Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Tom Foss Tossup

Tom Foss responded to a post I did a while back, thus continuing our interaction on the nature of morality. I unfortunately forgot to leave a comment on his blog notifying him of the response, so we happened to cross paths recently and I told him about the response. He wrote his post, and I finally have some time to knock out a response.

I don't plan to get to the peripheral issues in his post, such as the "worthy of killing" thing or the biblical psgs that Tom mentions as some sort of challenge to my position, as if citing Biblical Psg X would discomfit me, whose position is based on the Bible as far as I can base it. Perhaps I'll get to those at a later date.

Tom's central assumption is apparently that whatever helps human society continue to exist = morally acceptable.
Of course, I've been bringing this up the whole time. What does he say in response?

It starts with:
The start is the set of facts that require society to exist: namely, our desire for survival, our natural empathy for one another, and our mutual interdependence.

Tom has apparently not taken the next step with respect to these questions. For him it's enough to stop with society, but those of us who are a bit more, ahem, freethinking are not satisfied therewith.
So, I have to ask: How do we know that, in general, actions that further human and human societal survival are moral?
Why should I consider that someone's desires, or many people's desires, be the foundation for morality? What about desires makes fulfilling them moral? All desires? If not, how can we tell the difference, since desires are desires?
(I've already laid to rest this idea of basing morality on empathy, so we can leave that aside for now.)

He later refers to an earlier post of his, which I believe is simply the post to which I'm responding in my last response, seemingly to justify his foundation as society. Let's see what it has to say.

The "should" is determined by society, and at its core, by the necessary elements required for society to exist.

Why? How do you know?
He says he discusses this later in the post, so let's keep reading.

There is if the species is to continue. Granted, there are those individuals for whom that's not a concern. For the rest of us, that society exists is a given.

Completely unhelpful with respect to the question. We move on.

living together is necessary for prolonged survival, all of the time. Last I checked, humans couldn't asexually reproduce.

Again, unhelpful.

morals evolve as society progresses

As if anyone denied that morals evolve.
And of course "progresses" begs the question of whether it is progressing towards better or worse moral values. We're asking how we can know, to what standard we compare actions to find out whether they're good or bad.

Two, we come again to the closest thing society has to moral absolutes: the conditions necessary for society to exist.

Simply begs the question.

Much of law is arbitrary--arbitrary boundaries drawn in sand by democratic plurality or dictatorial edict. They vary from place to place, and that's not generally a problem.

And sometimes it is a problem, and people disagree and even fight. So how can we know?

It's not morally significant whether the highest speed limit in the state is 65 or 70 mph; the difference is arbitrary.

Notice how he doesn't bother backing this up with an argument. That's just the way it is.

More disparate cultures may disagree on more basic points, but even the simplest social animals have codes against killing members of the society and other basic, foundational principles.

Again, no one is denying that such moral standards exist. The question is whether they are right or wrong.

I don't see any other references in that earlier post. Our search for actual substantiation was in vain. Tom is a big fan of unsupported assertions.

Back to the later post...
The half that's wrong is that it's "enabling a natural process to take place." It's not; it's forcing a natural process to take place immediately rather than inevitably. Here in the real world, there's this thing called "time," and it has significance with regard to these natural processes.

How does he know?

we, as humans, however, would generally prefer existence to nonexistence. The necessity of society comes out of our desire to continue living.

And of course, preference does not equal morality. When will he get around to actually answering the questions I'm asking?

The prescription is this: given the facts that society exists, that we live in it, and that we generally benefit from it, our moral obligations are determined by the principles that ensure the continued existence of society, and thus assist our continued survival and benefit.

So, again, how does he know that it is morally good that society continue to exist?

No, in my view, humans couldn't have evolved otherwise--not and still be recognizable as humans.

Granting for the sake of argument that humans evolved from a different species, so what? Just b/c we evolved this way doesn't mean that we are right to behave in the way we behave.

Things happened according to one set of circumstances, and those circumstances dictate our morality.

I have to wonder whether Tom even understands what I'm asking. I kind of doubt it, b/c his response completely misses the mark.
No one is denying that people hold to moral codes. Are those codes right or wrong?

Society exists, we benefit from it.

Begs the question of how he knows what "benefit" means, without any objective moral standard to which to compare the status quo.

if we want to continue to survive and benefit from the comforts of society, then we ought to act in accordance with society's rules.

Once again he is stating a general fact, which I've never denied. He's answering the wrong question.

If we don't want to act in accordance with society's rules, then we ought to leave. We can't have our benefits and shirk the rules too.

Why ought we leave? Why not shirk the rules? What if the rules are bad? How can we know if the rules are bad and ought to be shirked?

I'm explaining that "ought" comes from "is."

He should take this up with David Hume. Of course, the way this is going, he'd probably title his paper "More on Hume" and provide a bunch of answers to Augustine or the Dalai Lama.

I said:
If it evolved that way, that's the moral right. Thus the danger of basing one's morality on humanity.
He responds:
Where on Earth did anyone say that?

As a matter of fact, Tom did:
No, in my view, humans couldn't have evolved otherwise--not and still be recognizable as humans.

Yes, Rhology, when the facts change, I change my position. What do you do?

This highlights the difference between our systems, and my question and his response illustrate that well.
On my view, when someone changes his behavior, I can know whether that change was for the worse or for the better.
On his view, if enough people change their view (though Tom can't tell us how many it takes), that changed view BECOMES the new "right".

As opposed to what? A system based on what an arbitrarily chosen deity supposedly said?

Yes, precisely. Tom apparently has difficulty with hypotheticals. But IF my position is true, then there is an objective standard by which to judge things good or bad. IF his position is true, there's not. Simple as that.

any book that advocates public execution as a punishment for laziness and rebellion is morally reprehensible.

This is an interesting statement. Perhaps Tom could also tell us (while he's spinning his wheels avoiding the question of how many = a societal "consensus") when the cut-off point is for a moral position to change. Notice how he's standing from his 21st-century position and judging people from ~3000 yrs ago. But that was THEIR societal consensus! Why the inconsistency? In 3000 yrs, does Tom think it'd be OK if someone looked at his moral positions and judged them to be "reprehensible" if the future man's positions were different? Would he be right if he did so? Approximately when does the switchover occur from "societal position, which defines 'right'" to "past societal position, reprehensible"?

Explicitly, the social consensus is represented in the law, though that's not always an accurate depiction of social values (see, for instance, Prohibition).

And of course, all these things he's complaining about in the Mosaic Law were, um, the law.

A few decades ago, homosexuality was generally assumed to be morally wrong; today, the social conversation is far, far more divided, and the consensus is shifting toward the contrary position.

So how long until he'll be able to say that the older position is morally reprehensible?

Real-world morals don't provide blanket black-and-white, always-right/always-wrong judgments.

Didn't he just finish telling us how "morally reprehensible" those acts commanded in the Bible were? Why didn't he apply his own standards to those?

What are "correct and incorrect desires"?

I don't know why this is hard at all. I am asking whether the thoughts I think are morally permissible? He misses the point completely when he refers to "thoughtcrime", since I'm not talking about the law. I want to know whether it's OK to think certain thoughts, morally speaking. How does his societal consensus model answer that question?
That leads me into another interesting question, actually. Society doesn't always discuss or poll itself about certain things. One's thought life is one example. If an action is not discussed, is it good or bad to commit that action? Again, is it right or wrong to think that societal consensus is the correct moral position?

Now, I move on to another point, in which I point out the total lack of clarity on the question of how he knows what the societal consensus is. He keeps saying "societal consensus" and all, but I've asked him many times how to define "consensus". Let's see if his answers are anything close to satisfying.

The consensus is not a matter of percentages, and I'm sure you're not stupid enough to think that it is. It's represented in the ongoing conversations about rights, the progression of laws, and the overall changing social attitude. (quoted from the Morality and Such post).

Notice how completely vague that is. ANYone could say that.

Let's go back to this, since it fits under this section as well:
Explicitly, the social consensus is represented in the law, though that's not always an accurate depiction of social values (see, for instance, Prohibition).

How he knows the difference between a law that does not line up with "societal values" and one that does, he doesn't say.

You want a percentage?

Yes. Is he going to be angry if I ask for a little more than just his say-so?

Take a damn poll.

Why doesn't HE take a poll? Maybe he forgot who's advocating which position.
Perhaps he's unfamiliar with Barna, Gallup, and those zillion other professional pollsters out there. Or is Tom saying that he hasn't actually done any research on this? He just makes his assumptions and runs with them.

Otherwise, you can just pay attention: what kinds of moral issues are being debated in the society?

Generally, when society is strongly debating a topic, I conclude that society is strongly debating that topic. So, is there simply no way to figure out whether that action is wrong until "society" "decides"?
What about the question: Is it morally right or wrong to think that morality is determined by societal consensus? Is THAT question under debate? Or can Tom cite some poll on that topic? Or rather, is it an axiomatic statement that Tom takes on faith and as a foundation, so that it is not itself dependent on the standard it expresses? Tom has a long way to go here.

as opposed to decisions made during an unobservable and unexaminable period of time by an invisible, undefined God working through an amorphous, undefined group of writers in an undefined area on undefined questions.

Tom is just speaking from ignorance here. He obviously hasn't bothered to acquaint himself with standard biblical scholarship on these questions. The period of time of Bible books' writing is hardly unknown. God is not undefined. Virtually all of the authors of the biblical books are known. And I have no idea what he means about "undefined questions" - has Tom ever read the Bible? It answers all sorts of questions, and asks others. One has simply to read it to know Tom is just shooting off his mouth here.


King of Ferrets said...

Came over here from Tom's place just to see a bit more of what your arguments were like. Accidentally hit end instead of page down. If your closing arguments are that bad, I don't want to read the rest.

Seriously, you argue that God isn't undefined, and link to a definition with a bunch of descriptive words... one of which is incomprehensible. I'm pretty sure that if you can't comprehend God, you can't really define him as having certain traits.

Rhology said...

Yes, by all means don't read the body of the post. I didn't, and I turned out OK.

Paul C said...

King - yes, all his arguments are as bad as the closing arguments. When this is demonstrated to him, he usually ignores it and then posts the same arguments again, slightly re-phrased.

King of Ferrets said...

Well, I was going to read the body, but then I hit the end button on accident and saw the bottom of your stupidity. I figured if the beginning is stupid, and the end is stupid, then the middle is probably stupid, and I can avoid wasting time reading it unless I'm presented with a reason to think otherwise.

Rhology said...

Doesn't bother me if you don't care to expose yourself to the other side. See you.

Dr Funkenstein said...

Virtually all of the authors of the biblical books are known.

Are you positive about this? I know that writings attributed to eg Paul are considered to legitimately have been written by him, but other books of the Bible simply have a traditional attribution of authorship eg the 1st 5 books of the OT are traditionally attributed to Mosaic authorship, but the majority of academics consider them to have multiple and largely (maybe entirely) unknown authorship

King of Ferrets said...

It's not that I don't expose myself to the other side, it's that you seem to be a particularly idiotic member of the other side. I'm too lazy to go through and address other idiotic arguments, and I prefer to keep debates on a topic on one point. Like the one I mentioned about you defining an incomprehensible God.

Fiat Lex said...

I did read the whole post. Like all of your posts, I find it thorough and to the point. As I see it, a "bad" argument is one in which the terms of discussion are not defined or are changed from the agreed-upon definitions mid-argument. Why get mad at an interlocutor for demanding precision?

Godel's theorem for mathematics, as far as I can see, applies equally well in discussions of morality. I will try to summarize it here; I apologize if I misrepresent anything. In math, logic, or any closed system with axioms, the system will contain an infinite number of statements which are true but which cannot be proven using the terms of the system alone. To prove such statements, it would be necessary to refer to another system whose axioms permit proofs of the first system's axioms.

This is why absolute judgments of morality are not possible in a naturalistic viewpoint. If the only means we have to judge morality are the judgments of human beings, whose judgments are also morally questionable, then a truly absolute standard is unattainable. Any statement I might make regarding right or wrong could be true. But the terms of the system in which I make the statement are not provable unless I am able to refer to moral axioms which lie outside my merely human knowledge.

One can build a case for the moral quality of something specific, in the same manner that a scientist would build a case for a specific, testable idea in their area of specialty. But just like in science, no moral case for the rightness or wrongness of anything would ever be proven. Because the possibility would always exist that some fact vital to the case had been left out, or some axiom in the moral system used to make the judgment was incorrect. One can only build the best system possible under the circumstances, invest belief in it, and hope for the best. (Relatively speaking.)

This is why a Christian, who has invested belief in the supernatural standards of morality set down in the Bible, can make statements about absolute morality, while I cannot. The difference is in the acceptance or rejection of a moral standard which comes from outside the fallible human race. A Christian can say, "If I am right, X is definitely wrong." But all I can say is, "If I am right, X seems to me to be wrong, but we will probably never know for certain."

Rhology said...

Yes, I'm idiotic. Run along now.

Rhology said...

Fiat Lex,

I agree. Thanks for your thoughts. You seem to be, from this comment, in the class of the Jolly Nihilist, whom I count as the most consistent of all atheists I've thus far met.

King of Ferrets said...

What, you aren't going to address my criticism? Just because I'm not going to read your whole post doesn't mean that my criticism of that last part doesn't matter.

As I said, I have two reasons for not reading your whole post. The first being you're an idiot, and the second being that I like to keep a discussion focused on one issue at a time.

So, how do you justify defining God at all when part of your definition is that he is incomprehensible?

Rhology said...


No, I don't address vapid "you're an idiot" comments very often, actually, especially when they follow "I didn't read much of your post, but..." disclaimers. Such comments are their own refutation.

The post to which you refer, why don't you comment over there?
Tell you what, I'll refer it...

Here's my response. I encourage you to interact with it over there so as not to derail this combox. I'll post any comment of mine on this issue in that combox, not here.

King of Ferrets said...

Well, I did say your an idiot, but I also brought up a criticism of your point.

Additionally, I do admit I didn't read the whole thing, but it's patently obvious that part wasn't so entwined with the rest that I have to read the rest to get it.

Now moving this discussion to the other thread.