Thursday, July 9, 2015

Is and ought

In the past week or two I've tried out and discarded a number of blogging ideas.  I keep wanting to argue "I'm not bad or stupid for not believing," but there seems to be no way to argue that without sounding like I'm saying "you are bad or stupid for believing," and I don't think that.  I'm not even interested in talking anybody else out of believing; lucky you, I say.

So today I'm going to talk about something else: morality, specifically the relationship between what is (facts) and what ought to be (moral imperatives).  There's an old philosophical dilemma that you can never go from facts to moral imperatives because ought doesn't depend entirely on is.  If the fact is that stealing your sandwich will make you mad at me, but I will also get a sandwich, what does that imply I should do?  Nothing.  It depends on which I want more, the sandwich or your good opinion.

Because of this many people think that morality is not possible for atheists; without God around to tell them what they ought to do, they have no choice but to drift along on autopilot, doing what they "feel like" or what is socially acceptable, but with no real reason why they don't just murder everyone they don't like.

I find that a little silly.  If you are religious, take a moment to think about what you would want to do, if God told you he didn't care one way or another and was interested to see what you chose.  Do you think you would very much enjoy betraying your friends, killing your parents, or hurting your children?  Not so much.  You care about those people and so you don't want to hurt them.  You want to make them happy.  In short, you love them.  Most people do.

And if you take as given that you love others, and that most people do, then you can give some thought to what sort of life you should live that will be good for others as well as yourself.  The details of that discernment rely entirely on what is: will this or that politician enact better laws, will this or that parenting method help my children, will this or that action make my friend happy.  All it takes is one simple assumption -- that you care about other people -- and after that you can go with what is.  It's also pretty fair to assume others also care about other people, and you can argue from their empathetic feelings to more specific moral rules: if you agree that other people feel as you do and are as important as you are, you should want their benefit, and look, X is to everyone's benefit.

But what's interesting me lately is the opposite question: is it possible to obtain ought without is?

I was discussing Pope Francis' new encyclical with someone, and we were arguing whether it had anything infallible in it.  I pointed out that the pope is never infallible about science, just about faith and morals.  So he might be wrong if he says "CO2 is causing global warming," but he should be preserved from error if he says "all Catholics should turn off their air conditioning."  (He didn't actually say that.)

Well, that's the theory, but what would be the point of turning off the A/C if global warming isn't actually going on?

I tried comparing it to Humanae Vitae, which most conservative Catholics will agree is infallible, but I found myself asking for the first time, if some of Paul VI's facts are incorrect, does that affect his conclusions at all?  Say, if birth control doesn't actually have the bad effects he says -- if it's discovered it strengthens marriages while NFP causes divorce, or whatever.

If he weren't pope, it would have to.  You can't come up with good moral rules without good facts.  This drives me crazy in many other debates, like the death penalty.  If the death penalty does not actually reduce crime, that is vital information to know!  And yet I've gone through some impressive debates on the topic where facts aren't even mentioned, except for quotes from popes. 

Now the Catholic assumption is that even if the pope in question doesn't have access to all the facts, that's okay because the Holy Spirit will preserve him from error.  It's also a Church teaching that if scientific facts appear to conflict with revealed truths, one is interpreting one or the other wrongly.

I think the Church does very well when it allows teachings to change based on new situations or newly discovered facts.  Getting rid of the idea of limbo makes sense considering the previously-unknown fact that as many as a quarter of babies conceived are miscarried.  That fact seems to make it much clearer that God wouldn't deprive that many people of heaven. 

However, it makes for problems with the idea of infallibility every time a teaching is changed.  There are some things that maybe could stand to be reformed by facts, but which won't be because Catholics believe the previous teachings were infallible the first time.  The Pope and bishops can't say that owning a person is intrinsically evil or that the death penalty is never acceptable, because that would contradict prior teaching.  So instead they have to put up with people dismissing the new teaching as "only prudential."

Another issue is that Catholics like to push inaccurate facts just to prop up the idea that the facts and faith will never contradict.  Which is where we get the supposed fact that NFP-using couples never divorce.  I dug up the study and what it actually said was that NFP-using couples are all currently married.  Which is .... unsurprising, don't you think?  If you're divorced, you presumably don't need to chart.  There are also inaccurate facts passed around about various birth control methods, to the point that I never believe something from a Catholic source till I've double-checked on a secular source.  Too often, they exaggerate or overstate things.  Like how birth control pills are mutating fish -- apparently it's mostly other pollutants.  How can we trust Catholic sources when they have a bad track record about reporting accurate facts, because the conclusion they want to prove is decided in advance?  (Ditto for political groups with different foregone conclusions.)

So, if the Church is true, there are two paths to "ought" -- either to look at what is, take love of neighbor and the common good as given, and draw the best conclusions you can; or to follow what the Church says.  Both should give the exact same answer, because truth, of course, comes from God.  Certainly most Catholics I know, when asked about the moral law, will argue that it is for our benefit.  They try to show that gay marriage or birth control or what-have-you is not good for us, but bad.  God isn't just making up rules to test us, he's just the one with a birds-eye view of human nature telling us what will truly make us happy and what won't.  If we were to investigate statistics about groups living out Catholic morals and groups abiding by other systems, we should find the Catholic one has the best results.

My question is, if you take the first path -- being, of course, as logical and impartial as you can, because that's the best way to find out facts -- will you really get the same answer as you do when you take the second?  Does anyone want to predict what would happen?

I think I would predict that these two courses are not so different as all that, for one thing.  Atheists are not, for the most part, living lives of utter dissolution; they don't cheat or steal or lie more than religious people do, because they have come to similar conclusions about morality from different sources.  And that is what you should expect if you are a Catholic -- the moral law is rational so there's no reason they wouldn't be able to figure it out.

On the other hand, there are some points of divergence between what religious and non-religious people believe, particularly when it comes to sex, and it would be very interesting to see if there was one set of sexual ethics that can be proven to make a society flourish and the people in it live happy lives.  Having not put serious study into it, I can't tell you what the answer would end up being, but it should be something we're able to find out.

And if we did figure it out, and non-religious people all adopted that, because they were happy to do what was necessary to love others and promote the common good?  Well, I predict further that if there was any difference between it and Catholicism, it wouldn't change anyone's mind.  Catholics would say, "But it can't be good, because those people do xyz and we think that is bad!"  Atheists would ask, "Why is that bad?" and Catholics would respond, "Because God does not want you to.  That's why."

And that's why Christians of every stripe will never admit that atheists can be moral.  There are some moral laws in religion which you can't derive from reason, because they are specifically laws that relate to God.  But as far as love of one's neighbor goes, I think you absolutely can go from is to ought and unbelievers do it all the time.

But ought without is?  I don't think you can.  I can't know if I ought to turn off my A/C until I know whether the earth is warming.  I don't know if I ought to oppose gay marriage until I know if there is any harm to it.  And I don't know if I ought to worship God until I know whether it is the case that he exists. 

And that, if you've been following along, is why I can't possibly be moral.  If I don't know what you know, I can't make the choices you think are right.  And there I was thinking I wasn't going to be talking about whether my lack of belief makes me a bad person!


Belfry Bat said...

Modulo some uncertainty over what is and isn't part of settled Church Teaching, (particularly Limbus Infantium, ... and I'm not sure I understand your reason for dropping the idea) I can't find much I object to here. I'm hesitant about expressing full agreement just because (evidently) there seem to be several mutually incompatible ways to organize a society with which enough people are sufficiently happy to be self-sustaining — and so we get "culture clash" when big migrations occur. And this is a feature of many systems of pure reason: there may be multiple solutions that work internally but don't much resemble eachother. Whether these stable differences are expressed as morals... we can look into later.

I do think there's some ambiguity over what "the is/ought falacy" actually is; I can recall two things that seem subject to Catholic complaint, but one common thread running through both troubling ideas is an underlying materialism.

The first troubling idea is that behaviours seen in nonhuman animals appear natural in them and conducive or even necessary to their thriving as a species (as long as that species actually thrives, anyway) and so it might be suggested that analogous behaviours in humans are equally conducive or perhaps necessary to human thriving; examples include promiscuity among various apes and monkeys. Or, sometimes, miscarriage, which occurs in the ordinary way of things due to something else having gone wrong, is given the orwellian name "spontaneous abortion" against which "induced" (i.e., actual) abortion is portrayed as an extension of nature. Things that "are" "natural" sometimes get proposed as "how things ought to be".

The other troubling idea, which is closer to the subject of your post today, is the idea that material consequences are the only possible reasons for not doing something: that e.g. the only possible reason for forbiding sodomy is its tendency to facilitate really weird infections and colon cancer, so that sufficient to make the act permissible would be a technological answer to those material consequences.

Anyways, as I say, neither of these two troubling ideas seem to be what you're considering, so that's... that's OK. Big digression perhaps.

I'm going to keep musing on stuff, maybe be back later.

Sheila said...

On your point one, I think I agree -- evo-psych people get some really weird ideas sometimes because they are imagining we're chimps, which we obviously are not. Rather than asking "do animals do x" we should ask "is x conducive to the happiness of humans?" Considering that virtue ethics insists we make a *habit* of viewing all humans, even unattractive or disabled humans, as valuable and unthinkable to destroy, a ban on abortion seems consistent. It helps enforce a universal respect for life which is bound to be good for society, even apart from the obvious good to the baby of not getting killed.

Point two, I think I have to answer this way. For any given action -- let's take sodomy because you brought it up -- either it harms humans or it does not. If it harms humans on a psychological level, for instance, that should be possible to discover -- we don't have to be limited to physical maladies. If it does not harm humans in any detectable way -- if the only problem with it is that it separates souls from God, that is, we should avoid it because God wants us to -- then we have to ask the question, why would God forbid something for an arbitrary reason rather than because it was bad for us?

So in any situation, either there should be a detectable bad side effect, or God is just messing with us. I don't really see a third option, because I don't see how something could be spiritually and invisibly bad for you in any sense other than "God doesn't like it." If it's spiritually bad in the sense of "it will make it harder to practice virtue in other respects," that should be visible, right? You could measure whether it does in fact degrade a person's moral choices.

SeekingOmniscience said...

Well... my interior steelmanned believer would say that there would be a third possibility. What I've heard argued is that there might be no detectable bad side effect to something God forbids, nor is God simply messing with you, but God is ordering you to do things because (1) it is difficult, and obeying you binds you closer to him, and (2) being closer to God is your Final End, so this is actually good for you.

So doing things like giving up meat on Friday, etc, are good for you in this fashion.

Granted, that becomes *much* harder to make sense of when you get to bigger things. Sure, giving up meat on Friday is fine. But this is a universal, evenly applied, not-onerous prohibition--prohibiting sodomy is a particularly applied, particularly onerous (to a few), etc, kind of a prohibition. I've also heard this kind of reasoning used to justify the sacrifice of Isaac, etc--it isn't *good* for you apart from binding you closer to God, and would be bad for you otherwise, but inasmuch as God is your final end rather than anything else, it is good for you to bind yourself to him.

Of course, it seems like God could command you to do or not do literally anything, no matter bad / good it otherwise was, which seems problematic.

Belfry Bat said...

That the principle is onerous "for a few" I suppose I must empirically-speaking grant --- that is, I'm told some find it onerous, and such a finding would seem to be intrinsically subjective, and I can't reasonably contradict another's subjectivity --- but it's a bit disingenuous to suggest that a precept is only a precept for people who are tempted against it. I have no desire to be drunk out of my wits, ever, but that doesn't mean it would be okay for me to try it for experiment's sake or condone it or suggest it to others, even supposing the effect were always ephemeral. Or, for another example, policemen should not use their office corruptibly; the fact that only few are policemen, and that a policeman's office puts him close to particular temptations doesn't mean corruption is excusable in them; understandable perhaps, and forgivable when they have done penance, but not excusable.


What Abraham was told to do, and what Abraham did in fact do, was to surrender Isaac perfectly to God, without reservation nor whitholding any part of him or attachment to him; God didn't ask for any harm to be done to Isaac; Abraham supplied the cords and God had them undone.

Of course it would seem like God could command "anything", if you're used to thinking of God as a capricious and unreasonable alien. But I do not believe that is a useful model for God.

Sheila said...

God demanded Isaac specifically as a burnt offering -- if that doesn't imply harm I don't know what would!

S.O., that is the explanation I myself have given in the past. I completely do understand meatless Fridays and Mass on Sunday in that light. The prohibition on sodomy differs in a few ways: first, it is more onerous for some than for others (BB, is that phrased better?) and it doesn't make any sense that gay people need to be bound to God *more* than everyone else does. And second, it is supposed to be *intrinsically* evil, unlike meat on Fridays. God demands us to sacrifice good things to bind ourselves to him, but sodomy is supposed to be of its nature a bad thing. The Church seems to assume that it is not one of the "just to show we love God" laws but one of the "it would be gravely evil for anyone" laws. (Otherwise why the fuss over gay civil marriage, eh?)

Now I CAN come up with a rationale for forbidding sodomy. Just as abortion is forbidden on the grounds that you have to draw the line somewhere, and the only reasonable place to draw it is "all individuals of the human species," so in sexual ethics we want to draw the line in a place that is consistent. If you allow gay marriage you have to allow birth control, that seems obvious to me but I can explain it if you don't see that. And so if you can show birth control is bad, that seems to justify the suffering banning sodomy puts on gay people.

The thing is, I'm not convinced that birth control is bad. We were warned that people would selfishly never choose to have kids, but while birthrates have dropped, most people still do want to have children. If you fixed the economic problems that are keeping people from having kids, I suspect birthrates would go up. Or the Church could just teach that we have a positive moral obligation to have kids (barring the usual grave reasons) and leave it at that. And as far as "birth control makes people promiscuous," the Church already bans fornication. The line could be drawn at "sex only in permanent faithful relationships" and be consistent. The question then is, would this new line result in more happiness and less suffering across the board, or the opposite? What do you predict the facts would say?

Belfry Bat said...

I don't want to make the Abraham/Isaac thing about translations (or weather the preposition was "as" or "for": Douay has "for", which I do prefer, but the point is:), but the fact that the greekish word is holocaust doesn't mean God asked for something to be totally burned up. Even were the greekish a direct parallel of the Hebrew word, that would not mean that God asked for something to be burned. The spiritual significance of a holocaust sacrifice was that nothing remained for the priest or the worshiper to use for themselves; but the material burning of the thing isn't necessary for that kind of offering to be made. Or rather, God does not demand such a physical sign, but some worshipers may have been unable to make such a sacrifice without the sign; but this one time, Abraham did manage it, with Divine help.

... i'm confused now, how did we get on to Abraham and Isaac again?


On the parenthetical, the original phrasing wasn't problematic, and your phrasing is just as clear; my point was that, however it was phrased, it was irrelevant.

Belfry Bat said...

Back to is/ought; I think a high-level summary of the worry behind the slogan "you can't get 'ought' from 'is'" is that, according to a strict materialist, consciousness and freedom and all of them are illusions, and have no more real privilege outside the illusion than do rocks and plasma. And, if I understand right, what you're getting at in this note is that, on the one hand, there are very very few strict materialists in this sense, and on the other hand, the majority of that minority also acknowledge that whether fundamentally illusion or not, there IS such a thing as human nature, and that to pretend otherwise or act contrary to it is inhuman.

Sheila said...

Sort of .... I think I would say instead, regardless of whether everything's an illusion, I still happen to live inside it. I still have to live and make choices. Even materialists who deny free will still make choices -- they think that the choices they will make are a foregone conclusion, but since they don't know and can't predict what they will be, it still feels like they're making choices. So one comes up with a vocabulary and set of rules that work inside the illusion.

I don't know if there's anyone who actually denies consciousness, though, because it's a phenomenon we all experience. We all are able to feel pain, and we all would rather not feel it, and though none of that might matter on any cosmic scale, it is a pretty undeniable fact.

My way of thinking of it is that there are two "universes" so to speak -- one that is outside of myself, and one that is inside. Both are equally real to me and matter as much. So realities that do not exist outside myself -- my concept of goodness, the pain I feel when someone I love is suffering, my experience of a poem that came out of somebody else's inner universe -- are not, for that reason, not real.

Aristotle made a big jump over Plato when he said that, while "the form of a chair" does not exist in some separate World of the Forms, the idea of a chair is still a real thing. It exists in the mind of a person who knows what a chair is.

Given that I have an inner experience of love for others, I don't need to know that it exists outside myself in the world of matter -- all I need to know is that it affects my happiness, meaning, suffering, and so forth. Things I do outside myself, in the world of matter, have repercussions to my inner life, and so I should make those outward actions conscientiously. Beyond that, it seems eminently reasonable to assume that others have an inner world similar to mine, and that affecting their inner world is as important as what I do to my own.

That's if I want to get way more philosophical than most people, atheist or otherwise, normally are. Most people understand pretty clearly that philosophy is only one way of talking about things, and that love of one's neighbor is something real enough not to require justification.

Belfry Bat said...

Oh, I've very definitely met folk who insist that consciousness is an illusion (and freedom, too); it's amusing to re-phrase that as "it's all just in your mind"...

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