Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

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krazykomrade
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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby krazykomrade » Sun Oct 03, 2010 4:55 am UTC

Is there any society where killing without need is not seen an contrary to the interests of the group?

Would or could this be classified as objective?

I don't think so, unless you really want to twist the meaning of objective. Principles like that one belong to what is sometimes called "core morality", moral norms that are minimally necessary within any group for that group to continue to survive, especially among competing groups. However, that such norms are the result of a form of social evolution means that they are both path-dependent and dependent on their environment. Both those conditions seem contingent, rather than necessary, and that suggests that they could have been different. Not only that, but as environments change, they could change as well. So if the world were different, then these core morals would be different, so it seems hard to classify them as objective. Of course, there could be, completely independent of the evolution of our world, objective moral truths which happen to line up with the way things have turned out; but there isn't any reason to suppose that merely on the grounds that we have core morality.

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby morriswalters » Sun Oct 03, 2010 2:27 pm UTC

What use would a moral truth have outside of it's association with a social structure? On the other hand how could any social structure not have a compunction against murder? That is a product of biology.

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby krazykomrade » Sun Oct 03, 2010 5:11 pm UTC

morriswalters wrote:What use would a moral truth have outside of it's association with a social structure?

Not much, but that it is useful doesn't make it objectively true. It's "truth" is contingent upon the social structures.

On the other hand how could any social structure not have a compunction against murder? That is a product of biology.

Indirectly, I'd say its more directly a product of social relationships; but either way, it's a product of *our* biology and *our* societies. Imagine a society where creatures who inhabit it are immortal. Or a society in which it's members are so overpopulated and miserable that the majority wish for death, and those who don't welcome the attempts on their life as a test of their strength and power. Or a situation like Hobbes's State of Nature, the war of all against all. Or are society composed of individuals that are so naturally beneficent that the concept of murder is almost literally unthinkable, let alone do-able. Compunctions against murder wouldn't exist in these societies; it wouldn't be part of their core morality. In fact, they might well have entirely different ethical codes that seem strange, unnecessary, or incoherent to us, because what is useful to them and their environment is so radically different. An objectively-true moral truth would have to hold in all possible worlds, not just ours.

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby morriswalters » Sun Oct 03, 2010 6:28 pm UTC

In point of fact I would argue that no complex organism could develop that does not have a social structure where cooperation is not an important part of the structure. Differentiation is a product of complexity. Differentiation requires organization and organization requires an hierarchy of cooperation. Given this type of organization then murder within the group would be a adverse function. I would argue that the Universe is organized in a similar way. Things that interfere with the hierarchy would select out. Look at the Solar System.

However for the OP it's not required to take it that far. For all intents and purposes, Thou shall not murder, would be an objective moral in fact if not by definition. Look at your two examples, an immortal society and a grossly overpopulated planet. The first would find that "Thou shall not murder" very important assuming that they had decided for immortality. For the second consider how we might react in that circumstance. Rather than mass suicide might we not fragment along social lines and go to war? In that case "Thou shall not murder" would apply to our friends not our enemies. "Thou shall not murder" is objective it's the application that is subjective.

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby krazykomrade » Sun Oct 03, 2010 7:38 pm UTC

In point of fact I would argue that no complex organism could develop that does not have a social structure where cooperation is not an important part of the structure. Differentiation is a product of complexity. Differentiation requires organization and organization requires an hierarchy of cooperation. Given this type of organization then murder within the group would be a adverse function. I would argue that the Universe is organized in a similar way. Things that interfere with the hierarchy would select out. Look at the Solar System.

I'm inclined to agree to cooperation is a necessary part of social structure, but what we're after is the specific manifestations of that cooperation, not cooperation itself. I'm in total agreement about how things that interfere with the hierarchy would tend to be selected out, that's how moral evolution works, but what sorts of those things they are are contingent on a whole heap of things, so I don't see how you can say that the specific ones we currently have are objective.

For all intents and purposes, Thou shall not murder, would be an objective moral in fact if not by definition.

What? I'm not sure what that means. That we all treat something as fact doesn't mean that it is a fact, or that there even are such things, if that is what you were saying. For something to be objectively true is to say a lot more about it than we all agree on it.
Look at your two examples, an immortal society and a grossly overpopulated planet. The first would find that "Thou shall not murder" very important assuming that they had decided for immortality. For the second consider how we might react in that circumstance. Rather than mass suicide might we not fragment along social lines and go to war? In that case "Thou shall not murder" would apply to our friends not our enemies.

I never said they "decided" for immortality, (I'm not sure what that means, either). For a society of entities that are immortal, and always have been, the word murder would not have any content for them, any more than the word magenta would have content for a socieity of (always) blind people. For the second example, they might do as you suggest, but then again they might not. Perhaps these creatures are physically (or psychologically) incapable of killing themselves, but don't mind being killed by others. We could play around with hypotheticals like these for a hundred pages, but the point is that there can be imagined some possible world where the wrongness of murder has no utility. That being the case, it's hard to imagine how our notion of that wrongness would still be true in that world. Furthermore, supposing it did, would other moral norms which only have utility in other possible worlds than our own, hold here in ours? That seems even more implausible.

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby morriswalters » Sun Oct 03, 2010 8:51 pm UTC

From my point of view the definitions the problem. We don't need a hypothetical at all. We only have what is here, now. I can imagine anything but we have to deal with life as it is here and now. If presented with evidence of other situations then you change the theory to fit. If we are the only beings which this might apply to then, for this time, it is objective.

To get back to the OP's point, it should be possible to come up with a set of metrics which apply to this social space. That is to humans. Given that, then it should be possible to know who can live to those "morals" and why others can't. The point is this, I can argue that the only absolute moral is that to live is good and to die is not. But that is abstract and useless. Just like Pi to a million places. 3.14 serves as well for most calculations. All we need to accomplish Hedonic Treader's goal is "good enough".

This is a personal belief unfettered by facts, but I don't think that you can select for immortality so you would have to develop it or "choose".

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby krazykomrade » Sun Oct 03, 2010 9:27 pm UTC

From my point of view the definitions the problem. We don't need a hypothetical at all. We only have what is here, now. I can imagine anything but we have to deal with life as it is here and now. If presented with evidence of other situations then you change the theory to fit. If we are the only beings which this might apply to then, for this time, it is objective.

Hypotheticals aren't necessary for asserting that something is objectively true, that's correct, but they are useful for testing such assertions. If something is objectively true, then it is true in and of itself, regardless of circumstance, conditions, or subject. So if we can imagine possible states of affairs in virtue of which something doesn't seem to be true, that's a good reason for believing that something is not objectively true. You seem to be talking about values which are universally shared at a particular place and particular time; while certainly important and worthy of discussion and analysis, this is quite different from the philosophical notion of objectivity.

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby SnakesNDMartyrs » Sun Oct 03, 2010 10:12 pm UTC

morriswalters wrote:From my point of view the definitions the problem. We don't need a hypothetical at all. We only have what is here, now. I can imagine anything but we have to deal with life as it is here and now. If presented with evidence of other situations then you change the theory to fit. If we are the only beings which this might apply to then, for this time, it is objective.


Objectivity isn't a theory that you just change when you get new evidence. This isn't science, or science's incorrect idea of objectivity. This is real objectivity, truth regardless of time, place and observer; because moral judgement relies entirely on the observer there can obviously be no objective morality and therefore no objective metric to measure it.

To get back to the OP's point, it should be possible to come up with a set of metrics which apply to this social space. That is to humans.


I don't even think that you could do this, morality is so diverse across the human social space that you couldn't possibly encapsulate it in to some theory which could then be used to differentiate between the human notions of right and wrong? How would you handle something like abortion or euthanasia?

then it should be possible to know who can live to those "morals" and why others can't.


If they truly apply to the human social space all humans should be able to live by them without any issue - unless you are suggesting that those that can't live by them aren't human or that the moral code itself isn't indicative of all humans.

The point is this, I can argue that the only absolute moral is that to live is good and to die is not.


Why is life objectively any more valuable than death?
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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby morriswalters » Mon Oct 04, 2010 2:13 am UTC

I had a much longer response prepared but I thought of a simpler response. If the desire is to create a universal moral definition than good luck. Compare the size of the known volume of space against the limits of the physical human presence. We might never explore any further than this star. If so this is all there is. Then we should deal with what works here. Objective is a complex idea when used in a philosophical sense, but in a practical sense it has no value. It implies a level of understanding we don't have. The conversation hasn't moved much beyond arguing how many Angels can stand on the head of a pin, if such a debate ever occurred. What we can do is find approximations which can help us in a real fashion. Euthanasia and abortions are subjects which require value judgments and as such are not so much moral questions but rather social questions. But some moral events are nowhere near as complex and are effectively true wherever humans live together. If we can discover at least some of the intrinsic morals then we may be able to map out the emotional responses to these and identify persons which are defective or who have a deficit of some type. Not in a preemptive sense rather to provide better justice for example.

Edit: The desire to live i define as the only true imperative.

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby krazykomrade » Mon Oct 04, 2010 6:51 pm UTC

If the desire is to create a universal moral definition than good luck.

That's not what we're trying to do at all; we were trying to figure out if, as the title of this thread suggests, an objective metric for good and bad exists.
But some moral events are nowhere near as complex and are effectively true wherever humans live together.

As I mentioned in my last post, you don't seem to be talking about objective metrics for good and evil at all, but rather, universally (or near-univerally) agreed upon moral codes that serve a specific purpose or function. Those are two things apart. But then you go on to say: "If we can discover at least some of the intrinsic morals", implying that now you are acknowledging that there are some such moral truths that exist and can be discovered? You seem to jump back and forth.

As my earlier comments in this thread imply, I agree that talking about objectively true morals is much like talking about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. However, you earlier were claiming that that is not the case at all, that we can somehow discover these moral truths by evaluating core morality. When I argued why that seems implausible, you now seem to reject the existence (or rather epistemic possibility) of objective moral truths, saying instead we should focus on practical things. In some sense I agree with you there, but that's not really what we were talking about. If what you're now saying is that we can use core morality to figure out what is practical and what we can all agree on, that's almost a tautology. I'm not really sure what you mean beyond that.

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby morriswalters » Mon Oct 04, 2010 8:59 pm UTC

What I said was that we can approximate objective morals. They may or may not exist. We can't know. What we can do is take those things which show up in all cultures and treat them as such. A small number of these might give us a way to work through our differences or come up with a basic human rights scheme that might work. The type of emotional profiling that I suggest would not lead to any moral truth per se. What it would do would open the door to understanding us. Emotional profiling might be able to give us a mechanism for understanding norms of emotional response. The thing about morals and ethics is that they imply intelligent actors who are in control. That would appear to not be the case, as much as we might like to believe otherwise. By using the a broad enough cross section of profiling we might be able to stake ethical positions that people will actually follow and perhaps understand why they sometimes don't. Combine that with a better understanding of intellect and reasoning and eventually you might be able to come up with a way to deal with divisive issues which seem to be intractable now. I apologize if I am not always as clear as I might wish. I believe the foregoing statement says it as clearly as I can state it.

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby Dark567 » Mon Oct 04, 2010 9:16 pm UTC

morriswalters wrote:What I said was that we can approximate objective morals. They may or may not exist. We can't know. What we can do is take those things which show up in all cultures and treat them as such. A small number of these might give us a way to work through our differences or come up with a basic human rights scheme that might work.

At one time or another most of the worlds cultures had slavery(http://www.britannica.com/blackhistory/article-24156), so by that logic is slavery okay?
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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby morriswalters » Mon Oct 04, 2010 10:51 pm UTC

At no time I'm aware of was slavery universal, particularly not slavery as practiced in the US. Slavery is a matter of in groups and out groups, and is based on the conceit that out groups are not completely as human as in groups. However if your looking for a perfect answer from me then you are destined to be disappointed. I don't have one, I suggested an approximation.

Tell me why humans practice that particular deceit. Why are we able to think that way? If you can't answer that question then any ethical code you can come up with is effectively worthless. Because people will convince themselves that they ethical and moral even if they are not. How do you know when something is repugnant to you? More than likely it is the emotional reaction you have when you see it. Find those triggers and find out why people react differently to them. Study those emotions and understand the why.

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby Vaniver » Tue Oct 05, 2010 6:35 pm UTC

morriswalters wrote:At no time I'm aware of was slavery universal, particularly not slavery as practiced in the US.
Huh? Slavery was a fundamental underpinning of the human economy from the beginning. People owned other people, everywhere. Not everyone owned someone else, of course, but no society disallowed that until Britain came of age.

Slavery in the US may have been slightly different in the flavor, but that doesn't strike me as enough to make it above-and-beyond worse than other forms of slavery. Lots of slaves didn't make the trip across the Atlantic- but a smaller proportion of slaves survived the castration process to make them eunuchs to be exported to the Muslim world.

morriswalters wrote:Slavery is a matter of in groups and out groups, and is based on the conceit that out groups are not completely as human as in groups.
So... how about women? In traditional cultures, daughters are generally sold to men to be wives. Boom, we have slavery everywhere and it's based on in groups and out groups.
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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby morriswalters » Tue Oct 05, 2010 7:43 pm UTC

For the sake of clarity I'll quote the argument.

Dark567 wrote:
morriswalters wrote:What I said was that we can approximate objective morals. They may or may not exist. We can't know. What we can do is take those things which show up in all cultures and treat them as such. A small number of these might give us a way to work through our differences or come up with a basic human rights scheme that might work.

At one time or another most of the worlds cultures had slavery(http://www.britannica.com/blackhistory/article-24156), so by that logic is slavery okay?


morriswalters wrote:At no time I'm aware of was slavery universal, particularly not slavery as practiced in the US. Slavery is a matter of in groups and out groups, and is based on the conceit that out groups are not completely as human as in groups. However if your looking for a perfect answer from me then you are destined to be disappointed. I don't have one, I suggested an approximation.

Tell me why humans practice that particular deceit. Why are we able to think that way? If you can't answer that question then any ethical code you can come up with is effectively worthless. Because people will convince themselves that they ethical and moral even if they are not. How do you know when something is repugnant to you? More than likely it is the emotional reaction you have when you see it. Find those triggers and find out why people react differently to them. Study those emotions and understand the why.


I don't posit the slavery is desirable or not widely practiced. I ask how people convince themselves it is other than what it is. Perhaps you could explain to me what your point is.

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby Vaniver » Tue Oct 05, 2010 8:07 pm UTC

morriswalters wrote:I don't posit the slavery is desirable or not widely practiced. I ask how people convince themselves it is other than what it is. Perhaps you could explain to me what your point is.
My point, and I imagine Dark567's point, is that what works across many cultures is not necessarily moral. Not all societies work without slavery- plantation agriculture, for example, is made significantly more cost-effective by slavery. Indeed, before widespread mechanization a society without slavery is unlikely to be very comfortable, even by the standards of societies without slavery. (Using, here, the belief that women or serfs were 'enslaved,' which is not really true, but they were certainly less than free.)

If morality is determined by physical restraints- if, say, homosexuality and abortion are discouraged in times of underpopulation and encouraged in times of overpopulation- then can we really talk about 'objective morals'? We can talk about machine morals and pre-machine morals, and pat ourselves on the back for having machine morals- but that seems far more accurate than to say "well, all cultures had slavery, so clearly it's objectively ok" or "well, Britain did ok without slavery, so clearly it's objectively not ok."
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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby SnakesNDMartyrs » Tue Oct 05, 2010 8:32 pm UTC

My point, and I imagine Dark567's point, is that what works across many cultures is not necessarily moral.


Moral by which standards? :) Indeed I imagine to the enslavers it was perfectly moral, perhaps not to the enslaved though..
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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby Vaniver » Tue Oct 05, 2010 8:56 pm UTC

SnakesNDMartyrs wrote:Moral by which standards? :) Indeed I imagine to the enslavers it was perfectly moral, perhaps not to the enslaved though..
Moral as determined by morriswalters's method of "see what's consistent across cultures."
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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby morriswalters » Tue Oct 05, 2010 11:59 pm UTC

Vaniver wrote:
SnakesNDMartyrs wrote:Moral by which standards? :) Indeed I imagine to the enslavers it was perfectly moral, perhaps not to the enslaved though..
Moral as determined by morriswalters's method of "see what's consistent across cultures."


I like it it has a ring to it. However I said that certain behaviors are unacceptable to all cultures not that behaviors that all cultures share are moral. I assume you are able to tell the difference between the two ideas. Morals are in most cases "thou shall not's". Rules against behavior that has negative consequences for a community. Apply standard logic to the sets of all cultures morals looking for things which meet my criteria, that they must exist in every culture. Assuming that the set you end up is not null then you have a basis to say that as a practical matter these things could be an approximation of an "objective" moral. Definitions are the basis for argument. However absolute terms such as objective are not very useful. You could never prove anything is objective as you define it. For the purpose of this argument an approximation works well enough given that the basis for some of the things we are discussing derive from basic human biology. You can't subtract the social element from the discussion either. The social part of humanity is built in to us. If add to that an understanding of the cognitive process, then possibly you could develop a metric just Hedonic Treader wished to talk about.

Edited for grammar.

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby SnakesNDMartyrs » Wed Oct 06, 2010 12:26 am UTC

So, instead of trying to find an objective metric for good and evil you re-define 'objective' to mean 'inter-subjective'... poor form.

Objectivity does exist and it is useful, "'P' and not 'P' can not both exist at the same time" is an objective law. Objectively, every action has an equal and opposite reaction etc..
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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby krazykomrade » Wed Oct 06, 2010 12:58 am UTC

instead of trying to find an objective metric for good and evil you re-define 'objective' to mean 'inter-subjective'... poor form.

Yup, that sounds about right.

However absolute terms such as objective are not very useful. You could never prove anything is objective as you define it.

You can never really prove much of anything; prove-ability is not a good (or at the very least, not the only) criterion for usefulness.

Your misuse of the term objective aside, I still can't make head or tail of what you're trying to do. If all you want to do is take core morality, and then use that in a way that is practical, it already does that. If you want to try to take these near-universal insights and try to construct an system that matches it as accurately as possible, to derive what other principles are logically consistent with what we already agree on, well there's a branch of philosophy that has already been at that for quite some time now. If you want to investigate WHY we have the core morals we do, why morality has evolved the way it has, there's also a lot of philosophy from Hume onwards that has already been working on that too.

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby Vaniver » Wed Oct 06, 2010 1:41 am UTC

morriswalters wrote:I assume you are able to tell the difference between the two ideas. Morals are in most cases "thou shall not's". Rules against behavior that has negative consequences for a community. Apply standard logic to the sets of all cultures morals looking for things which meet my criteria, that they must exist in every culture.
My argument, though, is such consequentialist approaches run into problems when you have technological change. A society where it is simply not possible to feed every person will have different morals than a society in which it is minimally expensive to feed every person. The citizen's privilege to not have your food stolen is what people argue about in the first; the citizen's privilege to have enough food to eat is what people argue about in the second. The two, when reduced to basic principles, cannot be both completely satisfied simultaneously.

So morals are essentially the basic "do"s and "don't"s required to keep the society from imploding, which is a real fear; lots of societies have and do implode. But I'm not sure it's true that there are any behaviors which are banned in every culture. Even cannibalism, abhorred throughout the rest of the world, is seen as a core part of society in regions where it is biologically necessary to maintain human life. People who were not cannibals got sick and died, and so only cannibals were left. "Don't kill other people" is pretty much never followed by real societies- they sweep that fact under the rug by having the rule of "don't murder other people." I am not aware of any place which have neither capital punishment nor legalized abortion- the second generally scraping by under the logic that "don't kill other people" don't apply to it. And even if that is the case, an animal rights activist could claim that my "don't kill other people" is speciesist and should be "don't kill other sentient beings" or some such.

So, you can get an instrumentalist view of "cannibalism is only ok if you need it to obtain nutrients" and so on- but that doesn't seem particularly useful, and just supports rationalization of "immoral" things. "It was necessary to kill him to maintain public safety!"

(One conclusion you could draw from this is that deontology is dead and consequentialism is king- morals must lead to survival to be good morals, and since survival is dependent on environment, any moral is dependent on the environment. The deontologist, though, might smirkingly point out my rule about morals.)
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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby morriswalters » Wed Oct 06, 2010 2:08 pm UTC

objective - Something is objective insofar as it is independent of either a particular mind or minds altogether.

If this is a definition of objective, then I say again it has no utility in any practical sense. The OP posed three questions.
Hedonic Treader wrote:Since ultimately, any idea of good and bad in human culture stems from how human brains feel about things, a generalizable descriptive metric of that phenomenon could be the ultimate objective description tool for good and bad in the universe.
In relation to this idea, I would like to pose these questions to discuss:

1) Is such a metric possible conceptually?
2) What steps could be taken to derive such a metric in practice?
3) If successful, would having such a metric close the is-ought-gap in ethics?
"I am a member of [in-group label X]. All X believe [factual claim Y]. Therefore, Y must be true."



For the purposes of this discussion there is no utility in proving that morals are "independent of either a particular mind or minds altogether" since you cannot show morals are independent of the livings beings who use them. What you can do is approximate that ideal. First posit that no matter the state of any society, that if it breaks down it always breaks down into groups. Next posit that morals are a group function applicable only to groups. Third that morals are a method of ensuring the cohesiveness of the group. Assume for the sake of the argument that this is true, then one hypothesis that you could formulate is that their are a minimum number of moral principles that allow any group to survive as a group that are common to all groups. It should be possible to identify these if they exist.

The next step is to study cognition and determine what it is and how it works. Discussions of these types always assume rational actors making rational decisions. That remains to be proven. It is certainly is likely that emotions make up a large part of our responses to any given situation. The purpose then is to understand bias and other factors that affect decision making. That is to understand the difference between what we want and what we need.

When the two concepts are unified, if that is possible, than possibly you end up with a universal moral construct, composed of core unchanging requirements and rational subtexts.

I have no idea if this is workable in fact, but at least in form it would seem to satisfy the three questions. Which was the point.

@Vaniver

When societies breakdown they always regroup in some form, and they must always form new groups. My view of morals is that they are nonexistent outside of organized groups. Individuals are amoral and have no need for them. Also understand my take on killing. Killing is not a moral issue for groups, murder is. Morals are internal to groups not external. Therefore murder is bad, since it applies internally, however killing outside the group is not. These are my irrational personal beliefs.

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby Zamfir » Wed Oct 06, 2010 2:48 pm UTC

Morris, not too many people use 'rational actors' in their studies of human behaviour. It's a concept that has most traction in economics, where it can be reasonably well defined as an actor who always picks the cheapest from identical options. But even there it runs into the limitation that most interesting choices differ on more than price, and then it becomes hard to use 'rational' as a a concept.

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby morriswalters » Wed Oct 06, 2010 4:35 pm UTC

See this link and this.

... yes, we all have dictionaries. However, you haven't actually addressed his point, nor contributed in any meaningful way here.

EDIT: Locked the thread by accident, so now it's unlocked.

-Az

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby brume » Thu Oct 07, 2010 3:19 am UTC

Sam Harris just released his new book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Amazon.com page) where he asserts that:

Q: Are there right and wrong answers to moral questions?

Harris: Morality must relate, at some level, to the well-being of conscious creatures. If there are more and less effective ways for us to seek happiness and to avoid misery in this world—and there clearly are—then there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality.

Q: Are you saying that science can answer such questions?

Harris: Yes, in principle. Human well-being is not a random phenomenon. It depends on many factors—ranging from genetics and neurobiology to sociology and economics. But, clearly, there are scientific truths to be known about how we can flourish in this world. Wherever we can act so as to have an impact on the well-being of others, questions of morality apply.


Scroll down on that book link for more.

Also, see the prelude to his book in his TED talk here:

http://www.samharris.org/page/ted_talk/

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby Hedonic Treader » Thu Oct 07, 2010 7:17 am UTC

Sam Harris wrote:Morality must relate, at some level, to the well-being of conscious creatures. [...] Human well-being is not a random phenomenon.

Notice his random switch from "well-being of conscious creatures" to "human well-being". He has an implied (utilitarian?) ethical framework, and its goals are not consistent.

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby Zcorp » Thu Oct 07, 2010 4:11 pm UTC

Hedonic Treader wrote:
Sam Harris wrote:Morality must relate, at some level, to the well-being of conscious creatures. [...] Human well-being is not a random phenomenon.

Notice his random switch from "well-being of conscious creatures" to "human well-being". He has an implied (utilitarian?) ethical framework, and its goals are not consistent.


Not random at all, in one sentence he is talking about what is valued, the well-being of conscious creatures, and in the other he is talking about how there is some objectivity to the well-being of humans.

It is framework close to Utilitarianism. The New York Times discusses this briefly and I imagine it gets covered a bit in the book. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/03/books ... iah-t.html

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby guenther » Thu Oct 07, 2010 6:11 pm UTC

I think what Harris proposes makes sense, and it does allow for objective metrics of morality. And from this we can get objective moral facts. All it requires is that we accept certain starting axioms like defining increased well-being of humans as a good thing, along with a way to objectively measure it.

I have reservations on how practical this sort of science is right now as well as how long it will take for it to really mature and give us good guidance. But theoretically I like the concept.
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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby Hedonic Treader » Thu Oct 07, 2010 6:20 pm UTC

guenther wrote:All it requires is that we accept certain starting axioms like defining increased well-being of humans as a good thing, along with a way to objectively measure it.

Again with the anthropocentrism. Hey, how bout a different axiom: defining increased well-being of all humans nicknamed "Hedonic Treader" as a good thing, along with a way to objectively measure it.

And then I can ignore your rights.

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby guenther » Thu Oct 07, 2010 6:22 pm UTC

Hedonic Treader wrote:
guenther wrote:All it requires is that we accept certain starting axioms like defining increased well-being of humans as a good thing, along with a way to objectively measure it.

Again with the anthropocentrism. Hey, how bout a different axiom: defining increased well-being of all humans nicknamed "Hedonic Treader" as a good thing, along with a way to objectively measure it.

And then I can ignore your rights.

That's the thing with axioms. We can define them however we want. Earlier I talked about the "truth about morality" is however we define it.

EDIT: I will also note that I don't see a problem with anthropocentrism. Our economic policies are set up to be centered around human well-being, why shouldn't our moral policies be the same?
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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby krazykomrade » Thu Oct 07, 2010 7:08 pm UTC

Ugh, since I first encountered this thread and the human goals one, I was afraid Sam Harris would pop up here eventually. Harris isn't advocating much more than a rather crude, bastardized form of utilitarianism, along with all its problems and several new ones, combined with a deep misunderstanding of the boundaries of experimental science. When Harris defends himself against criticisms from those who actually specialize in ethics by claiming that he is merely turning a "rational eye" on centuries of wasteful philosophy, I can't help but be reminded of Randall's comic mocking a philosopher for naïvely thinking he's overturned a field of science, with the fields reversed. (Title text: I mean, what's more likely -- that I have uncovered fundamental flaws in this field that no one in it has ever thought about, or that I need to read a little more? Hint: it's the one that involves less work.)

You can't make the jump from "morality must relate, at some level, to the well-being of conscious creatures" to "morality is reducible to well-being".
As has been discussed at some length earlier in this thread, you can't make the jump from "we all agree on x" to "x is objectively true" (as SnakesNDMartyrs pointed out, intersubjective =/= objective)
You can't make the jump from "science can help us improve our well-being" to "human well-being falls under the domain of science".
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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby guenther » Thu Oct 07, 2010 7:34 pm UTC

I think we can define our way to oughts. People that accept the Bible as true have an objective source of morality (within the bounds of subjective gray areas of interpretation). This happens because the Bible is axiomatically defined as a source of authority. Definition gives this body of ought's their rightness. And when people don't accept that axiom, then the rightness is less defined (or rather defined by whatever axioms they have defined). One could say this makes truth subjective, but I think it's more accurate to say that the truth is dependent on the starting axioms, and without the axioms it's undefined.

Having said that, I don't like how Harris dismisses philosophy and religion as useless. Even though I think he's right conceptually (if we can objectively characterize human well-being, it absolutely is in the domain of science), I don't think the body of science is anywhere near ready to provide for us a solid moral guide to life. The truths of philosophy and religion are squishy at best when compared to the sciences, but that doesn't mean they don't have an immense value.
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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby brume » Thu Oct 07, 2010 8:08 pm UTC

Whether you agree or disagree with Harris on the details, he's doing something that is part of a broader attack on religion. He and the other members of The Four Horsemen (Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Harris) have been pursuing this angle of attack for some time. Now he's planted a flag and claimed the establishment of a Science of Morality.

Religion has been rolled back on all its truth claims regarding issues belonging to science, and is making its last stand of validity on claiming to be the only source of morality. Knock that pillar out from under it and the whole stinking artifice comes crashing down, the sooner the better. So now, if someone raises the "But where else can we get our morals except religion?" question, there's a valid place to point. That alone makes Harris' work extremely valuable because he is bringing the proposition into popular consciousness.

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby krazykomrade » Sat Oct 09, 2010 10:40 pm UTC

(if we can objectively characterize human well-being, it absolutely is in the domain of science)

What does it mean to "objectively characterize human well-being?" Human well-being seems to be an incredibly value-laden concept, in fact, I can't imagine how it could not be.

Religion has been rolled back on all its truth claims regarding issues belonging to science, and is making its last stand of validity on claiming to be the only source of morality. Knock that pillar out from under it and the whole stinking artifice comes crashing down, the sooner the better. So now, if someone raises the "But where else can we get our morals except religion?" question, there's a valid place to point. That alone makes Harris' work extremely valuable because he is bringing the proposition into popular consciousness.

I think Religion's "last stand" is that it meets a sort of basic human need, and this need is much closer to a sense of purpose, order, value, and meaning than simply of morality. I don't think most religious people would assert that religion is necessary for many kinds of moral behavior, if asked "If you were to discover that there were no God, would you start raping and pillaging?" I think most would answer "no." There's abundant evidence that atheists don't commit more crimes than theists, and I don't think the general populace of America would be surprised at these findings. Morals need not have a source of authority, we might just "get our morals" from society itself. Supposing, as I do, that some sort of system of justification is desirable, we can evaluate two such types of systems.

The first is the sort which justifies itself on observation and argument, attempting to provide good reasons for everything they say and resting their claims on the merits of the case they are putting forth; and the second is those which appeal to some authority, those who demand credence on something other than rational grounds. The former seeks its validation from within and includes philosophy and science, the second from without, and obviously includes religion. The problem with Harris is that at times he seems to implicitly place philosophy in the latter category, and even at times when he does not, he fails to recognize the unique domains of philosophy and science. To attempt to use philosophical inquiry to answer scientific questions is as fruitless and misguided as using scientific inquiry to answer philosophical questions.

However, this clearly can and is done (prior to "science" existing as we know it today, things like astronomy were handled philosophically, with unsurprisingly poor results), but to do so necessitates a degradation in the quality of the arguments and a softening in commitment to rational explanations, often requiring one to take things on faith, since when using the wrong tools one can't build proper grounding. Thus, the very virtues of the system which seeks validation from within melt away when one conflates philosophical and scientific inquiry. By doing doing this, while enjoying the popularity and influence of riding the popular wave of intellectual-anti-religious-manifestos, Harris work is not only of little value, but is intellectually backwards and dishonest. The grounding for morality in a post-religious world is both important and extremely complex, but Harris's charlatanic views are intellectually holding back rather than pushing forward that inquiry.

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby guenther » Sun Oct 10, 2010 4:04 pm UTC

krazykomrade wrote:What does it mean to "objectively characterize human well-being?" Human well-being seems to be an incredibly value-laden concept, in fact, I can't imagine how it could not be.

It means to come up with metrics that one can objectively measure (i.e the result is independent of the person taking the measurements). This could be number of people alive, number of people that self-report as happy, or something like that.

In practice I think we base our notion of well-being on what seems obvious or what feels right with some qualitative objective metrics thrown in (i.e. people going through famine aren't high on the well-being chart). It's one of those concepts that exists between objective and subjective where the common answer shared across a large group of people gets treated as the "right" answer. But even though that's commonly how we treat well-being, it doesn't preclude us from defining purely objective metrics. They just may run counter to our intuition every now and then.

And let me point out that I don't have much confidence that an objective metric of well-being will be all that useful--I'm just stating what's possible.
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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby Hedonic Treader » Thu May 12, 2011 2:59 pm UTC

[Yes, I know this post is months old.]

guenther wrote:
krazykomrade wrote:What does it mean to "objectively characterize human well-being?" Human well-being seems to be an incredibly value-laden concept, in fact, I can't imagine how it could not be.

It means to come up with metrics that one can objectively measure (i.e the result is independent of the person taking the measurements). This could be number of people alive, number of people that self-report as happy, or something like that.

My original proposition was mostly aimed at the affective valence of mental states. In other words, well-being of this kind is not so much an indicator of physical health or general flourishing of humanity, but of how a mind feels along a qualitative axis of differential valence (ie. good, bad, better than, worse than etc.)

We all know that this phenomenon does exist - searing agony feels generally much worse than orgasmic bliss. The question is why, and what kind of informational principle establishes this as an aspect of the natural world.

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby Dark567 » Thu May 12, 2011 3:33 pm UTC

Hedonic Treader wrote:The question is why, and what kind of informational principle establishes this as an aspect of the natural world.

The reason why or at least the process that created it, is that natural selection "selected" an incentive system to promote certain behavior thats beneficial to passing along our genes.
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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby Hedonic Treader » Thu May 12, 2011 3:39 pm UTC

Dark567 wrote:The reason why or at least the process that created it, is that natural selection "selected" an incentive system to promote certain behavior thats beneficial to passing along our genes.

Right. That's the causal explanation for the existence of the function. What I'd be very interested in is a kind of abstract explanation of the informational nature of the implementation of the function. I can look up which brain regions are assiciated with affect, but I haven't yet found any good information-theoretic explanation of what exactly they do that creates the good and the bad as properties of mental states (and therefore, since I think physicalism is true, natural entites in the physical world).

Since all values we can communicate depend on such affective mental states, this should have significant value for at least informing (meta-)ethics, and give a naturalistic explanation and maybe even a metric to measure "well-being" and other such utility tokens.

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Re: Can an objective metric for good and bad exist?

Postby fr00t » Fri May 13, 2011 12:17 am UTC

Hedonic Treader wrote:What I'd be very interested in is a kind of abstract explanation of the informational nature of the implementation of the function.


Affective mental states are how utility functions feel from the inside C:


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