Sep 252012

One of the comments on Mark Satta’s recent very hot post about universal salvation has been zooming ’round my brain, and demands, I think, a PEL episode at some point. A comment by our listener Bear stated:

My questions about Atheists wanting to redefine orthodoxies of particular belief systems, be it Christian, Buddhist, Mormon, Islam &c., demanding those within the belief system to accept certain propositions internal the belief system. For example, telling very conservative Evangelical Christians or Buddhists that they must accept and not condemn sodomy, and they must accept what greater society thinks about these things.

This is not an abstract concern, I have seen this regularly.

When does the internal beliefs of a group become public debate? How much can a society demand that a religious group abandon its beliefs and conform to the rest of society?

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Nov 082011

We’ve discussed Paul Boghossian and his book against relativism
a bit in our Nelson Goodman episode. See my blog post on this from last year.

In this interview on the Philosophy Bites podcast, Boghossian talks about moral relativism, giving some shades of the view: e.g. you could be a relativist about manners but not really about the underlying principles girding them (“be polite!”). This accords with Smith’s version, in which the most important moral points–e.g. generosity is good–are going to be universal, but lots of cultural factors are going to go into when and how much generosity is considered appropriate in a given circumstance.

Read Wes’s post from August on the Boghossian/Stanley Fish exchange that the Philosophy Bites page refers to.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Aug 222011

In a recent Philosopher’s Stone essay, Paul Boghossian corrects Stanley Fish on the subject of moral relativism: there is no morally relativistic ground between nihilism and the embrace of moral absolutes — one must choose. Saying “x is wrong” is a normative statement, while saying “x is wrong relative to moral code y” is a descriptive statement without normative force; believing the second statement doesn’t require believing the first. (Note that the attempt to naturalize morality — as in the projects of Harris and possibly Churchland — run into problems for precisely this reason; there seems to be no alchemy that turns descriptive statements (including scientific observations) into normative ones).

Fish’s response? It amounts (after a bizarre conflation of skepticism and relativism) to something like the following syllogism:

  • Paul Boghossian corrected me on a philosophical matter, and I have no rebuttal.
  • But: Nothing concerning which I have been corrected can actually matter.
  • Therefore: Philosophy doesn’t matter.

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Mar 252010

Via, Sam Harris seems to think he has come across oughts in the wild. We just needed a big enough microscope to see them.

As physicist Sean Carroll notes, there once was a man named Hume:

Morality and science operate in very different ways. In science, our judgments are ultimately grounded in data; when it comes to values we have no such recourse. If I believe in the Big Bang model and you believe in the Steady State cosmology, I can point to the successful predictions of the cosmic background radiation, light element nucleosynthesis, evolution of large-scale structure, and so on. Eventually you would either agree or be relegated to crackpot status. But what if I believe that the highest moral good is to be found in the autonomy of the individual, while you believe that the highest good is to maximize the utility of some societal group? What are the data we can point to in order to adjudicate this disagreement? We might use empirical means to measure whether one preference or the other leads to systems that give people more successful lives on some particular scale — but that’s presuming the answer, not deriving it.

Sam Harris is one of these popularizers of science — specifically, of its implications for such subjects as faith and morals — who (like, for example, Richard Dawkins) displays little deep curiosity about the philosophical problems he thinks he’s addressing, and no awareness of the vast amount that has been written about them. He makes the very newbie assumption, for instance, that the only alternative to grounding morality in empirical science is moral relativism — moral realism does not require this, and one can think there are moral facts about the world without trying to derive ought from is; there are philosophers who try to overcome the ought-is barrier — but these are highly problematic and much debated.