Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Basis of Moral Realism

Source: thexiiplayer



In my post on the common self-contradiction of the apparent moral relativist I pointed out that a moral relativist cannot consistently make claims about what we ought to do, and I further claimed that, unlike what apparent moral relativists profess to believe, we actually do have moral obligations, which is to say that moral realism is true. I did not, however, provide any justification for this latter claim. In this essay I should like to do that and to clarify what our moral obligations are most fundamentally, which amounts to clarifying the basis of moral realism — of moral truth.
What provides the core foundation of moral realism is a simple fact obvious from the experience of all of us:
A continuum of more or less pleasant experiences exists, and what ultimately matters is where consciousness falls on this felicific continuum; being as far toward the positive end of this continuum is what ultimately matters.
This, I claim, is a fact, not a human invention, and to not realize this fact is to fail to realize the perhaps most important fact of all as it is the fact that all morality relates to ultimately. For what this fact implies is that the goal of bringing consciousness as high as possible on the felicific continuum is what we ultimately should attain. It is the fact that bridges the gap claimed to exist between 'is' and 'ought'.
Such a claim about a link between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ may seem controversial and misguided, as all claims of this sort are widely held to be, yet it is in fact the notion that such a link cannot be drawn that is misguided. First, the idea that 'is' and 'ought' should be divorced from each other in any deep sense is a hard one to maintain for the reason that 'is' includes all that exists, including any 'ought’ — or value — that we have or could possibly think about, and to insist that we cannot base an 'ought' on an 'is' is therefore to insist that we cannot base an 'ought' on anything at all. So all talk about ‘ought’ must ultimately be based on ‘is’ in some way, as there is nothing else it can be based on, and nothing else we can talk about ultimately. As Henry Sidgwick noted in The Methods of Ethics: “On any theory, [my emphasis] our view about what ought to be must be largely derived, in its details, from our knowledge of what is […]”
Second, a strict separation of facts and values — of ‘is’ and ‘ought’ — is also hard to maintain for the reason that, as philosophers Hillary Putnam and Sam Harris have both pointed out,[1] the two are entangled. Not only are all values we hold and could hold themselves certain facts about the world, respectively about its actual and potential states, but the only way we can arrive at any fact in the first place is via values — one must stick to the ‘oughts’ of valid reasoning and observation in order to say anything about what ‘is’ in the first place. As Harris notes: “Scientific “is” statements rest on implicit “oughts” all the way down.”[2]
Third, the a priori claim commonly made regarding that ‘ought’ cannot possibly be derived from ‘is’ is simply an invalid one to make, because it amounts to no more than the dogmatic assumption that facts that dictate ‘shoulds’ cannot exist — that value and ‘oughts’ are nowhere to be found in the realm of ‘is’ — and that simply cannot be asserted a priori, and, as experience reveals, it is indeed a wrong assumption.[3] Furthermore, even if we had looked far and wide and found no facts that dictate any ‘shoulds’, that would still not prove that facts that dictate ‘shoulds’ cannot be found in the world, as it could then still be the case that such facts exist, but that we were unable to uncover them. Fortunately, the most basic and relevant truth is on the table — the truth that is perhaps the easiest of all to realize if we only care to look sincerely.
A final point worth making in relation to the strong separation claimed to exist between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ is that we all recognize that 'is' and 'ought' are closely related in the sense that, given that we have a certain goal, what we should do is a matter fact — a matter of 'is'. For instance, if one has the goal of baking a bread, it is a fact that one should get certain ingredients and do certain things with them in order to do so. This is not controversial: given that we have certain values, certain 'shoulds' do follow, and these 'shoulds' are a matter of fact. What is controversial, however, is whether there is a value, a goal, that we ultimately should, and in some sense truly do, have in the first place. Yet this is exactly what the above-mentioned fact provides the answer to, namely that there is such a truly valuable ultimate value: being as far toward the positive end of the continuum of more or less pleasant experiences.
It may be objected that this continuum does not capture all that matters, yet this objection arises from two failures. The first one is the mistake of defining the felicific continuum too narrowly, namely in a way that excludes anything of value. For the felicific continuum does not merely refer to a continuum of pleasure and pain in any narrow sense, but to all possible degrees of well- and ill-being; it includes everything from spiritual selflessness to justice and fairness, and everything else that is part of, or contributes to, the happiness or suffering of consciousness. The second failure is to be blamed on language, or, rather, it is a failure of language, as language simply fails to capture what the extremes, or even the moderate high and lows, of the felicific continuum refer and amount to. We all have but a limited experience with the possibilities along the felicific continuum, and most of us do not visit its powerful extremes most of the time, and to the extent we have visited these extremes in the past, what we can recall, and hence what words can remind us about these experiences, is weak at best. Consequently, the words “we should move consciousness as high on the felicific continuum as possible — we should avoid suffering and attain happiness,” do sound extremely tame, and no doubt completely fail to give a sense of what they actually refer to. Yet they convey an all-important truth nonetheless.
It is of course also possible to stubbornly maintain that nothing truly matters. Such an objection is, however, simply wrong. Again, it is a fact, one that is quite obvious from our experience, that it matters where consciousness falls on the felicific continuum, and if one does not realize this fact, the only remedy is to look harder, or perhaps rather closer.[4] And it is important to do so, because, again, it is the very fact that makes all the difference when it comes to morality.[5] If there were nothing of value ultimately, there would be no morality, no 'should' in any truly normative sense, but only arbitrary 'shoulds’, which would be the case in a world devoid of the existence, or potential existence, of a continuum of more or less pleasant experiences.
This is where moral relativists go wrong: they miss the fact that something that really matters has arisen and exists in the universe — that something truly worth valuing is found in the realm of ‘is’, and which provides us what we should do in this world. Again: given that we have a certain value or goal, it is clear that certain ‘shoulds’ do follow, and the fact is that we do have an ultimate value: being as far toward the positive end of the continuum of more or less pleasant experiences. None of us have chosen this ultimate value. We are, as consciousness, in some sense subject to this continuum: the higher states along it are inherently better than the lower ones, and therefore inherently normative. And with this fundamental value in place, the specific ‘shoulds’ do follow and are also a matter of facts about the world.
It is no doubt an open empirical question what these facts are — what specific states of experience that are more positive, more valuable, than others for different beings, and how to best navigate toward the best ones — but whether there is a continuum of more and less valuable experiences in the first place is not. Anyone who looks honestly at their own direct experience, or sincerely considers the difference between, say, the experience of being tortured and the experience of ecstatic joy, will realize that there undeniably are more and less valuable states of experience, and that being further toward the good end of this spectrum ultimately is what matters — it actually, truly, factually matters.[6]


A more elaborate case for moral truth is found in my book, Moral Truths: The Foundation of Ethics.



[1] Putnam, H. (2002). The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Harris, S. (2010/2011). The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free Press.
A presentation on the issue by Putnam can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wCTawI5hfEU
[2] Harris, S. (2010/2011). The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free Press. p. 219.
[3] Einstein seemed to express this common, but fallacious a priori separation of value and what ‘is’ as clearly and succinctly as possible when he wrote: “For the scientist, there is only “being,” but no wishing, no valuing, no good, no evil; no goal.” (Einstein, A. (1950/2005). Out of My Later Years. Edison, N.J: Castle Books. p. 122).
Einstein was surely right about the first part: there is only “being” for the scientist — there is always only “being” for everyone. The crucial point, however, is the fundamental fact of value, which is the fact that reveals that “being,” or what is, includes a sphere of more or less value — it actually does include good and evil — and that sphere is as real as atoms, headaches and mountains, as any scientist who sincerely notices what human consciousness is like will be able to confirm.
Furthermore, one could also dispute Einstein’s claim about there not being a goal for the scientists by raising Putnam’s points about the fact/value dichotomy. For instance, does the scientist not at least have a goal and wish to describe the world accurately?
[4] “But,” it may be objected, “should we want that which is truly valuable? Should we want that which is truly worth wanting?”
I think asking this question is a symptom of confusion, on many levels. First of all, the question arises from a failure to understand the meaning of the term “truly valuable,” as what it refers to is that we not only should want to be as high on the felicific continuum as possible, but that we in fact already do want it most deeply, and cannot ultimately want anything else most deeply. The truth is that we are subject to the continuum of more or less pleasant states of experiences, which means that we, consciousness, find being as high as possible on this continuum inherently valuable. It is what is inherently valuable to us; it is our inherently normative goal. We actually have no choice in the matter. Secondly, the question also gets the relationship between ‘should’ and that which is truly valuable the wrong way around. For we do not, and cannot, derive that which is truly valuable based on ‘oughts’ — we can only derive ‘oughts’ based on that which is truly valuable.
It is of course true that our actual want for something does not imply that we should want it, yet our actual, expressed wants are not what is referred to by that which we want most deeply. What we want most deeply refers to what we should want, meaning what we would want if we had perfect knowledge — what would bring us highest on the felicific continuum. Unfortunately, this is rarely what we want in practice.
The difference between what we actually want and what we should want, or what we want most deeply, is closely related to the difference between what is known as classical utilitarianism — “act so as to maximize well-being” — and preference utilitarianism — “act so as to maximize the fulfillment of wants.” The difference between them comes down to the difference between our deepest wants and the wants we hold explicitly in our minds. Hence, to the extent we in fact want that which we should want, that which is in our deepest interest (which, undoubtedly, we often do not), there actually is no difference between classical and preference utilitarianism.
Who ‘we’ are and whose deepest interests it is we should act according to is made clear in my book: Moral Truths: The Foundation of Ethics.
[5] I think we all do recognize this fact implicitly, as its truth is evident from our everyday experience, for instance, when we stub a toe or feel selfless joy. So it is a fact we in some sense know, at least dimly, but we rarely dare put our words and convictions in alignment with this dimly acknowledged fact and fully realize and admit it.
[6] One is tempted to say that anyone who sincerely denies the reality of this spectrum, and that it matters where one falls on it, must so far have experienced a very narrow range of this spectrum, never far from its zero-point.

Last revised: 16-02-2016