "Statements about ethics are prescriptive.  That is, they are rules." - This is clear nonsense, no matter how many times or how many different ways you say it. An observation about ethics need not itself be an ethical (or moral) rule. But you need it to be true, so for you it becomes true.
"Tell me this, if you consider one society to be better than another, on what is that estimation based?" - On my personal beliefs based on experience, evidence and consideration- the same way every single other judgment or decision I make is based. Indeed, the same way every human being makes every judgment or decision- based on their personal beliefs. That's all we have, in the end. No matter what authority we go to, what advice we receive, what our culture teaches us, in the end it all boils down to what's going on in our own individual heads. The buck starts and stops there.
"The Judeo-Christian God is not a "big man in the sky."" - Yes, actually, he is. There is no indisputable, objective evidence that the God of Israel is any more or less valid than any of the other gods or other religious figures worshipped or revered by humanity throughout history. There is plenty of evidence, however, that God has been used by various people and factions to justify their moral creeds- and they run the full spectrum from, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," to, "Kill them all; God will know His own." Faith is even more slippery than morality, in that it is absolutely impossible to impose from without; you can make a man behave, but you can't make him believe.
The fact that you hold God as different Because I Said So merely shows you're not arguing from either logic or evidence, as much as you claim to otherwise. You're arguing from faith and clothing it in the trappings of logic. You want there to be a universal moral code (and, I presume, you want it to be the one laid down by your religion), and thus your mind has been closed to any evidence or argument to the contrary. That's your prerogative, and there's nothing wrong with arguing from faith... so long as you remember that not everyone shares your faith.
For my part, I hold to my position: there is no such thing as an objective moral law, not in the same sense as there are objective natural laws. Natural laws are universal, self-acting and self-enforcing; morality is none of these things. Moral codes are human constructs, and like all human constructs, they are ultimately personal in form and experience. The only reason there are similarities in most moral codes is that we humans, being social creatures, cluster into groups and interact with one another, rejecting or eliminating individuals and groups whose moral codes are in whatever way incompatible with the stronger group.
This doesn't change even if God hands down a moral code for us to obey; He gave us the power to choose to follow it or not, and He left the decision with each of us, individually. Thus, the moral code- and the responsibility for following or breaking it- remains totally personal and individual.

D. G. D. Davidson
But you need it to be true, so for you it becomes true.
No, nothing becomes true because I need it to be true.  Look again and you will see I conceded your point, though it does little to help your argument.
On my personal beliefs based on experience, evidence and consideration- the same way every single other judgment or decision I make is based.
If it is based on experience, evidence, and consideration, then it is not wholly subjective.  The same evidence and argument (which is what I assume you mean by consideration) could be presented to another.
"The Judeo-Christian God is not a "big man in the sky."" - Yes, actually, he is.
I am not having a theological dispute with you.  The Judeo-Christian conception of God is of first cause, prime mover, ground of all being.  You can easily look this information up.  There is a radical distinction between monotheism and polytheism:  you can perhaps see it best by looking at Hinduism; when Brahman awakes, all the universe disappears like a dream, including the gods.
Also, you are abusing the term Natural Law.  It refers to a specific theory of ethics.  It is called Natural Law because it is distinct from positive law (that is, man-made law).  It does not refer to physics, or whatever it is you are using it to signify.
You want there to be a universal moral code (and, I presume, you want it to be the one laid down by your religion), and thus your mind has been closed to any evidence or argument to the contrary.
I do not appreciate being accused without evidence of arguing in bad faith, and you are the one who brought religion into the discussion, not I.  Must I repeat myself?  Here is my argument, and please note that it is philosophical, not theological, and makes no appeal to authority, religious or otherwise:
Happiness, or eudamonia, is often called "flourishing" by today's virtue ethicists.  It is the full realization of you as a human being.  You are, as a man, a rational animal.  What is good for you is that which is conducive to the full development of you both as an animal and as a rational being.  The attributes conducive to your happiness are called "virtues," which means "powers" or "strengths," but is often used in the sense of good habits or tendencies.
So, because you are an animal, food is good for you, but only the right food and in the right amount; too little is harmful to you, as is too much.  The desire for too much food is called gluttony, but the desire for too little has no name because it is an exceedingly rare vice.  Right desire for food is objective because what you need, as a man, can be evaluated independently of your personal wants, and indeed must be, for it is possible for you to want too much or too little.  Keep in mind, however, that what is right for you is right for you, so what is gluttonous for a desk clerk may not be gluttonous for a hard-working farmer such as yourself.  Nonetheless, what is too much or too little or just right can still be evaluated according to your needs.
You see here that I am distinguishing between needs and wants.  Those things you need are actually, by definition, good for you.  Those things you want appear good, and may or may not be actually good.  They are "apparent goods."  Their goodness can be evaluated by comparison with your needs.  Your desires, appetites, passions, emotions, and tastes are "rightly ordered" when they conform with your needs:  to put this in slightly more technical fashion, your desires, appetites, passions, emotions, and tastes should be, by your intellect, brought into conformity with their respective final causes.  But that is only possible if your intellect is itself rightly ordered.
As a rational being, you have an intellect, and therefore there are additional virtues that apply to you but not to other animals, such as knowledge, wisdom and prudence.  Knowledge, I assume, I need not explain:  it is conformity of the concepts in the mind with reality.  This is known as the "correspondence theory of truth."  Falsehoods are not true knowledge because they do not correspond with reality.  Knowledge is a virtue, and unlike the virtues related to the body, it is not a mean between extremes, for you cannot have too much knowledge.  Wisdom is understanding of moral virtues, and prudence is conformance thereto.  Wisdom and prudence apply to you specifically as a rational being because, since you are rational, you have a free will, which is the ability to weigh choices and decide for one thing over another.  As a rational being, you can decide for things that are actually good (your needs) or things that are not good (wants not in conformity with actual needs).  Since you can therefore deliberately do things that are actually good or not actually good, you are a moral agent, that is, a being to whom morality applies.
Morality is the same for everyone, because everyone is human (fictional beings and angels need not be discussed here, since we are talking, for the moment, about human flourishing), and therefore everyone shares a human nature, and therefore everyone is a rational animal, and therefore everyone has the same final cause of flourishing, of happiness, in conformity with his nature.  Difference in constitution, as already mentioned, does not equal difference in morality:  just because you need more calories than I do does not mean that gluttony is right for you and wrong for me; it merely means that the amount that is gluttonous is different between us.
To have the moral virtues and the intellective virtues together results in the full flourishing of you as a man, at least insofar as it is possible for you given those circumstances outside your control.  That is happiness.  Ethics is not about pursuing your tastes.  It is about making you a better man.

Kris Overstreet
"Happiness, or eudamonia, is often called "flourishing" by today's virtue ethicists.  It is the full realization of you as a human being.  You are, as a man, a rational animal. "
I disagree with both your postulates.
Happiness is an emotion not susceptible to logic. It is not the same thing as eudamonia, which is itself a subjective value judgment imposed from without by an observer.
Man is NOT a rational animal. Man is a rationalizing animal, in that each person makes a decision or forms a belief and then works to justify it after the fact. The vast majority of opinions, beliefs, and decisions every person makes every day have zero rational thought behind them.
Since everything else in your argument proceeds from these two postulates, there's no point in addressing them any further than this, except to say that it seems like a justification for imposing arbitrary rules of conduct on others based on what you think is good for them. To my mind there's no difference between your argument and Wind Whistler's in your story, except that Wind Whistler is willing to "sacrifice" individuals for the greater good while your focus is on the individual good- as you see it.
One other comment: I deny that the ends ever justify the means. I have multiple reasons for this, but the most basic one is that there is no such thing as a means to an end which is not also an end itself. Every step towards a desired goal is also a goal. When you choose a means to an end, you are not merely accepting an unfortunate consequence- you are making the choice that the means is acceptable even if you never achieve your final ends. People warn against allowing your means to your ends to become ends unto themselves, but in reality it's unavoidable; they're the same thing.
Wind Whistler's failure wasn't that she lost an objective code of morality. She failed because she chose a personal moral code in which no one else's morals, or views, or existence, mattered except her own. This conflicted with Megan's moral code, which required her to protect the lives of others whenever possible. This conflict was irreconcilable, and one moral code was eliminated. But- despite Wind Whistler's claims to the contrary- neither moral code was based in logic at all. Both believed as they believed because of how they felt.
If that's not what you intended, I'm sorry, but that's how it looked to me from reading the story. Normally I argue against literary critics who hold that author intent is irrelevant, but I have to admit that my experience of your story- like all human experience- is for the most part subjective.

D. G. D. Davidson
Happiness . . . is not the same thing as eudamonia.
You have no philosophical training, and apparently no wherewithal to look up terms you don't know, or ask me to elaborate them for you.  This conversation is ended.
Man is a rationalizing animal, in that each person makes a decision or forms a belief and then works to justify it after the fact.
Including you?  Then do not comment here again.  I am interested in logical arguments, not post hoc rationalizations.  Further comments from you will be deleted unless you admit an ability to make rational arguments.
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