Author Topic: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.  (Read 7139 times)

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Offline Hierophant

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #29 on: April 17, 2013, 04:11:47 AM »
"Yes by csm I am referring to intuitionist positions."
Very well then, I am going to argue for it. But not in the way you presented it in your OP.

"I have not read Zamulinski but I am surprised to find an intuitionist arguing that we don't bear intuative ethical preference towards friends and family members."
Sorry if there was a misunderstanding, but EvoInt does argue that we owe ethical preference to ourselves, then kin, then friends, then other members of our society (that is to say, people we interact with and depend on). This Zamulinski calls desire-dependence. For the sake of clarity I will preserve his nomenclature.

"Perhaps you could run the argument from EvoInt that says we owe the same ethical duty to the children of others as to our own children?"
I am not claiming this, no. Again, sorry if I created some confusion on this issue.

"Apart from the problem of differing duties which, as I pointed out in the OP, leads to sub-optimal results in group ethical behaviour,"
I deny that the problem exists as you describe it because EvoInt leads to the conclusion that it is prohibited to sacrifice other people's lives for our own benefit. Tell me if I should go in more detail on that.

"it is far too reductionist trying to equate the 'good' of a charitable act, with the 'good' of a beautiful piece of art, the 'good' of the birth of a child, and the 'good' of an alcoholic's recovery. Of course you could argue that there are different 'goods' but then you have actually moved away from intuitionism by analyzing 'good' thus rendering it a complex term."
How it is "far too reductionist"? We do make instinctual judgments of esthetics, and these instinctual judgments are similar to those which we make about perception, an act's rightness, a logical process, etc. Are you saying this is incorrect or incomplete?

Offline Azdgari

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #30 on: April 17, 2013, 05:03:19 AM »
As for the two points you raise above. I think there is a tension here. On the one hand you seem to argue that ethics do not have any objective truth vlaue (a fact I entirely agree with you on - see below); on the other hand you do seem to want to claim that their subjective existence as instantiated in our behaviour is sufficient to attain our belief.

Okay, re: the bolded - I have no clue what you're trying to say that I'm saying.  What I was actually saying, is that the values we hold justify our own actions morally to ourselves.  They are also what we use to judge others.  We judge them according to our values, not according to theirs.  We are justified, to ourselves, in doing so.  And since we are the ones making the decisions that we actually carry out, that works just fine.

I don't actually think this is coherent. Of course we are ethical creatures and so behave in ethical ways. So we are entitled to describe actions as either ethical or non-ethical, or say egoistic or altruistic. What you do not allow for is the capacity to say this action is better than that action or that this person is good and that person is bad.

Of course I do.  I alluded to this in part of my post that you left out:
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You can.  To be honest, you just need to include, or have it understood that you are assuming, a particular standard against which that judgment is made.  Include the goal.

Good according to what standard?  One's own.  That is what people are always referring to when they judge another as good.  They are necessarily referring to their own standards.  And this is coherent:  Against the subjective standard that one holds, something or someone or some action is objectively either good, or bad, or whatever.  The idea of an objective standard of judgment is incoherent, as I understand it.  Is that what you seek?

If we follow your reasoning when I say such things I am only stating my subjective preferences. This means that just as I can say "religions exist" I can say "ethics exists"; but just as the former does not entail "religions possess truth" so the latter does not entail that "ethics possess truth".

To follow the analogy, though, "X is true of Christianity"[1] is certainly an objective statement.  Include the standard.

In other words it seems to me that you are advocating a moral relativism where any ethical judgement is equally valid (or if you prefer equally invalid).

Ahh but equally valid or invalid according to what standard of judgment?  The "objective" one?  See, that doesn't exist under the relativistic paradigm in the first place.  So no, pick a standard of judgment, a fleshed-out set of values, and an ethical judgment will not be neutral with respect to that standard.  To omit a standard of reference is to fail to complete one's thought in communication, to gloss over the details in favor of assumptions - usually the safe assumptions of a monoculture where the standard of judgment is shared and invisible.

My own view is that there is a middle way. Just as there are better and worse ways to perform any activity (eg playing an instrument, playing a sport) so to there may be better and worse ways to behave ethically.

"Playing an instrument" is a human-defined goal, and with respect to that goal, yes there are objectively better or worse ways to do it.  But answer this: Is "playing the flute" objectively true?  Yes, I meant to word it that way.  Please, answer yes or no to it, if you can.

There are better or worse ways to accomplish any goal.  But the goals are held subjectively.  There's just no way around that part, no matter how many layers of words one uses to gloss it over and hide one's assumptions.

There is no objectively correct way to play football, but the teams that are disciplined, practice regularly, have a good esprit de corps etc.. will tend to get the best outcomes.

...with respect to the rules of football.  Per what I just said above - do you view the rules of football as being objectively true?  What would objectively false rules of football look like?  I don't think that "true" and "false" are meaningful descriptive terms in this context.  How about you?

Thus as long as we can find rational aims (see my response to screwtape on this topic - reply #26) it seems to me we can develop an ethical system which, while not being objective in the way the laws of mathematics are, is still not completely relativist.

"Rational aims".  Hmm.  I would challenge the coherency of that concept in the first place.  I asked this of natlegend in another thread: what are the criteria for determining whether an aim, or goal, is rational or not?  It was a rhetorical question, aimed to reveal that natlegend really didn't have any such criteria.

You cite "flourish as a human being" as the One True Rational Goal, above.  Well, who determines what that entails?  Seems entirely subjective to me, determined by one's own values in the first place.  Someone who is talented at balet, but passionately hates balet, will not feel they are "flourishing" by practicing balet.  Their physiology, talents, etc. may place constraints on how they can "flourish" in their areas of interest, but such qualities do not make normative claims about what those areas of interest are.  Subjective, personal values do that.  Flourishing is subjective, penfold.
 1. for some specific definition of Christianity
« Last Edit: April 17, 2013, 05:06:56 AM by Azdgari »
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Offline Hierophant

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #31 on: April 17, 2013, 05:09:42 AM »
It is not at all clear to me why you both claim that there is no objective ethical standard. This claim seems to me prima facie false: the very fact that people on this forum debate (if only regarding Biblical rules and God's conduct) which actions are good and which are not, which actions are just and which are not, which actions are fair and which are not, shows that people on this forum really do believe in an objective ethical standard. Unless you want to argue that this is not really what we mean by having these arguments with Christians, that we're really deluding ourselves into believing that we're arguing right, justice or fairness, and  that we're really arguing that X (whether an action is culturally accepted, for example), I don't see how you can get out of it.

In short, saying that it is wrong, unjust or unfair for God to heal some people and yet refuse to heal amputees implicitly assumes some objective standard of judgment.
« Last Edit: April 17, 2013, 05:12:10 AM by Hierophant »

Offline penfold

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #32 on: April 17, 2013, 05:11:39 AM »
Hierophant you can use the "quote" button above the message you want to reply to to generate 'quote boxes' which will make your replies easier to read. You can also type the word "quote", in square brackets, to open; and "/quote", in square brackets, to close a 'quote box'.  :)

Sorry if there was a misunderstanding, but EvoInt does argue that we owe ethical preference to ourselves, then kin, then friends, then other members of our society (that is to say, people we interact with and depend on). This Zamulinski calls desire-dependence. For the sake of clarity I will preserve his nomenclature.

This it seems to me raises the problem outlined in the OP. EvoInt on its own terms, it does not in fact provide the best outcome. I won't re-run the example in the OP but will look at the classic example of the prisoner's dilemma.

Two people are arrested for taking part in a crime and kept seperate. (a) If both confess they will both get 2 years in prison. (b) If only one confesses they will go free and the other will 3 years. (c) If neither confesses they both get 1 year.

The totals for the outcomes are
(a): 4 years
(b): 3 years
(c): 2 years

Thus (c) is clearly the best outcome for both. However if we follow EvoInt each owes a greater duty to themselves than to the other. For each individual it is better to confess as at most they will get 2 years and could walk free. Moreover they can work out that the other prisoner will be acting in their best interests. Thus following EvoInt they will both confess (option a). EvoInt thus excludes the best outcome.

This problem is the basis for the Private education and global warming examples given above. It is, to my mind, philosophically unsatisfying for an ethical system to exclude the best outcome which is why I think it is, at best, a weak ethical system.

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I deny that the problem exists as you describe it because EvoInt leads to the conclusion that it is prohibited to sacrifice other people's lives for our own benefit. Tell me if I should go in more detail on that.

Please do!

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How it is "far too reductionist"? We do make instinctual judgments of esthetics, and these instinctual judgments are similar to those which we make about perception, an act's rightness, a logical process, etc. Are you saying this is incorrect or incomplete?


A judgement has to be by some standard. In ethics we tend to use the standard of 'good'. Intuitionism claims that 'good' is a simple (non-analyzable) term - it is something we just know. However it seems to me that there are many different uses of 'good'. That the 'good' of aesthetics is a different 'good' to the good of behavior and different again from, say, the 'good' of childbirth. If we accept that there are different 'goods' then 'good' must be analyzable and thus not a simple term.

I am not denying that we make intuitive value judgements, what I contest is that this is the way we should approach ethics. To take an example:

"Bill is looking at Mary, Mary is looking at George. Bill is married, George is unmarried. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?" Most (about 90%) of people will answer "can't tell". In fact if we take the time to analyse this problem we find that the answer is "yes". Just because a judgement is intuitive does not make it correct! It only does so for ethics if we accept Moore's contention that ethics can only be looked at intuitively - which in turn relies upon the claim 'good' is simple.
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Offline Azdgari

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #33 on: April 17, 2013, 05:22:49 AM »
It is not at all clear to me why you both claim that there is no objective ethical standard. This claim seems to me prima facie false: the very fact that people on this forum debate (if only regarding Biblical rules and God's conduct) which actions are good and which are not, which actions are just and which are not, which actions are fair and which are not, shows that people on this forum really do believe in an objective ethical standard. Unless you want to argue that this is not really what we mean by having these arguments with Christians, that we're really deluding ourselves into believing that we're arguing right, justice or fairness, and  that we're really arguing that X (whether an action is culturally accepted, for example), I don't see how you can get out of it.

We're speaking from the standard of our own moral values.  These are usually shared, at least in part.  Broadly speaking moral arguments are a dance of trying to employ our overlap of values to put pressure on our divergence of values.  When values[1] are shared, they can be treated in formal logic as though they have an objective truth-value.  This allows moral arguments to carry weight among those who disagree:  At least some of their values will be shared.

In short, saying that it is wrong, unjust or unfair for God to heal some people and yet refuse to heal amputees implicitly assumes some objective standard of judgment.

No it doesn't.  It just assumes a standard of judgment - one's own, which is hopefully similar enough to that of one's audience that it will successfully carry weight.
 1. By this I mean anything with a normative component to its meaning.
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Offline Razel

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #34 on: April 17, 2013, 05:25:57 AM »
Sorry I don't think I made my point clearly enough. I accept that we can talk of ethical preferences, but that is not necessarily the end of the story. So kippers vs eggs, my preference is one that relates to taste; which is mutable and personal. However there are other preferences where one preference is better than another. For example; if I have an aim (x) and two possible ways to attain it (f and p) then I can compare f and p to see which best attains x.

No preference is inherently better than another.  A preference is only better than another if it helps you achieve your aims better.  It is not inherently better to "behave in a manner which benefits me most", it's only better if benefiting yourself the most is your aim.  It is not inherently better to "flourish as a human being" either.

People seem to have a tendency to assume that subjective things are worthless.  I don't really follow this line of reasoning.

Offline Hierophant

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #35 on: April 17, 2013, 05:46:09 AM »
Quote
I won't re-run the example in the OP but will look at the classic example of the prisoner's dilemma.

Two people are arrested for taking part in a crime and kept seperate. (a) If both confess they will both get 2 years in prison. (b) If only one confesses they will go free and the other will 3 years. (c) If neither confesses they both get 1 year.

The totals for the outcomes are
(a): 4 years
(b): 3 years
(c): 2 years

Thus (c) is clearly the best outcome for both. However if we follow EvoInt each owes a greater duty to themselves than to the other. For each individual it is better to confess as at most they will get 2 years and could walk free. Moreover they can work out that the other prisoner will be acting in their best interests. Thus following EvoInt they will both confess (option a). EvoInt thus excludes the best outcome.
Yes, I understand Prisoner's Dilemma. But I don't understand how you go from "my greatest duty is to myself" to "I should gamble on one or the other alternative." Of course my interest is in minimizing my own sentence and, when that is done, that of my fellow (my desire to take care of myself first does not divest me from my obligations towards others). In real life, we cooperate in order to try to achieve such minima (but we do not always succeed); in the Prisoner's Dilemma this is not possible, so the decision must be based on other criteria. Presumably, for example, I would know whether my fellow is a cooperator or not, and base my decision accordingly.

Therefore I do not agree with you that "EvoInt excludes the best outcome." You seem to assume that desire-dependence is a form of egoism, but it is not. To be more specific, desire-dependence means that we should first seek to preserve ourselves from significant injury, then preserve our kin from significant injury, then preserve our friends and other people with whom we enjoy mutually beneficial relationships from injury, then preserve strangers from injury. All it says is that in situations where injury cannot be prevented, these priorities may be justifiably held in the mind of the person confronted with a decision in such a situation. If my wife is drowning and a stranger is also drowning, and I can only save one, I must save my wife (all other factors being equal). But if only my wife is drowning, I am not justified in sacrificing the stranger's life (say, use him as a human raft in such a way that ey drowns) to save my wife.


Quote
This problem is the basis for the Private education and global warming examples given above. It is, to my mind, philosophically unsatisfying for an ethical system to exclude the best outcome which is why I think it is, at best, a weak ethical system.
But it is my contention that you are wrong about both issues. Pollution causes deadly medical conditions, and it is thought that pollution may be the #1 cause of death in the world. I do not know if this is correct or not, but it means that allowing pollution to persist at these levels is the equivalent of sacrifice on a mind-boggling scale, therefore it is contrary to EvoInt conclusions.

My opinion about schooling, on the other hand, is different from yours, so perhaps that example is not the best. I would prefer if we stuck to Global Warming as an example.
 
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Please do!
Well, it is very late for me, so I will make it short... EvoInt is founded on the premise that:
* I am essentially of objective and independent intrinsic value throughout my existence, and so are other human beings with foundational attitudes (ethical intuitions). This is called value*.
I will not go into the evolutionary aspect of it, but basically it is argued that this premise is a by-production of evolutionary adaptations which make long-term cooperation possible.
Based on this, we have a prima facie obligation to minimize the loss of what we are committed to take to be of value*. And based on desire-dependence, no one is obligated to suffer injury.

Now, to be clear, I am not claiming that e.g. self-defense is wrong. We are permitted to cause injury if doing so prevents injury to oneself and the person we are injuring is caught up in the causal chain (e.g. is an aggressor) which would lead to us being injured. But apart from such situations, we are not justified in sacrificing others because this other person is (presumably) equally valuable* to me and is not obligated to suffer for my sake.

A person is free to sacrifice emselves in order to bring about some state of affairs, but we have no justification in imposing this sacrifice on em.

Quote
A judgement has to be by some standard.
By stating this, you are assuming that intuitionism is false, since intuitionism does claim as a premise that judgments can exist a priori. Therefore this is a circular statement.

Quote
In ethics we tend to use the standard of 'good'. Intuitionism claims that 'good' is a simple (non-analyzable) term - it is something we just know. However it seems to me that there are many different uses of 'good'. That the 'good' of aesthetics is a different 'good' to the good of behavior and different again from, say, the 'good' of childbirth. If we accept that there are different 'goods' then 'good' must be analyzable and thus not a simple term.
But if intuitionism is true, then they are actually not different kinds, they are the same kind- intuitions. The debate does not hinge upon that, but rather on whether intuitions exist and whether they are sufficient to explain ethical decision-making.


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"Bill is looking at Mary, Mary is looking at George. Bill is married, George is unmarried. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?" Most (about 90%) of people will answer "can't tell". In fact if we take the time to analyse this problem we find that the answer is "yes". Just because a judgement is intuitive does not make it correct! It only does so for ethics if we accept Moore's contention that ethics can only be looked at intuitively - which in turn relies upon the claim 'good' is simple.
I don't mean to contradict you, but your answer to the problem doesn't make sense. Am I missing something?

Offline Hierophant

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #36 on: April 17, 2013, 05:55:33 AM »
Quote
We're speaking from the standard of our own moral values.  These are usually shared, at least in part.  Broadly speaking moral arguments are a dance of trying to employ our overlap of values to put pressure on our divergence of values.  When values[1] are shared, they can be treated in formal logic as though they have an objective truth-value.  This allows moral arguments to carry weight among those who disagree:  At least some of their values will be shared.
 1. By this I mean anything with a normative component to its meaning.

Okay, but that's true of any area or discipline. You're speaking in generalities, and what you say could be true from either perspective. Of course people will agree on certain point and disagree on other points, and we want to use logical argumentation to leverage agreement. This is true in science, in religion, in daily life, as much as anything else. So what?


Quote
No it doesn't.  It just assumes a standard of judgment - one's own, which is hopefully similar enough to that of one's audience that it will successfully carry weight.

Again, you are not stating anything relevant to the objective/subjective ethical principles issue. I could say the same thing about epistemology, for instance. I only assume "a standard of judgment" about truth, my own, which is hopefully similar... etc. Yet epistemology is clearly objective. There are definitely better ways of achieving knowledge. I assume you agree that e.g. science is a better way of achieving knowledge than religion.

Furthermore, consider that when you say, for example, "it is wrong, unjust or unfair for God to heal some people and yet refuse to heal amputees," you cannot be asserting it as a preference; it makes no sense for you, an atheist (I presume), to say "I prefer for God not to bring into existence a state of affairs where he heals some people and yet refuse to heal amputees," because you don't believe in God in the first place. You are stating a logical fact, the logic of which you hope will convince others, not a personal preference.

« Last Edit: April 17, 2013, 06:06:06 AM by Hierophant »

Offline Razel

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #37 on: April 17, 2013, 06:06:04 AM »
Again, you are not stating anything relevant to the objective/subjective ethical principles issue.

My point is that this standard of judgment, your own standard, is assumed to be objective, otherwise you would not be positing it. When you say, for example, "it is wrong, unjust or unfair for God to heal some people and yet refuse to heal amputees," you are asserting it as a matter of fact, not as a preference. It makes no sense for you, an atheist (I presume), to say "I prefer for God not to bring into existence a state of affairs where he heals some people and yet refuse to heal amputees," because you don't believe in God in the first place. You are stating a logical fact, the logic of which you hope will convince others, not a personal preference.

Do you say "In my opinion" each time you state your opinion, or say "I believe" each time you state one of your beliefs?  Do you say "except in self defense, or for food" each time you say "killing is wrong"?

Offline Hierophant

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #38 on: April 17, 2013, 06:10:33 AM »
Do you say "In my opinion" each time you state your opinion, or say "I believe" each time you state one of your beliefs?  Do you say "except in self defense, or for food" each time you say "killing is wrong"?
Well, I would rather be precise, so I do try to specify things like that, although generally I prefer to say something like "it seems to me..." or "in general...". But again you keep diverting the topic; saying that some proposition is your opinion does not make it objective or subjective. If you want to talk about opinions instead, that's fine, but what's the relevance to the topic?
« Last Edit: April 17, 2013, 06:13:51 AM by Hierophant »

Offline Razel

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #39 on: April 17, 2013, 06:18:30 AM »
Do you say "In my opinion" each time you state your opinion, or say "I believe" each time you state one of your beliefs?  Do you say "except in self defense, or for food" each time you say "killing is wrong"?
Well, I would rather be precise, so I do try to specify things like that, yes. But again you keep diverting the topic; saying that some proposition is your opinion does not make it objective or subjective. If you want to talk about opinions instead, that's fine, but what's the relevance to the topic?

I would think that saying some proposition is my opinion is admittance of its subjectivity.

My point is, you should focus more on what a person means instead of the literal interpretation of what a person says.  If you don't know, or have a miscommunication, then try to resolve it and move on.

Offline Azdgari

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #40 on: April 17, 2013, 06:20:55 AM »
Okay, but that's true of any area or discipline. You're speaking in generalities, and what you say could be true from either perspective. Of course people will agree on certain point and disagree on other points, and we want to use logical argumentation to leverage agreement. This is true in science, in religion, in daily life, as much as anything else. So what?

"So what" is that on the topic of moral values, it's all we can do.  In science, we can make observations and falsify statements against objective reality.  This cannot be done with normative claims.  That's the difference, and it leaves us with only agreement of values to fall back on when it comes to supporting moral arguments.

Again, you are not stating anything relevant to the objective/subjective ethical principles issue. I could say the same thing about epistemology, for instance. I only assume "a standard of judgment" about truth, my own, which is hopefully similar... etc. Yet epistemology is clearly objective. There are definitely better ways of achieving knowledge. I assume you agree that e.g. science is a better way of achieving knowledge than religion.

Nature is a standard.  It's what we live in.  Beliefs about that standard that conflict with that standard are falsifiable by referring to that standard - ie., with evidence.  This standard objectively exists.  Our subjective moral standards objectively exist, too.  Both are testable.  Statements about the contents of either are objectively true or false.  I'm not seeing this supposed problem, Hierophant.

Furthermore, consider that when you say, for example, "it is wrong, unjust or unfair for God to heal some people and yet refuse to heal amputees," you cannot be asserting it as a preference; it makes no sense for you, an atheist (I presume), to say "I prefer for God not to bring into existence a state of affairs where he heals some people and yet refuse to heal amputees," because you don't believe in God in the first place. You are stating a logical fact, the logic of which you hope will convince others, not a personal preference.

It would make no sense for an atheist to say any of those things, because they imply that "God" exists in the first place.  If you mean, "it would be wrong, unjust or unfair for God to heal some people and yet refuse to heal amputees, if it existed" then that would make sense.  That issue, related to one's atheism and the nonexistence of "God", is a different topic.

Relevant to this topic, I will adjust your sentence to include the assumed subtext that makes it logically meaningful (including my edit above that makes it meaningful for an atheist to say it at all):  "it would be wrong, unjust or unfair - with respect to my own values, and I hope yours, for God to heal some people and yet refuse to heal amputees, if it existed."

Pretty wordy, eh?  And the parts I added go without saying.  Of course I'd be referring to my own values if I said that.  So as Razel says, for the sake of brevity, we can omit that stuff.
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Offline Hierophant

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #41 on: April 17, 2013, 03:08:30 PM »
"So what" is that on the topic of moral values, it's all we can do.  In science, we can make observations and falsify statements against objective reality.  This cannot be done with normative claims.

Well, I believe in objective ethical facts, so no. I don't think you are correct in saying that. There is an objective reality, which is a result of evolution, against which we can check our ethical statements. For example, given what I've already stated, I believe it is an objective ethical fact that we should not sacrifice other people's lives for our benefit unless our own life is threatened otherwise. As for any other statement of fact, I am open to refutation from contrary evidence, but it's an objective statement.

Quote from: Razel
I would think that saying some proposition is my opinion is admittance of its subjectivity.

Why? It is my opinion that evolution happened. It also happens to be an objective fact. So in my view the issue of opinion is a red herring. I am not concerned with that.
« Last Edit: April 17, 2013, 03:13:35 PM by Hierophant »

Offline Azdgari

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #42 on: April 17, 2013, 03:45:55 PM »
Well, I believe in objective ethical facts, so no. I don't think you are correct in saying that.

Oh, well, if it's a part of your belief system then that clinches it.  Thank you for re-iterating the "I believe in X, therefore X must exist" line you've used several times already.

There is an objective reality, which is a result of evolution, against which we can check our ethical statements. For example, given what I've already stated, I believe it is an objective ethical fact that we should not sacrifice other people's lives for our benefit unless our own life is threatened otherwise. As for any other statement of fact, I am open to refutation from contrary evidence, but it's an objective statement.

This, too, amounts to nothing more than "I believe in X, therefore X".  Do you actually have an argument to bring?  So far you've given as much support for your position on objective value as junebug has given for her religious beliefs.
« Last Edit: April 17, 2013, 03:51:02 PM by Azdgari »
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Offline Hierophant

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #43 on: April 17, 2013, 03:53:53 PM »
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This, too, amounts to nothing more than "I believe in X, therefore X".  Do you actually have an argument to bring?

Well yes, I did point out the general lines of it in my last reply to penfold.

Offline Azdgari

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #44 on: April 17, 2013, 04:01:28 PM »
Ahh so you did.  I was only closely following our own exchange, in which you did as I described.[1]  Anyway, this is the relevant part, right?

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Well, it is very late for me, so I will make it short... EvoInt is founded on the premise that:
* I am essentially of objective and independent intrinsic value throughout my existence, and so are other human beings with foundational attitudes (ethical intuitions). This is called value*.
I will not go into the evolutionary aspect of it, but basically it is argued that this premise is a by-production of evolutionary adaptations which make long-term cooperation possible.
Based on this, we have a prima facie obligation to minimize the loss of what we are committed to take to be of value*. And based on desire-dependence, no one is obligated to suffer injury.

The bolded part seems to me to be the crux of the issue.  EvoInt starts with a normative premise about our value.  But at that point EvoInt is just another ethical standard, so the bolded text alludes to how the premise is somehow objectively true - that an "ought" has been logically derived from an "is".  I would be interested in looking over that line of reasoning, as logically deriving an "ought" from an "is" has traditionally been accepted as impossible...
 1. Why didn't you cite your reply to penfold instead of citing your own belief system?  Did you think that the latter would actually lend support?
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Offline Hierophant

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #45 on: April 17, 2013, 04:15:45 PM »
No, no, no. I need to make this clear from the onset, intuitionism is not a theory of how we get an ought from an is. That is logically impossible. Intuitionism holds that we start with intuitions, which are judgments (oughts), and then we get to the facts (is). We start with epistemic intuitions, ethical intuitions, esthetic intuitions, etc. and then figure out reality.

Offline Azdgari

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #46 on: April 17, 2013, 04:19:59 PM »
No, no, no. I need to make this clear from the onset, intuitionism is not a theory of how we get an ought from an is. That is logically impossible.

Glad we agree that oughts are not a part of objective reality, then.

Intuitionism holds that we start with intuitions, which are judgments (oughts), and then we get to the facts (is).

I emphasized the key part.  We start with intuitions.  They are ours, and we hold them.  Maybe they're because we're hardwired to.  Maybe it's a matter of conditioning of some sort.  But as you've agreed, these oughts are not derived logically from observation of reality.  Rather, they are held subjectively (albeit perhaps widely).

We start with epistemic intuitions, ethical intuitions, esthetic intuitions, etc. and then figure out reality.

So, you're against science as a method of gaining knowledge about reality, then?  Because that's what I got from this sentence.  I'm guessing that's not what you meant.  But you packed a lot in there without explaining any of it.
« Last Edit: April 17, 2013, 04:22:59 PM by Azdgari »
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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #47 on: April 17, 2013, 04:32:52 PM »
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Glad we agree that oughts are not a part of objective reality, then.
What? No... that's not at all what I said. How the hell would you ever get from what I said to this?
What I said is "you cannot get an ought from an is." But of course oughts are part of objective reality. They are part of our objective reality as moral agents.

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I emphasized the key part.  We start with intuitions.  They are ours, and we hold them.  Maybe they're because we're hardwired to.  Maybe it's a matter of conditioning of some sort.  But as you've agreed, these oughts are not derived logically from observation of reality.  Rather, they are held subjectively (albeit perhaps widely).
No, I never made any claims of subjectivity. Intuitions are innate, evolutionary, and do not proceed from our minds.


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So, you're against science as a method of gaining knowledge about reality, then?  Because that's what I got from this sentence.  I'm guessing that's not what you meant.  But you packed a lot in there without explaining any of it.
Again, I have no idea how you get from here to there. I never said anything about science or any other method, merely about intuitions being their prerequisite. You cannot have science without perception, and you cannot have perception without the a priori intuition that first appearances are valid unless they are contradicted. Without such an intuition, we'd all be born nihilists and no science would ever be done.

Of course science is a method of gaining knowledge about reality. Why would you even think otherwise?
« Last Edit: April 17, 2013, 04:41:04 PM by Hierophant »

Offline Azdgari

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #48 on: April 17, 2013, 04:49:32 PM »
What? No... that's not at all what I said. How the hell would you ever get from what I said to this?

Quite directly.  "Is" statements are a class of statements that are descriptions of the state of reality.  Since "oughts" are not and can not be founded on "is" statements, they are not descriptions of reality.

What I said is "you cannot get an ought from an is." But of course oughts are part of objective reality. They are part of our objective reality as moral agents.

See, here you contradict yourself.  An objective reality is not "ours".  It does not depend on whether or not we are moral agents.  It doesn't depend on our thoughts in any way.[1]  That's what makes it objective.

No, I never made any claims of subjectivity. Intuitions are a priori, evolutionary, and do not proceed from our minds.

As I said, perhaps hardwired.  That doesn't make it any less subjective.  I hate to use preferences as an example to demonstrate a point like others have done, but here it's appropriate:  A subjective preference is no less subjective when one's biological setup makes it inevitable.  The preference is still a quality of the organism, rather than a universal constant.

Again, I have no idea how you get from here to there. I never said anything about science or any other method, merely about intuitions being their prerequisite.

I did figure that I'd misinterpreted you.  It appeared to me that you were citing our intuition as the foundation of physical reality.  In which case, from where I'm sitting, you were calling physical reality a subjective construct of human biology.  How that biology could pre-exist the physical universe is something I couldn't quite grok.  Which is why I asked for clarification.

You cannot have science without perception, and you cannot have perception without the a priori intuition that first appearances are valid unless they are contradicted. Without such an intuition, we'd all be born nihilists and no science would ever be done.

That makes more sense.

Of course science is a method of gaining knowledge about reality. Why would you even think otherwise?

See above.
 1. Except for the state of our thoughts, of course, which can be described with "is" statements.
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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #49 on: April 17, 2013, 05:01:48 PM »
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Quite directly.  "Is" statements are a class of statements that are descriptions of the state of reality.  Since "oughts" are not and can not be founded on "is" statements, they are not descriptions of reality.
But this is a simple category error. Ethics is not a "description of reality." It is a method by which one makes judgments (right/wrong, good/evil, just/unjust, justified/unjustified, etc) about human action. Ethics is supervenient on the state of reality.

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See, here you contradict yourself.  An objective reality is not "ours".  It does not depend on whether or not we are moral agents.  It doesn't depend on our thoughts in any way.
And yet you are still a moral agent and an epistemic agent. Of course reality is not "ours," but we have no understanding of reality apart from that given by "our" faculties.

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As I said, perhaps hardwired.  That doesn't make it any less subjective.
It doesn't make it any more subjective, either.

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I hate to use preferences as an example to demonstrate a point like others have done, but here it's appropriate:  A subjective preference is no less subjective when one's biological setup makes it inevitable.  The preference is still a quality of the organism, rather than a universal constant.
You are setting up a false dichotomy between a "quality of the organism" (which really describes all knowledge, since we all acquire knowledge in accordance with our faculties) and "universal constant," which describes very little apart from, you know, actual universal constants like g or c.

I see we agree on science, so there's no point in rehashing that.
« Last Edit: April 17, 2013, 05:03:24 PM by Hierophant »

Offline Azdgari

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #50 on: April 17, 2013, 05:20:15 PM »
But this is a simple category error. Ethics is not a "description of reality." It is a method by which one makes judgments (right/wrong, good/evil, just/unjust, justified/unjustified, etc) about human action. Ethics is supervenient on the state of reality.

You're right, ethics does not describe reality.  It is not a part of reality.  It is the set of ways in which we judge it.  A method.  Methods yield objective results, but they are not "true" or "false".  They are held, adhered to, or not.  And the controls on that are subjective.

And yet you are still a moral agent and an epistemic agent. Of course reality is not "ours," but we have no understanding of reality apart from that given by "our" faculties.

Yes.  Our models of reality are, subjective, but are still constrained by objective reality.  Morality, however, does not - as you agree - attempt to describe objective physical reality.  It is not constrained by anything external.  It is an artefact of our own construction.  Without us, it would not exist.  The same cannot be said of the physical universe.

It doesn't make it any more subjective, either.

Not in itself, no.  Now that that's out of the way, let's go back to the bit you didn't address in any other way:
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I emphasized the key part.  We start with intuitions.  They are ours, and we hold them.  Maybe they're because we're hardwired to.  Maybe it's a matter of conditioning of some sort.  But as you've agreed, these oughts are not derived logically from observation of reality.  Rather, they are held subjectively (albeit perhaps widely).

You are setting up a false dichotomy between a "quality of the organism" (which really describes all knowledge, since we all acquire knowledge in accordance with our faculties) and "universal constant," which describes very little apart from, you know, actual universal constants like g or c.

This is not a false dichotomy.  For an ethical standard to apply universally across time and space, it would have to be a universal constant.  The alternative is for the standard of value to depend on our individual makeup[1].  It's possible I'm missing a third option here, I suppose.  Could you describe one?
 1. however whatever parts of that makeup arose
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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #51 on: April 17, 2013, 05:25:03 PM »
I don't think we're going to agree on it being objective or subjective, especially since we are now going in circles; but funnily, we seem to agree exactly on everything else. So I think this is probably just semantic in nature. Unless you insist that I should answer your latest points, I think we should probably agree to agree.  :D

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This is not a false dichotomy.  For an ethical standard to apply universally across time and space, it would have to be a universal constant.
The only universal constants I know are things like g and c. What are you referring to when you say "universal constant"? This is a new use of the term I have never encountered before.

Obviously I don't think an ethical standard needs to be a universal constant in order to be objective. That's a pretty silly criterion, because that would make science, amongst other things, subjective as well. Our scientific principles cannot be, by definition, unchangeable across time and space.

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #52 on: April 17, 2013, 06:23:59 PM »
Obviously I don't think an ethical standard needs to be a universal constant in order to be objective. That's a pretty silly criterion, because that would make science, amongst other things, subjective as well. Our scientific principles cannot be, by definition, unchangeable across time and space.

What I mean is that to be an objective standard, its contents cannot be determined by variations among individuals.  A human being must refer to the same ethical standard as a dolphin, or a computer, even if that standard includes provisions that dictate different things based on whether one is a human, dolphin, or computer.

If you believe there to be an objective ethical standard, then in what is it encoded?  And if you're going to say "intuition", keep in mind that our intuition is a product of our biology, that different organisms (or other physical objects) have different intuiton-analogs, and that an objective ethical standard can't vary according to such things, lest it be subjective.
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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #53 on: April 17, 2013, 06:29:26 PM »
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What I mean is that to be an objective standard, its contents cannot be determined by variations among individuals.  A human being must refer to the same ethical standard as a dolphin, or a computer, even if that standard includes provisions that dictate different things based on whether one is a human, dolphin, or computer.

You are saying two different things here:

1. to be an objective standard, its contents cannot be determined by variations among individuals
This is obviously wrong, because our knowledge constantly changes, including because of variations amongst individuals, cultures, etc. That doesn't mean it's not based on objective facts. Do you deny that evolution is a fact because our understanding of evolution has changed in the 130+ years we've been studying it?

2. A human being must refer to the same ethical standard as a dolphin
Why? Why should we expect a human being to have the same ethical standards as a dolphin? Human beings and dolphins obviously have different needs, societies, etc. If a dolphin referred to the same ethical standards as a human being, we should be extremely puzzled (in fact, this would be pretty much conclusive evidence against intuitionism, although not against moral realism).

I guess my first question would be, which one is it? Second, why should we believe either point? They both seem plainly wrong to me.

Offline Azdgari

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #54 on: April 17, 2013, 06:38:23 PM »
1. to be an objective standard, its contents cannot be determined by variations among individuals
This is obviously wrong, because our knowledge constantly changes, including because of variations amongst individuals, cultures, etc. That doesn't mean it's not based on objective facts. Do you deny that evolution is a fact because our understanding of evolution has changed in the 130+ years we've been studying it?

This doesn't seem to follow from what I said.  To respond to what you said, our knowledge is not an objective standard.  Physical reality is an objective standard for which we form predictive models.

To clarify my original point, if the actual contents of physical reality changed relative to perspective[1], then physical reality would be subjective, just like values are.

2. A human being must refer to the same ethical standard as a dolphin
Why? Why should we expect a human being to have the same ethical standards as a dolphin? Human beings and dolphins obviously have different needs, societies, etc. If a dolphin referred to the same ethical standards as a human being, we should be extremely puzzled (in fact, this would be pretty much conclusive evidence against intuitionism, although not against moral realism).

I didn't say that the ethical standard would dictate the same things to humans as it would to dolphins.  Take your rules-of-football analogy earlier:  A single set of rules of football (ethical standard) does not dictate the same actions to every player on the field.  Individual differences (such as one's position on the team, and for which team one is playing) determine how the rules dictate one to act.  Just as the differences between a human and dolphin would cause the same ethical standard to yield different imperatives for each.  This shouldn't be controversial, as it is already a part of your intuitionist approach - there, the same ethical standard yields different priorities for different people.  Self-preservation is the best example of this - preserving Joe Schmoe doesn't get the same priority for you as it does for Joe Schmoe.  This is not due to a difference in the standard for each of you, but to the details of the standard in application.

I guess my first question would be, which one is it? Second, why should we believe either point? They both seem plainly wrong to me.

I hope I've adequately clarified.
 1. Not one's knowledge of reality, but physical reality itself.
« Last Edit: April 17, 2013, 06:41:03 PM by Azdgari »
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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #55 on: April 17, 2013, 07:10:32 PM »
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This doesn't seem to follow from what I said.  To respond to what you said, our knowledge is not an objective standard.  Physical reality is an objective standard for which we form predictive models.
But you have no way to know physical reality but through your own faculties, therefore stating that "the contents of physical reality cannot be determined by variations..." as distinct from knowledge, is irrelevant. I believe that correspondence theory is fundamentally incoherent. We do not form "predictive models" from "physical reality"; we form "predictive models" from "our perception of physical reality." Therefore I don't think "physical reality" can be a "standard," let alone an objective one.

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To clarify my original point, if the actual contents of physical reality changed relative to perspective[1], then physical reality would be subjective
 1. Not one's knowledge of reality, but physical reality itself.
Again, you don't know "physical reality itself as distinct from our knowledge of reality." You know "our knowledge of reality," which we know is our perception of external reality, but we only know external reality through that knowledge. Again, only intuitions can lead us to realist perception: logic alone leads to nihilism.

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just like values are.
Values are not subjective.


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I didn't say that the ethical standard would dictate the same things to humans as it would to dolphins.
No, I am saying that they wouldn't even have the same standards, period. They would not have the same intuitions, values, etc.

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Take your rules-of-football analogy earlier
Not my analogy, but okay. I prefer hockey myself :D

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A single set of rules of football (ethical standard) does not dictate the same actions to every player on the field.  Individual differences (such as one's position on the team, and for which team one is playing) determine how the rules dictate one to act.  Just as the differences between a human and dolphin would cause the same ethical standard to yield different imperatives for each.  This shouldn't be controversial, as it is already a part of your intuitionist approach - there, the same ethical standard yields different priorities for different people.  Self-preservation is the best example of this - preserving Joe Schmoe doesn't get the same priority for you as it does for Joe Schmoe.  This is not due to a difference in the standard for each of you, but to the details of the standard in application.
Your hypothetical is all well and good, but you're not explaining why one should expect a dolphin to be subject to the same intuitions as human beings. Of course standards do not dictate how to act, otherwise there'd be no ethics in the first place (God-style or law-style "don't do X" are not ethical standards, in my view, because we still need some internal standard that leads us to accept them in the first place).

Offline Azdgari

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #56 on: April 17, 2013, 07:49:26 PM »
But you have no way to know physical reality but through your own faculties, therefore stating that "the contents of physical reality cannot be determined by variations..." as distinct from knowledge, is irrelevant. I believe that correspondence theory is fundamentally incoherent. We do not form "predictive models" from "physical reality"; we form "predictive models" from "our perception of physical reality." Therefore I don't think "physical reality" can be a "standard," let alone an objective one.

So you do not believe that there is an actual, physical universe out there to which our senses react.  I don't know if we can continue this discussion meaningfully in light of that.

Again, you don't know "physical reality itself as distinct from our knowledge of reality." You know "our knowledge of reality," which we know is our perception of external reality, but we only know external reality through that knowledge.

I think you mean "we" here when you use the word "you".  Seems more accurate, unless you're really implying some sort of ascended form of knowledge for yourself.

Anyway, I don't disagree.  Our models of reality are subjective.  Are you arguing that the reality we subjectively perceive, is itself subjective?  Because then we'd run into the problem of how our minds came into being from a universe that has no definite, objective state from which a mind can arise.

Again, only intuitions can lead us to realist perception: logic alone leads to nihilism.

Sure.  What does that have to do with whether our intuitions can be objectively true or false, if that's even a meaningful phrase?

Values are not subjective.

The very idea of values holding objective truth-value is incoherent.  Valuation is an action, not a truth claim.  The rules of hockey are not true or false.

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I didn't say that the ethical standard would dictate the same things to humans as it would to dolphins.
No, I am saying that they wouldn't even have the same standards, period. They would not have the same intuitions, values, etc.

It would help if you responded to what was written instead of what you'd written.  Look at the start of each of our sentences here.  "I didn't say X", to which you respond "no, I'm saying Y"...the second of these doesn't contradict the first.  It's just not formulated as a response to what was said.  This makes responding to you difficult, and not because of your points.

To speak to what you did say though, I agree completely.  Different intuitions & values, being subjective, are held by humans and dolphins.  That. Is. What. Makes. Them. Subjective!  You just acknowledged it right here.  If values are different for different people, then that makes them subjective.  The real universe doesn't change for different people, although our subjective knowledge of it does.  But values, intuitions - these depend on the individual.  You've stated that you agree.  How can you reconcile with a wish for values to be objective?

Not my analogy, but okay. I prefer hockey myself :D

As do I.  And you're right, that was penfold.

Your hypothetical is all well and good, but you're not explaining why one should expect a dolphin to be subject to the same intuitions as human beings.

You're right, I'm not.  That's your job.  You're the one supposedly arguing that intuitions are objective, rather than individually determined.  Except that just above here, you acknowledged that they're not.  I was arguing against a value-objectivist position, which apparently you do not hold after all.

Of course standards do not dictate how to act, otherwise there'd be no ethics in the first place (God-style or law-style "don't do X" are not ethical standards, in my view, because we still need some internal standard that leads us to accept them in the first place).

Poor choice of words on my part.  Put in "determine what one should morally do" insted of "dictate how to act".
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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #57 on: April 17, 2013, 07:59:55 PM »
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So you do not believe that there is an actual, physical universe out there to which our senses react.  I don't know if we can continue this discussion meaningfully in light of that.
No, I never said there is no physical universe! What the hell? I don't understand how we can even have any conversation when we understand each other so poorly. What I said was that any epistemic distinction between "physical reality" and "our perception of physical reality" is not relevant- we know "physical reality" only through "our perception of physical reality." Why is that so unclear or hard to understand to you?

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The very idea of values holding objective truth-value is incoherent.
I said values are not subjective, not that they hold truth-value.

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Different intuitions & values, being subjective, are held by humans and dolphins.  That. Is. What. Makes. Them. Subjective!  You just acknowledged it right here.  If values are different for different people, then that makes them subjective.
Again, I disagree, because we seem to have wildly different definitions of "subjective." You seem to have all sorts of wild criteria for what is subjective and what is not, while I have only one, whether something is solely the product of our mind or not (such as the product of our desires, emotions, whims, etc). Values and intuitions are not the product of our mind.

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I was arguing against a value-objectivist position, which apparently you do not hold after all.
Only according to your own assumptions about what is objective and what is not.