Moral Facts: their existence and nature

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Moral Facts: their existence and nature

Postby diotimajsh » Thu Jan 15, 2009 12:38 am UTC

This topic has been touched upon in Morality and Logic, Absolute Morality, and maaaaybe hinted at in Moral Relativism and Subjectivity, but I don't believe it's been explicitly treated. My apologies to the mods if I should have raised it in one of those threads.

My question boils down to this. Are there "moral facts"? In what sense, if any, are they true/false? From what do they derive their authority?

Let me outline some positions one could take in response: ethicists make a broad distinction between cognitivism, the position that moral statements have objective truth values, and non-cognitivism, the position that they do not. Cognitivism encompasses moral realism, or the belief that there are genuine, objective moral facts and that these facts inhere in the universe (somehow). On the other hand, non-cognitivism denies that a sentence like "Abortion is right/wrong" has the same kind of meaning as a sentence like "The earth is round"; rather than being evaluable as true or false, moral sentences either have no meaning, or have some other completely different meaning. E.g., an emotivist would hold that moral statements express personal approval or disapproval (like "Boo killing!", "Yay honesty!"), not facts.

Note that it's possible to be a cognitivist without being a moral realist. For example, a moral relativist will probably be a cognitivst, because s/he believes that there are moral facts and propositions; however, for the relativist, these moral facts differ depending on context or society, and they reflect subjective attitudes rather than objective features of the world. (Making moral relativists also ethical subjectivists). Moral realists hold the opposite. Another cognitivist but non-realist view is error theory, which all moral propositions are false, because (for example) all moral propositions presuppose moral facts which do not actually exist.

Because this was a boring and potentially confusing list, I have also attached a flow-chart to identify yourself among the categories listed above:
Spoiler:
ethics flowchart.jpg
ethics flowchart.jpg (51.28 KiB) Viewed 6607 times
--Note to pedantic philosophers: this is not a complete list, it just describes the general categories I mention in this post. Although do correct me if I've construed something incorrectly.
--Note to pedantic computer scientists: this is not a technically correct flow-chart. It's readable though, ain't it?


I have the impression that most people on this forum will identify themselves as non-cognitivists or cognitivists who do not hold that moral facts are objectively true (such as error theorists, or ethical subjectivists). I'd be interested to hear reasons why, arguments for/against, though.
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Re: Moral Facts: their existence and nature

Postby Azrael » Thu Jan 15, 2009 2:01 am UTC

If this thread turns into an anfury special: a dictated form where certain views are 'possible' or 'acceptable' for this debate, I will flip my shit. Seriously. There is only *so* much direction that an OP can offer. And flowcharts dictating the categories that people could fall into is pretty borderline.

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Re: Moral Facts: their existence and nature

Postby diotimajsh » Thu Jan 15, 2009 7:18 am UTC

Hmm, that wasn't my intention at all. These were suggestions, not requirements. I was just trying to give people a feel for the different positions that currently exist. A road map, not dictated roles.

In case it wasn't clear, then, let me add: If you find yourself disagreeing with pretty much every take here, then feel free to provide your own that doesn't fit within any of the listed boundaries. Really, I meant this list to be helpful, not limiting; and I'm more curious about people's views and the arguments behind them than whatever label we can come up with for them.
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Re: Moral Facts: their existence and nature

Postby Heisenberg » Thu Jan 15, 2009 5:03 pm UTC

By this categorization I would identify as a moral realist. My reasoning for this stems from my perception of evidence suggesting that the universe is not a random occurence. The universe contains both moral and physical laws. The difference lies in the fact that we cannot violate physical laws, but we can choose to violate moral laws. Like physical laws, moral laws can be understood and represented in language. Our understanding of these rules grows throughout the human experience (Eye for an Eye evolves into the Golden Rule) and we get better at representing them.

In addition, I believe that most arguments are over strength and precedence of moral laws relative to each other. For instance, a federal program to force prisoners to build housing for the poor would be argued over not because of competing self-interest or because there is an overriding moral law saying that this is a good or bad thing. Rather, there is a moral fact regarding freedom and slavery that this appears to violate, and there is also a moral fact regarding the preservation of life which this program could achieve for the poor.

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Re: Moral Facts: their existence and nature

Postby Bright Shadows » Thu Jan 15, 2009 9:08 pm UTC

Hm...
The number of things you can do and when you can do them is limited. If there is a limited number of things to do, there is a set of best possible outcomes, given that everything you can do is not equal in effect. Therefore, based on what the highest percent of ideal outcomes requires, you CAN draw out general moral laws. More specific stuff would require a situation by situation analysis.

The problem of people being unable to find these laws with any kind of efficiency at all is impossible is irrelevant to the existence.
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Re: Moral Facts: their existence and nature

Postby jjono » Fri Jan 16, 2009 4:35 am UTC

I don't think the OP's classification scheme is too bad. It's not comprehensive, but it might make people think harder about what they are saying.

In the cognitivist / non-cognitivist debate, I think there are two questions that are easily (and often) confused.

Spoiler:
The first is What do we mean when we make a moral statement?
The only tenable answer, in my opinion, is It depends on who we are.

Take a statement like "Killing is wrong." Many people would be happy to make this statement, but they may not all mean the same thing. Here are some different things that people might mean:
1. "There is an objective, universal moral fact that killing is wrong."
2. "Killing is objectively wrong in my culture, but if there existed a culture in which killing were accepted, then it would not be objectively wrong in that culture."
3. "Killing is not universally wrong. However, it would be objectively wrong for me to kill, given my personal beliefs."
4. An expression of dislike for killing, and perhaps also for killers. It may also communicate a willingness to cooperate or make sacrifices to prevent killing.

I do not doubt that there are people who use each of these meanings and sincerely believe what they say. (Also, many or most people have no idea what they mean, and simply use moral phrases in the way they were taught to with no underlying thought. If asked which of the above they mean, these people will go cross-eyed.)

Given this, I think that whether a moral statement can be true or false must depend on what its utterer means. If all I am doing when I make a moral statement is expressing an emotion, then the statement cannot properly be called true or false. You may feel otherwise, or think that my emotions are (objectively) morally corrupt, but either way I'm not saying anything at all (i.e. no proposition). On the other hand, when Fred Phelps says that homosexuality is wrong, he means that is it universally, objectively wrong (as decreed by Phelps' god). It seems to me that this is a proposition and we can talk about it being true or false. This is why I think that both pure cognitivists and pure non-cognitivists are mistaken. Not everyone means the same thing when they make a moral statement.
(both spoilered for length)

Spoiler:
The second question we might ask is What is the most a moral statement can mean and still be true?

This is a better question, methinks. It is asking whether moral facts exist, and, if they do, what kind they are. A good starting point is this: Suppose someone makes a moral statement with one of meanings 1, 2 or 3 above. Can what she is saying be true? I believe not, which makes me an error theorist with regards to many (but not all) people's moral statements and an emotivist regarding the rest.

People who answer "yes" to the existence of moral facts are called realists and generally split into two kinds. Some (call them "Platonists") believe that there is a realm of objective moral facts that is (partially) separated from the physical world. This is similar to what many people believe about mathematics. Others ("naturalists") claim that moral facts are like the facts of (for instance) economics. They are really claims about general features of the physical world, although they may not be reducible to interactions at the level of particles. When we say "the Icelandic economy is in recession", we are making a statement about the physical world, although it is not clear whether the statement could (even in principle) be reduced to one about fundamental particles. Naturalists believe that moral statements are similar.


Ok, if anyone has read all that, then here are some questions for the realists:
1. Platonists - explain how there can exist a separate moral world that we can nonetheless have knowledge of.
2. Moral naturalists - explain why knowledge of moral facts motivates us to action (unlike knowledge of economic facts).
3. Other realists - explain what kind of moral facts you think exist, by analogy if necessary, and why we should believe in them.

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Re: Moral Facts: their existence and nature

Postby diotimajsh » Fri Jan 16, 2009 7:45 am UTC

Heisenberg: A key distinction between physical and ethical laws, I'd say, is that physical laws tend to be descriptive whereas ethical laws tend to be prescriptive. That is, ethical rules tell us how we ought to behave and how things ought to be, while descriptive laws simply tell us how natural phenomena do behave, so far as we have observed. To me, natural laws therefore require less explanation than ethical laws: all descriptions derive directly from and attempt to portray an observation, as with e.g. a picture, a verbal description, or model. (That is, insofar they purport to depict an actual feature of the world, since of course we can and do create our own fictional descriptions.) When we look at a sculpture, we can say, "It's an imitation of that thing over there in reality"; yet from what do ethical laws derive? Ethical laws do not appear to share the same "grounding" in the natural world, since they do not model the world as it exists. The universe does not "contain" moral laws in the same way that it "contains" physical laws, so I'm not sure the analogy is obvious or appropriate.

Bright Shadows: I agree that the efficiency of finding/determining laws is irrelevant to their existence. But I think you're presupposing something (or several somethings) about moral facts by stating that, "there is a set of best possible outcomes." What is it that makes one set of outcomes "better" than another? Is whatever-it-is-that-makes-one-set-better inherent in the outcomes themselves, or do we impute that quality to them?

jjono wrote:I don't think the OP's classification scheme is too bad. It's not comprehensive, but it might make people think harder about what they are saying.
That was my hope; I'm starting to have misgivings though, I think it's actually deterring people from responding. And much of it may not be relevant for our purposes. What does everyone think, should I edit the initial post to simply describe moral realism and irrealism, we'll forget the other junk, and go from there?

jjono wrote:The first is What do we mean when we make a moral statement?
The only tenable answer, in my opinion, is It depends on who we are.
You raise a good point, but as far as I know, that's not actually to relevant to the cognitivist/non-cognitivist debate. Where these camps are concerned, they're talking about situations when it is clear which meaning a person intends. So, they would take a universal, objective moral statement when it is clearly intended to be that way; and the cognitivists say that this has a truth value, while the non-cognitivists deny it. In a sense, they're examining "idealized" propositions where we assume a specific meaning from the start. Now, the meaning part does come into play when an emotivist claims that all apparently objective propositions are, in reality, expressions of dislike; but the mere fact that a person intended to state an objective proposition does not guarantee that it is one. E.g., I can intend the words "Fleeubm tooooooz ire alguuuuuu", the expression "Wow!", and the question "How are you?" to be propositions with truth values; doesn't mean they suddenly are, though.

...Beyond that, I like your summary of moral realism and related questions. :)
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Re: Moral Facts: their existence and nature

Postby Bright Shadows » Fri Jan 16, 2009 1:35 pm UTC

diotimajsh wrote:Bright Shadows: I agree that the efficiency of finding/determining laws is irrelevant to their existence. But I think you're presupposing something (or several somethings) about moral facts by stating that, "there is a set of best possible outcomes." What is it that makes one set of outcomes "better" than another? Is whatever-it-is-that-makes-one-set-better inherent in the outcomes themselves, or do we impute that quality to them?


If there are different axioms, there would be different results, of course. Geometry says so too. However, given that you have a base, and it's not something you can avoid, there will be a set of final outcomes that are the best for your axiom.

Others may judge that you did not take a best course, but it would be an axiom difference causing that. So, depending on who's judging and when, the best set changes. A problem to factor into your axiom, then, would be who's opinion you care about, although too much and you get into the range of some mental problems.

On a side note:
Changing axioms mid-way through can be factored in as well (this being a semi-common occurrence upon parenthood and at other points of significant change as I understand) by simply forming a new starting point at the time of change and taking the previous part of the life as starting conditions.

On a last note, if I have misused the word "axiom", then I am very, VERY sorry. It's just the only word I could come up with.
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Re: Moral Facts: their existence and nature

Postby Ari » Sun Jan 18, 2009 5:27 am UTC

Practically speaking, does it matter if a moral proposition is objectively true? How would you prove it?
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Re: Moral Facts: their existence and nature

Postby Mr. Froggy » Thu Jan 22, 2009 9:23 am UTC

I believe there are no moral facts. Anyone can do anything, anyone can is capable of killing, or raping, or stealing. The only thing an individual needs to be right is society's support. The closest thing to a moral fact is rational behavior. It's not a coincidence that a society that allows free-for-all violence and crime just doesn't work; violence and crime take away from people's ability to survive, eventually leading to everyone dying or leaving said society. Just because a behavior is rational, and it works, it doesn't mean that it's like that because of some higher influence; once a behavior is noted to being beneficial to life, then it's considered rational (you know, after the fact.) Why do people seem to choose rational behavior, regardless of upbringing? Well, that could be coincidence, or behavioral 'survival of the fittest', or it could just be proof that we're rational creatures and we recognize rational behavior.
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Re: Moral Facts: their existence and nature

Postby teh_gurkerer » Thu Jan 22, 2009 9:43 am UTC

It's actually extremely simple to show that scientifically speaking, there aren't, a fact in formal science is that which one can deduce from the axioms, but the axioms are never absolute so you'll always be relative here. In empirical science, a fact is that which we can measure, as moral isn't a tangible thing, we cannot.

So no, there are no moral facts, there are at max morals that every human shares. But that's an argumentum ad populum of course. That's like saying '1500 years back, if you asked any person on the planet about some things about quantum mechanics, all would deny whatever you asked them, does that mean annihilation didn't happen at that time?'

We don't do the whole 'provide a link to my post in the rant thread that would otherwise get me sternly lectured if it were said in SB.'

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Re: Moral Facts: their existence and nature

Postby Thrice Great » Thu Jan 22, 2009 10:06 am UTC

My take is that if moral facts exist, then there is a direct correlation, or an equivalence relation, between each and the physical laws. Moreover, they would provide the essence of the other, transferring both meaning and gravity through a third agent of symbolism. Although this would seem to suggest the lack of free will, the physical laws appear to make exceptions under certain circumstances. Now if I actually believed this, I must also believe that the bearer of a moral system could shape his environment through his conviction of such beliefs. That being said, the absoluteness is entirely dependent upon the individual and his existence.

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Re: Moral Facts: their existence and nature

Postby teh_gurkerer » Thu Jan 22, 2009 10:20 am UTC

Why would there be a direct correlation or equivalence between them?

Actually, if moral fact exists, it is sure to not correlate or even have any dependencies on physical laws as physical laws do not describe moral fact. If they did interact and influenced each other, than physical laws would describe moral fact, which they don't.
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Re: Moral Facts: their existence and nature

Postby Thrice Great » Thu Jan 22, 2009 10:48 am UTC

teh_gurkerer wrote:...than physical laws would describe moral fact, which they don't.

im saying that if moral facts exist, then they do. physical laws describe moral fact because moral facts are the physical laws.
look at your current circumstances and the physical laws that shape them. that circumstance, and those laws, are your morality in effect.

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Re: Moral Facts: their existence and nature

Postby Zamfir » Thu Jan 22, 2009 11:23 am UTC

Do chairs exist? I am not mocking, I am serious. That a cetain amount of atoms form together an object is already a "fact" that doesn't exist outside of human minds, that such an object has a specific function as sitting tool is clearly a purely mental construct. In that sense chairs are not as real as physical laws, and neither are moral facts. But we still say chairs exist, and there is nothing relativistic about that.

Teh Gurkerer above mentions an "argument at populace", and says that quantum physics existed even when no one knew about it, while moral facts don't exist if no-one believe in them. But that is true for a lot of things, including many things we never doubt that they "exist".

Chairs do not exist if no one knows about them. Stories don't exist if no one knows them. I am tempted to say that mountains don't exist without human beings. Not that the wooden constructs, inked-papers or silicon masses would disappear if humans were all to die, but only humans see them as seperate objects with specific properties.

I would say that the existence of moral facts lies somewhere in the neighbourhood of the existence of mathematics, stories and observations (or models) of reality. They are all purely mental constructs, but with slightly different "rules". You can make a lot of arbitrary changes to a story and it will still be a story, if you make arbitrary changes to maths it is no longer maths. Different people can make different observations of the same phenomenon, but only within certain bounds. If they differ too much, one must be right and the other wrong, constrained by reality.

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Re: Moral Facts: their existence and nature

Postby teh_gurkerer » Thu Jan 22, 2009 11:49 am UTC

No, I said some-thing else, I said that if the entire human population believes that x is true, that does not make x true.

Also, I feel the topic start has been extremely vague by what it denotes with 'moral facts exist', I read it as 'is there a certain moral value we can say of that it is absolutely true objectively', you went into the dangerous ally of trying to define what 'existence' constitutes, which I believe you will not succeed in as that question has bested every-one in record who has tried for the last 2000 years, thereto I believe 'existence' is not a logically handleable property of an object, at least, we cannot use it as such until it is defined, and if it's indefinable, it can never be used as such, but one cannot proof some-thing is indefinable as some-thing must be defined to be used in proofs.

Your definition of 'existence' has one flaw namely, what is 'no one', how do we evaluate what constitutes a sound observer, and how do we know if we haven't overlooked one? Does a chair exist because it exerts a force upon the floor it stands on, al though no human is there to perceive it? But then you can say that the floor doesn't exist, and so you can say that all you experience doesn't exist in the end because, for sake of argument, there is a human on Mars right now looking away from earth.

Existence per an absolute hive mind is hard to define, relative existence per entity is simpler to define as all that exists for that entity is all that influences it, which comes down to the observable universe relative to that entity. And then again we see that moral, as intangible things are perceived differently by different entities and again we Hobson to moral relativism.
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Re: Moral Facts: their existence and nature

Postby EstLladon » Thu Jan 22, 2009 2:23 pm UTC

I think that anthropocentrism is wrong. Moral stuff make sense only for humans (I'm not taking sapient aliens into account). There is no morality in non-human part of the universe. There is no morality between animals. And humans are pretty damn insignificant in the face of the whole universe. So the comparing physical laws to moral ones does not make sense.

My view of morality is from evolutionistic point of view. We have moral rules because they help us live in larger groups and thus fitting more of us in smaller space. If you deal with property on the basis of "if I'm stronger than you then this stuff is mine and not yours" you cannot make a big community. Bigger groups require bigger sets (or better sets) of rules. And morals tend to evolve over time. You can observe it actually. For example I think that generally increasing tolerance of homosexuality is precisely this - evolving our morality to control overpopulation. And not "we are so damn smart and caring and those who do not think so are morons" thing.

I guess it was Esoteric Wombat who wrote:Marriage has always contorted in definition to fit what society needed from it. And now we need gay dudes and ladies to share in it. So that's what's going to happen. The rest of you are on the wrong side of history.

Is exactly what I'm talking about. There is no universal morality. Only evolution.

(Shit, this post is on-topic for so many threads it boggles my mind.)
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Re: Moral Facts: their existence and nature

Postby teh_gurkerer » Thu Jan 22, 2009 3:36 pm UTC

It's not important if only humans are considered as valid observers or not, once population of humans can still be separated from communication with another group to thus if you work in an absolute system obtain a situation that a certain moral both exists and NOT exists at the same time.

Seeing it relatively and counting 'existence' as relative to one specific observer is the only thing introducible to refute the paradox that I can think of, which unfolds into moral relativism again.
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Re: Moral Facts: their existence and nature

Postby Heisenberg » Thu Jan 22, 2009 9:16 pm UTC

teh_gurkerer wrote:... but the axioms are never absolute so you'll always be relative here. In empirical science, a fact is that which we can measure, as moral isn't a tangible thing, we cannot.

I may be misunderstanding you here, but I believe you're saying "Morals are relative, therefore moral relativism." I don't see any justification for the premise.

teh_gurkerer wrote:It's not important if only humans are considered as valid observers or not, once population of humans can still be separated from communication with another group to thus if you work in an absolute system obtain a situation that a certain moral both exists and NOT exists at the same time.

So... if morals are not absolute, there are no moral facts? What if certain moral facts are absolute, which means they hold true for everyone, everywhere?

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Re: Moral Facts: their existence and nature

Postby Dezign » Thu Jan 22, 2009 9:39 pm UTC

EstLlandon wrote:(Shit, this post is on-topic for so many threads it boggles my mind.)
That could be a sign that either the thread or its responses are poorly defined. More precise definitions could help us out. Truth would be a great concept to define, and doing so would very easily finish this topic, but, well...
Wikipedia wrote:The term truth has no definition about which a majority of professional philosophers and scholars agree ...

The meaning of "truth" is critical to the interpretation of the OP's questions, and yet it isn't specifically defined. My definition for truth would use the consensus theory; being the most accessible, it suits the level of abstraction this thread has been hovering around. Truth is therefore what all debaters would agree on if they also agreed they shared the same definitions, and that agreement (and their definitions) could be subject to dynamic updating.

(Edit: Concision.)

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Re: Moral Facts: their existence and nature

Postby Azrael » Thu Jan 22, 2009 11:56 pm UTC

Let me be clear: If you're having trouble participating constructively in this discussion because you're caught up in defining either 'truth' or 'existence', you can feel free *not* to participate.

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Re: Moral Facts: their existence and nature

Postby Philwelch » Fri Jan 23, 2009 7:47 pm UTC

Azrael wrote:Let me be clear: If you're having trouble participating constructively in this discussion because you're caught up in defining either 'truth' or 'existence', you can feel free *not* to participate.


Heh, something tells me this discussion would be better suited to a philosophy forum, if we had one. Because unpacking these notions ends up being really, really important in this discussion (while being maybe too technical for a general forum).

That having been said, I usually treat "truth" as an unanalyzable concept when it comes to simple matters of fact. Applying it to morality seems like equivocation, since there's (per Hume) no easy way to bridge the is-ought gap. I guess that makes me a non-cognitivist.
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Re: Moral Facts: their existence and nature

Postby Azrael » Sat Jan 24, 2009 12:04 am UTC

Since I wasn't clear, and have caused some confusion (and not just from Phil).

The topic at hand isn't to define either 'truth' or 'existence'. Either one of those is a base building block required long before morality can be discussed from a philosophical standpoint. And those discussions would be, in order to be properly discussed (philosophically), threads of their own.

So, on one hand; Yes, I agree with you Phil, those are important to have in order for deeply philosophical debates to continue. Because we don't as of yet have such a forum, feel free to start philosophically-rigorous discussions here. I'd suggest starting with defining existence, as it's own thread with the [Philosophy] tag in the title. We'll even make it "policy".

The purple text was a reminder to stay on topic -- in that whatever definition of 'truth' or 'existence' you care to use had to be tied to the topic of moral fact. Neither of the individuals questioning the definitions seemed to be anchored in the discussion at hand -- both of them, to my read, seemed to be expressing the view that the topic [shouldn't / couldn't] be discussed because those definitions were lacking. And when someone states that, in their view, a thread can't be discussed without defining this concept that (they say) has no formal definition, staying on topic would be ... difficult for them in this thread.

So again, if you can't discuss 'truth' or 'existence' in a way that is constructive to this thread, then don't discuss them.


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