Wednesday, April 01, 2009

That Sounds Reasonable

In a number of recent posts the issue of "when does life begin" has come up. Nothing new for this blog, to be sure. Zhubin (the man who got me started blogging) has repeatedly made the claim that that question can only be answered "subjectively." His point is that because the answer is not objective it should be left to every individual to decide on their own (thus paving the way for abortion (even late term), embryonic stem cell research, etc.).

As a result of his argument I've spent a good deal of time thinking about subjectivity and objectivity, and the way those can play into this debate. I've spent some time talking about this in comments sections before, but I think it's something that warrants it's own post.

My working premise here is basically that subjectivity is completely irrelevant to the question of when life begins. Let's take a step back though, because I think Zhubin is right, that the answer itself is subjective.

What do we mean when we say "subjective"? Only that it cannot be known without reference to a person's internal state of mind. Objective means the opposite - that the answer can be known by looking at the world. Subjective questions are things like, "Do you feel hot or cold? What is your favorite color? Why are you marrying him? What things do you value?" Objective questions are things like "Is this an apple tree? How many apples are on the tree? If I drop the apple why does it fall to the ground?" It's not a difficult distinction.

Notice though that just because a question is subjective does not mean that the answer is relative (by relative I mean that every answer is as good as every answer). Objective questions cannot be relative (I'm pretty sure... if anyone can come up with one, I'll withdraw this claim). On the other hand, subjective questions can be relative. For example, "what is your favorite color" is a completely relative claim. It's a question of opinion.

But just because some subjective questions are relative doesn't mean they all are. In fact, I would say that most subjective questions (or at least the interesting ones) aren't relative. For example, "why are you marrying him?" is a subjective question to which there are better and worse answers. A very good answer would be "because I love him." A very bad answer would be "because then I get to go on a honeymoon."

We can all see quite clearly what makes the good answer good and the bad answer bad (if you need me to explain it, I suppose I can...). Not only that, but we'd all agree that the good answer is the better one, and the bad answer is the worse one. Maybe someone could say something about what's missing for the good answer, or what the bad answer has going for it, but ultimately we're all going to agree that the good answer is the better one, and the bad answer is the worse of the two.

The fact that we would all agree on this speaks volumes about the fact that subjectivity does not equal relativity. First, this shows an expectation that we all carry. Unlike with an opinion, we expect that a person will give a reasoned response to the question "why are you marrying him?" This is the kind of question we would think about before giving the answer, and we naturally assume that others would think about it too. Secondly this shows a universality to the answer. There might ultimately be lots of good reasons that answer the question, and different people might weigh the good options slightly differently. But when you get right down to it, there's a heck of a lot more agreement about what constitutes a good answer then there is disagreement. It'd be a rare person who says a honeymoon is an appropriate reason to get married.

Beyond the the fact that we all agree roughly on the answer is a more important point: the fact that there is a good answer and a bad answer reveals that the subjective is susceptible to reason, and is not merely the product of opinion. We can evaluate, appraise, debate, construct, hone and share our subjective conclusions. Using reason as a tool we can come to a better subjective answer to a question. We all do this, all the time. Or at least I hope we do... We aren't simply born with a set of subjective views, nor do we simply happen upon them in our lives. Our subjective views are learned. Through our experiences, through our classes, through our families and heroes and examples. Our subjective views can change and transform over time, as we learn new things and allow reason to continue to work on our ideals (I suppose it can also work the other way too, that we can continue to let prejudices and lack of reason affect our subjective views).

The ultimate point here is that, because our subjective views can be influenced by reason they are not relative. Reason directs us to the better answers, and away from the worst. There is no necessary connection between subjectivity and relativity. To say so is to deny that reason plays a role in developing our subjective views. We might not all reason to the same result, but we're probably all going to get pretty close, and narrow the disagreements down to just a few points. The resulting disagreements aren't a reason to disengage, but rather a call for us to actively work towards consensus. Working together - listening carefully, advocating constructively, and reasoning precisely - will move us all in the direction of the best results.

And... to bring this all back around to the abortion issue: Zhubin has said we should leave it to the individual mother to answer the question "when is life worth protecting" because the answer to that question is subjective. My response is: so what? There are still better and worse answers to that question, and it is our duty to put our reason to work coming to the best resolution of that question that we possibly can. The subjectivity of the question just gives us all the more reason to engage our reason.

No more a rake and no more a bachelor
I was wedded and it whetted my thirst

30 comments:

Zhubin said...

Well, alright, I'll respond, even though I won't be saying anything new.

For one thing, your argument is really just a very lengthy example of the Democratic Fallacy. The fact that most people would agree that "I get to go on a honeymoon" is a bad answer to the question "why are you getting married" does not mean that the answer is bad. Nor does it "speak volumes about the fact that subjectivity does not equal relativity" or "reveal that the subjective is susceptible to reason." All it means is that most people share similar subjective values about marriage.*

And that's all fine and dandy, but it's no answer to the honeymooner's opinion that the honeymoon is such a wonderful, meaningful life experience that it overcomes any negative aspects of a marriage. You have no argument against that view that isn't founded on your own subjective values, which have formed from your own experiences, prejudices and beliefs that are wholly different from his. That's not to say you can't try to persuade him to see things your way, or that you won't succeed at it, but it certainly won't be through the use of reason.

More to the point, though, and to tie it back to abortion, it's one thing to try to persuade a couple that they shouldn't get married just for the honeymoon, and it's quite another to suggest that we outlaw their marriage because you don't approve of it. Now you're no longer just suggesting that your subjective values are superior to another person's values, you're suggesting that your subjective values per se are superior to her freedom to live out her own values. That's just not acceptable in a liberal democracy.




* And, just to run this thought down the predictable Sociology track, even your marriage example undermines your underlying point that subjectivity is susceptible to reason. What people consider to be appropriate reasons for marrying have varied dramatically throughout the history of the West and vary widely across the globe today. Today's "we're in love" is 1750's "he has money" is 10,000 B.C.'s "he just killed my husband." If anything, this shows how even the most deeply-held beliefs of our modern lives rest on easily shifting socio-cultural foundations, not on any universal principles of reason.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Zhubin -

Are you then a relativist? Is every moral position just as good as every other moral position?

Zhubin said...

No, but I don't consider the value of a moral position to be based on how many people agree with me on it.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Neither do I.

Perhaps I wasn't clear before, because I wasn't arguing from majority agreement to correct view (the democratic fallacy), but rather was using majority agreement as a shorthanded way of showing two things: first, that people are directed towards similiar answers (and I would suggest that reason is the directing force), and second, that we expect people to think and reason about the answers to the question. The reason that expectation is important is because it helps show how subjective relative questions are different from subjective non-relative questions. When asked about favorite color we don't expect people to give a thought-out response, and even if we disagree with them we won't deny that their answer is in fact their favorite color. But with a question like "why are you marrying him," we have a very different response, and we expect a well-reasoned answer. And if we disagree with their reason we will look back to see where an error in thinking was made - whether by them or us - or if there's some sort of middle ground, or some redeeming value to what they say, or if they're missing something, etc. If we disagree we explore the reasoning that goes into the answer. That's a very different response than with the color question, and our expectations are completely different for the two.

Consider, for example, if someone answered that question with, "because I'm attracted to him". That would be a somewhat acceptable answer to the question (there are things to be said both in favor and opposed to the relevance of this statement). But that's also an opinion statement about whether or not the individual husband-to-be is attractive. Wether or not we agree on the opinion of the man's attractiveness doesn't change our assesment of the quality of her answer. No matter whether the guy is George Clooney or the Hunchback of Notredame, the answer "I am attracted to him" is a somewhat acceptable reason to give as an answer to "why are you marrying him?" In this example we can see pretty clearly the way in which our opinions differ from our subjective reasons. Make sense?

Anyway, I was trying to use universality as a shorthanded way of accessing the way we all experience the difference between opinion and subjective reason. Perhaps that wasn't the right move. So we'll divorce the two and I'll just make the claim that people experience opinion and subjective reason differently.

Also, I wasn't arguing from universality to show that the subjective is susceptible to reason. My claim was that the fact that we, as individuals, can assess the quality of a subjective answer is proof that the subjective is susceptible to reason. You lumped this point in with the rest of your dismissal, so I wonder if you might reconsider the point. Do you think our subjective views can be altered/amended by reason?

Finally, I'm really very curios as to what you consider the value of a moral position to be based on? If not every moral view is as good as another, but reason isn't the thing that distinguishes them, then what is?

R.W.McGee said...

I would argue that reason is NOT the force that drives people toward similar subjective values.

Rather it is environment and education that causes people to hold these values. If all school children are taught when they are young that Custer was 'good' and the Native Americans who killed him were 'bad' only the ones who do more research into those positions as they grow up are likely to change their viewpoint as an adult.

Zhubin hit the nail on the head when he said;

the most deeply-held beliefs of our modern lives rest on easily shifting socio-cultural foundations, not on any universal principles of reason.

The comforting answer to your question about moral values is that common sense dictates them; we all know it's wrong to kill, steal, cheat...and this gives us the basic guidelines for behavior.

The true answer is that moral values are nothing more or less than the cultural dictates of any given civilization (being a group of people who have decided to live in proximity using an agreed upon set of rules to manage their society.) And they may vary widely from society to society.
(For example, ancient Southern American tribes condoned human sacrifice, early American settlements condoned slavery, etc. etc.)

Perhaps if there was some sort of 'active God' who interacted with humanity and laid down moral dictates, that would produce a more objective system...but even then I suspect a large percentage of humanity would refuse to submit to restrictions of their moral freedom by a higher power.

All things are relative. The easiest proof is to talk to somebody who is 'colorblind.' What you see as blue, they might see as pink. Who is to say which person is seeing the TRUE color?

No human can really hope to speak for anybody other than themselves in terms of the sensory input they receive. Shared languages may help us establish common ideas for things (ie: both people call an apple an apple, instead of one person calling it an apple and the other an orange) but essentially all experiences are self-contained.

I would say objectivity as it is usually defined is a myth.

Zhubin said...

WRT to your first paragraph, Matt, and along the lines of what R.W. said, I just flatly disagree with the idea that majority agreement suggests that people are generally directed towards similar answers by reason. There's just far too much evidence indicating the exact opposite - that social, cultural, economic, and other environmental factors have a decisive effect on limiting the range of a populations' opinions and beliefs. Not to mention that your use of "similar" won't withstand clarification. And not only do I disagree with your point that majority agreement on certain issues suggests that we expect people to think and reason about the answers to subjective questions, I can't even tell how you derived the latter from the former.

In any event, I don't accept your separation of "subjective reasons" from "opinions." A person with a subjective position relies on a subjective value to support that position, whether that value is "blue is an appealing color or "honeymoons are important life experiences." To use your example, if a person says she's marrying someone because she's attracted to him, her conclusion ("this man is worth marrying") is logically following (i.e., is well-reasoned) from her premises ("attraction is all I need from a spouse" and "this guy is attractive"). You can't reason with her about her opinion that attraction is the only thing she needs from a spouse any more than you can reason about whether the color blue isn't the best color.

And you personally don't, I should add. No disrespect, but when you say "if someone answered that question with, 'because I'm attracted to him' that would be a somewhat acceptable answer to the question," what the hell are you talking about? "Somewhat acceptable" based on what? Based on your own values, is what. You, Matt Novak, believe that attraction is a trait but not the only trait needed in a spouse, so you find this answer somewhat acceptable. You have no objective reason opposing her position, just your own equally subjective position.

Which ties in with your claim that "the fact that we, as individuals, can assess the quality of a subjective answer is proof that the subjective is susceptible to reason." No, because again, the only basis on which you are assessing the quality of that subjective answer is your own subjective values. If you can provide an objective assessment of the quality of the statement "attraction is all I need from a spouse" then I'll "reconsider the point."

Matthew B. Novak said...

R.W. -

The comforting answer to your question about moral values is that common sense dictates them; we all know it's wrong to kill, steal, cheat...and this gives us the basic guidelines for behavior.

Ah, but doesn't this run exactly oppposite to your entire premise that moral values are nothing more or less than the cultural dictates of any given civilization? I'm inclined to think that you want to cite to common sense because you see the error of true relativity. But what's the difference between saying "common sense dictates our moral values" and "reason dictates our values?" And I would ask you just how far "common sense" goes in defining our values?

You argue from different moral views to relativism. First of all, this is the same as the democratic falacy, but run in reverse. Second, there's an awful lot more agreement (as you seem to point out yourself) than there is disagreement.

Finally, I would ask whether or not you personally use reason in constructing your moral values?

Zhubin said...

I think R.W. was contrasting the "comforting answer" with the "true answer."

Matthew B. Novak said...

Zhubin -

In any event, I don't accept your separation of "subjective reasons" from "opinions."

Really? You really think "what's your favorite color" and "why are you marrying him" are similiar questions? If someone gave an answer you disagreed with for each of those questions you would honestly react the exact same way? Really?

You can't reason with her about her opinion that attraction is the only thing she needs from a spouse any more than you can reason about whether the color blue isn't the best color.

Sure you can. This is exactly what people do. I can show her how that premise is short sighted, how it overlooks other values, etc. I can certainly have a productive conversation with her about her reasons for marriage in a way I can't with color. Yes, these will be my subjective values, but that in no way precludes efficacy. Our very human experience speaks to this fact. If you don't believe this, why do you even engage in any debate/discussion?

Finally, did you not see my final question? Because that's a pretty important point. You've said you're not a relativist, but you refuse to say what distinguishs better and worse values. So let me ask it again:

What do you consider the value of a moral position to be based on? If not every moral view is as good as another, but reason isn't the thing that distinguishes them, then what is?

Zhubin said...

If someone gave an answer you disagreed with for each of those questions you would honestly react the exact same way? Really?

It's not an issue of reacting the same way, Matt. Is that what you're saying the difference between the two is? How I would react? I'm saying that both decisions are based on subjective values. Both "blue is the best color" and "the honeymoon is worth the marriage" are just value statements that are not dependent on objective reason. There's no "opinion" or "subjective reason" difference.

I can show her how that premise is short sighted, how it overlooks other values, etc. I can certainly have a productive conversation with her about her reasons for marriage in a way I can't with color. Yes, these will be my subjective values, but that in no way precludes efficacy.

I may have been using "reason" imprecisely - I'm not saying you can't convince her to adopt your subjective values or at least to reconsider hers. I'm saying that doing so does not prove that your subjective values are "better." You've just got one more person holding then.

As for my own views, I think I misinterpreted your earlier question. I don't think moral values per se can be objectively compared, no.

Matthew B. Novak said...

I'm saying that both decisions are based on subjective values. Both "blue is the best color" and "the honeymoon is worth the marriage" are just value statements that are not dependent on objective reason. There's no "opinion" or "subjective reason" difference.

I'm not saying those values aren't subjective, I'm saying that there's two different types of subjective - opinion and non-relative subjective value (those types of subjective values that are susceptible to reason). It is no response to say "those values are subjective", because there's no dispute. I'm trying to show how there are differences within the types of subjective questions that can be asked. To that effect, the way we would react to the different questions is entirely relevant because it demonstrates that something different is going on in those two questions. We do experience the two types of subjective value differently - we don't expect people to have a well-reasoned response to their favorite color, or even that reason could affect that answer, and so we don't appraise the answer as better or worse. But we do expect a well-reasoned answer to "why marry him?", and we appraise that answer (the particular outcome of the appraisal isn't important, only that we do it). These differences in our reaction help show that there are different types of subjective questions - some of which are impervious to reason (opinions) and some of which are susceptible to reason.

I'm not saying you can't convince her to adopt your subjective values or at least to reconsider hers. I'm saying that doing so does not prove that your subjective values are "better."

Ah, but I'm not trying to say that my subjective values are better. I'm just trying to show that people are able to discuss, in a meaningful way, what values are better and worse. The fact that they are able to do so is itself indicative of the fact that reason acts on our subjective values.

I think I misinterpreted your earlier question. I don't think moral values per se can be objectively compared, no.

So yes or no, all moral values are equally worthy?

Zhubin said...

To that effect, the way we would react to the different questions is entirely relevant because it demonstrates that something different is going on in those two questions.

I just disagree with that. I don't see how you can hang your distinction on something as vague as how "we" "react" to the different questions. I don't even know who "we" is and what "react" is supposed to mean - each individual would respond with various levels of shock or agreement to "the honeymoon is worth the marriage" depending on how it speaks to his own values. "Matt Novak" does not mean "we." And even if it did, how does "our" shocked reaction suggest that the honeymoon-value is susceptible to reason? All it suggests is that "we" find that value absurd, the same way we would if someone suggested that "vomit orange" was the best color.

If that's all you have to justify your distinction between "subjective reasons" and "opinions" then I don't know what to tell you.

Ah, but I'm not trying to say that my subjective values are better. I'm just trying to show that people are able to discuss, in a meaningful way, what values are better and worse. The fact that they are able to do so is itself indicative of the fact that reason acts on our subjective values.

I don't really know what you're saying here. As far as I can tell, you seem to be making the logical leap that, because some people can be convinced to modify or abandon their subjective values, then subjective values can be objectively scaled. I'm not holding hands and making that leap with you.

So yes or no, all moral values are equally worthy?

I've already said: no, not in my subjective opinion, but I couldn't point to an objective scale that would show the superiority of my moral values per se against others. But I know you're itching for an unnuanced "yes" so you can make some argument, so just go ahead and make it.

R.W.McGee said...

Zhubin said...

I think R.W. was contrasting the "comforting answer" with the "true answer."

8:12 PM


That is correct. What I called the 'comforting answer' I believe to be a fallacy.


Also, I will give you the 'yes' for all moral values are equally worthy.

Of course, I have my own subjective set of values...and we may agree on many issues...and I may even try to impose my values on others to some extent, being the fallible human being I am.

But, in a philosophical sense I do believe that all moral values are equal, and it is the weight of society or cultural opinion that ends up imbuing some with more weight than others.

When society, or cultural values, change...so to changes acceptable morality. You need look no farther back then the American 70s and the era of 'free love' to see the truth inherent in this.

R.W.McGee said...

Oh, and as an aside. You're imbuing the marriage issue with more weight than the favorite color issue because of your own subjective value system...which says that who somebody marries is more important than what their favorite color is.


However, both are just attributes that show what or who that person values...and in some cases who they marry might be the more deceptively meaningless value...as we can see from the high rates of divorce worldwide, and especially in America.


In any case, both are subjective data points, which can be analyzed or weighted subjectively based on the relative ideas of a third party as to which is more important.

If I said that the favorite color question was MORE important to me, you might suspect I was being contrarian, but you can't be sure.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Zhubin: [Not all moral values are equal] in my subjective opinion, but I couldn't point to an objective scale that would show the superiority of my moral values per se against others.

R.W.: Of course, I have my own subjective set of values... But, in a philosophical sense I do believe that all moral values are equal.

I guess the question I have for both of you is why do you even have your own subjective set of values? How did you develop those? Have they ever changed? If so, what is the force that changes them?

I'm not looking to make a point here, I'm just honestly surprised to find relativsits.

I guess I would also say that there are all sorts of really really good arguments against relativism. I'm not going to bring any of those up because I think the best one, and the idea on which this whole post was premised, is human experience.

We (meaning all humans, Zhubin) all think about what values matter most and apply our reason in answering questions that require us to weigh values. If we truly believed that every value was just as good as every other we wouldn't waste our time and energy on appraising right and wrong. As R.W. pointed out, If I said that the favorite color question was MORE important to me, you might suspect I was being contrarian. He claimed I couldn't be sure. But I am. And we all know it.

R.W.McGee said...

why do you even have your own subjective set of values? How did you develop those? Have they ever changed? If so, what is the force that changes them?

I won't speak for Zhubin, but I have my own set of subjective values because if I didn't I would be a sociopath. All people (except for sociopaths) have their own set of subjective values, influenced strongly by culture and surrounding.

I hate to pull Nazi Germany into any debate, because it's such a conversational cliche (I'll make it brief) but you may notice that when it is a sociopath at the head of a society...values within that society often deteriorate to match. Please account for the widespread abuse of the Jewish people in that time some other way!

And yet, after the war, when they were occupied and divided, and after reconciliation these same people were horrified by what they had done...and Nazism and those acts are widely renounced in Germany.

So, tell me, did all those people objectively view the mistreatment of a minority as wrong before AND after the rise of the Third Reich, but collectively act AGAINST their own morals during that period? That simply isn't feasible. It may be true of some of the population, but to control an entire country, many of those people must have undergone subjective changes to their value systems based on the situations they found themselves in, the ideas presented to them!

You talk about 'thinking and reasoning over which values to weigh more' as though it proves your point...but discussing moral values is an inherently subjective activity. It presupposes that the ideas we hold COULD be wrong, and that we may still yet learn something to change our minds, to change the way we view the world, to provide us with new ideas...moral or otherwise.

Not only am I a relativist and in favor of subjectivity...I would argue that NOTHING is more important to the success of human society. Our ideas MUST be able to evolve.

Once people believed slavery was acceptable. Now it is not.

Once people believed persecution of minority races and faiths was acceptable. Now many people think it is not.

I could go on and on, but my basic point is that we are not building to some universal moral truth...we are merely continuing to change and evolve our ideas as we learn more as a collective human race.

Hopefully those improvements will be for the 'better' of humanity (if there is such a thing) but the important factor is that we are adaptable, that we never stop learning from past ideas.

Establishing an Objective code of ideas may be comforting in that it gives us something in common, makes every person feel like they are part of a larger entity...but it is paralyzing to human progress in general.

And I welcome your arguments against this, because even if you believe you are arguing for objective truths or morality...really you are engaging in a discussion, and to do that you have already admitted to the value, relevence, or at least the existence of OTHER ideas...which is what relativity is all about.

Zhubin said...

I'd actually say that "human experience" proves the relativity of moral values. Moral values widely differ across time and cultures, and individuals not only modify their moral values as their life experiences accumulate but will adopt totally opposite values in response to the same experiences (e.g., victims of a murdered relative suddenly becoming pro- or anti- death penalty). Where do you find the objectivity in this?

I guess the question I have for both of you is why do you even have your own subjective set of values? How did you develop those? Have they ever changed? If so, what is the force that changes them? . . . If we truly believed that every value was just as good as every other we wouldn't waste our time and energy on appraising right and wrong.

You should know the answer to this, I'm sure you've read writings from atheists or non-religious people on the matter. But suffice it to say that I derive (and modify) my values from my spiritual views and life experiences. It's no concern to me that I can't justify my values to others with objective measurements -- why would I care to do so, anyway? My values are for me, not anyone else, so all they need is my endorsement.

R.W.McGee said...

It's no concern to me that I can't justify my values to others with objective measurements -- why would I care to do so, anyway? My values are for me, not anyone else, so all they need is my endorsement.

Well put, although, as evidenced by this thread, that does not mean people won't try to exchange or share their values. I think a desire exists in every person to make their own internal values understood by others.

This desire makes nationalism and organized religion strong forces, because they are both areas where people can come together and express a common identity. They provide the illusion of shared objective values.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Zhubin -

Moral values widely differ across time and cultures, and individuals not only modify their moral values as their life experiences accumulate but will adopt totally opposite values in response to the same experiences.

Now you're making the same mistake that is made in the democratic fallacy. Just as agreement does not show correctness, so too disagreement does not show that there isn't a better answer.

You should know the answer to this, I'm sure you've read writings from atheists or non-religious people on the matter.

I have honestly never read an even remotely compelling reason for creating a system of subjective values if you believe that all values are objectively the same.

My values are for me, not anyone else, so all they need is my endorsement.

Then why in the world do you spend so much time and energy on these issues?

Also, just the most basic of questions here: how can we justify having any laws at all when those laws reflect subjective values?

Matthew B. Novak said...

I have my own set of subjective values because if I didn't I would be a sociopath.

Under your philosophy, what's wrong with being a sociopath? In order to answer my question "why even have a set of subjective values" you cannot reference your own subjective values.

Oh, and as far as the Nazi thing goes... didn't Hitler have a pretty clear set of values? I wouldn't say Nazi Germany is the product of people without values, it's the product of people not stopping to use reason in constructing their system of values. In fact, this helps explain their horror after the fact too - they once again engaged their reason and saw the error of their ways.

I think there might be some confusion here, because it seems like you're setting "cultural influence" and "reason" in opposition to each other as sources of a person's values. I would say that both "reason" and "cultural influence" have an effect on the values a person embraces. The two are not in any way mutually exclusive. I recognize the influence that culture has on values. I would just add that using reason as well as cultural influence helps drive a person to do a better job in embracing values.

I'd also caution you because you're using the fact that people have different morals and/or that people change their morals as examples that all moral views are equally valid. But that conclusion doesn't follow from those premises. Yes, people change their subjective values. And yes, they do it for any number of reasons (cultural influence, peer pressure, convenience, reason, etc.). But the fact that they change doesn't mean both the before and after values are equally worthy.

We are merely continuing to change and evolve our ideas as we learn more as a collective human race.


I'm confused... are you saying that the values we have today are better than the values we used to have (i.e. no slavery is better than slavery)? Because the relativist has no ground from which to say such a thing... And if we're talking about evolving as we learn more, that would be a process of evolving through reason...

To do that you have already admitted to the value, relevence, or at least the existence of OTHER ideas...which is what relativity is all about.

Actually relativity is exactly the opposite... it's about saying that no ideas have any objective value, that they're all equal and therefore, essentially, without any importance. It doesn't matter what you think, what you value, it's all the same. So whether you value causing pain or relieving pain, those are exactly equal, and no one can say boo to the other.

Reason, on the other hand, says we can acknowledge the other values people present and work to understand different moral views and the good aspects they bring, and recognize the flaws in our own.

R.W.McGee said...

how can we justify having any laws at all when those laws reflect subjective values?

Who is we? I don't justify the laws...I follow them because I will be punished if I do not. I attempt to change those laws I disagree with, while acknowledging that the firmament of the legal establishment and lobbying interests is such that the work of an individual is probably futile.

Don't hold up 'the law' as though it is universally agreed to. It is enforced, and not necessarily by a majority opinion.


Just as agreement does not show correctness, so too disagreement does not show that there isn't a better answer

disagreement shows that there is no SINGLE answer. The term better is entirely relative, as whether something is 'better' or not can only be judged by individuals.

R.W.McGee said...

Actually relativity is exactly the opposite... it's about saying that no ideas have any objective value, that they're all equal and therefore, essentially, without any importance. It doesn't matter what you think, what you value, it's all the same. So whether you value causing pain or relieving pain, those are exactly equal, and no one can say boo to the other

What? Not at all. Relativity is acknowledging that ALL ideas have value. What you are talking about seems more like a form of nihilism.

Matthew B. Novak said...

R.W. -

I didn't ask how we can justify the laws, I asked how we can justify having any laws. The laws relfect and enforce value judgments. If no value judgment is better or worse, then it does not make sense to enforce any particular value judgments, and thus the concept of law is absurd.

Disagreement shows that there is no SINGLE answer.

I've never said that there is a single answer, only that there are better and worse. To argue against "better and worse" you have cited to the disagreements people have. But the existence of disagreement doesn't mean there aren't better and worse. That's my point. You can't argue against the existence of better and worse by just pointing out that people would disagree about the outcome.

Relativity is acknowledging that ALL ideas have value. What you are talking about seems more like a form of nihilism.

You've said time and again that no idea has objective value (the point I made before). Thus, relativity says that all ideas have subjective value. And it has been your position that because it is subjective it is neither better nor worse, neither right nor wrong. Every idea is equally valuable. If every idea is equally valuable, then that means it doesn't matter what you believe. Whether you embrace causing or relieving pain, it's all the same, because both of those have an equal value.

I'm just playing out your ideas to their natural conclusion. If that's nihilism... so be it. Unless I've got one of the steps wrong, in which case I invite you to show me where I've made that misstep...

R.W.McGee said...

The misstep is that you some how equate things being equal with them having no value. Life, ideas, beliefs aren't like integers. In math 1 and -1 equal 0.

In life, you can take two entirely different ideals, let's say socialism and capitalism, and you can find a whole variety of opinions on them. Some people want pure socialism, some people think the systems can be mixed, where a government provides a great deal of infrastructure service but competitive private industry is still allowed, some people favor pure market driven capitalism, some people like the Chinese system where a socialist government allows private sector enclaves.

You can spend forever trying to determine which is 'better' or 'worse' you can watch them all in effect, poll people, see which governments are most stable...but in the end they are all equal as ideas. All valuable in some ways. Some people will prefer one, some another. Sometimes a government that uses one will fail...but was that the reason? We can't be sure other more important factors weren't in play.

In the end, you can make a PERSONAL judgment about which is better or worse...and perhaps many people will agree with you. But that doesn't make it objectively so, no matter how much 'data' you think you can produce.

Religion is another useful example. Some people believe in Judaism, others in Christianity, etc. etc. You can make all the reasoned arguments you want about one or the other...but in the end people believe because of their internal faith. There is no objective truth to it...(or at least none we get to discover during this life)

Just because I believe in relativism, because I don't believe any of those ideas are inherently or objectively better or correct...doesn't mean I don't value them, or think they're without value.

Matthew B. Novak said...

The misstep is that you some how equate things being equal with them having no value.

I'm not saying things have NO value, I'm saying that if your claim is that they're all equal, then whichever value a person embraces is completely irrelevant. That's not a misstep, that's a natural conclusion of saying all values have the same validity.

You can spend forever trying to determine which is 'better' or 'worse' you can watch them all in effect, poll people, see which governments are most stable...but in the end they are all equal as ideas.

Your position amounts to nothing more than a base assertion that they're all equal in the end. I would say that, quite the opposite, by investigating and using our reason as a tool we can come to a better or worse answer. This is actually indicated by the very example you give... that we can engage our faculties in trying to discern which values we prize most. If there were nothing to distinguish better and worse values then we couldn't even try to make assessments.

All valuable in some ways. Some people will prefer one, some another.

Well yeah, I know all the different values are valuable in different ways. To take your example, there are certainly things that can be said for a wide variety of different types of government. But what helps us understand the pluses and minuses of each system is our reason; our ability to think about the systems and what they offer. So even if I personally prefer Democracy that doesn't mean I can't see the value in socalism. Your world view says "democracy, socalism, whatever, they're equally good, there isn't even any point in discerning between the two." My world view says "here are the good things about democracy, here are the good things about socalism." Relativism doesn't have a monopoly in seeing the value in contrasting positions. In fact, if anything, it says we can't make rational assesments of values, because in the end those assesments are all just subjective anyway.

R.W.McGee said...

Alright, I feel we are perhaps spinning in circles. I'll make a closing argument and say no more.


I can disagree with ANY objective truth you claim. No amount of reason or proof you offer will cause me to accept it.

Because among humanity's many traits is the ability to deceive ourselves, to self-delude, to ignore the rational if we choose to in favor of our own nonsensical ideas.


See, I can tell you that nobody can walk on water. I've seen many people, and plenty of water...and a ton of combinations of both. But never have I seen somebody walk on it, at least not without some serious technical assistance.

But there are people who will tell you a man DID walk on water. They call it a 'miracle.' I have to tell you, as an objective test it fails the rational biases you would use.


Or that fishes and loaves can be magically multiplied, or that people see UFOs, or that a wizard aged backwards and a holy man moved a mountain.

Call it human conceit if you want, but the world around you exists THROUGH you. Mountains are there because you see them, rocks are rough because you touch them, waves crash because you hear them, ideas are shared because you speak them.

For human beings, what exists, exists because we are conscious of it's existence. If we were not...it would NOT BE.

That gives everybody an equal lease on the facts...because everybody has a consciousness that is unique.

Objectivity is just a myth we cling to because nobody wants to be alone with that consciousness.

Matthew B. Novak said...

For human beings, what exists, exists because we are conscious of it's existence. If we were not...it would NOT BE.

That gives everybody an equal lease on the facts...because everybody has a consciousness that is unique.


Even if we were to accept that first statement (perception is the be-all and end-all), your second does not follow from it (because there could easily exist conscioiusness that are superior and inferior, better and worse at perception, more and less able to comprehend that perception.

It's the classic blind people describing an elephant idea. We all percieve our own limited sphere of existence but that doesn't mean there isn't a reality.

And yes, our limited experience shapes our subjective views, but we also bring something to that experience of the world - specifically our ability to think about it and understand it. And to the extent we engage our rational abilities we are better able to develop our views. No one person will ever be able to reach all of the better views, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

Zhubin said...

Let me turn the clock back a little and address Matt's claims to me:

Now you're making the same mistake that is made in the democratic fallacy. Just as agreement does not show correctness, so too disagreement does not show that there isn't a better answer.

No no no -- you're the one saying that human experience suggests better answers. I'm saying that, before we even get to whether that's a DF (which it is), we can dismiss that as just being incorrect. People derive all sorts of different moral values from similar experiences.

I have honestly never read an even remotely compelling reason for creating a system of subjective values if you believe that all values are objectively the same.

You don't have to find it compelling - I'm sure you wouldn't. I'm just saying these arguments have been around for a while.

Also, just the most basic of questions here: how can we justify having any laws at all when those laws reflect subjective values?

You know the responses to this question, let's not get out of the sandbox. Bottom line is, if you're claiming the existence of an objective moral code -- that there IS an elephant -- you can't just point to "human experience."

Zhubin said...

And not to put TOO fine a point on it, Matt, but obviously the idea of an objective morality finds its basis in an objective source, which can only be God, and specifically the personal, separate, judgmental God of the major monotheistic religions. So any appeal to an objective morality is really just an appeal to adopt the appealer's subjective belief in their religious doctrine.

It's all ultimately subjective, really.

Matthew B. Novak said...

You know the responses to this question, let's not get out of the sandbox.

Honestly Zhubin, the only response I've ever heard to the question of "why laws" that a relativist actually believed was some sort of appeal to order. Which of course makes no sense, since for a relativist disorder is just as worthy a value as order, and therefore we have no cause to create order. I'm really honestly curious about how you can justify the existence of laws.

if you're claiming the existence of an objective moral code -- that there IS an elephant -- you can't just point to "human experience."

First off, I haven't been pointing to the existence of an objective moral code. I've been pointing to a subjective non-relative moral code. I believe that people can think about values in a meaningful way, and derive better moral conclusions than if they were to just arbitrarily pick a value. The relativist holds the opposite - that values are all of the same worth and therefore can be picked arbitrarily.

To that effect, I've offered human experience as a way of showing how people actually act. That is, we do think about our values, we do decide what we value by appeal to our reason. We do not just arbitrarily pick values. Human experience shows us how we actually operate, and my appeal is from our actual operation to the fact that our values are the product of our thinking about them.

What particular values are better and worse and how we make that determination isn't relevant to this discussion (that's a different argument, where some people would say "reason shows us what is best" and some would say "God shows us what is best" and some would say all manner of different things). All that's relevant is that we can and do think about our values and that they are susceptible to reason; that just because our values are determined by reference to our subjective doesn't mean they're all equally worthy. Our very human experience - wherein we try to determine which are more and less worthy - speaks to that fact.