Thursday, January 25, 2007

Obviously Not A Reply

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief. It is a response to Obviously (Not).


I apologize if I have confused the discussion by qualifying my support for the statement "The goal is maximize actual and potential Happiness while minimizing actual and potential Suffering." I was concerned about the effect that would have, and it was for that reason that I volunteered to continue using the statement as is, despite my reservations. As I hope to make clear (or at least clearer), I see that statement as a simplified, intuitively straightforward approximation to a more deeply grounded theory of ethics.

I had referred you to a particular post by Alonzo Fyfe, the Atheist Ethicist, in which he provided a criticism of happiness as the sole criterion by which to assign moral value. He does this by describing a hypothetical situation in which perfect happiness is guaranteed, but one which at least some people would intuitively regard as immoral. His claim is that Desire Utilitarianism can account for these cases where happiness is outweighed by other, well, desires. This in no way contradicts the suggestion that in very many cases, happiness is the strongest desire, which is why I could still view total happiness as an approximation of a more complete theory of ethics.

Desire utilitarianism, as described by Alonzo, is much more subtle and powerful than theories built on total happiness alone. (I should note, by the way, that Alonzo's critique was not of utilitarianism generally, but only a specific measure of value that is frequently advanced by atheists, just as I had done.) While I am not sure if I can explain why that is succinctly, I think its explanatory power derives primarily from recognizing that desires are the sole reasons for action, and from the positive and negative feedbacks applied to good and bad desires.

You said were confused because Alonzo appeared to you to be "specifically critiquing Utilitarian metrics for failing to adequately explain our desire" for love and truth, and further, that he would disagree that statements II and III from our MSSB "are potentially testable truth claims given the [Utilitarian] definition of moral value." First, let me repeat that Alonzo was addressing only a particular definition of moral value, not all types of utilitarianism. He is defending a different definition of moral value, but still under the broader umbrella of utilitarianism. Second, let me repeat that the point of the counter-example was not to show that happiness is not a factor in determining moral value, only that it cannot be the sole factor.

I suspect that Alonzo would agree that statements (II) and (III) are potentially testable truth claims given (X) as a metric. His claim, I believe, would be that (X) is not the best metric, and that the definition incorporated into desire utilitarianism is superior. I am almost entirely certain that Alonzo would view (II) and (III) as potentially testable truth claims under desire utilitarianism. (By the way, I am taking your version of (III), "Truth is better than Falsehood" to mean "Belief in truth is better than belief in falsehood".)

Does that help?

Moving on to my criticism of your deistic hypothesis, I apologize as well for creating more confusion there, though in this case, the seeds were planted when you wrote:

I believe that:

  1. We need a set of assumptions comparable to the MSSB in order to support meaningful "social inquiry."
  2. Using a deistic hypothesis -- that "the various systems encompassing humanity are the result of a benevolent Purpose" (one sympathetic to human Reason, Virtue, and Happiness) --- we can derive the MSSB assumptions as theorems, rather than needing to state them as axioms
  3. In science, a discrete list of facts is less powerful than a theory which explains them

[Emphasis mine.] I should have recognized that you did not mean "assumptions" so much as simply "statements" or "facts" or "propositions", since in (B) you spoke of deriving them. In fact, I described them in my response as "statements", but I probably put too much weight on your usage of the term "assumptions". Still, I stand by my claim that only (X) is necessary to support "meaningful social inquiry" (so that I disagree with (A)) and that the statements (I) - (IX) do not need to be stated as axioms (so that I disagree with (B), specifically the final clause, but read on).

Now in your last post you said:

I get that you "do not believe we need to treat (I) through (IX) as assumptions or axioms that could instead by derivable from a deistic hypothesis." [emphasis mine] My question was instead whether you agreed that we could derive something comparable to the MSSB starting from the deistic hypothesis; the last paragraph of your comment hints that you might, but I'd like to know for sure.

Let me explain how what you wrote gave a different impression. In your statement (B) you not only said "we can derive the MSSB assumptions as theorems" [emphasis mine] but also "rather than needing to state them as axioms". To me, this established a (false) dichotomy. If you had simply left off the final clause, I think your intention would have been more clear. I do see that you could have been merely contrasting one approach with another without claiming that the two together exhausted the possibilities. But then again, as I stated in the comments after my last post, the version of the goalpost statement that you were defending was that "belief in a transcendent moral purpose for the universe is ... essential ...". So again, I hope you can understand why I might have understood you to be making an exlusivist claim.

So now we return to the goalpost statement itself. You have suggested replacing the original statement with this one:

"Does the deistic hypothesis B provide a better explanation for the MSSB than an ethical metric such as X?"

The problem I have with this is that I do not think the statements in the MSSB are that difficult to explain under either the deistic hypothesis or an ethical metric like X. (I am not quite sure why the statements specifically about Christianity are particularly relevant to the deciding between a deistic hypothesis and X.) Additionally, it seems possible to me that a deistic hypothesis could in some sense include X, so that anything X explains, DHX would also explain. (Since you originally included X as a statement that DH could explain, this possibility appears somewhat likely.) In short, stated this way, I think the goalpost statement lacks discriminatory power.

I am of course open to reasons why you would disagree with this assessment. My basic position, though, is that there just is not enough meat on that bone.

Here is another perspective. Suppose we agreed on an ethical metric like X, where you consider it as part of a larger deistic hypothesis, and I considerate it the basis of a "standalone" theory of ethics. We also both agree that belief in truth is important to ethical behavior. The major relevant difference between us is what we believe to be true.

Way back in September, you advanced two propositions you would be willing to defend. We have spent the past four months on the first one, and in my view we have more or less agreed that your deistic hypothesis is consistent some core agreed-upon statements, but not necessary. Whether the DH is "more necessary" is as yet an open question, but in my view not a particularly interesting one, not unless the basis for discrimination can be strengthened.

I have always been more interested in the second proposition:

Belief in the Biblical narrative regarding God's role in shaping religious faith is as central and well-justified as belief in the scientific narrative regarding evolution's role in shaping anatomically modern humans.

Or, as you later stated it:

Epistemic dependence on received Scripture as a reliable indicator of divine will.

So, can I suggest we put the subject of ethics on the back burner for awhile and move on? And, while we have ethics simmering, can I suggest that you read Alonzo Fyfe's book, "A Better Place: Essays on Desire Utilitarianism"? As I said, I think DU provides a more sophisticated and well-developed theory of ethics than UU, and so might address some of the issues you find lacking in other systems you have looked into. I would be happy to send you a copy.

What do you think?



Dr. Ernie said...

Hi Alan,
Thanks for your clarifications. They do indeed help, and I can see (and do apologize for) how my earlier statements confused you. Before we go off on Scripture (Goalpost II), though, I would like to hear your response so my latest post (which probably crossed yours in the ether), which might help illuminate key differences in what we actually believe.
-- Ernie P.

Dr. Ernie said...

One more thing. In thinking about it, it sounds like there are actually three assertions underlying your paradigm:
1. There exist objective moral standards
2. We can measure how well we understand them by how effectively we minimize current and future suffering while maximizing current and future happiness.
3. Reason, empirical observation, and emotional perception are both necessary and sufficient to improve our understanding.
Is that a fair summary? -- Ernie P.

Alan Lund said...

1. Yes, objective moral standards exist. This does not mean that the standards are absolute, independent or unchanging.

2. I would not have put it quite that way, but I suppose it is not so far off the mark. (Do we "measure" our understanding of physics by the accuracy with which we can predict or explain experimental outcomes? I don't believe I have ever heard somebody put it quite that way.)

3. Reason and empirical observation (including emotional perception) are necessary. Like other fields of study, things like intuition and creativity have roles to play as well, and probably other activities . Is it important to produce an exhaustive list?