June 14, 2010

Objective Values

It is June, which means we're due another installment of Are My Values Based in Objective Reality? Not sure what I'm talking about? Start with this discussion of skepticism:

I deeply and strongly disagree with the separation of ways of thinking (including scientific skepticism) and political perspectives. It is part of the progressive political perspective to be a rational thinker. Explicitly. It is part of the Republican Tea-baggging Yahooistic political perspective to be .... well, something else. Somewhat explicitly. It would be perilous to ignore this. It is explicitly part of the modern Atheist movement to think skeptically. A religious person is not thinking skeptically about that aspect of their lives, and if they were, they'd be some form of atheist or agnostic, and so on.

Don't miss the argument in the comments, which strikingly captures the opposing view, or the comments sections of the linked blog posts. It was a rather debateful April.

May brought us reactions to Sam Harris's claim that science can provide a foundation for morality.

I think Harris is following a provocative and potentially useful track, but I'm not convinced. I think he's right in some of the examples he gives: science can trivially tell you that psychopaths and violent criminals and the pathologies produced by failed states in political and economic collapse are not good models on which to base a successful human society (although I also think that the desire for a successful society is not a scientific premise…it's a kind of Darwinian criterion, because unsuccessful societies don't survive). However, I don't think Harris's criterion — that we can use science to justify maximizing the well-being of individuals — is valid. We can't. We can certainly use science to say how we can maximize well-being, once we define well-being…although even that might be a bit more slippery than he portrays it.

Once again, there is little agreement, except, perhaps, that the concept is intriguing.

And now it is June, and Greta Christina is taking a shot at the argument that some values are intrinsically and objectively more ethical.

Goldstein's argument is this. The basic philosophical underpinning of ethics (as opposed to its psychological and evolutionary underpinnings) are:

(a) the starting axiom that we, ourselves, matter;

and (b) the understanding that, if we step back from ourselves and view life from an outside perspective, we have to acknowledge that we don't, cosmically speaking, matter more than anyone else; that other people matter to themselves as much as we matter to ourselves; and that any rules of ethics ought to apply to other people as much as they do to ourselves. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and all that. (Some version of the Golden Rule seems to exist in every society.)

In other words, the philosophical underpinning of ethics are that they ought to be applicable to everyone. They ought to be universalizable.

And liberal values -- fairness and harm -- are universalizable.
As usual, Greta does an excellent job of laying out her ideas without making overreaching claims. Go read the rest.

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