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.
rejecting objective morality in favour of what she regarded as rational and necessary
“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?”
“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—?”
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.
She seemed to have developed a distinct lack of empathy.
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")
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).
Are you referring to the rationalist view?
Nobody, not even Wind Whistler, nor you, can consistently maintain the position that there is no objective morality.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 used my own personal morality, which is the only thing that I can use.
What one society considers "good" another might consider "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).
The definition I was using remained the same, as I have noted above.
The universe itself doesn't care about good or evil.
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.
a run-down of the re-occurrence of several ethical prescriptions across several cultures.
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
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.
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."
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.
Nobody, to my knowledge, makes the opposite claim, except perhaps some pantheists.
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.
All I was attempting to say was that I felt that "the ends justify the means" was a deeply flawed mindset . . .
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.
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?
Would she have to keep on resorting to unsavory means to maintain her utopia?
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).
What if my personal value system says the ends justify the means?
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?
Is it wrong for anyone and everyone to create happiness with suffering, or are you merely describing your personal tastes?
Are they unsavory to anyone with rightly ordered tastes, or are they only unsavory to your tastes?
Are her acts horrifying to anyone with rightly ordered emotions, or are you merely reporting your personal emotions?
What is harm, and how is its rightness or wrongness evaluated?
According to what standard is arrogance a flaw?
You are here making moral evaluations while at the same time claiming that moral evaluations are impossible.
by which I of course mean true happiness, not temporary pleasure.
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
Stop talking nonsense and exchange relativism for realism.
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.
I define harm as killing others, starving others, injuring others, and otherwise inflicting pain on others (and one's self, I suppose).
Things have importance because and only because we assign importance to them. I feel that moral evaluations are important, as do many other humans.
What is true happiness, and how does it differ from temporary pleasure?
Is this true for everyone, or is this just your opinion?
How did you arrive at this conclusion? Why do others matter in your ethical evaluations?
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?
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.
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.
So why are you arguing with me? By the very act of arguing, you refute your premise.
(fictional beings and angels need not be discussed here, since we are talking, for the moment, about human flourishing)
Morality is subjective, but not EVERYTHING is subjective. The physical laws of the universe, for example, are objective.
Why argue about anything that is subjective? To try to sway the other person to your point of view.
But we threw fictional sapient beings into the mix already, I mean that is the entire reason we got to talking about this.
Morality is not inherent to the universe, it is something that we humans have created.
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.
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.
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.
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."
Your argument is that, if morality is subjective, then there is nothing stopping people from murdering each other.
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.
"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.)
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."
. . . you presume that logical argument is impossible without a single universal benchmark . . .
. . . 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.
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.
Fortunately for humanity, we try to correct one another- mostly through ILlogical, emotional persuasion, sometimes through force.
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.
Saying there are no absolute RULES about ethics is NOT the same as saying there are no absolute STATEMENTS about ethics.
Ten Commandments much? Or the pronouncements of Muhammad?
But you need it to be true, so for you it becomes true.
On my personal beliefs based on experience, evidence and consideration- the same way every single other judgment or decision I make is based.
"The Judeo-Christian God is not a "big man in the sky."" - Yes, actually, he is.
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.
Happiness . . . is not the same thing as eudamonia.
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.