joe, "utter chaos and destruction leading to the downfall of the human race" is not a contradiction. I assert that it cannot be objectively known that this outcome is "bad". Some of the more extreme environmentalists would assert it is a good thing, and some alien species might think of it in the same manner as we might think of eradicating smallpox. Furthermore, as I do not think morality is objective, I do not feel my beliefs need to be universalizable. My belief in a certain nature of morality is not going to cause the rest of humanity to share that belief, discussing what would happen if everyone shared it would be like wondering about waking up with a blue tentacle.
Eliezer, you (and Worley) say "Morality is objective within a given frame of reference." What is the difference between that and "morality is subjective"? It seems each frame of reference is itself subjective, we can never really know whether any two individuals share the same frame of reference (I do not think even an individual keeps the same frame of reference consistently for any considerable length of time). Do you think that aesthetic beauty or value are also objective "within a given frame of reference", or are they of a different nature than morality?
I don't know if you will respond here, joe, but it has been requested that our earlier conversation relocate.
joe, my own moral preferences are the ones I like. The ones other people hold that diverge from mine, I dislike. I recognize that there is no sense in which I can claim that mine are true and theirs are not, as they can make the same exact claim without any way to settle it. It is similar to my preferences in movies or music. As an emotivist I believe the word "good" just indicates subjective approval, "evil" or "bad" the opposite. I don't think society will adopt my views and haven't given much thought to what would happen in that hypothetical. My behavior has not really changed much, but I am also a product of my surroundings, which would not be the same in that hypothetical. Perhaps "It is best not to speak of atheism, lest the servants steal the silverware", but I don't think they will start stealing (marginally more) conditioned on my beliefs, so I have no reason not to hold them.
conchis, I am a he (although I would not mind being referred to as "it"), and I am an emotivist, which means I do not believe normative statements have any truth value (according to Nick Bostrom this makes me a psychopath, nihilist and philistine, although the last of those was true even when I was religious). Because of this I make no attempts to hold more "correct" moral beliefs, seeing as how none are in any way "correct". When I was a believer I had some fear of the afterlife, but still being a rather apathetic/lazy individual as well as prudish by nature (which might have not been the case had I been raised differently, though I can't say for sure) I am not inclined to enjoy my freedom to "sin" without consequence.
While I oppose the use of torture, I am skeptical of those who claim it is ineffective. By the accounts I've read it was very effective when used by the French in Algeria and numerous dictatorships against internal threats.
Is atheism incompatible with a belief in morality? For me it was, but I appear to be unrepresentative of atheists. I still have pretty much the same attitudes that I did when I was puritanically religious, but now I recognize there is nothing "true" or "correct" about them that others should be swayed by and that they are merely my personal preferences.
Since they aren't part of the web of cause-and-effect (so they might be epiphenomenal), are norms impossible to be irrational about?
I don't think it's inevitable that having emotion causes irrationality, but I think there is a tendency for it to cloud your mind and restraining yourself is a good idea. Maybe after calmly examining things you can say to yourself "This appears to be an optimum situation in which to freak out".
Robin writes: do you think your comments have a better than random chance of being true?
That's tough to answer. It can be hard to distinguish the things I've stated with those who claim to disagree with me. Eliezer agrees that there is no "moral stuff", but states that he has a different reaction (while I also deny having the reaction he denies). So what would it mean for my ideas to be false? It would mean that normative claims have some truth values, which in my interpretation means that Universe A where normative claim X is true must be detectably different from Universe B where normative claim X is false. If someone took a different interpretation that a claim can have truth value while that value makes no detectable difference it makes me wonder how different such a claim is from those of the type "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" and why anyone would care about the truth value of such a claim. So if I am wrong it would essentially mean that normative facts can be empirically discovered in an objective manner. People have been trying to figure out what is "good" for an extremely long time, and there is not yet a generally agreed upon body of knowledge in that area nor any method for building one. Proponents of religions at least hold out the possibility of the divine manifesting itself to us or an afterlife in which we encounter it, but disagreements on norms seem as likely to be settled as an argument about what Sherlock Holmes' favorite color was. So what would it mean if your views on the nature of morality were wrong?
If yes, why wouldn't spending more time thinking about the subject improve one's chances? Well, I don't expect that I would become more wrong if I read and thought more, just as is the case with theology and astrology. I also likely wouldn't become more wrong about any of those subjects (plus morality) if I spent more time reading the backs of cereal boxes. Sure, nobody has ever discovered any moral facts by reading them, but I already stated I didn't think anyone had made any progress reading and thinking about ethics. It would certainly be odd if everyone else was incapable of making such discoveries but I was not.
If not, how could you enjoy making random claims? If you randomly picked a digit from 0 to 9 (inclusive) I could have a good time arguing that it was the best of the bunch (that's why I can feel free to muse about waking up with a blue tentacle when I know it won't happen). Eventually I would get bored of that and ask why we care what the best digit is, which is less resemblant of a "random" claim and more of the claim I've made which is in dispute here. To me arguments about what book/movie/etc is better than another are essentially the same, except that I get to pick which one I stick up for.
Douglas writes: You used an example of moral progress produced by a philosopher: the word consequentialist.
I first encountered consequentialism in verbal form with the joke "Why did the chicken cross the road?". I don't know the philosopher who came up with it, but I can be confident that I would have come across it otherwise, even without reading any philosophy. I don't consider the word "consequentialism" to be an advancement in ethics, it is more meta-ethics. It is not even generally agreed by people who disagree with me that consequentialism is true, so I don't know how it can be considered an "advancement". How much of an advancement in it in other fields if some facts are not established with any degree of certainty but the uncertain facts themselves are given names?
Anna writes if faith is taken out of the equation will people be more or less inclined to want to be moralistic.
I admitted to myself I was agnostic/atheist/agnotheist around when I came to the conclusion about morality discussed above, but I don't think my behavior has really changed much. I suppose that back when I had strong religious beliefs I had planned not to do such things as having myself taken off life support in the event that such a thing was an issue because of the sinful nature of suicide, but that was far-off enough I can't really know how I would have acted. Even then I didn't really see anything wrong with other people deciding to do so, so perhaps I really didn't change much.
Robin, I don't think there is anything valuable to say in the fields of theology and astrology either, but if this blog were to have discussions on those topics I expect I would still enjoy reading them and making the same sorts of comments I am making here.
I would be interested to know in what ways you think the field of ethics has progressed and what things of value have been discovered.
Why do I not put much stock in theology and astrology? Because they have never produced anything useful. If astrologers were regularly winning the lottery based on the numbers they knew to be lucky, I wouldn't really care how idiotic their methods seem, because ignoring their ideas would result in worse outcomes for me. Physicists are able to make correct predictions and invent neat stuff, so even though quantum mechanics and relativity don't make complete sense to me I believe them and conclude that they do not have "fundamental methodological problems". What will happen if I ignore ethicists? I might do something "bad" (although there is no evidence people who take study ethics behave in accordance with what ethicists preach). There will no way to detect the effect of my "badness", so it will be indistinguishable from being judged by a "God" who watches from on high but does not intervene. At least the theologians promise some effect in the afterlife, and if it turns out that I was mistaken in not believing in God I'll have all eternity to regret it. What is the downside to ignoring ethicists? None whatsoever.
Regarding Popperian falsificationism, here is what Eliezer had to say about it "Falsification is much stronger than confirmation. This is a consequence of the earlier point that very strong evidence is not the product of a very high probability that A leads to X, but the product of a very low probability that not-A could have led to X. This is the precise Bayesian rule that underlies the heuristic value of Popper's falsificationism." Even if I ignored Bayesianism and stuck with Popper (which I'm not going to do), at least I would be following a heurisitic that would help me some of the time to avoid believing in the kind of nonsense Popper skewered and have more faith in the fields he contrasted with them. So that approach would be sub-optimal, but still have some value. In contrast, what value would I gain from believing in ethics?
Yes, Bob, Bayes does trump Popper. Eliezer has explained that pretty well already. However, I don't see how that saves ethics. There is no disconfirming evidence, and as a result no confirming evidence. There is no utility in knowing ethics, as far as I know, as it will not enable me to make better predictions or do neat things like sending a rocket to the moon. So I ask you, what makes ethics different from theology or astrology so that I should care what experts in it say?